The palaces and churches in the surroundings of Oviedo provide eminent testimony to the civilization of the small Christian Kingdom of Asturias during the splendour of the Emirate of Cordoba. Pre-Romanesque Asturian architecture represents a unique artistic achievement which is neither a metamorphosis of palaeo-Christian art nor a feature of Carolingian art. These churches, which are basilical in layout and entirely vaulted, and which make use of columns instead of piers, have very rich decors which contain Visigothic references, Arabic elements, and shapes that associate them with the great sanctuaries of Asia Minor. Asturian monuments have exerted a decisive influence on the development of medieval architecture on the Iberian peninsula.
On the morrow of the Arab conquest of Spain, the reconstitution in the mountains of Asturias of the tiny Christian kingdom of Pelage is of historical and cultural importance which greatly overshadows its political significance. For a long time, the existence of this principality, an offshoot of the Visigothic kingdom, remained precarious and it is not without a certain prejudice that the battle of Covadonga (718) was portrayed as the first victory in a war against Islam which lasted eight centuries, drawing to a close as it did with the taking of Granada by the Catholic kings.
However, the Kingdom of Asturias, although frequently threatened by Arab raids (Oviedo was captured in 789, then sacked again in 794), became a stronghold of Christianity in the 9th century and a special brand of architecture took root there, reaching its apogee under the reign of Ramiré I (842-50) whom the narrative sources (chronicles of Albelda, Sebastian, and Silos) portray as a great builder.
Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo, sanctuaries which are located in the immediate vicinity of the capital of the kingdom, Oviedo, on the slopes of Mont Naranco, both are traced back to the reign of Ramiré. A third edifice, which is slightly more recent, makes use of the spatial, structural and decorative innovations of the Ramirian period: it is the church of Santa Cristina de Lena, 37 km south of Oviedo on the road to León.
Santa María del Naranco is a former royal residence built on two levels. Excavations in 1930-34 revealed the existence of baths in one of the lower rooms. This rectangular Ramirian palace which was converted into a church between 905 and 1065, has exterior stairways at the north end and a balcony at the south end; it opens to the east and west via loggias which act as lookout points poised upon bays and open at all three sides.
San Miguel de Lillo, which has been a church right from the very start, has only retained the first two admirably balanced bays of an ambitious building which bears a strong resemblance to the Naranco Palace.
Santa Cristina de Lena, a harmonious but smaller version of these exceptional creations embodies the final phase of this incomparable Asturian architecture (c . 850-66), if it is indeed true, as believed, that this was the chapel of the royal domain of Ordoño I.
Fruela I, King of Asturias from 757 to 768, founded a basilica dedicated to the Saviour at a place then known as Ovetao, with a royal residence alongside, where his son Alfonso II was born. At about the same time a monastic community established itself in the same place and built a monastery dedicated to San Vicente.
The new settlement was destroyed during the campaign of the Cordoban Emirate in 794-95; however, it was rebuilt by Alfonso II and served as his capital. During his long reign (791-842) Oviedo was provided with many new ecclesiastical and secular buildings; these included the rebuilt basilica and monastery, a second basilica dedicated to San Tirso, a church dedicated to the Virgin, palaces, and baths inside the walls and a third basilica, dedicated to San Julián and Santa Basilisa extra muros.
The two religious establishments on the southern side of the Naranco, Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel, were built during the harsh reign of Ramiro I (842-50). It is not known why he chose to locate these some miles outside the capital of his predecessor. The contribution of Alfonso III, last and greatest of the Asturian kings (866-910), was the construction of a fortress to the north-east, outside the walls. Below the castle, in a quarter known from its location as Socastiello, was the Jewish quarter in late medieval times.
It was around this time that the remains of the Cordoban martyrs Eulogius and Leocricia were brought to Oviedo. A treasury was built at the Cathedral to house them, the Cámara Santa (Holy Chamber), which was to become a place of pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages.
On the death of Alfonso, the Royal court moved to León and Oviedo had a setback, since it lost its important royal connections. However, it continued to hold a high place in religious and ecclesiastical affairs, rivalling Santiago de Compostela as a place of pilgrimage. It also attracted a number of Frankish immigrants, to such an extent that two separate jurisdictions were set up, one for the Castilian and the other for the Frankish part of the population. This connection with south-western France continued throughout the Middle Ages.
Oviedo was given its first legal regulations, the Fuero Charter, during the reign of Alfonso VI of León and Castille (1065-1105). These clearly excluded those citizens who paid allegiance to the Bishop of Oviedo and not to the Crown. The city was given the right to build new fortifications around its extended urban area by Alfonso IX (1188-1230). It quickly expanded beyond these limits, and communities of mendicant friars were established outside. During this time the influence of the religious foundations - the Cathedral and the monasteries of San Pelayo and Santa María in particular - grew considerably, and much of the urban land was in their possession.
This medieval order came to an end with the disastrous fire on Christmas Day 1521. In the subsequent reconstruction the townsfolk freed themselves to a considerable extent from ecclesiastical overlordship. Secular public buildings were erected, such as the Town Hall, the Magistrates' Court (Audiencia), and the University, and the 17th and 18th centuries saw many fine bourgeois palaces and houses built.