The History of Madrid, Spain

Category: History of SpainMadrid

Madrid, Spain has a rich and colorful history, beginning with the theories regarding the origins of its name. Legend has it the city was founded by Ocno Bianor, son of King Tyrrhenius of Tuscany and Mantua, who named the settlement “Metragirta”—a name that over time was shortened to “Madrid.” Despite this legend (and many more like it), most historians agree the name dates back to the 2nd century BC. It was around this time that the Roman Empire established a settlement on the Manzanares River, naming this first village “Matrice”—a reference to the river that crossed the settlement. The name would change again in the 7th century AD with the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This group named the settlement “Mayrit,” from the Arabic term Mayra meaning “water as the giver of life.” The modern term “Madrid” is said to have evolved from this name, a name that is still contained within the Madrilinean lexicon.

Although there is evidence that Madrid was occupied since prehistoric times, the historical certainty regarding the existence of an occupied settlement cannot be established until the Muslim Age, in the second half of the 9th century. A fortress was built at that time along the Manzanares River, one of many built at that time with the goal of safeguarding Toledo from Christian invaders. Then, late in the 11th century, following the surrender of Toledo by Alfonso VI, Madrid was indeed conquered by the Christians and integrated into the Kingdom of Castile as a property of the Crown. This drastically altered the demographics of the city, as Christians took a foothold in the center of Madrid, relegating Arabs and Jews to the outlying areas.

Up until the 16th century, Toledo was considered the de-facto capital of Spain, but this would soon change. The population of Madrid, a city that was very important during the revolt of the Comuneros in the early part of the 16th century, had swelled to over 30,000, which prompted King Philip II to relocate his court to Madrid and install it in the old castle, Alcazar. As a result, Madrid became the political epicenter of the country, and would later, under the reign of Philip IV, become the cultural hub as well, represented by the brilliant authors and artistic talents of the time, with names such as Miguel de Cervantes, Diego Velazquez, Francisco de Quevedo and Lope de Vega.

Following the death of King Charles II of Spain and the resultant War of the Spanish Succession, Madrid would support Philip of Anjou’s right to claim the throne, despite being occupied at the time by the Portuguese army who proclaimed the Archduke Charles of Austria king. Philip V would finally prevail, and once he assumed control he immediately set to work building the new Royal Palace (Alcazar had been destroyed during the war) and the main Royal Academies. His contributions are considered major from a historical perspective, but not near as impressive as those of his successor, King Charles III of Spain Monument to Carlos III at Jardines de Sabatini. Photo credit. Known as the “best major of Madrid,” Charles III took the initiative in transforming Madrid into a “real capital”—a city worthy of its classification. He improved streets, including adding street lighting, built sewers and cemeteries (outside the city) and is responsible for many of the monuments and attractions that visitors still enjoy today, including the Puerto de Alcala and the Prado Museum.

The Spanish Constitution of 1931 was the first constitution that dealt with the issue of legislating on a state capital, setting the distinction explicitly on Madrid. Many rulers and leaders have followed since that time, navigating the city through tough times—including the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939—and boons, including the period of unprecedented economic growth and wealth accumulation from 1959-1973.

Today Madrid remains as one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe; a city that continues to fulfill the dream of King Charles III and those who came after him: living up to its name and reputation as one of the world’s greatest and most highly respected capital cities.