> Hillwalk Tours Blog > Hiking the Camino > Camino History: Who was Saint James?
POSTED BY October 25, 2021

Millions of pilgrims have made the world famous journey to Santiago de Compostela. Today the pilgrimage route is still popular for this tradition started in the Middle Ages. But when and how did the Camino de Santiago come about? And who was Saint James? Read this post for a comprehensive lesson in Camino history.

Walking Tour Camino Frances
Hiking the Camino de Santiago

Camino history

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Today there are numerous different routes that lead to the final point of Santiago, but the most famous is the Camino Frances or ‘French Way’, which leads through northern Spain in 790 kilometers (491 miles) from France.

Although the road probably served as a trade route for a long time, the pilgrimage route suddenly became immensely popular among pilgrims in the Middle Ages. This had everything to do with Saint James, an apostle whose body is said to be buried in Santiago. But who was this mysterious man?

Statue facing towards Santiago on the Camino de Santiago
Statue of pilgrim facing towards Santiago on the Camino de Santiago just outside of O Cebreiro

Who was Saint James?

Saint Jacob, James the Greater, Saint James, Santiago: this Biblical figure goes by many names, but who exactly was he? And what does it have to do with the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which is also described as the Way of St. James?

Saint Jacob, or Saint James, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He was born in Bethsaida, a village on Lake Tiberias, in present-day Israel. Little is known of his childhood, although it has been inferred from writings that he was the son of the fisherman Zebedee and the brother of the apostle John. It is furthermore suspected that he was a cousin of Jesus, although this theory is not accepted by everyone.

What is clear from writings is that Saint James was a faithful follower of Jesus. Together with Peter and his brother John, he is considered one of the three most important disciples. He is said to have attended a number of important events in Biblical stories. He is also the patron saint of Spain, where the end of the pilgrimage route named after him can also be found.

Villa on the Camino Frances
Villa on the Camino Frances

From Saint James to Santiago

According to legends, Saint James traveled to Spain to spread the word of Christ there. He is said to have spent about seven years here before returning to Jerusalem. Around Easter of AD 44, Saint James was the first of the apostles to die a martyr when he was beheaded under the command of Herod Agrippa, king of the Herodians.

Saint James’s head is said to be buried in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. Here is a cathedral dedicated to Saint James the Greater. The building is said to mark the spot where he was beheaded. His head is said to be buried under the altar, outlined by a piece of red marble and surrounded by candles.

According to the accounts, the body of Saint James made a long journey west (note, these stories did not begin to circulate until the seventh century). After the death of the apostle, his body is said to have been taken to the Iberian Peninsula in a boat led by an angel. After that, according to the stories, the saint was buried in the place where Santiago de Compostela is now located. This place is even named after him: the Spanish name of Saint Jacob, Santo Iago or San Yago, was shortened to Santiago.

saint jacob saint jacob sint jacobsweg cathedral
The remains of Saint James are said to be buried under the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the end point of the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James. Photo: Lanzi / GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2

Although there are several writings that contradict these legends in part or in full, the religious relevance of Santiago de Compostela is still enormous. In the Middle Ages the place grew into the most popular pilgrimage site in Europe; even now the Camino de Santiago is still a very popular pilgrimage route, among religious and non-religious travelers alike. Not only in Spain is St. James considered a patron saint; The apostle has also acquired special significance as a patron saint in Chile, Nicaragua and The Hague, among others.

Name day Saint James

Although all the stories of Saint James the Greater are many centuries old, the legend of this figure still lives on. The most important day to remember in connection with the Camino de Santiago is July 25. This is the name day of Saint Jacob and one of the biggest annual events in Galicia and Santiago de Compostela.

During the holiday, Galicia is buzzing with cultural events and street parties. There are also special church services to honor the life and work of Saint Jacob. It is very special to experience this day after a trip on the Camino de Santiago. The celebrations start about ten days before the twenty-fifth. If Saint James’s Day falls on a Sunday, it is considered a special Holy Year on the Camino and pilgrim numbers are normally much higher in these years.

Scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago

Did you know?

  • The scallop cloak or scallop shell is named after Saint James, as is the James’s cross, a cross in the shape of a dagger or sword. These symbols can still be seen today along the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James.
  • A portrait of Saint James, made in 1661 by Rembrandt van Rijn, was auctioned in 2007 at the auction house Sotheby’s. The painting, called Portrait of St. Jacob the Greater, raised a whopping $25.8 million.
  • James the Greater is often confused with James the Less. The first was the apostle after whom the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage was named. The latter is referred to in the New Testament as one of the “brothers” of Jesus, although this was probably not the case literally. James the Less is not one of the twelve apostles, but is mentioned as an apostle.
  • In addition to the shell, Saint James the Greater is regularly depicted with a staff, the attribute of the pilgrim.
  • In the Orthodox Church, the name day of Saint James does not fall on July 25, but on April 30.

We hope that you enjoyed this guide to Camino History: Who was Saint James? If you are curious about this breathtaking hike through Galicia, learn more about the route on our Camino Frances page!