10 Most Famous Spanish Monarchs and their Reigns

Spain has had a rich history with numerous significant monarchs who’ve ruled different kingdoms before the formation of what is now modern Spain. From Isabella I of Castile to Philip V, here’s a list of ten notable Spanish monarchs:

Isabella I of Castile & Ferdinand II of Aragon

Isabella and Ferdinand’s reign set the stage for the golden age of Spain, during which Spanish arts, culture, and influence would flourish around the world. They are best known for completing the Reconquista, the long Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Moors, with the capture of Granada in 1492. Image: Wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella

Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, commonly referred to as the Catholic Monarchs, were a power couple whose union through marriage in 1469 laid the foundation for the unification of Spain. Their combined reigns marked the beginning of Spain as a unified nation and set the stage for it to become one of the world’s most dominant empires in the ensuing centuries.

In 1492, they successfully concluded the Reconquista – a series of campaigns over almost eight centuries to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule – by capturing the kingdom of Granada.

Also, in 1492, they issued the Alhambra Decree which ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The same year was marked by Isabella and Ferdinand’s sponsorship of Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic, which resulted in the discovery of the Americas.

Their reign was marked by efforts to strengthen the power of the monarchy at the expense of the nobility, and to firmly root the nation in Catholicism.

Isabella and Ferdinand passed away on November 26, 1504 and January 23, 1516, respectively. Their legacy, especially in relation to the discovery of the Americas and the establishment of Spain as a dominant world power, would last for centuries.

Philip II

Philip II inherited vast territories in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Under his reign, the Spanish Empire reached its height, with colonies in the Americas continuing to expand and prosper.

Philip II of Spain (reign: 1556-1598) was one of the most powerful monarchs of the 16th century, ruling over a vast global empire. His reign marked the Spanish Golden Age, characterized by flourishing arts, global exploration, and the defense of Catholicism against Protestantism. Artists like El Greco and writers like Cervantes thrived during this period.

However, his rule was also marked by conflicts, including the Eighty Years’ War and the Spanish Armada’s defeat. The latter event marked the decline in Spain’s naval dominance.

Charles I

Charles I (reign: 1516-1556) was also known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He was the first to rule the combined Spanish kingdoms and the first Spanish monarch of the Habsburg dynasty.

Born on February 24, 1500, in Ghent, Charles was the son of Philip the Handsome of Burgundy and Joanna the Mad of Castile.

Due to a series of deaths in the family and the complex network of Habsburg marriages, Charles inherited a vast realm. He became Duke of Burgundy, ruler of the Netherlands, and King of Castile and Aragon (as Charles I of Spain).

In 1519, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor, a title he held as Charles V. His reign saw a vast empire where “the sun never set,” spanning territories in Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world.

His reign coincided with the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in 1517. He was a staunch Catholic and opposed the Reformation, leading to numerous conflicts and wars throughout his territories, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire.

Under Charles’s rule, the Spanish Empire expanded rapidly in the Americas. Conquistadors like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro conquered vast territories in the New World, notably the Aztec and Inca Empires.

By 1556, the vastness and diversity of his empire, coupled with the numerous conflicts, weighed heavily on Charles. He decided to divide his holdings, giving the Spanish crown and the territories in the Americas to his son, Philip II of Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire to his brother, Ferdinand I.

He retired to the Monastery of Yuste in Spain, where he lived until his death in 1558.

Philip III

Philip III’s reign, which was from 1598 to 1621, was marked by a period of relative peace and the continued dominance of Spain as a European power. Much of his reign was characterized by his reliance on his chief minister, the Duke of Lerma, to whom he delegated significant political authority.

Philip III of Spain, who reigned from 1598 to 1621, was the son of Philip II and succeeded him on the throne. His reign was marked by a policy of peace and domestic issues, with many of the kingdom’s affairs being handled by his favorite courtiers.

One of the most consequential decisions of his reign was the expulsion of the Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity) between 1609 and 1614. This decision was motivated by suspicion that they were practicing Islam in secret and was disastrous for the Spanish economy, especially in regions like Valencia.

