Beginning in 1 BC, the Roman Empire set up a legion in what is today León, Spain. This basic military camp served as a fortress to protect Rome's interest in its most Western territories in Hispania. Specifically, Rome was interested in this region because of its abundance in gold, most notably from a site called Las Médulas (pictured above), located near the city of Ponferrada just west of León. This site served as one of Rome's most important gold mines following large scale production which began during 1 AD.
The name León derives from the Roman Legio (Legion), and the first legion in León was Legio VI Victrix, created by famous Roman Emperor Octavian in 41 BC. In León, this legion first set up an encampment officially in 29 BC. By the time gold production took off early in 1 AD, a more fortified encampment was built, complete with Roman walls, in-roads and gates, in order to protect themselves and the extracted gold from neighboring tribes, the Astures and Cantabrians. Today, several of these Roman walls as well as the in-roads and gates still stand in León. The city would expand and evolve over time but its Roman roots would never be forgotten. In fact, I walk through what was the ancient Roman encampment/fortress en route to class everyday. The fortress, itself, stretches six or seven blocks within the city and is designated for pedestrian use only, although, vehicles can pay to enter since the ancient encampment drastically separates the different parts of the city. Imagine a U.S. city where six or seven blocks in the downtown area are blocked off by 40-foot ancient, Roman walls and only three or four entrances exist to enter this area. And let's say you work on one side of the enclosed area and live of the other. Perhaps, paying a small fee to drive through this area could save some time instead of having to drive around the area. But I digress.
Roman Walls in León
During the Roman Empire's golden era, León served as an important outpost in Hispania and obviously as a vital exporter of gold to Rome. Despite the decline of the Roman Empire that began in 476 AD, León remained a Roman entity for several decades. In 540, however, León fell to Liuvigild, King of the Visigoths.
The ancient Roman courtyard in the city of León
The Visigoths were extremely instrumental in the decline of the Roman Empire (they demolished Rome in 410), but their long-term historical presence in Europe was short-lived, especially in León. Following their Roman destruction in 410, they established the Kingdom of the Visigoths in what is today southern France and the entire Iberian Peninsula. In France, they were defeated by the Franks in 507 and established a more permanent kingdom in Spain and Portugal. By this time, the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania) was open to Visigothic rule as the Roman presence had drastically declined. Thus, the Kingdom of Hispania was established, but their rule would only last several decades. However, the Visigoths contributed several churches and artifacts to Spanish history and King Liuvigild was an important figure in creating peace between the Visigothic people and the Hispano-Roman population. Although, the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans differed on their Christian beliefs (Visigoths were Arian, Hispano-Romans were Roman Catholic), Liuvigild created a code of equal rights, Codex Revisus or the Code of Liuvigild that helped unify his people and prevent significant turmoil.
The Visogothic Kingdom of Hispania before Muslim invasion in 700
The Brief Muslim Takeover
Despite Liuvigild's powerful unification of the Iberian Peninsula, León and the rest of the peninsula were overtaken again at the beginning of the 8th century, this time by Moorish (Muslim) forces. The Moors were from Northern Africa, often times referred to as the Berber-Muslims of present-day Morocco. By this time in history, Islam had quickly spread across the Middle East and Northern Africa from Mecca, and as the Moors overtook Iberia it became a symbol of Islam's first initiative into Europe. León, itself, fell to Moorish forces in 711 but Christian forces recaptured the city as soon as 742. The rest of the peninsula; however, would be populated by Moorish forces for over 700 years.
The Kingdom of León
Under Visigothic rule, León was part of a territory known as Astura. After the Moors were driven out, León became a part of the Kingdom of Asturas, a Christian kingdom. Asturian king, Alfonso the Great, eventually divided the kingdom into three separate entities, for each of his sons to rule. The Kingdom of León was inherited by Garcia I in 911 and under Ordoño II, León became the capital city in 914. Today, there is street in León named after Ordoño II found near the center of the city and stretches across the River Bernesga. Ordoño II was a military leader and led several expeditions south into Muslim territory during his ten-year reign.
However, it was Ramiro II (his reign was from 931-951) who would become the greatest military leader in the kingdom's history, receiving the nickname "the devil" from Muslim forces. His greatest contribution was his creation of a significant land barrier between the Christian kingdoms in the north of the peninsula and the Muslim-ruled cities in the south.
