In ancient times, Spain was the most fertile country in Europe, the breadbasket of Rome, which is why the early Romans fought a war to the death with the North African empire of Carthage to possess it. In return, Spain fed the Empire, provided some of the best emperors and generals, and sent Russell Crowe to deal with the evil emperor Joachim Phoenix.
At about 1000 AD with the Roman project falling apart, Spain was taken over by Visigoth kings, who were not quite as fierce or barbaric as they sound. Unfortunately for them, in Morocco the followers of the prophet Mohammed were preparing to bring Islam to Europe. The Moors swept through Spain (apart from the northern mountain areas) and crossed the Pyrenees to take France.
The Francs were ruled by a useless royal family that grew its hair and fingernails long, claimed to be descended from Joseph of Arimathea (the saint who buried Jesus and supposedly carried the Holy Grail – whatever that was) and spent their time assassinating each other. They had a commoner Mayor (literally, big man) to run things. Luckily the Mayor at the time was able to defeat a far superior army at the Battle of Tours, halting the spread of Islam in Europe and therefore being the most important battle in Europe before the Siege of Stalingrad. That Mayor’s son, Charles Martell, became even more successful under the name of Charlemagne (literally Big Charlie) as king of France and Holy Roman Emperor.
The war against the Moors produced the first medieval work of fiction ‘The Song of Roland’. If you know your Keats from your Browning you’ll remember that this inspired the latter to write his ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’ which is Stephen King’s Dark Tower.
About the same time the ‘Mort d’Arthur’ appeared. There’s archeological evidence suggesting King Arthur was actually a Roman cavalry officer (perhaps more than one) defending the remains of the empire in the Celtic west against the Saxon invasion of Britain. The Saxons invaded steadily, then reached a certain line where they were held back for at least 80 years and no-one knows why. This is one reason why it’s supposed Avalon may be at Glastonbury, where Joseph of Arimathea (again) is said to have built the first English church and maybe buried the Grail.
Back in Spain, the struggle against the Moors continued on and off, though mostly Moors, Jews and Christians lived happily together for a few hundred years. This is why the Spanish gene type is 25% Jewish, and why the French still say that ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. Obviously peaceful cohabitation couldn’t last and the Catholic Kings determined to free Spain by defeating the Moors in battle and killing all the Jews who wouldn’t convert from Judaism or leave. Ham first became so important in the Spanish diet because making a point of eating it proved you weren’t a Moro or a Jew and therefore likely to be denounced.
The legendary hero of the Reconquista was Roderigo, el Cid Campeador, who never lost a battle (though in reality he sometimes changed sides which makes the record less impressive). The Moors were so afraid of him that after he was killed by a sniper arrow, the Spanish were able to break a siege by tying the body to his famous horse and having it lead their attack. The brains and money were from King Ferdinand, and more his queen Isabella, who also found time to send Columbus on his way in 1492 as the country became one.
Europe became divided between the royal families of Hapsburgs (Austria) and Bourbons (French). Ferdinand and Isabella’s heirs married into the Hapsburg line, but they intermarried a little too much and they were Catholic fanatics. You can see the decline through royal portraits in the Prado. The last Spanish Hapsburg was a dwarf with one black testicle and an inability to reproduce.
Isabella’s daughter was Juana de Loca (Juana the mad). She married Philip the Fair, a prince so good looking that when he died young she decided to tour the kingdom with his body before he could be buried. This turned into a never ending process, a bit like Bob Dylan on tour, and in the end they had to lock her up. Her son was Carlos Quinto – Charles V (although Charles I of Spain) who was the Holy Roman Emperor, first king of all Spain including Aragon, king of Italy, and ruler of the first empire on which the sun never set. His son turned out to be a bit of a dickhead.
The son was to become Philip II who built el Escorial and launched the Spanish Armada.
Philip was such a pious Christian that the kingdom was at war throughout his long reign. He was personally austere (like Franco), dedicated to the church, and the sort of ruler who wanted to control everything personally. The famed Spanish bureaucracy dates from him. By this time, Spain was top country, with an empire (thanks to the conquistadores) that included all the gold producing lands of South America. England was a problem for him because his galleons had to sail all the way to the Americas to pick up gold only for English pirates like Sir Francis Drake to steal it when his ships were almost home.
Worse, the English were Protestants since the young princess Elizabeth became queen. They were almost as bad as the Dutch, who needed to be conquered, but Philip hoped to turn the English back to God peacefully at first. He’d married Mary, who was queen of England before Elizabeth and a sound persecutor of the Protestant heretics. The marriage deal was that if she died, Philip would be heir to the English throne. She died. The English quickly crowned Elizabeth and Philip threatened to invade to claim his rights.
