2014 May El Escorial

El Escorial

‘In the most illustrious kingdom of Toledo, the center of the monarchy of Spain, which is composed of so many large and opulent provinces; nine leagues west of Madrid, the court of its monarchs, and the metropolis of two worlds; near a small village, called Escurial, nine leagues south of Segovia, as many east of Avila, and fifteen north of Toledo; on the declivity of a mountain which forms part of the chain of Segovia, by some called the Carpentanean or Carpentane, and by others the Pyrenean mountains, from their being arms or branches of the latter, separating the two Castiles, and in the forty-first degree of north latitude; is situated this wonder of the world.’

Francisco de los Santos, Descripcion del real monasterio de S. Lorenzo del Escorial (Madrid, 1681).*

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Francisco de los Santos’Descripcion del real monasterio de S.Lorenzo del Escorial, published in Madrid in 1681, is a detailed description of the royal monastery built at El Escorial by Philip II (1527-1598). Designed and executed by the architects Juan Bautista de Toledo (c.1515-1567) and Juan de Herrera (1530-1597), it would serve as a burial ground for the Spanish monarchy from the sixteenth century to the present day. De los Santos offers us various motivating factors for the work: ‘Philip II, offered to God, a heaven on earth; to the illustrious Spanish martyr St. Laurence, a temple of divine magnificence; to his ancestors, a Christian mausoleum; to the Hieronymite recluses, an august habitation; and to the world, a structure which it can never sufficiently admire!’ As can be seen in the map of the palace-monastery, the structure was certainly modelled on the grid-iron by which St Laurence had been martyred and, as the title makes clear, the building was named after the saint. De los Santos explains in his introduction that this was not only because of Philip II’s own personal devotion to the saint but also because the feast of St Laurence had coincided with one of his most successful military campaigns – the battle of Saint-Quentin (1557). As he relates, Philip II’s motivation was more complex still, for he not only wished to honour St Laurence while simultaneously drawing attention to a recent military success, but he also wished to honour his recently deceased father, Charles V (1500-1558). He did this in two ways: by building a monastery for the Hieronymite order (to which Charles V had retired in 1556, giving the rule of Spain and her dominions into Philip II’s hands); and more enduringly, by providing a suitable mausoleum not only for Charles V and his wife the Empress Isabel of Portugal (1503-1539), but one which would serve for Philip II’s own body and those of his descendants.

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It is primarily the latter function, as a royal mausoleum, for which El Escorial is known today. It was clearly this function which fascinated De Los Santos for he provides us with a number of plates of the early ‘rotting rooms’. De los Santos’ verbal description of ‘the part of the circle, contained between the door to the altar, are three on each side, the venerable receptacles of the sarcophagi, or coffins, which contain bodies, once the delight and boast of nations. Each of these cavities is eight feet in breadth, and fifteen and a half in height….’ in the main matches that of the present lay out, where the serried ranks of the Habsburg and Bourbon dead are piled in their caskets in the niches described. However, this was not the initial arrangement as De los Santos makes clear in the following detailed description of the plate of the burial places of some of Philip II’s immediate family:

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…The first is that ever invincible emperor Charles V, son of Philip I and the Queen Juana, daughter of the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabel. He was born at Ghent in Flanders, on St Matthias’ day, being the twenty-fourth of February, 1500; and after a reign of forty-one years, left an earthly for a heavenly crown, on the twenty-first of September, 1558. His body was deposited in the monastery of St Jerome de Juste, where he breathed his last, as a simple brother of that fraternity; and fifteen years and a half afterwards, on the fourth of February, 1574, was by order of his worthy son, the heir of his eminent qualities, Philip II, translated to this royal monastery of St. Laurence.

The second is that of the most wise monarch Philip II, the devout and munificent founder of this structure, eldest son to the emperor Charles V, and his empress Isabella; born at Valladolid, on the twenty-first of May, 1527, and died in this royal monastery, on the thirteenth of September, 1598, having reigned forty years. His corpse was deposited in the place, which, at that time, had been provided for their reception.

