• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Unlikely Beginnings: How St James became Spain’s Patron Saint



Outside Rome the West lacked the relics of important apostles. This was rectified in Venice by the theft of St Mark the Evangelist from Muslim Alexandria in AD 828. Not to be outdone by the Adriatic pirates, however, the Spanish promptly discovered St James the Greater’s tomb at the Galician fishing town of Padron at some point between 818-42.


While Venice’s theft was a rather naked manoeuvre for greater ecclesiastical and geopolitical status – an act covered up in a desultory manner with silly tales about St Mark snoozing in a boat, dreaming of a future Venice – the Spanish kingdoms made a more concerted effort to graft a backstory. While the latter might include miracles and other improbable events, such things are trifles to the triune God and therefore blunt the cynical weapons of scholarship. Rather than do a Humean hit-job on the tale’s supernatural elements then, it is far more interesting to assess how the Christian narrative developed and gained such force.


The early twelfth-century Historia Compostellana provides the best summary of this story. In short, St James spread the Gospel in Spain, returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred, and then his disciples carried his body back to Spain. The problem with this account is that early Church tradition stated his martyrdom occurred in AD 44 and recorded no departure from Palestine. Moreover, St Paul expressed his desire to visit Spain (Romans 15:24) straight after mentioning that he did “not wish to build upon another man’s foundation.” Traditions can be fickle, however. Indeed, Latins seeking an equally prestigious apostolic footprint to the Eastern Romans can be prodigiously inventive creatures. The Breviarium Apostolorum, for example, written c. 600 (Julian of Toledo and Aldhelm both referenced it) lists the apostles and the key events of their lives.[1] It was essentially a Latin translation of a Byzantine original ruined (or “ornamented” depending on your loyalty to Constantinople) by lots of Western bumf. The text’s transparent role was to pretend the Occident had enjoyed more than its fair share of revelation i.e. God’s attention. An endeavour that led the overenthusiastic author to place St Philip in Gaul and St James in Spain.

This, in turn, was picked up by a scribe who interpolated this passage from the Breviarium into a treatise known as De ortu et obitu patrum, a text subsequently misattributed to Isidore of Seville.[2] The great prelate was not above believing St James had preached in Spain but never claimed he had been buried there. Once these notions had filtered down to local culture, the masses took the association and ran with it (into the mountains). A hymn in honour of St James became popular in the Asturian kingdom immediately after the Islamic invasions (c. 780). St. James becomes “the shining golden head of Spain” (caput refulgens aureum Ispanie); he is “possessed of Spain” (potitus Ispania). He is the guardian and patron (tutor, patronus) “to us” (nobis).[3] Meanwhile, in the cloisters monks like Beatus of Liebana (d. 798) were unafraid to put St James next to Spain in prologues to their commentaries. Tenth-century manuscripts (now at Gerona) depicted the apostles and unabashedly captioned the apostle as “Iacobus, Spania.”[4] The stage was perfectly set for St James’ relics to be “discovered” beneath a cluster of shooting stars in deepest, darkest Galicia, silencing the burial naysayers at one fell swoop. The location of the relics was not without significance (political intrigue?) given the see of Iria (modern-day Padron) was a rare creature in that it was founded at the behest of a group of Byzantine ecclesiastics who arrived from Jerusalem 435.


Almost immediately, texts like the mid-ninth century Martyrology of Usuard of Saint-Germain-des-Pres began to note that St James’ remains “were translated from Jerusalem to Spain and deposited in its outermost regions, there they are revered by the people of those parts.” And bishops (such as Theodomir d. 847) sought to be buried not at their episcopal churches but at the tomb of St James, whose city was named after him (Santiago is a vernacular contraction of Sanctus Iacobus). Archaeology adds a conspiratorial dimension by uncovering Christian graves and a large shrine dating to c.400 in the area around St James’ remains. This fact ultimately throws up more questions than answers. Only a heretic like Priscillian of Avila (d. 385) was big enough to draw such grandeur, devotion and fanaticism and, fittingly, Galicia was the heartland of his gnostic doctrine.[5] St James might have been invented as an orthodox counter-blow with his presence indicating the Galicians had an orthodox figure of which to be equally proud. And when that didn’t work (countless bishops were vexed about the stubbornness of Priscillianism deep into the seventh century) his relics were uncovered.


