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Histories Greatest Castles: Spain

Today we will be taking a look at some of the greatest castles in Spain, at least in my opinion. There are many more castles than these 10 but these are the ones that I chose.


First off, what exactly is considered a castle?

A castle is a type of fortified structure built during the Middle Ages predominantly by the nobility or royalty and by military orders. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for royalty or nobility; from a pleasance which was a walled-in residence for nobility, but not adequately fortified; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. The use of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls, arrow slits, and portcullises, were commonplace.

European-style castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them and the castles were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as offered protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills, fertile land, or a water source.

Many northern European castles were originally built from earth and timber but had their defence's replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, lacking features such as towers and arrow slits and relying on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences, such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, so devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.

Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live. As a result, true castles went into decline and were replaced by artillery forts with no role in civil administration, and country houses that were indefensible. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles with the construction of mock castles, part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture, but they had no military purpose.

Historians have interpreted the widespread presence of castles across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries as evidence that warfare was common, and usually between local lords. Castles were introduced into England shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Before the 12th-century castles were as uncommon in Denmark as they had been in England before the Norman Conquest. The introduction of castles to Denmark was a reaction to attacks from Wendish pirates, and they were usually intended as coastal defences. The motte and bailey remained the dominant form of castle in England, Wales, and Ireland well into the 12th century. At the same time, castle architecture in mainland Europe became more sophisticated.

The donjon was at the centre of this change in castle architecture in the 12th century. Central towers proliferated and typically had a square plan, with walls 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. Their decoration emulated Romanesque architecture and sometimes incorporated double windows similar to those found in church bell towers. Donjons, which were the residence of the lord of the castle, evolved to become more spacious. The design emphasis of donjons changed to reflect a shift from functional to decorative requirements, imposing a symbol of lordly power upon the landscape. This sometimes led to compromising defence for the sake of display.

Why is history full of castles?

Castles could serve as a centre for local government, administration and justice. They were also used by powerful lords to display their wealth and power through lavish architectural styles and decoration. Castles were not only built and used by the crown. In fact, the majority of castles were granted by the king to his loyal lords and nobles along with large areas of land. In return for these grants, the king expected his nobles to control and administer these lands on his behalf. The castle itself also represented a whole group of people who contributed to its function from constables, masons, blacksmiths and servants to name a few.

So let’s get into the castles!


Alcazar de Segovia

It is probable that the fortification already existed in times of Roman domination, since granite ashlars similar to those of the Aqueduct have been found. Around 1120, on the western end of the rock on which the city sits, a neighborhood was built at the service of the canons of the Cathedral of Santa María, known as “las Canonjías”. In the act of donation of the land by the Council to the Bishop is where our fortress is mentioned for the first time, more precisely the “vallum oppidi”, or palisade, which defended the city on the eastern side. A few years later, between 1124 and 1139, the words “castle of Segovia” and “Alcaçar” are recorded in the documentation, a term that alludes to its status as a fortress and royal residence and that will continue to this day.

King Alfonso X “el Sabio” summoned Cortes in 1256, the first to take place in the Alcázar.

The remodeling, expansion and decoration of the Alcázar, which began with Catherine of Lancaster in 1412 and which would reach its peak during the reign of Enrique IV, made it a building admired by all the travelers who came to it. The Alcázar had gone from its strict military function to being an institutional building where the royal treasury, the kingdom's archives and the royal armory were kept. This change will take shape in the decoration of various rooms. As far as the archive is concerned, it was Juan II and Enrique IV who, in truth, systematically began the task of safeguarding historical documentation. It is recorded that, in 1437, Juan II ordered various records to be transferred to the Alcázar "to my archive of the city of Segovia", which implies the existence of one of the first royal archives of Castile. It was during the reigns of Juan II (1406-1454) and his son Enrique IV (1454-1474) that the Alcázar reached its peak, both for the role it played in the complex political game of those turbulent years and for the active life culture that took place there and its splendid decoration.

