The Catholic Southern Front

Chapter 9/13 – The Reconquesta of the European Iberian Peninsula

The Iberian Peninsula consisting of the two sovereign countries of Spain and Portugal, was the scene of a slow seven hundred-year long reconquesta in greater part initiated in 732 by Charles Martel’s decisive victory in Poitres. It would take seven centuries to complete. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as the Christians enjoyed a series of victories and the Islamic surge receded, chapels consecrated to the Blessed Virgin were progressively erected on reconquered land. The chapels of Our Lady were landmarks, reminding the faithful that the reconquered land was;

  1. Our Lord’s gift through her intercession,
  2. consecrated to the Blessed Virgin and
  3. demarcated Christian from enemy territories.

King John of Aragon and Saint Ferdinand of Castile and Aragon erected an astonishing 2000 of these ‘chapel posts.’ The acclamation that the Blessed Virgin was the Protectress of Christendom, became well engrained in the hearts and minds of the people and in Christian culture at large, so much so, that Saint Ferdinand of Castile and Aragon rode into battle only after strapping a statuette of ‘Our Lady of Battles’ (Madonna of Covadonga) to his saddle.

During the Reconquesta, ‘Theotokos’ interceded miraculously at the invocation of the Catholic military leaders. In tenth century Europe a Catholic leader by the name of Sancho Garces of Pamplona prostrated himself before the Image of ‘Santa Maria de Irache,’ imploring her aid to conquer the Monjardin Fort. He successfully won over the Fort for the Queen of Heaven. Before the Battle of Tora or Lerida, the Conde de Besalu urged his followers to victory after reminding them that Saint Michael and the Blessed Virgin, who had often protected them in the past, would continue to do so. In 1177, at the Battle of Cuenca, when the Bishop of Burgos hung Mary’s banner on the fortified walls, the Kings of Aragon and Castile were soon victorious. The Spanish hero, El Cid or Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (1026-1099), passing by the Church of Santa Maria pledged to the Virgin that if she were to protect and support him, that he would enjoy good fortune, he would offer at her altar fine and rich gifts for a thousand sung Masses. The silver and gold were indeed received and the thousand Masses celebrated at Burgos. In vision, the Blessed Virgin appeared to El Cid pledging her support, and in thanksgiving El Cid transformed the main Islamic mosque in Valencia, into a Cathedral dedicated to the Blessed Mother. El Cid was buried at the Cathedral of Santa Maria at Burgos, in Spain.

In 711, the Moors conquered Portugal, the land of Lusitania evangelized by Saint Martin of Duma. In 1086, Alfonso VI, King of Castile and Leon and his French allies initiated the Portuguese Reconquesta. The son of the Duke of Burgundy, Henry, conquered the northern region in 1095 and earned the title of ‘Count of Portugal.’ Henry’s son, Alphonso Henriques, won a splendid victory over the Moors at Ourica in 1139. His French soldiers proclaimed him ‘King of Portugal.’ With good reason this proclamation troubled Castille’s self-elected king, who accused Alphonso Henriques of usurping his throne. King Alphonso Henriques was anointed by Pope Innocent II and both the royal title of the Portuguese Kingship and the Country of Portugal were born. On April 28, 1142, a founding document was stamped with the royal seal at the Cathedral of Lamego. The document reveals that the King placed the new country and royal dynasty under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, making Her the Protectress and Mother of all the Portuguese. An annual tribute was to be paid to the Church of Saint Mary of Clairveaux, in the name of Saint Bernard and his successors. The document is at present found at the Monastery of Alcobaca, which is a monastery erected on land granted by King Alphonso Henriques to Saint Bernard and is located a few miles from Fatima. The King was born a cripple and was miraculously cured by Our Lady; he therefore made a pledge to the Queen of Heaven, that if he were to conquer the Islamic City of Santarem, he would honor Our Lady by consecrating a monastery to her. The monastery was built following the vow made by the King; the monastery for the disciples of Saint Bernard of Clairveaux was also built.

In 1147, together with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, King Alfonso Henriques founded the Monastery of Alcobaca dedicated to Our Lady. He repeated a similar prayer for the reconquesta of Lisbon, however, this time pledging to build two churches in honor of Our Lady. As Lisbon was quickly conquered, Alfonso carried out his pledge; he constructed a church and converted the principal mosque to a consecrated church in her honor. Similarly to the Country of Hungary, the highest symbol of authority in Portugal was not considered to be the King, but the crown, a crown which was at its origins, offered by Our Lady. The Countries of Portugal and Hungary, owe their historical royal dynasties and religious/cultural formation to her. The protective standard of ‘Our Lady of Alcobaca,’ was utilized against the Islamic menace many times over. During the crusading age, the Portuguese crusaders carried a statue of Our Lady, which was later revered in the Church of Our Lady of the Martyrs in Lisbon till the seventeenth century.

