El Escorial

When Philip II was king of Spain the money was rolling in.


You should have seen all the ships in the harbor of Seville, waiting in line, bumping each other, impatient to unload their gold and silver and hurry back to America for more.


The King got a nice cut right off. His officials wheeled his royal fifth, a tax, straight from the ships to his money bins on the dock. That did his royal heart good and made him rub his hands. But next the bank statements made him swear. The money was leaving his realm just as soon as it came in. There were bills from all the countries of Europe for goods he imported. His armies in different countries cost him unbelievable amounts. The banks remembered old debts too.
“Do something with the money while it is in your hands, Majesty,” Philip’s advisors told him. “Build.”

So the King called in his royal architect. “Let’s make a palace as big as a mountain. But simple all the same—no frills, no nonsense. A big church in the center and a place for monks to pray day and night. Do you remember the monastery where my father Charles died? He went there to prepare his soul—such a good idea. This place ought to have a good library too.”
“Where will we build it, Majesty?”
“In the mountains outside Madrid.”

That was the Escorial. It is the biggest quadrangle you ever saw, with four square towers at the corners.


They say it is an upside-down grill in memory of St. Lawrence who was roasted over one. Why St. Lawrence? The official reason for its construction was the commemoration of the victory of San Quentin, which happened on the Feast of St. Lawrence.

It doesn’t look like a palace at all.

It is really a vast, cold, empty monastery with a big church in the middle and some austere royal apartments. The king tried to fill his wing with tapestries and paintings but there could never be enough of them to keep down drafts or cheer up the atmosphere. The gardens in the cloisters look like cemeteries. Compare this royal palace to any other one you know. Philip might as well have written Memento Mori above all the doors.
His own bedroom, the one he died in, has a little window with a view of the main altar of the chapel. The King could hear Mass without getting out of bed.


There is no other window in the room, only the light from a door. When it was time to get up, his servants dressed him in black. Remember what we are doing here below and what our destination is.

The more he thought about it, the better Philip liked the palace/monastery. “In the basement we’ll bury my Dad Charles. It will be my tomb too and my wife’s. And all the kings’ after us who want to lie there.”

Where Spanish Kings Lie

Now, four hundred and fifty years later, they all lie in a cold pantheon in the basement. Twenty-six niches in a wall, all in order–kings and mothers and fathers of kings. The first niche holds the great Charles I (Charles V to the rest of Europe) and the last waits for Juan Carlos I, the monarch who recently abdicated.


They say Philip was the founder of modern bureaucracy. He certainly created pigeon-holes for kings. He himself was Number Two, high up on the wall.

Philip liked to watch them build his palace. Someone carved him a seat in a big granite boulder on a ridge overlooking the whole Escorial valley. On warm spring days a carriage would take him to the spot and he would mount the boulder and discuss the progress of construction with his architect, or just daydream.


You can sit on that granite throne today and get Philip’s view of the completed palace, looking like a small model of itself in the pretty valley.




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7 Responses to El Escorial

  1. Pingback: 100 pesetas - CoinTalk

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Yes, Philip was an interesting character, a very strange mix of good and bad qualities. Probably not better of worse than other monarch. He was Bloody Mary’s husband. Mary herself had her own Black Legend. Negative propaganda spread by your enemies was just as successful back then as it is today.

    You make it sound like you did the whole stone throne picnic experience, Swallows. Did you really? The way you describe it, sounds almost irresistible to anybody with the slightest imagination. :)

  3. 100swallows says:

    Margotmarrakesh: True. The same thought has often occurred to me. All the king’s thrones I ever saw looked like very uncomfortable places to sit. Of course until recently the Spanish idea of being a nobleman was not so much personal comfort as being served. He didn’t want a hot bath so much as being given one. As soon as a poor man became rich, he hired servants and dogged it–that was his dream. Those servants would make him both comfortable and respected. Tocqueville says our emphasis on personal comfort and gratification is typical of ages of equality.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Philip was often portrayed by writers of later times as a narrow-minded brooder, not above quiet assassination and torture, etc. That was part of the Black Legend that hounds Spain to this day. Everywhere you see Spaniards hated or despised as people beneath comment. It is in Schiller and Racine and Burckhardt and Ruskin; even in people as reasonable as Tocqueville the prejudice comes out. You wonder what the hell DID Spain do that was so bad or worse than others. But that’s a subject for another day.

    Yes, you would enjoy sitting on that stone seat, inscribed with an “SM” for “Su Majestad”, His Majesty. Unless it has been put on the tourist route now, it is little known and you look down on the great palace, quietly eat a sandwich of Spanish bread and air-dried ham (Serrano), and wash it down with the good wine they sell down in the town next to the palace. The mountains are covered with pines and ancient evergreen oaks—very pretty.

  5. margotmarrakesh says:

    This was an interesting post. I find it interesting that most of the poor of today live better than the kings of 200 years ago–not in terms of having servants, but in terms of the food which is available to eat, having running water, usually hot water, often a car or motorcycle, a cell phone, sufficient clothes, etc.


  6. christopher says:

    Ah, the Golden Age, back to warming my heart again. The great King which the Holy League would have crumbled without, Lepanto lost, and the history of the world changed.

    Erik, he WAS sad, but more so from a heavy mind than a heavy heart. He desired to be an ABSOLUTE monarch but Spain at the time was a federation and he constantly found himself thwarted by local Lords.

    And indeed, money, money, and money, were his second, third, and fourth concerns. Add to this war with France, war with England, and constant revolt in the Netherlands and you can understand the pressures. I can only imagine how that little stone seat relaxed him.

    Great piece.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    His portrait shows someone in constant mourning. Was he by nature sad? The palace may not look much like a palace, still very impressive on that picture. I’d like to sit on that stone throne and look at the palace! Loved the post.

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