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History of Spain - The Rise and Fall of the Empire 1492 to 1900

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Back to the Time of the Moors - 711 to 1492

After many years of trying to persuade them, Christopher Columbus received the backing of the monarchy and set off on his voyage that discovered America in 1492.
Within approximately 50 years, the Spanish had explored and colonised most of southern America, and were sending gold back to Spain. Unfortunately this income was swallowed up by spending within Spain and conflict in europe.

At the height of the Spanish Empire, Spain controlled large areas of South America, large areas of Italy, Austria and the Netherlands.

Within Spain, money was poured into churches and monasteries rather than developing sustainable business or agriculture. As a result Spain had import wheat and a lot finished goods.
It was during this period (the second half of the 16th century) that the enormous palace and monastery, El Escorial, was built 50km north west of Madrid, the capital of Spain having been moved from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, a location selected because it was in the geographic centre.


In the 17th century, under a week king, Spain went downhill, with a lack of interest in commerce and industry compared to the rest of Europe. Spain was also at war with France and lost control of the Netherlands and parts of Italy.
Spain also became insular at this time, not wanting to learn from other countries, and stopping Spaniards from travelling abroad.
At the same time, less treasures were coming from America and foreign entrepreneurs controlled much of Spain's internal trade.

The beginning of the 18th century saw the end of the Habsburg line of kings - the new heir to the throne was a Bourbon, with French connections.
With the Spanish Empire still intact in south America and bringing new ideas in from other European countries, Spain began to flourish again in this "Age of Enlightenment". There was still resistance from the church however and the Inquisition still existed.

There were also wars still going on - 1805 was the year that the Spanish fleet was destroyed by Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, and in 1808, Spain was effectively occupied by France (who also occupied Portugal) and the king had been replaced by Napoleon's brother, Joseph.
The British under Lord Wellington pushed the French out of Portugal and then, with the help of the Spanish, out of Spain.

However when a Bourbon king was returned to the throne in 1814, the monarchy no longer had the same support from the people (they had been without a true king for the previous 6 years) and Spain was undergoing liberalism.

There were a number of military rebellions during the rest of the 19th century, and the colonies of south America took advantage to break away from Spain - most of the Empire was lost by 1824.

The death of King Fernando VII in 1833 saw the start of 6 years civil war known as the 1st Carlist War when supporters wanted Fernando's brother Carlos to succeed to the throne instead of his young daughter Isabel. There were two more Carlist wars to follow in the 1860's and 1870's - all three were unsuccessful.

Economic development was slow at this time and although the railway came, the development was behind that of other European countries, and in true Spanish tradition, used a different gauge to the rest of Europe.

During this period of turmoil, a republic was declared in 1873, lasting less than a year, going through 4 presidents, none of whom could form a strong enough government.
The republic came to an end with the third Carlist war though the Carlists were unsuccessful - the army installed Isabel's son, Alfonso XII to the throne instead. Seven years after the military had effectively removed a Bourbon monarch, they reinstalled one.

The new king allowed the government to deal with the real politics and there was a stable period. However he died in 1885 at the age of 27, having picked up a lung infection while visiting the cholera infested ruins of the earthquake that hit eastern Andalucia at the end of 1884. His wife continued as Queen for the next 17 years.

1898 saw Cuba taken from Spain by the United States in the 3 month Spanish-America war, with Spain also being forced to abandon Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.

The Spanish Empire was no more.

On to the beginning of the 20th Century, Anarchy, and the Spanish Civil War