The history of Spain

13 Important moments in the history of Spain

The story of the Spanish history, art, kings and the reigns of Spain

Kasper Christiansen
Text & photos: Kasper Christiansen
26. July 2021

This article tells the story about some of the most important moments in the history of Spain. Read about Spanish history, from the Romans to today. During the article, we focus on several periods a special importance: the Moors, Isabel and Ferdinand, Columbus' voyages, civil disturbance during the bourbons and events during the 20th century like the Spanish Civil War and the Transition from the Franco regime to democrazy.

In southern Spain, Andalucía, the influence of the Moors is felt everywhere. In the northern part, the Basques dominated and still today, the Basque language is spoken.

The world’s greatest empire, The Habsburg empire, grew greater than ever during the 16th century, and from Charles the Great until 1810, Spain was the greatest empire in the world.
Andalucía - in southern Spain the influence of the Moors is felt eveywhere


The Romans

The Romans were the first people to conquer the Iberian Peninsula. They did not, however, conquer the entire peninsula since some areas in the north did not come under Roman control. The Basque Country was not conquered, and that is why the Basque language exists today as one of the few non-Indo-European languages left in Europe. 

The Romans came to Spain in 218 BC because of the second Punic war to fight the Carthaginians. Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with his army of both infantry, Cavalry and Elephants and reached Piedmont. From here, the Carthaginians continued south until reaching Rome.

They Carthaginians did not conquer Rome, even though they came close. During the following third Punic war, Cartago was conquered, and that meant the end of the Carthaginians main role in the Mediterranean.

The romans now gained control over Hispania, and today their aqueducts, baths, circuses and fortifications can be seen over most of the peninsula. Some of the parts to visit, are modern Tarragona, Barcelona, Segovia, Vic, Mérida, Zaragoza and Itálica.

Domènech i Montaners Hospital de Sant Pa
Roman sculptures - Augustus


The visigoths

The Roman empire was losing control during the 4th century AD. In the first place, they collaborated the Visigoths against the new tribes: Vandals, Alans, and Suebi. But slowly, the Visigoths gained more control, and in 410 Rome was sacked by the Visigoths under their king Alaric. In 476, the Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by German mercenaries at Ravenna and the Western Roman Empire fell.

The city of Toledo became the capital under the Visigoths. Not many monuments are left from the Visigoth period, but they controlled Spain for a period of around 300 years until the Moors crossed the strait of Gibraltar.

The visitgoths in Spain
The visitgoths in Spain - map of the visigoths conquests.


The moors

In 711, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar that separated Morocco from Spain in 711 and started the conquest of Visigothic Spain. The moors is a designation that includes both the Arabs that set out from the Arab Peninsula and Berber tribes from Northern Africa. The culture was mostly Islamic.

In just 7 years, the army had control of almost the entire Spanish Peninsula and not until 732 they were defeated at the city of Portieres by Charles Martel. This year also marks the year of the beginning of the Spanish Reconquista. The term is misleading since the period from 732 to 1492 cannot be seen as simply a war between Christians and Muslims – in several periods Christians fought Christians and Muslims also fought Muslims.

The culture and the architecture of the Moors were very progressive and on a much higher level than what was seen in northern Europe. In the Ummayad city of Córdoba around 500.000 people lived around the year 1000. Here scientists like Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi, Samuel ibn Naghrillah and Ibn Juljul made groundbreaking discoveries and where streetlights lit the city at night, 500 years before they came to northern Europe.  

The Arabic writer Averroes, who translated and interpreted many of Aristotle’s books, played a central role. Another main figure was the Jewish thinker Maimonides, who tried to unite Judaism with Aristotle’s thinking.

Science and learning in Al-Andalus had an enormous impact on the Western-Latin world further north and even influenced the so-called proto-renaissance.

