Key Events in Spanish History

The intention of this article is to break over two thousand years of Spanish history down into a series of bite size chunks, giving you a quick outline of the key events and, hopefully, a solid context for more detailed reading.

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Carthage Begins to Conquer Spain 241 BCE

Hannibal the Carthaginian General, (247 - 182BC), the son of Hamilcar Barca, circa 220 BC. Hulton Archive / Stringer/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Beaten in the first Punic War, Carthage – or at least leading Carthaginians – turned their attention to Spain. Hamilcar Barca began a campaign of conquest and settlement in Spain which continued under his son in law. A capital for Carthage in Spain was established at Cartagena. The campaign continued under Hannibal, who pushed further north but came to blows with the Romans and their ally Marseille, who had colonies in Iberia.​

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Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War
Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War. By Rome_carthage_218.jpg: William Robert Shepherdderivative work: Grandiose (This file was derived from  Rome carthage 218.jpg:) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As the Romans fought the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War, Spain became a field of conflict between the two sides, both aided by Spanish natives. After 211 the brilliant general Scipio Africanus campaigned, throwing Carthage out of Spain by 206 and beginning centuries of Roman occupation.

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The last defenders of Numancia commit suicide as the Romans enter the city.
The last defenders of Numancia commit suicide as the Romans enter the city. Alejo Vera [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rome’s wars in Spain continued for many decades of often brutal warfare, with numerous commanders operating in the area and making a name for themselves. On occasion, the wars impinged on the Roman consciousness, with eventual victory in the long siege of Numantia being equated to the destruction of Carthage. Eventually, Agrippa conquered the Cantabrians in 19 BCE, leaving Rome ruler of the whole peninsula.

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Germanic Peoples Conquer Spain 409 – 470 CE

With Roman control of Spain in chaos due to civil war (which at one point produced a short-lived Emperor of Spain), German groups the Sueves, Vandals and Alans invaded. These were followed by the Visigoths, who invaded first on behalf of the emperor to enforce his rule in 416, and later that century to subdue the Sueves; they settled and crushed the last imperial enclaves in the 470s, leaving the region under their control. After the Visigoths were pushed out of Gaul in 507, Spain became home to a unified Visigothic kingdom, albeit one with very little dynastic continuity.

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Muslim Conquest of Spain Begins 711

A Muslim force comprised of Berbers and Arabs attacked Spain from North Africa, taking advantage of a near instant collapse of the Visigothic kingdom (the reasons for which historians still debate, the “it collapsed because it was backward” argument having been now firmly rejected); within a few years the south and centre of Spain was Muslim, the north remaining under Christian control. A flourishing culture emerged in the new region which was settled by many immigrants.

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Apex of Umayyad Power 961 – 976

Muslim Spain came under the control of the Umayyad dynasty, who moved from Spain after losing power in Syria, and who ruled first as Amirs and then as Caliphs until their collapse in 1031. The rule of Caliph al-Hakem, from 961 – 76, was probably the height of their strength both politically and culturally. Their capital was Cordoba. After 1031 the Caliphate was replaced by a number of successor states.

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The Reconquista c. 900 – c.1250

Christian forces from the north of the Iberian Peninsula, pushed partly by religion and population pressures, fought Muslim forces from the south and center, defeating the Muslim states by the mid-thirteenth century. After this only Grenada remained in Muslim hands, the ​reconquista finally being completed when it fell in 1492. The religious differences between the many warring sides have been used to create a national mythology of a catholic right, might, and mission, and to impose a simple framework on what was a complicated era.

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Spain Dominated by Aragon and Castile c. 1250 - 1479

The last phase of the reconquista saw three kingdoms push the Muslims almost out of Iberia: Portugal, Aragon, and Castile. The latter pair now dominated Spain, although Navarre clung on to Independence in the north and Granada in the south. Castile was the largest kingdom in Spain; Aragon was a federation of regions. They fought frequently against Muslim invaders and saw, often large, internal conflict.

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The 100 Years War in Spain 1366 - 1389

In the later part of the fourteenth century the war between England and France spilled over into Spain: when Henry of Trastámora, bastard half-brother of the king, claimed the throne held by Peter I, England supported Peter and his heirs and France Henry and his heirs. Indeed, the Duke of Lancaster, who married Peter’s daughter, invaded in 1386 to pursue a claim, but failed. Foreign intervention in the affairs of Castile declined after 1389, and after Henry III took the throne.​

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Known as the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married in 1469; both came to power in 1479, Isabella after a civil war. Although their role in uniting Spain under one kingdom – they incorporated Navarre and Granada into their lands – has been downplayed recently, they nonetheless united the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile and several other regions under one monarch.

