Updated: February 14, 2023Published: January 26, 2023
Please, stop for a moment and re-read the title.
You are probably asking yourself, why am I making you re-read the title? For a very simple reason, I want you to assimilate that this article has 20 CENTURIES of history in 9 questions.
Are you ready? After reading this article, you will come to Spain and almost feel like a local. You will know the most important events of Spain’s past that make it what the country is today.
Take your time to read this article, make a coffee, and get ready to know Spain at its best and worst.
Table of Contents▼▶
If you are more of a visual learner, download our timeline here!
1. Who were the first Spaniards?
The Iberians were the first settlers that moved or emerged in the Iberian Peninsula during the 4th and 3rd Millenium BC.
The Iberians occupied the eastern side of the territory alongside the Mediterranean sea, and during the Iron Age, the Celts occupied the peninsula’s western side.
Closer to the 2nd and 1st Millenium, the eastern and southern part of the peninsula was occupied by Greeks, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians.
The Basques lived in the northern part of the peninsula, closer to the Pyrenees. The Romans first recorded the existence of the Basque civilization when they took over the peninsula after the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).
2. Who discovered Spain?
The Greeks, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians were the first civilizations to record information about the Iberian Peninsula. Three cultures arrived or discovered the peninsula probably after 1,100 BC and stayed until the victory of the Romans.
3. Who conquered Spain?
The Romans first conquered the territory of the Iberian Peninsula in 201 BC until 460 AD. The Latin civilization defeated the Carthaginians and named the land Hispania which meant ’land of rabbits.’
Then came the Moors with the Ummayad Empire. After the Romans, the Visigoths occupied the peninsula for a while, but their stay was short and not super influential. The Ummayad Dynasty came with a lot of strength from Northern Africa and took over the entire peninsula setting a capital in Cordoba.
Now, unlike the Visigoths, the Moors stayed for seven centuries, and their culture is intertwined with modern-day Spaniards, especially in Andalusia.
To learn more about the civilizations that conquered what now is Spain, head to the links below!
The Reconquest or ‘Reconquista’ is the name given to the sequence of battles unleashed by the Christian kingdoms to recover all the territory occupied by the Moorish (Ummayad Dynasty) since 711. The military campaign lasted more than seven centuries.
The Reconquest began with the Battle of Covadonga in 718 when Don Pelayo of Asturias rebelled against the Moorish governor, Munuza. After Dn Pelayo succeeded, he founded the Kingdom of Asturias, which later expanded into Cantabria and Galicia.
As I said before, the Spanish Reconquest was a pervasive military campaign, and there were punctual battles that helped recover the land Christians claimed as theirs.
A few years later, the son-in-law of Pelayo, Alfonso I, united the Christians living in the Duoro Valley and created the Kindom of Leon, which covered important counties like Portugal and Castilla.
Fast forward to the 11th and 12th centuries, Pamplona’s kingdom and Barcelona’s county were annexed to the Kingdom of Aragon. As this crown grew stronger, they fought the Muslims to the East, while the Kingdom of Castile (previously Leon) fought them to the South.
The Reconquest ended with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabel I of Castile. The Catholic Kings defeated the Nazari Kingdom of Granada with their joined forces. On January 2nd, 1492, Sultan Boabdit surrendered the keys to the city to Fernando.
5. Who founded Spain? The Beginning of the Spanish Empire
The civilization responsible for naming Spain was the Romans, who called it Hispania. The Visigoths didn’t mind the name and kept it, but the Moors changed it for Al-Andalus and stayed that way for over seven centuries.
Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile gave the name Spain back to the territory.
Okay, what did Ferdinand’s and Isabel’s marriage mean for history?
The union of the Catholic Kings meant the alliance between the two greatest kingdoms of the peninsula, Castile, and Aragon, therefore, the creation of the Kingdom of Spain.
So, historians argue that the beginning of the Spanish Empire should be set alongside the union of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile.
