Resistance to the Muslim invasion in the eighth century had been limited to small groups of Visigoth warriors who took refuge in the mountains of Asturias in the old Suevian kingdom, the least romanized and least Christianized region in Spain. According to tradition, Pelayo (718-37), a king of Oviedo, first rallied the natives to defend themselves, then urged them to take the offensive, beginning the 700-year Reconquest (Spanish, Reconquista), which became the dominant theme in medieval Spanish history. What began as a matter of survival in Asturias became a crusade to rid Spain of the Muslims and an imperial mission to reconstruct a united monarchy in Spain.

Pelayo’s successors, known as the kings of Leon, extended Christian control southward from Asturias, tore away bits of territory, depopulated and fortified them against the Muslims, and then resettled these areas as the frontier was pushed forward. The kingdom’s political center moved in the direction of the military frontier.

In the tenth century, strongholds were built as a buffer for the kingdom of Leon along the upper Rio Ebro, in the area that became known as Castile, the “land of castles.” The region was populated by men–border warriors and free peasants–who were willing to defend it, and were granted fueros (special privileges and immunities) by the kings of Leon that made them virtually autonomous. Castile developed a distinct society with its own dialect, values, and customs shaped by the hard conditions of the frontier. Castile also produced a caste of hereditary warriors whom the frontier “democratized”; all warriors were equals, and all men were warriors.

In 981 Castile became an independent county, and in 1004 it was raised to the dignity of a kingdom. Castile and Leon were reunited periodically through royal marriages, but their kings had no better plan than to divide their lands again among their heirs. The two kingdoms were, however, permanently joined as a single state in 1230 by Ferdinand III of Castile (d. 1252).

Under the tutelage of the neighboring Franks, a barrier of pocket states formed along the range of the Pyrenees and on the coast of Catalonia to hold the frontier of France against Islamic Spain. Out of this region, called the Spanish March, emerged the kingdom of Aragon and the counties of Catalonia, all of which expanded, as did Leon-Castile, at the expense of the Muslims. (Andorra is the last independent survivor of the March states.)

The most significant of the counties in Catalonia was that held by the counts of Barcelona. They were descendants of Wilfrid the Hairy (874-98), who at the end of the ninth century declared his fief free of the French crown, monopolized lay and ecclesiastical offices on both sides of the Pyrenees, and divided them–according to Frankish custom–among members of the family. By 1100 Barcelona had dominion over all of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands (Spanish, Islas Baleares). Aragon and the Catalan counties were federated in 1137 through the marriage of Ramon Berenguer IV, count of Barcelona, and Petronilla, heiress to the Aragonese throne. Berenguer assumed the title of king of Aragon, but he continued to rule as count in Catalonia. Berenguer and his successors thus ruled over two realms, each with its own government, legal code, currency, and political orientation.

Valencia, seized from its Muslim amir, became federated with Aragon and Catalonia in 1238. With the union of the three crowns, Aragon (the term most commonly used to describe the federation) rivaled Venice and Genoa for control of Mediterranean trade. Aragonese commercial interests extended to the Black Sea, and the ports of Barcelona and Valencia prospered from traffic in textiles, drugs, spices, and slaves.

Weakened by their disunity, the eleventh-century taifas fell piecemeal to the Castilians, who had reason to anticipate the completion of the Reconquest. When Toledo was lost in 1085, the alarmed amirs appealed for aid to the Almoravids, a militant Berber party of strict Muslims, who in a few years had won control of the Maghreb (northwest Africa). The Almoravids incorporated all of Al Andalus, except Zaragoza, into their North African empire. They attempted to stimulate a religious revival based on their own evangelical brand of Islam. In Spain, however, their movement soon lost its missionary fervor. The Almoravid state fell apart by the mid-twelfth century under pressure from another religious group, the Almohads, who extended their control from Morocco to Spain and made Seville their capital.

