Biography of Pelayo. King of Asturias (¿-737)

First King of Asturias, immediate successor of don Rodrigo, the last sovereign of the Visigothic Spain. On the genealogy of don Pelayo there is great confusion, since the sources frequently mixed legends and myths with true historical data. Despite this it is usually admitted that he/she died in 737 and it ruled the Kingdom of Asturias between 718 and the 737; also tends to be recognized as a son of the Duke Favila, as father of the King Favila, and even in certain chronic as grandson of the own Recceswinth.

It seems that he/she was raised in the Court, while don Rodrigo remained on the throne, and after the defeat of Guadalete took refuge in the mountains of Burgos, from where it happened to Asturias, a place in which by its inaccessibility Christian noblemen had taken refuge. He/She defeated the Muslims at the battle of Covadonga, magnified by Christian Chronicles. The defeat of Covadonga were followed by others who spread the Christian territory in several encounters and skirmishes that Pelayo was with the Muslims.

Historical context

The last Visigothic king of the Iberian peninsula was don Rodrigo, which according to the tradition, was son of Teodofredo and therefore grandson of King Chindasvinto. Rodrigo reached the power in the 710 on the death of King Witiza, and while this had been appointed successor to his son Akhila. Rodrigo was elected by a Council of nobles and prelates that opened a period of civil war between the supporters of Akhila and Rodrigo. This controlling the quasi-totality of the territory, including Toledo. On the other side were Akhila; the Bishop of Seville and brother of Witiza, Oppas; and the aristocrat Teodomiro, Lord of vast territories, among other nobles and bishops.

At the beginning of the 711 broke out a revolt in the North of Spain provoked by the supporters of Akhila. Rodrigo gathered his army and went to fight it; Meanwhile, taking advantage of the moment of confusion and power vacuum, count Julian, Governor of Ceuta, and Bishop Oppas agreed with Musa ibn Nusayr an Alliance to depose the throne to Rodrigo. In response to this Alliance the Lieutenant of Musa, Tariq, accompanied by don Julian and Oppas, landed in Gibraltar with an important Islamic army. Rodrigo sent to gather his army to go to the meeting of the invaders. 19-26 July the 711 was the famous battle of Guadalete, where Rodrigo was totally defeated, in part because many of the noble hispanogoths abandoned the battle or moved into the camp of the sons of Wittiza and the Muslims.

From that time is when the confused figure of don Pelayo as successor of don Rodrigo in front of schiavile Christianity appears in history. Pelayo became strong in the North of the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian mountain range, both sectors that barely had received influences or Romans and Visigoths. The Muslims kept fittings against peoples of the North, cantabri, astures and Basques, who had retained their original social structure composed of a majority of free men and with a very small class differences.

History and legend, the difficulties of the study of don Pelayo

The mix of history and legend, myth and reality that surrounds everything related to the creation of the Kingdom of Asturias and the person of don Pelayo make tremendously difficult study of these events. The myth to exalted to the absurd figure of the first Asturian King, to the point that his biography is often surrounded by stories meaningless and extremely grotesque exaggerations. A clear example of this is the Chronicle of the King don Rodrigo, with the destruycion of Spain, Pedro del Corral, dating from the first half of the 15th century and in which it is narrated from totally fabulous form a surprising story of the childhood of don Pelayo in which is equated with some of the best-known biblical characters, like Moses. Another no less extraordinary example is the legend that tells how Pelayo with an army made up of thousands of soldiers conquered the city of Leon and even how he/she defeated the emir Abd al-Rahman I, which did not come up to the power of up to 19 years after the death of Pelayo.

All the Chronicles and texts that are preserved in the life of don Pelayo are subsequent to the facts that tell the story. It does not contribute anything to separate the true events of the mere propaganda myth of later Kings. A highly significant fact of the reign of don Pelayo is not known any coin minted by him, when if Visigothic and Roman, much older coins have been preserved.

All this, fabulous legends and the lack of historical evidence submerged the life of don Pelayo in the dark Lakes of myth and make it practically impossible to conduct a serious study in which both aspects, myth and reality, appear differentiated clearly.


