The story of Pelayo and Covadonga
Pelayo was said to be the son of a noble, the Duke of Favila, who was a member of the royal court of King Egica during the times of the Visigoths. Pelayo was a mercenary (common in those days) and he became a skilled soldier and leader whilst fighting with the Visigoths.
By the early eight century the Islamic Moors has conquered and occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula with only a few northern kingdoms like Asturias and Galicia outside their grasp. By this time the days of the Visigoth’s empire were all but numbered and after a defeat by the Moors, Pelayo retreated to the Kingdom of Asturias where he was to set up his base and his famous resistance.
Based most probably in what is now Cangas de Onis (a few kilometers from Covadonga), Pelayo was able to motivate a resistance to the Moorish advance which, in 722 AD saw his small Asturian resistance fend off and defeat an attack by the Moors. This event had huge significance as it was the first true defeat of the Moors and signaled the turning of the tide and a change in the future of Asturian and Spanish history.
The Spanish would continue to drive the Moors out of Spain and reclaim their country and religion, although the complete victory would take over 700 years to achieve.
Many differing and conflicting stories have emerged about Pelayo’s victory and the subsequent “reconquista” of Spain by its indigenous people. Some accounts say that this was the first of a number of violent skirmishes which Pelayo and his followers eventually won, whilst many muslims still deny this victory and one claim says that Pelayo only had thirty or so followers.
The undisputed fact does however remain that this moment signaled the start of the Moors being driven out of Spain and no explanation other than that of Pelayo and his followers’ heroics offers a logical and historically viable description of events.
The significance of Covadonga
The reason for the Grotto, chapel and basilica at Covadonga are also bathed in legend.
Covadonga translates to “the grotto of our lady” and the story goes as follows.
Some time before Pelayo was to achieve his destiny he chased and captured a criminal in a small cave set in to the vertical face of mount Auseva. The cave held a valuable image of “our lady” and was guarded and tended by a hermit. As Pelayo raised his sword and was about to slay the criminal, the hermit pleaded for Pelayo to be merciful and spare the man’s life. The hermit told Pelayo that he himself may one day seek the help of the grotto, suggesting that an act of mercy now may be rewarded in the future.
In legend, and most probably in fact, it was this same cave where Pelayo and his followers sought refuse from, and refused to surrender to, the Moors. Consequently, this is where the first successful resistance to the Moors conquest of Iberia took place and it has been written into history ever since.
When Pelayo (who was made king of Asturias) died, his remains were initially buried in Corao. They were however later moved to the grotto and his casket is visible today. A gold and jewel encrusted cross, which played a role in Pelayo’s coronation, is also still intact and is held on display in Oviedo at the city’s Holy Chamber.