Monday, December 8, 2008

Covadonga: The Christian Resistance to the Umayyad Conquest of Spain and the importance of terrain in War

For today’s update I thought it would a good idea to cover the Battle of Covadonga or Cova Dominica (the Cave of Our Lady) as a good example of what I think is a good lesson on the importance of terrain in warfare. At Covadonga a vastly inferior force of Visigoths and Astures (a native Iberian people) used the mountainous terrain around them to defeat a much larger force dispatched by the local Umayyad authorities in AD 722.

Background and the Early Resistance:

In 711 a mostly mounted Berber raiding force from North Africa led by Tariq ibn Ziyad encountered and destroyed the army of the Visigothic King Roderik along with all of his greatest nobles at Guadalete. The Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania, racked by civil war and domestic problems for the past several decades, collapsed upon itself. By the following year the entire region was under Islamic control by a mixture of military force and the Visigoth nobility’s own willingness to work with the new Umayyad authorities.

One such noble was Pelagius, now known by the Spanish from of his name, Don Pelayo. Pelagius was dux (or Duke) of the difficult region of Asturias in the far north of Hispania. Asturias was home of the difficult Astur clans, who while Romanized maintained their own traditions and independent streak. When news arrived of Roderik’s death in battle he submitted to Umayyad authority but secretly began to accept refugees once the persecutions began.

But outright rebellion did not occur until years later, in 718. The exact circumstances of Pelagius’ rebellion are unclear, but probably are a mixture of factors. Tradition states that one factor was the suicide of his sister Ermesinde, who Pelagius had wed to the local Muslim functionary Munuza, on the night of her wedding. In any case Pelagius’ uprising soon caused the local authorities a headache.

Islamic troops could enter Asturias at will but could not track down or fight Pelagius’ quick moving guerrilla forces. Just as they think they had him, the Visigoth would melt into the mountains where they could not follow. The rebellion gained steam when a neighboring lord joined Pelagius in Asturias. But little attention was paid to the Asturian Rebellion as greater conquests were occurring over the Pyrenees Mountains in Gaul as Umayyad forces overran the Kingdom of Gallia and appeared poised to overrun the Western Franks in Aquitaine as well

But the Muslims were in for a surprise. On June 9th, 721 the Western Franks of dux Odo the Great surrounded and destroyed the Muslim forces at Tolosa (modern Toulouse) and the governor-general of al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Hispania) died from his wounds. The new governor-general, al-Kalbi, raised excessive taxes to cover the extensive losses suffered in Gaul. The taxes drove the population into rebellion, and Pelagius became bold enough to strike outside of Asturias itself. The authorities realized that something had to be done and planned to make an example of Pelagius, sending an expedition to defeat him under the Berber general al-Qama.

The Battle itself:

Pelagius reacted quickly. While probably not expecting to be confronted directly by the Umayyads the rebellion, as it did before, retreated into the mountain ranges of Asturias as al-Qama’s army, numbering 800 in all, entered the province. Pelagius refused to fight unless it was on ground and in circumstances of his own choosing and he led his pursuers through a series of mountain valleys before arriving at a large cave, now known as Covadonga. While waiting for the Muslims to arrive he divided his meager forces, putting his personal retinue or comitatus, inside the cave itself with putting the rest on the slopes of the valley.

As the Umayyad forces entered the area, their numerical advantage nullified by the small space in which to fight, the Astures on the slopes opened fire with arrows and other missiles. The Muslims quickly became bunched up in their panic, unwilling to enter the caves and unable to go backward. At the decisive moment, as the chaos reached its peak and al-Qama himself had arrived in the valley, the Visigoths in the cave burst from cover.

With their heavy armor an advantage in such close quarters the Visigoths slaughtered the bunched Arabs and Berbers. Once al-Qama fell the Muslim forces fled, and Pelagius harried them straight out of Asturias. The Muslim force was still mostly intact, as they were unable to deploy in full in the mountains, but Pelagius had chosen his ground and the circumstances well. He did not need to destroy them as in a conventional battle. Just discourage them. For his own part Pelagius suffered losses that would have been fatal in other circumstances. Of his estimated 300 men, only 30 survived.


The battle, despite its small size, was just enough. While Muslim chronicles refer to Pelagius as a wild donkey his victory would have long lasting repercussions. The population of Asturias rose in revolt and cast out the remaining Umayyad garrisons. Other Christian nobles soon joined his banner and elected him King. The Reconquista had begun.

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