• Church and buildings belonging to the former Monastery of San Vicente

    Church and buildings belonging to the former Monastery of San Vicente

    Plaza Feijoo

    The city

    Miguel Calleja Puerta

    Lecturer in Latin Paleography and Diplomatics at the University of Oviedo

    When Clarín wrote his stories about Vetusta, Oviedo was a small provincial city, but it was also a town with a thousand years of history behind it. Or rather, a millennium had passed since an anonymous chronicler, around the year 883, described Oviedo as the capital of a kingdom

    We do not know what was there before the 9th century: some objects from the Roman period have been recovered in the old quarter, while, in its attempt to trace its origins to the late 8th century, the Monastery of San Vicente attributed the first ploughing of that depopulated hill whose name they wrote as Ovetao to its alleged founders, the monks Máximo and Fromestano.

  • However, none of that presupposed the urban future of the place. It was the Asturian kings who, on settling there, took the crucial step in that direction. Their official history,written in the late 9th century, states that Oviedo was designated by Alfonso II (791-842) as the site of the throne of the kingdom, and that the king had churches, palaces and all kinds of facilities built. His successors, Ramiro I and Alfonso III, possibly continued this trend with the buildings on Mount Naranco and the construction of a fortress.

    The eloquence of the venerable chronicles and the conservation of some of these buildings may have led to the importance of that small township being overstated. The Asturian kings emulated the Visigoths and, along with them, partook of the classical legend of the founding of the town. It is possible to evoke the complex ceremonial of warrior kings backed by a militant church. However, that small court occupied a cramped enclosure, five hectares at most, which must have been very sparsely populated. This society of warriors and peasants had little room for crafts and trade, and cities were a shadow or a dream.

    The Asturian kings dreamed of their city for a long time. After the death of Alfonso III in 910, the kingdom’s capital is said to have moved to León, and Oviedo fell into a lengthy period of prostration. The truth is, however, that until late in the 10th centu-

    Medieval wall and 18th century tower housing the Monastery of San Vicente library

    Paraíso street

  • Statue of Alfonso II El Casto with side view of the Cathedral Portico in the background

    View from El Aguila Street

  • Romanesque figures of the Apostles in the Holy Chamber. Oviedo Cathedral

    ry, numerous royal documents still remember them as kings of Oviedo, who for centuries came to venerate the treasure of their relics and their ancestors’ tombs.

    With the distancing of the throne, new players were to occupy the scene. The first were the bishop and his cathedral, which for centuries became the repositories of the royal heritage. The palace of Alfonso II must have become an episcopal residence, and that of Alfonso III became the Hospital of San Juan in the late 11th century.

    For its part, the Cathedral of San Salvador grew over the centuries, devouring all the surrounding area. Today it stands at one end of an open, airy space. But the picture is misleading. The houses occupying the cathedral square were demolished less than a century ago. Furthermore, documents tell how for centuries the cathedral, in its expansion, acquired and demolished the surrounding houses. In Clarin’s day, the cathedral still must have had a commanding presence in the centre of that small city

    The ecclesiastic profile of 11th-century Oviedo was accentuated by the Monasteries of San Vicente and San Pelayo and by other monastic entities which clustered around the cathedral and of which only the memory of their names persists: Santa Cruz, Santa Marina, Santa Gadea, San Andrés, etc. The Church of San Tirso, destined to become the oldest parish in the city, completed the picture of an area saturated with churches.

    However, new airs were to disrupt the peace of religious life. From the 11th century on, a growing populace and an improving economy were to gradually make up the jigsaw of Western Europe. The tide of war was also to change, eventually beginning to lean in favour of the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. And the framework for these changes was to be the city. These were no longer the small, modest capitals or episcopal sees of a couple of centuries earlier. Now crafts and

    trade flourished and other people, the burghers, were to come from the countryside or from afar, altering the profile of the old see forever.

    Oviedo newly appeared as a city in written records. By 1100, these settlers obtained a charter from King Alfonso VI, a statute regulating local life. The new law was a privilege which gave the citizens more freedoms and rights than the local peasants. It was also a safeguard against arbitrariness: a written –and therefore immutable– law which enshrined the equality of the residents of Oviedo before the law.

