Nobles and knights in the northern mountains

By David Nogales Rincón, Medieval History Professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

The route runs through some of the monasteries and castles linked to the aristocracy of Asturias and Cantabria, called to become the root of the first nobility in the Peninsula, as part of the emergence of the kingdom of Asturias, from the first half of the eighth century.

From the wreckage of the Islamic conquest of the Peninsula in 711, the Kingdom of Asturias emerged in the mid-8th century. It was in this territory, moulded by the primitive and rough mountains of the Cantabrian mountain range, where, under the new monarchy, a renewed aristocracy was born, whose origins are not always clear and are still disputed today. The expansion of the territory at the hands of the first Asturian kings, which involved the creation of a new military and administrative organisation, revealed the local chiefdoms that had been enclosed in the valleys since ancient times and offered an opportunity for redemption to those noble and landowning Goths who had witnessed the end of the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo.

This new aristocracy would gradually assume a double role, throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, in the figures named in the sources as "comites" (counts), "proceres" (eminent dignitary), "magnates " (great) or "potentes" (powerful), who became important landowners and faithful servants of the kings, and in a lower nobility, integrated by the ones known as "infanzones"  and "milites" (knights), dedicated to weapons trade in the service of the king or the magnates, who, as a whole, would lead the first resistance against al-Andalus.

However, this aristocracy, which was thriving in the early days of the Asturian kingdom, would gradually distance itself from power, when the mountains, formerly the natural space of the court, now isolated the nobles from their king, who had been living in the city of León since 910. Locked behind a wall of rock and snow and pushed back to the bottom of the valleys, the northern aristocracy would come to play an increasingly local role, at a time when the kingdom was expanding its horizons to the south.

Quietly, this nobility was able to consolidate its structures in the 12th and 13th centuries, and gradually, from the beginning of the 14th century, to gain new power positions in its territories against the bishop of Oviedo and the great monasteries, thanks to royal donations and their misdeeds or acts of villainy, which turned violence into the key to dominate the old kingdom of Asturias. However, it was only with difficulty that this nobility came to form a great aristocracy capable of joining the ranks of the first nobility of the Crown of Castile, even when the new Trastámara dynasty, which conquered the throne in 1369, after the assassination of Peter called the Cruel (1350-1369), promoted the strengthening of the nobility.

The rise of the new dynasty, which in other parts of Castile meant an unprecedented expansion of the great nobility, thanks to the monarch's donations, had a minor impact on Asturias and Cantabria. In this case, this great leap forward in nobility was reduced to the often-modest promotion of certain lineages, such as the Quirós, Miranda, Valdés, Ríos, Ceballos and De la Vega families, and to the only occasional penetration of some important figures of the Castilian and Leonese nobility, such as Alfonso Enríquez, Count of Noreña, and lineages such as the Quiñones, in Asturias, or the Téllez, Manrique and Mendoza, in Cantabria. The northern area thus became a territory almost devoid of noble titles, beyond figures such as the Count of Castañeda or the fleeting Count of Buelna.

At the end of the Middle Ages, this northern nobility, carried away by the currents of history, but strongly attached to the past, was mostly made up of a large mass of impoverished rural noblemen, who worked the land with their hands, while dreaming of the purity of their blood, never contaminated by outsiders. This clash between what they were and what they pretended to be did not go unnoticed by their contemporaries, who left a record of this dream in sayings such as "hidalguía, hambre y fantasía" (nobility, hunger and fantasy) or "humos de hidalguía, la cabeza vana y la bolsa vacía" (nobility's fumes, the empty head and the empty purse). These noblemen were joined by a second rank nobility, far from that great Castilian nobility that enjoyed noble titles (dukes, counts, etc.) and triumphed at court, close to kings. These titles would only emerge in the northern territories later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Middle Ages were already a mere memory.