The first text in which appears the figure of don Pelayo is a chronicle of the 883, of which the author is not even known for certain, already that some historians have attributed it to the monarch Alfonso III, and others to Sebastián de Salamanca. Subsequently, some Albedense or Emilian in the 9th century and some silos, from the 12th century also mentioned the figure of the Asturian monarch. But all these sources contradict each other. On the one hand, the Chronicle of the 9th century son of Favila, Duke of Cantabria makes it. Some Albaldense assumed Veremundo or Bermudo, son and nephew of Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king of the peninsula. Some silos, for its part, has that his father was the Duke of Alava. If that weren't enough, other sources make descend to Pelayo of the Visigothic Royal family. Finally, some studies emphasize the same name of don Pelayo, which appears in the sources as Pelagius, and note the clear schiavile root of the same and therefore deny the so-called Visigothic ancestry and make him a member of a noble Indian family, which, on its merits, would have achieved a position in the Court of don Rodrigo. This last theory is based on the Muslim Chronicles, which always refer to Pelayo as Belay or Belaz-el-Rumi ('Pelayo or Pelayo the Roman').

Despite everything, the most widespread opinion, or at least that has enjoyed more success among historians, medievalists, is that of Pelayo as member of the Visigothic lineage and in particular, as a son of Favila, Duke of Cantabria, which belonged to the family of Rodrigo, and in whose court had served as count of the espatarios or of the Royal Guard. But what worth mentioning is actually of don Pelayo, regardless of its origin, is that he/she and his family group, deeply rooted in Indian society, managed to impose a stable hegemony that made it possible the cohesion of different clans and lineages for under his direction to fight against Islam, and over these indigenous groups traditionally low cohesive between if and individualismthey came to implement a lifetime leadership that eventually become hereditary and give rise to the Asturian monarchy.


As we have said, the genealogy of Pelayo is a subject that involves great difficulty, and something similar occurs with regard to their first years of life. Again appear several hypotheses, all mixed with legend and from conflicting sources. On the one hand, some texts speak that once muerto or prisoner Favila (the father of Pelayo according to these sources), by order of Witiza, when still living King Ervig (although it is not clear whether even he/she reigned or had already been succeeded by his son-in-law Ergica), because of jealousy, unless known to science certain if his wife Wittiza had themlover of Favila, or the own Favila, believed that Wittiza was the lover of the woman of this. The case is that according to these sources, once fallen into misfortune or dead Favila, don Pelayo had to flee to the territories of his father in Cantabria, where the family had powerful allies. Dead Ervig (if he/she had not died already before), Witiza tried to apprehend Pelayo, which took the opportunity to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and thus of the vengeful King to flee.

Other historians do not give credit to the aforementioned history and claim that Pelayo was raised and lived in the Court during the reign of don Rodrigo and enjoyed the confidence of this, so far as that occupied a prominent place in the battle of Guadalete in 711, which meant the end of the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo and the implementation in almost the entire peninsula of the arabe-bereberes of Tariq. After this battle, Pelayo escaped to the mountains of Asturias to the debacle of the Spanish army. When the news of the death of Rodrigo Asturias, Pelayo's military prowess, coupled with the confidence that the late King had in him and to the high since he/she worked at the Court of this, Pelayo put in an excellent position to become the new King. In this way, surviving nobles Guadalete disaster, as well as a group of Bishops of the southern peninsular who had come to Asturias from invaders, and remnants of the defeated army of Hispanic elected as leader and later King Pelayo.

A third current attempts to unite the two previous, ensuring that given the proverbial Witiza-Rodrigo confrontation would not be rare that a nobleman who had problems such as those described above, in the Court of Wittiza was, however, well received in the Rodrigo.

Reign of don Pelayo

The majority of the historians admit that you among the 716 and the 718 Pelayo was proclaimed as King of Asturias somewhere between Cangas de Onís and Covadonga.

