King Pelayo at the Basilica of Covadonga

The Asturian Crown: The Princess of Asturias and Asturian Kings

Being Dutch, I love to dress myself in orange to celebrate our King’s birthday at the end of April. This is one of the days I miss The Netherlands the most. Fortunately, Asturias has (had) its own kings! With the Princess of Asturias Awards being handed out this Friday the 16th, I dived into Asturias’ royal history. To find out that the title ‘Princess of Asturias’ and the Asturian Kings are actually not that closely related…

Nevertheless, I introduce two famous kings of Asturias. Both of them shaped the Asturian identity. Moreover, they are responsible for two of the major tourist hotspots of Asturias. Meet King Pelayo and King Alfonso II!

The Asturian Crown

The Kingdom of Asturias arose in 718 and transitioned into the Kingdom of Leon in 910. In this period, a dozen Asturian kings ruled the region. They fought Muslims, Galicians and Basks. One committed fratricide. Another king got a bastard son with a Moorish slave girl, while a third one got killed by a brown bear. Not very different from what we usually learn about kings in television series, I would say.

If you want to learn more about the Asturian kings, visit the exhibition in the old church of Cangas de Onis. This is one of the four former courts of the Asturian kings. Another place to visit is the garden of Oviedo’s cathedral. It houses a sculpture of each of the twelve Asturian kings, worth a short (free) visit. 

Garden of Oviedo’s cathedral
Asturian Kings in the Cathedral’s garden

King Pelayo: Asturias’ first king

At the start of the 8th century, Muslims occupied almost all of Spain. To win back their country, the Spanish began a rebellion. This is what we know as the ‘Reconquista’; the recapturing of their land by the Spanish people. This actually took quite a while: almost 800 years before the whole of Spain was retaken!

This famous episode in Spanish history started in Covadonga, Asturias. In 718 the people of Asturias decided to stand up against the Muslim rule. Some say the trigger for the uprising was a tax increase.

King Pelayo, Covadonga
King Pelayo, Covadonga

Others tell the story of Don Pelayo, a powerful and wealthy man. The then Muslim governor of Gijon proposed to marry Pelayo’s sister. In a reaction to what he saw as an insult, Pelayo started leading the revolt. A punitive expedition was then sent from Cordoba. However, Pelayo defeated the Muslims in 722 during the Battle of Covadonga. He raised a wooden cross while fighting. Moreover, the Virgin Mary helped him obtain the victory! Nowadays, this famous Victory Cross is depicted all over Asturias.

Pelayo became the first King of Asturias. He died in 737. His remains are buried in Covadonga’s little chapel, where the Virgin of Covadonga still watches over him.

Virgin of Covadonga
Chapel of the Virgin of Covadonga with the tomb of King Pelayo

King Alfonso II: Asturias’ most influential king

King Alfonso II (791- 842) is Asturias’ most influential king. Some of Asturias’ most famous neo-Romanesque buildings were built under his reign, as well as part of Oviedo’s city wall, aqueducts and fountains. However, a more personal physical exercise led to a phenomenon now known around the world: his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, in Galicia. Alfonso II is the world’s very first pilgrim undertaking this quest, and here’s why.

King Alfonso II
King Alfonso II

The apostle James, Santiago in Spanish, returned to Jerusalem after preaching the Gospel in Spain (including Galicia). There, he was beheaded, but his followers found a way to bring him back to Galicia and buried him there.

One day in the 9th century, a strange light from heaven shone on a tomb in a Galician forest. People soon agreed that this had to be the last resting place from the apostle Santiago. Alfonso II, at that moment already King of Asturias, decided to see this with his own eyes. He undertook the journey to what is now Santiago de Compostela. Not on foot, as 100.000’s of pilgrims did the last centuries, but more or less comfortably on a horseback.

Sign of Camino Primitivo in Oviedo
Sign of Camino Primitivo in Oviedo

The discovery of the tomb was actually great timing for the King. This religious motivation created unity among his people to continue with the Reconquista. And that this was necessary, is evident from the construction of a fortress by Alfonso II to shelter from invading Hixem II, the then emir of Cordoba. The fortress is now castle Priorio which you can see during one of our tours.

Fairytale castle Priorio
Fairytale Castle Priorio

After Alfonso II, three more Kings ruled over Asturias. The reign of Alonso III marked the end of the Asturian monarchy. In 910 it transitioned into the Kingdom of Leon.   

The title ‘Prince or Princess of Asturias’

A few centuries later, John, the Duke of Lancaster, and King Juan I of Castilla, rivalled over the Castilian throne. On July 8, 1388, they signed the Treaty of Bayonne. The Duke renounced all his rights over the Castilian throne when his daughter Catherine married the first-born son of King Juan, the future Henry III. They received the title ‘Prince and Princess of Asturias’. This was the highest jurisdictional lordship the King could grant that had not yet been granted to anyone. It is similar to the title ‘Prince of Wales’, for example.

The Spanish king took over the custom of entitling their heir the title ‘Prince of Asturias’. In total, we have had 24 Princess and 12 Princesses of Asturias. Of these three Princesses, so far, only three have ascended the throne. However, this will change when the current Princess of Asturias, Leonor, will take over her fathers’ tasks in the future.  

Princess of Asturias Awards

The Princess of Asturias award ceremony is a major yearly event for Asturias and for Oviedo specifically. It takes place in Oviedo’s theatre Campoamor.

Teatro Campoamor, location of the Princess of Asturias Awards
Teatro Campoamor, location of the Princess of Asturias Awards

The Awards are handed out to persons or organizations playing an important role, both nationally and internationally, in science, culture or humanities. Famous winners are, for example, Woody Allen and mountaineer Reinhold Messner. This year, the Spanish first-line sanitarians fighting Covid-19 receive an award. It is an expression of encouragement and gratefulness for the hard work they have been doing for all of us in recent months!

Do you want to learn more about the history of Asturian Kings yourself? See the fairytale castle Priorio? Or hike part of the famous Camino de Santiago? Check our guided tours or contact us to design a fully customized trip to Asturias for you!

If you want to plan your stay in Asturias, make sure to take advantage of these useful links to book your trip:

  • Book your accommodation in, for example, Cangas de Onis or Oviedo with They compare the prices of different booking sites, giving you the best deals!
  • If an Airbnb experience is more your style, book it here.    

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