Origins and History

Historical origin of the Fiestas de la Virgen. Background and historical evolution.

The Fiestas de la Virgen del Castillo de Yecla constitute an exercise of a parade of arms that has its origins in the municipal forces or militias that remained active from the 16th century until the second half of the 18th century, constituting a temporary service of arms for the municipal community and as a representation of the municipal individuality in the face of royal power. The Yecla militia entrusted to Captain Martín Soriano Zaplana, which was called up in June 1642 for the campaign of the Catalonian War, and which is the historical origin of our parade, must be included in this historical moment.

The Alarde de Armas that we have preserved is carried out under a religious invocation, just as it was done in the 16th century and possibly before. The classical organisational types are perfectly in line with the municipal ritual of citizen affirmation, superiority of the town council, presentation of insignia, formation of the company, celebration of the parade and dissolution of the soldiers. Unlike the Belgian case, in Yecla, not only a part of the urban organisation has survived, but the whole of this organisation has been maintained, in a case that is both unique and extraordinary.

In the Early Modern Age, the displays held in Yecla must be inscribed in the general model of the display developed in Castile. The company displays were adapted to this model. What happened with the expedition of Captain Martín Soriano Zaplana was not particularly novel.

Subsequently, however, the ritual used became more fixed as a religious act of thanksgiving was progressively incorporated into the display, adopting a dramatic and mystical sense of a stable representation of a past act.

Unlike other towns, in Yecla the incorporation of the civic into the religious did not mean the disappearance of the former, but rather its preservation, since in the face of the repressive measures of Charles III, the Yeclans argued that the use of gunpowder no longer had a political meaning but was a purely festive archaic taste (as an example: the use of fuse harquebuses as opposed to the flintlock rifles already widespread at the time). In this way, and in an unpremeditated manner, it was possible to preserve almost exclusively in Yecla a heritage that is not only specific to this town, but which consists of a direct survival of the civic-religious urban rituals of the Ancien Régime in an extraordinary state of purity.

We must be aware of the historical value of preserving this display of arms, which has been fossilised thanks to its interweaving with another form of festive celebration of an eminently religious nature.

In order to know more in depth the origin and development of the Alarde de Armas celebrated in the city of Yecla, we are going to use part of the prologue that the Doctor of History and Official Chronicler of Yecla, D. Miguel Ortuño Palao, made in his day to the so-called “Ordinances” of the Festivities. Miguel Ortuño Palao, wrote in his day to the so-called “Ordinances” of the Festivities, a document currently divided into 209 articles which regulate the future of the celebration of the festivities and which guarantee, with their compliance, the great patrimonial value of the same, as they describe how the components must be and how all the events of the Festivities must be carried out, just as they were carried out more than three and a half centuries ago. The evolution of the events, as mentioned above, was as follows:

The then town of Yecla, like other places in Spain, was obliged to have its men take up their muskets and arquebuses and form companies when the king required them to do so, either because of war or imminent danger. The most common occasion was usually the defence of the Mediterranean coasts against Berber attacks, which is why, for many decades and even centuries, it was believed that our festivities had arisen as a reminder of one of these attacks.

But there are no Moors, pirates or even bloodshed at its origin. It was a very noble cause that led a company of Yeclans, led by Captain Martín Soriano Zaplana, to leave for war. It was to safeguard the unity and integrity of the homeland, which was under attack when part of Spain was invaded by French troops.

On 17th July 1642, sixty-one people from Yecla, chosen by the ordinary mayors Juan Soriano de Amaya and Juan de los Ríos Moreno, left for the so-called “War of Catalonia”. The garrison was established in the lands of Vinaroz in Castellón, specifically in the hermitage of San Sebastián. The favourable development of the conflict meant that they did not have to go to forward posts and, after half a year in the garrison, they all returned without any casualties.

