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The Coronation of 1135 and the Question of “Empire” in Kingdom of Castile-León in the 12th Century

The emergence of the unified monarchy of León-Castile in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is perhaps one of the most significant developments in the history of Iberia, and one which was to have long-lasting consequences for the religious, political, and cultural configuration of the Iberian peninsula. While traditional Spanish (national) historiography has tended to depict this political development as an inevitable reemergence of a “united Spain” following the rupture inaugurated by the Muslim conquest, more recent scholarship has tended to be wary of such an essentializing approach in which there is institutional and ideological continuity drawn between the Visigothic monarchy and the Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia. Rather than viewing the emergence of the kingdom of León-Castile as a natural political evolution, modern historians have emphasized the importance of the Muslim-Christian frontier in Iberia and the process of Christian conquest and settlement, known as the Reconquista, at the expense of al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Iberia) as central to the rise of the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain between the tenth and twelfth centuries.

The reign of Alfonso VII of León-Castile (r. 1126–1157) marks a particularly important juncture in the process of the consolidation of the institution and ideology of kingship in medieval Spain. Not only is there an abundant amount of sources for his reign in the form of charters, but his reign represents the period in which the Almoravid dynasty collapsed, the Second Crusade (1147) was ongoing, and trans-Pyrenean European (especially Cluniac) influence exerted itself within the Iberian peninsula. During his reign, the Reconquista was resumed, with significant campaigns undertaken by Alfonso VII deep into Muslim-ruled territory, and rebellious nobles within the kingdom were subdued. All of these various factors provide the historian of medieval Spain with interesting possibilities to study in order to further scholarly understanding of Castilian and Leonese kingship. In this post, I want to highlight one particularly interesting moment in the reign of Alfonso VII, namely his coronation as “Emperor of All Spain” (Imperator Totius Hispaniae) in May 1135.

The Coronation of 1135 and the Question of “Empire”: A Historiographical Survey

On May 26th 1135, the day of Pentecost, Alfonso VII of León-Castile was crowned emperor (imperator) in an illustrious ceremony in the cathedral of Saint Mary in León attended by the most notable ecclesiastical officials and nobles of Spain, including King García Ramírez IV of Navarre, Count Ramón Berenguer of Barcelona, in addition to a number of counts and dukes from France and Gascony.[1]

“On the second day, on which the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles is celebrated, having taken divine counsel, the archbishops, bishops, abbots, all the nobles and commoners and all the people assembled again in the church of Saint Mary [in León], together with King García [of Navarre] and the king’s sister, to proclaim the king emperor, because King García, King Zafadola of the Saracens, Count Ramón of Barcelona, Count Alfonso of Toulouse and many counts and magnates from Gascony and France obeyed him in all things. Having dressed the king in a fine cloak woven with wonderful skill, they placed on his head a crown of pure gold and precious stones, and after having placed a scepter in his hands, King García held him by the right arm and Bishop Arias of León by the left, and together with the bishops and abbots they led him before the altar of Saint Mary, singing the ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ until the end and calling out ‘Long Live the Emperor Alfonso.’”

The particularities of this scene (depicted in the images above by a modern Spanish artist) and its importance shall be assessed in a future blogpost, but for now I would like to draw attention to the way in which this imperial coronation and Alfonso VII’s claim to the imperial title has been interpreted in past scholarship.[2] In the 1940s, in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War during the period of the consolidation of the authority of Francisco Franco, self-identified as the “Leader of the Last Crusade and of Spanishness” (el Caudillo de la Última Cruzada y de la Hispanidad), there was an increased output of scholarship exploring the medieval roots of modern Spanish political unity. Unsurprisingly, the reign of Alfonso VII and, particularly, his coronation as emperor in 1135 figure quite prominently within these works. Although there are clear ideological motivations and political considerations which underlie much of the scholarship produced under the auspices of the Franco regime, it is worth considering some of the arguments put forth with regards to the question of empire in medieval Spain.

For several scholars writing during this period in Spain, the political unity of the Iberian peninsula under a single, centralized authority was simply a historical fact rooted in the Roman and Visigothic periods, and the bulk of medieval Spanish history could be considered as a quest for the “reunification” of Spain.[3] As such, the imperial title (and its implications of supreme political sovereignty within Iberia) is considered by these scholars to have had a long history in Spain.[4] Moreover, they assert that the early Leonese and Castilian kings in the ninth and tenth centuries were consciously aware of their role as restorers of the legacy of Visigothic monarchy by utilizing the imperial title, which was reflective of their increased political independence and sovereignty.[5] Moreover, they also claim that by the time of Alfonso VII, the imperial title had acquired a “fixed character,” and had immense political importance in the Iberian peninsula.[6] As such, the coronation of 1135 is represented as a tremendously important event in the history of Iberia which consolidated the imperial idea in Christian Spain and allowed the Leonese kings to assert their supremacy over the other kingdoms in Iberia.[7]

