Day 8 – Nájera to Santo Domingo (23 km)
During the 11th and 12th centuries Nájera was the capital of Navarre and a major town on the Camino de Santiago – the buildings here bear testimony to this. Monasterio Santa Maria de la Real with its royal pantheon housing the burial sites of many kings, queens and knights of this kingdom is impressively stark from the outside, but when I arrived late that afternoon, the doors were already closed and I did not wait for them to open the next day. Perhaps in hindsight I should have taken the time to make the historic connection to royalty of this region, but I missed this chance, just as I had missed the tombs in Santa Maria la Blanca near Carrión de los Condes. Only the noble burial chambers in Leon are now in my memory.
I wandered through the old city in dusk, but this soon changed to darkness, and for a short while I attended evening mass in one of the many churches before crashing onto my banana-shaped and rather thin mattress with a squeaking wire base below.
The next day I decided to take a detour and visit the Cistercian Abbey of Santa María. The landscape was not spectacular and the clouds almost touched the ground. The atmosphere was a little depressing and walking on the tar road did not lift the spirit, although there was hardly any traffic to disturb my peace.
The convent, founded in 1170 by Cistercian nuns, was definitely worth the visit and the detour. It has survived 840 years of danger, turmoil and changing fortunes. As is common in Spain, all descriptions are in Spanish and when searching the internet for the abbey’s history, I was unable to find explanations in English, so I offer my own version of the convent’s origin and history:
During the 11th and 12th centuries Nájera was the capital of the kingdom of Navarre and the proximity to the king’s court was probably the reason why Catholic bishops and their clergy settled in Santo Domingo de Calzada, a little over twenty kilometre west of Nájera.
The native peasants and pilgrims passing through in those days were not the only ones relying on monasteries and convents. Nobles and other families of note, including in this case those from Nájera, were also dependent on their services. In noble circles it was common practice that first-born sons inherited and managed family estates while the younger males, especially if not suited for military tasks, were frequently persuaded or forced to join monastic orders.
There were also other reasons for the use of convents: At times nobles might have felt obliged to make arrangements for their female family members. Convents offered solutions when suitable marriages could not be found for daughters and these institutions often became their new homes.
Convents were also convenient in accommodating widows; some might still have been young when their husbands perished on the battlefield. Perhaps they were also practical for mentally challenged females, a problem often caused by interbreeding, not unusual in those days. Even obstinate young girls might have been shunted into convents if they became too difficult to handle. Having some members of their families housed in these institutions had no doubt also brought the added advantage that the nobles could keep their eyes on rapidly expanding religious organisations and to make sure that abbots or mothers superior were promoted from their own ranks.
Santo Domingo, the next town of note after Nájera, developed into an important religious centre with its own monasteries and a grand cathedral. Related infrastructure and commerce with its merchant class followed and today we can still admire a number of grand townhouses from that era.
Members of the clergy in Santo Domingo de la Calzada were not always as celibate as they had vowed to be and when the consequences of an inappropriate liaison resulted in a daughter, using the services of the convent close by provided a practical solution.
Does this nun have an eye on the bishop?
And why is the bishop tagging onto a row of busy nuns?
I believe in this way noble and priestly needs as described contributed to the founding of the convent Santa María, which is situated just off the beaten path near Cañas ‒ halfway between Nájera and Santo Domingo.