The religious sentiment of those Yeclanos led them, as an attitude of gratitude for the bloodlessness of their expedition, to go up to the sanctuary of the Castle, where Our Lady of the Incarnation, who was already known by the name of Virgen del Castillo, was worshipped. And they were not content with just repeating this plea of gratitude, but every year they brought the Patron Saint down to have her for a few days in the Old Church, then the Parish Church of the Assumption.

In 1691, in order to better organise this spontaneous but repeated rite, the Cofradía de la Purísima was founded, one of whose first actions was to acquire an image, similar to the present one, the work of an unknown Franciscan.

These periodic descents of the Virgin from her sanctuary to the parish church were always accompanied by arquebuses, but they had no fixed date and were celebrated in December, January or even August.

During the War of the Spanish Succession, at the beginning of the 18th century, these customary festivals were regulated for the first time, with fixed dates. They would now always be celebrated in December. Let us see how.

On 19 December 1710, the Town Council, presided over by Juan Caxa de Mora y Robles, received the good news that King Philip V had won the battle of Villaviciosa and, as a result, it was agreed that on 16 January, the feast of San Fulgencio, “the hermitage of San Fulgencio should be lowered from the hermitage of Villaviciosa”, “Our Lady of the Conception is to be taken down from the hermitage of the Castle of this town and placed in the Parish Church, where four sung masses are to be celebrated, with the Blessed Sacrament in front of it, with a sermon planned for each day”. This was carried out, but months later, on 10th April 1711, when Juan Soriano Vicente y Cobos was mayor, he received the royal order that, to commemorate the triumph of Villaviciosa, the Spanish towns should hold a feast on the Sunday following that of the Conception every year.

This is what led to the fact that, from that year of 1711, the feast was regulated in the sense that the Virgin was to be brought down on the 7th of December and taken up on the Sunday immediately following the dedication of the Immaculate Conception.

In this century, three more notes were added to the feast: in 1739, the placing of the image on a throne; in 1757, the imposition of a crown in the form of the current one; and in 1793, the obligation for the Virgin to be in the town for at least nine days, so that she could receive the cult of a novena, in accordance with the one written by Diego José de la Encina.

But the great work of this century is what we call the Ordinances. First of all, let it be said that the term “Ordinances” was used for the first time in the 19th century, since in the 18th century we only speak of “rules” or “chapters”, and that they do not form a single text, but a series of legal provisions – all from the same year, 1786 – which are the first written manifestation, of an obligatory nature, referring to the actions of the soldiery.

Until 1786, the festival was only custom and tradition. From 1786 onwards, the festival was positively “ordered” by the authorities. It is a proof and a manifestation of the legislative and regulatory spirit of the eighteenth century.
The festival, which had been born in the splendour of the Baroque period, was shaped and defined during the Enlightenment.

These first ordinances arose due to the fact that a few years earlier, by order of the then King of Spain Carlos III and due to the famous “Motines de Esquilache”, among other things, the use of gunpowder was prohibited throughout the kingdom, even for the holding of festivities and/or civic-religious celebrations. This fact led the Mayordomos of that year and “some devout individuals” to make a plea to the king to authorise the use of gunpowder in the festivities of Yecla in honour of the Immaculate Conception, which were held in due time and form, as specified in a document that is also attached to this plea and which is made up of a total of nine “rules” or “chapters” describing how to proceed, the acts to be carried out and even the days on which the festivities were to be held. This document is known as the “Ordinances” of 1786, which describes the festival as it has been held “since time immemorial” and has survived to the present day without any appreciable change, which gives these festivities an extraordinary heritage value, going beyond mere local boundaries in its importance and historical dimension of preserving the Alardes de Armas.

All these rules are, it must be repeated, the famous Ordinances of 1786. In them, schematically, there is the same thing that is now being celebrated. They talk about the beneplácito on the 5th, the invitation on the 6th, the dawn, descent and salve on the 7th, the function and procession on the 8th, the ascent to the Castle and even the presentation of insignia. In these texts we find the figures of the two Mayordomos (one as captain and the other as ensign), the Clavarios, Assistant Officers and Sergeants. Mention is made of the Company and the Squadrons, the soldiers and the vanguard, centre and rearguard of their formation, and even the collation that was to be received at the doors of the Mayordomos’ houses, or the salute – what we know as closed coffers – next to the convent of San Francisco.