In 1195, Alfonso VIII of Castile was defeated at Alarcos; this was a great defeat. Subsequently, the Caliph al-Nasir led an Almohad Army to the vicinity of Toledo, with the intent of repeating such a victory. On this occasion Alfonso crossed the Despenaperros Pass and descended on the Islamic army. Certain reports explain the situation in the following manner. Peter II of Aragon-Catalonia helped Alphonso by reconquering the highland district of Rincon Deemuz in the Iberian Cordillera and during this same period, the Caliph Muhammad an-Nasir invaded and conquered the Castle of Salvatierra in the vicinity of Andalusia. Pope Innocent invoked the Catholics of Spain and France to join forces and form a crusade against this hostile invasion. King Peter II of Aragon, Sancho VII of Navarre and many other European nobles, together with their knights, gathered at Toledo. On June 20, 1212, the Catholic Army moved crossing the Guardiana plains and reached Muradel on July 12. An unusual alternate route was adopted and the Catholics descended the Andalusian side of the Sierra Morena, there the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa took place. On Sunday July 16, the Catholics rose at midnight, they organised Mass, confessed their sins, received Holy Communion and went forth vowing to conquer or die. The Moors deployed their forces in three lines consisting of cavalry, foot soldiers, Berbers, Arabs and archers. The Caliph remained on the rear guard with his Negro bodyguard. Clad in a black cloak with sword and Koran in hand, he directed his commanders. King Peter II of Aragon commanded the left wing of the Catholic army and King Sancho VII of Navarre the right. Alfonso II of Aragon, who remained in the rearguard, commanded the center. The battle was intensely sanguinary and raged for hours, the impatient Caliph ordered his reserves in, the Catholic center and flanks retreated. At this point Alfonso entered the battle with his rearguard, together with Peter and Sancho from the side flanks. The Arabs retreated and the Catholics broke through the area of the Caliph’s tent, killing the Negro guards. In a shameful retreat, the Caliph escaped and later died at Marrakesh. The Catholics defeated the Islamists leaving 100,000 casualties. According to a report, which was passed on from King Alphonso to Pope Innocent III, during the whole battle Alphonso carried a standard or banner with the Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and credited his triumph exclusively to her. Two standard bearers, one belonging to Rodrigo’s troops and another to Alphonso’s, carried a cross and the banner of the ‘Our Lady, Patroness of Toledo.’ On seeing the Blessed Virgin’s banner pelted with arrows and stones, Alphonso redoubled his efforts and forced the Caliph to flee. The banner’s bearer remained miraculously uninjured.

The Iberian Reconquesta, carried out in many stages, is rich with intercessory concessions granted by Our Lady, the following event is one other example. Saint Ferdinand III, the future King of Castile and Leon, was born in 1198 near Salamanca. He was the son of Alfonso IX, King of Leon and of Berengeria and was the cousin of Saint-Louis IX of France. In 1217, his mother renounced the crown and at age eighteen Ferdinand became King of Castile. In 1230, he became the King of Leon, many opposed the union of both territories and for a short while his father turned against him. After their reconciliation, they both fought the Islamists side by side. Ferdinand III ruled justly and was fair and in 1219 married Beatrice the daughter of Philip of Swabia, King of Germany. The princess was known to be ‘virtuous.’ They were blessed with ten children, understandably the reason for which Ferdinand would later become the ‘Patron of large families.’ The King’s highest ideals in life were to propagate the Faith and rid Spain from the Islamic yoke. Against the Islamists in Spain, he conducted a crusade, which lasted twenty-seven years and conquered vast territories, to the only exclusion of Granada and Alicante. In the lands he reconquered, the King established bishoprics, Catholic churches, monasteries, and hospitals. The King also founded the University of Salamanca. In 1225, his army held back the Islamic invasions. A well-known characteristic of Ferdinand III, was that he studied the conduct of his soldiers, confiding more in the virtuous than the brave. He favoured the soldiers who cared for their spiritual lives over the brave. On the eve of battle, Ferdinand III fasted, spent the nights in prayer, wore rough clothing and prayed, especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When crusading he lived in the camp as a religious would live in a cloister. Between the years 1234-36, his armies conquered Cordova and later following the death of Queen Beatrice in 1236, he married Joan of Ponthieu. In 1236, the mosque in Cordova was converted and consecrated to Santa Maria. He laid siege to Seville for fifteen months, taking the city on November 23,1248. On entering Seville, Ferdinand III brought the Image of the ‘Virgen de los Reyes,’ the Virgin of the Kings, on a special open float constructed especially for the moment of triumph. The bishop of Cordova, Gutierre de Olea, purified the mosque of Seville, converting the edifice into a Cathedral dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and prepared it for Divine worship on December 22. The Image of Our Lady ‘Virgen de los Reyes’ was placed within, Ferdinand himself placed two other Images of the Queen of Heaven and earth. Together with the Icon ‘Our Lady of the Kings,’ he placed the ivory statuette which he always carried tied to his saddle bow, ‘Our Lady of Battles’ and a second statuette called ‘Our Lady of the See,’ a silver and ivory Image. Ferdinand III, the great devotee of the Blessed Virgin, died on May 30, 1252, and was buried in the habit of his secular Franciscan Order and interred in the great Cathedral of Seville before the Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His body is said to be incorrupt and to him is attributed the miracles which take place at his tomb. Pope Alexander VII beatified King Ferdinand III in 1655 and in 1671, he was canonized by Pope Clement X. Saint Ferdinand’s Feast is celebrated on May 30.

The son of Fernando III, Alfonso X, in his ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ wrote describing Our Lady’s favors granted to his father. In the thirteenth century Alfonso X, established a military order purposely to guard the Spanish coasts and called it the ‘Order of Santa Maria.’ Also known as the ‘Order of the Star,’ the title accentuates the role of Mary as ‘Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea’ and the ‘Protector and Guide of all mariners.’ Yet another Monarch, Jaume I of Aragon, invoked the aid of the Blessed Virgin and was granted protection and victory during the Siege of Murcia. This monarch viewed his crusades as, “Marian deeds within a knightly code of honor.”(1) Another separate event occurred in 1370 during the Battle of El Sotillo. The Virgin Mary intervened to save the Catholics from a night ambush by revealing with her radiant light the presence of hidden Moorish troops.

In more recent times, during the Spanish Civil War, General Gonzalo Quiepo Y Liano thanked the ‘Blessed Virgin of La Macarena,’ for having conquered Seville by symbolically presenting her with a medal. During the early days of the civil war the brothers had given the General her crown, to gain funds for the war. Not bringing himself to sell the crown for funds, the General kept the gift and presented it back to her one year later.



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