In the meantime he was preoccupied with running his empire and building the monastery of el Escorial, to be his royal palace. An escorial is an iron grate, similar to the old castle portcullis. Philip’s favourite saint was martyred by being roasted on one of these so he had the palace laid out in the pattern of a grate. He used to climb up the steep hill nearby and sit (on Philip’s seat) watching the progress of the building.
Spoiler alert, the Armada was not a success. Philip reigned for many years, remarrying several times. He controlled the state so tightly that it couldn’t function after he became too ill to run it. By the end it was said ‘either Philip dies, or Spain dies’, but he lingered on.
The Hapsburg decline coincided with the decline of Spain, but ironically the gold of Mexico and Peru also killed its power. There was so much gold that inflation was rampant. You needed gold to buy a loaf of bread, and no-one was making bread because it was easier to get gold. The aristocracy decided that working even to manage their estates was beneath them, which is where you get the Don Quixote of Cervantes, the gentleman who sits at home and reads romances till he’d daft.
The Bourbons became the next royal family of Spain (several of them are buried in the Escorial in a separate chamber from the Hapsburgs – the crypt has a strict organisation), but first there was the inevitable disagreement over who should succeed Charles the dwarf and for a few decades all of Europe was dragged into the war of the Spanish succession. Incidentally, for some reason modern separatists in Catalonia have fixed on the siege of Barcelona in 1703 in the course of this struggle as being the date when the mythical free state of Catalonia was annexed to Spain.
England’s contribution to the war was to send John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, probably the best general the country has ever had (and the great-great grandfather of Winston Churchill) once nearly executed when caught by the King in bed with the King’s mistress – to win a series of improbable victories, that are not so much remembered because the English policy was to change sides whenever either the French or Spanish armies looked like winning, in order to keep the war going and give England a clear run at being top nation. It is from here that our continental name of perfidious Albion dates. The Duke’s reward was to be imprisoned when he returned to England, though he wasn’t down for long.
When the monarchy in France collapsed, the Revolution came next and of course like all modern revolutions it started as the small middle class demanding privileges for itself and then the bourgeoisie lost control as the masses piled into the struggle once the established order collapsed (see also Arab Spring, the rise of Islam). Inevitably, dictatorship comes next, and though Napoleon at first pretended to continue the revolution, he was a nationalist imperialist. France still had some claims to Spain so he invaded and put his brother Joseph in charge at Madrid. Joseph was a drunk and there is still a bar Pepe el Botello, that is named for him. England sent the Duke of Wellington to fight the peninsular war with our oldest allies the Portuguese and help from the Spanish guerrillas. The term guerilla, which means, little war dates from here.
Funnily enough the Spanish don’t remember that Wellington beat Napoleon, but they do celebrate the day in May when the people rose against the French forces and were duly massacred (it is the famous painting by Goya). Confusingly, Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, just off the coast of Cadiz, is remembered as a Spanish defeat, since the Spanish fleet was naturally fighting for the Bonapartes and was destroyed with the French one.
To conclude, when the French were sent home, there were three forces claiming the moral authority to take Spain forward – the people, who’d taken matters into their own hands attacking the French in the street with rocks etc.; the royal family that had been deposed by the Bonapartes; and the parliamentary republic that represented the modernising bourgeois state. This conflict of legitimacy has never really been resolved even by the collision of the civil war, and it is a reason some elements of Spanish society regard others with unreasoning hatred. Franco killed about two million Spaniards, mostly after the Civil War ended. It is a conflict much written about, the ongoing consequences of which are little understood, partly because there are laws still preventing it being discussed.
On the mountain above el Escorial, stands a cross that is bigger than the one in Rio de Janeiro, marking the mausoleum where Franco is buried with another prominent fascist– Val de los Caidos- Valley of the Fallen. The Vatican insisted the place should not be of one faction if it was to be sanctified, so Franco had the bones of some Republicans exhumed from mass graves and buried in the walls. It is one of the best surviving examples of Fascist architecture, maintained at state expense, and you can still be fined for saying the wrong things there. Spanish kids don’t learn much about the Civil War, as it’s deemed too controversial, so now for example you have Catalan secessionists claiming that Barcelona is the vanguard of freedom and the Madrilenos are closet franquistas. In fact Madrid was the last city to surrender after a three year siege (28 March 1939 ending the war) paying a heavy price. In Barcelona, republicans were fighting each other, then surrendered easily (26 January 1939) and were eventually rewarded by Franco locating principle industries there (many young independistas are second and third generation descendants of those who moved from other parts of Spain to where the work was, in search of a cultural identity).
Tragedy and misunderstanding, exploited by those who can use a spirit of self-sacrifice, are continuing themes in Spanish history, even now.