Yecla can be proud to know that the current ceremonial is, apart from small details or additions, the same as that which our ancestors celebrated two centuries ago and even more, because the Ordinances say that they take up what “from time immemorial” already existed. The Asociación de Mayordomos (Association of Stewards) is the custodian of the duty to look after and conserve this undeniable cultural heritage.

A few years later, a document signed by King Carlos III was received authorising the use of the “arquebus with gunpowder alone” only for the celebration of this festival and on the days established in the “Ordinances” for this purpose, always having to obtain the authorisation of the “first authority of the town” for the celebration of each year.

While maintaining what had been established and keeping a fixed pattern, in this century some aspects were added or outlined that were considered convenient.
In 1859 it was decided that, “in order to avoid labels”, the function on the day of the ascent should always be reserved for the Town Hall. And in 1870 the devotion of the Felicitación Sabatina in the Sanctuary was established, with the intention that the Patron Saint would receive a weekly homage from the people of Yecla.
There are, however, three aspects of this century that are worth mentioning:

1. When the New Church or Church of the Immaculate Conception was inaugurated on 30th November 1868, it was decided that, from that year onwards, the Virgin would stay in the Parish Basilica, changing the route of the procession, which will always follow the same streets, with the current itinerary. And on the day of the descent, as a reminder of her stay for more than two centuries, the image will cross the Gothic naves of the Old Church, acclaimed to the strains of the National Anthem.

2. The priest-bishop Antonio Ibáñez Galiano, considering the volume reached by the festivity, believed that it should not depend exclusively on the will of the Stewards, and created two institutions: on 5th December 1868 the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception, in charge of the cultural events, and on 30th November 1879 the Board of Former Stewards, to decide on the procedure for the election of the Clavarios and on other aspects, such as, perhaps, the designation of the pages.
3. The tenacity of the mayor Epifanio Ibáñez Alonso traces and completes the zig-zag path that leads to the hermitage. This led to a major improvement of the sanctuary. And so in 1886 the esplanade was inaugurated and, at the expense of Antonio Palao Azorín, the chapel was built; both were the work of the architect Justo Millán Espinosa. Around this date there are two contributions: the previous year the Virgin is carried, not on a litter as was the custom in the procession, but on a float, built by the famous craftsman José Mora Parra; the following year the Patron Saint wears a splendid blue mantle and a valuable gold crown.

The last century witnessed an unprecedented boom in the fiesta, despite the many painful vicissitudes. In 1927 the “Himno de la Virgen del Castillo” was composed, with lyrics by José Martínez del Portal and music by Juan Javier Ortuño; it is the song par excellence of every Yeclano.

A place of honour in this historical review must go to the parish priest José Esteban Díaz. To him we owe, on 6 November 1932, the formal constitution of the current Association of Stewards of the Immaculate Conception, to which all devout men can belong, even if they do not aspire to the stewardship or shoot in the squads. To him we owe the idea of the Canonical Coronation, the new image of the Virgin, a carving by Miguel Torregrosa and an exact copy of the old one, and the reconstruction of the sanctuary of the Castle, after the sad events of 1936.

The wish of the whole of Yecla was fulfilled on 7 December 1954. By decision of Pope Pius XII, the Virgen del Castillo was canonically crowned by Bishop Ramón Sanahuja Mareé. Manuel Pereira Navarro was the parish priest of the Purísima and Ricardo Tomás y Soriano was the mayor of the city.

Since then, the festivities have taken root in the conscience of the people of Yecla and have acquired an unsurpassable fervour, an enthusiasm that does not let up. New realities have come to fruition: the offering of flowers by men and women on the evening of 7 December; the activity of each of the squads, with their events and initiatives; the pilgrimages in May and the cultural events in November; the establishment of the proclamation on the eve of the festivities, etc.