This Week in History

San Fernando Conquers Cordoba:

June 29, 1236

The following is an excerpt from our text, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization. For information on ordering this or our other texts, please go here.

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.

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King Fernando III of Castile

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.

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The Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain

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.


Music from the Age of San Fernando

This piece, O Maria Maris Stella, comes from a 13th century manuscript from the Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas in Burgos, Spain.