The imperial title was therefore a “national claim” to sovereignty in the Iberian peninsula and was the unique dignity of the kings of León.[8] From the perspective of this historiographical tradition, the imperial legacy of the Visigoths was inherited by the kings of León, who successfully revived the political unity of the Iberian peninsula through their central role in the Reconquista. Moreover, they argue that the medieval Spanish idea of empire derived from classical and biblical sources and was firmly rooted in historical reality; in other words, the history of Spain and the history of empire are closely related.[9] For these scholars, writing in the early 1940s, the history of the imperial idea in Spain extends from at least the classical period until the 19th century. As such, the coronation of Alfonso VII, although crucial in solidifying the imperial ideal in medieval Spain, was merely one component of a broader process which began with the Roman-Visigothic period and culminated with the establishment of a united Spain in the sixteenth century under Charles V and his successors.

Anglophone and modern Spanish scholarship produced in the aftermath of the Franco era has seriously challenged these perspectives and sought to provide a far more nuanced view of the idea of empire in twelfth-century Iberia. Although appreciating the importance of the self-conception of the Leonese monarchs as successors to the Visigoths, these historians have sought to distinguish between the claim to the imperial title by the Leonese monarchs and actual political realities in the Iberian peninsula. As Bernard Reilly has asserted, the early Christian kings of northern Spain should be considered as little more than local, capable magnates, and not, as asserted by the earlier historiography, representatives of a legacy of centralized, powerful kingship with strong ideological underpinnings.[10] He argues that it was not until the reign of Alfonso VI (r. 1072–1109) that the kingdoms of León and Castile were unified (although this unity was far from permanent) and a significant territorial base established over which the king could claim to exercise sovereignty; indeed, it was in 1077 that Alfonso VI began using the title imperator totius hispaniae to demonstrate his authority as the most dominant monarch in Iberia and as a countermeasure to papal pretensions.[11] Undoubtedly, following Alfonso’s capture of Toledo (the old Visigothic capital) in 1085, such claims to authority were amplified.[12] Moving away from essentializing arguments which revolve around the continuity between the Visigothic kingdom and the medieval Christian kingdoms, Angus Mackay has underscored the relationship between royal authority and the progress of the Reconquista by underscoring the centrality of the figure of the sovereign to the organization of the gradual conquest of territory from Muslim powers in the peninsula.[13] Hence, there has been an attempt by modern scholars to uncover the more practical bases of royal sovereignty in Castile and León during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[14]

Teofilo Ruiz has contributed to the broader debate about sovereignty and the imperial title in the Leonese/Castilian context by explaining that the presence of a strong, unified Muslim power (the Umayyad Caliphate), Visigothic precedents, and attempts to undercut papal authority were all major considerations in the decision of the kings of León (and Asturias) to lay claim to the imperial title.[15] However, he points out that it was not until the reigns of Alfonso VI and Alfonso VII—whose reign he terms a “landmark in Spanish history”—that this Castilian and Leonese sovereignty became more meaningful due largely to Alfonso VI’s “conquest of Toledo in 1085, his opening of the realm to the Roman liturgy and the influence of Cluny, his claiming of the imperial title, and his family connections with France and Burgundy,” all of which fundamentally altered “the institutional and political development of the realm.”[16]

Thus, although challenging the claims of the national Spanish historians of the 1940s that the claim to the imperial title was representative of actual political realities, modern scholarship has nonetheless reinforced the idea that Visigothic influences were particularly important on late-eleventh and twelfth-century conceptions of kingship and sovereignty.[17] Moreover, in the past few decades scholars have also shown that the city (and kingdom) of León was clearly associated with the imperial claims which were closely linked with the idea of the revival of the Visigothic institution and ideal of kingship.[18] In discussing the rituals surrounding the coronation ceremony in 1135, Teofilo Ruiz underscores the importance of León and Alfonso VII’s claim to the imperial title as an explicit and conscious attempt to link his own dynasty with the Asturian and Visigothic legacies.[19]
Another major school of historiography has emphasized the 1135 coronation in the context of the inter-Christian rivalries in Iberia, particularly between León-Castile and Aragón. Antonio Ubieto Arteta’s 1956 article on the subject, despite being quite dated in several respects, is an excellent piece of scholarship and remains one of the best representative studies of this approach.[20] In the article, Arteta identifies the rationale and motivations for Alfonso VII’s imperial claims within the particular context of the immediate aftermath of the death of Alfonso I of Aragón (d. 1134), the once-stepfather of Alfonso VII, when both Navarre and Castile were engaged in a struggle for control of the former’s territories.[21] Although greatly downplaying the significance of the imperial title, another scholar, Elena Lourie, has argued that the circumstances and date of Alfonso VII’s imperial coronation make little sense in light of internal Castilian or Leonese politics and, thus, can only be understood within the broader context of the struggle of León-Castile with Navarre and Aragón for supremacy in the Iberian peninsula following the death of Alfonso I of Aragón.[22] Similarly, Manuel Recuero Astray, in his study on the reign of Alfonso VII, insists on interpreting the imperial coronation within the context of the political reality which emerged following the death of Alfonso I of Aragón, but, unlike Lourie, continues to emphasize the significance and importance of the imperial title in its own right.[23]

