A Brief History of Spain

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Spain

From about 900 BC a seafaring people called the Phoenicians who came from what is now Lebanon traded with what is now Spain. They founded a chain of trading settlements along the coast on islands and peninsulas. The Iberians gave the Phoenicians silver in return for wine and olive oil as well as jewelry. The people of Spain were heavily influenced by the Phoenician culture. The Greeks also traded with Spain the Iberians were also influenced by Greek culture.

A Phoenician colony in North Africa called Carthage rose to be powerful and important. After the Romans defeated them in 241 BC the Carthaginians increased their influence in Spain. In 227 BC they founded New Carthage (modern Cartagena). However, in 226 the Carthaginians made a treaty with Spain. They agreed not to expand north of the River Ebro.

Yet in 219 BC the Carthaginians took the town of Saguntum. It was south of the Ebro but the Romans claimed Saguntum was their ally and they ordered the Carthaginian general, Hannibal to withdraw. He refused and war ensued. The Romans sent an army to Spain in 218 BC and they gradually pushed back the Carthaginians. By 206 BC the Carthaginians were gone from Spain. In 197 BC the Romans divided the Iberian peninsula into 2 areas, Hispania Citerior (east of the River Iberius) and Hispania Ulterior.

However, the Iberians wanted independence and they rebelled against the Romans. Rome sent a man named Cato who regained control of most of Spain. Nevertheless, the Iberians continued to resist, and fighting continued for nearly 200 years. Resistance finally ended when the Cantabrians were defeated in 19 BC. Afterward, Spain was gradually integrated into the Roman Empire.

The Romans built a network of roads and founded towns and Spain became highly civilized. Under Roman rule Spain became prosperous. Mining was an important industry. Gold and silver were exported. So were olives, grapes, and grain. Roman Spain also exported a fish sauce called garum.

However, in 171-173 raiders from North Africa swept into Spain. There were further attacks at the beginning of the 3rd century. In any case from the mid-3rd century, the Roman Empire gradually declined. Meanwhile, the people of Roman Spain were gradually converted to Christianity.

Visigoth Spain

By the beginning of the 5th century, the Roman Empire was crumbling and Germanic peoples invaded. In 409 AD Alans, Sueves, and Vandals crossed the Pyrenees and occupied most of Spain.

However another Germanic people, the Visigoths became allies of the Romans. In 416-418, they invaded Spain. They defeated the Alans but then withdrew into France. The Vandals then absorbed the remaining Alans but in 429 they crossed to North Africa leaving Spain to the Sueves.

The Visigoth king Theodoric II (453-466) led an army into Spain and in 456 he crushed the Sueves in battle. Most of Spain came under the rule of the Visigoths. After 409 one small part of Northeast Spain was left under Roman control. However, in 476 the Visigoths took it over. In 587 King Reccared became a Catholic and in 654 King Recceswinth made a single code of law for his kingdom.

The Visigoths founded new towns in Spain. They also preserved Roman culture and learning flourished. In the 6th century, Saint Isidore of Seville lived in Spain. He was a brilliant scholar. He wrote many books including works on history, theology, grammar, geography, and astronomy. However, the Visigoth kings were never very strong. The Visigoth kingdom in Spain suffered from internal divisions and in the end, it was easy prey for the Moors.

Spain in the Middle Ages

However, at the beginning of the 8th century, the Visigoth realm was destroyed by a Muslim invasion. In 711 an army of Berbers from North Africa, led by Arabs invaded Spain and they utterly defeated the Visigoths at the Barbate River on 19 July 711.

The Muslim army quickly advanced and by 714 most of Spain was under their control. The Muslims called the country al-Andalus, which became Andalusia. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, Christian kingdoms emerged in northern Spain. Aragon, Castile, and Navarre. The kingdoms of Aragon and Castile gradually expanded south. (They were greatly helped by disunity among the Muslims).

The Castilians captured Toledo in 1085 and in the 12th century, they continued to advance. In 1212 the combined armies of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre won a decisive victory at Las Navas de Tolosa. By 1250 only Granada, the southernmost part of Spain remained in Muslim hands.

