Spain © Betsy Arvelo

Leaving their mark in all conquered lands, Arab Muslims occupied a large part of the Iberian peninsula since the VII century A. D. It took Christian Spanish 7 centuries to expel the so called "Moors" from their territory, through a long and holy campaign called the War of the Reconquest.

arte musulman castillo

Alfonso VI de Castilla and Leon reclaimed Toledo in 1085. Under his rule which tolerated the Arabs, there were many advances in mathematics, astronomy and medicine, coexisting with Christians and Jews, making this city a very important cultural center.

In 1236 Cordoba was reclaimed, followed by Seville in 1248, now the capital of Andalusia.

The last Moor bastion was the city of Granada, which finally, in 1492, surrendered to the Catholic Monarch's forces.

In the XV century, the present nation of Spain was divided into four kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, Navarra and Granada. Isabella I of Castile's wedding to Ferdinand II of Aragon facilitated the union of their respective kingdoms, which, growing in power and resources, managed to complete the holy war, embarking on the arduous task of unifying Spain.

With the war ended and a weakened economy, the court founded settlements and municipalities organized with the support of the Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood), a sort of political organism consisting of volunteers from old Christian families. The Hermandad maintained order and limited power, much coveted by the royalty.

Counselors, dukes, military orders, clergy, noblemen and gentlemen sought their reward for services rendered during the war, as well as their social and economic position within the new order.

The Monarchy limited the nobility's authority at the time that they distributed large expanse of land, the forests of which were cut forming new pastures for the farming of Merino sheep, whose wool sold at very high prices in the rest of Europe, providing income in taxes which the monarchy depended on greatly. This way almost all of Castile, from the Cantabrian Mounts to the Morena Mountain Range was dedicated to the wool industry, and most of the disputes related to the cultivation and grazing were always resolved in favor of the Mesta, organism of the powerful shepherds, even to the point of hurting the development of agriculture.

Equally, the court reinforced the monarchy with a sort of absolutist government that convened, only when it was necessary, two consulting institutions : The Royal Council and the Castile Court. They represented the political, administrative and judicial authority; additionally, possessed the Regio Patronato, which awarded the right to elect candidates to ecclesiastic appointments, thus the Spanish inquisition along with the Hermandad was probably the most useful control tool to achieve the coveted unification under a strict religious unit base.

Just like it would happen later on with the remaining Arabs, the prosperous Jewish community was expelled in 1492, allowing only those that converted to Christianity to stay.

This move weakened even more the already fragile economic situation and limited the possibilities of an industrial development, with the loss of a significant percentage of groups dedicated to commerce. The situation of Spain was very special compared to the rest of Europe; as Historian Frank Moya Pons points out, "The Reconquest had contributed to the break up of the feudal order. However, it had produced a process of land accumulation in the hands of an autocracy whose values were part of a religious and political concept of the world"..." This special conjugation of cultural and material values prevented Spain from developing or fomenting activities that would have included it within the rising current of European capitalism."1

monedas escudo reyes catolicos

For this reason, powerful groups of Italian and Flemish bankers and merchants were the main bankers in Spain, marketing part of the wool production and serving as lenders to the Catholic Monarch.

Spain owes its existence as a nation to these monarchs, that, as we see, were never passive monarchs; Ferdinand was an excellent general and very ambitious. His domain got to include a large part of Italy, where he always maintained a considerable amount of influence to the point of backing Rodrigo de Borja, of the Borja family from Aragon, to reach the position as pope, being sworn in August of 1492 with the name of Alexander VI.

Isabella, it appears, was a very intelligent woman, with a lot of character and great religious fanaticism. Always counted with the support of the most orthodox and traditional groups, immersed in the religious based prejudice against Arabs, Jews and converts.

During the XV century Castile had conquered most of the Canary Islands. In that summer of 1492, the last expedition was sent to the island of Palma.

Just as in the recently ended Reconquest, in these armed expeditions, the Castilians acquired great experience in the art of war; the new European arms along with horses, dogs, helmets and breast plates were very powerful against people without fire arms like in the case of the Guanches, that inhabited the Canary Islands, and who were mostly eliminated during this conquest.

Only with the conditions given by the political power of the Catholic Monarchs, as well as the rich cultural inheritance obtained during the Arab period, could the Castilian kingdom embark in the much more difficult and complicated enterprise that would change their lives and customs, as well as the inhabitants of the whole globe, and that would be the base to turn Spain into one of the largest empires in history. Christian Spanish would travel into the unknown, finding and conquering America.