El Escorial is 25 – 30 miles north-west of Madrid in Spain. It was constructed by Philip II of Spain who was using all his time, and a lot of New World gold he had acquired trying to stem the tide of Protestantism that was sweeping Western Europe in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Philip was determined to make Spain a cornerstone in the resurgence of Roman Catholicism and as befits the time El Escorial was designed to be both a Monastery, a Royal Palace, and a centre for studies to promote the counter-reformation cause. It should be remembered that El Escorial was constructed only a century after the Spanish Inquisition started to counter the perceived threat to Roman Catholicism from Judaism and Islam.
The building was commissioned just after Phillip’s victory in 1557 at the Battle of St. Quentin in Picardy, when he was fighting against Henry II of France. It was intended not only to celebrate this, but also to be a necropolis for his parents, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Isabella of Portugal, himself and those who followed. The building was designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo, who had previously worked on the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. Sadly, he did not live to see the building completed and the design was finished by Juan de Herrera, his apprentice. The construction of the building, a lot more complex that was first planned was completed in 1584, just over twenty-one years from start to finish.
There are two parts to the necropolis; the Pantheon of Kings and the Pantheon of Princes. These go to show that Philip got his wish that El Escorial should be the burial place of his descendants, in fact as we will see that is going on to this day. The Pantheon of Kings contains sepulchres for the majority of the Spanish monarchs, their consorts and their parents of the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties.
The Pantheon of Princes was only completed in 1888, and contains sixty niches for the interment of Princes, Princesses and consorts who were not the parents of monarchs. The walls and ceiling are of polished white marble and one of the last people to be buried there was in 1992, Infante Alfonso who was the younger brother of King Juan Carlos who died in the family villa in Estoril.
But El Escorial is far more than a Necropolis, it also contains a magnificent art gallery including works of European artists of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeen centuries. In addition to that, it has a magnificent library with an unrivalled collection of documents in many languages. The building was outside the remit of the Inquisition and so held onto documents in Arabic including a Syrian autobiography dating back to the twelfth century. There is also a brilliant collection of illuminated manuscripts which includes the Golden Gospels of Henry III which date from the eleventh century.
It may seem hardly a surprise that with all this history, El Escorial was granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 1984. It remains a popular destination with day-trippers from the Spanish capital of Madrid, and receives about half a million visitors on average per year.