In the 14th century, there were wars between Christians and Muslims. The Christians won a decisive victory at the Battle of Salado in 1340. The Aragonese captured the Balearic Islands in 1343. Then in 1348, the Black Death reached Spain and it decimated the population.

In the late 14th century Jews in Spain faced a wave of persecution. In 1391 a pogrom began in Seville and it spread to other cities. Persecution forced many Jews to convert to Christianity.

Meanwhile, in 1469 Ferdinand, heir of Aragon married Isabel, heir of Castile. Isabel became Queen of Castile in 1474 and Ferdinand became King of Aragon in 1479. In 1482 they began a war against Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. Granada surrendered in 1492. Then in 1512, Navarre was absorbed and Spain became a united country.

In 1492 the king and queen ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Many chose to leave. The Spanish Inquisition was formed in 1480. In Spain, at that time there were Jews who had converted to Christianity and Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity). Both groups were suspected of practicing their old religion in secret. Torture was sometimes used to obtain confessions. The Spanish Inquisition also persecuted Protestants.

1492 was also a significant year because Ferdinand and Isabel decided to finance an expedition by Christopher Columbus. He believed he could reach Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. However, Columbus underestimated the size of the earth and landed in the West Indies. Columbus made 4 voyages across the Atlantic and Spain began to build an empire in North and South America.

16th century Spain

The 16th century was a golden age for Spain when she was rich and ruled a great empire. Trade and commerce flourished and agriculture expanded. However, all did not go smoothly. When Ferdinand died in 1516 his grandson became Charles I (1516-1556). He was already ruler of Belgium and the Netherlands and he was heir to realms in Austria and Southern Germany. In 1519 Charles became Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. (At that time there was no single German state. Instead many small German states and Austria formed a unit called the Holy Roman Empire). So the king of Spain was very powerful.

However, in 1520 there was a rebellion in Castile. However, the rebels were defeated at Vaillalar in April 1521. Yet abroad Spain went from strength to strength. In 1521 Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztecs of Mexico. The same year, in 1521, Magellan discovered the Philippines. Then in 1533 Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas of Peru. Furthermore, in 1580, Spain annexed Portugal.

The New World provided Spain with huge amounts of treasure. In the 16th century, 150,000 kilograms of gold and 7.4 million kilograms of silver were shipped to Spain. However, the sheer size of the Spanish Empire and the very long lines of communication made it difficult to control.

Yet even though gold and silver were flowing into Spain the Spanish kings faced financial problems largely because of the cost of fighting wars. During the 16th century, the Spaniards fought the Turks and the French. From 1568 The Netherlands, which was ruled by Spain, rebelled and began a long war of independence. Furthermore from 1587 to 1604 Spain also fought the English.

The 16th century was a great age for literature in Spain. The greatest writers were Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) who wrote Don Quixote (published in 1605) and Lope de Vega (1562-1635). The 16th century was also a great age for architecture in Spain.

Those eager to delve deep into the golden era of 16th-century Spain can embark on an enriching journey with the Spanish Immersion program by Spanish Express. This distinctive program offers the opportunity to learn Spanish while residing with a host teacher and immersing oneself in Spain’s historical monuments. Bridging the past and present, it enriches language skills amidst the rich culture of Spain’s heritage.

Don Quixote

17th century Spain

At the beginning of the 17th century, Phillip III (1598-1621) decided that the Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity) could never be assimilated into Spanish society. Therefore in 1609, he expelled the Moriscos from Spain.

During the 17th century, the power of Spain declined sharply and parts of its great empire broke away. The Dutch won a great naval victory at the Battle of the Downs in 1639. Spain finally recognized Dutch independence in 1648. In 1640 Portugal rebelled against Spanish rule. Spain formally recognized Portuguese independence in 1668.

Meanwhile, in 1635, a war began between France and Spain. In 1643 a Spanish army tried to invade France but was utterly defeated. Then in 1655, England joined France against Spain. Eventually, by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 Spain was forced to cede territory to France.