The official date for the end of the Spanish Empire is 1975, but it is the year of Franco’s death. The empire had deteriorated a century before when Napoleon invaded, and with the Republics before the dictatorship.
I will link you to our unique post on the Spanish Empire that will give you an easy but complete guide to this period of history.
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, or the Spanish Inquisition, was a judicial institution meant to combat heresy. This persecution lasted over four centuries, from 1478 to 1834.
The newly established Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabela I convinced Pope Sixtus IV to issue a decree that gave them full permission to combat heresy in the name of God.
However, the truth is that they only desired to consolidate the power of their new unified kingdom.
They were the kings that finally completed the Reconquest; they couldn’t risk Muslims or Jews taking over. So, they used religion to ‘unify’ the kingdom, but it only created years of torture.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
In 1778, Pope Sixtus IV issued a decree authorizing Ferdinand and Isabella to root out heresy.
Heresy means having a belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine.
The monarchs established several inquisitors seeking out people who weren’t Christians. The inquisitors would arrive in a city with an ‘Edict of Grace,’ which told people that they should confess their sins to spare themselves from punishment.
Inquisitors would perform public trials called Acts of Faith, with some condemned to death.
A few years into the inquisition, the Monarchs convinced the Pope to name a Grand Inquisitor to administrate the campaign. The chosen man was Tomás de Torquemada, a vicious man who would blame innocent men for keeping their wives. Torquemada was responsible for burning over 2,000 people and was the head behind the Alhambra Decree, which commanded the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain.
A while ago, I visited the Padro Museum, I have been there before, but it’s so big and full of breathtaking pieces you never finish. Well, the point is that sometimes I enjoy strolling through the halls, and last time one painting caught my eye.
It was The Expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) by Emilio Sala. With much frustration, this oil painting represents the moment when Torquemada slaps a crucifix on the table while stating that no money from the Jewish community would avoid expulsion.
As you notice, the beginning of the inquisition was dark. The third Gran inquisitor, Gimenez Cisneros, ordered the suppression of Islam in 1507. Those accused of heresy were taken to prison, and the monarchs took everything they owned, leaving entire families in the streets.
The end of the inquisition
From 1808 to 1813, the inquisition was abolished by Joseph Napoleón Bonaparte; but then re-established by Ferdinand VII.
Finally, in 1834, the widow of Ferdinand and Queen regent Maria Cristina aligned herself with the Spanish liberals and created a Royal Decree that completely suppressed the Spanish Inquisition.
7. Which were the Spanish colonies around the world?
Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile were a very ambitious couple. So, they accepted when a navigator proposed an alternative route to the East Indies in search of new resources to challenge the Portuguese. Well, Isabel had to consider the proposal for a while because she was unsure about Columbus’s chosen way to Asia, but she accepted it anyways.
On Agustus 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed with the Niña, la Pinta, and the Santa María for the Indies but arrived on a new continent. From that moment onward, the Spanish began expanding all over the world, reaching a point when they had 35 colonies in America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Going in chronological order, Colón first arrived on the island Hispaniola, modern-day República Dominicana, and Haití, and in 1493 founded ‘La Isabela,’ the first Spanish colony in the new world. That first settlement failed due to diseases, famine, and conflict with the island’s natives. Columbus’s brother founded Santo Domingo (modern-day Dominican Republic) three years later.
The Spanish navigators first reached continental America, specifically South America, in the early years of the 16th century. Being Venezuela one of the first European settlements in the region.
Throughout the 16th century, the Spanish destroyed the native civilizations, Aztecs, and Incas, to conquer most of the continent.
The first Spanish colony in the United States was Florida; St. Augustine was the first settlement founded by Juan Ponce de León in 1565.
Later followed the modern-day states of Alabama, Arizona, the Carolinas, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, and California.
The Canary Islands were the first territories conquered by the Kingdom of Castile at the beginning of the 15th century.
