The history of Spain can be traced back to the earliest people whose cave paintings still remain at Altamira in Cantabria. It includes a fascinating look at the early Iberian people, the Romans, Visigoths and the Moors. It involves the discovery of the Americas, the rise and fall of a vast Spanish Empire and unrest that led to the Spanish Civil War.
There are some fine online accounts which describe the history of Spain in encyclopedic form. This is beyond the scope of this website. Rather than merely repeat these rather long and dry descriptions we’ve tried to present the history of Spain as concisely as possible with frequent references to places in Spain today where you’ll find historical remains of the period in question.
For instance, rather than write a long description of the 600 years of Roman occupation of Iberia we’ve concentrated on where you’ll find the best Roman ruins today. We hope this will provide ideas for day excursions whilst you’re visiting Spain as well as offer a generally more readable account of Spanish history.
We also have a page where we’ve summarized this subject into a chronological history of Spain from the early Iberian people to the present day.
Key Periods in Spanish History
Iberians & Early People
In the Sierra de Atapuerca near Burgos, human bone fragments have been discovered which date back around 780,000 years. Throughout the country there are fascinating caves such as Altamira which provide evidence of prehistoric life. Phoenicians, Greeks, Iberians, Celts and Carthaginians were all visitors at some time. The above picture shows a cave painting of bison at Altamira.
The Romans arrived in Iberia shortly before 200BC and occupied the Peninsula for over 600 years yet it took them 200 years to defeat some of its fiercest tribes, particularly the Basques in the north. Thanks to the Romans, Hispania developed a road system, aqueducts, theatres, baths and the basis of a common language. The finest Roman ruins in Spain can be found in Mérida (Extremadura).
Roman rule started to fade as Germanic tribes crossed the Pyrenees and by 410AD the Suevi and the Vandals had established significant control. The Roman Emperor invited his Visigoth allies to restore order in the Western Roman Empire and in so doing they established their own capital in Toledo. This highly Romanized group did little to further Iberian culture and there are few remnants of their period in Spain.The above picture shows the Baños de Cerrato church in Palencia which is Spain’s oldest church dating back to 661AD.
In 711AD the Moors invaded the Peninsula from North Africa and would exercise influence over Al-Andalus, the name given to Muslim territory, to some extent for over 700 years. It was the cities of the south: Cordoba, Seville and Granada where most Moorish power was concentrated. And these are the cities today which have the greatest concentration of Moorish art and architecture. More History of Moorish Spain.
The Moorish conquest of Spain dates back to the year 711AD but it was only a few years later that the Christian reconquest began with a small but symbolic victory over the Moors at Covadonga in Asturias. This picturesque town in the Picos de Europa mountains of northern Spain contains the tomb of Pelayo, one of the foremost heroes of the Christian Reconquest.The above picture shows the beautiful church at Covadonga where Pelayo was buried.
The marriage of Fernando and Isabella united the territories of Aragon and Castile and for the first time something resembling a Spanish nation emerged. They completed the Reconquest, inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition, persecuted the Muslims and funded the voyage of Christopher Columbus to discover the Americas which would lead to the creation of a Spanish Empire overseas.The above picture shows the Alhambra Palace in Granada where Queen Isabella would eventually be buried.
The Rise & Fall of the Spanish Empire
The discovery of the Americas in 1492AD planted the seed for colonial expansion. Conquistadors such as Pizarro ruthlessly acquired new colonies and enormous wealth for Spain. Yet it wasn’t until the reign of Felipe II (1556- 98) that the Spanish Empire reached its peak. He made Madrid the new capital of Spain (after Toledo) from where he would administer his kingdom.The above picture shows El Escorial, Felipe II’s palace-monastery near Madrid.
The Jewish community of Spain was Europe’s most vibrant Jewish community in Europe prior to the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were expelled or forced to convert to Christianity. For centuries during the Middle Ages the Jewish population had thrived in Spain where prosperous Jewish Quarters were home to great academics in the world of literature and philosophy and science.The above picture shows the altar of the Sinagoga del Tránsito in Toledo.
The Spanish Inquisition
The Catholic Monarchs were responsible for setting up the Spanish Inquisition. Its aim was to find people who didn’t practise Christianity and would be responsible for around 5000 deaths over the next 300 years. Around 100,000 Jews converted to Catholicism whilst an estimated 200,000 abandoned the country.The above picture shows the interior of the Santa Maria La Blanca Synagogue in Toledo.
The Spanish Armada
Phillip II’s Spanish Armada set sail for England in July 1588 with the intention of overthrowing the protestant monarchy of Queen Elizabeth I. Spain believed that Elizabeth supported ‘pirates’ such as Francis Drake who attacked Spanish fleets carrying silver off the West Indies causing enormous losses to the Spanish economy. The above picture is an artist’s impression of Sir Francis Drake.
Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) began after an uprising took place by parts of the army against the government of the 2nd Spanish Republic. This uprising was led by the fascist General Franco whose Nationalist forces eventually defeated the Republicans in a bloody civil war. Franco would remain in power in Spain until his death in 1975.The above picture shows Picasso’s “Guernica” painting which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
General Francisco Franco
General Franco was born into a military family in Galicia in 1892. In July 1936 he led the coup d’etat against the elected Popular Front government from his post in the Canary Islands. Victory of his Nationalist forces in the resulting Spanish Civil War empowered him to rule Spain with an iron fist under a fascist dictatorship until 1975 when Spain again became a monarchy under Juan Carlos I. He is buried at Valle de los Caidos (the Valley of the Fallen) near Madrid.
After the death of General Franco, Juan Carlos I was crowned King of Spain on the 22nd November 1975. This move to a constitutional monarchy paved the way for the constitution of modern Spain which came into effect on January 1st, 1979. The above picture shows King Juan Carlos I whose influence has been essential in allowing Spain to develop into a stable first world democratic nation.