St James The Great, one of Jesus Christ’s closest Apostles (along with his brother John and Peter), was killed by King Herod between 41 and 44 D.C. in Jerusalem. According to the tradition, his body was moved and buried in a secret place in Galicia. The grave was not found until nearly 800 years later by the hermit Pelayo, when “El Camino”, one of the most important routes of Christian pilgrimage started to take shape.
Throughout history, millions of travelers and pilgrims passed by Santiago, and although the vast majority were anonymous people, some Historical Figures had also responded to the Apostle’s call.
Carlos I “The Great” (Carlomagno)
In 778, Carlomagno experienced his first defeat at the Battle of Roncesvalles at the hands of the Basques. In the fourth book of the “Codex Calixtinus” it is explained that after the battle, James appeared to Carlomagno and pointed to the Milky Way as the way to follow to find his grave, a place that he should set free from the hands of Muslims. Carlomagno carried out the request and released Compostela, leaving behind the many legends that had developed throughout the French Way. Although the battle of Roncesvalles is a historical fact, the episode of the release of Compostela at the hands of Carlomagno seems more like a legend recorded in the Codex with the intention of strengthening the christian presence on the peninsula, by linking it to the emperor.
Bishop Teodomiro de Iria
The history of the discovery of the grave of St. James is well known. Pelayo, a hermit who lived in the Galician forest of “Libedrón”, observed mysterious flashes on a mound in the forest for several consecutive nights. Finally he chose to inform Teodomiro, the bishop of Iria Flavia (Padrón). At the place indicated by Pelayo, Teodomiro discovered the grave containing the remains of St. James. He quickly put the findings to the attention of King Alfonso II. This story was published at the same time to justify the creation of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and thus strengthen the Christian presence in the peninsula. It is known as the Teodomiro’s invention and can be read in his “Cronicon Irense”.
Alfonso II de Asturias “el Casto”
After receiving news of the grave discovery, Alfonso II went from Oviedo to Santiago. His journey was documented and published in the “Cronicon Irense”, so this story reinforce the idea of the need to create a new route of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (where he commanded to raise a cathedral), as a way to strengthen Christianity against the Saracen threat. This is the reason why Alfonso II is considered the first pilgrim, and the route from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela is known as the Camino Primitivo.
Alfonso III de Asturias “el Magno”
Alfonso III had a close relationship with the Camino de Santiago. He promoted the construction of a larger and better cathedral to replace the one that Alfonso II of Asturias commissioned (the cathedral was destroyed by Almanzor in 977). During his reign, his sons conspired against him and he lost the crown and he was imprisoned. Garcia (the conspiracy instigator), allowed him to do the pilgrimage to Santiago, knowing how important it was for him. He also allowed him to begin a last campaign against Muslim forces, from which he emerged victorious. Alfonso III died two years later in Zamora.
Domingo García (Santo Domingo de la Calzada)
Known mainly by the Rioja´s town that bears his name (Santo Domingo de la Calzada) and his famous rooster and hen miracle, Santo Domingo de la Calzada was one of the biggest promoters of the “Camino de Santiago”. The Bishop “Gregorio de Ostia” and himself built, a wooden bridge over the Oja River to facilitate the passage of pilgrims to Compostela, around 1039. After Gregorio´s death he moved to in the Ayuela´s area, where he began the construction of a stone walkway which represented end of the traditional way between Logroño and Burgos, but after became the new main route between Nájera and Redecilla del Camino, reason why he is best known as “Santo Domingo de la Calzada”. The work was culminated by his disciple San Juan Ortega.
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid Campeador)
The “Cantar del Mio Cid” is one of the most important work of Spanish literature. The book has contributed to create a character out of the real historical figure of El Cid Campeador. For this reason you have to take with a “pinch of salt” the statements that place him as one of the pilgrims who arrived to Santiago de Compostela, which given the context of the Reconquest, suited the historical context. Anyway, the fact that the Cid was placed to the Jacobean route, gave way to a multitude of stories of him defending pilgrims from Muslim attackers, keeping alive both, his legend and the Camino.
