The city of León was situated at the confluence of two major Iberian Roman transport arteries; the north south road from Baetica to Asturias met the road from Pamplona heading west towards Galicia. At this important intersection the Roman seventh legion had been stationed, protecting the plains from the Cantabrian tribes. The name of the city which grew up around the garrisoned legion reflected its origins, León.
By the middle ages these were major pilgrimage routes: the Camino Frances and the Via de la Plata. This last road led from Seville bearing pilgrims to Compostela from Andalusia. No other city in Spain contained as many churches and monastic establishments as León and it was the last of the major stations of the pilgrimage before Compostela itself.
Taken by the Arabs in about 714, the fate of León was indicative of the slow progress of the Reconquista. Christian attempts to recover it proved indecisive until 882 when it was reconquered definitively by Ordoño Ist and his son Alfonso III who moved his capital there from Oviedo in 909. By this gesture, Christian Spain had made a decisive move away from the protected regions behind the Cantabrians to the more exposed lands of the meseta table.
The relics of Saint Pelayo were acquired and a church was built dedicated to this saint, a child martyr of Cordobá and a potent symbol of Saracen oppression.
It was therefore a prime target for Al-Mansur’s punitive raids of the late tenth century which also affected Santiago de Compostela. León was razed in 988 and the church of San Pelayo burnt to the ground.
After the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordobá in 1031 the fortunes of the city began to change as Christian forces began to advance on Saracen territory. With Fernando Ist’s annexation of the kingdom of León in 1037 and the formation of the new Christian superpower of León-Castile, it assumed the role of capital of the Reconquista.
This was fully established in 1063, when, two years before his death, Fernando arranged the translation of the relics of Saint Isidore from Moorish Seville.
Besides being a show of power on Fernando’s part in retrieving Christian relics which had been kept in Moorish hands, the choice of Isidore as the new patron of León was highly symbolic.
Isidore was the sixth century bishop of Seville, last of the great patristic figures he was the father of the Spanish Church and an emblematic link between the world of classical antiquity and the middle ages.
More importantly, Isidore’s relics provided a connection between the Visigothic Christian Spain which had existed prior to the Arab invasion, which had devastated it and the new Christian Spain. Fernando was keen to create the impression of an unbroken link between the two.
The acquisition of Isidore’s relics did much to achieve this ambition. Whereas Saint Pelayo was a reminder of Christian Spain under the Arab yoke, the memory of Isidore looked back to a seeming golden age and the renewed possibility of Christian hegemony on the Iberian peninsula.
The new church of San Isidoro and the legends of miracles which began to occur there heightened the flow of pilgrims and increased their sense of expectation as they headed beyond León towards Compostela.
In the Liber Sancti Iacobi it is described as “a royal and courtly city, filled with riches”.
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