Route

The route runs through some of the places linked to the Asturian and Cantabrian nobility. The route starts from the Parador de Corias-Benedictine monastery of San Juan Bautista (Cangas del Narcea, Asturias), of medieval origins, although it was completely rebuilt in the 18th century in neoclassical style. According to tradition recorded in the so-called Registry Book, the foundation of the monastery was wrapped up in supernatural events in 1043, when Counts Piniolus Xemeni and his wife Ildoncia Munionis, prominent figures of the Asturian nobility in the first half of the 11th century, elected the cleric Arias Cromaz as the first abbot. The extensive economic endowment of the centre, carried out the following year, would make it the most important and richest of the Asturian monasteries. The foundational church, converted into the funeral chapel of Santa Maria from 1113, when a new monastic church was built, would receive the burials of the local aristocracy from the 13th to 17th centuries, including the burial of an anonymous 13th century nobleman wearing golden spurs, the symbol of chivalry. We then head for the Benedictine monastery of San Pedro de Villanueva (Cangas de Onís, Asturias), in whose Romanesque church (southern doorway) we can see a series of striking chivalry scenes from the late 12th century, a manifestation of the deep-rooted nature of courtly love and the spirit of chivalry among the Asturian nobility. They show the theme of the knight's departure in search of fortune and adventure, present in other Asturian monasteries, with the representation of the knight's farewell kiss to his lady and the departure of the knight himself, with the lady at the foot of a castle. We will leave Cangas de Onís to go, entering the province of Cantabria, to the Torre del Infantado de Potes (Potes, Cantabria), a typical example of the stately towers of the late Middle Ages which, from Asturias to Navarre, run through the north of the Peninsula. The history of the place is intricately linked to the figure of Leonor de la Vega (around 1365-1432), a member of the Cantabrian nobility who, after acquiring ownership of the town through her first marriage to the nobleman Juan Tellez (around 1360-1385), was able to bequeath the town and its "casa fuerte de Potes" to the offspring born from her second union with the great Castilian nobleman Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1365-1404), one of the most powerful men in Castile. This is how, on the death of Leonor, in 1432, Potes came to the hands of the famous Mendoza lineage, in the figure of the famous Íñigo López de Mendoza, Marqués de Santillana (1398-1458). Potes would witness the struggles between the lineage of the Manrique de Lara and the Mendoza families for control of the territory, which would culminate in 1444 with the burning of the tower and its reconstruction. Once the sovereignty of the Mendoza family was recognised, it became the centre of power for the Marquises of Santillana and future Dukes of Infantado. The route ends at the castle of San Vicente de Argüeso (Brotherhood of Campoo de Suso, Cantabria), the only example of an inland castle in Cantabria, used to guard the road that connected the coast with the interior of Castile. Built in different stages, between the end of the 13th and 15th centuries, on the remains of an old chapel under the dedication of San Vicente, the castle is also linked to the figure of Leonor de la Vega, who lived in the fortress for some seasons and ensured its defence against the lineage of the Manrique de Lara family. After the death of Doña Leonor in 1432, the castle became part of the Mendoza family's heritage, becoming the centre from which the taxes of the Cantabrian region of Campoo were collected, the lordship of the Mendoza family was defended and communications with the Meseta were controlled. Since 1475, it was also the centre that gave its name to the marquisate with which the Catholic Monarchs would reward Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1417-1479).

Where does the route take place?

  • Parador de Corias-monasterio benedictino de San Juan Bautista (Cangas del Narcea, Asturias), 
  • Monasterio benedictino de San Pedro de Villanueva (Cangas de Onís, Asturias)
  • Torre del Infantado de Potes (Potes, Cantabria)
  • Castillo de San Vicente de Argüeso (Hermandad de Campoo de Suso, Cantabria)

Know castles and palaces in this route

Come & visit the best non urban hotel in Spain, Condé Nast Traveller 2014 awards. The Parador de Corias is located in the lovely Asturias town of Cangas del Narcea, in a spectacular monastery that has been declared a National Historical-Artistic Monument. Known as El Escorial of Asturias, the name alone will give you an idea of its elegance and monumental structure. The basement houses a lovely museum where you can view the archaeological remains of the original building, which dates to the early 11th century. The view of the mountain landscape and Narcea River from the windows of the guest rooms is spectacular. The Tuscan-style church with its ample spaces and large baroque altarpiece is also worth a visit. The hotel offers function rooms equipped for banquets, conferences and any other event you might wish to hold. This Parador sets the standard for tourism and gastronomy in an area of great natural beauty, surrounded by magical forests and rural landscapes which display different colors for each season of the year.

Next to the Parador there is a Roman bridge, on which the passing of the centuries has left ruts in the stones, inviting you to set out on a walk through the area, leave all of your cares behind and relax. These same trails will take you to gorgeous spots such as the Fuentes Nature Reserve, Muniellos Reserve or El Cuetu d’ Arbas Reserve, where bears and capercaillies leave their tracks on the beautiful green mantle of vegetation. In the mountains surrounding the Parador, vineyards of Mencia, Albarin, Carrasquin, Verdejo Tinto and other grapes grow to maturity, painstakingly cared for by local growers.

The town of Cangas de Narcea is just two kilometers from the Parador de Corias. Dotted with beautiful churches, palaces and mansions, it is a charming village you will enjoy visiting. Some of the loveliest sights include the collegiate church of Santa María Magdalena, Omaña Palace, Toreno Palace and Virgen del Acebo Chapel.