The corpse of the most religious king Philip III, the patron of this royal house, and fifth son of Philip II, and queen Anna, his fourth wife, is placed in the fourth sarcophagus. This excellent prince was born at Madrid, on the fourteenth of April, 1578 and left this transitory life the thirty-first of March, 1621. On the third of April, of the same year, his corpse was brought from the same city to this royal monastery.

The fifth sarcophagus contains the body of his catholic majesty King Philip IV, great in resolution, clemency, and sanctity, and by whose magnanimity this stupendous structure was considerably enlarged and beautified. He was the eldest son of Philip III, and her most Serene majesty Margaret of Austria; born at Valladolid, the eighth of April 1605, and died at Madrid, on the seventeenth of September, 1665. His body was brought to this royal monastery on the twentieth of September, in the same year, and deposited in the sarcophagus he had chosen for himself.

These all lie in the ochavo joining to the altar, on the Evangel side, as having been its most potent and strenuous defenders. On the other side, which is that of the epistle, rests the mortal remains of their gracious consorts.

Facing the emperor Charles V, lies the empress Isabel, his only spouse, and daughter of Emanuel, King of Portugal and the Queen Maria, daughter of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel. She was born at Lisbon, the twenty-fifth of October, 1503, and died at Toledo, on the first of May 1539. Her corpse was brought from the city of Granada to this royal monastery on the fourth of February, 1574.

Facing Philip II, lies his fourth wide Anna, daughter of the emperor Maximilian II and the empress Maria, sister to his said catholic majesty. She was born at Cigales, near Valladolid, on the second of November, 1549, and died at Badajoz, on the twenty-sixth of October, 1580; and on the eleventh of November, in the said year, her body was brought to this monastery.

Facing his majesty Philip III, lies Margaret, his only wife, the daughter of Charles, archduke of Austria, and Mary, daughter of the duke of Bavaria, and niece to the emperor Ferdinand, brother to the emperor Charles V. She was born at Gratz in Stiria, on the twenth-fifth of December, 1584, and died in this royal monastery, on the third of October, 1611. Her body was buried the very next day.

Facing Philip IV, lies his most serene majesty Elizabeth of Bourbon, his first wife, daughter of Henry de Bourbon, king of France, and his queen, Marie de Medicis. She was born at Fontainebleau, a hunting-seat belonging to the kings of France, on the twenty-second of November, 1603, and died in the royal palace at Madrid, on the sixth of October, 1644. On the eighth of the same month her body was brought to this monastery, and deposited in the royal vault.


As the foregoing description makes clear, there was a distinct pecking order, particularly for royal wives: not every wife was included – only those who had produced the all-important heir to the throne. The inclusion of Queen Elisabeth of Bourbon (1602-1644) is explained by the fact that her son, Balthasar Carlos, was still alive when she died in 1644 and would continue to be Prince of the Asturias until his untimely death two years later.


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The presence of a portrait of Philip IV in the volume is unsurprising, not only because he had played an important role in developing El Escorial but also because he was the father of the reigning monarch, Charles II (1661-1700), the ill-fated heir of Philip IV and his second wife, Mariana of Austria (1634-1696). As the titlepage of the work makes clear, it was Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, who had rebuilt El Escorial after a disastrous fire of 7 June 1671. During this fire, which lasted over fifteen days, much damage was done. Though luckily the contents of the royal apartments, the principal library and the church were rescued the celebrated illustrations of the natural historian Francisco Hernandez were unfortunately destroyed – a major blow to botanists and historians of natural history. It was no doubt in response to the devastation caused by this fire of 1671 that De los Santos decided in 1681 to produce this detailed description of the royal monastery which drew on and significantly expanded his earlier brief description of the palace-monastery, initially published at Madrid in 1657.

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*All quotations are taken from the English translation by George Thompson (London, 1760).


Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

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