Read our article about the Moors & Spanish History
Domènech i Montaners Hospital de Sant Pa
Alhambra in Granada southern Spain - an example of the refined architecture by the moors


Ferdinand and Isabella

The marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille meant the unification of Spain. They were second cousins from the Trastámara Dynasty and needed a papal dispensation to get married in Valladolid in 1469. In the first place the Italian Pope Paul II did not want to give them the dispensation, so they falsified the bull. Pope Paul II is quoted for saying, "May all Spaniards be cursed by God, schismatics and heretics, the seed of Jews and Moors."

Officially, the two crowns reined separated and were not officially united however, until the 18th century. Therefore, they used the motto “Tanto monto, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando”. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella meant the unity of Spain: Ferdinand had ruled over Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia and the Balearic Islands (as well as his many possessions in Italy as well as Sardinia).

The unification of Spain – the end of the Reconquista
Most historians agree that the year 1492 is the most important year in the history of Spain. And this year, the undisputed protagonists were Ferdinand and Isabella. They succeeded in the conquest of Granada in Southern Spain. Afterwards they expelled the Jews and Moors from Spain. Later that year they paid for Christopher Columbus first voyage (see below)

In 1494 Ferdinand and Isabella received the title the Catholic King and Queen by Pope Alexander VI, as a recognition of their defense of the Christian faith.
King Ferdinand
The Catholic Monarchs - King Ferdinand II from Aragon and Isabel I from Castilla



Columbus is a crucial character in Spain’s history. He was born in 1451 and died May 1506 - but his descent is filled with mystery.

Many historians declare that he was Italian, born in Liguria, maybe in the city of Genova as the son of Susanna Fontanarossa and Domenico Colombo, but it is not certain. His own son, Hernando later said that Columbus wanted to obscure his true origins. Others claim that he was Portuguese, born under the name of Pedro Ataíde and other historians claim that Columbus was Spanish, born in Aragon, with a Jewish descent.

His Jewish descent may have been the reason for obscuring his origins since the Christian Monarchs pursued Spanish Jews and Muslims at this time. Other historians even have more obscure theories that Columbus was the son of a Polish King or born in Genova as the son of a Scottish Family.

Searching for a route to India

Columbus made a total of 4 voyages to America. He originally set out to find India, but due to erroneous calculations of the size of the earth he discovered America

The 4 voyages
The first voyage

The crew boarded the ships on the night of August 2nd, 1492, since this was the deadline for Jews who had not been baptized to leave Spain during the Spanish persecution. The three ships, Santa Maria, Niña and Pinta, did not sail until August 3rd with a crew of 87 people, mostly people from Andalucía and Extremadura.

On October 12th, San Salvador was discovered, and the crew went on land. October 12th is still today El día de la Hispanidad. Columbus believed that he had found Asia. On October 28th Cuba was found and the island was baptized Juana. Upon the return to Spain, Spain went to Barcelona to visit the kings and here he showed them the Indians, parrots, and other things from America.

The second voyage

Not much time passed before Columbus prepared a second voyage to Americas, and on September 24th, 1493, he sailed out with 17 ships and 1200 men, and on November 3rd they discovered the Lesser Antilles and called them Dominica. In total 46 islands were discovered. This trip meant more problems than the anterior: many people were killed by the locals and a big percentage of Columbus' crew deserted.

Columbus took prisoners and 500 slaves were brought back to Seville, 200 of which survived the trip. The locals were forced to bring gold or cotton every 3 months - if not he was whipped or had his hands cut off. One of the deserters, Father Buil reached Spain and told what was happening, and the king sent Juan Aguado to control Columbus. On March 10th, 1496, Columbus sailed to Spain and arrived on June 11th.

The third voyage

On May 30th, 1498, Columbus sailed again for the Americas, with a total of 8 ships (two of them had sailed already in 1497). On July 31st, the ships discovered Trinidad and here after the ships got to Venezuela. In this area they found Oysters, that would bring a fortune to Spain over the next centuries.

On August 19th he reached Hispaniola. Here there were riots and some of the Spaniards complained to the Monarchs who sent Francisco de Bobadilla, who put Columbus and his three brothers, Bartolomeo and Diego in chains.