Related to this school of historiography is the work of Angus McKay and Muhammad Benaboud on the imperial title utilized by Alfonso VI. In addition to analyzing his use of the title imperator totius hispaniae beginning in 1077, which they assert was intended to counteract papal claims to supremacy in Iberia, they also focus on a rather curious title utilized by the Castilian monarch in his Arabic correspondence: “Emperor of the Two Religions” (al-Imbraṭūr dhū-l-Millatayn).[24] They argue that this title, which is apparently paralleled in Latin texts by the title imperante christianorum quam et paganorum, was intended as an assertion of Castilian hegemony and sovereignty over al-Andalus as well as over Christian Spain.[25] Thus, according to Mackay and Benaboud, the imperial claims of Alfonso VI were not merely symbolic but were intended as a practical assertion of sovereignty over both Christians and Muslims within the Iberian peninsula.[26] Regardless of the strength of these claims, it is apparent that these scholars have sought to emphasize the practical and contextual nature of the adoption of the imperial title by the kings of León-Castile, rather than view the title within the framework of a Visigothic revival or a “Spanish tradition of empire.”

In recent scholarship in which questions about the political implications of Alfonso VII’s claim to the imperial title have been raised, there has been a general consensus among most scholars that, whatever the immediate consequences of the coronation in 1135, by the 1150s (and certainly by the death of Alfonso VII in 1157), the imperial claims of León-Castile had become a moot point in light of Iberian reality. Salvador Martínez, in particular, has even asserted that the title imperator totius hispaniae (i.e. as adopted by Alfonso VI and Alfonso VII) had little or no political value and, in the case of Alfonso VII, the title at best represented a claim to be a “first among equals” (primus inter pares).[27] Moreover, this scholar highlights the importance of distinguishing between the title imperator totius hispaniae, which was connected explicitly with Iberian political realities, and the thirteenth-century monarch Alfonso X’s (unsuccessful) attempt to seek the position of Holy Roman Emperor.[28] For most scholars, it is the latter title (and position) that is considered to have held important political currency in medieval Europe, while the former was interpreted to be, despite the claims of earlier Spanish historiography, largely symbolic and had little consequence within the Iberian peninsula and, certainly, had absolutely no value beyond the Pyrenees.

The themes highlighted in this brief historiographical survey are intended to convey the various factors at play when considering the role of the imperial title during the reign of Alfonso VII. At some point in the near future, I will analyze these various threads further by considering the contemporary Latin chronicle of Alfonso VII, the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris, which is perhaps one of the most important texts for further understanding the implications of the imperial claim in twelfth-century Iberia, as an example of an attempt by the Alfonsine court to articulate a specific vision of imperial sovereignty that was largely fictitious and ran counter to the political reality, but nonetheless played a significant role in official royal propaganda.

[1] Bernard F. Reilly, The Kingdom of León-Castilla under King Alfonso VII, 1126–1157 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pp. 49–50; Manuel Recuero Astray, Alfonso VII Emperador: El Imperio Hispanico en el siglo XII (León: Centro de estudios e investigación San Isidoro, 1979), pp. 131–133; Teofilo F. Ruiz, “Unsacred Monarchy: The Kings of Castile in the Late Middle Ages,” in Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual, and Politics since the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), ed. Sean Wilentz, p. 118; Manuel Recuero Astray, Alfonso VII, 1126–1157 (Burgos: La Olmeda, 2003), pp. 160–163; Antonio Ubieto Arteta, “Navarra-Aragón y la idea imperial de Alfonso VII de Castilla,” Estudios de Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón 6 (1956), p. 47; Peter Linehan, History and the Historians of Medieval Spain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 235

[2] It is important to note that the 1135 coronation was not the first time in which Alfonso VII utilized the title of emperor, since it is quite well-documented as appearing on his charters between 1126 and 1135 (Bernard F. Reilly, “The Chancery of Alfonso VII of León-Castilla: The Period 1116–1135 Reconsidered,” Speculum 51 (1976), p. 249), although—as shall be discussed below—the imperial coronation certainly contributed to underscoring and strengthening the imperial claim by the Leonese monarch