Benedictine monk of French origin to whom the completion of the Book V of the Codex Calixtinus (1140) is attributed, which is none other than the pilgrim’s guide for the Camino de Santiago. He made the road on horseback, visiting different locations and Christian churches during his journey, and taking detailed notes that later served to shape the Codex Calixtinus. In recent years the authorship of the Pilgrim’s Guide has been challenged by the historian Bernard Gicquel, who claims that fact of Aymeric name appearing twice in the manuscript is not good enough reason to consider him the author, instead he propose Hugo the Potevino as the author, relegating Aymeric to the figure of compiler. (Just a note, the person in the picture is Calixto II, no Aymeric Picaud).
Isabel I de Castilla y Fernando II de Aragón (Los Reyes Católicos)
In 1486, when the Catholic Kings were at the final stages of the war of Granada, the rebellion of a nobleman in Ponferrada forced the monarchs to start a journey from Córdoba that eventually become a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. This administrative reasons do not leave in the background the desire of the pilgrimage, evidenced by the religious activity of the monarch’s scheduled for their stay in Compostela, and the trail of alms left throughout the journey.
Felipe II de España “el Prudente”
There is documentation of the journey that Santiago Felipe II did as a pilgrim in 1554. There he went through the process of confession and took communion, before setting off to Winchester (England) to marry Mary Tudor. However, history tells us that in the sixteenth century the way of seeing the pilgrimage had changed. In the words of historian Antonio López Ferriro:
“Since the mid-sixteenth century onwards we will see people from France and Italy, Germany, Poland or Hungary to reach Santiago but the overall tone of the pilgrimage has changed profoundly. ( … ) We will not see foreign monarchs and princes go to Santiago, and the Spaniards who make the pilgrimage arrive there accidentally, on their way to other places. Such is the case of Philip II, who made the pilgrimage with his usual piety got confessed, took communion and heard Mass- but he did on his way to England where he was going to marry Mary Tudor”.(1)
These are some of the historical figures who done “El Camino”. The list shows the ones that I have found most interesting, but there are others : Felipe el Hermoso and Juana la Loca, Santa Isabel of Portugal, Carlos I, Carlos III el Noble, Sancho II of Portugal, Pope John XXIII, the Pope John Paul II, the painter Jan Van Eyck, the humanist Bernardo de Aldrete… How many more you could add to the list? Come on, let us know and tell us their story with a comment. We are waiting for you!
(1) LÓPEZ FERREIRO, Historia, t. 8, 159.
Translation: Jessica Gispert.
List of images (in order of appearance):
- Retrato de Carlomagno. Alberto Durero, 1514 (Wikipedia).
- Descubrimiento de la tumba por Teodomiro, Tumbo A. Archivo de la Catedral de Santiago (Lumenartis.net).
- Alfonso II de Asturias. Retratos de los Reyes de España desde Atanarico hasta nuestro católico monarca don Carlos III. Manuel Rodríguez. Editado por J. Ibarra (Wikipedia).
- Miniatura Alfonso III el Magno acompañado de Dona Jimena y el Obispo Gomelo II. Miniatura del Archivo de Oviedo (Wikipedia).
- Santo Domingo, s. XVII, Pedro Ruiz de Salazar. Museo de la Catedral de Santo Domingo de la Calzada Catedral.
- Retrato de Isabel y Fernando el Católico, Juan de Flandes, 1451-1504 (atribución), y Michel Sittow, c.1500 (Wikipedia).
- La Jura de Santa Gadea. Armando Menocal, 1887 (Wikipedia).
- Minuatura de Calixto II en el códice Calixtinus (Xacopedia.com).
- Felipe, príncipe de Asturias. Tiziano Vecellio, 1551 (Wikipedia).