Thirteen centuries ago, a small mountain witnessed a kingdom being born

Tradition and History associate the origins of the Kingdom of Asturias with two names: Pelayo and Covadonga, a protagonist and a setting in which, at the start of the 8th century, a series of episodes took place – a reality for some and legend for others -, considered to be the first rebellion of northern Christianity against the Moorish control established on the Peninsula a few years earlier. The Valley of Cangas de Onís, the Picos de Europa and the Auseva mountain, would have witnessed the rebellion chosen by Pelayo as leader -three centuries ago this year-, and which would soon be responsible for the legendary military episode (battle or skirmish), on the slopes of this small mountain.

Picu Priena in Covadonga

Covadonga, a key stage

A rebellion that changed history

The cave of Covadonga and the Auseva mountain, on the rural landscape of the Picos de Europa, form the natural bastion that would protect the people that would rise up against the new government established by the Moors on the peninsula. This first nucleus of resistance -which undoubtedly was not the only one, but perhaps the most successful and the quickest too-, sought protection in a territory they were very familiar with in the Valley of Cangas de Onís and the projection thereof into the mountainous interior.

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Covadonga prior to the military conflict

Although this is not very well known, the history of Covadonga before the military confrontation, is impregnated with traditions relating to Asturian paganism and the Christianisation thereof. It would not be surprising if the current Marian cave were originally a sacred place for some natural divinities, especially female fluvial deities such as Deva - the "mother Goddess"-, who the river that emerges at the bottom of the cave is named after-. It is probable that in the time of Pelayo, it was already a Christianised place such as a prehistoric temple dedicated to the Virgin.

An undisputable leadership

The story of Pelayo is one of indisputable leadership. Despite the difficulties in finding documentary sources dating back to that time, it would appear that he was a charismatic and brave character, capable of addressing the challenges he was forced to assume in 718, with the uprising of the Asturian people who would choose him as their leader. Then came the battle and the triumph over the Muslim army of Alkama, with the Kingdom of Asturias thus taking shape. This was the first chapter of a new stage in European History.

The testimonies between history and legend

The chronicles say that a small group of Christian fighters confronted a numerous Islamic army sent from Córdoba. The Asturians gained strength on the sides of the Auseva Mountain, a strategic place to defeat their enemies who, while fleeing across the Picos de Europa, were either killed by the Asturians or died because of the harsh terrain. Medieval writers believe divine intervention was involved in the events, and thus the legend emerged that spoke of a miraculous victory backed by the Virgin.

The Reconquista route

Today visitors can follow the route taken by the Cordoba troops, seeking the protection of the Picos de Europa, while fleeing. Coming out of the Auseva Mountain, the defeated army of Alkama would have crossed the beautiful landscapes of Orandi, the river Cares, Bulnes, Pandébano, Áliva and Espinama until they arrived at Cosgaya, where a landslide from the Subiedes mountain ended up throwing the last survivors of the expedition into the river Deva. View the route

King Pelayo

Pelayo, "the first king of Hispania"

The founder of a lineage

Therefore, the 15th century historian, Pere Tomic, recognising that he legitimately held "the first title of King of Hispania", would refer to Pelayo as such. As well-known as mysterious, since there are few documented certainties regarding the life of Pelayo, he was perhaps a representative of the local Asturian elite, or perhaps a noble fugitive Goth of regal lineage and probably a man with strong family roots among the Asturian people. He may have even been subject to the authority of the Muslim prefect of Gijón and exercised some form of authority at his service after the fall of the Visigoth kingdom. Pelayo would end up leading the revolt (718), which culminated in the battle of Covadonga (722), establishing a small nucleus of power in the hamlet of Cánicas, now Cangas de Onís: thus, the Kingdom of Asturias was born.

Engraving of King Pelayo

An enigmatic figure

A shroud of mystery and intrigue that disappears into the shadow of time, surrounds the figure of Pelayo. However, the image defined is one of a magnate, possibly of Hispano-Roman or Romanised-Goth descent, with properties and prestige in the central-eastern region of Asturias, who may have had positions of responsibility during the last years of the Gothic kingdom and who initially would serve the Muslim governor established in Gijón, after the Islamic conquest of the Asturian region in 714.

Engraving of Pelayo and his soldiers in Covadonga

Election as leader of the revolt

The prestige of Pelayo among the Asturian people led them to choose him to lead a resistance group in 718 against the Muslim governor of Gijón, which took place at the foothills of the Picos de Europa. Pelayo would lead a revolt, possibly caused by an increase in levies established by the conquerors after a few years of rule, however, certain historical accounts suggest the origin of the revolt was the shameful marriage proposal of the Muslim governor Munnuza to Pelayo's sister.

