A brief history of Spain

In the beginning...

Alzázar, Segovia (CJM)

Alzázar, Segovia (CJM)

Spain has seen many tribal groupings coming through and settling and mixing to produce the current colourful mixture which are the Spaniards and other, still separate groups: Iberians, of which the Basques are the survivors; Celts, Romans, Vandals and Visigoths, Moors and Berbers, Gypsies, just the most notable of past waves of settlement. For 700 years, until 1492, the Arabic Moors dominated much of Spain, being gradually pushed back by the Christian "reconquest" crusades. From 1492, the Spaniards were largely emigrants rather than receivers of immigrants, firstly as the conquerors of the "New World", finally during the past century more in search of work as Spain went through hard times. Currently, there are new waves of settlement: economic immigrants in search of work from Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, plus people looking for the good life from the developed lands of northern and western Europe.

The 'Golden Age'

During the 16th century, Spain lived through a "golden age", literally as gold and silver flowed from mines in the Indies. It was also a time of cultural flowering, with music and literature to match or exceed the production of other nations. Cervantes' Don Quijote is probably still regarded as the father of the novel as we know it. But just as it quashed the budding Evangelical Church at that time, the Spanish Inquisition was finally responsible for the death of this cultural renaissance. The very men who had ushered it in, Charles V and his son Philip II, also were the cause of its rapid passing. More on the Inquisition.

The British also remember these kings for their links with English history. Charles' aunt was Catherine of Aragon, first of Henry VIII's six wives. Philip married Bloody Mary, the queen who brought the terrors of the Inquisition to England for a few brief but bloody years. And later, when Queen Elisabeth had returned England to the Protestant fold, Philip sent the three Invincible Armadas to their destruction, more at the mercy of the British weather than at that of the English fleet. Yet at this time it could be said, as continued to be the case until 1898, the sun never set on the Spanish empire. Colonies in Latin America and as far as the Philippines brought Spain the great wealth which, however, it squandered on wars of a largely religious nature, against England and Holland as well as against the Turks.

Decline and fall of a great empire

When the last of the immediate descendants of Charles V died in the late 17th century, this was cause for a great European war, the war of the Spanish Succession. As a result, the French Borbons came to power and the current king is therefore more a successor of Louis XIV than of of Charles V. However, the French were again to cause war at the turn of the next century, when Napoleon invaded. The war of independence which followed was a great turning point in Spanish history. For a short period a quasi-democratic parliament was set up in Cádiz. Among its delegates was one Blanco White, later an Anglican clergyman.But the monarchy returned and reintroduced absolute rule, leading to a century and a half of intermittent civil war and swings from totalitarian rule to democratic experiments.

New Starts

By 1868 Spain had become split between a declining very conservative element and a gradually growing progressive one. So when general Prim staged a coup not only against the government but also against the crown itself, he found sufficient support to bring about the first of a series of significant experiments in constitutional rule. One of the key elements in the 'glorious revolution' as it became known, was freedom of religion, speech and assembly for the first time. Churches other than the Roman Catholic could be established. However, the first republic and a first attempt at constitutional monarchy failed until queen Isabel's son Alfonso was invited to return from exile.

Guardia Civil (M.Ferguson)

Guardia Civil (M.Ferguson)

A period of internal peace and the beginnings of industrialisation were upset by the 1895-8 Spanish-American war when the States took Spain's last colonies in the Caribbean and Philippines, followed by the rise of the radical left wing. In particular the anarchists stand out as having become a significant political force, but socialists and communists did so also. At the same time, a growth in the economic fortunes of Catalonia and the Basque country brought a revival in regionalism, while the more conservative Castillian elements turned back to the army to support their points of view. The result was the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, under Alfonso XIII, from 1925 to 30. When the dictatorship fell, so too did the monarchy, ushering in one of the most advanced democracies of its day, the Second Republic. Yet the advances made by some were unthinkable to others and when political chaos reigned after the 1936 elections, the army decided to take over again. The result was the Civil War, in which over one million people died. Years of repression after the war, particularly the years coinciding with the World War and also with years of drought and famine, brought Spain to its knees. Repression forced most opponents to silence, prison or exile. Others turned to radical action, such as the establishment in Franco's later years of ETA, the radical Basque separatist movement. By the mid-fifties, however, there were signs of change. Members of the Opus Dei, a Catholic semi-secret society, began to reach positions of power in the government and led a change in the direction of the country, opening it up to economic growth and preparing the way for the re-establishment of the monarchy on Franco's death.

Finally it was only after the death of the dictator Franco, in 1975, that the current constitutional monarchy and democracy came into being in Spain, much thanks to king Juan Carlos who at first had almost as great powers as Franco himself. His insistence on the change and on holding to the democratic process even in crisis brought the final stabilisation in politics after an attempted coup in 1981. While for the next 15 years or so politics were fairly gentlemanly, we now observe a new, but relatively healthy radicalisation in attitudes.

The one issue which has not been dealt with since the death of Franco is the Basque problem. As a current affairs issue we refer you to the comment section.

Here's a link to historical records in the library of Congress