Why and how Madrid became the capital of Spain dates back to the reign of King Filipe II, 1556 – 1598.
Prior to this Madrid was a reasonable large, by medieval standards a fortified town with the original Moorish ‘Alcazar’ re built by Carlos V, father of Filipe II. Whilst it lacked the historical splendour and magnificence of the medieval cities of Seville, Toledo, Segovia and others, its advantage then and for the future lay in being at the crossroads and geographical centre of Spain.
Filipe II was known in Spain as ‘Felipe el Prudente’, his empire included territories on every continent then known to Europeans, including his namesake: the Philippine Islands. During his reign Spain reached the height of its influence and power. This is sometimes called the Golden Age.
Felipe II was a devout Catholic and desired to build a Monastery combining Royal palace, his court, place of learning, basilica, pantheon, library, museum, university, hospital and necropolis for his Royal parents, himself and descendants.
His choice of location was a small village called El Escorial situated at the foot of Mt. Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama. This austere location, hardly an obvious choice for the site of a Royal palace, was chosen for its climate and its position only some 45 km to the North West of Madrid.
Construction started in 1563 and was completed in 1584. Visitors to El Escorial can take a short drive to the south where there is a rocky outcrop with a ‘seat’ carved out and where Filipe II used to sit and watch the Monastery being built known as ‘Silla de Felipe II’.
The development of Madrid as a city began when Felipe II moved his court there from Toledo in the 1560s. Madrid became the country’s capital in 1562 and apart from a brief period, when Felipe III moved his court to Valladolid, has been capital of Spain continuously since 1606.
The documented history of Madrid dates to the 9th century, even though the area has been inhabited since the Stone Age. The Roman Empire had established a settlement on the banks of the Manzanares river and was an important and strategic staging post between the Roman towns of Segovia and Toledo. The remains of a Roman road and bridges can be seen to this day when hiking over the Sierras from the village of Cercedilla.
The Moorish occupation of Spain lasted from AD 711 – 1492 and in the mid-9th century, Muhammad I of Córdoba constructed a small castle where the Palacio Real stands today. They named the area after the nearby Manzanares river, which the Muslims called al-Majrīṭ, meaning source of water and from this came the name Magerit, later spelled Madrid.
The re-conquest of Spain by the Christian Kings was spread over several centuries and it was one King Alfonso VI, King of Leon and Castile that laid siege to Magerit in AD 1083. The story goes that a small boy offered to climb the citadel’s walls, lower a rope and enable King Alfonso’s troops take the Moors in the rear and open the Citadel’s gates. The King observed that the boy climbed the walls like a cat and to this day Madrileños born in the city are known as ‘Gatos’.
Because of the many bears that were to be found in the nearby forests, which, together with the strawberry tree, the Spanish madroño, have been the emblem of the city from the Middle Ages.
During the 17th century Madrid grew rapidly. The royal court attracted many of Spain’s leading artists and writers, including Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Velázquez. Under the reign of Philip III the Plaza Mayor was built in 1619 and the crossroads of the Puerta del Sol formed the heart of Madrid. To this day all roads in Spain are measured from a plaque in the Puerta del Sol, Kilometre Zero.
In 1739 Felipe V began constructing new palaces, including the Palacio Real de Madrid. It was under Carlos III, 1716–1788, that Madrid became a truly modern city, the King cleaned up the city and its government and became one of the most popular Kings to rule Spain. Besides completing the Palacio Real, Carlos III is responsible for many of Madrid’s finest buildings and monuments, including the Prado Museum and the Puerta de Alcalá. Various other Puertos (Gates) Toledo, Alcala and others were built guarding the entrance to the city.
On October 27th 1807, Carlos IV of Spain and Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which allowed French troops passage through Spanish territory to join Spanish troops and invade Portugal. In May 1808 Napoleon’s troops entered the city of Madrid and on the 2nd of May Madrileños revolted against the French forces. Francisco Goya’s famous painting of the massacre on the ‘Dos do Mayo’ is on display at the Prado Art Museum.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Spanish Empire declined and almost disappeared although Madrid continued to grow in importance and status.
During the period of the Spanish civil war, 1936 – 1939, Madrid was held by forces loyal to the Spanish Republic. It was besieged by Spanish Nationalist and allied troops under Francisco Franco and eventually fell to the nationalists on 28 March 1939.
During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, especially after the sixties, the south of Madrid became very industrialised and experienced massive migrations from rural environments into the city. Madrid’s south-eastern periphery became an extensive slum settlement, which was the base for an active cultural and political life.
Following the death of Franco, and in order to secure stability and democracy, the emerging democratic parties accepted Franco’s wish to be succeeded by Juan Carlos I, leading to Spain’s current position as a constitutional monarchy.
Benefiting from prosperity in the 1980s and through to the present day, Spain’s capital city has consolidated its position as the leading economic, cultural, industrial, educational and technological center of the Iberian Peninsula.
By Barry Haslam-Walker FRICS