Kingdom of León
The city of León was founded by the Roman Seventh Legion (for unknown reasons always written as Legio Septima Gemina, or 'twin seventh legion'). It was the headquarters of that legion in the late empire and was a center for trade in gold which was mined at Las Médulas nearby. In 540 the city was conquered by the Arian Visigothic king Leovigild, who did not harass the Catholic Christian population, which was well established, though the earliest names on the bishop-lists for León are largely legendary. In 717 it fell again, this time to the Moors. However it was one of the first cities retaken during the reconquest and became part of the Kingdom of Asturias in 742. It was a small town but the surviving Roman walls bear the medieval walling upon them.
In 913 an independent Kingdom of León was founded when the Christian princes of Asturias along the northern coast of the peninsula shifted their main seat from Oviedo to the city of León. They turned their back on the unnavigable Atlantic, infested with Vikings and sea monsters, and settled in the meseta, the high tableland of central Spain.
Almost immediately León began to expand to the south and east, securing the newly gained territory with numerous castles. The newly added area was the County of Burgos until the 930s, at which time Count Fernán González began a campaign to expand Burgos and make it independent and hereditary. He took upon himself the title King of Castile, after the numerous castles in the area, and continued expanding his kingdom at the expense of León by allying with the Caliphate of Cordoba, until 966, when he was stopped by Sancho .
Constant rivalry between the two kingdoms opened rifts that could be exploited by outsiders, and Sancho the Great of Navarre (1004-35) absorbed Castile in the 1020s, and added León in the last year of his life, leaving Galicia to temporary independence. In the division of lands which followed his death, his son Fernando succeeded to the county of Castile. Two years later, in 1037, he conquered León and Galicia. For nearly thirty years, until his death in 1065, he ruled over a combined kingdom of León-Castile as Ferdinand I of Leon. In these clashes in an impoverished and isolated culture, where salt-making and a blacksmith's forge counted as industries, the armies that decided the fate of the kingdoms numbered in the hundreds of fighting men.
Directly to the south of León lay the incalculably rich, sophisticated and powerful Caliphate of Cordoba, like a Western Byzantium. Internal dissensions divided Andalusian loyalties in the 11th century, so that the impoverished Christians who had been sending tribute to the Caliphate, found themselves in a position to demand payments (parias) instead, in return for favours to particular factions or as simple extortion. Thus, though scarcely influenced by the culture of the successor territories of the former Caliphate, Ferdinand I followed the example of the counts of Barcelona and the kings of Aragon, and became hugely wealthy from its gold coinage. When he died in 1065, his territories and the parias were split among his three sons, of whom Garcia emerged the victor, in the classic fratricidal strife common to feudal successions.
Who in Europe would have known of this immense new wealth in a kingdom so isolated that its bishops had virtually no contact with Rome? —except that Ferdinand and his heirs, the kings of Leon-Castile, became the greatest benefactors of the Abbey of Cluny, where Abbot Hugh (died 1109) undertook construction of the huge third abbey church, the cynosure of every eye. The Way of Saint James called pilgrims from Western Europe to the supposed tomb of Saint James the Great in Santiago de Compostela, and the large hostels and churches along the route, encouraged building. in the Romanesque style.
The taking of Toledo (May 6, 1085) by Alfonso VI is a turning point in the development of Leon-Castile and the first major milestone in the Reconquista. Christian Mozarabs from Al-Andalus had come north to populate the deserted frontier lands, and the traditional view of Spanish history has been that they brought with them the remains of Visigothic and Classical culture, and a new ideology of Reconquista, a crusade against the Moors. Modern historians see the fall of Toledo as marking a basic change in relations with the Moorish south, turning from extortion of annual tribute to territorial expansion. Alfonso was drawn into local politics by strife within Toledo, but then found himself faced unfamiliar problems of settling garrisons in the small Muslim strongholds dependent on Toledo, which had fallen to him with the city, and the appointment of a Catholic bishop. Revised definitions of the role of a Catholic king faced with the independent Muslim client-states that bought him off with gold had to be worked out in timely fashion by a Catholic king now governing sophisticated urban Muslim subjects.
The two kingdoms of León and Castile were split again around 1195, when a major defeat of Alfonso VIII weakened the authority of Castile, but the lands were reunited in 1230 under Ferdinand III. The Atlantic coastal province separated as the independent Kingdom of Portugal. Though later kings of Castile continued to take the title King of León as the superior title, and to use a lion as part of their standard, the history of Leon after 1230 can be followed at "Castile", and locally at entries for the individual cities of León. The Romance Astur-Leonese language was being susbtituted by Castilian. Under a unified Spanish kingdom, in the 16th century León became a captaincy-general.
The modern province of León was founded in 1833. It has its own entry.
Kings of Leon
- Alfonso III of Leon, (838-910), 866-910 surnamed "the Great"
- Garcia I of Leon 910-914
- Ordono II of Galicia 910-924 and of León 914-924
- Fruela II of Asturias 910-925 and of León 924-925
- Alfonso IV of Leon, (died 933), 925-931
- Ramiro II of Leon -- 931-951
- Ordono III of Leon -- 950-956
- Sancho I of Leon -- 956-958 and 960-966
- Ordono IV of Leon -- 958-960
- Ramiro III of Leon -- 967-984
- Bermudo II of Leon -- 982-999
- Alfonso V of Castile -- 999-1028
- Bermudo III of Leon -- 1028-1037
- Ferdinand I the Great, (died 1065), 1035-1065
- R.A. Fletcher, The Episcopate in the Kingdom of Léon in the Twelfth Century: Chapter 1 gives the cultural context of earlier and 12th century Léon.