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Benavente (Municipality, Castilla y León, Spain)

Last modified: 2015-01-10 by ivan sache
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Flag of Benavente - Image by Ivan Sache, 10 January 2014

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Presentation of Benavente

The municipality of Benavente (19,259 inhabitants in 2012, therefore the 2nd most populous municipality in the province; 4,512 ha; municipal website, Rafael González Rodríguez' blog) is located on the northwest of Zamora Province, 60 km of Zamora. The town is situated on a hill dominating the confluence of rivers Órbigo and Esla.

Benavente emerged on the site of the Roman settlement of Brigeco / Brigecio, shown on the Antonine Itinerary (4th century) on the way linking Mérida and Astorga, subsequently known as the Silver Way or the Mozarab Way, indeed the oldest itinerary to Santiago de Compostela.
In the middle of the 12th century, Benavente was known as Malgrad, a village part of the re-settlement of the territories reconquerred to the Moors organized by the kings of León. King Ferdinand II granted in 1164 a charter to the town, which was confirmed and increased in 1167. Considered as the benefactor of the town, the king renamed it Benavente, gathered there the Royal court in 1176 and died in the town in January 1189. Subsequently, Alfonso IX gathered the Parliament in the town in 1202, while Sancho IV granted new franchises, attracting even more inhabitants in Benavente. The Benavente Concord, signed in 1230, was an early, significant step towards the unification of the kingdoms of Castile and León by King Ferdinand III.

The County of Benavente was erected on 17 May 1398 for the Portuguese knight Juan Alfonso Pimentel (d. 1420), the root of a lineage that would become one of the most prominent noble dynasties in Spain and would rule Benavente until the end of the feudal system.
Antonio Alfonso Pimentel, 6th Count of Benavente (1530-1576), was appointed Viceroy and Captain-General of the Kingdom of Valencia (1567-1571). Juan Alfonso Pimentel, 8th Count of Benavente (1576-1621), was also Viceroy and Captain-General of the Kingdom of Valencia (1598-1602). He was also commander of Castrotorafe and merino (kind of supreme judge) of León and Asturias. King Philip IIII appointed him Viceroy of Naples in 1603; Pope Paul V rewarded his office with "several relics and more than 122 bodies of saints", which were transferred into the Benavente fortress.

Benavente was severely damaged during the War of Independence, especially its citadel. General Lefebvre-Desnouettes was captured on 29 December 1808 in Benavente by the English troops. Napoléon himself stayed for a few days in the town.
In the later 19th century, Benavente morphed into an administrative, judicial and electoral center. The building of the Esla Canal and of the Plasencia-Astorga railway boosted the modernization of the town and its economical development. Trade also increased through popular markets and fairs, so that Benavente was granted the title of ciudad in 1929 by King Alfonso XIII.

Benavente is the birth town of Friar Toribio de Benavente Motolinía (1482-1568), a Franciscan monk who evangelized Mexico and wrote two histories of the Aztecs published long after his death (Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, 1858; Memoriales, 1903); of Francisco de Castro Pascual (1871-1949), an alumnus of Pasteur Institute in Paris and the first Professor of Microbiology in Spain (Complutense University) and member of the Royal Academy of Medicine; of Ángel Regueras López (1870-1924), Bishop of Plasencia and Salamanca and Senator; and of Federico Silva Muñoz (1923-1997), a conservative politician who played a significant role during the democratic transition and was among the founders of the People's Alliance (AP) known as the "Seven Magnificent Men".

Ivan Sache, 10 January 2014

Symbols of Benavente

The flag of Benavente (photo) is horizontally divided purple-yellow-purple (1:2:1) with the municipal coat of arms in the middle.

The coat of arms of Benavente is prescribed by a Decree adopted on 27 January 2005 by the Municipal Council, signed on 7 March 2005 by the Mayor, and published on 16 March 2005 in the official gazette of Castila y León, No. 52, p. 4,677 (text).
The coat of arms is described as follows:

Coat of arms: Shield argent, with a two-arched stone bridge, defended at each end by a fortress (or a crenelated tower) masoned sable, between the towers in the center of the bridge a statue proper of the Holy Virgin of the Vega with Child Jesus in her arms, the bridge issuant from waves azure and argent. The shield surmounted by a Royal Spanish crown.