Columbus entered Cádiz in chains, and even though he had the chains taken off, he kept them for the rest of his life. He lost the title of Governor. In the meanwhile, Vasco da Gama had reached India sailing south of Africa.

The fourth (and last) voyage

Columbus' fourth voyage to Americas started on May 11th, 1502, with Santa María and three other vessels. His wish was to meet Vasco da Gama in "India".

He arrived to Martinique on June 15th, and a hurricane forced him to go to land on Hispaniola, arriving to Santo Domingo on June 29th. However, he was denied port by the governor and so sailed to Rio Jaina to seek shelter, surviving with minor damage. The governor sailed towards Spain but lost around 30 ships. Around 500 people drowned, one of them being Francisco de Bobadilla.

Columbus made a stopover at Jamacia and continued to Central America reaching Honduras on July 30th. He spent two months in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and arrived to Panama on October 16th.

He continued to the Hispaniola on April 16h and to the Cayman Islands on May 10th. On June 25 Columbus and his men stranded in Jamaica. Later they were pardoned by the locals predicting a lunar eclipse. After staying in Jamaica for a year they were picked up by Diego de Salcedo who Columbus years before had given monopole for sale of soap commerce on Hispaniola and they could finally leave for Spain. They arrived at Sanlúcar, Spain, on 7 November and Columbus and his men settled in Seville.
After the voyages

In 1505, Columbus was visited in Seville by his friend Amerigo Vespucci, who had been born in Florence and whose family had close ties with the Medici family. In Seville he had worked together with another Italian, Juanoto Berardi, with preparing Columbus' and others ships for the new world.

Later Vespucci sailed to the new world himself, and on two voyages from 1499-1500 and 1501-1502 he came to Brazil (among other places to Rio de Janeiro on 1 Janury 1502), and to Patagonia (which Fernando de Magallanes would later describe).

Vespucci came back from these voyages convinced that what he had seen was not part of Asia, but a whole new continent. He described this on a map published by Lorenzo de Pier Francesco de Medici in Paris in 1502, titled Mundus Novus. Later the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, named the continent after the Italian, on his world map from 1507, using the latinized Americus Vespucius - one year after the name of Columbus.

Columbus died of a heart attack, and he was buried in Valladolid in a Franciscan Monastery. Later, his son Diego, had him moved to the Las Cuevas Monastery in Seville. But later the widow of Diego, Maria de Colón, Vice queen of Santo Domingo, had Diego and his brother moved to the cathedral of Santo Domingo. Later, when the French took the island in 1795, Columbus was moved again, this time to Cuba. When Spain lost Cuba in 1898, Columbus was moved for the last time, now to the cathedral of Seville.

Columbus - Columbus kisses the hand of Isabella while King Ferdinand is sitting on the throne

Columbus - Columbus kisses the hand of Isabella while King Ferdinand is sitting on the throne

The habsburgs

The Habsburgs were the first kings to rule the world, and Spain became the centre of their empire during the 16th and 17th century. The Habsburgs linked their military warfare closely to religion and saw it as their mission to fight against non-Christians.

The symbol of the Habsburgs is the double eagle that can be seen all over Europe. There are many layers of symbolism linked to the eagle: the name of the castle founded by one of the first Habsburgs was Habicht, which means eagle in old German. The letters used by the Habsburgs, AEIOU, have several meanings - among then "Austria ruler of the world (Austria est Imperare Orbi Universae) and "The chosen eagle connects everything justfully" (Aquila Selecta Iusye Omnia Uincat).

The Habsburgs Maximilian was married to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 and so connected his enormous kingdom with Burgundy, the Netherlands.

With the Habsburgs, Spain became a major power of Europe. Spain’s Golden period can be defined from approximately 1550 to 1650, but Spain remains the World's largest empire until 1810.


The Golden Years

The period 1550 to 1650 means a golden period for Spain. During this period, silver and gold begins coming back from Spain.

