The People of Gibraltar
1501 - St Mary the Crowned  - Stripped of an Islamic Past

Going to church on Sundays - and Holy Days of Obligation - were once part and parcel of being a good Catholic on the Rock although I must admit that keeping to the script could often be a pretty meaningless enterprise – I did go to church when I was a teenager in the 1950s but I was anything but a good Catholic – and I wasn’t the only one. 

The church I attended was minutes away from where I lived in Main Street. It was a large and rather boring building that I must have walked past daily and simply took for granted. I would also have struggled to remember that its real name was not “la iglesia” but “la Cathedral de Santa Maria la Coronada” - undoubtedly a bit of a mouthful for any self-respecting Gibraltarian - of which I was certainly one.


The Catholic Church of Gibraltar with its clock tower - and as I would have recognized it in the 1950s  if I had been able to fly

It was only very much later while I was trying to research the history of my home town that it finally sank in. That boring old building was one of the oldest and most interesting of any on the Rock. Its origins could be traced back many centuries to the days when Gibraltar was mostly a Muslim enclave rather than Christian. In other words my “iglesia” had once been a mosque. The ovious questions followed:  when was the original mosque built, who built it, how did become a Catholic church and how come it was still standing there today. Let me speculate.

There may have been the odd building or two on the Rock before 711 AD - which is when Tariq ibn Ziyad is supposed to have landed either in Gibraltar or thereabouts (See LINK) - but there is as yet no evidence of him having found – or founded - any kind of proper settlement there. 

In fact what evidence does exist suggests that the Rock continued to be a veritable backwater for the next four hundred years from the day Tariq left it on his way to conquer most of the rest of Visigothic Iberia, right up to the 12th century. In other words there were no churches or mosques to be found on the Rock for at least half a millennium.


Artist’s impression of Tariq ibn Ziyad landing his troops in Gibraltar – not a sign of any settlements whatsoever   (Unknown )


Another artist’s impression of Tariq ibn Ziyad landing on the isthmus north of the Rock and on his way to conquer the Visigoths and with other things on his mind than the building of large mosques ( Unknown - Gibraltar Philatelic Bureau Ltd )

However, on the 4th of December 1159 Abd-al Mu'min, the first of the Almohad Caliphs made a decision that would change all that.  He decided that he wanted a city – and all the little extras that go with it - to be built on Tariq’s mountain and gave the necessary instructions to make sure his wishes would come true. (See LINK

It took less than two years to build the town which he named Medinat al Fath – the City of Victory. The name did not catch on but Medinat would become the forerunner of the old town of Gibraltar. Among the many monuments and buildings that were created was a fortified tower - a precursor to our Moorish Castle, (see LINK) a series of conduits supplying the town with water from the south, numerous official residences and buildings and a large mosque with a beautifully designed interior. Unfortunately all the evidence suggests that the mosque was built within the castle walls which therefore precluded it from being the one I was after.


A plan of the Moorish town showing its development over the centuries   ( 2013 - Kevin Lane et al – Adapted )

During the beginning of the 13th century, the Marinid dynasty took over from the Almohads in Morocco. As a consequence Gibraltar became a Marinid outpost. Again there is little to suggest  that they constructed any other large mosques elsewhere in town although a small one - of which some mosaics still exist- was built well to the south. 

In 1306 it was the turn of Muhammed II - the Nasrid ruler of Granada – to take over the Rock but again no evidence of any major construction work. Three years later Ferdinand IV of Castile (see LINK) with a little help from his right hand man - Alonso Pérez de Guzmán - took over Gibraltar from its Nasrid occupiers. 


Alonso Pérez de Guzmán (See LINK

Ferdinand almost immediately issued a series of edicts (see LINK) which included the following: 

É mandó labrar los muros de la villa que derrivarón los engeños. 
É otrosi mandó labrar una torre encima del recuesto de la villa. 
É otrosi mandó labrar una atarazana desde la villa fasta la mar, porque esloviesen las galeas en salvo é tornóse el rey D. Fernando para su hueste de Algesira que tenia cercada. 

As regards churches, Ferdinand seems to have been satisfied with the conversion of a small mosque at Europa point which became the Catholic chapel known as the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Europa. He does not appear to have made any changes to the principle mosque.

