In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Spain since the Reconquista

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Habsburg Spain
  • Spanish Armada and Naval Warfare
  • Bourbon Spain and Empire
  • The Napoleonic Era and Carlist Wars
  • Spain and Late Empire
  • Spanish-American War
  • Colonial Wars in Morocco and the Rise of Spanish Militarism
  • Second Republic and Spanish Civil War
  • World War II
  • División Azul (Blue Division)
  • Francisco Franco
  • The Cold War and Democratic Transition

Military History Spain since the Reconquista
Wayne H. Bowen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0097


Spanish military history since the Reconquista has traditionally been understood as occurring within two broad chronological periods. During the first phase, starting with the dual reign of Ferdinand and Isabella (1479–1516), and continuing to the Thirty Years’ War, Spain was a superpower, dominant within Europe as well as in its own overseas empire. From the late 17th century to the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain was in relative decline, overshadowed by rising British and French economic and military power, and struggling to maintain a European and global role. After 1898, Spain was no longer even a minor power, confined as it was to a handful of colonies, and it was a nonfactor in both world wars. While, in general, this is an accurate description, this history was punctuated by significant attempts at military revival, including in the mid-19th century and during World War II (in connection with the Axis powers). While the historiography of Spanish military history in the English-speaking world has focused on the earlier centuries of Spanish strength, as well as on the Spanish Civil War, Spanish-language works have covered a broader scope, thus accounting for what appears to be a relative imbalance between the major fields of study. There has also been a relative deficit within the historiography of works on tactical, and especially operational, warfare. In the 20th century the discipline suffered from the impact of a civil war, self-imposed exile by many historians after that conflict, and ideological and professional restrictions under the Franco regime, all of which left military history almost the exclusive domain of the professional military. With the liberalization of universities from the 1970s onward, many new scholars focused more on broader political and sociological topics related to military affairs, rather than research on traditional military subjects. In many cases, it has been foreign historians who have introduced the most innovative research into Spanish historiography. Perhaps the best example is the thesis of the “military revolution,” the early modern transformation of military operations, articulated most clearly and successful in Parker 2004 (cited under Habsburg Spain), a work on the history of Spain’s military engagement in the Netherlands, in the context of its broader imperial project. Especially since the 2000s, a broader range of historians have engaged more actively in operational and strategic histories, as well as participating in vibrant historiographical debates, such as those on the Spanish Civil War and the role of the former dictator Francisco Franco during that conflict and beyond.

General Overviews

As with much of Spanish historiography, the era of the Franco regime looms large in setting the context for the study of Spanish military history. While memoirs and biographies, many of them hagiographic, were produced during the decades of the dictatorship, it has been in the years since 1980 that the field has begun to emerge from the cloister of a narrower military audience. Popularizing magazines and paperbacks continue to enjoy success, and major historiographical debates—especially over the Spanish Civil War—receive ongoing attention from educated general readers. Even so, there has yet to be a definitive history of the Spanish army or navy. Payne 1967 inaugurated the study of the modern Spanish military in the English language, and it is still considered the definitive framing work, both in English and in Spanish translation historiography. One of the first approaches in Spanish was Alonso 1974, which focuses on the high politics and mission of the army, a more focused work than Alonso Baquer 1971. Both, however, were completed during the final era of the Franco regime, and both provide an uncritical view of the Spanish army. With a more sociological and academic methodology, Fernández Bastarreche 1978 profiles Spanish army officers in useful ways, allowing readers to appreciate the regional and demographic disparities within the force over time. Headrick 1981 and Herrero 1975 identify changes in the role of the military within society, as well as the general outlines of ideology within the ranks of the army, while Teijeiro de la Rosa 2002 is a focused manuscript on the funding of the Spanish military, highlighting its relative penury, even in times of broader missions and larger units. The most valuable survey is Puell de la Villa 2005, but its lack of notes to accompany the bibliography diminishes its utility for researchers.

  • Alonso, José Ramón. Historia política del ejército español. Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1974.

    Sympathetic portrayal of the army as the true representative of the Spanish people, from the early 18th century to the beginning of the second Spanish Republic in 1931.

  • Alonso Baquer, Miguel. El ejército en la sociedad española. Madrid: Ediciones del Movimiento, 1971.

    Examines the relationship between the army, political elites, and Spanish society from the late 18th century to the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Significant emphasis on key military leaders, monarchs, and the changing legal and doctrinal environment.

  • Fernández Bastarreche, Fernando. El ejército español en el siglo XIX. Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno, 1978.

    Presents detailed research on the structure, geographic origins, and social basis of the Spanish officer corps in the 19th century, as well as information about salaries and conditions for the army as a whole.

  • Headrick, Daniel. Ejército y política en España, 1866–1898. Madrid: Editorial Tecnos, 1981.

    Describes the significance of the army and its key leaders during the major events in Spanish politics, including the Ten Years’ War in Cuba, the establishment of the first Spanish Republic, the restoration of the monarchy, and the lead-up to the Spanish-American War.

  • Herrero, José Luis. El ejército español en el siglo XIX. Madrid: Cuadernos para el Diálogo, 1975.

    Examines the intervention of the army in Spanish politics, divisions within the military during the Carlist Wars, and impact of relevant changes in demographics, technology, and society.

  • Payne, Stanley G. Politics and the Military in Modern Spain. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967.

    First major work, in English or Spanish, to explain the primacy of the military in Spanish politics during the 19th century.

  • Puell de la Villa, Fernando. Historia del ejército en España. 2d ed. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2005.

    A survey of the Spanish army, and its precedents, from the Reconquista to the late-20th-century transition to democracy.

  • Teijeiro de la Rosa, Juan Miguel, ed. La Hacienda militar: 500 años de intervención en las fuerza armadas. 2 vols. Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, 2002.

    Comprehensive survey of the financing mechanism behind the Spanish military over the centuries, from the complex systems of the Habsburgs to the modern Spanish state.

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