[3] Ricardo del Arco y Garay, La idea de imperio en la política y la literature españolas (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1944), pp. 30–33

[4] Juan Beneyto Pérez, España y el problema de Europa (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1942), pp. 15–36

[5] Pérez, España y el problema de Europa, pp. 43–46; Del Arco y Garay, La idea de imperio en la política y la literature españolas, pp. 40–44

[6] Pérez, España y el problema de Europa, p. 50; Del Arco y Garay, La idea de imperio en la política y la literature españolas, p. 66

[7] Pérez, España y el problema de Europa, pp. 56–58, 73–78; Del Arco y Garay, La idea de imperio en la política y la literature españolas, pp. 66–69

[8] Del Arco y Garay, La idea de imperio en la política y la literature españolas, p. 63

[9] Eleuterio Elorduy, La idea del imperio en el pensamiento español y de otros pueblos (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1944), pp. 436–450

[10] Bernard F. Reilly, The Medieval Spains (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 92

[11] Bernard F. Reilly, The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Alfonso VI, 1065–1109 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 103; Reilly, The Medieval Spains, p. 92; Simon Barton, The Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century León and Castile (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 9–11; Angus Mackay and Muhammad Benaboud, “Yet again Alfonso VI, ‘the Emperor, Lord of [the Adherents of] the Two Faiths, the Most Excellent Ruler’: A Rejoinder to Norman Roth,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 61:2 (1984), p. 177; Joseph O’Callaghan, Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), p. 29; Linehan, History and the Historians of Medieval Spain, pp. 214–215

[12] Astray, Alfonso VII Emperador, pp. 40–42

[13] Angus MacKay, Spain in the Middle Ages: From Frontier to Empire, 1000–1500 (London: Macmillan Press, 1977), pp. 96–97

[14] For a substantive discussion of the interplay between the imperial title, the Reconquista, and the projection of the sovereignty of Alfonso VII, see Margaret Marie Cullinan, Imperator Hispaniae: The Genesis of Spain (New York: City University of New York PhD Dissertation, 1975), pp. 236–271. In her dissertation, Cullinan argues that the adoption of the imperial title by Alfonso VII was an act undertaken in order to formalize his widening authority in the Iberian peninsula

[15] Ruiz, “Unsacred Monarchy,” p. 113

[16] Ruiz, “Unsacred Monarchy,” p. 114

[17] Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez de la Peña, “Rex Strenuus Valde Litteratus: Strength and Wisdom as Royal Virtues in Medieval Spain (1085–1284),” in Princely Virtues in the Middle Ages, 1200–1500 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), eds. István P. Bejczy and Cary J. Nederman, p. 34; Astray, Alfonso VII, pp. 156–157

[18] Ruiz, “Unsacred Monarchy,” p. 113; Astray, Alfonso VII, p. 156

[19] Ruiz, “Unsacred Monarchy,” p. 118

[20] Arteta, Navarra-Aragon y la idea imperial de Alfonso VII of Castilla, pp. 41–82

[21] Arteta, Navarra-Aragon y la idea imperial de Alfonso VII of Castilla, pp. 41–49

[22] Elena Lourie, “The Will of Alfonso I, “El Batallador,” King of Aragon and Navarre: A Reassessment,” Speculum 50 (1975), pp. 643–644, 650

[23] Astray, Alfonso VII, pp. 151–156

[24] Angus Mackay and Muhammad Benaboud, “Alfonso VI of León and Castile, ‘al-Imbraṭūr dhū-l-Millatayn,’” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 56:2 (1979), pp. 93–101

[25] Mackay and Benaboud, “Alfonso VI of León and Castile,” pp. 97, 101

[26] Mackay and Benaboud, “Yet again Alfonso VI,” p. 177

[27] H. Salvador Martínez, Alfonso X the Learned: A Biography (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 122–124

[28] Martínez, Alfonso X the Learned, p. 123


  1. This brings back memories – it’s just over 30 years since I last encountered the historiography of medieval Europe. (I was studying post-grad under Peter Munz). For me the intriguing part of the period was point that the Europeans themselves didn’t regard their world as a ‘middle’ period, but very much ‘modern’, a ‘modernity’ in which – in some ways – they viewed the Roman Empire as a conceptual continuity. Certainly at popular level, we don’t do that much today – a change of popular perspective in which, I suspect, Gibbon’s imposition of an eighteenth century rational-progressive framework across the late Roman period plays quite a large part.

  2. […] The Coronation of 1135 and the Question of “Empire” in Kingdom of Castile-León in the 12th&nbsp… […]

  3. […] The Coronation of 1135 and the Question of “Empire” in Kingdom of Castile-León in the 12th&nbsp… […]

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