Today when we think of Spain we think of a single, unified country that, along with Portugal, comprises the Iberian peninsula. However, it was not always this way. It was once comprised of four separate kingdoms: Navarre, Aragon, Castile, and León (which joined Castile in 1301); and Grenada, which was controlled by the Muslims. There were three major events that took place in the late 15th century that unified Spain and made it a world power.
Before 1479, Spain had not been one country but a series of smaller kingdoms. This changed in 1469 when the future King Ferdinand of Aragon married the future Queen Isabella of Castile, and the crowns of the two kingdoms were united ten years later in 1479. Spain now had a strong and centralized government. The authority of the Pope was not as acknowledged by the Spanish Church as it was elsewhere, which also contributed to a centralization of power in Spain.
From the early 8th century up until 1492, Spain had been occupied by the Muslims. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were focused on the Reconquista, or the total retaking of Spain. By the 15th century, Grenada was the last Muslim outpost in Spain. Grenada had been sending a tribute to Castile, but in 1466 it refused to send any more. The King and Queen sent 30,000 men to destroy Grenada’s cropland, and began the actual attack in 1481. Ten years later, in 1491, the siege of Grenada began. Isabella accompanied her husband to the battle, and when a fire destroyed the tents of their army Isabella ordered that a fully-functioning city be built on the spot, which she named Santa Fe. Finally, in 1492, Grenada was defeated. Interestingly, there was no massacre of the defeated, nor any forced conversions to Christianity. The Muslims were allowed to continue practicing their religion, and were granted a degree of self-government.
The third event that contributed to the centralization of Spain was the Spanish Inquisition, which was established in 1478 and ended in 1700. Religious uniformity would make Spain easier to govern in the eyes of the rulers, so Jews and Muslims who had converted (Morranos and Moriscos, respectively) but whose faith was suspect were sought out. The Inquisition was not targeted at non-Christians, but at converted Christians who were still secretly practicing their old religion. Jews and Muslims who had not converted were subject to different persecution than the Inquisition. Under a law made in 1492, all unconverted Jews and Muslims were forced to leave Spain. This violated the terms of the treaty made at Grenada. The real purpose of the Inquisition was to seek out and correct heresy, but it had a political agenda as well. Many people were convicted, but only approximately 2% of those were executed, which is still a large figure (around 3000), but it also encompasses a large amount of time (well over 200 years). Contrary to popular opinion, torture was not as rampant as people today are led to believe. It was allowed, but it was a common feature of all contemporary European tribunals. Torture was prohibited from causing permanent damage and from drawing blood, and lasted no longer than 15 minutes. The Inquisition accomplished a greater religious unity among Christians, as well as political centralization.
These three events, the joining of Aragon and Castile, the reconquest of Grenada, and the Spanish Inquisition greatly contributed to the centralization of Spain. One of the reasons why Spain’s unification was so significant is that it gave Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand the confidence to fund one of the most important voyages of discovery in history: the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the “New World”.