The early years of the reign of don Pelayo came marked by the extreme weakness of his forces, since it had very few fighters to deal with the continuous progress of Muslim troops of Musa ibn Nusayr and Tariq. The weakness was such that in the 714 had to retire to the Picos de Europa. At this point once more appears the legend and the sources are distance. On the one hand, some talk that Pelayo was well captured in the battle of Guadalete, well immediately after and sent to Córdoba, where he/she remained captive until the 717, date in which managed to escape and took refuge in the Picos de Europa, where he/she was appointed King. This view has scant basis since both Christian and Muslim sources confirm the opposition found in the 714 by Musa ibn Nusayr in their raids on the North of the peninsula.

Some sources speak of don Pelayo not fled to Asturias after the defeat of Guadalete that remained hidden in Toledo until before the proximity of the invaders, the Bishop of Toledo, urban, decided to flee the city together with the noble Christians in it were and which together transported valuable relics and all the treasure of the rich Church of Toledo to Asturias. Responsible for directing such transfer would be Pelayo and due to his personal prestige, to the success of the operation and to favour and trust of the Bishop of Toledo and of the nobles who took part in that action, Pelayo was elected leader of the inhabitants of the North and shortly afterwards hailed as King.

Another version, also interspersed legend, offers Pelayo supposed trip to Cordoba to meet with the emir Abd al-Aziz (714-717), son and successor of Musa ibn Nasayr. A legend arose later and completely devoid of historical Foundation, makes reference to that in the course of this trip, a such Munuza, Muslim Governor of Gijón, raped the daughter of Pelayo so East to learn he/she swore revenge and this resulted in the process that has come to be called Reconquista.

The historian Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, based on Christian Chronicles, maintains that it was at this time when Pelayo, former member of the guard of King Rodrigo, alienated the Muslim of Gijón Munuza Governor because he/she had married her sister without their consent, sought refuge between the astures and they proclaimed him their leader in 718. According to Claudio Albornoz, the circumstance that the choice was made by the astures, and not by the Gothic nobles, gives the start of the Asturian Kingdom an insurrectional movement popular character, and a local character created from peoples not subjected to the Roman or Visigothic domain.

Without entering into this type of estimations, the truth is that the idea of Muslim leaders of spreading Islam through Gaul, Europe was a great relief for the beleaguered Pelayo, since the pressure on Christians from the North of the peninsula decreased dramatically. That allowed don Pelayo and his men arrived even defeat some detachments of the Muslims, as between the years 717-722 when they managed to defeat the punitive expedition sent by the warlord al-Hor and commanded by general Alkama in Covadonga, which strengthened the small insurgent group. In that campaign and Muslims it is possible to take some part of the personalities even then defending the dynastic legality of the sons of Wittiza, as for example Bishop Oppas.

Abilio Barbero and Marcelo Vigil, historians have pointed out how through the Chronicles warns the existence of an indigenous tradition local, typical of a family company that was going through a difficult time and that was about to disappear. It defended the astures at Covadonga, for these authors, is not but the independence of their way of life against the inherited social organization of Rome by the Visigoths and, through these, by the Arabs; against the great property served by slaves and servants, the peoples of the North defend individual freedom and small property.

The oldest reference to the battle of Covadonga is located in the Chronicle of Alfonso III in which ensures: (..).Pelayo, having managed to escape to the Muslims and taking refuge in Asturias, is elected King by an Assembly, and organized resistance of the Asturian people in monte Auseva, dominica Cova (Covadonga). Against the March an innumerable army, commanded by Alcama, companion of Terec, and Opas, son of Vitiza and Metropolitan of Toledo or Seville, which also goes a dramatic dialogue who maintained with Pelayo. Unsuccessful mediation attempted by Opas, begins the battle; but the arrows and stones hurled by slings become to wound the attackers, that end up fleeing leaving a dead Alcama and prisoner Opas. Down fugitives monte Auseva, to reach Liébana, a mountain collapsed on them, dying 63,000 Chaldeans (..). Despite this, the battle of Covadonga was not the terrible battle that Christian Chronicles have been described. Obviously the idealization that it is on the Chronicle of Alfonso III, in which even comes to speak of divine in the form of Marian apparition help to eliminate Muslims. It is not credible, that the few men who had Pelayo were able to defeat an army as large as the one described, above all, if we bear in mind that before the Christian army had fully been miserably defeated at Guadalete, which showed the best organization of Muslim troops and their tactical superiority over the Christian army. In Covadonga, not even would be physically viable the clash of armies of such size. The fact that Muslim chronicles do not even refer to the battle in question, despite the fact that if they recognize the existence of Pelayo in the mountains of Asturias, it reaffirms the theory that there was no such battle and that it was not more than a clash of local and border between a more or less large patrol of Muslimsprobably in punishment or exploration mission, and the men of Pelayo.