The proclamation of Isabella of Castilla in 1474, a transcendental event in the history of Spain, will be forever linked to the Alcázar, in one of whose rooms it is commemorated through the painting of the artist Muñoz de Pablos. The House of Austria (1516-1621) hardly used the building. However, it will still play a relevant role in two moments: the War of the Communities (1520-21) and the wedding of Felipe II with Ana of Austria (1570). The Alcázar was later used as a State prison, its function being almost exclusively during the reigns of Felipe IV and Carlos II. n 1762 Carlos III founded the Royal College of Artillery in Segovia, whose first Director was Count Félix Gazzola. The College was installed on May 16, 1764 and remained in the Alcázar, with slight breaks, until March 6, 1862, the day on which a fire destroyed the roofs and interior of the Alcázar and most of the treasures it contained. in your file, library, cabinets, etc. From this date the College, later the Artillery Academy, passed to the Convent of San Francisco de Segovia. This educational center soon became a benchmark, and the best and most perfect exponent of enlightened military education.

In February 1792, as one more office of the artillery teaching center, a large chemistry laboratory was inaugurated in a building very close to the Alcázar (Casa de la Química). The most highly paid scientist of the Spanish Enlightenment, the chemist Luis Proust, joined the laboratory as head of the laboratory. its gender. The objective of setting up this laboratory was to complete the curriculum of the Cadets with a cabinet in which the study of natural history and chemistry, especially metallurgy, would be facilitated. In this laboratory the French chemist carried out his research, closing the formulation of the Law of Definite Proportions. In 1898, the General Military Archive was installed on the first floor of the building, which is still in the Alcázar today. By Decree of January 18, 1951, the Board of Trustees of the Alcazar of Segovia was created with the mission of regulating the use of the building and its annexes for the benefit of the cultural heritage; ensure the conservation, entertainment and artistic protection of the monument; and encourage the public to enjoy a "Museo del Alcázar de Segovia" that is an archive of memories to preserve the memory of its triple aspect of Alcázar Regio, Military Enclosure and Royal College of Artillery.


The Alhambra

The Alhambra was a palatine city, a Christian Royal House, the General Captaincy of the Kingdom of Granada, a military fortress until it was declared a Monument in 1870. The Arabs respected the Roman cities and roads by expanding them and adding new foundations. In the 9th century there are reports of constructions on the Sabika hill, where the Alhambra will later be built, although it is believed that already in Roman times and even before there must have been some construction. After the civil war that succeeded the Caliphate of Córdoba (1031), the capital of the province of Granada until then, moved from Elvira to Granada, with the Kingdom of Taifa from Granada of the Ziríes. These establish their court in the Alcazaba Cadima or Vieja, located in the Albaicín neighborhood. At its skirts there was an important population center, fundamentally Jewish, around which the development of the city of Granada took place. The prime minister, Samuel ibn Nagrella, reconstructs the abandoned buildings on the Sabika hill and installs his Palace on it.

In the 12th century, the successive waves of Almoravids and Almohads caused various fights in Granada that took place in the Alcazaba del Albaicín and the buildings that existed on the Sabika hill, sometimes serving as a refuge for local Andalusian partisans and others to the North African invaders. Al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, settled in the Old Fortress of the Albaicín in 1238, attracting his attention to the ruins on the Alhambra hill. Thus, he decides to begin its reconstruction and install the court headquarters there, beginning the construction of the Alhambra that we know today. The Alhambra was a palace, citadel and fortress, residence of the Nasrid sultans and high officials, court servants and elite soldiers; It reached its splendor in the second half of the 14th century , coinciding with the sultanates of Yusuf I (1333-1354) and the second reign of Muhammad V (1362-1391). Granada, capital of the Nasrid kingdom, is gradually receiving Muslim populations due to the advance of the Christian conquest. The city is growing, changing, creating new neighborhoods and extending the fences and walls practically until its conquest at the end of the XV century . After 1492, the Alhambra was established as a Royal House with exempt jurisdiction in charge of the Tendilla. The Catholic Monarchs ordered extensive repairs, largely using Moorish artisans.