The Castilians were only able to hold on to Gibraltar until 1333 when the Marinids reappeared on the scene. The Caliph Abu-l-Hassan of Morocco and Mohammed IV of Granada besieged and retook the Rock. (See LINK ) Abu-l-Hassan’ fame as a builder is well documented and there is no doubt that he was very much the man responsible for improving Gibraltar’s defenses. In the words of al-Makkari - a 15th century Arab historian:
The sultan Abu-l-hasan  . . applied himself further to strengthen Gibraltar, by causing a thick wall to be built at the foot of the rock, surrounding it on all sides, as the halo surrounds the crescent moon . .  . . .
But more to the point:
Abu-l-hasan . . . began to give his attention to repairing its buildings . . . spending immense amounts of money in building houses and magazines, as well as a Jámi or principal mosque . . .  (See LINK)
That “principal mosque” is elsewhere curiously described as a “Cathedral mosque”. Was this the mosque I was after? It seemed like it but there is a small fly in the ointment. According to that memorable 14th century traveler – Ibn Battuta - one of the first things Abu-l-hasan did after his arrival in Gibraltar was order his son Abu Malik to remove a great ten hundredweight bells from the main church and have it sent it to Fez. There it was reshaped as a lamp and was hung in front of the gate called Bab al-Kutubiyin in the Mosque of al-Quarawiyin. 


The great ten hundredweight bell from the main church in Gibraltar converted into a lamp and now hanging in the Mosque of al-Quarawiyin. I have read that the complete fixture still hangs under the third cupola from the anza where it was placed all those years ago

The way al Makkari puts it abu Malik removed just “one” of the half ton bells – in other words it wasn’t the only one in Gibraltar. Which give rise to the question - where on earth did these bells come from? As far as I know Mosques never used bells – the faithful were urged to prayer by the call of a Muezzin from the top of their minarets. Could it be that Ferdinand IV did in fact convert for Christian use one of the Mosques inside the Castle precinct? As an added conundrum the present day church has four bells with each of them facing the four cardinal points. The oldest – the North Bell – contains a Latin inscription that has been translated as follows:
Cast on February 9th . . . in the year of peace 1308  . . .  may the voice of my peeling be the terror of the demons.
Could this bell also have been in Gibraltar when Abu-l-hasan arrived?  Probably not as the weight of the 1308 bell has been estimated at 20 cwt, whereas the one carted off by Abu Malik only weighed half of this. Perhaps the northern bell was just too heavy to shift.

Despite these reservations it seems almost certain that the mosque that would one day become the Catholic Cathedral of Gibraltar was first built during the mid or earlier years of the 14th century. It must have been quite an imposing affair – at least by Gibraltar standards. According to Alonso Hernández del Portillo (see LINK) describing work being carried out on the interior of the church in the late 16th or very early 17th century:
Era esta Santa Iglesia a lo que parece Mezquita Morisca, como lo muestra la fabrica que está en el patio de los naranjos . . . no debía de ser de las menores que los Moros tenían, como lo demostraba lo derribado y ahora se ve en los mármoles que están en el dicho patio o claustro por ser como son tan parecidos a los de la Iglesia de Córdoba, así en color, como en longitud y grueso.
Anything that even remotely resembled the hypostyle of the Mequita at Cordoba – which I place as one of the wonders of the world – will certainly have been worthy of comment although I can’t help but feel that Portillo was exaggerating somewhat. 


“ . . .  parecidos a los de la Iglesia de Córdoba, así en color, como en longitud y grueso”

The building remained a mosque until 1462 when Gibraltar was finally recovered for Christianity under the guise of the unfortunate Enrique IV of Castile and Leon.  (See LINK) The men who actual did the dirty work were Alonzo, Conde de Arcos, his son Rodrigo and the first Duque de Medina Sidonia, Juan Alonso de Guzman. Juan Alonso eventually out-maneuvered everybody – including the King – and simply pocketed Gibraltar as yet another of his personal fiefdoms. 

Whether the Guzman family ever tried to convert the main mosque into a Christian church is a moot point. There were, after all a few other smaller perhaps more appropriate places. The mosque inside the Castle precinct would have suited their purpose admirably.


