Brief History – Saint James is the patron saint of Spain and, according to legend, his remains are held in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

Homo Antecessor / Atapuerca


The Past  The Changing Course of History

The earliest human remains ever discovered in Europe are to be found on a small hill directly on the Camino Francés at Atapuerca. So we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors who have been accorded the scientific nameHomo Antecessor and dated to over 900,000 years B.C. In recognition of the unique part Atapuerca plays in our understanding of the way of life of the first human communities the site was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1998.

The Megalithic period (c. 4000 B.C.) is best known for the building of great mega stone structures sometimes referred to as Dolmens or Mamoas. They are the early ‘cathedrals’ of our ancestors and were aligned to the winter solstice sun and connected to sun worship. Some of the best examples can be found along the Camino in Galicia. This megalithic culture was deeply religious and left a powerful impact on the peoples who followed.

The early Celtic period (c. 1,000 B.C.) witnessed central European Celts settling in northwestern Spain and Portugal, inter-marrying with the Iberians and giving rise to the Celtiberian tribes. Remains of their Celtic villages Castros can be seen dotted around the remote countryside, especially in Galicia, but examples also exist along other parts of the camino.

Roman Milario / Valença

The early Roman period (c. 200 B.C.) saw the occupation of the Iberian peninsular – the Romans were attracted by the rich mining potential of the area. Decimus Junius Brutus was the first Roman general to break the fierce resistance of the Celtiberian tribe known as the Lusitani who occupied the area around the Miño valley. Brutus fought his way to the end of the world Finis terra, a place of immense spiritual significance at that time.

The early Christian Period (c. 40 A. D.) While there may be no historical evidence to support the contention that St. James preached in Galicia, there is some anecdotal testimony to that effect. It appears that some years after Christ’s crucifixion, St. James sailed to Galicia (probably Padrón) and commenced his ministry amongst the pagan population. It is reasonable to assume that he and his followers would have known about the importance of Finisterre as one of the foremost places of Druidic ritual and initiation. Indeed Jesus himself may have called in there on his way back from a reputed visit to Britain with Joseph of Aramathea during his ‘missing’ years. It was common practice for the early Christian church to seek out such sites on which to graft its own message. Capes Finisterre and San Vicente had to be rounded in order to enter the Mediterranean and thence Palestine. St. James’s mission met with only limited success and he returned to Jerusalem, where Herod, in 42 A.D., summarily beheaded him. Following his martyrdom, St. James’ disciples brought his body back to Padrón to be buried in Libredon, later to be renamed Santiago de Compostela. This period marks the beginning of the San Tiago story in Spain but the mists of time grew over these remarkable events, until they finally disappeared from collective memory.

Santiago Matamoros / Tui Cathedral
Santiago Matamoros / Tui Cathedral
The Santiago story re-emerges in 813. Although St. Isodore of Seville wrote about St. James’s mission in Spain in the 7th century, it was not until the early part of the 9th century that a shepherd named Pelayo was drawn to a field by a ‘bright light’ or star. Thus we have, the field campos of the stars stella of Saint James Sant Iago, which gives usSantiago de Compostela. Other accounts suggest the name comes from the Latin for burial componere, as there is evidence of a Roman cemetery on this spot built over earlier Celtic remains. Either way, the Bishop of Iria Flavia (Padrón) Theodomirus seized the moment and ‘confirmed’ the discovery of the tomb of the Apostle and so the story of St. James was resurrected in perfect timing to spearhead the reconquest reconquista of Spain for Christianity, starting with the battle of Clavijo in 844 to the decisive victory at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and each time St. James appeared at the crucial moment to turn the tide of battle. Thus we have the image of St. James the Moor-slayer Santiago Matamoros, depicted as the knight in shining armour astride a white charger decapitating Moors with his sword. On the strength of these successes, St. James became the patron saint of Spain, a position that he enjoys to this day. The first written record of pilgrimage to Santiago also belongs to this period when Bishop Gotescalco journeyed here in 950 and in 1072 Alfonso VI abolished tolls for all pilgrims travelling up into Galicia through Val Carce.
Santiago Peregrino / Porto Cathedral
Between the 12th and 14th centuries Santiago de Compostela grew in importance and prestige, at times even eclipsing the pilgrim routes to Jerusalem and Rome. It is remarkable that tens of thousands of pilgrims chose to suffer the hazards of this route every year during the Middle Ages. A combination of the relative accessibility of the route and the miracles associated with the relics of the Saint beneath the magnificent cathedral were certainly contributing factors in its popularity. The Camino de Santiago was now firmly established and from this period we see the gentler image of St. James the Pilgrim Santiago Peregrino portrayed all along the route with staff, bible, wide brim hat to keep off the sun and scallop shell concha. One of the great exponents of the camino in the 12th century was Pope Calixtus II who instigated the privileges of the Compostelan Holy Years. It was at this time that the French priest Aymeric Picaud from Parthenay-le-Vieux near Poitou travelled the pilgrim road. He recorded his experiences in detail in 5 volumes that became known as the Codex Calixtinus in honour of the incumbent Pope. Book 5 is known as the Book of St. James Liber Sancti Jacobi and is essentially the first travel guide to the caminodividing it into 13 stages commencing at Saint-Michel by St. Jean Pied de Port.
Templar Fortress / Tomar

The increasing activity gave rise to many religious and chivalrous orders dedicated to the protection of the pilgrim and the furtherance of the aim of the Crusades to re-establish Christianity, not only in the Holy Land, but specifically in Spain. While there has been extensive research into the Camino de Santiago and the background events that helped to shape the physical route we walk today, its esoteric heritage is less well documented. For many, theKnights Templar with their links to the contemporary Western mystery tradition became a corner stone in this ‘hidden’ heritage of the camino. Their secret initiation rites and Gnostic (as opposed to literalist) interpretations of biblical events coupled with their rising influence throughout the Western world, became a threat to the power base of the Papacy and the Catholic Monarchies and led to their eventual downfall. Pope Gregory and King Philip of France joined forces and on Friday 13th October 1307, Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Order, and the majority of the Knights Templar were arrested and subsequently put to death. The legacy of this massacre lives on in our collective folk memory as the reason why Friday 13th is considered unlucky.

