The fortifications of the Torres de Oeste guarded the estuary which led towards the city of Santiago de Compostela. According to one of the principle legends of Saint James, after his martyrdom in Palestine, his body was transported on a stone raft to its destination at Padron in Galicia. From there his disciples buried the Apostle’s body at Compostela.
Like its Celtic counterparts in Brittany and Cornwall, the coast of Galicia is scored with rocky inlets and estuaries, known locally as Riás. These penetrated deep into the interior and it was up the narrowing channel of the Rio Ulla estuary, that the legendary stone vessel would have made its way towards its head at Padron.
This was the most important of the Rías and led directly to Santiago de Compostela.
From prehistoric times these inlets were the locations of trading stations which carried tin, the essential component of bronze from Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia to the Mediterranean. These routes were used by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and then Romans. Atlantic tin was exchanged for Mediterranean produce.
As well as a trade in goods, these routes also provided a trade in legends, myths and religious beliefs. The story of a stone vessel transporting a dead hero across the sea was a myth repeated elsewhere on the Celtic coasts of western Europe.
The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela locates the Turris Augusti at the mouth of the Ulla river. Originally built by the Phoenicians, Pomponius’ reference suggests that they were restored by the Romans during the reign of Augustus. The strategic location before the mouth of the river provided a perfect place for a defensive fortress and lookout.
After the Romans, they fell into disuse but in the medieval period they were restored and enlarged as the threat of maritime Saracen raids grew. As the cult of Santiago grew, the importance of the Torres de Oeste as the gateway to Compostela increased correspondingly.
Normans first attacked in 844 and in 968 bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed at the site having come to repulse a Norman force heading for Compostela up the estuary.
The Historia Compostelana, the epic recounting which aggrandised Compostela’s most celebrated prelate Archbishop Gelmirez, portrays him as the great patron of the Torres de Oeste. According to this account, Diego Gelmirez was responsible for the addition of a chapel, new walls, bridges and grand buildings to house the Galician court.
In actual fact much of this building campaign was undertaken by Gelmirez’ predecessor bishop Cresconio in the 1040’s after he had successfully repelled a Norman force there. Cresconio was buried at Torres de Oeste in 1066.
The substantial nature of the building work at Torres de Oeste and the importance ascribed to it as a second home for the Galician nobility suggest that its significance went beyond a mere defensive emplacement but also as an extension of the Compostelan pilgrimage. Padron and Fisterra were places associated with the extension of the journey to the sea itself and the association with the scallop shell. The Torres de Oeste facing the open sea remains a place of considerable mystical allure.
Biblio: Galice Roman, Dom Bernardo Regal
Saint Jacques à Compostelle, J Chocheyras