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D - 8: How did a Mediterranean Kingdom become Spain?

One of the many things that puzzled me when researching our trip was how the Kingdom of Aragon was able to become a Mediterranean power within 400 years. All history textbooks talk about Genoa, the Normans in Sicily, the Popes in Rome or the rise of France. Spain gets barely covered until Aragon and Castile merge in 1469 with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. When we sail along the coast of Sardinia however, we will quickly notice that Spain was here long before. Alghero, one of the Sardinian towns we visit, was Spanish or more accurately Aragonese since 1354. The Spanish influence on architecture, town structure, defense, language, culture or cuisine is noticeably everywhere.

The town of Alghero on Sardinia’s west coast which was Spanish from 1354 to 1720


The Kingdom of Aragon in 1050 AD

So – how did this smallish Frankish vassal state in the Pyrenees become this sea power just 400 years later? Have to admit that I had to read several papers to find out. It is not a well-trodden research subject. Aragon’s expansion and its ability to keep all these separate lands together for 400 years is remarkable

The Kingdom of Aragon in 1450 AD

As most of the time, there is no monocausal answer. The success of the House of Aragon was a combination of the Reconquista (the fight against Muslim rulers in Spain), the commercial and trading interest of the Catalans on the Mediterranean coast, a smart wedding policy of the Aragon Kings and sheer luck.

Sicily is a good example to illustrate the development. After Aragon had conquered Valencia from Muslim rulers, it could not expand further. The rival Kingdom of Castile had taken Murcia further south and now blocked any advance along the Mediterranean coast. In order to continue its mission of “liberating” lands from unfaithful rulers, Aragon had to look east into the Mediterranean. As a first step it conquered the Baleares. Its next big move was the invasion of Collo in eastern Algeria, an old Roman-Berber town, where Aragon's King Peter III landed his battle-hardened army in 1282. But his forces were too small to hold anything bigger than a small town. There was no chance of breaking out of the small bridge head. When envoys from Sicily approached him to support their rebellion against the French Kings, he jumped on the opportunity. Some scholars even say that he went to Collo to be close to Sicily since his wife was from there and knew about the rebellion. Who knows?

Modern Collo in Algeria from Google Maps – the old town was next to the eastern port

Peter III broke camp and shipped his army to Trapani on Sicily’s westernmost tip where he joined the rebelling Sicilian nobles. We are going to visit the town next year. He quickly realised that Sicily would be his if he promised the islanders to restore the ancient privileges they enjoyed under the Norman Kings. Within two months the Sicilian nobles bestowed the crown of Sicily on Peter III. He had to defend his easy conquest though for 20 years since the mighty Pope did not agree and sided with the French rivals. But Peter let the Sicilians do most of the fighting. Wisely, he let the island be governed by nobles from Barcelona who understood the value of trade and Sicily as a bridge between the Muslim world and Europe. Sicilians were left for themselves, the influence of Aragon was benign, taxation was moderate and the merchants of Barcelona good people to do business with. It was not a relationship of love but of mutual convenience.

Aragon though was poor and did not had the finance to be a major player in the Mediterranean. It relied often on Genoa to shore up its defenses. In the 14th century, it hired parts of the Genovese fleet to counter a threat from Morocco. The Genovese galleys promptly sank the Muslim fleet. Of course, the money minded Genovese would charge a diamond not a dime for their services. But with a fleet of 30 galleys, Aragon was a junior power compared to Genoa with more than 100. Wisely, Aragon granted Genovese merchants full access rights and many trade privileges on their islands. It was almost as if Aragon was the junior partner in this alliance – am sure many scholars would disagree. Aragon provided man power to govern the islands, Genoa got lots of trade privileges at no cost, the merchants from Barcelona were the junior participants in a very profitable business and brought their share of profits home to the Spanish coast..

View of Messina and the heavily fortified Royal Citadel in 1748

The world changed with the arrival of the Ottomans. By 1516 they controlled the entire Middle East, the Levant and Egypt and started pushing into the western Mediterranean. We already heard about Barbarossa and Turgut Reis, the two Ottoman Admirals who led the push. Suddenly, the Aragonese possessions in the Mediterranean became a liability. It was a long frontline to defend and the defense was expensive. Since the Ottomans mastered the use of artillery, all fortresses and town walls had to be modernized and rebuilt. How much this new threat contributed to the merger between Castile and Aragon is anyone’s guess. It definitely helped Aragon to have access to much bigger resources. And as we have seen from the portrait of Charles V in Blog D – 40, the Spanish crown rallied to the support of Sicily and Sardinia when they were under threat - and was able to defend them. The Saracen Towers everywhere and the huge bastions in Trapani, Syracuse , Malta or Messina provide quiet testimony.


I know many people who think all this history has little relevance today. But the Mediterranean Kingdom of Aragon was actually Catalan. The official documents were all written in Catalan and everybody spoke Catalan. It was a Kingdom open to the world. Some of the conflicts we see playing out between Barcelona and Madrid today have their roots in the merchant tradition that was at the heart to the Kingdom of Aragon. History never dies. It takes sometimes a nap until it wakes up again.

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