We look forward to welcoming you to one of the largest Paradores in Spain, an oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of a fairytale landscape.

On the banks of the Sella River, surrounded by the spectacular Picos de Europa mountains, the Parador de Cangas de Onís awaits you in an incomparably beautiful spot. The hotel is located in the former San Pedro de Villanueva Monastery, a beautiful building with spectacular rooms of stone and wood. The décor is elegant, warm and traditional. The function rooms and riverside garden are ideal places for a unforgettable celebration. We take meticulous care with every detail and offer the best cuisine, allowing you to fully enjoy this idyllic spot. The Parador is two kilometers from Cangas de Onís, making it an ideal starting point for visits to Picos de Europa National Park, the shrine and lakes at Covadonga, and even charming coastal towns such as Llanes and Ribadesella.

Asturias is synonymous with natural beauty. Its steep mountains, white beaches, hidden caves, beautiful lakes, deep green woods and rivers of crystalline water are all just a short journey from the Parador de Cangas de Onís. A half hour away by car is the town of Cabrales, where you can visit a museum in a natural cave which offers a demonstration of the traditional method of making the town's famous cheese. Another lovely option is the hiking trail through Cares, a spectacular 12-kilometer canyon, or the driving route through Beyos Gorge, another amazing canyon parallel to the Sella. On the way, you can stop at the salmon ladder and marvel at the amazing sight of salmon swimming upriver.

This is the place to enjoy picture postcard scenery, perfect hiking trails around the lakes and mountains, and the idyllic tranquility of a Parador located in a spectacular spot.

Bastion of the Villa de Potes and the entire Liébana Region, in the Cantabrian mountains, the Torre del Infantado is a medieval building that stands at the confluence of the Deva and Quiviesa rivers.

Open to the public after its inauguration on March 19, 2011 after a long restoration process, the Torre del Infantado welcomes thousands of visitors in its 1800 m2, distributed over 6 floors, whose rooms are arranged around a central courtyard; in theese the visitor can learn about the life and work of Beato de Liébana, abbot from Liébana, the first Cantabrian and, therefore, Spanish writer.

Noble woods, corten steel and large glazed spaces take over the interior spaces and provide light with a masterful medieval recreation that is combined with state-of-the-art luminaires.

This regal property that treasures so much history has its access through a long staircase and through a door with a pointed arch. Having belonged to the Dukes of Infantado, it has also been used as a prison and later the Town Hall.

Today it permanently houses the exhibition "Beato de Liébana and his blessed" the most complete facsimile collection in the world of the codices called "Beatos".

The visit ends with the magnificent and exultant view from the battlements towards the town of Potes, the Monte de la Viorna, the site of the Santo Toribio monastery and the Picos de Europa at the horizon.

Likewise, the Tower houses temporary exhibitions in its basement.

On a hill and guarding the road that unites the coast with the Kingdom of Castile, rises the Castle of San Vicente de Argueso. Built during the XIII-XV centuries, it represents the most outstanding and ancient example of the Roqueno Castle of Cantabria, being the only interior castle that exists in the Community.

The castle was one of the strengths of Senorio de la Vega from which they defended their interests in Campoo de Suso. In the fifteenth century, he is the owner of the same Don Leonor de la Vega, wife of the Admiral of Castile, Don Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and mother of Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, the illustrious Marques de Santillana, one of the key players in the Castilian politics of that era. He is more known perhaps for the quality of his poetic work. On the death of the Marquis, in 1458, his first born son, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, succeeded him, and thanks to the fidelity shown to the Catholic Monarchs, he was appointed in 1475 Duke of the Infantado, Marques de Argueso and Campoo. From then on, the castle became the seat of the Marquesado de Argueso, which was organized under an administration that was independent in some respects from that of the Merindad de Campo. Don Mariano Tellez Giron, Duke of Osuna and the last Marques owner of the castle, sold the castle in 1873. Ever since then passing through different hands. The last owner of the castle, Dona Teresa Rabago, donated the castle to the City Council of the Brotherhood of Campoo de Suso in 1962 with the "only" condition is that the castle would be renovated. They are still the owners of the fortress until this day.

Declared a Cultural Interest Property in 1983, the castle was restored by the Town Council of the Brotherhood of Campoo de Suso and the Regional Government.

On the occasion of this restoration in 1988, highlighting the great artisanal work done on the noble wood by the Sobaler family and their team of local craftsmen (artisans). They found in the basement of the south tower and the walls of the old chapel of the martyr San Vicente (S. IX), around which a necropolis was still visible in the courtyard of the castle.

In August of 1999, the Castle opened its doors to the public, functioning as a cultural centre, hosting both temporary exhibitions, as well as other festivities.

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