King of Asturias (718-737)

Pelayo (690-737), was the first King of Asturias (718-737) and the first Christian hero of the Spanish Reconquista. Pelayo is not today considered part of the history of the Visigothic Kingdom, which had been all but destroyed by the Moors by the time he came on the scene. However, his contemporaries didn't see it that way, and his son and successor Favila was actually recognized as Rex Gothorum (King of the Goths) by the Pope.

A nobleman of high birth in the Kingdom of the Visigoths that held power in Spain until its defeat by the Muslims at the Battle of Guadalete in 711, Pelayo refused to accept Islamic overlordship of his homeland. He escaped capture at Guadalete, where he may have been a member of the Visigoth King Roderic's bodyguard, and returned to his native Asturias in the northern part of Spain. He soon became the leader of a rebellion against Munuza, the Moorish governor of the area. 

He was captured in 717 and imprisoned by the Moors, but soon escaped and returned to Asturias, where he defeated Munuza and established the Kingdom of Asturias in 718, with its capital at Cangas de Onis. In accordance with Visigothic custom, he was elected as the his nation's first king by a vote of his countrymen. 

For a few years after that, Pelayo's "kingdom" was more illusory than actual, as he was facing forces much stronger than his own. It wasn't until 722 that his kingdom was secured, when a powerful Muslim force sent to conquer Asturias once and for all was defeated by Pelayo at the Battle of Covadonga. This victory, for which we have only sketchy historical records today, is what made Pelayo a national hero of Spain to this day.


The Battle of Covadonga was the first major victory by a Christian military force in Spain following the Moors' conquest of that country. Taking place most likely in the summer of 722, Pelayo's victory at Covadonga assured the survival of a Christian stronghold in northern Spain, and today is regarded as the beginning of the Reconquista

During 718 and 719, Pelayo and his followers managed to expel Munuza's forces from Asturias. He held the territory against a number of attempts to re-establish Islamic control. Pelayo was unable to keep the Muslims from raiding villages in Asturias, but when they met Pelayo's men, they never could defeat them. As soon as they would leave Asturias, Pelayo would re-establish control. 

Pelayo didn't attempt to force the issue, and it was a Moorish defeat elsewhere that probably set the stage for Covadonga. On July 9, 721, an Islamic force that crossed the Pyrenees and invaded the Kingdom of the Franks was defeated by them near Toulouse, in modern France. The Moors returned to Spain and decided to consolidate their holdings there before taking on the Franks again. One of the key tasks in achieving that would be to destroy Pelayo's rebel stronghold. 

In the late summer of 721, a Moorish general named Alqama led his men into Pelayo's territory and overran much of it, forcing Pelayo to retreat deep into the mountains of Asturias. Pelayo retired into a narrow valley flanked by mountains, from which it was impossible to attack on a broad front, and thus easy to defend. Pelayo may have had no more than 300 men with him at this point. 

Alqama eventually arrived at Covadonga (Cueva honga, or "deep cave") and sent forward an envoy to convince Pelayo to surrender. He refused, so Alqama ordered his best troops into the valley to fight. The Asturians opened up on the Moors from the slopes of the mountains, throwing spears and rocks. While the stunned Moors were trying to avoid the flying projectiles, Pelayo personally led some of his soldiers out into the valley. They had been hiding in a cave, unseen by the Moors. Alqama, who had foolishly marched into the valley, was now surrounded by Pelayo's army. The Christian accounts of the battle claim that the slaughter among the Moors was great, a claim that in this case is probably true. Alqama himself fell in the battle, and what few men survived the assault fled from the battlefield. 

After Covadonga

In the aftermath of Pelayo's victory, the people of the conquered villages of Asturias now emerged with their weapons and killed hundreds of Alqama's fleeing troops. Munuza, learning of the defeat, organized another force and gathered what was left of the survivors of Covadonga. At some later date, he confronted Pelayo and his now greatly augmented force near the modern town of Proaza. Again Pelayo won, and Munuza was killed in the fighting. Although the Muslims in their own histories called Pelayo and his men "thirty wild donkeys", they never again seriously challenged the independence of the Kingdom of Asturias. 

Pelayo died in 737, legend has it that he was killed while fighting a bear. His son Favila succeeded him as king, and the kings of Asturias, Leon, Castile and Spain itself could trace their lineage back to him in some manner for hundreds of years. However, attempts to link him to the royal house of the Visigoths (some sources claim he is the grandson of the Visigothic King Chindaswinth (563-653)) are probably without foundation.

In the photograph: A statue of Don Pelayo, Rey de Asturias, overlooking his capital city of Cangas de Onis. The Asturians regard him as the first king of Spain, often saying that "Asturias is Spain...the rest is just conquered land."

Note: Some of you will notice this text is very similar to that in the Pelayo and Covadonga articles on the Wikipedia. Before you accuse me of stealing from them, please be advised that 1) the Wikipedia is an open-source project; and 2) I wrote both the original articles on that site myself.

Note2: The life of Pelayo is filled with legends and tales of apocryphal origin; he is perhaps modern Spain's greatest national hero. In this account, I have tried to sift through the legends and give what appear to be the facts of his life, his victory over the Moors and his reign as king. I have a great personal admiration for this man, who overcame tremendous odds and became the first Western leader to defeat the forces of Islam. But I have tried to be objective in telling his tale.