The Order of Santiago and the Re-Conquering of Cáceres

According to legend, the Order of Santiago, the most prestigious military group in the Iberian Peninsula, was founded by king Ramiro I of Asturias the day after his victory at the Battle of Clavijo (May 25th, 846). So decisive was the help of the Apostle Santiago, that the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela was benefitted with the Voto de Santiago; this meant that the Diócesis de Compostela received the first fruits of the harvest from the farmers and a portion of the spoils from the knights from every battle with the moors. It is also said that a cavalry was also founded to protect the pilgrims. However, there are no accounts of this cavalry existing, and if it ever did, it must not have lasted long because there was never any mention of this group in the following centuries.

Ramiro I de Asturias

These events are shrouded in mystery because there are no documents to prove anything. The most widely accepted theory is that the Order of Santiago was formed during the 12th and 13th centuries after the 60 years of continuous fighting between the Moors and Christians for the possession of the Qazires (which is why the Muslims named the city “Cáceres”). Keep in mind that Cáceres was the most fought-over city during the Reconquista.

The city was occupied by the Ilmohade Empire in 1165, when it was taken by surprise by the knight Gerardo Sempavor and an adventurous group of Portuguese that accompanied him. But this fearless warrior was captured four years later during the attack of Badajoz, trading his freedom for the city of Cáceres.

In 1170, king Fernando II returned from Badajoz to León, taking charge of Cáceres. On July 29th, the king Fernando II, the bishop of Salamanca, and 13 knights (the number you get when you add Jesus of Nazareth with his 12 apostles) founded the Order of the Fratres of Cáceres. The honor of being the first master was granted to Pedro Fernández de Castro “the Castillian,” a veteran knight who had done a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he had met the Order of the Temple. This gave him the idea of creating another one of these in León. Fernández de Castro “the Castillian” was the one who had captured Sempavor, who was considered to be the best example of this new congregation of knights who were to stay in charge of the protection of this city.

Gerardo Sempavor

The members of the new Order were initially known as the Freires, or the Knights, of the Sword. For short, they were called “Cáceres y Espaderos” in Cáceres to reaffirm their identification with the city they defended. Their symbol was a blood-red Christina cross in the form of a sword. Their headquarters could have been the round tower on the wall around the palace of the Carvajal.

The Almohade Emir, Abu Jacob Yusuf, sent a great army to recapture the city. On March 10th, 1173, the troops under general Abu Hafs attacked the walls of Cáceres.

The city had been lost, but the last knights refused to surrender. They retreated to a tower where they continued to fight until they were all killed. They were beheaded, and their heads were displayed as trophies and a warning to the Christians. This tower is known as the Tower of Bujaco (a derivation of the name of the Emir). In remembrance of this terrible event, every 10th of March, the Order celebrates the festival of the martyred knights with a mass in their honor.

With no city to defend anymore, the remaining Knights of the Order of Santiago formed an alliance with the regular canons of Saint Augustine. This development meant that the warriors were committed to protecting the Sepulcher of Santiago de Compostela and the pilgrims that came to its city, while the religious would live with the knights of Santiago in a community and they would help them spiritually. The knights would adopt many religious duties (much like monks). These new duties included the vow of poverty, but not the vow of chastity since some of the knights were married.

Torre de Bujaco, Cáceres
Fortificaciones y monasterio de Uclés, en Cuenca.

Expelled from Cáceres and in poor standing with king Fernando II of León, the knights of Santiago went in search of a patron in the kingdom of Castilla, where they also searched for a place to coalesce. In Arévalo, on January 9th of 1174, king Alfonso of Castilla celebrated the solemn act of handing over the castle and the village of Uclés (in Cuenca) to the Master Pedro Fernández as the headquarters for the Order. From then on out, the knights of Santiago ceased to belong only to León. The king of Castilla solidified his influence over the Order by ordering Pope Alexander III to grant a papal bull on July 5th, 1175.

Their link to Castilla and the confrontation with the monarch of León did not stop the Order of Santiago from completing their founding objective. In 1184, the knights helped king Fernando II of León to recapture Cáceres, but it was again lost in 1196. Cáceres became a real obsession for the king and the Order. It was important to the king because it was positioned along the border and served as protection for his kingdom. It was so important for the knights because the it was where they were founded and where their 40 comrades were killed. There was an unsuccessful attempt to take the city in which the knights of Santiago pleaded with the king for the ownership of the city owned by the Almohades. In 1218, the king and the knights of Santiago again besieged the city, but they were forced to abandon the attack. The attacked again in 1222 and 1223. According to legend, the city was taken on the eve of April 23rd, 1229. This is why Saint George is the patron of the city, and since then, there have always been large festivals celebrating the re-taking of the city.

Another theory is that it was conquered on June 24th. There were many lawsuits for two years between king Alfonso IX of León and the Order of Santiago over ownership of the city, ending in the Concordia de Galisteo, named for the castle located in Cacereña where the accord was signed. This gave the king power over the city, but he gave the knights power over the localities of Castrotorafe and Villafáfila and 2,000 maravedíes.

Monasterio de San Marcos, León.

The headquarters of the Order in León was the Monastery of San Marcos (where the first master would be buried). The Castillian headquarters of the Order was in Uclés. The main headquarters became Uclés with the union of the two kingdoms under the rule of Ferdinand III.

Text by Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga and  Ilustrations by Ximena Maier.

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