The History of Madrid

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Podcast Transcript

Every major city in the world has its own unique story. Some cities have an ancient history, and others have a more recent founding.

Madrid, the capital city of Spain, has a history that is unlike any other. 

It went from nothing to being the capital of the world’s largest empire and today is one of the largest cities in Europe. 

Learn more about the history of Madrid, Spain’s capital and largest city, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

If you’ve been listening to this podcast long enough, you probably know that Spain is one of my favorite countries in the world. 

While Spain is indeed one of my favorite countries, I also must confess that Spain actually consists of many different regions, all of which have their own unique cultures, food, and even languages. 

If you visit one part of Spain, you will not have the same experience in a different part of Spain. 

Christmas traditions in Catalunya will not be found in the Basque Country, and the flamenco dancing of Andalucia will probably not be seen in Galicia.

The only way you can experience the different parts of Spain is by going there to experience it yourself. If you are interested in visiting Spain, which I highly recommend, having spent several months there myself, you can start planning your trip at

At you will find everything you need to know about what to visit, when to visit, and how to get there.  Whether it is information on the running of the bulls in Pamplona, the Fallas of Valencia, or the giant tomato fight known as La Tomatina, you can find what you need for your next holiday at

Before I get into the founding of the city of Madrid, I should first explain where Madrid is. 

Madrid is located almost exactly in the center of the modern nation of Spain. 

It is notable for being the highest capital city in Europe, situated at an altitude of about 650 meters (2,130 feet) above sea level. This high elevation contributes to its climate, which is characterized by warm summers and cool winters.

The average low temperature in January is 1.9 degrees Celcius or 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and in July, it has an average high of 33.4 C or 92 F. In short, it gets colder than most parts of Spain in the winter, but not cold enough to snow very often. Likewise, it can get hot in the summer, but not nearly as hot as other parts of the country further south.

The area around Madrid is a high plateau known as the Meseta Central and is relatively flat. 

To the northwest of the city is the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains

Running through the city is the Manzanares River.  The Manzanares is not a major navigable river, and it is a tributary of the larger Tagus River.

So, just looking at geography, this isn’t the sort of place where you would normally expect to find a major city. It isn’t on a major river that was a major transportation route for goods, and it isn’t along the coast at the location of a great natural harbor. 

So, why is this the location of one of the largest cities in Europe?

There is evidence of a human presence on the Meseta Central plateau dating back to the Neolithic Age, but the presence was never in the form of a permanent population center. 

So, as far as we know, Madrid wasn’t the location of an ancient settlement. 

When the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula and established the provinces of Hispania, there was no known settlement in the current location of Madrid. 

Likewise, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Visigoths entered and settled in the Iberian Peninsula, and they didn’t establish a settlement there either. 

The origins of Madrid date back to Spain’s Islamic era. It began as a fortress constructed between 852 and 886 by Muhammad I, the emir of the Emirate of Cordoba. 

The original fort was located along the bank of the Manzanarez River. It was created to prevent locals in the region from banding together and fomenting an uprising against the emirate. 

The walls of the fortress, known as the Mayrit, can still be seen today, and Mayrit was the basis of the name Madrid. 

The fortress became an important outpost on the borderlands of the Islamic calaphate, and the Christian lands to the north. By the 10th century, the fortress and the community that surrounded it had a population of about 2,000 people. 

The fortress was conquered in 1083 by Alfonso VI, the king of Castile, who used the fortress against the city of Toledo, which he conquered just two years later. 

The city’s initial population was a mix of Muslims and Christians, but this changed over time with migrations of people from northern Spain.

The city and the land surrounding it became an agricultural center, with the primary non-agricultural products being stone and leather.

By the end of the 12th century, it was granted the right to appear before the courts of Castile, and in the early 13th century, Alfonso VIII allowed the city to have its own municipal charter. 

In the early 14th century, King Ferdinand IV convened his court in Madrid for the first time.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Madrid was a good-sized city for the time, above average, to be sure, but it wasn’t a major city. If you were to make a list of the great cities of the Iberian Peninsula, Madrid probably wouldn’t have been on the list.

The thing that changed the direction of the city took place in 1561. By this time, Spain was in the early stages of becoming a globe-spanning empire. The ruler of Spain was King Philip II, on whom I’ve done a previous episode. 

Philip made the decision to move his court there, turning Madrid into the center of the Spanish Empire. 

The was no proclamation by Philip regarding the status of Madrid, but the fact was that it became the de facto capital of the kingdom because that is where the king was. 

The reason behind the decision to move the capital was severalfold. First, Madrid’s geographical position in the center of the Iberian Peninsula made it an ideal location for administering a vast empire that stretched across Europe and the Americas. Its central location facilitated easier communication and travel to different parts of the kingdom.

Second, at the time, Spain was composed of various regions with their own distinct cultures and political histories. Madrid, comparatively insignificant and not aligned with any powerful regional faction, offered a neutral ground. This was important for maintaining balance and avoiding favoritism among the different Spanish territories.

