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Brief History of Spain

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Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

Spain is a country with a rich history starting in the early 700s. Explore a brief history of Spain, including its formation, its role as a global power, eventual decline, and its role as a modern county with influence in many other countries today. Updated: 11/01/2021

The Formation of Spain

Today Spain occupies the majority of the Iberian Peninsula in the southwestern corner of Europe. Modern-day Spain shares borders with France to the northeast and Portugal to the west. Historically, Spain has been predominantly Catholic but with an extended period of Muslim occupation. Today, the nation is home to several distinct culture groups, including the Basques and the Catalans.

But when did Spain as a distinct political entity come into existence? This is a difficult question to answer because Spain was not formed at once, but rather it was created through a series of processes and pivotal events spanning a period of centuries.

The first major process that paved the way for the emergence of Spain was the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which is often referred to as the Reconquista. By the early 700s, much of Iberia had fallen under the rule of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty. The Reconquista was a centuries-long campaign led by a number of small Christian kingdoms to push back the Muslim invaders. From the 700s to the 1400s, smaller Christian kingdoms like Castile, Aragon, and Portugal steadily pushed the Muslims southward towards the Mediterranean Sea. The last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula did not fall until 1492.

Dynastic unification was a second key process that helped form modern-day Spain. In the wake of the Reconquista, the Iberian Peninsula had become fragmented into a number of rival Christian kingdoms. Over the course of centuries, a number of alliances and marriages were organized that steadily combined these kingdoms. In 1469, the royal marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile united those two kingdoms and eventually led to the creation of Spain.

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  • 0:03 The Formation of Spain
  • 1:54 Spain as a Global Power
  • 3:34 The Decline of Spanish Power
  • 4:27 Modern Spain
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Spain as a Global Power

For Spain, 1492 marks not only the fall of Muslim Granada and the completion of the Reconquista, but also the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Although not Spanish himself, Columbus was hired by Ferdinand and Isabella to set off across the Atlantic in the hopes of reaching Asia. Ultimately, Columbus discovered the route to the Americas, not Asia. Nevertheless, his voyages to the New World opened the door to Spain's rapid imperial expansion across the Atlantic and into Central and South America.

By the late 1500s, Spanish Conquistadores had toppled the mighty Aztec and Incan Empires, looted their treasures, and inadvertently introduced deadly diseases from Europe that wiped out millions of Native Americans. At the same time, missionaries worked to convert much of the New World to Catholicism, and the Catholic faith dominates much of Latin America to this very day. By the close of the sixteenth century, much of the New World had fallen under Spanish control.

Trans-Atlantic commerce between the Americas and Spain generated huge volumes of money that the kings of Spain used to further extend the influence of their empire. Charles V (1500-1558) and his successor Philip II (1527-1598) are often regarded as the most successful and powerful of the Spanish monarchs during this period. Under their reign, Spain defeated both the Aztec and Incan empires, circumnavigated the globe, colonized the distant Philippines, won control of the Holy Roman Empire, and gained dynastic control over both the Kingdom of Portugal and the Netherlands.

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