The Almohads shared the crusading instincts of the Almoravids and posed an even greater military threat to the Christian states, but their expansion was stopped decisively in the epic battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), a watershed in the history of the Reconquest. Muslim strength ebbed thereafter. Ferdinand III took Seville in 1248, reducing Al Andalus to the amirate of Granada, which had bought its safety by betraying the Almohads’ Spanish capital. Granada remained a Muslim state, but as a dependency of Castile.
Aragon fulfilled its territorial aims in the thirteenth century when it annexed Valencia. The Catalans, however, looked for further expansion abroad, and their economic views prevailed over those of the parochial Aragonese nobility, who were not enthusiastic about foreign entanglements. Peter III, king of Aragon from 1276 until 1285, had been elected to the throne of Sicily when the French Angevins (House of Anjou) were expelled from the island kingdom during an uprising in 1282. Sicily, and later Naples, became part of the federation of Spanish crowns, and Aragon became embroiled in Italian politics, which continued to affect Spain into the eighteenth century.


Castile, which had traditionally turned away from intervention in European affairs, developed a merchant marine in the Atlantic that successfully challenged the Hanseatic League (a peaceful league of merchants of various free German cities) for dominance in the coastal trade with France, England, and the Netherlands. The economic climate necessary for sustained economic development was notably lacking, however, in Castile. The reasons for this situation appear to have been rooted both in the structure of the economy and in the attitude of the Castilians. Restrictive corporations closely regulated all aspects of the economy–production, trade, and even transport. The most powerful of these corporations, the mesta, controlled the production of wool, Castile’s chief export. 

Perhaps a greater obstacle for economic development was that commercial activity enjoyed little social esteem. Noblemen saw business as beneath their station and derived their incomes and prestige from landownership. Successful bourgeois entrepreneurs, who aspired to the petty nobility, invested in land rather than in other sectors of the economy because of the social status attached to owning land. This attitude deprived the economy of needed investments and engendered stagnation rather than growth.
Feudalism, which bound nobles to the king-counts both economically and socially, as tenants to landlords, had been introduced into Aragon and Catalonia from France. It produced a more clearly stratified social structure than that found in Castile, and consequently it generated greater tension among classes. Castilian society was less competitive, more cohesive, and more egalitarian. Castile attempted to compensate through political means, however, for the binding feudal arrangements between crown and nobility that it lacked. The guiding theory behind the Castilian monarchy was that political centralism could be won at the expense of local fueros, but the kings of Castile never succeeded in creating a unitary state. Aragon- Catalonia accepted and developed–not without conflict–the federal principle, and it made no concerted attempt to establish a political union of the Spanish and Italian principalities outside of their personal union under the Aragonese crown. The principal regions of Spain were divided not only by conflicting local loyalties, but also by their political, economic, and social orientations. Catalonia particularly stood apart from the rest of the country.

Both Castile and Aragon suffered from political instability in the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. The House of Trastamara acquired the Castilian throne in 1369 and created a new aristocracy to which it granted significant authority. Court favorites, or validos (sing., valido), often dominated their Castilian kings, and, because the kings were weak, nobles competed for control of the government. Important government offices, formerly held by members of the professional class of civil servants who had urban, and frequently Jewish, backgrounds, came into the possession of aristocratic families who eventually held them by hereditary right. The social disruption and the decay of institutions common to much of Europe in the late Middle Ages also affected Aragon, where another branch of the Trastamaras succeeded to the throne in 1416.

For long periods, the overextended Aragonese kings resided in Naples, leaving their Spanish realms with weak, vulnerable governments. Economic dislocation, caused by recurring plagues and by the commercial decline of Catalonia, was the occasion for repeated revolts by regional nobility, town corporations, peasants, and, in Barcelona, by the urban proletariat.

Permanently organized armed forces were first created during the reign of Ferdinand of Aragon (Spanish, Aragon) and Isabella of Castile (Spanish, Castilla) in the fifteenth century . Throughout the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the army was well organized and disciplined, employing the most technologically advanced weapons of all the forces in Europe; in that period it suffered no decisive defeat. The army was colorful, feared, and respected. Military careers had status, and they were sought by the aristocracy and by the most ambitious of the commoners.