The Christian Kingdoms of northern Iberia circa 925, prior to Ramiro II's advances south
These northern, Christian kingdoms had now established firm separation from Muslim forces by 1000; however, fighting and conquering erupted internally between each other, ultimately resulting in the dominance of the Kingdom of León, after several kingdoms merged while others disintegrated following various throne changes and feuds. Thus, by 1037, the Kingdom of León stretched westward from the coast to the Kingdom of Castile just west of the city of León.
The Kingdom of León circa 1037
In 1077, one of the most important Christian rulers in Iberia came into power as the King of León. His name was Alfonso VI and he would later conquer all of Galicia and Castile becoming the Emperor of all Spain. In addition, Alfonso VI captured Toledo from Muslim forces in 1085 marking a significant change in relations between the Muslims and Christians in Iberia. Prior to this defeat, the Muslims had lost some ground in Iberia and were paying tribute to the Christian kingdoms to avoid further exploitation. After the capture of Toledo, however, the Christian kingdoms saw fit to expand significantly beyond Toledo ushering in the era of the Reconquista. Despite this significant progress for the Christian kingdoms, Alfonso VI had political trouble dealing with the mixture of Muslims and Christians in the newly obtained Toledo. Up until the end of his rule in 1109, he struggled with maintaining order as the grand Emperor of Spain but is always remembered as initiating the Reconquista which eventually resulted in the complete eradication of the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.
Following Alfonso VI's death in 1109, his unification of Spain fell into shambles and the kingdoms of Castile and León separated once again in 1157. León as a kingdom was losing ground and its best days were behind it. However, the last two kings of an independent Kingdom of León, Ferdinand II and Alfonso XI, made significant contributions to not only their kingdom but Europe as a whole.
First, Ferdinand II began expansion southward and conquered the city of Mérida. Alfonso XI finished the job by taking all of Extramedura, today an autonomous region in western Spain that borders Portugal. In addition, Alfonso XI is considered Spain's first "modern king" as he created the University of Salamanca and made other modern contributions, most notably the Cortés of León. This brand-new legislature, first established in 1188, is known as the first ever parliament in history with representation from the citizenry. In essence, the Kingdom of León, under Alfonso XI, is responsible for giving representation to the citizenry in what today is known in several countries as a parliament. Most importantly, the Cortés of León, convened in the Basilica of San Isidoro in the city of León.
Basilica de San Isidoro in León where the first form of a parliament convened in Europe
Following Afonso XI's death, the kingdoms of Castile and León were reunited under the rule of Ferdinand III but essentially the Kingdom of León disintegrated. All kings after Ferdinand III are considered kings of Castile only. To most of the Leonese people, this reunification became a dour subject as the Leonese language was replaced by Spanish and all governmental symbolism (crests, titles...etc.) were of Castilian descent. However, the Leonese people kept these traditions alive and the Crown of Castile allowed separate Leonese coins, flags and parliaments to exist, but all major decisions were made under the Crown of Castile.
The Crown of Castile following the 1230 unification
In a sense, this unification marked the end of the Kingdom of León, but on the other hand it also initiated a modern era of Spain. Portugal had become its own entity under the Kingdom of Portugal and the Muslims had been declining rapidly following the capture of Toledo and the Reconquista. In addition, a more parliamentary style of government was established as the Cortés conventions continued during the Crown of Castile. The Crown of Castile became the dominant kingdom in Spain for several centuries following expansion well into the south. Spain continued to modernize through its use of Spanish as a uniform language and created several universities throughout the region. The late 15th century saw significant unification within Spain as Isabel I of Castile married Ferdinand II of Aragon and in 1492 the last Muslim forces were conquered at Granada marking the official beginning of Spain as a country. The year 1492 also marks the year Ferdinand and Isabel financed the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the New World, in essence, ushering in the golden era of Spain.
León in Modern Times
León officially became an autonomous region following Spain's remapping in 1833 when most modern provinces and regions were created. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Spain as a whole has experienced significant turmoil and León as a city was no exception. The Spanish Civil War that took place from 1936-39 resulted in the beginning of a dictatorship under Francisco Franco that lasted until 1975. During the civil war, the city of León fought on the side of the republicans, who were against Franco. Obviously, these efforts were to no avail and many republicans retreated from the city.
In addition, León grew significantly during the 1960s following the migration of rural people to the urban center of León from nearby regions. Today, the city of León exists within the autonomous community (state) within Spain known as Castile and León. For many in León and in nearby cities, there still exists the celebration of the historical Leonese culture that existed during the Kingdom of León. There is even a call for a separate autonomous community or state for the areas surrounding the city of León. Lastly, at the University of León there are even classes offered to learn the historic Leonese language.
Hasta la proxima.