Emperor Carlos V decides, in 1526, the construction of the palace that bears his name, together with other very significant constructions of the Roman Renaissance style. The house of Austria continued from Felipe II (1556-1598) and his successors in charge of the conservation of the Alhambra, admired by humanists and artists such as Andrea Navaggiero (1524), ambassador of Venice at the Court of Carlos V. In the first decades of the 18th century, Felipe V (1700-1746) dispossessed the Marquis of Mondéjar, heir to the Count of Tendilla, from the mayorship, beginning a period of abandonment practically until the reign of Carlos IV (1788-1808). The Napoleonic occupation was a negative episode for the Alhambra, due to the explosion in 1812 when the French army withdrew. Only the courage of a Spanish soldier could prevent its almost total destruction. To a stage of claims about the state of the monument, actively supported by Washington Irving (1783-1859), is added a growing interest in society for the gardens of the Alhambra and the orientalism that it evokes in the romantic imaginary, very well reflected in the plastic arts of the moment.

With the revolution of 1868, the Alhambra was separated from the Crown and passed into the domain of the State, declaring itself a "national monument" in 1870. At the beginning of the 20th century, the care of the Alhambra was entrusted to a Commission (1905), replaced in 1913 by a Board of Trustees that in 1915 became dependent on the General Directorate of Fine Arts. In 1944, a new Board of Trustees was created, which was maintained until the transfer to the Autonomous Community of Andalusia of the functions and services of the State in matters of culture.


Castillo de Coca

In the year 1453, Don Alonso de Fonseca, Archbishop of Seville, received permission from King Juan II of Castile to build this castle. In the year 1473 his execution was carried out by the master builder Alí Caro, at the request of the third lord of Coca Don Alonso de Fonseca, nephew of the Archbishop. Beginning likewise the construction of the central body of the fortification with a quadrangular plan and patio in the Mudejar style, flanked by the Tower of Homage. From the Fonseca family the castle passed to the Casa de Alba, and in 1928 the General Directorate of Fine Arts declared it a National Historic Monument, also forming part of the Spanish Artistic Treasure. In 1954 it was transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture, ceded by the owners, so that a Forestry Training School could be installed there, which continues to operate today, being in great demand by students from all over Spain.

The castle of Coca is considered one of the most beautiful examples of Spanish Gothic-Mudejar art. Its construction amazes and falls in love with those who see it for the first time, since it expresses in each of its forms made with brick, an original and imaginative architectural ensemble like few others. The singular beauty of its rooms stands out, in which beautiful Mudejar geometric motifs made with stuccoes and paintings are represented, thus providing us with a unique and unrepeatable legacy. Another peculiarity lies in the fact that it was not built on a hill, as is usually the case with fortresses of this type, its defensive system takes advantage of the escarpments of the terrain, which serve as a seat for this castle, which stands on a wide and deep moat.


Castillo de Loarre

The Castle of Loarre is a Romanesque Castle and Abbey located near the town of the same name, Huesca Province in the Aragon autonomous region of Spain. It is one of the oldest castles in Spain. The castle was built largely during the 11th and 13th centuries when its position on the frontier between Christian and Muslim lands gave it strategic importance. The first of the two major building programs began circa 1020 when Sancho el Mayor (r. 1063–94) reconquered the surrounding lands from the Muslims. After 1070, Loarre became increasingly important. In 1073, King Sancho Ramírez installed a community of Augustinian canons, and it was from Loarre that he prepared for the conquest of Huesca in 1094. In 1097, however, his successor, Peter I of Aragon and Navarre, donated all the goods of Loarre to a new royal monastery at Montearagon. This evidence suggests that the second major construction program was undertaken between 1073 and 1097, and much building evidently does date from this period. By comparison with other monuments, however, it is also clear that the building and decorative program continued into the 12th century.

