How Madrid became the capital of Spain

It was under the reign of Philip II of Spain, who was also called “Philip the Prudent”, that the itinerant court of the kingdom settled in a place permanently. In 1561, the monarch declared Madrid its capital city. There is no official document explaining why this decision was made, hence we can only look at the context of that time in order to understand how Madrid became the capital of Spain.

Why was Madrid chosen to be the capital of Spain?

A portrait of a white bearded man

16th century portrait of King Philip II. | Shutterstock

There are many reasons that could have led Philip II to choose Madrid as the capital city, but perhaps we should start by highlighting the exceptional nature of this decision. In the 16th century, Madrid was not excessively developed nor did it have navigable rivers that would ease communication with faraway lands, opening up new opportunities. Needless to say, the sea was too far away as well.

There is a quote attributed to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and father of Philip II, which suggests there was some kind of controversy surrounding the king’s decision: “If you wish to preserve your kingdom, then you should keep Toledo as its capital; if you wish to expand it, make Lisbon the capital; and if you wish to lose the kingdom, choose Madrid”.  The authenticity of this sentence is not really confirmed, and Lisbon did not even belong to the Spanish crown at the time, but this quote does paint quite an accurate picture of Madrid’s situation back then.

Despite everything, Philip II decided to end the reign of Toledo as Spain’s capital city. It is said that his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, felt rather uncomfortable with the narrow streets and high walls of the city. The weather was not ideal either: too cold in winter, and too hot in summertime. The presence of the archbishopric, whose power spread all over Toledo, overwhelmed the monarch too. Moving to Valladolid did not appeal to him either, since the city had been known to support the Revolt of the Comuneros. Considering all that, and with his wife’s eyes placed upon her beloved Madrid, Philip II too looked at the city in wonder.

A forest and some distant skyscrapers in the middle

Madrid seen from the forest of El Pardo. | Shutterstock

Madrid had many advantages. To start with, it lay right in the center of the Iberian Peninsula, forming an important transit point to connect other cities and relevant places. They could build infrastructures around it that would make it possible to connect all the key spots of the country.

Back then, Madrid was an active yet not a suffocating city. It had abundant water and it was surrounded by large forests, like the current park of Casa de Campo and the area of El Pardo. There was no established nobility in Madrid, nor did the clergy have a strong presence in the city. In fact, Madrid would rely on the bishopric of Toledo for a long time. That is: Philip II got rid of the pressure he was under in other places. Taking into account that the moments prior to the king’s decision are not recorded in any document that we know of, we cannot ascertain whether he had to reflect on it for a long time or not; either way, he ended up opting for Madrid, and he never regretted his decision.

Growing as the capital of Spain

A distant view of a monastery and some trees in front

The Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial in Madrid. | Shutterstock

The Royal Alcázar of Madrid then became the permanent royal residence of Philip II and his entourage. Many mansions were built around it with the aim of hosting the most influential figures of the time, who were always keen to stay near the royal family. The king, on his part, coveted a place that was tailor-made for him, and hence came the Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial; his masterpiece, and the place he would spend a considerable amount of time in.

Madrid has never stopped growing since it became the capital of Spain. At the end of the 14th century, it was already home to 100000 people. Little by little, it turned into the cultural capital of the kingdom too, partly thanks to the court’s patronage, and also due to the construction of museums and internationally relevant institutions, such as the Prado Museum. It could be said that Madrid’s growing process began in 1561, when it became not only a city, but also the capital of the kingdom.

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