This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.
Fernando III became king of Castile in 1217, at the age of 19, one year after the death of Pope Innocent III and five years after the Iberian Crusade. Thirteen years later, he inherited the crown of León. King Fernando III was a great war leader. Never once in his 35-year reign did he lose a battle against the Moors. But Fernando was more than a great warrior; he was a devout Catholic who fasted, did penances, and sometimes spent whole nights in prayer. It is for this he is remembered in Spain as San Fernando—St. Fernando.
King Fernando was also a just ruler. It is said of him that he was careful not to overtax his subjects, saying he feared the curse of one poor woman more than an army of Moors.
Fernando was at war with the Moors throughout his reign. One of his greatest triumphs was recovering the fabled city of Córdoba, the former seat of the caliphs of Al-Andalus. Córdoba had been the capital of the Islamic West, fabled for its wealth, its scholars, and the caliph’s huge library of some 400,000 books.
The reconquest of Córdoba began in an unexpected way. On their own initiative a small group of young Castilians, who lived in Ubeda on the Christian borderlands, attacked the great city in the off-season for war. Disguised as Moors, the men, led by a young knight named Domingo Muñoz, scaled the walls of Córdoba in the midst of a storm and took the city by surprise on the night of January 7, 1236. After gaining control of a major suburb, the intrepid group sent a messenger to the Castilian king. They would try to hold their precarious position, they told the king, until he could arrive with an army.
In mid-January—in the town of Benavente, in León—the king was just sitting down to dinner when a messenger arrived with the astounding news that a handful of Christians had gained control of part of the grand capital of western Islam. Fernando got up from the table without eating a morsel. He immediately began dictating letters and issuing orders; within a few hours he was on his way south, to Córdoba, accompanied by one of his brothers and an escort of some 100 men. The weather was awful. The royal party had to ford swollen rivers and cross through mountain passes almost entirely blocked by snow. King Fernando arrived at Córdoba on February 7, after a three-week journey. The band of Christian frontiersmen in the city had been able to hold out for a month because several Castilian bishops had sent them reinforcements.
As more troops came together, the Christians closed in on the city. No help from other Islamic kingdoms in Al-Andalus or from North Africa arrived to save the former Muslim capital. Córdoba surrendered on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 1236. King Fernando and his army staff entered the city triumphantly a few days later. They crowded into the spectacular Great Mosque there, which had been hurriedly consecrated as a Christian church, and prepared for a solemn Mass in thanksgiving for their victory.
King Fernando did not rest long after redeeming Córdoba from Islam. He next set his eyes on Jaén, a well-fortified city dominated by a great castle on a hill. Fernando laid siege to Jaén for six months. Finally, the city’s people, compelled by hunger, surrendered to him in April 1246.
Fernando then turned his attention toward Seville, the largest city in Al-Andalus. Surrounded by many castles and fortified towns, Seville was hard to take. Fernando needed a fleet of ships to blockade the city, which sat on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River. He thus ordered his Basque subjects on the northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula to assemble a squadron of ships and sail it all the way to the mouth of the Guadalquivir.
On November 23, 1248, Seville surrendered—537 years after it had fallen to the Muslims. King Fernando gave the inhabitants who chose to migrate to Muslim lands 30 days to depart. The king, as was his custom, allowed them to take their valuables with them. He also gave them safe-conduct protection and beasts of burden as far as the seaport of Cádiz. On December 22, 1248, King Fernando made his triumphal entry into Seville.
The pious ruler of Castile and León focused on re-evangelizing the areas regained from Islam. Fernando helped the new bishops in these regions reorganize ancient diocesan sees and institutions that had all but disappeared under centuries of Muslim rule. He endowed the Church with crown lands and revenues, besides the contributions from his private fortune. Fernando built men’s and women’s monasteries and parish churches. The king is well known for having begun construction of three of the finest Gothic cathedrals in southern Europe at Burgos, Toledo, and Seville.
Fernando III died of sickness and fatigue at the age of 54. Four hundred years later, in 1671, he was canonized by Pope Clement X. However, Spaniards had venerated their holy monarch long before his canonization. When he rode into combat, the king always hooked a small ivory statue of Our Lady onto his saddle—the Virgin of Battles. St. Fernando’s statue, his sword, “Lobera,” and his body (showing no signs of decay), encased in a glass and silver urn, can be found to this day in the Royal Chapel at the Cathedral of Seville.
Virgin Songs of the The Wise
Alfonso X of Castile, called El Sabio ("The Wise") was the son of King Fernando III, "the Saint." Besides gathering scholars and artists (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) into his court, Alfonso was something of a poet himself. At least, a collection of over 400 songs in the Galician dialect of Spain have been attributed to him -- Las Cantigas de Santa Maria. Though it is likely the king did not compose all the songs, they stand as a tribute of his devotion to the Lady Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. Here is a recording of the complete opus, performed by Hesperion XX and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall.