The history of the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St.James dates back to the 9th century when according to the legend the first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela took place. Since then millions of pilgrims from all over the world on foot, horse, or bicycle completed the Camino de Santiago. Since the Middle Ages, the Way has been an important part of European culture uniting pilgrims from all over the world regardless of their nationality and social status.
I’ve just finished reading Los Misterio del Camino de Santiago by Blanco Corredoira which contains legends, miracles, and the history of the Way of St.James. The book inspired me to write a post on the history of the Camino. Unfortunately, the book is available only in Spanish. If you know Spanish it’ll be interesting reading for you.
There are some English books about the history of the Camino de Santiago.
Disclosure: Stingy Nomads take part in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. When you buy something recommended in this post, we may get an affiliate commission — but it never affects your price or what we pick.
- The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook.
- Walking Guide to the Camino de Santiago History Culture Architecture from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre.
- Walking the Middle Ages on the Camino de Santiago: The History Behind the Way.
Table of Contents
The Legend of St.James
Apostle St.James or St.James the Great (as opposed to Apostle James the Less) is one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. St. James’s name in Spanish is Santiago, that’s why the Spanish name of the Way of St.James is the Camino de Santiago. St.James is the patron saint of Spain.
St.James and his younger brother St.John were among the first four Jesus’ disciples. As a member of the inner circle together with St.Paul and St.John, St.James was one of the three apostles who were selected by Jesus to witness his Transfiguration.
12 years after the crucifixion of Jesus his apostles went to different parts of the world to spread the Word of God. Only Apostle St.James the Less stayed in Jerusalem as a head of the local church. Apostle St.James went to evangelize people in Hispania. After spending some time baptizing people in Spain he selected the seven disciples and returned to Jerusalem. Where in 44AD St.James was beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa I. According to the New Testament, St.James was the first Apostle to be martyred for his zeal for Jesus.
It’s believed that after the execution the body of the apostle was transferred by his disciples from Jerusalem to Galicia in what is called a series of miraculous events. After the execution, the body was carried to a wooden boat to transfer the remains of St.James to Spain. Two of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore were in charge of the transfer. It’s said that the journey from Jerusalem to the shore of Galicia took 7 days. The navigation was filled with grace and power. After 7 days the party arrived in Spain successfully escaping pirates, and overcoming storms, and other challenges along the way.
The procession disembarked at Iria Flavia (nowadays Padrón) in Galicia. The Spiritual Way of the Portuguese Camino follows the last part of the journey along the Galician coast (Translatio). The last stage of the Spiritual Way from Vilanova de Arousa to Padrón is on a boat. On arrival in Galicia, the disciples had to face more challenges before they finally could bury the saint. The body of St.James was buried on the top of the mountain known as Pico Sacro (sacred peak).
After burying the body Athanasius and Theodore headed to the extreme west point of Galicia Finis Terrae (end of the earth) where they spent the rest of their days. Finis Terrae was a perfect place for the ultimate refugee for those who believed that any day might be their last day. Every day they could watch the sun going down into the ocean thinking that it might be their last sunset.
Nowadays the route from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre (the modern name of the place) is known as the Camino Finisterre. Many pilgrims walk it after completing one of the other Camino de Santiago routes. Athanasius and Theodore according to their wish were buried next to Apostle St.James. The tomb of St.James contains the remains of the saint and his two disciples.
The discovery of the tomb of the Apostle
For many centuries the burial place of St.James was forgotten. Only at the beginning of the 9th century, an ancient tomb was discovered in the area that later would be called Compostela. It was believed that the tomb contained the body of St.James. According to the legend, around 920, the bishop of Iria Flavia sent a letter to the King of Asturias Alfonso II el Casto containing information about a small chapel and a tomb that was found in the forest called Libredon. Miraculous lights among other signals indicated the location of the tomb that was believed to belong to the Apostle St.James.
After confirming the discovery Alfonso II ordered the construction of a small stone church in that place. Some years later under the reign of Alfonso III, a bigger church of stone and marble was built instead.
The discovery of the tomb of St.James became the beginning of the history of the Camino de Santiago. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, the cult of Santiago played a key role in Spanish resistance against the Muslim invasion of the northern territories. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela created an important connection between Spain and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages.
The first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
According to tradition, the first pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago was carried out by the King of Asturias Alfonso II around 820. It’s believed that he started his pilgrimage in Oviedo (the capital of the kingdom) following the route that is now known as the Camino Primitivo or the Original Way referring to the fact that it was the first Camino route ever walked. There is no certainty about the pilgrimage; when and if it took place. For the first time, the pilgrimage of Alfonso II was mentioned in the chronicles in the 11th century. It’s impossible to say with certainty if Alfonso II ever visited Compostela.
The first pilgrimage mentioned in the chronicles was carried by a pilgrim from Germany in 930. There is no name of the pilgrim; it’s only known that he went to Santiago de Compostela and upon his return to Germany, he stated that St.James had cured his blindness.
The first pilgrim to Santiago whose name is known was Gotescalco. He was a bishop of Le Puy. He started his journey at his parish and on the way to Santiago stopped at a monastery in La Rioja to ask for a copy of a manuscript that his parish didn’t have. His name was written down in the chronicles of the monastery. Given his important position as a bishop the pilgrimage of Gotescalco was rather different from those of ordinary pilgrims. The entire procession consisted of 95 people and included priests, nobles, musicians, servants, etc. The pilgrimage o Gotexcalco became one of the most famous pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago.
The history of the Camino in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, Spanish kingdoms were in a constant fight against the Arab-Berber invaders from the south. In the 10th century, the Muslims got as far as Santiago de Compostela. As a result of the invasion in 997, the old church built over the tomb of St.James was destroyed. In 1075 after expelling the Muslims from the Spanish northern territories the construction of the current Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela started. At that time the pilgrimage to Santiago was at its peak.