The castle's location on a rocky outcrop affected the layout; it was not possible to have one unified structure, and like many castles, Loarre was a collection of buildings bounded by curtain walls. Originally the internal plan included two towers and a chapel behind several curtain walls. Towards the end of the 11th century, an additional chapel was built in Romanesque style just outside the castle walls. The outermost walls of the castle and its eight towers were erected in the 13th or 14th century. The church and castle have been the subject of numerous restorations, a major one in 1913 and subsequent ones, particularly during the 1970s, have resulted in the rebuilding of many walls and towers that had fallen into disrepair. At least three towers, two of which survive, the keep (Torre del Homenaje) and the "Tower of the Queen" (Torre de la Reina), as well as a chapel dedicated to Saint Mary of Valverde and connecting walls, are attributed to this campaign. The keep was built in an isolated position in front of the fortifications, to which it was connected by a wooden bridge. It contained a basement and five floors. The Torre de la Reina, comprising a basement and three floors, is particularly noteworthy for three sets of twin-arched windows, with columns of exaggerated entasis and trapezoidal capitals that have been related to both Lombard and Mozarabic architectural forms. The chapel is composed of a single-cell nave with an eastern apse covered by a semicircular vault. The original timber roof of the nave was replaced by a vault at the end of the 11th century.


Olite Castle

Visiting the castle of Olite is entering one of the most representative enclaves of the Middle Zone of Navarra. In fact, the set occupies a third of the surface of the medieval center of the municipality. The palace is an indispensable part of Olite's life. It is the venue, for example, of the Theater Festival that is held every summer and an inescapable postcard of its medieval festivals. When we talk about the Royal Palace of Olite, we are actually referring to only one of the buildings that make up the monumental complex: the New Palace. This is undoubtedly the most extensive and emblematic part. The King and Queen of Navarra built it once the Old Palace outgrew it, now converted into a national tourist hostel.

When Carlos III the Noble and his wife Leonor de Trastámara ordered its construction in 1402, surely they already had in mind a work as monumental as the Royal Palace of Olite ended up being. In just 22 years, an ambitious project was completed that included seven towers, a wall, gardens, and an exquisite and opulent decoration with all kinds of details so that the kings could enjoy luxuries that were unusual at the time. The architecture of the palace leaves no doubt about the French origin of Charles III, who belonged to the d'Evreux dynasty. The obvious French Gothic features of the exterior blend perfectly with the influence of Mudejar art in its interior decoration. Unfortunately, the palace suffered a devastating fire in 1813 and it was not until its reconstruction, at the beginning of the following century, that one of the most important Gothic civil buildings in Europe could be seen again in all its splendor. So much so, that in 1925 it was considered a National Monument. Neither the New Palace nor the Old Palace, despite their walls and towers, were intended as defensive fortresses. Both were conceived for retirement and peace. As you will see during your visit, the Royal Palace of Olite was one of the most sumptuous palaces in Europe, geared towards enjoyment and culture. During your visit, discover its galleries, its royal chambers, and its gardens, which once housed a zoo of exotic animals. If you stand at the foot of the Three Crowns Tower, on the other side of the main entrance of the Royal Palace, you will enjoy one of the most impressive views of the monumental complex.


Castell de Bellver

Bellver Castle is a Gothic-style castle on a hill 3 km to the west of the center of Palma on the Island of Majorca, Balearic Islands, Spain. It was built in the 14th century for King James II of Majorca and is one of the few circular castles in Europe. First serving as the residence of the Kings of Majorca, and afterward long used as a military prison throughout the 18th to mid-20th century, it is now under civilian control, being one of the main tourist attractions of the island, as well as the seat for the city's History Museum. The castle originally served as a residence for the Kings of Mallorca whenever they were not staying in mainland Europe and was subsequently seldom used as a residence for viceroys during the 17th century. As a fortification, it suffered and successfully resisted two sieges during the Middle Ages; the first of them in 1343, during Peter IV of Aragon's campaign to reincorporate the Majorcan territories to the Crown of Aragon, and then again in 1391 during an anti-semitic peasant revolt. The castle has only fallen once in its history into enemy hands, in 1521 after an assault during the Majorcan second Revolt of the Brotherhoods.

