Saint James was one of the 12 Apostles, known as ‘James the Greater’. He was a son of Zebedee and a brother of John the Apostle and the brothers were also related to Jesus himself.
The name James is found in different forms in modern day Spanish, including Santiago, Iago, Jaime, Diego and Jacobo. In Gallego, the language of Galicia, you will see variants such as Xaime and Xacobe.
It is believed that after Jesus’ death, James came to modern day Spain to preach, but returned to Rome about 7 years later, only to be beheaded on the order of Herod sometime around the year A.D. 44. As this is the only death of an apostle recorded in the New Testament, James is said to be the first apostle to have been martyred.
Upon his death, legend has it that James’ followers secretly took his body away to avoid the fate of it being torn asunder, placing it in a marble or stone boat which somehow found its way to the Galician coast at Iria Flavia (modern day Padrón). The name Padrón takes its name from the stone flag to which they moored the boat (pedrón in Gallego) and the town is now perhaps most famous for the ‘Pimientos de Padrón’, a dish of peppers with varying degrees of spiciness!
The body of James was buried at a rural hillside in Libredón along with those of Atanasio and Teodoro, two of his followers, where it would remain undiscovered for 750 years.
In 813, a local hermit named Pelayo was drawn to this spot by a bright star. From this probably comes the modern day name of ‘Santiago De Compostella’, meaning ‘Saint James of the field of the star’. The local bishop, Theodomirus declared that the newly discovered bones were those of St. James and his two followers and subsequently, James was declared the patron saint of Spain by Alfonso II. King of Asturias.
The timing of these events couldn’t have been better as it was a time when Christian Spain was in danger of being completely overrun by the Moors. In 844, the Battle of Clavijo (near modern day Logroño) saw an outnumbered Christian force overcome a Moorish force, aided by the apparent appearance of St. James on a horse. This image of ‘Santiago Matamoros’, James, the killer of Moors, was to be a continued inspiration to Christians in their fight to reclaim their land from the Moors.
King Ramiro I of Asturias ordered that a pilgrimage should be made to the shrine of St. James in gratitude and over the next couple of centuries the pilgrimage grew in importance. Perhaps the greatest factor in this growth in importance was the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims, thus closing off that particular pilgrimage avenue for Christians.
The growth of the Camino led to the birth of many towns bearing its name, such as Rabanal Del Camino and Boadilla Del Camino. Many new refugios sprung up to provide shelter for the pilgrims and religious orders grew in prominence in step with the increase in traffic along the way. One of these orders was the Knights Templar whose influence can still be seen in many ways from the castle in Ponferrada (see photo) the placename of Terradillos de los Templarios. It is said that the Templars were the first large banking institution in Europe as they developed a system of honouring letters of credit from the church hierarchy. Indeed, the Templars grew so much in importance that the became a perceived threat to the Church itself and on Friday 13th of October, 1307, the Grand Master of the order, Jacques De Molay, was executed along with many of the order’s leaders. Legend has it that this is the reason for Friday the 13th to be considered bad luck.
In 1179, Pope Alexander III decreed that a plenary indulgence would be granted to anybody who completed the pilgrimage in a Holy Year, that being a year when July 25th fell on a Sunday. This is a tradition that continues to this day and the numbers undergoing the pilgrimage spike in Holy Years, the most recent being 2010 and the next being in 2021.
The Camino grew in popularity amongst both nobles and peasants and even saw the practice of nobles sending servants to walk the Camino on their behalf, either to gain the plenary indulgence or as an atonement for the sins of the nobles. Needless to say, the benefits were all snapped up by the nobles!
In 1488, the great Spanish rulers, Queen Isabel of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragón (whose daughter, Catherine of Aragón, married Henry VIII of England) undertook the pilgrimage and while this was a golden age in the history of Spain, it also marked the decline in importance of the Camino. Different factors led to the Camino falling into disuse over a period of centuries – the plague swept across Europe and the continent became embroiled in a series of wars. The relics of St. James also went missing from 1588-1879, adding to the apathy towards the Camino.
In 1879, the relics were found again when the cathedral in Santiago was being remodelled. While the return to popularity was slow initially, the 1980’s can be seen as the rebirth of the Camino to the point today where numbers have now passed the 200,000 per annum mark. In 1987, it was declared the first European cultural itinerary while 6 years later, it joined UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Pope John Paul II’s journeys to Santiago further increased its popularity and today we find ourselves taking part in an incredible movement with a history spanning three millennia.
Bishops and Knights, Kings and Queens, Princes and Paupers. All crossing mountains and rivers, staying in huts and castles, facing into weather both glorious and inclement. They all got blisters like you will, they ate the same food and drank the same wine. It’s a shared history and your footprints can make their mark alongside those who have passed before you. It’s waiting there for you.