The myth of Covadonga and the reason why the Christian Chronicles have magnified the event is possibly due to the need to find a heroic attitude in the first fighters against Muslims by later Kings, which would use this myth as grounds of legitimation and aggrandizement of their own ancestry. On the other hand, it is quite likely that in the absence of a Christian Chronicle of the battle in the same dates in which this occurred, the oral tradition, which would be the source of transmission of the facts, do need to lay to mystify the protagonists and to give greater importance to what at the time he/she did it. Nonetheless, the importance of Covadonga was twofold, on the one hand, became, in later reigns, in the mythical symbol of the resistance of the Christians against Muslims, and a clear example of this is the legend of the Cruz de la Victoria, who went from being a simple wooden cross that Pelayo used as a banner in Covadongato become the symbol of Asturias Alfonso III cover it with gold and precious stones, and turning it into little more than an element of worship and sacred given his alleged divine blessing. On the other hand, some historians believe that it was not until after Covadonga and precisely a consequence of it, when Pelayo was recognized as King, because the victory over the Muslims (should not be forgotten that it was possibly the first time that a Christian contingent defeated Islamic troops from the disaster of Guadalete) endowed Pelayo's fame as a warrior that allowed him to rise above the rest of the Christian nobles of Asturias. Seems that it was in these moments when Pelayo established their camp or maybe the capital of his Kingdom, of permanently in Cangas de Onis.

Regardless of the importance of Covadonga, the truth is that the attention of the Muslims was more in France than in the rugged Northern peninsular. The conquest of the rich was more attractive for the Emirs of Córdoba French noon that the Asturian mountain lands in which the weather was adverse, the unfavorable terrain and agriculture not developed efficiently, therefore the settlement of Muslim civilization was serious disadvantages. Together with the little importance given to the hosts of Pelayo, since their small number at all concerned to the mighty armies that had surrendered to Islam all of North Africa; it caused that a few crucial years for settlement and organization of the Kingdom of Pelayo in Asturias, and after a series of skirmishes will produce an unwritten but practically complete peace between the two sides.

Slowly Pelayo brought in his stronghold of Cangas to all Christians of the neighbouring lands, until the handful of highlanders who originally composed the bulk of the troop of the Asturian King, soon became a numerous host that took advantage of the territory abandoned by the Muslims on the other side of the Asturian mountains to make small inroads which succeed gave rise to a new settlement, with the consequent growth of the Asturian territory; But if they motivated the response of Muslims, they were abandoned and its inhabitants returned to the safety of the mountains awaiting better times or an opportunity. This was the slow process which gave rise to the expansion of the Christian Kingdom of Asturias at the expense of the initial conquests of the Muslims.

After nineteen years of reign, at 737 Pelayo, he/she died leaving two sons from his marriage to Gaudiosa , Favila who succeeded him in the Asturian throne and Ermesinda, which married which in turn would be the King Alfonso I the Catholic. Pelayo was buried in the Church of Santa Eulalia de Abamia, Cangas de Onis, which he/she himself had founded for this purpose. There is tradition, totally unfounded, that the remains of the first King of Asturias were transferred to Santa María de Covadonga during the reign of Alfonso X the wise, but this transfer there is any type of test and the epitaph that exists in Covadonga on the so-called tombstone, since it dates from the 18th century is not acceptable.