According to the Pilgrim’s Guide, Estella is a town “Where bread is good, wine excellent, meat and fish are abundant and which overflows with all delights”. In 1090 Sancho Ramirez ruler of the joint kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon established the new town of Estella on the banks of the Ega river, thereby moving the pilgrimage road three kilometres south of the Roman road which had been its previous course.
Though partly intended to direct pilgrim traffic towards the river whose water, the Guide declares “is sweet, healthy and excellent”, Sancho’s promotion of the pilgrimage served the policy of repopulation favoured by the Spanish Christian monarchs, desirous of filling the lands earlier left empty by their proximity to Moorish controlled areas.
The founding charter favoured settlement by Franks and the town began very quickly to flourish, Sancho’s liberal legislation favouring commerce and trade. It was the first significant centre on the camino west of Puente la Reina.
The old name of Lizarra was replaced by the new designation which may have been intended to evoke the legend of the Milky Way and the Crusader ethos of the time, simultaneously implying the Frankish origins of the pilgrimage road.
True or not, the location of Estella, though not mentioned by name features in the History of Charlemagne and Roland as the likely setting for the celebrated combat between Charlemagne’s heroic paladin and the champion of the Moorish army, the giant Ferragut which is situated between the bridge over the Arga, that is Puente la Reina and Najera.
It is this local legend which is depicted on a capital of the twelfth century civic building which stands by the Compostela road and is known as the Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra. The capital, engraved with the names Feragut and Rollan illustrates the duel to the death between the two combattants.
Fortifications and churches line the sloping flanks of the Ega river, many of their dedications revealing the French influence which came with the town’s new settlers: Nuestra Señora del Puy, Nuestra Señora de Rocamadour and San Martin de los Francos.
The pilgrimage road passes directly through the centre of the town, on one side the priory church of San Pedro de la Rúa, a dependency of the Benedictine abbey of San Juan de la Peña, its very name evoking the camino from which it is reached by a steep set of stone steps.
On the other side of the road in the old market quarter is the church of San Miguel in Excelsis with its impressive facade expressing the medieval Christian eschatological scheme.
The central tympanum is of Christ in Majesty flanked by the Elders of The Apocalypse on the voussoirs and to the sides the Apostles.
Beneath, large slab reliefs. To the right the Resurrection represented by the Empty Tomb and the Three Marys bearing their flasks of ointment. To the left Saint Michael, patron of the church. The Archangel performs his dual function, the Weighing of the Souls and the Slaying of the dragon Satan. In between these two, the souls of the elect are held in the Bosom of Abraham awaiting the Day of Judgment