Why Is Madrid the Capital of Spain?

(Last Updated On: July 21, 2020)
Why Is Madrid the Capital of Spain?

Located on the Iberian Peninsula in southern Europe, Spain has long been known for its rich history, heritage, and culture. In fact, Spain has one of the highest concentrations of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. And though many cities, including Barcelona, Seville, and Valencia, have played integral roles in Spain’s cultural history, there is only one national capital. And that distinction goes to Madrid. So, why is Madrid the capital of Spain, and not some other city? Let’s find out!

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The Capital of Spain

The site of modern-day Madrid has been occupied since the Stone Age. Notable inhabitants included the Celts, Romans, and Visigoths. However, Madrid’s documented history dates back to the 9th century during Spain’s Islamic age. It would be Muhammad I of Cordoba who would first solidify Madrid’s establishment as an important city, when he built an alcázar, or fortress, near the river Manzanares (which flows through the city today).

The Christian king Alfonso VI of Castile and León captured Madrid in 1083, and from then on the city became a popular destination for the kings of Castile. The city was appealing for many reasons. It featured a central and strategic location in Iberia. There was an abundance of game in the city’s surroundings. And the city was home to plenty of grand buildings (fit for kings) that were left over by the Moors.

During the 15th century, we see Madrid begin to grow in physical size and population. When that old alcázar built by Muhammad I was damaged in an earthquake, it was rebuilt and extended, serving as a medieval palace for various monarchs, including Charles I and Philip II.

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Why Is Madrid the Capital of Spain?

Charles I was the first Habsburg ruler of Spain, becoming king of Spain in 1516. Thereafter, Spain became a central figure in the various conflicts raging throughout Europe. However, Charles was also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. As such, he was not in Spain all that often.

In 1556, he abdicated from his positions, giving his Spanish Empire to his only surviving son, Philip II (his brother Ferdinand got the Holy Roman Empire). Philip acknowledged the land of Castile as the foundation of his empire, but also believed the population too small to support the soldiers necessary to be a global power. So in 1561, he decided to set his royal court in Madrid, a city he enjoyed very much, installing it in the old alcázar.

Soon after, Madrid would become the political center of the monarchy, serving as the de facto capital of Spain. It was during this time that the population of the city really began to boom. And save for a short period between 1601 and 1606, in which the royal court was relocated to Valladolid, Madrid has been the capital of Spain ever since.

Modern Madrid

Habsburg Spain would become one of the most powerful empires in the world, and during the reigns of Philip III and Philip IV, Madrid entered into a period of cultural development. This was the time of Miguel de Cervantes and Diego Velázquez.

By the late-17th century, however, the Spanish Empire began to decline. After the death of the last Habsburg ruler and the War of the Spanish Succession, Spain came under Bourbon rule and their influence in European affairs diminished.

During the 19th century, differing political parities began to emerge in the country, often vying for influence. What was left of the Spanish Empire overseas began to fall apart, the Spanish–American War of 1898 effectively ending it.

In the early 20th century, after the monarchy had become too dictatorial, a democratic republic was established in Spain. This was short-lived, however. The country was soon thrust into the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Madrid was one of the most heavily affected cities, falling to the nationalist Francoists in March 1939.

After the death of Francisco Franco, authoritarian rule came to an end, and a democratic constitution was adopted in 1978. In it, Madrid was confirmed as the capital of Spain.

Benefiting from increased prosperity in the 1980s and 1990s, Madrid today has secured itself as one of the most important economic, cultural, industrial, education, and technological centers in Europe.


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Mark Heald
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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.