By 1497, the Spanish empire had taken Melilla (now an autonomous city under the same name) and, in the 17th century, took Ceuta from the Portuguese. In 1778, teh Spanish Empire established a colony in the Gulf of Guinea, known as the Spanish Guinea (modern-day Equatorial Guinea). And in 1884, they also took over Western Sahara.
In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan reached the Philippines but died in battle trying to settle colonies. He was the first person to circumnavigate the Earth.
Almost 40 years later, in 1563, Lopez de Legazpi settled a colony in Cebu and, in 1571, founded Manila, the modern-day capital of the Philippines.
Yes, the Spanish Empire even had colonies in Europe. The difference with the rest of the world is that the European territories became part of Spain because of royal connections.
In 1516, Naples and Sicily became part of the Spanish crown under Charles V (Spanish Habsburg). The same king took possession of Milan in 1535, just in time to pass it over to his son Phillip II, who, at the same time, inherited the crown of Burgundy, which meant having control over parts of the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and Belgium.
To see more detailed information on some of the colonies, check out the following articles:
The Spanish Civil War is a sensitive topic in Spain because it was a conflict between brothers and sisters. We could be talking about the Civil War for hours (what it took me to research it and understand it), but I will try to be as straightforward as possible so you get all the facts right.
When you read papers and official records about the civil war, most historians, politicians, and researchers (if not all) agree that the Spanish Civil War was an armed conflict caused by a sublevation against the Republican government by the right wing.
Before continuing, let us differentiate some important elements first.
1. What preceded the Spanish Civil War?
Spain had a complex political context before the Civil War. Towards the end of the 19th century, the country experienced the first Republica that ended in 1874 when General Arsenio Martínez Campos came out, demanding the restoration of the monarchy with Alfonso of House Bourbon. The government at the moment agreed.
A few years into the 20th century, Alfonso XIII (the king at the moment) experienced a turbulent Spain; and tried to impose a military dictatorship with Miguel Primo de Rivera. Rivera’s government lasted seven years, from 1923 to 1930, when he resigned after losing the support of the military and king Alfonso XIII.
Then, in 1931 Spain held elections in which the monarchist won over the republicans, even though the latter had a majority in the biggest cities. The people didn’t accept the results, and revolts exploded, which led to the king leaving the country.
With king Alfonso XIII out of the picture, the second Republic was established in Spain. And from 1931 to 1936, the country had two bienniums.
The second biennium was led by Alejandro Lerroux (conservative); his government was unstable, and a revolt by the socialists exploded in Asturias in 1934, but young General Francisco Franco stopped them.
From then on, the right and left-wing tension grew more potent and violent.
2. Who were the confronting parties?
The conflict was set between the left and right wings. It is essential to acknowledge that even within both parties were a lot of differences in ideology. However, most history books divide the two confronting bands between national (right wing) and republican (left wing).
The beginning of the Spanish Civil War
In 1936 the third election since the king was held in the country. In this case, the left-wing united to increase the chances of winning. The party of the republicans was called ‘Frente Popular’ (the union between anarchists, communists, and socialists), and they won the elections.
On the other hand, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera founded a fascist party (aligned with Mussolini’s and Hitler’s ideals) called ‘Falange.’ which attracted many right-wing young people.
So, what was the event that triggered the war?
The tension was high; many important people weren’t pleased.
In July 1936, lieutenant José del Castillo of the ‘Guardia de Asalto’ of the Republica was assassinated. He was a socialist militant, which meant it was an act of war.
The left wing wasn’t sure if the response were Falangist or the Carlist, but they took the matter into their own hands. So, the next day, members of the republicans assassinated José Calvo Sotelo, an important conservative figure.
An eye for an eye, and the war exploded.
Historians say that the official day was July 17, 1936, when the troops in Africa led by Francisco Franco rosed against the government ‘Frente Popular.’
