The last time I was in Santiago de Compostela, it was crowded with Germans, most of whom were named Heckler & Koch. I could almost hear Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It in my head swearing that there were enough goons hovering around to stage a coup d’état. In fact I probably haven’t seen that many guns since I was defending the armoury in Ballymullen or Sarsfield barracks during my late teens in the FCA (Irish military reserve). It was 25th July 2022, the feast of Santiago, and the cathedral and much of its surrounds were off limits for several hours, as King Filipe VI and his family were visiting. There were even five soldiers outside the bar on the Rúa de San Francisco where I stopped in for tortilla. I imagine nobody was going to try a dine-and-dash that day.
The Spanish monarchs make a tradition of visiting the cathedral during Jubilee years (those in which the feast day of Santiago falls on a Sunday), and it got me thinking about why this might be so. Historically, royal pilgrims’ reasons for journeying were not that different from those of people much farther down the social ladder, which may broadly be divided into two (somewhat self-focused?) categories – asking for help, and acknowledging help received.
The earliest pilgrim to Santiago whose name is known was an early ninth-century king – Alfonso II of Asturias – whose supposed route from Oviedo (modern Asturias) through Lugo (Galicia) is now known as the Camino Primitivo (‘The First/Original Way’). Alfonso ‘the Chaste’ is a figure of incredible importance for the history of Spain, possessed of deep religious conviction and the first great benefactor of the cult of Santiago. Perhaps he went to ask for help? His northern kingdom had come under considerable pressure from military campaigns by Hisham I of Córdoba (d. 796) and his son Al-Hakam I (d.822), but he weathered the storm. People have a tendency to think that modern actions and historical figures are more important than those of the remoter past, but it could easily be argued that in the longue dureé of Spanish history Alfonso II is more significant than Franco.
Fast-forward six hundred years and Isabella of Castile (1451–1504), famous with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon as the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ (Los Reyes Católicos) and sponsor of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, supposedly went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to pray for an heir. Their successor as monarch of a newly created/unified Spain was their unfortunate daughter Joanna the Mad (Juana la Loca), who was muscled out of power and kept in confinement for most of her adult life, but who is nonetheless an ancestor of the current kings of Spain.
Maybe Filipe went to say a prayer of thanks?