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Pelayo of Asturias

Pelagius (Spanish: Pelayo; c. 685 – 737) was a Visigothic nobleman who founded the Kingdom of Asturias, ruling it from 718 until his death. Through his victory at the Battle of Covadonga, he is credited with beginning the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. He established an independent Christian state in opposition to Moorish hegemony, but there is no strong evidence that he intended to resuscitate the old Visigothic Kingdom, or was motivated by any religious desire.

The chief sources for Pelagius's life and career are two Latin chronicles written in the late ninth century in the kingdom he founded. The first is the Chronica Albeldensia, written at Albelda towards 881, and preserved in the Codex Vigilanus, with a continuation to 976.[1] The later is the Chronicle of Alfonso III, which was revised in the early tenth century and preserved in two textual traditions that diverge in several key passages[1]: the Chronica Rotensis, preserved in the Roda Codex,[2] and the Chronica ad Sebastianum,[3] supposedly written by Sebastian, Bishop of Salamanca (910–913).[4] The only likely earlier sources from which these chroniclers could derive information are regnal lists.[5]

Pelagius was a Visigoth nobleman, the son of Fafila. The Chronica Albeldensis says that this Fafila was a dux of Gallaecia, who was killed by Wittiza.[5] The Chronicle of Alfonso III identifies Pelagius as a grandson of Chindasuinth and says that his father was blinded in Córdoba, at the instigation of Wittiza.[6] Wittiza is also said to have exiled Pelagius from Toledo upon assuming the crown in 702. All of this, however, is a late tradition.[6]

According to the later tradition, Munuza, the Berber governor of Iegione (either Gijón or León), became attracted to Pelagius' sister and sent word to Tariq ibn Ziyad, who ordered him to capture Pelagius and send him to Córdoba.[7] That Munuza's seat was at Gijón or León is sufficient to demonstrate that the Arabs had established their rule in the Asturias and that Pelagius was not the leader of a local resistance to Arab conquest.[8] Rather, Pelagius may have come to terms with the Arab elite whereby he was permitted to govern locally in the manner of the previous Visigoths, as is known to have occurred between Arab rulers and Visigothic noblemen elsewhere, as in the case of Theudimer.[9]

At some point Pelagius is said to have rebelled, but for what reasons is unknown; such rebellions by local authorities against their superiors formed a common theme in Visigothic Spain. An army was sent against him under the command of Alkama and the Christian bishop of Seville, Oppa. That Alkama was the general and that there was a bishop of Seville named Oppa among his ranks is generally accepted.[7] A battle was fought near Covadonga (in monte Auseva or in monte Libana) in which Alkama was killed and Oppa captured.[7] Moorish chronicles of the event describe Pelagius and his small force as "thirty wild donkeys", as reported by al-Maqqari in the 17th century.[10][11] The battle is usually dated to 718 or 719, between the governorships of al-Hurr and as-Sham, though some have dated it as late as 722 and the Chronica Albeldensia mis-dates it to the 740s.

After his election as princeps (prince, principal leader) of the Asturians by the local magnates in the Visigothic manner,[9] Pelagius made his capital at Cangas de Onís. The Chronica Rotensis says about this election:[12]

And he [Pelagius], going to his mountainous lands, gathered all those who were going to council and ascended a big mountain named Asseuua. He spread his orders between all the Astures, who gathered in council and elected Pelagius as their princeps.

Chronica Rotensis[2]

His kingdom, firstly centred on the eastern Asturias, soon grew. He married his daughter Ermesinda to the future king Alfonso I, son of Pelagius' eastern neighbour, Duke Peter of Cantabria.[13] Pelagius reigned for eighteen or nineteen years until his death in 737, when he was succeeded by his son Fafila.[14]

He was buried in the church of Santa Eulalia de Abamia, located in the surroundings of the village of Corao, near Cangas de Onís. His remains were transferred by King Alfonso X of Castile to the Holy Cave of Covadonga, as were those of his wife Gaudiosa and his sister.[15]

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New title King of Asturias
718–737
Succeeded by
Favila
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