If all of Spain’s history is inherently complex—much more than simplifications tend to suggest—perhaps the medieval period takes the cake in close competition with ancient times, both due to the scarcity of sources and the existence of numerous royal and noble domains—some Christian, some Muslim—that changed hands, borders, and names frequently. One of the lesser-known domains is the Kingdom of Najera, precursor to the Kingdom of Pamplona (which later became Navarra), and the birthplace of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.

In reality, the Kingdom of Najera only lasted two years as such; it was founded in 923 CE, and by 925 it was renamed the Kingdom of Pamplona, so historiographically the two names are often merged into one: the Kingdom of Najera-Pamplona. This entity came from the early kingdom established around the Roman civitas of Pompaelo, a city built by Pompey between 76 and 74 BCE to assert control over the Tarraconense province after defeating the rebel Sertorius. It was primarily inhabited by Vascones and later became a municipium.

The Visigoths occupied Pompaelo in 472 CE but left little trace, and the city eventually fell to the Umayyad Caliphate in 718, becoming a tributary state. An expedition sent by Charlemagne to secure his Spanish March did not achieve the desired result, and the Muslims retained control over what was then Pamplona, which paid tribute to the Emir of Cordoba in exchange for maintaining a local government and keeping the Christian faith. However, pressure from the Carolingians on one side and the Asturian Kingdom on the other (Fruela I had subdued the Vascones) indicated that changes were on the horizon.

The Peninsular kingdoms around 910 CE
The Peninsular kingdoms around 910 CE. Credit: Crates / Wikimedia Commons

In the first quarter of the 9th century, the first documented references to the one some consider the first Pamplonese king, Íñigo Arista, appeared. However, he was more likely a noble chieftain—a comes or dux—with significant autonomy as his power came from the Muladi family he belonged to, the Banu Qasi, who controlled the Ebro valley. The extension of that proto-kingdom did not exceed 5,000 square kilometers, but it managed to shake off Carolingian influence and remain under the successors of Arista: his son García Íñiguez and his grandson Fortún Garcés.

The latter was overthrown by a Vascon chieftain, Sancho Garcés I, who with support from the Leonese monarch Ordoño II—who married his daughter Sancha—broke ties with Córdoba and expanded the territory by 10,000 square kilometers, taking over La Rioja Media and Alta in 918. He passed those new lands to his son García Sánchez, who was then just a child—only one year old—establishing the court in Nájera and appointing his brother Jimeno Garcés as regent, advisor, and tutor to the young boy, effectively creating the Kingdom of Nájera.

Emir Abd al-Rahman III responded harshly to this challenge, sending two expeditions in 924: the first took control of all of La Rioja; the second ravaged Pamplona. After all, it was almost a family matter, as Toda Aznárez, the wife of Sancho Garcés, was the emir’s aunt (and her sister was married to Jimeno). The king died the following year, and his young heir also became king of Pamplona, uniting both kingdoms under his rule, hence the double name Nájera-Pamplona, with the unified court relocated to Nájera.

Monument to Sancho Garcés I in Villamayor de Monjardín
Monument to Sancho Garcés I in Villamayor de Monjardín. Credit: Iñaki LL / Wikimedia Commons

They remained separate states despite being under the same crown, embodied by two dynasties: the Jimena on the paternal side and the Arista-Iñiga on the maternal side. Furthermore, alliances through marriage were established: with the county of Aragón in 933, when the young king married Andregoto, the daughter of Count Galindo II Aznárez, to whom he had been betrothed since childhood; with the Kingdom of León, marrying Onneca, García Sánchez’s sister, to King Alfonso IV (and later marrying a daughter, Urraca, to a descendant of Alfonso, Ramiro II).

It should be noted that the union with Andregoto was annulled in 943 due to close blood relations, leading García Sánchez to take a new wife, Teresa Ramírez, possibly a daughter of Ramiro II. Beyond that, such alliances continued with his descendants; among them, a daughter of the monarch would become the wife of Castilian Count Fernán González (in a second marriage, when he became a widower after his first wife, who was the king’s aunt, died).

García Sánchez’s efforts weren’t limited to marriage alliances. He also repopulated all the territories he had received and made significant donations to monasteries in the area, with the most notable being San Millán de la Cogolla in Suso, where Queen Toda was buried (and later figures like the writer Gonzalo de Berceo or the Seven Lara Princes). In its counterpart in Yuso, founded later, the birthplace of the Riojan romance language, the precursor to the Castilian language, was established, as evidenced by the Glosas Emilianenses.

A view of the city of Nájera today
A view of the city of Nájera today. Credit: Carlos Teixidor Cadenas / Wikimedia Commons

García Sánchez I died in 970 and left the throne to his son Sancho Garcés II, also known as Abarca, who was already a regulus of the county of Aragón. He was the first to change the official title, renaming himself King of Navarra. Initially, he maintained a good relationship with the Caliphate of Córdoba, but when Al-Hakam II died and his son Hisham II succeeded him, things changed dramatically. The reason was that the new caliph was under the control of a chamberlain who would be the real ruler in the shadows, initiating a jihad that affected both the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb.

His name was Almanzor, and he launched at least nine expeditions against the Pamplonese kingdom, severely weakening it. As a result, Calahorra was lost, and an armistice had to be agreed upon, which turned into a surrender in 994, shortly after the king’s death. Twelve years earlier, he had to give his daughter in marriage to Almanzor, and now, just before his death, he had to send another child as a hostage. The throne passed to García Sánchez II, known as The Shaker, who unsuccessfully tried to rebel against Córdoba’s subjugation.