With the demise of the Knights Templar in Spain there disappeared one of the original protectors of both the outer pilgrim pathway and its inner mysteries. Much of the property and commanderies of the Knights Templar along the French and Spanish caminos were transferred to the Hospitallers of St. John who already had a strong presence there. These illustrious orders influenced the development of many of the towns and cities we travel through today, such as Pamplona, Burgos, León, Santiago, not to mention the many villages and hamlets that maintained pilgrim hospitals to house and protect the pilgrims that travelled this route and the many other caminos that snaked their way across Spain to Santiago. In this way the caminos provided a framework for the re-emergence of Catholicism throughout Spain. In Portugal the story was a little different. The Knights held a very strong position there, funding and spearheading the Discoveries. Several of the monarchs, even Henry ‘the Navigator’, being grand masters. So the order did a name change to the Knights of Christ, placing a white border around the former red cross of the Knights to show it had been ‘purified’ which partially satisfied the Papal decree to outlaw the original order.

Hostal Reyes Catolicos / Santiago

The Catholic Monarchs (1479 – 1808). Spain’s ‘Golden Age’ sprang from the union of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando V of Aragón. Isabel la Católica is widely regarded as the most influential ruler in Spanish history. She oversaw the reconquista and the collapse of Islam and Moorish rule in Iberia and was a great advocate of pilgrimage building the famous pilgrim hostel in Santiago (now a Parador that is required to offer pilgrims a free meal on arrival). More notoriously, Isabel instigated the Inquisition and ruthlessly stamped out all ‘heretical’ sects, expelling the Jews from Spain in the process. She then set about financing and promoting the ‘discovery’ of the new world and the plunder of its ancient riches. 1492 marked both the Discovery of the Americas by Columbus and the final reconquest of Granada under her rule. She must have regretted marrying off her daughter, Catherine of Aragon, to Henry VIII but would, no doubt, have been pleased that her grandson Charles V became Holy Roman Emperor and married, rather more fortuitously, Isabel of Portugal. This deft move added the considerable wealth of Portugal and her overseas dominions to an already impressive list of assets.

The only surviving (legitimate) child from the marriage of Charles and Isabel acceded to the throne in 1556 becoming Felipe II of Spain (and Philip I of Portugal) and effectively the first King of a united Hispanic peninsular. This marks the high point of Spanish influence abroad. Things began to go downhill from here on, starting with the ill-advised Spanish support of Mary Queen of Scots’ claim to the English throne and the ensuing ill-fated Armada in 1588. The power and influence of the monarchy continued its downward spiral over the next centuries ending withThe Peninsular War and the First Republic (1808 – 1810). The advent of the industrial revolution and a more materialistic orientation led to a dramatic fall off in the numbers going on pilgrimage and from this time we see the decline of pilgrim villages along the routes to Santiago.

Santigo Airport

The Present: Breakdown and Breakthrough:

Two centuries of rampant materialism have resulted in a spiritual aridity unparalleled in human history. Statistics reveal a collapse in church attendance matched by a significant fall in the numbers entering the priesthood. Recent surveys show that Spain, until recently seen as a deeply religious society, now has less than 20% of its population actually practising Catholicism.

Yet here is the rub – in this same period the numbers entering the Camino de Santiago has soared and the pilgrim figures have risen tenfold in a decade. How do we interpret these trends? There seems little doubt that there is a great thirst for genuine spiritual experience and a deep desire to refresh and enliven our religious life. It has been suggested by a leading Christian moderator that we have become bored and disillusioned with the religion we have been fed since childhood and this is leading to a collapse of formalised religious practice.

Modern Pilgrim / Cross

A Future PerspectiveA New Age of Pilgrimage:

There are many explanations for the anomalies and sweeping changes confronting us today. Each of us will read the signs and interpret these to develop our own future scenarios. I favour the emerging concept of a new and unprecedented flowering of human consciousness that is so positive and profound that we have no collective idea where it will lead us. We have become so spiritually dehydrated that we are now desperate to drink directly from the Divine Well itself and our thirst will no longer be slaked by drinking from a substitute or tainted source. We are awakening to a new spiritual age – one less dependent on an outer authority and more attuned to the God within. Conjecture is rife, but we cannot deny the statistics that point, on the one hand, to collapse and, on the other hand, to renewal. While the death of the old can be alarming, the birth of the new is always exciting. Something is undoubtedly ‘astir in the land’ and what we are witnessing is, perhaps, a collective emergence to a new spiritual reality directing our lives.

Of course, the more cynical might point to tourism, now the single largest industry in the world, as the reason for the sudden rise in the interest in the Camino de Santiago. Truth is relative and human nature such that we each will tend towards a theory that reinforces our individual belief systems. Today, Santiago flourishes as a centre of both tourism and pilgrimage, but the ancient path itself is less susceptible to commercialisation. El Camino is rousing itself from centuries of slumber and its potential to exert a positive influence on the changes confronting us at every turn along the way is enormous. The spirit of St. James and the camino is alive and well and ready to assist each one of us in formulating a new and positive future quite unlike anything we have experienced in the past.