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Spain Starts to Build an Overseas Empire 1492

Columbus brought knowledge of America to Europe in 1492, and by 1500, 6000 Spaniards had already emigrated to the “New World”. They were the vanguard of a Spanish empire in south and central America – and nearby islands – which overthrew the indigenous peoples and sent vast quantities of treasure back to Spain. When Portugal was subsumed into Spain in 1580, the latter became rulers of the large Portuguese empire too.

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The "Golden Age" 16th Century to 1640

An era of social peace, great artistic endeavor and a place as a world power at the heart of a world empire, the sixteenth and early seventeenth century have been described as Spain’s golden age, an era when vast booty flowed in from America and Spanish armies were labeled as invincible. The agenda of European politics was certainly set by Spain, and the country helped bankroll the European wars fought by Charles V and Philip II as Spain formed part of their vast Habsburg empire, but the treasure from abroad caused inflation and Castile kept going bankrupt.​

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When Charles V succeeded to the throne of Spain he caused upset by appointing foreigners to court positions when promising not to, making tax demands and setting off abroad to secure his accession to the Holy Roman throne. Cities rose in rebellion against him, finding success at first, but after the rebellion spread to the countryside and the nobility were threatened, the latter grouped together to crush the Comuneros. Charles V afterward made improved efforts to please his Spanish subjects.

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Catalan and Portuguese Rebellion 1640 – 1652

Tensions rose between the monarchy and Catalonia over demands on them to supply troops and cash for the Union of Arms, an attempt to create a 140,000 strong imperial army, which Catalonia refused to support. When a war in south France was begun to try and coerce the Catalans into joining, Catalonia rose in rebellion in 1640, before transferring allegiance from Spain to France. By 1648 Catalonia was still in active opposition, Portugal had taken to opportunity rebel under a new king, and there were plans in Aragon to secede. Spanish forces were only able to retake Catalonia in 1652 once French forces withdrew because of problems in France; the privileges of Catalonia were fully restored to ensure peace.

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When Charles II died he left the throne of Spain to Duke Philip of Anjou, grandson of French king Louis XIV. Philip accepted but was opposed by the Habsburgs, family of the old king who wished to retain Spain among their many possessions. Conflict ensued, with Philip supported by France while the Habsburg claimant, Archduke Charles, was supported by Britain and the Netherlands, as well as Austria and other Habsburg possessions. The war was concluded by treaties in 1713 and 14: Philip became king, but some of Spain’s imperial possessions were lost. At the same time, Philip moved to centralize Spain into one unit.

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France, having executed their king in 1793, pre-empted the reaction of Spain (who had supported the now dead monarch) by declaring war. A Spanish invasion soon turned into a French invasion, and peace was declared between the two nations. This was closely followed by Spain allying with France against England, and an on-off-on war followed. Britain cut Spain off from their empire and trade, and Spanish finances suffered greatly.

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War against Napoleon 1808 – 1813

In 1807 Franco-Spanish forces took Portugal, but Spanish troops not only remained in Spain but increased in number. When the king abdicated in favor of his son Ferdinand and then changed his mind, French ruler Napoleon was brought in to mediate; he simply gave the crown to his brother Joseph, a dire miscalculation. Parts of Spain rose up in rebellion against the French and a military struggle ensued. Britain, already opposed to Napoleon, entered the war in Spain in support of Spanish troops, and by 1813 the French had been pushed all the way back to France. Ferdinand became king.

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While there were currents demanding independence before, it was the French occupation of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars which triggered the rebellion and struggle for independence of Spain’s American empire during the nineteenth century. Northern and southern uprisings were both opposed by Spain but were victorious, and this, coupled with damage from the Napoleonic era struggles, meant Spain was no longer a major military and economic power.

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Riego Rebellion 1820

A general named Riego, preparing to lead his army to America in support of the Spanish colonies, rebelled and enacted the constitution of 1812, a system supporters of King Ferdinand had drawn up during the Napoleonic Wars. Ferdinand had rejected the constitution then, but after the general sent to crush Riego also rebelled, Ferdinand conceded; “Liberals” now joined together to reform the country. However, there was armed opposition, including the creation of a “regency” for Ferdinand in Catalonia, and in 1823 French forces entered to restore Ferdinand to full power. They won an easy victory and Riego was executed.