Engraving of Pelayo and his wife Gaudiosa

Pelayo's family

The story of Pelayo, reported in articles and tradition, give particular relevance to various women in his family. Firstly, one of his sisters -the name of whom is not known, although in a false document, he is named Dosinda or Adosinda- would have been the cause of the Asturian rebellion, as a result of being courted by the Muslim prefect from Gijón, Munnuza. We also know that Pelayo would marry a woman whose name is revealed by his first epitaph in Abamia: Gaudiosa. Apart from his son Favila, they would have a daughter named Ermesinda, who would provide continuity through marriage to the Pelayo lineage when her brother died, through her marriage to Alfonso I, son of Pedro, Duke of Cantabria.

Church of Santa Eulalia de Abamia

The mystery that surrounded his burial

Nineteen years after his leadership, Pelayo died in Canicas in 737. According to the bishop Pelayo from Oviedo, from the 12th century, he was buried in the nearby church of Santa Eulalia de Abamia, with his wife, Gaudiosa. Tradition claims that his remains were transferred five centuries later, under the orders of Alfonso X to the Holy Grotto of Covadonga, where there is a tomb, dating back to the 16th century, which claims to contain his remains and those of his sister Dosinda.

Canicas: "minima urbium, máxima sedium"

Cangas de Onís, "the smallest of cities, the biggest of capitals"

"The smallest of cities, the biggest of capitals" goes the motto of the shield -although a modern creation- of Cangas de Onís. It thus reflects the historic importance that the small village of Canicas had in the founding times of the Kingdom of Asturias. Cangas de Onís went down in history as the first capital of that Kingdom and still today it highlights the mark of those first governors that it had and the notable events that took place there.

Cangas de Onís from Llueves
Favila and the bear
The church of Santa Cruz
Romanesque facade of San Pedro de Villanueva
Kingdom of Asturias Learning Centre

A symbol of Asturias and a constant source of creativity

Pelayo and Covadonga represent the essence of a cultural identity

Pelayo and Covadonga constitute the founding tale of the origins of a Kingdom that is the precedent of the medieval peninsular kingdoms, the origin of our country as a historical reality and even the beginning of a Reconquista mission which would be consecrated as an identifying element due to excellence. Therefore, since the period of the Asturian Monarchy, Pelayo has been recognised as its origin.

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Roman bridge of Cangas de Onís

The Cruz de la Victoria and the Roman Bridge, also known as the Puentón, in Cangas de Onís, represent unequivocal symbols of the History of Asturias. The Roman Bridge is located on the river Sella, which also has a strong link to the life of Pelayo and his achievements and from its main arch hangs an enormous Victory Cross which reminds us of the historic and already mythical episode which gave rise to the birth of a small kingdom, which had its first headquarters in the forever hospitable Canicas, today Cangas de Onís.

Commemorative postcard of the proclamation of Felipe de Borbón as Prince of Asturias

Pelayo and Covadonga and the story of his epic accomplishment -although very often drenched by legend-, has become a real symbol of identity over the centuries of the entire region of Asturias. The achievements of Pelayo and the Asturian people are represented on many emblems and shields of the towns and councils of Asturias and such a deep-rooted historical symbol such as the Cruz de la Victoria, are related to an alleged cross raised by Pelayo in Covadonga. The Spanish monarchy, despite the dynastic changes over the centuries, are rooted in Pelayo and Covadonga. Since the 14th century, the heir to the Spanish throne has held the title of Prince of Asturias and it was in the Sanctuary where Spain's current king, Felipe VI, was sworn in as Prince of Asturias in 1977.

Film poster: This is Asturias. Photograph: Pueblo de Asturias Museum

The playwrights, poets, novelists, musicians and filmmakers who have had the myth of Pelayo and Covadonga as an inspiring element are numerous. Since the Renaissance and the Spanish Golden Age until now, works of theatre of epic, comic, tragic and romantic themes have fed the world of culture. In addition, poets have seen in Pelayo and the tale of Mount Auseva an inspiration for their verses and names as illustrious as Espronceda or Campoamor have let themselves be seduced by this myth of myths.

Cinema and music have also found their creative stimulus in this mysterious and charismatic story and Pelayo has even been the protagonist of an opera.

Tourism promotion poster for Spain in the year 1929 Photograph: Pueblo de Asturias Museum

The mountains of Covadonga, the Cave, the Basilica, the landscapes of Picos de Europa, the people...This already eternal myth has definitely been recreated a hundred times in the visual arts. Paintings, engravings, sculptures, shields, photographs, posters, labels, etc. have been the support that has disseminated this great story throughout the whole world, making imagination and creativity the best instruments for showing all the beauty and uncountable nuances of an event that many centuries later -thirteen- continues to be an endless source of inspiration.