In 711, an army of mostly Berbers fought their way ashore on the Iberian Peninsula at Gibraltar. Over the next seven years they conquered the Visigoth Kingdom and occupied today’s Spain and Portugal except for Galicia (wherein lie both La Coruna and the capital, Santiago de Compostela), Asturia, as well as the Basque communities in the Pyrenees.
The reconquista began officially in 722 at the Battle of Covadonga. In that event, a Muslim force attempted to reestablish control of Asturias but was defeated by an Asturian “army” led by Pelayo. In those days armies sometimes numbered fewer than one hundred fighters. The victorious general declared Asturias a kingdom and crowned himself… king. From there, the Christian reclaiming of Iberia began, ending a mere seven hundred seventy years later at the Battle of Granada.
The Seven Hundred Years War
The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the followers of Islam was hardly the sweeping military engagement the name suggests. In fact it was as much a resettlement as it was a military defeat. The Christian kingdoms of those times were small, sparsely populated territories. Their armies were lightly equipped, mostly mounted units built for raiding and plundering, not occupation. But the constant pressure of these raids gradually pushed the Muslim communities further south and the Christian kingdoms expanded to fill the void.
During this time, much of the fighting also occurred between rival Christian leaders (which could explain why the whole enterprise lasted for over seven centuries). They formed various alliances with each other and even employed Muslim mercenaries when circumstances demanded.
By 1492, Granada was the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia but after a brief siege it capitulated to the combined forces of Aragon and Castile led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The problem then became what to do with all the reconquistadors. Luckily the New World soon provided fledgling communities of heathens for the renamed conquistadors to convert to Christianity.
The Way Of St. James
It is generally accepted within the Catholic faith that St. James the Great, one of Jesus’ apostles, visited Iberia to convert the Celts. According to legend, his remains were returned to Galicia following his death but his tomb was lost for eight centuries before being rediscovered by a hermit seeing strange lights in the sky. This was duly recorded as a miracle and the first church built to house the remains of St. James became a place of pilgrimage for Christians from all of Europe. The route of the pilgrimage became known as the Way Of St. James. In 1075, construction of the present Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela began. The last stone was laid in 1122 and it has remained one of the most renowned pilgrimage destinations ever since.
One of the cathedral’s most unusual features is the Botafumiero, an 80-kilo gold thurible. Reserved for special masses and festivals, it is then filled with 40kg of charcoal and incense, attached to centuries-old pulleys and swung over the assembled congregation. Emitting clouds of incense-laced smoke and reaching speeds of 60 kilometers per hour, it’s said to have a decidedly dampening effect on the “fragrance” from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.
The Spanish Armada
La Coruña’s local tourism committees would have us believe that the Spanish Armada set sail from here on the way to its unfortunate campaign in Britain in 1588. The players included the catholic King Phillip II of Spain who had been married to Queen Mary I of England and who took exception to her daughter’s, Queen Elizabeth I, political and religious leanings. He was also annoyed about England’s constant raids on his treasure ships returning from the New World.
We do know that Phillip’s armada of more than 150 vessels left from Lisbon. Some ships may have put into or left from La Coruña. What is less known is that the Brits, feeling their oats after the defeat of the Armada, sent their own armada to raid the ports on Spain’s north coast in an attempt to destroy the remains of the Spanish fleet. Under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake, the English Armada landed in La Coruña, took the lower town and destroyed several ships in the harbor. They failed to take the upper town due to spirited resistance led by Maria Pita, and decided to sail on to Lisbon to try their luck there. La Coruña’s main square carries Maria Pita’s name and legacy and is a perfect place to begin your exploration of this centuries-old port city.