The Galician nobility, owners of the destinies of the kingdom of Galicia (I): the Counts of Lemos and Monterrey

By David Nogales Rincón, Professor of Medieval History at the Autonomous University of Madrid

The Galician nobility today rests quietly among the strong castles and beautiful tombs which petrified, saving it from oblivion, the memory of those who owned until the late nineteenth century the destinies of the kingdom of Galicia. From the mists of the first aristocratic family, still not very cohesive and with a weak genealogical conscience, would take shape in the late twelfth century and especially throughout the thirteenth century a first Galician nobility that, for the first time, was structured in lineages or houses, endowed with a strong genealogical identity, manifested in the introduction of some armouries or a common surname, and organized under the power of the firstborn male, who become head of the family group. What we know as the old nobility arose, giving birth to great lineages such as the Novoa, Valladares, Deza, Ulloa and especially the Castro, the flower of this first Galician aristocracy.

This old nobility was destined to disappear in the midst of a cataclysm that would affect the Crown of Castile in the third quarter of the 14th century, caused by the Black Death of 1348 and especially by the confrontation of the Castilian nobility with King Peter I the Cruel (1350-1369), captained by the Count of Trastámara, Don Enrique, who in 1369, after killing the legitimate king, reached the throne as Henry II of Castile (1369-1379). While old families, such as the Castro, Meira, Camba or Parada families, took a secondary place or disappeared, a group of new lineages were at the head of the Galician aristocracy. Some of them had an illustrious history, others came from the small local nobility and a few came from far away. All, however, had one thing in common: at some point they had decided to abandon the legitimate king to support, on their way to the throne, the Count of Trastámara.

Among the noble houses that would make up the new Galician nobility there were lineages such as the Osorio, the Moscoso, the Andrade, the Sotomayor, the Suevos, the Ulloa or the Monterrey, but also some lineages that were alien to the reality of Galicia, that would end up being integrated into its noble fabric, like the Sarmiento family, lords of Bureba and Villamayor (Burgos), in charge of neutralizing the supporters of the late King Don Pedro in the lands of the northwest of the peninsula, or the Enríquez family, related to the new dynasty. Not much later, especially in the early fifteenth century, these newcomers would join the smaller branches of some of the great lineages Castilian-Leonese, as the Pimentel, from Zamora, or Zuñiga, from Béjar (Salamanca).

If the old Galician nobility had taken shape in a world still dominated by the great monasteries and the Church, this new nobility that emerged during the second half of the 14th century was destined to become the owner of the kingdom of Galicia, thanks not only to the abundant lands and income donated by the new Trastámara dynasty, but also to its rapacity and violence. The power achieved by this nobility would become such, that at times the royal power had difficulty in exercising its control over Galicia.

Deeply transformed in the late 14th century, the Galician aristocracy still had to undergo some changes before entering the Modern Age. In the second half of the 15th century, new lineages flourished in the heat of the Galician monasteries and cathedrals, which would become, from the 16th century, the foundation of the small provincial nobility that would feed an imaginary for more than four centuries, almost more as a nostalgic memory than as a reality, would be reflected in the dramatic trilogy Comedias bárbaras (1907-1922) by Ramón María del Valle-Inclán or in The House of Ulloa (1886) by Emilia Pardo Bazán. At the same time, the high aristocracy left Galicia, attracted since the time of the Catholic Kings (1474-1504) by the royal court: a path that would lead this nobility to move from the ideal of the medieval knight to the refined Renaissance courtier, inhabitant of new horizons that, as would happen with the great Counts of Lemos, would change the landscapes of the Ribeira Sacra to get lost among the palaces and mirrors of Naples and Madrid.


Route I

This route goes through some of the main fortresses and palaces of the Galician nobility linked to the Counts of Lemos and the Counts of Monterrey. We will start the route in the castle of Ponferrada (León), a town in León and yet closely linked to the Galician nobility, especially to the lords and counts of Lemos, until the disputes with the Manrique lineage caused the Catholic Monarchs to take the fortress for themselves in 1486 and hand over the castle's headquarters to the Marquises of Villafranca. We will then go to the castle of Cornatel (Priaranza del Bierzo, León), from the end of the 15th century, where its main builder, Pedro Álvarez Osorio, the first Count of Lemos, died in 1482. He would become, in the words of the Aragonese historian Jerónimo Zurita (1512-1580), the greatest lord of the kingdom of Galicia. After leaving Priaranza, we will head towards Monforte de Lemos (Lugo), the centre of power since the 14th century of the lords and subsequent counts of Lemos, which would house their castle, from the end of the 13th or beginning of the 14th century -very affected by the irmandiña revolt (1467-1469), caused by the abuses of the lords in large sectors of the kingdom, grouped in the Santa irmandade do reino de Galicia”-, and its palace condal, built in the seventeenth century on the remains of a medieval palace of the fifteenth century. Leaving Monforte, we will go to the monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil (Nogueira de Ramuín, Ourense), linked in its origins to the Count Gutierre Menéndez (around 865-934), the most important of the Galician aristocrats of the Leonese court, who would have interceded before the Leonese King Ramiro II for the restoration of the monastery in 921. We will finish the route in the castle of the Counts of Monterrey (Verín, Ourense), which, after long centuries linked to the royalty, would pass at the beginning of the 15th century to the hands of the Counts of Monterrey, who would deeply modify the castle, emphasizing, among the different interventions, the initiative of the Count Don Sancho de Ulloa, who raised in 1482 the tower of the homage, known as Torre Nueva, moving stone by stone to Verín the tower of another castle.

