Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Cave of Covadonga

Tarik landed in Spain in April, 711. So rapid were the Arabs in conquest that in two years from that date nearly the whole peninsula was in their hands. Not quite all, or history might have another story to relate. In a remote province of the once proud kingdom—a rugged northwest corner—a few of its fugitive sons remained in freedom, left alone by the Arabs partly through scorn, partly on account of the rude and difficult character of their place of refuge. The conquerors despised them, yet this slender group was to form the basis of the Spain we know to-day, and to expand and spread until the conquerors would be driven from Spanish soil.

The Goths had fled in all directions from their conquerors, taking with them such of their valuables as they could carry, some crossing the Pyrenees to France, some hiding in the mountain valleys, some seeking a place of refuge in the Asturias, a rough hill country cut up in all directions by steep, scarped rocks, narrow defiles, deep ravines, and tangled thickets. Here the formidable Moslem cavalry could not pursue them; here no army could deploy; here ten men might defy a hundred. The place was far from inviting to the conquerors, but in it was sown the seed of modern Spain.

A motley crew it was that gathered in this rugged region, a medley of fugitives of all ranks and stations,—soldiers, farmers, and artisans; nobles and vassals; bishops and monks; men, women, and children,—brought together by a terror that banished all distinctions of rank and avocation. For a number of years this small band of fugitive Christians, gathered between the mountains and the sea in northwestern Spain, remained quiet, desiring only to be overlooked or disregarded by the conquerors. But in the year 717 a leader came to them, and Spain once more lifted her head in defiance of her invaders.

Pelayo, the leader named, is a hero shrouded in mist. Fable surrounds him; a circle of romantic stories have budded from his name. He is to us like his modern namesake, the one battle-ship of Spain, which, during the recent war, wandered up and down the Mediterranean with no object in view that any foreigner could discover. Of the original Pelayo, some who profess to know say that he was of the highest rank,—young, handsome, and heroic, one who had fought under Roderic at the Guadalete, had been held by the Arabs as a hostage at Cordova, and had escaped to his native hills, there to infuse new life and hope into the hearts of the fugitive group.

Ibun Hayyan, an Arabian chronicler, gives the following fanciful account of Pelayo and his feeble band. "The commencement of the rebellion happened thus: there remained no city, town, or village in Galicia but what was in the hands of the Moslems with the exception of a steep mountain, on which this Pelayo took refuge with a handful of men. There his followers went on dying through hunger until he saw their numbers reduced to about thirty men and ten women, having no other food for support than the honey which they gathered in the crevices of the rock, which they themselves inhabited like so many bees. However, Pelayo and his men fortified themselves by degrees in the passes of the mountain until the Moslems were made acquainted with their preparations; but, perceiving how few they were, they heeded not the advice given to them, but allowed them to gather strength, saying, 'What are thirty barbarians perched upon a rock? They must inevitably die.' "

Die they did not, that feeble relic of Spain on the mountain-side, though long their only care was for shelter and safety. Here Pelayo cheered them, doing his utmost to implant new courage in their fearful hearts. At length the day came when Spain could again assume a defiant attitude, and in the mountain valley of Caggas de Onis Pelayo raised the old Gothic standard and ordered the beating of the drums. Beyond the sound of the long roll went his messengers seeking warriors in valley and glen, and soon his little band had grown to a thousand stalwart men, filled with his spirit and breathing defiance to the Moslem conquerors. That was an eventful day for Spain, in which her crushed people again lifted their heads.

It was a varied throng that gathered around Pelayo's banner. Sons of the Goths and the Romans were mingled with descendants of the more ancient Celts and Iberians. Representatives of all the races that had overrun Spain were there gathered, speaking a dozen dialects, yet instinct with a single spirit. From them the modern Spaniard was to come, no longer Gothic or Roman, but a descendant of all the tribes and races that had peopled Spain. Some of them carried the swords and shields they had wielded in the battle of the Guadalete, others brought the rude weapons of the mountaineers. But among them were strong bands and stout hearts, summoned by the drums of Pelayo to the reconquest of Spain.

Word soon came to Al Horr, the new emir of Spain, that a handful of Christians were in arms in the mountains of the northwest, and he took instant steps to crush this presumptuous gathering, sending his trusty general Al Kamah with a force that seemed abundant to destroy Pelayo and his rebel band.