The military thought it would take Madrid and Barcelona in a few days, but that didn’t happen. The Republican government had armed civilians, so it was the conservative military against the republicans and loyal military and civilians known as the ‘milicianos.’
The war lasted three years, and no one was safe.
The miliacianos took the fury against religious people and killed over 8,000 Catholics. Even people who weren’t at the front killed one another for personal revenge.
The war became more of a geographical conflict. People were fighting for the party that had already won or occupied the region before the war exploded.
By the end of the war, the nationalist (right-wing, Falange) was receiving support from Mussolini; and the Republican government crumbled as they faced significant differences within their ideologies and agendas.
One of the more important and bloodiest battles was the “Battle of the Ebro,” in which the nationalist were successful.
The nationalist took Barcelona, then Madrid, and the war was over. On February 1939, France and England recognized Franco’s government in Spain.
That was the beginning of a dictatorship that lasted over 30 years.
For more detailed information on dates, visit the following links:
Franco’s government went from 1936 to 1975; 39 years of Fracoism still endure. It is not weird to hear people, especially older generations, saying that “Spain was better with Franco.”
So, how did Spain achieve democracy after almost 40 years of dictatorship?
Let’s start by stating that King Juan Carlos I played his cards like no other! But I am getting ahead of myself.
The first step that opened doors to democracy some years after was the restoration of the monarchy. Remember that factions or ideologies that supported Franco were the Falangists, the Monarchists, and the Chruch.
Well, the second group, the monarchist, were putting pressure on him to respond to their requests. So, between 1947 and 1948, Franco restored the monarchy by designating nine-year-old Prince Juan Carlos I as the future king of Spain.
Franco chose Juan Carlos instead of his father, Prince Juan, Count of Barcelona, because the latter was a liberal. The Spain dictator hoped he could educate his son into keeping a conservative state.
After almost twenty years into the dictatorship, the Falangist (one of the factions that supported Franco) party destroyed Spain’s economy with their close market and self-sufficiency ideology.
By the end of the 1950s, Franco and most people in the government knew that Spain wouldn’t survive f they kept the economy intact. And a group of specialists came up with a new proposition for Franco: opening the market.
It took a while for the technocrats to convince Franco to apply a new economic policy called the Stabilization Plan of 1959, but they did. The result is what we now know as the Spanish Miracle. The plan drafted by the technocrats led Spain into economic development and gave them the basis for their modern-day economy.
If you want to know the complete story of the Spanish Miracle, check out the audience below:
What was the Spanish Miracle? How One Man Saved a Country
Once the Stabilization Plan was drafted, and in motion, many doors opened to Spain. The nation joined the UN in 1955 and the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in 1961.
Franco also negotiated with the United States, which would give them an excellent ally. Little clue? A LOT of money for military space.
After Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos I became king of Spain and did the unexpected.
Instead of continuing with Franco’s plan, Juan Carlos I followed his father’s dream: a democratic Spain. The king shared his intentions of a parliamentary monarchy and chose Adolfo Suarez as Spain’s new liberal Prime Minister.
In 1981, Juan Carlos experienced one coup d’etat by the Falangists, but they failed to earn the support of the people. After that, the constitution was approved, and Spain became a parliamentary monarchy, the type of government that remains until today.
I must say that if you read until the end, you should pat yourself on the back! Reading this article makes you at least a connoisseur of Spanish history; you probably know more than most people now!
I hope you have enjoyed it or absorbed all the information here. These few paragraphs are full of diversity and are just a taste of what Spain looks like today: a country that exhales history and culture.
I know it sounds cheesy, but I think you should experience it yourself.
Inigo Navarro is a seasoned travel writer with a deep understanding of Spain's cities, culture, people and language. Born and raised in Spain, he has spent years exploring the country and is currently one of the most-read Travel Bloggers about Spain. Inigo is also an experienced digital marketer, a father to 4 beautiful children and a huge Real Madrid Fan. ¡Hala Madrid!