Battles of Las Navas de Tolosa

In 1212 one of the most decisive battles in Spanish history took place at Navas de Tolosa, when King Alfonso VIII’s army of 110,000 Castilians, Aragonese, Navarrese and Catalans, reinforced by 70,000 crusaders from elsewhere in Europe, defeated a force of 250,000 Moors led by the feared Almohad commander Al-Nasir. The Christians had been guided through Despeñaperros along a secret path marked with a cow’s skull by a shepherd (he earned the name Cabeza de Vaca, “cow’s head”, and was the ancestor of the Spanish conquistador). The battle, in which 60,000 Moors were killed, marked the beginning of the end of Moorish rule in Spain: within four decades Seville and Cordoba had been conquered, leaving only the Kingdom of Granada under Moorish rule.

Ferdinand and Isabella

The marriage in 1469 of royal cousins, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), eventually brought stability to both kingdoms. Isabella’s niece, Juana, had bloodily disputed her succession to the throne in a conflict in which the rival claimants were given assistance by outside powers–Isabella by Aragon and Juana by her suitor, the king of Portugal. The Treaty of Alcaçovas ended the war in September 1479, and as Ferdinand had succeeded his father in Aragon earlier in the same year, it was possible to link Castile with Aragon. Both Isabella and Ferdinand understood the importance of unity; together they effected institutional reform in Castile and left Spain one of the best administered countries in Europe.

Even with the personal union of the Castilian and the Aragonese crowns, Castile, Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia remained constitutionally distinct political entities, and they retained separate councils of state and parliaments. Ferdinand, who had received his political education in federalist Aragon, brought a new emphasis on constitutionalism and a respect for local fueros to Castile, where he was king consort (1479- 1504) and continued as regent after Isabella’s death in 1504. Greatly admired by Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Ferdinand was one of the most skillful diplomats in an age of great diplomats, and he assigned to Castile its predominant role in the dual monarchy.

Ferdinand and Isabella resumed the Reconquest, dormant for more than 200 years, and in 1492 they captured Granada, earning for themselves the title of Catholic Kings. Once Islamic Spain had ceased to exist, attention turned to the internal threat posed by hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the recently incorporated Granada. “Spanish society drove itself,” historian J.H. Elliot writes, “on a ruthless, ultimately self-defeating quest for an unattainable purity.”

Everywhere in sixteenth-century Europe, it was assumed that religious unity was necessary for political unity, but only in Spain was there such a sense of urgency in enforcing religious conformity. Spain’s population was more heterogeneous than that of any other European nation, and it contained significant nonChristian communities. Several of these communities, including in particular some in Granada, harbored a significant element of doubtful loyalty. Moriscos (Granadan Muslims) were given the choice of voluntary exile or conversion to Christianity. Many Jews converted to Christianity, and some of these Conversos filled important government and ecclesiastical posts in Castile and in Aragon for more than 100 years. Many married or purchased their way into the nobility. Muslims in reconquered territory, called Mudejars, also lived quietly for generations as peasant farmers and skilled craftsmen.
After 1525 all residents of Spain were officially Christian, but forced conversion and nominal orthodoxy were not sufficient for complete integration into Spanish society. Purity of blood (pureza de sangre) regulations were imposed on candidates for positions in the government and the church, to prevent Moriscos from becoming a force again in Spain and to eliminate participation by Conversos whose families might have been Christian for generations. Many of Spain’s oldest and finest families scrambled to reconstruct family trees.

Famous Battles of the reconquesta

Toledo 1085 Navas de Tolosa 1212

Balearic Islands 1229-1235

Cordoba 1236

Valencia 1238 Sevilla 1248

Al Andalus (711-1492 C.E.)
Al-Andalus* in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) had been under the rule of Muslims of African descent – the Berbers and Moors since 711 when an African general, formerly a slave called Tariq ibn Ziyad went to Spain. Gibraltar is named after him, Jebal Tariq – mountain of Tariq, because he landed on the island and burnt his ships to inspire his men that there was no turning back.

* When Muslims came to Spain, its natives were called Vandals. So the Muslims called the land, Andalus – the Arabisation of the word Vandalusia.
In 1469, Ferdinand of Aragaon married Isabella of Castile, helping to unite two warring Spanish kingdoms against the common enemy, the Muslims. This union subsequently sounded the deathknell for the Muslims in Spain who had already lost territory in quick succession such as Cordoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Seville (1248), Lisbon, Toledo (1487), Malaga, etc through internal feuding amongst themselves