Warning of the approach of the Moslem foe was quickly brought to the Spanish leader, who at once left his place of assembly for the cave of Covadonga, a natural fortress in Eastern Asturia, some five miles from Caggas de Onis, which he had selected as a place strikingly adapted to a defensive stand. Here rise three mountain-peaks to a height of nearly four thousand feet, enclosing a small circular valley, across which rushes the swift Diva, a stream issuing from Mount Orandi. At the base of Mount Auseva, the western peak, rises a detached rock, one hundred and seventy feet high, projecting from the mountain in the form of an arch. At a short distance above its foot is visible the celebrated cave or grotto of Covadonga, an opening forty feet wide, twelve feet high, and extending twenty-five feet into the rock.

The river sweeps out through a narrow and rocky defile, at whose narrowest part the banks rise in precipitous walls. Down this ravine the stream rushes in rapids and cascades, at one point forming a picturesque waterfall seventy-five feet in height. Only through this straitened path can the cave be reached, and this narrow ravine and the valley within Pelayo proposed to hold with his slender and ill-armed force.

Proudly onward came the Moslem captain, full of confidence in his powerful force and despising his handful of opponents. Pelayo drew him on into the narrow river passage by a clever stratagem. He had posted a small force at the mouth of the pass, bidding them to take to flight after a discharge of arrows. His plan worked well, the seeming retreat giving assurance to the Moslems, who rushed forward in pursuit along the narrow ledge that borders the Diva, and soon emerged into the broader path that opens into the valley of Covadonga.

They had incautiously entered a cul-de-sac, in which their numbers were of no avail, and where a handful of men could hold an army at bay. A small body of the best armed of the Spaniards occupied the cave, the others being placed in ambush among the chestnut-trees that covered the heights above the Diva. All kept silent until the Moslem advance had emerged into the valley. Then the battle began, one of the most famous conflicts in the whole history of Spain, famous not for the numbers engaged, but for the issue involved. The future of Spain dwelt in the hands of that group of patriots. The fight in the valley was sharp, but one-sided. The Moslem arrows rebounded harmlessly from the rocky sides of the cave, whose entrance could be reached only by a ladder, while the Christians, hurling their missiles from their point of vantage into the crowded mass below, punished them so severely that the advance was forced back upon those that crowded the defile in the rear. Al Kamah, finding his army recoiling in dismay and confusion, and discovering too late his error, ordered a retreat; but no sooner had a reverse movement been instituted than the ambushed Christians on the heights began their deadly work, hurling huge stones and fallen trees into the defile, killing the Moslems by hundreds, and choking up the pass until flight became impossible.

The panic was complete. From every side the Christians rushed upon the foe. Pelayo, bearing a cross of oak and crying that the Lord was fighting for his people, leaped downward from the cave, followed by his men, who fell with irresistible fury on the foe, forcing them backward under the brow of Mount Auseva, where Al Kamah strove to make a stand.

The elements now came to the aid of the Christians, a furious storm arising whose thunders reverberated among the rocks, while lightnings flashed luridly in the eyes of the terrified troops. The rain poured in blinding torrents, and soon the Diva, swollen with the sudden fall, rose into a flood, and swept away many of those who were crowded on its slippery banks. The heavens seemed leagued with the Christians against the Moslem host, whose destruction was so thorough that, if we can credit the chronicles, not a man of the proud army escaped.

This is doubtless an exaggeration, but the victory of Pelayo was complete and the first great step in the reconquest of Spain was taken. The year was 717, six years after the landing of the Arabs and the defeat of the Goths.

Thus ended perhaps the most decisive battle in the history of Spain. With it new Spain began. The cave of Covadonga is still a place of pilgrimage for the Spanish patriot, a stairway of marble replacing the ladder used by Pelayo and his men. We may tell what followed in a few words. Their terrible defeat cleared the territory of the Austurias of Moslem soldiers. From every side fugitive Christians left their mountain retreats to seek the standard of Pelayo. Soon the patriotic and daring leader had an army under his command, by whom he was chosen king of Christian Spain.

The Moslems made no further attack. They were discouraged by their defeat and were engaged in a project for the invasion of Gaul that required their utmost force. Pelayo slowly and cautiously extended his dominions, descending from the mountains into the plains and valleys, and organizing his new kingdom in civil as well as in military affairs. All the men under his control were taught to bear arms, fortifications were built, the ground was planted, and industry revived. Territory which the Moslems had abandoned was occupied, and from a group of soldiers in a mountain cavern a new nation began to emerge.

Baronial Castle in Castile


Pelayo died at Caggas de Onis in the year 737, twenty years after his great victory. After his death the work he had begun was carried forward, until by the year 800 the Spanish dominion had extended over much of Old Castile,—so called from its numerous castles. In a hundred years more it had extended to the borders of New Castile. The work of reconquest was slowly but surely under way.