    And the benefits of that effective charter extended to the most commonplace of affairs. Notaries public, experts in Law, noted down everyday business transactions, thereby shedding light on a growing city. After each house was sold, the notary was to draw up a textual map that pinpointed every corner of medieval Oviedo, its districts and streets, while a long series of names and trades painted local society in increasingly varied colours. By the end of the 13th century, this new city had greatly increased the area it occupied and had built city walls, a proud symbol of the different way of life going on inside its gates.

    Within the city, there were great changes. The cathedral and the monasteries maintained their power, while the dominion of the king, increasingly further away, still made its presence felt in the

  • officers occupying the old fortress. However, the leading figuresin this new age were the townsfolk, ordinary people whose daily struggle was not in war or for salvation.

    Some had come from distant lands; it is estimated that, at the beginning of the 13th century, one in five residents of Oviedo had been born or was a child of people born beyond the Pyrenees. Their trades were varied, being among the most lucrative those related to commerce by land or sea via the Port of Aviles, which filled the city and its surroundings with new goods from distant shores. These also encompassed leatherworkers and metalworkers, tailors and market gardeners, and innkeepers who offered their inns to merchants and pilgrims. All were represented, including Jews, who were concentrated in the shadow of the king’s castle, and even a Muslim slave or two. In the flush of this recently created wealth, the new monasteries of San Francisco and Santa Clara were raised on the outskirts of the city.

    The original equality of the townsfolk was not destined to endure, however. The wealthy families aspired to control the town and joined up with the landed gentry, eager to occupy that attractive, yet hostile place, where the word of the noble was worth the same as that of the craftsman. The peace was broken regularly and the city was under siege on several occasions, until finally, in 1521, a fortuitous fire devoured most of the houses.

    Historic building of the University of Oviedo, founded in 1608

    View from the Plaza Porlier

  • As in all medieval towns, whose houses were predominately made of wood, with thatched roofs being commonplace, fire was a daily threat, one which devastated buildings and manors with a certain frequency. There are reports of other fires in the old city of Oviedo; however, the fire of 1521 is better known because it was better described. On the one hand, local histories flourished in the 16th century and one of them narrated the circumstances of the fire. Moreover, a new bureaucratic culture was burgeoning which tended to accumulate a massive amount of information. Cathedral officials, among others, filed exhaustive accounts of the disaster, describing the damage street by street and house by house.

    The city rose from its ashes, increasingly more identified with its former vocation as the capital. It was no longer just a question of the bishops controlling their extensive diocese from Oviedo with a firmer hand. One of them, Fernando Valdés, founded the University there and made it the centre of higher education north of the Cantabrian Mountains.

    In addition, the institution of the Principality of Asturias had favoured the creation of the Junta General [General Council or Parliament], where the boroughs of Asturias began to meet, viewing it more and more as their centre. Lastly, the provincial court made Oviedo the judicial heart of the region.

    Plaque commemorating the 1808 Uprising

    Cimadevilla Street

    The city did not grow substantially during these centuries, but it was refurbished in the baroque language. The renovation works of the cathedral complex and of the large urban monasteries occupied the greater part of the bishop’s quarter. In the vicinity of the fort and near the city hall, the noble families met with ruin building their gimmicky town mansions, while the municipality, now controlled by just a few families, also built its city halls.

    In this small world, the arrival of a royal official –such as the head judge of the provincial court– must have given rise to a complex

    process of integration, attractive on account of its prestige, yet uncertain due to its provisional status.

    This intense local life was also to undergo the tumultuous 19th century. In Oviedo in 1808, the Asturian Parliament disobeyed orders from Madrid and proclaimed itself sovereign, organised an army, sent out ambassadors and declared war on Napoleon. Later, however, the heroic city took up its afternoon siesta once more, the 19th century also being known as a time of stagnation and demolition. Monks and friars were replaced by soldiers and civil servants. Factories and constitutions, train and electricity were to arrive, while the medieval enclosure and the Romanesque churches were demolished in the name of progress. However, progress was something that happened beyond the mountains, and the city looked inward, absorbed with itself. Historians trying to explain this world may well find their best documentation in La Regenta.

  • Detail of tracery in the openwork spire on the tower of Oviedo Cathedral

    Plaza de Alfonso II El Casto, also known as Plaza de la Catedral