This early 17th century map shows the church of Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza inside the Castle precinct. It is known to have come into existence in the 16th century and could possibly have once been one of the smaller mosques which are known to have been built inside the Castle Walls.  (1625 – Luis Bravo de Acuña )  (See LINK)

Unfortunately for the Guzman family in 1501, the Catholic Sovereigns, Ferdinand and Elizabeth decided that they wanted the Rock for themselves. By 1502 orders had been issued to redesign the so-called Cathedral Mosque to a less Moorish and more appropriate design which included a clock tower housing several bells. 

The Church today sports a South Bell that was cast in 1576 together with eastern and western ones that are even more modern – which means that none of them are possible candidates for those installed in the early 16th century.  The North Bell is of course more than old enough to be at least one of them but there are good reasons to suppose that it probably isn’t.


Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile – The Catholic Monarchs

Whatever new features may have been added, the rest of the development was never completed. although it is certainly possible that at least part of the Gothic flavor of both its exterior and  interior - both features of the modern building - may have tackled during this period.. 

Over the next few years, the mosque was stripped of its Islamic past and was consecrated as the parish church of Gibraltar. It was given the rather cumbersome name of la Santa Maria la Coronada y San Bernardo – and I certainly had never heard it called that last bit about St Bernard by anybody when I lived in Gibraltar all those years ago.


An artist’s impression of what the church might have looked like after Gibraltar was taken over by Spain   ( 1977 - George Palao )


Another view (Unknown ) 

That at least some sort of construction work was carried out during this period is borne out by the fact that the Sovereigns allowed the church to keep half of its Tercias Reales – the inevitable one third of their income that the churches were required to pay their Royal earthly masters. Ferdinand and Isabel were nothing if not pragmatists – they would have wanted to ensure that they were getting something for their money. 

Tradition also has it that to commemorate the on-going project, a Royal coat of arms was engraved on the North Gate of the Church. In the early 20th century a slab containing a medieval Royal coat of arms which was supposed to be this one was transferring on to the wall of the Church’s Parochial Archives area. 

Recently local historians have come to the conclusion that the coat of arms are more likely to be those of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V rather than the Catholic Monarchs and that they were possible put there during the late 16th century when the Italian engineers El Fratino and Calvi were involved in attempting to build Charles V Wall. (See LINK).  If the arms do belong to Charles V then the presence of these inside the church strongly suggest that further changes were also carried out on its structure during this period.


The coat of arms that were said to have been engraved on the North Gate on the left with  the coat of arms of Charles V on the right.

Around the mid 16th century, a local worthy, Andres Suazo de Sanabria is known to have founded a chapel on the Evangelist or left side when facing the altar of the church. It boasted a large and expensive altarpiece but we have no idea of its year of completion. The altarpiece was according to Alonso Hernandez del Portillo more than good enough to grace the main altar of a church in a town with a much bigger population than Gibraltar. 

Andres Suazo is recorded as having been a councilor in Gibraltar in the 1525 and that he continued in this post at least until 1551. During the well documented “Turkish” raid of 1540, (see LINK) Sanabria was fully involved in securing the successful defence of the town - despite the loss of his son of his 20 year old son - Juan de Sanabria – who was shot in the chest. It was a nasty affair as his foot got trapped in the stirrup of his horse and he got dragged along the ground for quite a while. 

Andres Suazo could well afford the expense of financing an expensive chapel within the Church of St Mary the Crowned. According to his contemporary, Pedro Barrantes Maldonado, he was: 
. . . el caballero más principal y rico de aquella ciudad.
His house was in the lower section of la Turba and was surrounded by a moat with a defensive drawbridge. It was connected to his other house in the Barcina by a covered pathway. His Barcina residence - according to Portillo - had a defensive tower in the middle of it. He is known to have died in 1589 hopefully giving him plenty of time to finish the chapel that might ensure him a relatively short stay in purgatory. 

Another important nobleman – Francisco de Mendoza - sponsored yet another chapel on the Epistle or right hand side of the church. Curiously he was both regidor in Gibraltar and Mayor of Gaucin – a nearby feudal town, an appointment that probably had something to do with his connections with Medina Sidonia.

