For the past five centuries, the Habsburg and then the Bourbon royal families have ruled Spain. In this time, they helped to develop Madrid into one of the world’s great capital cities. Now, they all lie together in a burial chamber befitting a king.
In the year 1500, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was born in the Flemish region of present-day Belgium. When he assumed the Spanish crown as a teenager, he became the first of the Spanish Habsburg monarchs.
To visit Charles V’s power center in Spain, we took the train 30 minutes south of Madrid to the historical hilltop town of Toledo. Towering above the remnants of Roman, Visogothic, and Moorish history is the imposing former Alcázar palace of Charles V.
After Charles V’s 40-year reign, his son Philip II became the first Spanish-born Habsburg monarch. With his seemingly endless supply of New World gold, Philip II constructed a great monastery, palace, and royal mausoleum in the town of El Escorial, located 28 miles (45 km) northwest of Madrid.
Philip II also established Madrid as the capital of the Spanish Empire. He developed grand buildings and elegant plazas, and expanded his royal retreat Buen Retiro Park, now a peaceful public paradise.
Within Buen Retiro Park is the Prado Museum. Originating from the Spanish Royal Collections, the Prado is one of the world’s greatest repositories of European art. It’s most famous painting is “Las Meninas”, by Diego Velázquez, in which the artist portrays a complex and enigmatic scene from the Habsburg court of Philip IV.
Philip IV was married to his niece, and their son and heir Charles II became an unfortunate victim of this Habsburg inbreeding. With a deformed oversized jaw, Charles II was not able to speak clearly or chew his food. Unable to walk until the age of eight, he grew up physically and intellectually stunted, impotent, and infertile.
When poor Charles II failed to produce an heir, the reign of the Habsburgs in Spain came to an end. After the Spanish War of Succession, the monarchy of Spain was taken up by Philip V, grandson of the French Bourbon King Louis XIV.
When their royal residence burned down in 1734, the Bourbons rebuilt a lavish palace of enormous proportions. The Royal Palace of Madrid includes a floor area of 1.45 million square feet (135,000 square meters), making it the largest in Europe.
No longer the royal residence, the Royal Palace of Madrid is now only used for ceremonial purposes. One day, we watched as the motorcade of the current Bourbon King Felipe VI arrived at the Royal Palace for lunch meetings. On another day, we witnessed the pageantry and tradition of the monthly changing of the palace guard.
Dating back five centuries to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Spain has been ruled almost continuously by just two dynastic families. The monarchs now lie together in the Pantheon of Kings beneath the El Escorial monastery palace, a communal tomb befitting the Habsburgs and the Bourbons.
Feature Image: Monthly changing of the guard at the Royal Palace of Madrid