Where does the route take place?

  • Castillo de Ponferrada. León.
  • Castillo de Cornatel. León.
  • Torre del Homenaje de Monforte de Lemos. Lugo
  • Monasterio de Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil. Nogueira de Ramuín. Orense.
  • Castillo de los Condes de Monterrey. Verín. Orense

This route links with

The Galician nobility, owners of the destinies of the kingdom of Galicia (II): the Sotomayor, the Oca and the Counts of Maceda

By David Nogales Rincón, Professor of Medieval History at the Autonomous University of Madrid[...]

Know castles and palaces in this route

While being amazed by the Templar Castle is very easy, getting to know it is not that simple. With its 8,000 m2 of surface, it is considered one of the most important castles in the northwest of Spain and it is the main emblematic feature of the city of Ponferrada.

Its military architecture answers to centuries of history, where different inhabitants have left their imprint through subsequent constructions, reforms, abandonments and restorations. Having being declared National Monument in 1924 and Cultural Heritage Site (BIC, for its Spanish initials), it is not until the end of the 20th century when a great effort is made to restore the walls and rooms of the Castle.

The result is a multipurpose monument, where different exhibitions, musicals and recreational, didactic and religious activities take place. It has always had a privileged location in every respect. Geographically, it is an obligatory stopping point between the Plateau and Galicia, and a must for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

Tactically, its location on a hill on the banks of the Sil River has allowed the protection and defence of its territory and of the Way of Saint James. Locally, it is a reference landmark in the old town. Around it, we find important monumental buildings: the church of San Andrés, “las Cuadras” (Tourist Information Office), “Casa de los Escudos” (Coats of Arms House) (Radio Museum), the Basilica of Our Lady of the Encina, the convent of la Purísima Concepción, the old prison (Museum of El Bierzo), the Tower clock and street, the Town Hall and the old main square of las Eras.

The Templar Castle, the Way of Saint James and the city of Ponferrada have a closely linked past and future, since their stories are intertwined and it is not possible to get to know one without explaining the relationship with the others.

The Castle of Cornatel stands on a hillock of the Aquilanos Mountains, about 800 meters above sea level, in Villavieja, in the municipality of Priaranza del Bierzo, province of León.
It is a construction of a single wall covered by a walk (adarve) of defensive round, totally crenellated to the one that was acceded by means of ladders flown of slate. The abrupt rock in which it rises forced its builders to adapt the different buildings, raised at different heights, to such special circumstances, configuring an enclosure with a triangular plan.
Two of its flanks are walled, while the third, on the northeast slope, is especially impregnable naturally, since it is located vertically on a ravine at an approximate height of 180 meters on the stream of the Indrina, which runs at his feet. 
Several authors have referred to this castle since the end of the 19th century, almost always describing the remains visible on the surface or recording some historical data. Apart from these works, the building has been the object of several legends in relation to its possible connection, at a certain moment, to the order of the Templars, who were about one hundred years, from 1213 to 1312.
In this line the most well-known work is the novel of the Berciano romantic author Enrique Gil y Carrasco, entitled The Lord of Bembibre.

The current castle, built entirely of slate masonry, is dated, practically in its totality, on the end of the XV century, at the time of the first count of Lemos, lord of it. However, its historical origins could be traced back to much earlier dates that link it with the castle of the early medieval of Ulver, abundantly quoted in the documentation of the time, a theory accepted by most of the authors who have written about this fortification. However, some of them, among which we can mention Fernando Cobos, architect in charge of the Cornatel Master Plan, pointed out the existence in the surroundings of the castle of several depopulated with remains of structures that could have corresponded with Ulver.

The homage tower in Monforte de Lemos is part of the historical-artistic-monumental complex of San Vicente del Pino together with the Benedictine Monastery of San Vicente del Pino and the Condal Palace. This monumental complex is located on the top of San Vicente`s hill, located in the center of the village of Monforte.

This castle dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and is the highlest medieval tower in Galicia with just over 30 meters. It is characterized by having an almost square plant and having walls that can reach up to 3,5 meters thick in some points.

Inside the tower you can see all Kinds of furniture such as chests, cabinets, tables and chairs with the coat of arms of the old families of Lemos. The castle has four floors. The upper floor is finished by a set of successful machicolations and battlements. The basement was a storage place for food and water, as well as an emergency exit in the event of a siege.

