Sancho III of Navarre

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Sancho III
Lauda Sepulcral SanchoIII El Mayor Navarra.jpg
The burial stone of Sancho III, bearing his effigy
Spouse Muniadona Mayor
Issue Ramiro I of Aragon
García Sánchez III of Navarre
Ferdinand I of León and Castile
Gonzalo of Sobrarbe and Ribagorza
House House of Jiménez
Father García Sánchez II of Pamplona
Mother Jimena Fernández
Born c. 992
Died 18 October 1035(1035-10-18)

Sancho III Garcés (c. 992 – 18 October 1035),[1][2] called the Great (Spanish: el Mayor, Basque: Nagusia), succeeded as a minor to the Kingdom of Navarre in 1004, and through conquest and political maneuvering increased his power, until at the time of his death in 1035 he controlled the majority of Christian Iberia, bearing the title of rex Hispaniarum. Having gone further than any of his predecessors in uniting the divided kingdoms of Iberia, his life's work was undone when he divided his domains shortly before his death to provide for each of his sons. The Kingdom of Navarre existed for almost six centuries after his death, but was never as powerful again.

Regency and early acquisitions[edit]

Sancho was born around 992 to García Sánchez II the Tremulous and Jimena Fernández, daughter of Fernando Bermúdez, count of Cea on the Galician frontier. He was raised in Leyre. His father last appears in 1000, while Sancho is first found as king in 1004, inheriting the kingdom of Pamplona (later known as Navarre). This gap has led to speculation as to whether there was an interregnum, while one document shows Sancho Ramírez of Viguera reigning in Pamplona in 1002, perhaps ruling as had Jimeno Garcés during the youth of García Sánchez I three generations earlier. On his succession, Sancho initially ruled under a council of regency led by the bishops, his mother Jimena, and grandmother Urraca Fernández.

Sancho aspired to unify the Christian principalities in the face of the fragmentation of Muslim Spain into the taifa kingdoms following the Battle of Calatañazor. In about 1010 he married Muniadona Mayor, daughter of Sancho García of Castile, and in 1015 he began a policy of expansion. He displaced Muslim control in the depopulated former county of Sobrarbe. In Ribagorza, another opportunity arose. The 1010 partition of the county left it divided between William Isarn, illegitimate son of count Isarn, and Raymond III of Pallars Jussà and his wife, Mayor of Castile, who was both niece of Isarn and aunt of Sancho's wife. In 1018, William Isarn tried to solidify his control over the Arán valley, but was killed, and Sancho jumped on the opportunity to take his portion, presumably based on some loose claim derived from his wife. Raymond and Mayor annulled their marriage, creating a further division finally resolved in 1025 when Mayor retired to a Castilian convent and Sancho received the submission of Raymond as vassal.[3] He also forced Berengar Raymond I of Barcelona to become his vassal, though he was already a vassal of the French king. Berengar met Sancho in Zaragoza and in Navarre many times to confer on a mutual policy against the counts of Toulouse.

Acquisition of Castile[edit]

Map (Spanish) of the realms of Sancho III

In 1016, Sancho fixed the border between Navarre and Castile, part of the good relationship he established by marrying Muña Mayor Sánchez (Muniadona), daughter of Sancho García of Castile. In 1017, he became the protector of Castile for the young García Sánchez. However, relations between the three Christian entities of León, Castile, and Navarre soured after the assassination of Count García in 1027. He had been bethrothed to Sancha, daughter of Alfonso V, who was set thus to gain from Castile lands between the rivers Cea and Pisuerga (as the price for approving the marital pact). As García arrived in León for his wedding, he was killed by the sons of a noble he had expelled from his lands.

Sancho III had opposed the wedding and the expected expansion of Leonese power to Castile, and used García's death to reverse this. Using the pretext of the protectorship he had exercised over Castile, he immediately occupied the county and named as successor his own younger son Ferdinand, who was nephew of the deceased count, bringing it fully within his sphere of influence.

