We have seen that Alfonso II and Bishop Theodemir took an interest in the discovery of a tomb which they claimed must have been St. James. A church was built – not a very impressive one by all accounts. Most texts claim monastic buildings erected there also, although by no means all. Things go on without much ceremony at the simple church for some time. The Battle of Clavijo comes and goes with, or without, St. James depending on whether you want to ignore history or not. Ordoño succeeds Ramiro and then he too passes into that great battle in the sky, or wherever it is that warring kings choose to go. There is then a brief dispute about territory as Alfonso III comes to the throne.
Remember it is Oviedo which is the centre of all the action at this point. Galicia is little more than a troublesome outpost – hard to get at. Count Froila of Galicia makes an appearance here by trying to claim some property belonging to the church at Santiago (we are not told whether this was actually in or near Compostela. Churches used to own property well away from the actual church precincts). Froila is defeated, and after his death the lands are returned to the church. As a mark of “gratitude” to St. James (for being on the right side) Alfonso III sends a jewelled cross to the church of St. James in Compostela which bears the words Hoc Signo Vincitur Inimicus. Just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge,the Roman Emperor Constantine was said to have had a vision in which he saw a cross in the sky. He dreamed that this meant “By this sword you shall conquer”. That the Latin words mean more of less the same, Alfonso clearly intended as a parallel with his golden gift. St. James was to be seen on the side of the righteous and dutiful, not the enemy. This, at a point where the Moors were overrunning the Peninsula and moving north at an accelerated rate, is not a point to be overlooked in our story of how the Cult of St. James began. (This, by the way is the accepted term, not mine.)
There follows a period in which Alfonso and Bishop Sisnando begin to heap rewards on the church of Santiago and the little wattle and daub church is thought not to be grand enough to receive such attention. Alfonso digs deep into his pockets (or whatever they had in those days) and a new and improved church is built, bigger, better. In 899 no less than 17 bishops come to the consecration, one from as far away as Zaragosa. As if St. James’ remains were not enough, Alfonso adds relics from Santas Leocadia, and Eulalia too.
Around about this time there is evidence of a letter written by Alfonso to the clergy of Tours in France, famous for being the burial place of St. Martin. It would appear that a question had come Alfonso’s way: “Who is buried in Galicia?” His response is unequivocal: “Let them know that it is James the son of Zebedee.” The letter makes reference to miracles at the site which would seem to indicate that some pilgrimage on what was later to become the Camino de Santiago had already begun.
What I find intriguing about this letter is that Alfonso seems to be asking for some assistance setting up his relics shop. He asks for more information about St. Martin, (who was a contemporary of Priscillian, not in agreement with Priscillian’s form of Christianity but appalled by the treatment he received. It is St. Martin’s biographer Sulpicius Severus who has provided just about everything you will read about Priscillian with the agreement of the Catholic Church, i.e. not very sympathetic). Alfonso wants details: miracles etc. Fletcher makes the acerbic observation that perhaps Alfonso is “…a man who is still something of a beginner in the business of shrine promotion”.
Yet despite all the fuss surrounding Compostela at this time, Oviedo is still the royal seat and it was characteristic for relics to be translated to more important centres. Oviedo was a “veritable spiritual fortress” at the time (I had the same observation as Fletcher when I visited Braga this year. There are so many relics there that when I saw the word SAN ITARIOS on a wall in the Cathedral it took a minute for it to dawn on me that this was the sign for the toilets. True story! That’s what happens when you get research-obsessed).
Where was I?
Ah yes…I think the point that intrigues me at this point is: why didn’t Alfonso take the remains to Oviedo to add to his collection? That is what kings in those days did. Alfonso III didn’t.