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Sancho the Great, proponent of the Camino Francés

Sancho Garcés III, dubbed the Great, was the King of Pamplona from the year 1004 until his death in 1035. Considered the most important monarch in Navarre, he held more power than any other sovereign in the Peninsula for most of his reign. He is credited with the Europeanisation of the Spanish territory, minting coins and popularising the Camino de Santiago.

When he acceded to the throne, the Camino ran through Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Irurtzun, Uharte Arakil, Salvatierra, Miranda de Ebro and Burgos. However, in the interests of controlling his territory he modified the route by diverting it further south, and took advantage of old Roman roads to make it pass through Puente La Reina, Estella, Logroño, Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Burgos. This itinerary was somewhat shorter and more exposed. It avoided narrow trails and passes and enabled the movement of traders and military forces.

The Historia Silense (12th century) highlights his decisive work to consolidate the Camino Francés: From the summits of the Pyrenees to the city of Nájera, he removed the obstacles on the Camino de Santiago where before, to avoid the savages, the pilgrims detoured through the Álava nook.

The Camino Francés became the great communication route of the Christian monarchs in the north of Spain. In this labour Sancho the Great had the support of his wife, Mayor, who according to the theories may have ordered the construction of the most famous bridge along the route, the Romanesque Puente la Reina which facilitates the passage of pilgrims across the Arga river.

Sancho the Great not only improved the route and its protection but took measures to encourage hospitality towards the pilgrims, and repealed certain tax obligations imposed upon them. He established the San Juan de la Peña monastery (Jaca), which has links to the Camino Aragonés, and in this regard encouraged the Cluny religious order into Spain, a crucial factor in the route’s development.

In short, he was the most prominent monarch until the mid-11th century in terms of encouraging the Way of St. James, initiating a process which would be completed in the second half of the same century by two kings who understood the powerful spiritual value of the route as a counter to Islamic influence and its undeniable socio-economic benefits.  The monarchs in question were the grandson of Sancho the Great, Alfonso VI, in Castille and León, and Sancho I Ramírez in Aragón and Navarre. These monarchs would establish the route of the French Way, facilitating its conversion into the great medieval road that would later be described around 1130 in the Codex Calixtinus, the celebrated guide for pilgrims following the Camino de Santiago.