While Philip III might not have been as directly involved as his father in promoting the arts, Spain’s Golden Age continued into his reign. Literature, art, and theater saw great achievements during this period.

Philip IV

Philip IV’s reign, i.e. from 1621 to 1665, saw the decline of Spanish dominance in Europe, the Thirty Years’ War, and the continued flourishing of Spanish art and culture, including the works of Velázquez.

Like his father’s reliance on the Duke of Lerma, Philip IV heavily depended on his chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, for much of his reign. Olivares was ambitious and sought to centralize and reform the administration of the vast Spanish Empire.

Under the guidance of Olivares, Spain became heavily involved in the Thirty Years’ War, defending the Catholic Habsburg cause in Europe. This involvement drained Spanish resources and manpower.

In 1640, partly due to Olivares’ centralizing policies, Catalonia revolted against Spanish rule. The revolt was a major crisis for Philip IV’s reign. That same year, Portugal successfully revolted against Spanish rule, ending the 60-year Iberian Union and reinstating the House of Braganza to the Portuguese throne.

By the end of Philip IV’s reign, Spain’s dominance as a global superpower was waning, due to continuous wars, economic challenges, and internal strife.

This Spanish king’s personal life was marked by tragedies. He outlived all his male heirs, and his daughter, Maria Theresa, would go on to marry Louis XIV of France.

Philip V

Philip V (reign: 1700-1746) was the first Bourbon king of Spain. Although he made a bit of strides when it came to modernizing the Spanish government, administration, and military, he was also the Spanish monarch who introduced the Salic law which prohibited female succession to the throne.

Philip V was the first Bourbon king of Spain and his reign marked the beginning of a new era in Spanish history, characterized by centralization and reforms.

Born in Versailles in 1683, Philip was the grandson of Louis XIV of France and became the heir to the Spanish throne following the death of the childless Charles II of Spain. The latter’s will named Philip as his successor, setting off a series of events that would lead to the War of the Spanish Succession.

European powers, fearing the unification of French and Spanish crowns, opposed Philip’s accession. This led to a major European conflict. The war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which recognized Philip V as the legitimate king of Spain but required him to renounce his and his descendants’ rights to the French throne.

Inspired by his French upbringing, Philip introduced reforms that aimed to centralize and modernize the Spanish administration, economy, and military. These Bourbon Reforms, continued by his successors, profoundly changed Spanish governance and colonial administration.

Suffering from depression and feeling the weight of governance, Philip briefly abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Louis I, in 1724. However, Louis died the same year, prompting Philip to reclaim the throne.

He was a patron of the arts, and his reign saw the construction of the Royal Palace in Madrid. He also founded the Royal Spanish Academy, which to this day oversees the Spanish language.

In his later years, Philip’s health and mental state deteriorated. He died in 1746 and was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand VI.

Isabella II

Isabella II’s reign, i.e. from 1833 to 1868, saw numerous uprisings, political instability, and the loss of most of Spain’s remaining colonies in the Americas. She is also known as the only female monarch to rule over Spain in her own right.

Isabella II was born in Madrid in 1830 to King Ferdinand VII of Spain and his fourth wife, Maria Christina. When her father died in 1833, Isabella, at just three years old, ascended to the throne, with her mother acting as regent.

Her ascension sparked the First Carlist War (1833-1839), as many conservatives and traditionalists supported her uncle, Carlos, as the rightful heir. This was largely due to the Salic Law, which barred women from the throne. However, Ferdinand VII had annulled this law to allow his daughter to ascend.

Under the regency of her mother and later other regents, Spain saw significant changes, including liberal reforms and the confiscation of monastery lands.

At 16, Isabella was married to her double first cousin, Francisco de Asís de Borbón, in a union that was politically motivated and personally unhappy.

Once she came of age, her rule was marked by political instability, with numerous changes in leadership and short-lived constitutions. Her reign was plagued by scandals, court intrigues, and allegations of affairs.