Yet another chapel was founded in the cloister of the church known as the Patio de los Naranjos – a name which both described and revealed the cloister’s old Mesquita origins. The responsible party was Gonzalo de la Piña, an important local nobleman who wanted to ensure that he and his family could count on a decent burial place  one that would ensure that they would be laid to rest as close to God as possible. He was also – it so happened – a relative of Andres Suazo.  All of these noblemen were almost certainly among the richest and most influential people living in the Rock at the time.

It is probably worth mentioning that all of them - and not just Andres Suazo - were involved in the defense of the Rock in 1540 during which a large number of corsairs led by a renegade slave called Caramani raided the town for several days.  Although the invaders created havoc elsewhere they never managed to plunder the old church. According to Portillo this serious omission could be explained as follows:
The raiders would have been able to do even more damage than they actually did if it hadn't been that the Good Lord stopped them from doing so.  When they arrived close to the main church of the town they should have found it easy to capture a large number of women and children who had gathered there for sanctuary. But the church has an ancient statue of our Virgin which is said to have come from Algeciras and to which the locals were very devoted. She did not allow this to happen.   
That may have been so, of course, but the church was also heavily defended by the locals - including one Sebastián de Fontalba who oddly enough was not a Catholic but a “Presbitran cleric”.(sic) The church probably also had a very heavily locked main doorway which the Turks must have found  hard to breakdown.


The statue of la Virgen de Europa in the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned who may or may not have stopped those marauding Turks in their tracks

The “Raid” is an event which seems to have been well remembered by historians of the day. One small detail that might have some connection with the church is the bell – it keeps cropping up - that was used at the time to warn the residents of any imminent danger. It hung from a tower inside the Moorish Castle precinct and was rung to warn the inhabitants of imminent danger. On hearing the bell being tolled the inhabitants were supposed to seek refuge inside the Castle.

The bell was put to good use during the Turkish invasion and eventually came to be known by the enemies of Gibraltar as la Campana del Terror. The fact that the inscription on the 1308 bell contains the word “Terror” has led local historians to speculate that this is in fact the same bell that one can find today in the church’s belfry.  

The North Bell of St Mary the Crowned     ( 1977 – adapted from a sketch by local historian George Palao who actually went up there himself to have a look )

Several decades later the interior of the church underwent some serious renovations and lost most of its remaining Moorish characteristics.

During the early 18th century another event took place that – theoretically at any rate – did not augur well for the church. Protestant English and Dutch forces captured the Rock in 1704 in the name of Charles III – a pretender to the Spanish throne. (See LINK) The immediate result was the exodus of just about the whole of the almost entirely Catholic population. 

The town was duly ransacked and pillaged and not a single church, convent, chapel or hermitage – and there were quite a few in Gibraltar by then – remained unscathed. The one exception was the main parish church and the reason it managed to avoid the worst excesses of war can be attributed to the personality of one man – the parish priest at the time – Father Juan Romero de Figueroa. (See LINK

This cleric was almost single-handedly responsible for maintaining the fabric of the place while making every effort to retain most of its more valuable possessions. He did so by the not so simple expedient of taking them across the border to Algeciras until such time as they might be returned with safety. 

Possibly for entirely pragmatic reasons – or perhaps because they could not help but admire the sheer courage of Padre Romero and one or two of his acolytes – the new owners never secularised the church as they eventually did with all the others.

In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht (See LINK) specifically handed over the Rock to Britain. Among its many awkwardly written and difficult to interpret paragraphs is one that appears at the end of Article X:
Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain does further promise, that the free exercise of their religion shall be indulged to the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the aforesaid town.
It was not too difficult a demand from the British point of view as the number of Catholics residing on the Rock at the time must have been in the low hundreds. Nevertheless despite the gradual increase in the population over the years the British more or less kept their part of the bargain and the church continued to serve the Catholic community as its main parish church.


Possibly the oldest extant plan of St Mary the Crowned – here labelled the Spanish Church.
(1750s – James Gabriel Montressor ) (See LINK)


Possibly the oldest representation of the church   ( 1801 – Rev Cooper Willyams ) (See LINK

There were, of course, the inevitable changes over the next three centuries – but that as they say is a completely different story.