Gascon suzerainty[edit]

Sancho established relations with the Duchy of Gascony, probably of a suzerainvassal nature, him being the suzerain.[4] In consequence of his relationship with the monastery of Cluny, he improved the road from Gascony to León. This road would begin to bring increased traffic down to Iberia as pilgrims flocked to Santiago de Compostela. Because of this, Sancho ranks as one of the first great patrons of the Saint James Way.

Sancho VI of Gascony was a relative of Sancho of Navarre and he spent a portion of his life at the royal court in Pamplona. He also partook alongside Sancho the Great in the Reconquista. In 1010, the two Sanchos appeared together with Robert II of France and William V of Aquitaine, neither of whom was the Gascon duke's suzerain, at Saint-Jean d'Angély. After Sancho VI's death in 1032, Sancho the Great extended his authority definitively into Gascony, where he began to mention his authority as extending as far as the Garonne in the documents issued by his chancery.

In southern Gascony, Sancho created a series of viscounties: Labourd (between 1021 and 1023), Bayonne (1025), and Baztán (also 1025).

Acquisition of León[edit]

After the succession of Bermudo III to León, Sancho negotiated the marriage of his son Ferdinand of Castile to Sancha, the former fiance of García Sánchez and Bermudo's sister, and along with it a dowery that included disputed Leonese lands. Sancho was soon engaged in a full-scale war with León, and combined Castilian and Navarrese armies quickly overran much of Bermudo's kingdom, occupying Astorga. By March 1033, he was king from Zamora to the borders of Barcelona.

In 1034, even the city of León, the imperiale culmen (imperial capital, as Sancho saw it), fell, and there Sancho had himself crowned again. This was the height of Sancho's rule which now extended from the borders of Galicia in the west to the county of Barcelona in the east. In 1035, he refounded the diocese of Palencia, which had been laid waste by the Moors. He gave the see and its several abbacies to Bernard, of French or Navarrese origin, to whom he also gave the secular lordship (as a feudum), which included many castles in the region. However, he was assassinated at Aguilar de Bureba [dubious – discuss] on 18 October 1035 and was buried in the monastery of San Salvador of Oña, an enclave in Burgos, under the inscription Sancius, gratia Dei, Hispaniarum rex.


Taking residence in Nájera instead of the traditional capital of Pamplona, as his realm grew larger, he considered himself a European monarch, establishing relations on the other side of the Pyrenees.

He introduced French feudal theories and ecclesiastic and intellectual currents into Iberia. Through his close ties with the count of Barcelona and the duke of Gascony and his friendship with the monastic reformer Abbot Oliva, Sancho established relations with several of the leading figures north of the Pyrenees, most notably Robert II of France, William V of Aquitaine, William II and Alduin II of Angoulême, and Odo II of Blois and Champagne.[5] It was through this circle that the Cluniac reforms first probably influenced his thinking. In 1024 a Navarrese monk, Paterno from Cluny, returned to Navarre and was made abbot of San Juan de la Peña, where he instituted the Cluniac custom and founded thus the first Cluniac house in Iberia west of Catalonia, under the patronage of Sancho. The Mozarabic rite continued to be practiced at San Juan, and the view that Sancho spread the Cluniac usage to other houses in his kingdom has been discredited by Justo Pérez de Urbel. Sancho sowed the seeds of the Cluniac reform and of the adoption of the Roman rite, but he did not widely enact them.

Sancho also began the Navarrese series of currency by minting what the Encyclopædia Britannica calls "deniers of Carolingian influence." The division of his realm upon his death, the concepts of vassalage and suzerainty, and the use of the phrase "by the grace of God" (Dei gratia) after his title were imported from France, with which he tried to maintain relations. For this he has been called the "first Europeaniser of Iberia."[6]

His most obvious legacy, however, was the temporary union of all Christian Iberia. At least nominally, he ruled over León, the ancient capital of the kingdom won from the Moors in the eighth century, and Barcelona, the greatest of the Catalan cities. Though he divided the realm at his death, thus creating the enduring legacy of Castilian and Aragonese kingdoms, he left all his lands in the hands of one dynasty, the Jiménez, which kept the kingdoms allied by blood until the twelfth century. He made the Navarrese pocket kingdom strong, politically stable, and independent, preserving it for the remainder of the Middle Ages. It is for this that his seal has been appropriated by Basque nationalism. Though, by dividing the realm, he isolated the kingdom and inhibited its ability to gain land at the expense of the Moslems. Summed up, his reign defined the political geography of Iberia until its union under the Catholic Monarchs.