The official arms are a "regularization" or "rehabilitation" of the traditional arms of the town, which date back to the oldest known seals of the town (13th century).
The Mayor of Benavente commissioned on 23 November 2003 the local circle "Lede del Pozo" to produce a "study on the coat of arms of the town", due to "the need to define the composition, format, colours... of the coat of arms with precision and in compliance with the norms of the heraldic science and tradition". In partnership with the municipal archivist Juan Carlos de la Mata Guerra, José Ignacio Martín Benito, a member of "Lede del Pozo", released an historical memoir (El escudo de Benavente, Brigecio. Revista de Estudios de Benavente y sus Tierras, 2004, 14: 85-106) including a proposed design of the coat of arms, which would be subsequently adopted by the Municipal Council.

The traditional coat of arms of Benavente shows a bridge defended by two fortresses and charged in the center by a statue of the Virgin with Child Jesus. When these arms were adopted or first used is unknown. They are clearly based, however,on the medieval seal of the Council of Benavente, known by two preserved copies. The historical memoir is quite elusive on those seals, which are described in detail by Rafael González Rodríguez (El sello medieval del Concejo de Benavente - La impronta de una leyenda).
The first copy of the seal, indeed a deteriorated fragment kept in the Sigillography section of the National Archives, comes from the archives of the Nogales monastery. Menéndez Pidal describes it as "a small fragment of a bigger, single-sided wax seal, appended by a flax ribbon of walnut colour to the copy, undated, of a privilege granted in 1296 by King Alfonso the Wise to the shepherds of Valderi and Alixa. The field of the seal must have been covered by a big castle; the fragment shows the central gate flanked by two towers; a small figure stands in the opening of the gate".
The second copy of the seal, probably derived from the same matrix, is kept in the Archives of the Astorga Diocese. Well-preserved, the seal shows most details, except some gaps in the legend. The seal is of big size, double-sided, made of ochre wax. The obverse of the seal shows the emblematic element of the subsequent coat of arms of Benavente, a Gothic stone bridge with five arches. This is a conventional, stereotypical representation of the bridge built over one arm of river Órbigo in the lower part of the town, close to the Bridge's Gate. Over the bridge are represented the walls of the town, with towers, bell towers and a few trees, in a strictly symmetrical composition. Characters, including a rider, are portrayed crossing the bridge and heading to the main gate, from which they are watched by a crowned figure.
The obverse of the seal is of canting type, Benavente meaning, more or less "good wind". Four angels are blowing trumpets towards three concentric disks placed in the middle of the seal. The popular interpretation claims that the scene represents the blowing of fecundating winds over the town, but this is rather a representation of the angels blowing the four winds from the four angles of the Earth (St. John's Book of Revelation, 7 : 1-2-3).
The incomplete legend of the seal is prone to several interpretations:
- Obverse: [...]ET : VILLA : BONIS : CVCTIS : REGNV : [...] NIS
- Reverse: [...]T : TRAD : VENT [...] DANT : SIC : BENAVENT[...] [A...]

The coat of arms derived from these seals was described for the first time in the 17th century (which does not necessarily means that it was not used earlier). In Población General de España (1645), Rodrigo Méndez Silva writes about Benavente: "Its coat of arms shows a bridge, two fortresses, and, in the middle, a statue of the Virgin". The Town's Ordinances dated 1637 state that "the Virgin shall be portrayed on the coat of arms of the town, which she protected and liberated from all its enemies by appearing on its banner or standard".
A more detailed description of the arms of Benavente appears in Antonio de Moya's Armas, y Blasones ... de España (1756).
A drawing of the arms of Benavente is given by Francisco Mariano Nipho (Descripción natural, política, y económica de todos los pueblos de España... (Vol. IV, 1771), as an oval shield surrounded by a garland. In the middle of the oval is represented a two-arched bridge over a river, defended at each end by a tower and with the statue of the Virgin and Child Jesus in the middle.
The arms are described, once again, in José Ledo del Pozo's Historiade la nobiliísima villa de Benavente (1853).

