Famous Spanish Kings & Monarchs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The nation of Spain controlled one of the world's most powerful empires for centuries. In this lesson, we'll be looking at some of the monarchs who made this possible.

The Spanish Monarchy

Ever heard of the Spanish Empire? You probably have. It was sort of a big deal. After financing the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Spain started racking up unbelievable wealth from the New World. It became a global empire, but what many people don't realize is how much the kings and queens of Spain had to do in order to create this empire. In fact, less than 30 years before Columbus set sail, Spain didn't actually exist. There was no single Spanish kingdom, but instead a series of smaller states comprising what is now known as Spain. To get from these smaller kingdoms to the great Spanish Empire, a lot of Spanish history would depend on a series of very powerful rulers.

Spanish Monarchs in the Reconquista

So, before Spain was, well Spain, it was a series of kingdoms. In 711 CE, Islamic Moors from Northern Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula and essentially took it over. The states that remained became fully organized kingdoms, founded to fight the Moorish incursion in a religious war called the Reconquista. One of the first major leaders of the Reconquista was Pelayo, a Christian ruler who founded the kingdom of Asturias in northern Spain in the early 8th century, sometime around 718 CE. Much of Pelayo's life is known only through folk legends, but he first rose to power as a rebellion leader against the Moors. This rebellion would become the kingdoms of Asturias. Pelayo was one of many founders of kingdoms throughout the Reconquista, which lasted all the way until 1492.

Ferdinand and Isabella

So, how did these kingdoms become Spain as we know it today? As was so often the case in medieval politics, it was through a marriage. In 1469, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon were married, uniting their two kingdoms. In many ways, Castile and Aragon continued to operate as independent kingdoms, but most historians consider this the true beginning of Spanish unification. For decades, Ferdinand and Isabella ruled as joint monarchs, each having essentially equal power, and moved their court all across Iberia as they consolidated the power of various lords under them.

Wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella
Ferdinand and Isabella

Beyond being the founders of modern Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella hold some other important roles in history. These were the monarchs who finally defeated the Moors in 1492, ending the Reconquista and restoring Catholic dominance of Iberia. For this, Pope Sixtus IV gave them the title of the Catholic Monarchs. It was also Ferdinand and Isabella who agreed to finance the voyage of Christopher Columbus, hoping to open trade with East Asia, and thereby kicking off the Spanish Empire.

Charles V

In the late 15th century, things took off pretty quickly for Spain. The various kingdoms were unifying under a single set of monarchs, the Moors were gone, and Columbus' expeditions had become very profitable. However, everything really fell into place when Ferdinand and Isabella's grandson rose to the throne. Charles V, or Carlos I as he was known in Spain, was from the Hapsburg family, a royal dynasty of Northern Europe. When he was crowned King of Spain in 1516, inherited from his grandparents, all of his potential power cemented, and within a few years he had also inherited the titles of King of Germany, King of Italy, Archduke of Austria, Lord of the Netherlands, and, most significantly, the Holy Roman Emperor. This title was one granted by the Pope, formally recognizing Charles as the most powerful emperor in Europe, a title first really used to crown Charlemagne. Under Charles V, Spain became a truly unified empire and the most powerful nation in the world. Hernán Cortés toppled the Aztec Empire, Francisco Pizarro toppled the Inca Empire, and Magellan sailed all the way around the world. After Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation around the same time that Charles rose to power, Spain also became the defender of Catholicism across the globe.

Charles V
Charles V

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