Guifré el Pélos - founder of Catalonia. Died c. 898

Honestly, I thought someone was making this chap up, until I thought about the name of one of the early English kings, Ethelred the Unready. So I checked, got a book from the library and went to reading.

As with so many historical figures, details of his birth are sketchy, and those we do have are of doubtful, traditional origins. What is know is that he was of Gothic descent, from the region of Carcassonne, born near Prades. His father was supposedly Wilfred of Arriaount, who was murdered, though later avenged by his son. Others have him as the offspring of Sunifred.

In the middle of the ninth century, Catalonia was recovering from Saracen and Frankish rule, growing and repopulating under the oversight of local counts whose power was bestowed by the Carolingian empire. The empire was struggling to maintain control, given the communication difficulties - the dynasty was in decline, and the Pyrenees formed an excellent barrier to mass movement from France.

The area was really controlled by individuals, local warlords who sought to help their own localities (comarques) to blossom. The Church was growing again, as parishes filled with people moving into the area, and peace spread throughout the region. It was into this situation that one man strode, intent on bringing independence to the area, and shaking off external dominance. The man was Count Guifré.

Taking Control

He saw a land under Frankish rule (not directly under the rulership of Charles the Bald, but Bernat de Gotia, another Frankish noble who had been exiled to Spain by Charles). He saw clearly that the land and the people sought independence, and decided that the time was ripe for it to begin. Between the years 870 and 878, he (with his brother) routed what resistance there was to his plans.

This done, he took up residence in the recently liberated city of Barcelona, built himself a grand palace and began to grow his political power. A canny man, he did this by ingratiating himself with the clergy. He set about a massive program of building churches and abbeys throughout the region, so much so that most of the earliest foundations were set at his orders. He was not above taking care of his own, though - Sant Joan de les Ripoli he built for his sister, who became abbess, and for his daughter Emma, Sant Joan de les Abadesses.

This done, he had effective control over the whole of Catalonia. Beginning with himself as the Count of Barcelona, Guifré established hereditary titles, apart from the Frankish monarchy. Peace now truly reigned in the area - the former warlords overthrown, trade and economy blossomed, and the nobles supplied regular troops to defend ports and communication routes.

Myths and Legends

One of the stranger legends surrounding him was the slaying of a dragon, brought to the Llobregat river by the Saracens. He (or possibly, his father - the two are oft confused by lesser historians) laid about the beast with an oak branch, before finishing it off with lance and sword. In this way, he is associated with Saint George, patron saint of Catalonia - in fact, a 14th-century carving on the Cathedral in Barcelona shows the saint, in traditional knight's armour, and another, more hirsute fellow, both challenging the beast in its lair.

Was he in fact as hairy as legend says? One story tells that his mother recognised him on his return from a youthful exile in Flanders, as he had hair on a part of the body where it should not have been. The mind boggles, although some sources suggest that it was the soles of his feet that were the unusual site. Another possible origin of his name Pélos comes from the Latin pilium, a Roman javelin, rather than pilosus, "hairy, overgrown". Whatever the truth of the legend, it seems to have a modern-day following - many men in the area cultivated huge moustaches and muttonchop whiskers until quite recently.

The origin of the Catalan flag is also said to originate with the hairy hero - it is said that he was seriously wounded in the battle for Barcelona, and the Frankish king Louis the Pious visited him, and noticed his shield, covered in gold leaf. Desirious of honouring him with an heraldic blazon, the king dipped his fingers in Wilfred's blood and drew them across the shield, leaving four crimson stripes. (This has to be legend - Louis died in 840.)

So, was Wilfred really the hero of Catalonia? No doubt he was, for although the area was again overrun in later years, he had established a legend and reality of a united region. A thousand years later, his desire for independence is echoed again in a new generation.

Although it would have been somehow more fitting.

Barcelona Robert Hughes. ISBN 0002720787