Charles V became the most powerful person on earth, with the full title:

“Charles, by the grace of God, elected Holy Roman emperor […] King of Germany, of Castille, Aragon, León, both Sicilies, Jerusalem, Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Sevilla, Sardinia, Córsiga, Murcia, Jaen, the Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar and the Canary Islands, and the islands of the Indies, and the mainland of the Occean Sea etc. Archduke of Austria, Duke og Burgundy, Lorraine, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola,Limburg, Luxembourg, Gelders, Württenberg, Calabria, Athens, Neopatras, etc; Count Palatine of Hainaut, Holland, Zealand, Ferrette, Kiburg, Namur, Roussilon, Cerdagne, and Zuphen; Landgrave in Alsace; Margrave of Iristano, Goceano, and of the holy Roman Empire, Prince of Swabia, Catalonia, Asturias etc; Lord in Friesland, on the Windish Mark, of Pordenone, Vizcaya, Molins, Salins, Tripoli, and Mechlin etc.”

During the reign of Philip III, the territories grew even further, with the annex of the Philippines.

Inbreeding – and the end of the Habsburgs
Historians and scientists see Inbreeding playing a key role in the extinction of the Habsburg dynasty.

Both Philip II and Philip IV married their nieces. The outcome was the birth of Carlos II, who could not walk before he was 6 years’ old.

Las meninas by Velázquez - the famous painting by Velázquez shows the daughter of Felipe IV and her maids (meninas)

Domènech i Montaners Hospital de Sant Pa
Las meninas by Velázquez - the famous painting by Velázquez shows the daughter of Felipe IV and her maids (meninas)
Domènech i Montaners Hospital de Sant Pa
Las meninas by Velázquez - the famous painting by Velázquez shows the daughter of Felipe IV and her maids (meninas)

The bourbons

The bourbons are still in power today. the Spanish King, Felipe VI, is the 10th king in the Bourbon Succession.


The Spanish War of Succession

The bourbons came to power after The War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1714). The last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II, died without children. At this moment, Spain was still an important power, with possession in the southern Netherlands (the northers part separated in 1648) and Southern Italy, the Philippines, and a large part of the Americas.

Two candidates stepped up as heir to the throne: the Austrian Habsburg Archduke Charles, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold or the French Bourbon Philip of Anjou. After a long war, Philip was confirmed as Spain’s king Philip V, but had to cede territories in Italy and the low Countries. Gibraltar and Menorca were ceded to Britain, who thereby gained importance as Europe's most important commercial power.


The Napoleonic wars

The Napoleonic War in Spain - also called the Peninsular War or The Spanish War of Independence - was a military conflict between Spain, Portugal, England on one side and the Napoleonic France on the other side.

Spain permitted France a transition to Portugal in 1807, but through 1808 France also occupied Spain. Napoleon forced the king Ferdinand VII and his father Carlos IV to abdicate, and Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was installed as king. The Spanish Prime Minster, Manuel Godoy, negotiated with the French a secret agreement called the Treaty of Fontainebleau: Portugal would be divided into three and Godoy would personally have one of the three parts.

But French stayed in Spain and occupied the main cities of the Peninsula. However, the French were not welcome, and on May 2nd on 1808 the war began with the uprising in Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The day after the French troops executed several of the rioters. Both events are famously painted by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

Goya’s Dos de Mayo shows the uprising of the Spanish against the French troops and the Mamelukes that had been hired by Napoleon. On the other hand, the painting Tres de Mayo shows the shooting of the rebellious Spaniards the following day. The painting has later been praised by art historians and painters like Manet and Picasso. Goya also made prints of the war. His series of 82 prints entitled Los desastres de la guerra, show the horrors of the warfare.

The war continued over the next 6 years, and through traditional warfare and guerilla warfare the Spanish troops succeeded – with the help from the Portuguese and English army – to tire the French troops to a degree. The war is considered of the first examples of guerilla warfare. Napoleon later called Spain for the “Spanish Ulcer”.