Moya seems to identify the bridge shown on the arms with the one built on the "Old Mother" arm of river Órbigo, from which only an arch has been preserved. Moya further writes that the fortresses at the ends of the bridge represent "the greatness, value, majesty and force of the inhabitants".
The interpretation of the statue of the Virgin is less straightforward. Moya believes that the dedication of the town to the Virgin is linked to protection invoked - and, seemingly, granted - during main floods. Ledo del Pozo, however, relates that the Virgin supported the inhabitants of Benavente in battles against the Moors; Marian interventions are commonly alleged in chronicles of Christian victories, the most famous of them being the battle of Covadonga. In Benavente, the Virgin is said to have thrown stones on the assaulters, helping the defenders of the town to repel them from the bridge. The alluded battle must be the battle of Polvorosa, fought in 878 on the banks of Órbigo and often described in medieval chronicles (Crónica Albeldense, Crónicon de Sampiro [c. 990], Crónica Najerense [1157-1180], Crónica General de España [1270-1289]); all of these sources, however, stick to a realistic description of the facts, without any mention of a Marian intervention, which must have been incorporated to the story not earlier than in the late 13th century. Later epic poems, such as Lorenzo de Sepúlveda's Romances (1580) and Luis Vélez de Guevara's Don Pedro Miago, incorporated the Marian miracle to the description of the battle.
Anyway, the Virgin of the Vega, whose statue is kept in the Cimanes de la Vega (León Province) sanctuary, has been the patron saint of Benavente for ages (as expected, the coat of arms of Cimanes also portrays the statue of the Virgin of the Vega). The Romanesque style of the statue matches the late 12th - early 13th century. The Cimanes pilgrimage was mentioned in 1520 among the religious festivals celebrated in Benavente, while the Virgin de la Vega was officially recognized as the patron saint of the town in 1792. For the sake of accessibility, the town was allowed in 1823 to "relocate" the pilgrimage to a church located in Benavente, since 1841 the Santa María del Azogue church; to prevent confusion, the Benavente statue was renamed Virgin of the Veguilla ("small Vega").

Ledo del Pozo died in 1788 but his book was published only in 1853 for the celebration of his 100th birthday. The frontispiece of the book shows a big drawing of the arms of Benavente. Here the bridge has three arches, while the fortresses have three storeys. The Virgin stands on a cloud with a cherubim, under arches and pilasters designed in neo- Renaissance style. This representation was for sure inspired by the statue kept in the Santa María church rather than the Cimanes statue.
Pascual Madoz' dictionary includes a short blazon of the arms of Benavente: "Benavente has for arms a bridge, two fortresses and, in the middle, a statue of the Virgin". Other versions of the arms used in the 19th century lack the Virgin, for example the arms designed in 1846 for the facade of the Town Hall by Pedro Guzmán and Manuel Díez Vecino. Pedro Sánchez Lago's Historia completa de Benavente... (1903) uses more or less the same wording as Ledo del Pozo for the blazon of the arms. He locates the Marian intervention during the battle of Mato, fought in 812 against a Moorish king of Mérida named Ores.

The use of the arms on municipal seals started in the 1820s. During the Constitutional Period (1820-1823), a seal featuring the arms of the town, without the Virgin, was used. The arms were subsequently shown, as seals, on the official records of the municipal administration. The 1849 records show a three-arched bridge, with two towers equipped with cannons, and chapels, which are omitted in the 1850 records. In 1851, the bridge had only two arches. This design was kept in use until the first years of the 20th century, always without the Virgin, which was reincorporated to the arms, usually surrounded by two towers with chapels. Variants of the bridge with either two or three arches were frequent, too. The statue is surrounded by a halo or light rays, above the bridge or standing on it.
The arms of Benavente were shown on the frontispiece of Alejo Enríquez Llordén's Historia de Benavente (1916) and on religious artefacts (veils, candles...) manufactured by the Romero y Grande company. They were also used on pamphlets announcing festivals (1943, 1947, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1985) with several variations in the shape of the shield, number of arches of the bridge, representation of the Virgin.... A significant trend was the increase in the size of the Virgin relative to the size of the bridge and towers.
In the late 20th century, variations in the shape of the shield (for instance, rectangular), in the relative size of its elements, and even in the colour of the field (argent, vert, azure) were common. In the 1990s, the designer José Ortera San Francisco was unofficially commissioned to standardize the arms, but his proposal was not used consistently by the printers and municipal administrations.

Ivan Sache, 10 January 2014