The castle was usually governed by a Lord Warden. In 1408, King Martin I of Aragon gave the lordship of Bellver to the Charterhouse of Jesus of Nazareth in Valldemossa. Charles of Viana arrived in 1459 to take possession of both the island and the castle, as he had agreed with his father King John II of Aragon, even though finally the king did not grant the lordship or Bellver Castle. Being an enclosed site, since the end of the 14th century it was used as a prison, firstly to hold Queen Violant of Mallorca, her children James and Isabella and other supporters of King James III of Mallorca after his death in the Battle of Llucmajor in 1349. During the War of Spanish Succession it was used to imprison first supporters of Phillippe d'Anjou, and after the Bourbon victory, Maulets (supporters of the Habsburg pretender). During the Spanish Independence War it was used to hold several prisoners captured at the battle of Bailén and later, political prisoners, the most famous of these being the minister Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1802–1808) who first made a description of the castle and commissioned the first blueprints and drawings of it. The castle served from then on as a political prison, used to lock up several important supporters of the subsequent Habsburg pretenders to the Spanish throne during the 19th century, and later notable republican and Catalanist leaders during the 20th century, including Alexandre Jaume, Member of the Parliament who first won the castle for the city, and Emili Darder, who was the mayor of the city, both subsequently shot.


Penafiel Castle

Peñafiel Castle is located in Peñafiel, Valladolid Province, Spain. The castle is more than 200 metres (660 ft) long and encloses an area about 35 m (115 ft) wide. Standing in the middle is a 34 m (112 ft) high three-storey keep. Fernan Gonzalez began construction on the Peñafiel site in 947, as a frontier outpost in defense against the Arabs. A castle was built in 1013 by Sancho Garcia to protect the land. Several other members of the Spanish nobility were added to the castle including Juan Manuel and Pedro Girón. Blanche I, Queen of Navarre gave birth to Charles, Prince of Viana in the keep of Peñafiel in 1421.


Castillo de La Mota

We have evidence of a fortress on the top of La Mota since the reign of Pedro I, however, we know little about this construction since the castle we know today dates from the 15th century. Reigning in Castilla Juan II begins the construction works of the current castle whose walls will be adapted and supported by the old medieval walls of the 12th century. King Enrique IV will finish the works on the interior enclosure of the same and will culminate the work on the great keep. Subsequently, it will be the Catholic Monarchs who will provide the castle with a large defensive barrier with a modern underground shooting gallery and will excavate the moat that surrounds the entire construction. Precisely this work will be what will make Castillo de la Mota a reference among all the fortresses of its time. In addition to its military and architectural importance, La Mota encloses in its walls an endless number of stories and events that draw the splendor past of the building: its function as an archive for the Crown, the confinement of Princess Juana, the escape of César de Borgia, his role in the War of the Communities, etc.

With the passage of time, the castle fell into disuse due to which the original interior instances were lost. After its declaration as a National Monument in 1904, various restoration and reconstruction work began on the interior building to house, from the 1940s, the command school of the Women's Section. Today the fortress is owned by the Junta de Castilla y León, and two different uses are combined: the Culture Department of the Junta de Castilla y León uses the interior facilities to carry out courses, conferences, and other cultural activities of diverse nature; while the Department of Tourism of the Medina del Campo City Council develops the tourist use of the fortress. In order to develop this last use much better, in 2007 the Visitor Reception Center of the Castle of La Mota was inaugurated, from where they organize guided tours of the fortress, as well as showing the visitor an interesting archaeological site from the Iron Age, on in which said Center is based, and to provide information on the rest of the town.


