A super duper brief history of St. James and The Camino de Santiago

The history of the Camino de Santiago is so confusing. Drenched in two thousand years of legend, politics and religion, it’s hard for the Average Joe or JoJo to get it all straight.

Here is a timeline of what I hope is a coherent, brief summary of the history of the Camino de Santiago.

Historic Celtic homes rebuilt in Vigo in the province Galicia.

Pre-Christian times: Iberian and Celtic tribes venture toward the Spanish coast, establishing a pagan culture of delicious cheese, folklore and circular houses.

200 B.C.E. Romans conquer Spain and build roads and infrastructure. One of these roads stretches from Bordeaux, France to Astorga, Spain. Some of this road coincides with the Camino Francés.

40 A.D. The disciple James the Greater allegedly travels to Spain to spread the good news that Christ has risen, he has risen indeed.

44 A.D. James returns to Judea and Herod cuts off his head. Downer ending.

The story goes that an angel then guides his followers as they take James’ body back to Galicia in a rudderless boat and bury him there.


711 A.D. Muslim armies enter from North Africa. Spain is currently ruled by the Visigoths.

The Visigoths originated as Western branches of Germanic tribes and an elite group of them had established their governance in Spain.

Over the next seven years the Muslim armies crush the Visigoth empire and take over as the new territory “Al-Andalus”.

The 800 year period of Muslim rule is often called “La Convivencia”, or “The Coexistence”, where Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully.

But “peaceful” isn’t quite right. A more accurate phrasing would be Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted less aggressively. In actuality, the Christian resistance began almost immediately after Muslim armies invaded.

813 A.D. The hermit Pelayo sees a bright star flashing over some woods like a neon sign reading “DISCIPLE BURIED HERE.”

This may be the origin of the name “Santiago de la Compostela.” Compostela comes from the phrase campo de la estrella or “field of the star.”

Pelayo discovers a tomb there. The tomb has a body in it. The body is totally, definitely, absolutely St. James.

Christian morale is at an all time low, and this just might be the boost they need.

A map of Iberian kingdoms in 1210.

844 A.D. The night before the Battle of Clavijo against the Moorish armies, Santiago appears to King Ramirez of Castile in a dream. Castile is a kingdom in the northern center of the Iberian peninsula. Santiago promises the Castilian king victory.

The next day, Santiago totally, definitely literally appears on the battlefield in full battle gear riding a white horse. He’s wielding a sword in one hand and a banner in the other.

Any doubts Santiago appeared during the fight are totally squashed when people see all the scallop shell impressions the disciple totally, definitely, absolutely left behind. Because the scallop shell is totally St. James’ symbol! They were all over, in field rocks and even houses nearby. He was definitely there. For sure. 

Santiago shows up again and again to help out during battles. Forty more times,  at least.

Santiago’s name becomes a battle cry. He’s the ultimate cheerleader. This is the beginning of the legendary Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.


1130 A.D. The French monk Aimeri Picaud writes the first informative guidebook to Santiago for travelers. This was before the printing press though, so I can’t imagine that many people had access to it. Also, not that many people could read. So…yeah. 

1300-1400 A.D. Between 500,000 to two million pilgrims have made the pilgrimage to Santiago and St. James’ relic. The Knights Templar patrol the path, protecting pilgrims from robbers. Local kings and clergymen build roads, hospitals, bridges and accommodations for pilgrims.

Santiago rivals Rome or the Holy Land as a pilgrimage destination. People begin the journey from all over Europe. Most of these routes meet up at the Pyrenees, which create the border between Spain and France.

Here, it splits off into two main roads to Santiago. The Camino Primitivo, the northern coastal road, or the more popular Camino Francés, which is still the most popular route.


1492: The last tiny bit of Al-Andalus is stamped out and Spain becomes a Catholic nation.

Santiago is still a pretty big deal. He’s a patron saint of Spain and the idea of him inspired Christian armies.

But this is the beginning of the Renaissance, and some people are starting to get caught up in things like “facts.”

Like, did Santiago really manifest 800 years after his death during the battle of Clavijo in full contemporary armor and literally slay a bunch of the Muslim army? Like, really?

Queen Elizabeth I, the Armada portrait, showing the Spanish Armada in flames and defeated in the background.

1589: Protestant Queen Elizabeth I’s England is at war with Catholic Spain.

In July 1588, the Spanish armada sailed for England to invade the Protestant country and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.

The English defeated the Spanish, but I guess Elizabeth was still pretty pissed. The next year she sent her naval armies to invade Spain, led by Sir Frances Drake and John Norreyes. The mission was considered unsuccessful, but they did burn up the surviving Spanish ships from the previous year’s scuffle, which were in the northern Spanish port of A Coruña in Galicia.

The archbishop Clemente of Compostela was all “Oh, no, Protestants!” He had St. James relics’ hidden in a super secret safe place.

A little too safe, because the relics were lost for the next 300 years.

C. 1750: Pope Benedict XIV scolds people for thinking Santiago’s part in the battle of Clavijo isn’t totally completely absolutely historical FACT. It IS and THAT IS FINAL.

The high altar at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.

1878: Cardinal Miguel Paya y Rico, the archbishop of Compostela at this time, authorises church historian Antonio Lopez Ferreiro to search for St. James’ remains. He finds the bones of three men under the altar in a chest of brick and stone. One of the skulls shows damage suggesting decapitation.

The entirety of St. James’ remains had stayed in Santiago with two exceptions. The King of Navarre had given an arm to the bishop of Tongres and Liège in today’s Belgium in the mid-1100s. And in 1144, the bishop of Pistoia in Italy had permission to take a lock of hair, which he took some bone with.

The lock of hair and piece of bone were sent for, and it apparently fit the decapitated skull like a jigsaw puzzle. This was considered proof that the bones were indeed St. James, whom King Herod decapitated 1800 years earlier.

1884: Pope Leo XIII authenticates the relics and they are placed under the high altar, where they sit today.

1993: UNESCO declares the Camino Francés a World Heritage Site.

2011: “The Way” starring Martin Sheen is released, which may or may not have increased the Camino’s popularity more than ever with Americans and Martin Sheen fans. 😉 Around 180,000 people complete the Camino de Santiago this year.  


Buen camino, everyone.


5 thoughts on “A super duper brief history of St. James and The Camino de Santiago

  1. Interesting, for sure really, absolutely. You might have caught this already but “July 1988” maybe sort of for sure might really be 1588?

    Sent from my iPad


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