The public’s dissatisfaction with Isabella’s rule and the corruption surrounding her court culminated in the 1868 Glorious Revolution, which forced her into exile in France.

In 1870, Isabella II formally abdicated in favor of her son, Alfonso XII, who would eventually return to Spain and be crowned king after a brief experiment with a Spanish republic.

Isabella lived in exile for most of her later life, although she was allowed to return to Spain in the 1890s. She died in Paris in 1904.

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII’s unpopularity and support for the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera led to the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic.

Born in Madrid in 1886, Alfonso XIII (reign: 1886 -1931) was posthumous, meaning he was born after the death of his father, King Alfonso XII. He became king at birth, with his mother, Maria Christina of Austria, serving as regent until he turned 16.

His reign was marked by political instability, with Spain experiencing multiple changes in government and the rise of various political factions.

For example, the early years of his reign saw the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which Spain lost its last significant overseas territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, to the United States.

In 1923, with the king’s tacit approval, Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a coup and established a military dictatorship that lasted until 1930. Alfonso’s association with the dictatorship eroded his popularity.

Amid increasing political unrest and a decline in monarchist support, municipal elections in 1931 revealed strong backing for republican factions. Perceiving the results as a referendum on the monarchy, Alfonso left Spain. The Second Spanish Republic was subsequently declared.

Alfonso never abdicated officially but lived in exile for the rest of his life, first in France and then in Rome. During his exile, he renounced his rights to the throne in favor of his son, Juan, in 1941.

He died in Rome in 1941.

Juan Carlos I

Juan Carlos I (reign: 1975 – 2014) played a pivotal role in Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy after the death of Francisco Franco and was instrumental in thwarting a military coup in 1981.

Born in Rome, Italy, Juan Carlos lived much of his early life in exile, as the Spanish royal family had been displaced following the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931.

Under the guidance of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, Juan Carlos was educated in Spain and groomed to be his successor. He attended military academies and underwent naval training.

After the death of Franco in 1975, Juan Carlos was proclaimed King of Spain. Instead of continuing Franco’s authoritarian regime, he made clear his commitment to democratic reforms.

As king of Spain, he played a crucial role in Spain’s transition to democracy, especially by supporting political reforms. His commitment to the new Spanish Constitution of 1978, which established a constitutional monarchy, was fundamental to the democratic transition.

In 1981, Juan Carlos played a decisive role in quelling an attempted military coup, further solidifying his commitment to democratic governance and earning widespread respect among Spaniards.

After nearly four decades on the throne and facing various controversies, including an elephant-hunting trip during Spain’s financial crisis and a corruption investigation involving his daughter, Juan Carlos abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Felipe VI, in 2014.

Charles II of Spain

Known as the last Habsburg ruler of the Spanish Empire, Charles II’s reign was marked by political instability, economic decline, and the eventual dissolution of the vast Spanish Empire. His death without an heir led to the War of the Spanish Succession.

Charles II of Spain (reign: 1665-1700) was the last Habsburg ruler of the Spanish Empire and is often known by the epithet “El Hechizado” or “The Bewitched” due to his physical and mental disabilities.

It’s said that his disabilities were the result of generations of inbreeding within the Habsburg family. He did not speak until the age of four and could not walk until the age of eight.

His reign was heavily influenced by his advisers and the regents who ruled on his behalf, and the Spanish Empire saw its global influence wane. The administration was ineffective, and the empire was frequently at odds with other European powers, particularly France.

His health problems meant he was unable to produce an heir, leading to a succession crisis. He was married twice but had no children.

In his will, Charles named Philip, Duke of Anjou (grandson of King Louis XIV of France and Charles’s half-sister Maria Theresa of Spain) as his successor. This decision laid the groundwork for the War of the Spanish Succession.

His death marked the end of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain. The crown passed to the Bourbon family, with Philip V becoming the first Bourbon king of Spain after the War of the Spanish Succession.

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