In both Spain and Portugal, the war meant a profound social and economic crisis that resulted in social and political instability for decades. In the end, the war meant the loss of most of the Spanish Colonies: Among others Spain lost Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Columbia, Peru and Paraguay.

Domènech i Montaners Hospital de Sant Pa
Goya and the Bourbons - the mirrors Velázquez' painting


The carlist wars

Many historians see a direct link between the carlist wars and the Spanish Civil War, and some even see the Civil War as the fourth Carlist War.

The Carlist Wars (Spanish: guerras carlistas) were a series of civil wars that took place in Spain during the 19th century. The contenders fought to establish their claim to the throne, although some political differences also existed. Indeed, several times during the period from 1833 to 1876 the Carlists — followers of Don Carlos, an infante, and his descendants — rallied to the cry of "God, Country, and King" and fought for the cause of Spanish tradition (Legitimism and Catholicism) against liberalism, and later the republicanism, of the Spanish governments of the day. The Carlist Wars had a strong regional component (Basque region, Catalonia, etc.), given that the new order called into question region–specific law arrangements and customs kept for centuries.

Ferdinand VII died in 1833. His wife, María Cristina became queen on behalf of Queen Isabella II, who was just three years at the time. However, this meant that Spain was suddenly divided into two parts:

Cristinos/Isabelinos, the liberals, who supported Queen María Cristina.

Carlists who supported Carlos of Spain, who was Count of Molina. Carlos was the brother of Ferdinand VII.

The question was whether the Pragmatic Sanction (la Pragmática Sanción) of 1830 was recognized. This sanction abolished the Semi-Salic Law. The carlists wanted to return to autocratic monarchy.

The First Carlist War (1833–1840) lasted 7 years. The Carlist homelands of the Basque Country and Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. The Second Carlist War (1846–1849) was a Catalan uprising, where the rebels tried to install Carlos, Count of Montemolín, on the throne. There was also an uprising in Galicia, but both places the uprising ended in failure.

The Third Carlist War (1872–1876) began when Queen Isabella II was overthrown by a conspiracy of liberal generals in 1868. The Parliament replaced her with Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta (and second son of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy).

During the Spanish elections of 1872 there were government violence against the Carlist candidates, and the Carlist pretender, Carlos VII, decided that only force of arms could win him the throne. The Third Carlist War began, which lasted until 1876.


The modernist movement

This artistic movement of modernismo has parallel movements all over Europe: the Art Nouveau in France, Arts and Craft in England, and Skønvirke in Scandinavia. However, Spain is the place in Europe where the movement blossomed most.

At the end of the 20th century, a new movement in the arts was born. This artistic movement spread to literature, painting and architecture. The center of the movement was Catalonia, even though it also existed outside of Catalonia.

The key figure in the movement was the architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) - other important architects were Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Domènech i Montaner.
On the other hand, this time gave birth to fantastic architecture, that evolved especially in Catalunya, under the name of modernism (it was known as Art Nouveau in France, arts and craft in England and Jugendstil in Germany). 

Besides Antoni Gaudí, also less known architects like Puig i Cadafalch and Domench i Montaner played central roles. Puig designed wineries like Codorníu in the Penedès region,

Plaza Sant Felip Neri, with holes from the Spanish civil war
The modernismo movement - the movement was called Art Nouveau in France and Jugenstil in Germany


The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is one of the darkest chapters in Spanish history. With more than 600.000 casualties it is one the bloddiest wars, and furthermore, many of the conflicts behind the war are still unsolved.

The English writer Ernest Hemingway experienced the conflict at close hand as a journalist, and wrote about the war both for the newpapers and in his novels. His legendary novel For Whom the Bells Toll gives a terrifying descrption of the war.

The war started with an insurrection within the army. The insurrection had been time underway, but it was on July 17th that the African Army, led by Francisco Franco, revolted. The day after Franco was flown to the Peninsula. However, what Franco and generals like Emilio Mola and José Sanjurjo had imagined to be a swift war, ended up being a bitter war that rapidly divided the population into two.

