Great historical article from Catholic World Report.
Soon after the March, 2004 bombing of Madrid’s Atocha train station by Al Qaeda partisans, there were calls to remove the statue of Saint James the Moorslayer from Spain’s famous cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The Madrid carnage—191 dead, 2000 more injured—stunned the country. The government hoped that Muslims would find Spain friendlier if the “offensive” Matamoros was banished. But the Spanish people protested vigorously against removal of an iconic image that figures so prominently in the nation’s history.
Today is the feast day of Saint James the Greater. Millions of pilgrims have trekked across four ancient pilgrim paths that thread through Europe, converging in the Pyrenees, then across northwestern Spain to the tomb of St. James at his shrine in Santiago de Compostela (St. James of the Starry Field).
Modern pilgrims walk the Camino, “The Way of St. James,” in the footsteps of great pilgrims of the past, including St. Godric of Norfolk, El Cid, St. Francis of Assisi, John of Gaunt, and Lorenzo de Medici. Henry II, father of Richard the Lionhearted, offered to make the pilgrimage in expiation for the murder of St. Thomas Becket. Historians credit the forging of a common European identity to the Camino de Santiago. Through the centuries Christian pilgrims have built great monasteries, abbeys, and hospitals along these roads, along with a shared culture—art, architecture, fashion, literature, and faith.
Pilgrimage fervor suffered when the Reformation split Europe, dividing European identities and loyalties. Interest surged again in the 1980s; today more than a quarter million pilgrims a year set off for Santiago where archeologists have found inscriptions for the Apostle’s two disciples, and where Christians believe the Son of Zebedee himself lies in a silver casket.
The apostle James, along with his brother John, and Simon Peter were Jesus’ confidantes. They alone among the apostles were present at the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane. James preached in Spain after the disciples went forth following the Resurrection. He was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 42 A.D., the first apostle to die, the first apostle martyred. His followers returned James’ body to Spain, burying his remains in Galicia in the northwestern corner of the peninsula. And there the apostle lay forgotten until 813, when most of Spain groaned under the Saracen boot.
A Muslim storm burst from North Africa over most of Iberia in 711 A.D. taking Christians captive, pillaging towns and swarming north over the Pyrenees into France. By 800, Christians had been backed into the northernmost region and a humiliating tribute of a 100 virgins per year was demanded of local governors.
The twelfth-century collection of history, verse, liturgy, and travelogue about the Camino, known as Codex Calixtinus, records a legend that Charlemagne himself had a vision of a knightly protector who identified himself as St. James (Sant Iago, Santiago), the apostle of Jesus Christ:
Look you, my body is in Galicia, but no man knoweth where and the Saracens oppress the land…the starry sky signifies you shall go to Galicia at the head of a great host and after you all peoples shall come in pilgrimage even till the end of time…and your name shall abide in the memory of man until the Day of Judgment.
The warrior emperor was to liberate the roadway that ran to the tomb. In Galicia, James’ burial crypt had been rediscovered in 813 and a small chapel was built (by Bishop Teodomir) to protect it. Myth or miracle, a rout now known as the Battle of Clavijo was fought in the year 844 by desperate Christians with their backs against the mountains, led by Ramiro 1 of Asturias. Suddenly, there appeared a heavenly horseman, sword aloft, who slew every Muslim in his path: Santiago Matamoros. Inspired by their champion, the faithful began the reconquest of Spain.
Seven hundred years later Queen Isabella finally recovered all of Spain from Muslim rule. She immediately pawned her jewels to finance Christopher Columbus. Isabella, who built hospitals for pilgrims along the Camino, knew that Christianity must evangelize any lands beyond the horizon, lest Mohammed’s forces dominate the world. Today’s politically correct agenda overlooks Isabella’s urgent hope. But there is confirmation of her intent in a letter from Columbus to an official “Treat the Natives with the utmost kindness. Protect them from all wrong and insult…and ever bear in mind that their majesties are more desirous of the conversion of natives than any riches to be derived from them.”