In the past, the pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago was rather different than nowadays. People used to start walking to Santiago de Compostela from their homes whenever they lived. For some, it took many months to complete their pilgrimage. Not everybody managed to reach Santiago, some fell ill and couldn’t continue the pilgrimage, and some died under different circumstances. Unlike nowadays the pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a risky venture. Unlike nowadays after arriving in Santiago pilgrims had to walk (ride a horse) in order to get back home.
The period between the 11th and 13th centuries was the peak of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages. Christians from France, Italy, Scandinavia, England, and even Island arrived on foot, on horses, or on boats to Santiago de Compostela. A wide network of albergues and hospitals for pilgrims was established.
The financial support of the infrastructure for pilgrims came from different sources; the Crown, the Church, noble families, and ordinary citizens. Many monasteries received pilgrims offering accommodation and food. Pilgrims could get free medical care at special hospitals for pilgrims. One of the largest hospitals was at the Obradoiro Square in Santiago de Compostela next to the Cathedral. Nowadays it’s the luxury hotel Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos.
In the 14th-15th centuries, despite the Hundred Years’ War, the Great Famine, and the devastating Plague that struck Europe in the last part of the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago remained one of the most important cultural and religious features of that time.
The cult of St.James of Compostela saw its downfall between the 16th and 18th centuries.
The dawn of the Way of St.James
Several major events lead to the decrease and even abandonment of the Way of St.James during these centuries. The Protestant Reformation in the 1500th, religious wars in Europe, as well as a severe criticism of the entire concept of the pilgrimage by the notorious philosophers, theologists, and intellectuals of that time among them Desiderius Erasmus Rotterdam and later Martin Luther. The Inquisition that thrived in Spain during the 16th century contributed to the decline of the Camino de Santiago. Nobody was safe from the accusation pilgrims were suspected of heresy or of being Protestant spies.
The rediscovery of the remains of St.James
This is not a well-known part of the history of the Camino de Santiago. Not many people outside of Spain know that the body of the apostle was displaced from the tomb and its exact location inside the Cathedral was unknown for three centuries.
In 1589 the famous English captain Francis Drake threatened to attack the coast of Galicia. It happened during the Anglo-Spanish war (1585 – 1604) after the Spanish Armada was defeated it was England’s turn to launch an attack on Spanish shores. The bishop of Santiago de Compostela Clemente decided to remove the remains of St.James from the crypt and hide them in a different place inside the Cathedral. After the death of the bishop, nobody knew where the hiding place was. Only three centuries later in 1879, the remains of St.James and his two disciples were discovered. The urn with the remains was found under the floor of the cathedral between the main altar and the ambulatory.
The rediscovery of the remains of the apostle brought a lot of attention to Santiago de Compostela and helped to restore the popularity of the Camino de Santiago. From 1879 through the first decades of the 20th century, the number of pilgrims to the tomb of St.James increased significantly.
The modern history of the Camino de Santiago
The Spanish Civil War and two World Wars led to the complete abandonment of the Camino de Santiago. The slight recovery of the pilgrimage started in the late 50th – early 60th when the first Camino Associations in France and Spain were established. The most significant event in the modern history of the Camino de Santiago happened in 1982 when Pope John Paul II arrived in Santiago after 10 days of pilgrimage becoming the first Pope who visited the tomb of St.James. As a result, at the end of the 20th century, the popularity of the Camino increased significantly. Nowadays around 350 000 pilgrims from all over the world arrive in Santiago de Compostela every year after completing one of the Camino routes.
The wide network of pilgrimage routes covers the whole of Europe but most people start walking the Camino from somewhere in Spain. Out of many Camino routes, the Camino Frances and the Portuguese Camino are the two most popular routes, 80% of all pilgrims who arrive in Santiago complete either of them.
The main Camino routes have good infrastructure for pilgrims that includes public and private albergues (pilgrims’ hostels) and well-marked trails. If in the old times, the Camino used to be a religious walk modern pilgrims embark on the journey for different reasons. You don’t have to be a religious person or a Christian to walk the Camino. If you complete at least the last 100 km to Santiago de Compostela (the required minimum) you’ll be eligible for getting your Compostela certificate.
The Holy Year on the Camino
A Jacobean Holy Year or a Jubilee Year is a year when the Day of St.James (25th July) falls on a Sunday. The tradition of celebrating the Holy Year dates back to the 15th century. According to some sources, the first Jubilee Year was celebrated either in 1428 or in 1434.
The Holy Year usually happens every 5-6 years but sometimes the gap is longer e.g. between two Holy Years that happened in 2010 and 2021. The last Ano Xacobeo was in 2021 but due to the pandemic, it was extended to 2022.
During the Holy Year pilgrims who arrive in Santiago any day after completing the Camino can obtain the full forgiveness (the Plenary Indulgence) of their sins granted by the Church. In a normal year, indulgence can be obtained only if a pilgrim arrives in Santiago and visits the Cathedral on one of the three “special days” 25th July, 21st April, and 30th December.
The Holy Doors of several cathedrals (including the one of the Cathedral of Santiago) are open during the Holy Year so pilgrims can enter the cathedrals through them.
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The pretty half of Stingy Nomads, responsible for all our land adventures (hiking, climbing, walking the Camino) and following them write-ups. Alya loves walking since she was a child, she prefers to walk 1000 km with a backpack rather than to do a 10 000 km road trip (actually any road trip). Alya is a big fan of Latin America, the Spanish language, and dancing. Every time we go away she desperately misses our dog Chile.