Finally, Madrid, located on a high plateau, was relatively easy to defend from coastal attacks. 

At the time Philip moved his court to Madrid, it was estimated that the city had a population of about 20,000 people. 

By the end of the 16th century, the population of the city had grown to 100,000. 

The growth of Madrid was not linear. In 1601, the population of the city crashed when King Philip III moved the capital to the city of Valladolid. It is estimated that the population of Madrid dropped by 50,000 to 60,000 over a period of just five years. 

Philip III moved the capital back to Madrid in 1606. 

Strangely enough, the entire episode of moving the capital might have been nothing but a massive real estate scam. 

The initial idea to move the capital was made by a close advisor to the king, the Duke of Lerma. After the king made the decision to move the capital, people began moving to be near the new center of power, which had the effect of making real estate prices in Madrid plummet. 

The cheap buildings were purchased by the Duke, who, after five years, changed his mind and suggested to the King that they move back to Madrid. 

Throughout the 17th century, Madrid continued to grow, with more and more buildings being built for the nobility and the imperial government. 

The period beginning with Philip II and ending with Charles II in 1700 was known as the Hapsburg period of Madrid, as the Spanish rulers were all members of the Hapsburg dynasty.

In 1700, Philip V came to power and was the first Spanish king in the House of Bourbon.

In 1739, Philip V began construction on the Palacio Real de Madrid, which remains the royal palace of the Spanish monarch today. 

Charles III took an active interest in the city, finishing the Palacio Real and constructing the Prado, the Royal Observatory, and the Puerta de Alcalá.

The Bourbon Dynasty came crashing to an end in 1808 when Spain, like the rest of Europe, had to deal with Napoleon. 

Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the throne after the abdication of kings Charles IV and Ferdinand VII.

In May 1808, French forces entered Madrid. This began several years of resistance to the French forces in the city, which lasted until 1812 when British and Portuguese forces entered the city and expelled the French.

The entire period of the Spanish War of Independence, also known as the Peninsular War, is worthy of a future episode. 

The 19th century saw the rise of Madria, not just as an administrative capital of an empire, which was now starting to fall apart, but also as a hub for business and technology in Spain. 

As with many cities, Madrid became electrified in the 1890s, and its first metro system was opened in 1916. 

One of the defining events for Madrid, and really the entire country, in the 20th century was the Spanish Civil War. 

Madrid, like many large cities in Spain, was largely Republican in its sympathies.  In 1936, a military uprising in Madrid was quashed by Republican forces which controlled the city. 

With Madrid firmly in Republican hands, it became a major target for the Nationalist forces. In November 1936, this came to a head in the Battle of Madrid. 

Nationalist forces reached the outskirts of Madrid in early November 1936, expecting a quick victory. However, they met strong resistance, and the battle resulted in a stalemate, with Madrid remaining under Republican control.

This was the first major battle for the city and marked the beginning of the Siege of Madrid, which lasted for almost three years. During that time, Madrid was bombed by aircraft and artillery by Nationalist forces until March of 1939, when the city finally fell, effectively ending the Spanish Civil War. 

The new undisputed leader of Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and several of his advisors considered moving the capital from Madrid to Seville, or somewhere else the Nationalists had more sympathy with the populace. 

That, however, never happened, and the capital remained in Madrid. 

The 20th century saw a dramatic rise in the population of Madrid as more and more people from rural areas began to migrate to the big city. In 1950, the population of Madrid was about 1.7 million people. In 1960, it was 2.4 million. In 1970, it was 3.5 million, and in 1980, it had reached 4.3 million.

Population growth in the 80s came to a standstill before increasing again in the 90s. 

The city also began expanding its physical area by incorporating neighboring communities into Madrid. 

Today, Madrid is one of the largest cities in Europe. The population of metropolitan Madrid is approximately 7 million people, behind only Istanbul, Paris, and London. 

Madrid is the cultural, economic, and political center of the country. 

Madrid is home to several great museums, including two of the world’s finest. The Prado, which opened in 1819, has one of the greatest collections of classical paintings from the likes of Francisco Goya, El Greco, Raphael, Rembrandt, and many others. 

The Reina Sofía National Art Museum, named after the former Queen of Spain, has one of the greatest collections of modern art in the world, including the famous Guernica by Picasso.

Finally, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is considered part of Madrid’s “Golden Triangle of Art.”

The Plaza Mayor is the heart of Madrid, and nearby, you can dine at Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite restaurant and the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world: Sobrino de Botín.

Retiro Park is one of the largest parks in Madrid and has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Best of all, if you visit Madrid, you are only a few hours from everywhere else in the country because of Madrid’s central location and Spain’s high-speed rail network. 

Madrid may be one of the largest cities in the world today, but it began with humble beginnings as a fortified outpost of the Islamic Caliphate.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

I have a confession to make. It turns out that I have totally missed many reviews that have been left recently because I was looking in the wrong place, and something had changed on the Apple Podcast Website. 

So, with that acknowledgment, I’d like to catch up by reading some of the shorter reviews that have been left recently.

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All about the sun

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