ASTURIAS, an ancient province and principality of northern Spain, bounded on the N. by the Bay of Biscay, E. by Old Castile, S. by Leon and W. by Galicia. Pop. (1900) 627,069; area, 4205 sq. m. By the division of Spain in 1833, the province took the name of Oviedo, though not to the exclusion, in ordinary usage, of the older designation. A full description of its modern condition is therefore given under the heading Oviedo; the present article being confined to an account of its physical features, its history, and the resultant character of its inhabitants. Asturias consists of a portion of the northern slope of the Cantabrian Mountains, and is covered in all directions with offshoots from the main chain, by which it is almost completely shut in on the south. The higher summits, which often reach a height of 7000–8000 ft., are usually covered with snow until July or August, and the whole region is one of the wildest and most picturesque parts of Spain. Until the first railway was opened, in the middle of the 19th century, few of the passes across the mountains were practicable for carriages, and most of them are difficult even for horses. A narrow strip of level moorland, covered with furze and rich in deposits of peat, coal and amber, stretches inland, from the edge of the sheer cliffs which line the coast, to the foot of the mountains. The province is watered by numerous streams and rivers, which have hollowed out deep valleys; but owing to the narrowness of the level tract, their courses are short, rapid and subject to floods. The most important is the Nalon or Pravia, which receives the waters of the Caudal, the Trubia and the Narcea, and has a course of 62 m.; after it rank the Navia and the Sella. The estuaries of these rivers are rarely navigable, and along the entire littoral, a distance of 130 m., the only important harbours are at Gijón and Avilés.
A country so rugged, and so isolated by land and sea, naturally served as the last refuge of the older races of Spain when hard pressed by successive invaders. Before the Roman conquest, the Iberian tribe of Astures had been able to maintain itself independent of the Carthaginians, and to extend its territory as far south as the Douro. It was famous for its wealth in horses and gold. About 25 B.C., the Romans subjugated the district south of the Cantabrians, to which they gave the name of Augustana. Their capital was Asturica Augusta, the modern Astorga, in Leon. The warlike mountaineers of the northern districts, known as Transmontana, never altogether abandoned their hostility to the Romans, whose rule was ended by the Visigothic conquest, late in the 5th century. In 713, two years after the defeat and death of Roderick, the last Visigothic king, all Spain, except Galicia and Asturias, fell into the hands of the Moors. One of the surviving Christian leaders, Pelayo the Goth, took refuge with three hundred followers in the celebrated cave of Covadonga, or Cobadonga, near Cangas de Onís, and from this hiding-place undertook the Christian reconquest of Spain. The Asturians chose him as their king in 718, and although Galicia was lost in 734, the Moors proved unable to penetrate into the remoter fastnesses held by the levies of Pelayo. After his death in 737, the Asturians continued to offer the same heroic resistance, and ultimately enabled the people of Galicia, Leon and Castile to recover their liberty. The title of prince of Asturias, conferred on the heir-apparent to the crown of Spain, dates from 1388, when it was first bestowed on a Castilian prince. The title of count of Covadonga is assumed by the kings of Spain. In modern times Asturias formed a captaincy-general, divided into Asturias d’Oviedo, which corresponds with the limits of the ancient principality, and Asturias de Santillana, which now constitutes the western half of Santander.
Owing to their almost entire immunity from any alien domination except that of the Romans and Goths, the Asturians may perhaps be regarded as the purest representatives of the Iberian race; while their dialect (linguaje bable) is sometimes held to be closely akin to the parent speech from which modern Castilian is derived. It is free from Moorish idioms, and, like Galician and Portuguese it often retains the original Latin f which Castilian changes into h. In physique, the Asturians are like the Galicians, a people of hardy mountaineers and fishermen, finely built, but rarely handsome, and with none of the grace of the Castilian or Andalusian. Unlike the Galicians, however, they are remarkable for their keen spirit of independence, which has been fostered by centuries of isolation. Despite the harsh land-laws and grinding taxation which prevent them, with all their industry and thrift, from securing the freehold of the patch of ground cultivated by each peasant family, the Asturians regard themselves as the aristocracy of Spain. This pride in their land, race and history they preserve even when, as often happens, they emigrate to other parts of the country or to South America, and earn their living as servants, water-carriers, or, in the case of the women, as nurses. They make admirable soldiers and sailors, but lack the enterprise and commercial aptitude of the Basques and Catalans; while they are differentiated from the inhabitants of central and southern Spain by their superior industry, and perhaps their lower standard of culture. It is, on the whole, true that by the exclusion of the Moors they lost their opportunity of playing any conspicuous part in the literary and artistic development of Spain. One class of the Asturians deserving special mention is that of the nomad cattle-drovers known as Baqueros or Vaqueros, who tend their herds on the mountains of Leitariegos in summer, and along the coast in winter; forming a separate caste, with distinctive customs, and rarely or never intermarrying with their neighbours.
For the modern condition of the principality (including climate, fauna and flora), see S. Canals, Asturias: informacion sobre su presente estado (Madrid, 1900); and G. Casal, Memorias de historia natural y médica de Asturias (Oviedo, 1900). For the history and antiquities, there is much that is valuable in Asturias monumental, epigráfica y diplomática, &c., by C. M. Vigil (Madrid, 1887)—folio, with maps and illustrations. See also F. de Aramburu y Zuloaga, Monografia de Asturias (Oviedo, 1899).