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First Carlist War 1833 – 39

When King Ferdinand died in 1833 his declared successor was a three-year-old girl: Queen Isabella II. The old king’s brother, Don Carlos, disputed both the succession and the “pragmatic sanction” of 1830 that allowed her the throne. Civil war ensued between his forces, the Carlists, and those loyal to Queen Isabella II. The Carlist’s were strongest in the Basque region and Aragon, and soon their conflict turned into a struggle against liberalism, instead of seeing themselves as protectors of the church and local government. Although the Carlists were defeated, attempts to put his descendants on the throne occurred in the Second and Third Carlist wars (1846-9, 1872-6).

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Government by “Pronunciamientos” 1834 – 1868

In the aftermath of the First Carlist War Spanish politics became split between two main factions: the Moderates and the Progressives. On several occasions during this era the politicians asked the generals to remove the current government and install them in power; the generals, heroes of the Carlist war, did so in a maneuver known as pronunciamientos. Historians argue that these weren’t coups but developed into a formalized exchange of power with public support, albeit at military behest.

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The Glorious Revolution 1868

In September 1868 a new pronunciamiento took place when the generals and politicians denied power during previous regimes took control. Queen Isabella was deposed and a provisional government called the September Coalition formed. A new constitution was drawn up in 1869 and a new king, Amadeo of Savoy, was brought in to rule.

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First Republic and Restoration 1873 – 74

King Amadeo abdicated in 1873, frustrated that he could not form a stable government as the political parties within Spain argued. The First Republic was proclaimed in his stead, but concerned military officers staged a new pronunciamiento to, as they believed, save the country from anarchy. They restored Isabella II’s son, Alfonso XII to the throne; a new constitution followed.

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The remainder of Spain’s American empire – Cuba, Puerto Rica and the Philippines – was lost in this conflict with the United States, who were acting as allies to Cuban separatists. The loss became known as simply “The Disaster” and produced debate inside Spain about why they were losing an empire while other European countries were growing theirs.

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Rivera Dictatorship 1923 – 1930

With the military about to be the subject of a government inquiry into their failures in Morocco, and with the king frustrated by a series of fragmenting governments, General Primo de Rivera staged a coup; the king accepted him as dictator. Rivera was supported by elites who feared a possible Bolshevik uprising. Rivera only meant to rule until the country had been “fixed” and it was safe to return to other forms of government, but after a few years other generals became concerned by forthcoming army reforms and the king was persuaded to sack him.

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Creation of the Second Republic 1931

With Rivera sacked, the military government could barely keep power, and in 1931 an uprising dedicated to overthrowing the monarchy occurred. Rather than face civil war, King Alfonso XII fled the country and a coalition provisional government declared the Second Republic. The first true democracy in Spanish history, the Republic passed many reforms, including women’s right to vote and separation of church and state, greatly welcomed by some but causing horror in others, including a (soon to be reduced) bloated officer corps.

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The Spanish Civil War 1936 – 39

Elections in 1936 revealed a Spain divided, politically and geographically, between the left and the right wings. As tensions threatened to turn into violence, there were calls from the right for a military coup. One occurred on July 17 after the assassination of a right-wing leader caused the army to rise, but the coup failed as “spontaneous” resistance from republicans and leftists countered the military; the result was a bloody civil war that lasted three years. The Nationalists - the right wing led in the later part by General Franco - was supported by Germany and Italy, while the Republicans received help from left wing volunteers (the International Brigades) and mixed assistance from Russia. In 1939 the Nationalists won.

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The aftermath of the civil war saw Spain governed by an authoritarian and conservative dictatorship under General Franco. Opposition voices were repressed through prison and execution, while the language of the Catalans and Basques were banned. Franco’s Spain stayed largely neutral in World War 2, allowing the regime to survive until Franco’s death in 1975. By its end, the regime was increasingly at odds with a Spain which had been culturally transformed.

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Return to Democracy 1975 – 78

When Franco died in November 1975 he was succeeded, as planned the government in 1969, by Juan Carlos, an heir to the vacant throne. The new king was committed to democracy and careful negotiation, as well as the presence of a modern society looking for freedom, allowed a referendum on political reform, followed by a new constitution which was approved by 88% in 1978. The swift switch from dictatorship to democracy became an example for post-communist Eastern Europe.