St James was not plucked out of thin air, however. On the contrary, his cult already thrived in the some of the most important cities in western Spain such as Merida (founded in AD 25 by the fifth and tenth legions). There a large dedication stone dating to the Visigothic period has been discovered at the church of St Mary. With the Islamic invasion of the early eighth century, large numbers of Christian flocked north, almost exactly at the same time St James’ cult reached critical mass among the people. This would not have been an isolated event. St Eulalia, for instance, was translated from Merida to Oviedo, taking her cult with her. St Leocadia was taken from Toledo (the closest city the Visigoths had to capital) and enshrined at Oviedo too. Later sources then attributed victories against the Islamic foe to St James’ intervention. Most famously Clavijo (844), a literary reinvention – complete with St James the Matamoros [Moorslayer] – of Monte Laturce (859).[6] Sadly, these reimaginings had a lot less to do with popular piety than ecclesiastical rights as Santiago struggled to uphold its privileges against the ancient metropolitanates that the Cluniac reforms supported. By having its apostle win battles for kings who then bestowed powers on Santiago – no matter how spurious these claims – its bishops’ powers were bolstered.


The project had the support of kings like Alfonso III (r. 848-910) who busied himself framing St James as the sponsor of his victories, organized the second council of Oviedo (893), elaborated the Cross of Victory (the original had been the wooden cross that Pelayo had fought the initial Reconquista beneath according to legend) now part of the Asturian flag, and oversaw the production of three chronicles. Furthermore, he gave a golden processional cross to the church of St James, its inscription – strongly redolent of Constantine’s message – read “Hoc signo vincitur inimicus. Hoc signo tuetur pius.” And rebuilt St James’ church at Compostela (under the supervision of the bishop Sisnando) as a ninety-foot basilica decorated with marbles and columns transported from Roman sites.[7] The king also, in bargaining for a rich crown to be sent to him from the clergy of Tours, promised several riches and – more importantly to us – disclosed how he ruled over the shrine of St James of Zebedee, a place of miracles and a destination for pilgrims. Given the ruler was forced to explain its importance outside Spain, however, it is safe to assume that in the late ninth century St James’ was still a regional cult.


The question remains, however, why Alfonso allowed St James to remain at Santiago when almost every other important saint in Spain had been hoovered up by the Asturian urbs regia, the royal city of Oviedo. The answer probably relies on the fact that when a Dark Age state (such as Wessex) expanded, the most efficient way to retain regional loyalty was not to smuggle their holy men into citadels like chattel but to heap them high with privileges and patronage. In such a manner was the favour of both the saint and the (local) people won. St James, first as a nationalized apostle and then – more concretely – as his physical relics, may initially have served the purpose of eradicating the influence of Priscillian or perhaps a Priscillianist (or maybe a minor figure who cut no ice in the merciless world of ecclesiastical geopolitics) who lay at Santiago from the early fifth century onwards. The saint then became important as a figure who attracted the royal patronage of Asturian kings as a way of co-opting the unruly Galicians (who’d rebelled under both Fruela the Cruel and Silo) into an alliance against the Islamic foe. What could not be achieved by the sword was mediated through positive channels: first, bishops, often of Asturian origin; second, by sharing the newly conquered spoils of northern Portugal and the plains of Leon with his new Galician partners.



[1] B. de Gaiffier, 'Le Breviarium Apostolorum (B.H.L. 652). “Tradition manuscrite et œuvres apparentées,” Analecta Bollandiana 81 (1963), 89-116; M. C. Díaz y Díaz, 'Die spanische Jakobus-Legende bei Isidor von Seville', Historisches Jahrbuch 77 (1958), 467-72; J. van Herwaarden, 'The origins of the cult of St. James of Compostela', Journal of Medieval History 6 (1980), 1-35.

[2] Patrologia Latina, LXXXIII, col. 151.

[3] M. C. Díaz y Díaz, “Los himnos en honor de Santiago de la liturgia hispánica,” Compostellanum II (1966), 457-502; repr. De Isidoro al siglo XI (1976), 237-88.

[4] Sancti Beati a Liebana in Apocalypsin codex Gerundensis (1962).

[5] H. Chadwick, Priscillian of Avila (1976), 150, 224-30.

[6] T. D. Kendrick, Saint James in Spain (London, 1960).

[7] P. de Palol & M. Hirmer, Early medieval art in Spain (1967), 40.

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