Throughout his long reign, Sancho used a myriad of titles. After his coronation in León, he styled himself rex Dei gratia Hispaniarum, or "by the grace of God, king of the Spains", and may have minted coins with the legend "NAIARA/IMPERATOR".[7] The use of the first title implied his kingship over all the independently founded Iberian kingdoms and the use of the form Dei gratia, adopted from French practice, stressed that his right to rule was of divine origin and sustenance. The latter, imperial title was only rarely employed, for it is not documented, being found only on coins only probably datable to his reign. It is not unlikely, however, that he desired to usurp the imperial title which the kings of León had thitherto carried.[6]

Despite this, the contemporary ecclesiastic Abbot Oliva only ever acknowledged Sancho as rex Ibericus or rex Navarrae Hispaniarum, while he called both Alfonso V and Vermudo III emperor. The first title considers Sancho as king of all Iberia, as does the second, though it stresses his kingship over Navarre alone as if it had been extended to authority over the whole Christian portion of the peninsula.


Before his death in 1035, Sancho divided his possessions among his sons. Of the three surviving sons by Mayor, the eldest, García, had already appeared as regulus in Navarre, inheriting the kingdom including the Basque country as well as exercising suzerainty over the kingdom's lands given his brothers. Gonzalo had been placed in control of the counties of Sobrarbe and Ribagorza, which he would hold as regulus. Ferdinand had been given Castile on the death of count García Sánchez in 1127, holding it first under his father and later of Vermudo III of León, before killing that king to take León and the royal title. Ramiro, the eldest but illegitimate son of Sancho by mistress Sancha of Aybar, was given property in the former county of Aragón with the provision that he should ask for no more lands of García, under whom he first acted as baiulus but from whom he later achieved de facto independence. Documents report two further sons, a second Ramiro and Bernard, but scholarship is divided on whether they were legitimate sons who died in youth, or if their appearance instead results from either scribal error or forgery. Sancho left two daughters, Mayor and Jimena, the former perhaps the wife of Pons, Count of Toulouse, the latter wife of Vermudo III.


  1. ^ World and Its Peoples Volume 5 Europe. Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7614-7883-6. 
  2. ^ "Sancho III Garces (King of Pamplona [Navarre])". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-25. 
  3. ^ Gonzalo Martínez Díez, Sancho III el Mayor: rey de Pamplona, Rex Ibericus, pp. 81-89.
  4. ^ Collins.
  5. ^ Richard B. Donovan (1958), Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain (Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies), 22.
  6. ^ a b Menéndez Pidal.
  7. ^ These are usually attributed to Sancho III, although Ubieto Arteta attributes them to his ancestor Sancho I.


  • Collins, Roger. The Basques. Blackwell Publishing: London, 1990.
  • Higounet, Charles. Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen age. Bordeaux, 1963.
  • Mann, Janice. "A New Architecture for a New Order: The Building Projects of Sancho el Mayor (1004–1035)". The White Mantle of Churches, Nigel Hiscock, ed. Turnhout Brepols, 2003, pp. 233–48.
  • Menéndez Pidal, Ramón. La España del Cid. 1929.
  • Ubieto Arteta, Antonio. "Estudios en torno a la división del Reino por Sancho el Mayor de Navarra", Príncipe de Viana, vol. 21, pp. 5–56, 163–236.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
García Sánchez II
King of Navarre
Succeeded by
García Sánchez III
Vacant Count of Sobrarbe
Succeeded by
Preceded by
William Isarn,
Raymond III of Pallars,
Mayor García
Count of Ribagorza
with Mayor until 1032
Preceded by
New title
Emperor of Spain
Title next held by
Ferdinand I of León