In the late 17th century Spanish power continued to decline. At the beginning of the century, Spain was able to dominate Europe. By the end of the century, it had ceased to be a great power. At home, Spain suffered outbreaks of plague in 1598-1602 and 1647-1652.

18th century Spain

In 1700 King Carlos II died and in his will, he left the kingdom of Spain to a Frenchman named Philip of Anjou. However other European powers would not accept this as it would mean a powerful alliance between France and Spain.

In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession began between Austria and France. Britain and the Netherlands joined Austria against France in 1702. The British captured Gibraltar in 1704 and Minorca in 1709. The Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, was ceded to Britain. By the Treaty of Rastatt and Baden in 1714, Austria took Belgium from Spain.

Despite the war, King Philip of Felipe strengthened the Spanish monarchy. The various regions of Spain were integrated into a single state. n Spain suffered poor harvests in 1708-1711 and 1763-1766. Nevertheless, during the 18th century, Spanish agriculture expanded and became more productive. The population of Spain increased during the century. So did trade and commerce.

Enlightenment ideas reached Spain. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and between 1766 and 1776 a politician named Don Pablo de Olavide introduced several reforms to Spanish society. However, there was a reaction against him, and in 1776 Olavide was arrested by the Inquisition. In 1778 he was declared a heretic and sentenced to 8 years in prison. However, he escaped to France.

From 1779 to 1783 Spain fought against Britain on the side of the American colonies who were fighting for independence. Later in the century, the French Revolution appalled many Spaniards and in 1793 war with France began. However, the French prevailed and in 1795 Spain made peace. Then, in 1796 Spain joined France in her war with Britain.

19th century Spain

In 1808 Napoleon forced the Spanish king to abdicate and he made his brother Joseph king of Spain. However, the Spanish people refused to accept him. So in November 1808, Napoleon led an army into Spain, and in December he captured Madrid. Yet the Spaniards fought a guerrilla war against the French. This time the British were their allies.

In 1812 the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, published a constitution. It stated that the king was to be a constitutional monarch. Then in 1813, the French were driven out of Spain. Ferdinand became king in December 1813 but in 1814 he declared the 1812 constitution null and void and made it clear he intended to rule as an absolute monarch.

However, in 1820, there was an uprising in Spain and General Rafael de Riego forced Ferdinand to accept the constitution. Yet in 1823 the French king sent an army to restore Ferdinand to absolute power.

Meanwhile, Spain’s colonies in Central and South America rebelled, and between 1818 and 1824 they gained their independence. In 1819 Spain was forced to cede Florida to the USA.

Ferdinand died in 1833 and Spain was plunged into a civil war between liberals and conservatives. Ferdinand wanted his daughter Isabella to succeed him but Spanish conservatives wanted his brother Carlos to become king. The war went on till 1839 when the Carlists (conservatives) were finally defeated.

In 1835 to raise money the liberals sold land belonging to the Church. In 1851 the Pope accepted the situation. In return, the state became responsible for paying the clergy. However, Queen Isabella alienated the liberals and in 1868 a revolution took place. Isabella was forced to abdicate. In 1870 she was replaced by Amadeo I but he too abdicated in February 1873. For a short time, Spain was a republic but Alfonso XII became king in 1874. A new constitution was published in 1876. In 1892 all men were given the vote.

In the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to change Spain. The first railway in Spain was built in 1848 and by the 1860s railways had spread across Spain. Mining and the iron and steel industries in Spain grew in the late 19th century.

However, in 1900 Spain was still mainly an agricultural country and it was still poor. Illiteracy was common in Spain and in 1880-1882 there was a famine in the South. Furthermore, in 1898, Spain was defeated in a war with the USA. She lost Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.

