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Madrid only became the Spanish capital in the sixteenth century

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Madrid first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Madrid,  picture, image, illustration

Madrid, Puerta Del Sol, circa 1900

The street was narrow, and shadowed, the house distinguished only by its seven chimneys. The man standing in the dark of the doorway, dark hair curling over his shoulders, a cloak across the lower part of his face, held two tired horses.

Inside, the Earl of Bristol, British Ambassador to the Court of Spain, stared aghast at his visitor. “The Prince of Wales – here?”

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and favourite of His Majesty King James I nodded, and replied sheepishly, “Holding the horses at the door.”

The ambassador closed his eyes. “Bring him in, quickly,” he said. When he opened his eyes again the Duke had vanished. ” ‘Tis madness,” he muttered.

And by the standards of the times, of most times, it was indeed madness. It appeared that the prince (later to become King Charles I) had left London with his companion, both heavily disguised and under false names, and ridden across Europe, averaging 60 miles a day, with the lunatic idea of Charles’s wooing the King of Spain’s daughter in person.

It was a madcap adventure; an impulse surprisingly approved by King James himself, but highly unorthodox, politically dangerous, not to say extremely risky to the person of the prince himself!

Once the secret was out, Prince Charles’s presence caused a great flutter throughout the Spanish court. A second, more formal, entry to the capital was arranged, with many special festivities. Altogether, Charles spent six months in Madrid. But, alas for romantic intentions. It is only in fairy tales that the prince wins the hand of the beautiful princess in such a manner. There were too many political and, particularly, religious, barriers to the match. The marriage never took place.

Oddly enough, Charles later (very happily) married France’s Henrietta Maria, whom he first saw as a girl of 14, in Paris, on his crazy flight through France on the way to Madrid.

Princely feet were by no means the first to walk the land now covered by Madrid’s streets and squares. The first to do so were the bare, or roughly sandalled, feet of humble shepherds.

The city stands on the main route along which great flocks of sheep have traditionally moved between the pastures of northern Spain in summer, and southern Spain in winter. Longer ago than anyone can remember, the shepherds paused on the banks of the tiny river Manzanares to rest, to water their sheep and themselves to eat and drink. That little river is now bridged, canalized and “tamed” by the people of Madrid, the Madrilenos.

But Madrid, as a town, hardly existed 1,000 years ago. Five hundred years later it was little more than a village. As cities go, and compared with London and Paris, it is a mere babe-in-arms.

When the Arabs invaded Spain in the year 711, they settled in the rich and sunny south, in Andalusia, driving the Christian Spaniards north, to take refuge in the mountains, where they planned their resistance to the invaders.

Madrid was one of the outlying strong points the Arabs established in No Man’s Land; and just as a medieval castle was the nucleus of many an English town, so the kasr, or fort (called an Alcazar by the Spaniards) was the centre of these Arab strongholds.

The Alcazar of Majrit, as Madrid was then called; was built on a shelf of rock over the river Manzanares, looking north into unoccupied Spain. Under the cover of its walls, a small Moslem village huddled on the little hill where the church of San Nicolas now stands.

Its very remoteness made it vulnerable, and when, in the 11th century, the Christians became strong enough to fight back, Alfonso XI of Castile took it away from the Arabs. But it was to be centuries before it became even remotely important. This was surprising, for standing as it does almost exactly in the centre of the country it governs, it was, and still is, a perfect focus for routes to every part of the land. Its very remoteness, too, gave it the added advantage of allowing it to stand aloof from inter-provincial squabbles and wars.

Once the Moors were driven out, the early kings of Castile turned the Alcazar into a hunting lodge, and added to it from time to time. But they did not make it their capital. This they constantly shifted to wherever the Court happened to rest at the time: Valladolid, Toledo, Segovia, Seville, and, just sometimes, Madrid.

It stands in the middle of a dry and treeless plateau, more than 2,000 feet above sea-level, but at one time this bleak table-land was heavily wooded, and the forests full of bears and wild boar. Gradually the trees were cut down to provide timber for building. As the forests disappeared, other changes took place: streams disappeared, the soil became barren and the hills eroded. Even the climate changed. The air grew drier, the summers hotter and the winters colder. This was to affect Madrid in a curious way.

The first king to live there for any length of time was Charles I, better known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled not only Spain but Austria, Flanders, the Netherlands, much of Italy and vast territories in the Americas. He found the dry, sharp air of this barren upland area beneficial for his rheumatism! It was for this reason, mainly, that he lingered.

His son, the even-more-sickly Philip II, was the first king to settle permanently. He married Mary, the unhappy daughter of Henry VIII of England. After she died, he launched the Armada against her sister Elizabeth, in a vain attempt to regain his “lost kingdom.”

Madrid, so they say, had no overall plan, but “grew as God willed.” Most great inland cities of Europe have developed in circular form, outwards from a central point. Because of its position on the edge of a bluff, Madrid spread fanwise, like a sea-port. Unlike other capitals, too, it is not even, strictly speaking, a city! Officially it ranks only as a town. It became a capital almost by accident when Philip II decided permanently to set up his Court there, and its official designation is still La Corte.

Until 1851, this capital of Europe’s most fervently Catholic country had no cathedral. Even now it shares a bishop with another town, rather as Bath, in Somerset, shares one with the neighbouring city of Wells.

Bits of medieval Madrid still exist, although carefully preserved and restored. East and south of the palace, which stands back from the cliff edge, there are still narrow, twisting, romantic, cloak-and-dagger streets hung with baskets of geraniums; quiet, tree-shaded squares; musty old palaces; scutcheoned houses of long-dead noblemen and baroque churches all date from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Austrian Habsburgs were kings of Spain.

There is still a Moorish flavour about some of the buildings. The towers of some churches were built in Moorish style for Christian masters, by Moslem workers.

Another tower, the Torre de los Lujanes, is by tradition the first place of imprisonment of Francis I of France, after his defeat at Pavia. The Spaniards, who have had more than one French king foisted on them, have never forgotten the time they captured a French king in battle, and 400 years later they still eat a dish of salt cod fried in oil, called “the little soldiers of Pavia,” because it reminds them of the yellow tunics of the old Regiment of Hussars of Pavia.

From the 17th century onwards Madrid saw little in the way of violent upheavals, except in 1808, when the unarmed populace rose in a mass against Napoleon’s invading armies; and again in 1936-39, when Madrid, like most Spanish cities, suffered appalling devastation during its tragic Civil War. Then whole areas were wiped out by bombardment, and street fighting.

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