The construction history of the building comprises two phases. The oldest, from the XII-XIV centuries, comprises the East face, a part of the South and a North corner. The other part, built between 1470 and 1485 after being destroyed between 1467 and 1469 because of the Great Irmandiña War, covers the West face and a part of the South and the North.

To conclude, note that Monforte´s Homage Tower had three functions in antiquity. The first and most important was to serve as a defense, the second to serve as residence for the Counts of Lemos and the third to honor and pay homage to the Counts themselves.

The historic site of San Vicente do Pino is located in the uppermost part of the town of Monforte de Lemos. It is made up of the keep, San Vicente do Pino Monastery and the palace of the counts of Lemos, which houses the Parador de Monforte. The monastery dates back to the 9th century, although the current structure was built in the 17th century in the neoclassical style. The building has a neoclassical central cloister with exceptionally well carved stonework. It is the ideal space for events, or simply to enjoy a stroll amid the silence and beauty of the stone.

You won't want to miss a visit to the Colegio de Los Escolapios (Piarist School), a majestic building more than 100 meters in length. Construction of the structure was begun in 1593 and completed in 1913, after more than three centuries of work. Its grandeur evokes El Escorial Monastery and its walls bear the coats of arms of the counts of Lemos, the House of Alba and the Piarist Fathers, who were responsible for completing the work. The school's museum, previously the sacristy, houses paintings by El Greco and Andrea del Sarto, among others.

Monforte de Lemos is also an exceptional location for exploring the Ribera Sacraregion, with its rivers, vineyards, Romanesque churches, gastronomy and festivals. In the area around the town you will discover indescribably beautiful landscapes, including the Sil River Canyon and the magical Sierra de O Caurel mountains.

While surrounded by the history embedded in this 9th Century palace you may exercise in the facilities of the Wellness Area including a gym and a jacuzzi or rest in the outdoor swimming pool accompanied by the silence and beauty emanating from the stone of this Neoclassical building. The perfect balance between fitness training and relaxation.



In the heart of the Ribeira Sacra region, a uniquely beautiful natural area in inland Galicia that is home to the Miño and Sil rivers, concealed within a great cloak of green woods, stands Santo Estevo Monastery, which has been converted into a beautiful Parador. The monastery's origins are believed to date back to the 6th and 7th centuries. It is easy to distinguish elements of the baroque and romanesque styles and the building has three incredible cloisters: one Romanesque, one Gothic and the third Renaissance, where you can spend a peaceful evening in a subdued atmosphere with the soft sounds of religious music as an accompaniment. Its beauty and historical features led the building to be declared a historic-artistic site in 1923.

77 guest rooms, each of them different, offer views of the green landscape and the amazing Sil River Canyon. At the Parador, you will also enjoy the restaurant terrace beside the chestnut wood; a terrace café in the porter's office cloister; beautiful, spacious function rooms perfect for celebrations; and lovely gardens. Peace and tranquility await in this beautiful place, which also features an exclusive spa with incredible views ... all you have to do is come for a stay.

Starting from the Parador, you can follow a number of unforgettable, unique and beautiful routes in an area that is never overcrowded by tourism. On the Ruta de los Catamaranes (Route of the Catamarans), you will navigate the beautiful Sil River Canyon, which offers a spectacular explosion of color in spring and autumn; the Ruta de los Miradores (Route of the Scenic Overlooks) has lovely picture postcard views of the riverbanks; and the essential Ruta del Románico (Route of the Romanesque) will take you to churches and monasteries dating from the late 12th and 13th centuries, surrounded by magical forests of oaks and chestnuts.

The Parador de Monterrei is located atop what many historians consider the largest acropolis in Galicia. Defensive site, pilgrim hospital...over the centuries, this location has been put to a number of different uses. And now you can stay here and experience the essence of Paradores for yourself.

The guest rooms of this enchanting hotel offer the best view in the area. The Parador's architectural layout makes it possible for guests to stay in the former Palacio de los Condes (Palace of the Counts - 7 rooms) or the Casa Rectoral (Parsonage - 5 guest rooms), both situated within the walled site. The Parador is located in Monterreal fortress, 2 km from Verín on the Madrid–Benavente–Vigo road, National Highway 525.This historic hotel is a travel destination in itself. The site houses the Castle, Palace of the Counts and Parsonage, accommodation areas, 13th-century Santa María de Gracia Church and the Watchtower, of which part of the walls have been preserved.


Know the environment

Verín is a lovely town in the southeast of the province of Ourense, on the banks of the Támega River. In addition to the medieval fortress of Monterrei (opposite the Parador), other areas of interest include La Merced Square, the spring at Cabreiroá, San Lázaro Chapel, Viriato Square, the avenue along the Támega River, La Alameda Gardens, El Rey Square and the Main Square.

The town was originally a Roman villa. During the medieval period, the villa lost its dominance and Monterrey became the focal point of the territory, with life in the district revolving around its counts and lords. It was a peaceful farming town in the Middle Ages, although often caught up in the military conflicts of the successive rulers of Monterrey, as well as border disputes between Spain and Portugal.