Alcazaba de Malaga

The Alcazaba is a palatial fortification in Málaga, Spain, built during the period of Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus. The current complex was begun in the 11th century and was modified or rebuilt multiple times up to the 14th century. It is one of the best-preserved Alcazaba in Spain. The Alcazaba is also connected by a walled corridor to the higher Castle of Gibralfaro, and adjacent to the entrance of the Alcazaba are remnants of a Roman theatre dating to the 1st century AD. The Gibralfaro and the hill on which the Alcazaba is built was previously occupied by Phoenicians since around 600 BC, and remains of a Phoenician fortification wall have been uncovered there. During the Roman period of the city (after 205 BC), the area was occupied by a Roman villa and industrial facilities. A Roman theater, excavated and visible today, was built into the western slope of the hill in the 1st century AD. After the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century, historical sources mention the existence of a fortress on the hill, constructed by Abd ar-Rahman I (r. 756–788) and including a mosque inside.

The current Alcazaba was begun by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century, probably under the reign of Yahya I (r. 1021–1036), from which time some of the preserved palace architecture may date. Following the capture of Malaga by the Zirids of Granada in 1056, some additions were made during the reign of Badis (d. 1073), possibly the double-walled fortifications or a wider reconstruction. In the early 14th century, when Malaga was under the control of the Emirate of Granada, the Alcazaba was largely rebuilt by the Nasrid emir Muhammad II, including the fortifications and the palatial residences. The Castle of Gibralfaro, on a higher hill to the east, was built by the Nasrid emir Yusuf I (r. 1333–1354), also on the site of previous fortifications. Yusuf also built a walled corridor connecting the castle with the lower citadel, creating a nearly impregnable fortified complex.

In a crucial event near the end of the Reconquista, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella captured Málaga from the Muslims during the Siege of Málaga, which began on 6 May 1487 and ended with the surrender of the city on 18 August that same year.  After their victory, the monarchs raised their standard at the Torre del Homenaje in the inner citadel. Starting in the 18th century, the Alcazaba's military function ceased. It was occupied by civilian residents and became a marginal neighbourhood of the city. Starting in 1933, under the direction of Leopoldo Torres Balbás, the residents were evacuated and restorations of the Alcazaba began, along with archaeological investigations.


Castillo de Baños de la Encina

The impressive silhouette of the castle of Bury al-Hamma dominates the rural landscape of the town of Baños de la Encina, flanked by a robust and crenelated, wall with fourteen towers, plus a fifteenth or Christian Homage Tower, the castle has hardly suffered any damage, Constituting, therefore, the best-preserved fortified complex from the Almohad period, at the same time that it is one of the best-preserved Muslim castles in all of Spain. Already in the Copper Age (prehistory), the first vestiges of occupation of the site of the Castillo de Baños appear, inside strong Iberian walls and a funerary mausoleum of a sacred nature, giving way to an Almohad urban complex (12th century). in addition to a double "ark of water" or cistern. The construction of the castle was as simple as it was durable, the walls are made of mud with a high proportion of lime, earth, river chino and water. 15 square towers make up this colossus with a peculiar oval shape, adapting its construction to the rocky Cerro del Cueto. After the excavations carried out, it is possible to verify the Muslim presence from the Emirate period, with the Castle, along with other nearby ones, rigidly controlling the Sierra Morena passes and the Guadiel depression during the 12th century. It became definitively Castilian after the seizure in 1225 by Fernando III, adding the alcazarejo, surrounding and raising one of the Arab towers with stone, giving rise to the Torre del Homenaje or Almena Gorda. It was declared a National Monument in 1931.


These are just a few of the many castles that are in Spain. I chose these ones because 1) I liked how they looked or 2) I liked the history behind them.


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