Thus, the country was divided geographically into areas dominated by the Nationalists and other by the Republicans. Unfortunaly, these division partly exist even today, and not all wounds have been healed.

Read more
Read our article about the Spanish Civil War
Plaza Sant Felip Neri, with holes from the Spanish civil war
Holes in the wall - Plaza Sant Felip Neri


Spanish Transition to democracy

After the death of Franco (november 20th 1975) , many people believed that Spain would continue with a totalitarian regime. Spain experienced a revolution since 1975, and it is one of the countries in Europe with most Economic growth through this period. The transition end withthe peaceful transfer of executive power when PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) won the 1982 general election.

This was, however, not the case, and from 1975 Spain moved from the dictatorship to a parliamentary system. The key figure in this movement was the King Juan Carlos.

In 1969 Franco oficially made Juan Carlos, Alfonso XIII's grandson, his heir. When he seized power, he facilitated constitutional monarchy. But the transition was not an easy proces. Franco and his movement still enjoyed support, and within the army, the far right supported this.

But soon, Spain succeded in a slow transition, first in the government of Carlos Arias Navarro (1975-1976) and later in Adolfo Suarez government (1976-1977).

Adolfo Suarez

Adolfo Suárez was one of three candidates that was presented for Juan Carlos to repla Arias Navarro. He chose Suárez. The difficult role of Suárez was to persuade the Cortes (composed of appointed Francoist politicians), to dismantle Franco's system

Adolfo Suárez had to ballance between reformation and conservatism. On one hand he knew the Búnker— hard-line Francoists. The group was controlled by José Antonio Girón and Blas Piñar, and they had the newspapers Arriba and El Alcázar as channels. They had contacts with high officials in the army, meaning a real risk of the army's intervention once again in Spanish history.

ETA, Grapo and a tense political panorama

The separatist group in the Basque Country, ETA, played a key role in the frist tense years after the death of Franco. From 1978 to 1980, ETA killed more than 15 people and injured several hundred people.
Another group was GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre), who bombed public locations, and kidnapped José María de Oriol (President of the Council of the State), and President of the Superior Council of the Military Justice (General Villaescusa).

This resulted in the Atocha massacre, in an office on Atocha Street in Madrid, in January 1977.

1979-1982 UCD

The elections of 1979 were won by UCD, but the party only gained 11 seats in the Parliament in 1982. This paved the way for a new power in Spanish politics: the PSOE

PSOE in power & years of political stability

PSOE won the elections in 1982 and 1986 and gained majority. This brought stability and policital tranquility since they could govern without needing to establish pacts with the other parties.

Domènech i Montaners Hospital de Sant Pa
Goya and the Bourbons - the mirrors Velázquez' painting


Modern Spain

Spanish politics, architecture, economy and art has experinced ups and downs over the last decades. Spain came into the 21st century full of confidence, and one of the area where this confidence was shown was in architecture and urban planning. Imposing (and expensive) proyects were being carried out in cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao and Valencia.

The result differed, and without a doubt the success rate was higher in Bilbao than in Valencia, where big debts were accumulated, resulting in bankrupcies and prison sentences. One of the best and most positive examples however of positive building projects, was the Olympic Area in Barcelona, built for the 1992 Olympics. Money invested in the Olympics has come back to the city and infrastructure has been improved

Political corruption

On of modern Spain's big problems is political corruption. A logic outcome of continued political corruption is low confidence in the politicians. According to the web site Casos Aislados, political corruption in Spain sums a total of 125 billon €:


One of Spain's biggest political and social problems continues to be separatism. It has been a constant theme for centuries, and the last decades are no exception. Both the Basque Contry and Catalonia have movements that fight for independency.

A lost generation - or hope for a better future?

The crisis of 2008 and 2019 have left many young people without a job, and some of the main topics in modern Spain are:

  • Young people cannot find a job
  • Young people are underpaid
  • Difficulties in finding a proper apartment
Modern architecture
Modern architecture - the Olympic Area on the Montjuic Hill in Barcelona.
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