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Who was the first pilgrim to make the Camino de Santiago?



Statue of Alfonso II in Santiago
Statue of Alfonso II in Santiago Carlos Folgoso

According to tradition it was King Alfonso II, though the experts are quick to point out that this cannot be proved because there is no documentation.

27 dic 2022 . Actualizado a las 14:23 h.

Almost 450,000 pilgrims… that is the number of people who applied for the Compostela badge of completion in 2022, marking an all-time record for the Camino de Santiago. Although nowadays it is common to see groups of people with backpacks, boots and walking sticks following yellow arrows, the Xacobean route was not always so popular. It is known that the phenomenon of making the pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela came about in the Middle Ages, when there were no routes featuring cairns and scallops. As Antonio Machado once said, the path is made by walking. And it was the pilgrims themselves who sculpted the routes as they passed through. But who was the first?

The most widespread theory holds that it was the monarch Alfonso II. «Tradition has it that Bishop Teodomiro informed the king that the body of Saint James the Apostle had been found and that the king then went on the pilgrimage around the year 820, thus becoming the first pilgrim,» explains José Miguel Andrade, expert on the Camino de Santiago and professor of Medieval History at the University of Santiago de Compostela. That is why the route from Oviedo, where the royal residence was located, is known as the Camino Primitivo (Primitive Way). «While this is the most popular version of events, there is no documentary evidence to support it. There really is no way of knowing whether he was the first pilgrim,» remarks the researcher.

«It is a story that was written two and a half centuries after the event. It appears in chronicles and texts from Santiago de Compostela dating back to the 11th century. On that basis, we know nothing. We don’t even know for sure whether Alfonso II ever went to Compostela,» adds Adeline Rucquoi, member of the Committee of Experts on the Camino de Santiago.

Another of the questions often debated by researchers relates to this supposed Primitive Way. «Supposing that he did indeed make the journey to Santiago de Compostela, we do not know where he was at that time. So if King Alfonso II did go to Santiago, there is nobody to say that he did so from Oviedo», explains Rucquoi. “The kings at that time were constantly on the move. He was also in Sarria, Portomarín or close to Santiago de Compostela,” explains Andrade.

So why is this theory the most widespread? «The first documentary reference to the church of Santiago is a donation made by Alfonso II himself, yet this does not prove that he was the first pilgrim. While it might be reasonable to assume so, there is no way to prove that it was him,» claims Andrade.

Adeline Rucquoi compares it to the hypothesis that it was actually Charlemagne who created the Camino de Santiago. This assumption came about from the Codex Calixtinus, which was published in the 12th century, three centuries after the emperor’s death. «The discovery was pinned to the monarchy to give it added gravitas. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time,» he explains.

First documented pilgrimage

Starting point of the Camino de Le Puy, in France, which follows the itinerary made by the bishop of the town in 951
Starting point of the Camino de Le Puy, in France, which follows the itinerary made by the bishop of the town in 951 CEDIDA POR MAISON DE LA FRANCE

«The first pilgrim for whom we have reliable documentary evidence is a German pilgrim who passed through Santiago de Compostela and later tells the story of his journey in the year 930, following his return to Germany. He claimed that the Saint had cured his blindness. This is the first one mentioned in the chronicles,» says Rucquoi.

As for pilgrims whose name is known, both experts agree that the first was Gotescalco. «The first known pilgrim from outside the Iberian Peninsula is a bishop from Le Puy in France, whose name appears in 951. When he came from France to Santiago de Compostela, he stopped at a monastery in La Rioja and asked for a copy of a certain manuscript that he did not have in his own diocese. The local monks left an annotation stating that, while on his way to Santiago, the bishop had commissioned them to make the copy. That is why it is documented,» explains Andrade.

There is in fact a Xacobean route known as the Way of Le Puy, which follows in the footsteps of the bishop. However, Rucquoi points out that this route was in fact created centuries later: «He would never have crossed the Massif Central of France as the crow flies. In the Middle Ages there were no maps and you simply wouldn't go from one side to the other in a straight line. It’s the same story when it comes to Asturias and the Primitive Way. The history of Alfonso II was recovered many years later and a straight route was created between Oviedo and Santiago.»

«There is a lot of overblown information about the Camino de Santiago. From a historical standpoint, there is still much to be discovered. There is an awful lot of information based on legends, a prioris and preconceived ideas that are not always historically documented. That’s the truth of the matter,» cautions José Miguel Andrade.

As for the question of whether Alfonso II was indeed the first pilgrim, both experts agree that it can neither be confirmed nor denied. «We have no proof, though that is not to say that he was not. It simply cannot be proved,» concludes Rucquoi.