20th century Spain

From the end of the 19th century, there was increasing labor unrest in Spain. It boiled over into the ‘tragic week’ of 1909. At that time working-class Spaniards were being conscripted for war in Morocco, much to their annoyance. Worse rich people could escape conscription by paying a fee. A week of rioting began in Barcelona, which spread to other cities in Catalonia. Many of the workers were also anti-clerical and they turned their anger on the Church. Several churches and convents were burned.

Socialism and anarchism continued to grow in Spain and labor unrest spread. In 1917 there was a general strike, which broke into violence. Finally, in 1923 General Primo de Riviera staged a coup to restore order.

In the mid-1920s Spain enjoyed a measure of prosperity. For many Spaniards, living standards rose and industrialization continued. However, de Riviera eventually lost support and he resigned in 1930. King Alfonso XIII abdicated in 1931 and Spain became a republic again. A new constitution was published in December 1931. Socialists and radicals welcomed the new republic but conservatives feared and detested it. The Catholic Church was strongly opposed to it.

However, the new regime was slow to carry out reforms and many workers became disillusioned. Meanwhile, Spain was affected by the world depression and unemployment rose. Disaffected workers held strikes, which often became violent.

In November 1933 the right won a general election and they set about undoing the modest reforms of the previous government. The result was an uprising in Asturias, Northwest Spain. However, the government brought in troops from Morocco to crush the revolt.

In February 1936 the left wing won an election and Spain became bitterly divided between right and left. Finally, in July 1936 the assassination of Jose Calvo Sotelo, leader of the opposition gave the army an excuse to try and seize power. The result was a terrible civil war. The army managed to take control of some parts of Spain but in others, armed workers fought back. The rebels became known as Nationalists and supporters of the left-wing government became known as Republicans. On 1 October 1936 General Franco became the leader of the Nationalist army.

Mussolini and Hitler sent aid to the Nationalists while Stalin sent aid to the Republicans. The war became very bloody and both sides committed atrocities. At first, the Nationalists tried to capture Madrid but failed. However, in 1937 the Nationalists advanced. They captured Bilbao in June and Santander in August 1937. In April 1938 the Nationalists managed to split the Republican-held area in two. Then in January 1939, they captured Barcelona and on 27 March 1939, they entered Madrid bringing the war to an end.

In September 1939 General Franco was made head of state. Under Franco Spain became a repressive dictatorship. In the first years of the new regime, thousands of people were shot.

The 1940s were years of economic hardship for Spain. Officially Spain was neutral during the Second World War. However, 20,000 Spanish volunteers fought with Germany against the Soviet Union.

After the end of the Second World War, Franco was unpopular with the other nations of Europe but with the onset of the Cold War, the West needed him as an ally. In 1953 Spain signed a treaty with the USA. In 1955 Spain became a member of the UN.

From the early 1960s, the Spanish economy began to grow rapidly. Many Spaniards went to work abroad. Others moved from the Spanish countryside to the cities to work in booming industries. By the 1970s Spain was an affluent society. Consumer goods became common. However, Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in November 1975.

Before his death, Franco decreed that after his death Spain would become a monarchy so he was succeeded as head of state by King Juan Carlos who oversaw a transition to democracy. Elections were held in 1977 and a new constitution was published in 1978. It was approved by a referendum in December 1978. In February 1981 some army officers attempted a coup but failed.

Meanwhile, the Spanish economy continued to grow strongly during the late 20th century, although unemployment was high. In 1986 Spain joined the EU.

21st century Spain


In 1999 Spain joined the Euro. Spain suffered badly in the recession from 2008 and unemployment rose to a very high level. Unemployment in Spain reached a peak in 2013. However, it then fell. From 2014 onward Spain recovered from the crisis. Today the economy of Spain is growing steadily. In 2024 the population of Spain was 47 million.

In Spain, the captivating history and culture unfold before visitors through a small Spain group tour. This enchanting country boasts a wealth of historical monuments and architectural marvels, ranging from Roman ruins to medieval castles and Moorish palaces. Whether exploring the vibrant cities of Madrid and Barcelona or meandering through picturesque villages nestled in the countryside, Spain offers a delightful experience for every kind of traveler.

Last Revised 2024