Things got worse when García Sánchez led an expedition to Calatayud in 997, where he killed Almanzor’s brother. In retaliation, Almanzor took swift revenge: first, he decapitated fifty Christians, and then he reconquered Pamplona. A final attempt by García Sánchez to shake off the powerful enemy ended in failure in 1000 at the Battle of Cervera, where the caliphal army defeated—though with some difficulty—the coalition of Navarros, Leonese, and Castilians.

The Iberian Peninsula around 1030, before the death of Sancho Garcés III, with Navarra's expansion and the decline of the Caliphate of Córdoba
The Iberian Peninsula around 1030, before the death of Sancho Garcés III, with Navarra’s expansion and the decline of the Caliphate of Córdoba. Credit: Crates / Wikimedia Commons

The Shaker died that same year, and Sancho Garcés III The Elder succeeded him, following an interregnum under the guardianship of his father’s cousin, Sancho Ramírez de Viguera, due to his minority. He officially received the crown in 1004 when he was barely twelve years old, but he had an advantage: Almanzor had died two years earlier, plunging the Córdoba Caliphate into a crisis that the Christian kingdoms didn’t hesitate to exploit. Navarra led the charge, with the new king relocating the court back to Pamplona and embarking on expanding his borders.

The Kingdom of Navarra comprised three regions: the ancient Pamplona Kingdom extending to Guipúzcoa, La Rioja, and the county of Aragón. The king established direct extrapeninsular diplomatic relations with the Duchy of Gascony and the Pope, supported the spread of the Cluniac reform, agreed to an armistice with the Caliphate, and attempted a familial unification with the other Iberian Christian kingdoms through marriages with Castile and León. His untimely death at thirty-one and the resulting testamentary division among his heirs interrupted this process.

The eldest son, García Sánchez III, inherited the Kingdom of Pamplona and Aragón, while his brothers García and Fernando received Álava and most of the Castilian county, respectively, and the third, Ramiro, got scattered lands in Aragón and Navarra, while the fourth, Gonzalo, obtained similar territories in Aragón (Ribagorza and Sobrarbe). The eldest, nicknamed The One from Nájera due to his birth in that city, was deeply religious and turned the town into an episcopal seat, hosting several synods. He also founded the monastery of Santa María la Real in 1052, which served as a royal pantheon.

The division of the Kingdom of Pamplona following Sancho Garcés III
The division of the Kingdom of Pamplona following Sancho Garcés III “The Elder”. Credit: Miguillen / Wikimedia Commons

He also founded the first Peninsular chivalric order, the Order of the Terraza (or Jarra), reclaimed the Taifa of Zaragoza from the Muslims, and expanded the Navarra boundaries to lower La Rioja. His bellicose nature led to his death at Atapuerca in 1054 in a fratricidal battle against his brother Fernando, who was attempting to recover lost parts of the Castilian county, which he succeeded in doing (anecdotally, he was assisted by Diego Flaínez, father of El Cid). Once again, a minor had to take the reins—Sancho Garcés IV, who was only fourteen years old.

That inherent weakness pushed others to take advantage of it. For example, the King of León and Castile, Sancho II The Strong, launched a campaign that seized the Oca mountains, the comarca of La Bureba, and parts of Navarra. In that strategic game among sovereigns with common ancestry, Al-Muqtadir, emir of the Taifa of Zaragoza—who had brought it to its cultural peak—also intervened, aiming to install a puppet ruler in Nájera-Pamplona.

To do this, he allied with Alfonso VI of León and Castile, son of Fernando I, who orchestrated a plot against Sancho Garcés IV, resulting in the young king’s assassination by his brother Ramón (who pushed him off a cliff). It was 1076, and the power vacuum was exploited by the aforementioned Alfonso VI, who invaded the Riojan and Basque territories, while Sancho Ramírez of Aragón, cousin of the deceased, had himself proclaimed King of Pamplona, connecting that kingdom with his Aragónese domains, effectively dividing it. The lord of Vizcaya, Diego López de Haro, governed Nájera on behalf of Castile, considering that the monarch of Castile, Sancho III, had claimed his rights as a descendant of Sancho Garcés III.

The new Kingdom of Navarra with Sancho VI, between 1154 and 1194
The new Kingdom of Navarra with Sancho VI, between 1154 and 1194. Credit: Miguillen / Wikimedia Commons

In other words, while the Navarra region became integrated into the expanding Kingdom of Aragón, Nájera was reduced to a mere lordship first and a duchy later, eventually becoming a county. Between 1109 and 1114, there was a brief reunification due to the marriage between Alfonso I The Battler, ruler of Aragón, and Urraca I The Fearless, Queen of León. However, later, Urraca’s son, Alfonso VII, took advantage of Alfonso’s death to annex Nájera, Calahorra, and other areas, a situation that persisted until García Ramírez The Restorer was proclaimed king in 1134.

The Pamplonese notables chose him because they refused to accept what Alfonso The Battler had decreed in his will (without heirs, he bequeathed his two kingdoms to military orders). García was the son of Prince Sancho Garcés, an illegitimate son of García Sánchez III, so he’s generally not included in the Jimena dynasty of Nájera-Pamplona (named so because it descended from Jimeno The Strong, a Hispano-Roman noble from the 8th century and leader of the original entity that would later become the kingdom), but is considered the founder of another.

His successor, Sancho VI, benefited from Alfonso VIII’s minority—the same king who would later defeat the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa—to break with Castile’s vassalage and call himself Rex Navarre. From that point on, a new chapter in history could begin.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 8, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia del pequeño reino de Nájera, precursor del reino de Navarra y cuna de los reinos de Castilla y Aragón


Carlos Calvería, Historia del Reino de Navarra | Jesús María Usunáriz Garayoa, Historia breve de Navarra | Justiniano García Prado, El Reino de Nájera | José María Lacarra, Historia política del reino de Navarra desde sus orígenes hasta su incoporación a Castilla | El Reino de Nájera | Wikipedia

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