The famous Caravaca Cross is composed of a vertical arm and the defining two unequal length horizontal arms giving the ‘double’ cross shape. According to tradition, it belonged to the Patriarch Robert of Jerusalem, the first bishop following the end of the First Crusade in 1099. How then did it come to Caravaca?
It is said that, from the end of 1230 or the beginning of 1231, at a time when Murcia was still under Arab control, the Almohade King of Valencia and Murcia, one Abu-Ceyt was residing in Caravaca.
Intrigued to find out about the Christian prisoners held there in the castle dungeon, he invited them to tell him about their professions. One of the prisoners was a priest, Ginés Pérez Chirinos, originally from Cuenca, who had been attempting to spread the Gospel in the area. The curious king requested that the priest hold a mass in the castle which he agreed to do, sending for the necessary vestments and materials from Cuenca. On 3rd May 1232, the priest began his mass before the king and his court. He stopped when he realised that he had no cross on the altar. At this moment, two angels came through a window in the room and deposited what became known as the Cross of Caravaca on the altar.
The king and many of his court converted to Christianity. It was believed that the cross was, indeed, that of Patriarch Robert which had itself been made from a fragment of the cross upon which Christ had been crucified, which had, in turn, been discovered in Jerusalem in the 4th Century by Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine and divided into three parts deposited in Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome.
Eleven years later, Murcia came under Christian control, with Caravaca a bastion thereafter against the Moors to the south in Granada. Its function as a military and religious headquarters was recognised in 1266 when Alfonso X (“El Sabio”) gave control of the town and surrounding area to the Knights Templar. In 1344, Alfonso XI changed matters and gave Caravaca, Cehegin and Bullas to the religious-military Order of Santiago, under whose control it remained until such orders were abolished in the 19th Century.
Under the Order of Santiago, the castle was extended with its walls flanked by 14 towers. Clearly, in these early times, the Caravaca Cross and the story behind it, would have held a significant unifying and rallying function among the Christian population of the area and have helped to justify the building of the fortress and church of the True Cross on top of the hill above the town. In medieval times, the religious-military orders were also entrusted with the re-population of the areas under their control as well as their protection.
The influence of the Caravaca Cross did not stop there. Numerous religious orders were attracted to Caravaca and they in turn, spread knowledge of the Caravaca Cross far and wide as they journeyed to all corners of the expanding known world.
Reproductions of the Caravaca Cross began to appear throughout South America and Europe, including in England. However, at the beginning of the 19th Century, when Napoleonic forces occupied much of Spain, the cross was apparently removed from the castle and buried nearby during a period from about 1809 to 1818 before being restored to its place in the church.
Unfortunately, this was not the only misfortune to befall the cross. In the unrest in Spain at the beginning of the 1930s, on the night of 12/13 February 1934, the Caravaca Cross was stolen and indeed, following the Civil War, the buildings of the Caravaca fortress area were used to house political prisoners before being left in a semi-abandoned state in 1941.
So what is the provenance of the “True Cross” of Caravaca which is venerated today? In response to public requests, Pope Pius XII donated fragments of the True Cross in the Papacy’s possession to Caravaca in 1942. Today, the Brotherhood of the Most Sacred and True Cross of Caravaca looks after the cross and has over 6000 members.
Regardless of your religious inclination, visits to Caravaca to see the history of its cross are, in our view, very worthwhile. The setting of the fortress and castle are simply stunning and the history (be it legend or not) intriguing and so evocative of the last 1000 or so years through which this part of Spain has passed. It is hardly surprising that the town attracts so many visitors, or has so many souvenir shops! Caravaca’s drawing power was augmented in 1998, when the Pope granted it a permanent Jubilee Year to be celebrated every seven years, with 2017 being one such year.
The first five days of May, of course, see one of Murcia’s best known and loved fiestas take place in Caravaca de la Cruz. Several events take place during this period, although the best known are the battles between the bands of Moors and Christians and the spectacular ‘Wine Run’ up to the castle undertaken by brightly adorned horses and their handlers.
The tradition of the Wine Horses also has a 13th Century tale associated with it. At that time, Caravaca was of course, on the frontier of the Christian part of Spain against the Moorish Kingdom of Granada. Initially, the Templar Knights were responsible for the town’s defense and custody of the cross. On one occasion, when the town was besieged, the water supply had putrefied and was causing disease.
Consequently, several knights tricked their way through the encircling Moors to go to Campillo Galardón in the nearby territorial area of Lorca to obtain clean supplies of water. However, there was no water to be found; only wine! As a result, wine was put into the skins they had with them and they returned to Caravaca to gallop through the encircling forces and deliver their cargo. The wine was duly blessed by the cross and given to those who were ill. It is said that they all recovered immediately.
This is certainly an intriguing tale, but in a more historical perspective, the Wine Horse parades and run, owe their origin to the modern importance of viticulture in the area. From the mid-17th Century, wine used to be taken belonging to the Order of Santiago, the Town Council and noble houses in the area to be blessed by the cross on 2nd May. It is believed that natural rivalry among those transporting the wine to the blessing led, in the 19th Century, to the development of what today has become the great “Caballos del Vino” competition racing the horses up the hill to the Castle.
Based upon extracts from the book “Exploring Murcia – A Days Out Compilation” by Clive and Rosie Palmer, who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. All the books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org