The General Assemblies used to be the central focus of Bizkaia’s political system. Meetings are known to have been held in other locations, such as Aretxabalagana, on the way from Bilbao to Gernika, although the first reference to an Assembly held in Gernika dates back to 1308. Those first testimonies show that the functions of the institution were twofold: firstly, the reception of the Lord’s oath to uphold the uses and customs of Biscayans, and secondly, its involvement in the legislative process.

Over time, more documentation became available, from which it is clear that the General Assemblies, as the maximum governing body, reflected in their internal composition both the original division of the Lordship in three large territorial entities (central Bizkaia, Duranguesado and Encartaciones) and the different social and legal nature of the two basic pillars of Central Bizkaia, the Open Land and the Chartered Towns.”


The competences of the General Assemblies can be summed up, in general terms, as follows:

  • Legislative: the preparation of bylaws and regulations, including the drawing up of the Fuero or Territorial Law.
  • Political: to receive the Oath of the Lord of Bizkaia before the Tree and safeguard the territorial integrity through the mechanisms made available by the Foral Pass.
  • Administrative: the election of members, councillors and other officials (lawyers, syndics, clerks and secretaries, treasurers...).
  • Economic: the minutes include innumerable provisions that affect the economic activity of the Lordship.
  • Military: the Assembly had to give its consent for the provision of this service.
Gernika is the happiest town in the world. Its affairs are governed by an assembly of countrymen who meet under an oak tree and always reach the fairest decisions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau



The current territorial configuration of Bizkaia is the fruit of a historical evolution that has brought together, inside the same framework, two different administrative units: the Chartered Towns and the Open Land.

  • The Open Land represented all the parishes of Bizkaia, which in turn were grouped together according to their local districts. The Open Land, so called to differentiate them from the Chartered Towns, which were surrounded by walls, was governed legally by the traditional legislation of the Lordship, i.e. the Fuero.
  • The Chartered Towns emerge as centres of population with ever increasing economic and commercial activity, as opposed to the eminently agricultural nature of the Parishes. The Chartered Towns were provided with a Fuero which, together with their Town Charter, constituted their normative body and they became exempted from the system of territorial administration that was in force in the rest of the territory of Bizkaia.
 Map of Towns

The establishment of the Chartered Towns in the 13th and 14th Centuries was mainly the result of two circumstances:

  • The need for legal-administrative conditions different from those of the Open Land, which was primarily agricultural. This need was the fruit of an increasing consolidation of commercial activity.
  • The instability and insecurity reigning in Bizkaia as a result of internecine battles between lineages (Guerra de Bandos or War of the Factions), which favoured the emergence of these urban centres as enclosed spaces which were easier to defend and more secure for the development of the new economic activities.

Map of Towns

First colour Chartered towns with Common Law: Balmaseda, Bermeo, Bilbao, Durango, Ermua, Gernika-Lumo, Lanestosa, Lekeitio, Markina-Xemein, Ondarroa, Otxandio, Portugalete, Plentzia and Orduña.

Second colour Territory with Foral Civil Law

Horn Blower
 Map of horn blowing mountains


During the Middle Ages, in order to summon all Biscayans to the Assemblies, horns were blown and bonfires were lit on the five most outstanding mountains in Bizkaia: SOLLUBE-GANEKOGORTA-KOLITZA-OIZ-GORBEIA.

 Present-day horn blowers