Spain Guide


Santander History

It's fairly certain that humans inhabited the area around the bay of Santander in prehistoric times but the first real evidence of a settlement here dates back to the Roman era.

Archaeological finds excavated in the areas of the Magdalena Peninsula, San Martin and the cathedral point to the existence of a Roman settlement, known as Portus Victoriae Iuliobrigensium, in the first century AD.

The name Santander is thought to have developed from the name of a martyred saint, Sant Emeterio whose head was brought here in the third century. The Latin form of the martyr's name, Sancti Emetherii, passed through several transmutations including Sant Emter and San Ender before arriving at Santander as we now know it.

Evidence has been found of the existence of an abbey here in the 9th century, on the site of the cathedral around which the medieval town developed.

This early settlement was a walled enclosure with seven access gates and several religious hermitages. Seven fountains provided inhabitants with drinking water. The people lived in homes clustered around the abbey and survived from fishing and the cultivation of cereals, vineyards and fruit trees.

The town began to develop on both sides of the river, the Puebla Vieja (Old Town) being linked to the Puebla Nueva (New Town) via stone bridge. The Old Town, around the castle and abbey, was the area now occupied by the cathedral and Alta Street, and the New Town was the area of today's Santa Clara and San Francisco streets.

In 1187, the Abbot of San Emeterio was made feudal lord of the town by a royal charter from King Alfonso VIII.

Work on the cathedral started towards the end of the 13th century and the town began to expand along a low ridge running east west along the bay.

Santander was at the centre of numerous naval battles during the period of the "Reconquista" when the Catholic kings of Spain fought to oust the Moors.

The town began to flourish as a major trading centre; the prosperous wool trade with Flanders helped to secure its position as one of the most important seaports of the Castllian kings.

Tragedy struck in 1497 when an outbreak of plague killed nearly three quarters of the population. the plague was carried by soldiers accompanying Margarita of Austria to her wedding with Don Juan, crown prince of the catholic kings.

The town's fortunes were revived in the 18th and 19th centuries when it prospered from the new trading links with America.

Pope Benedict XIV created the Diocese of Santander in 1754 and shortly afterwards King Alfonso VI granted the town its official status as a city. By the end of the 18th century the city was firmly established as the regional capital.

Throughout the 19th century the city expanded and flourished with the extension of the port and shipyards to facilitate increasing trade with America.

The century drew to a close with another major tragedy involving the freighter Cabo Machichaco which exploded in the bay killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying many buildings. Two major consequences were the construction of a large fire station in 1897 (you can still the impressive building in Parque de Bomberos) and the expansion of the city at a safe distance from the seafront.

Santander's reputation as a favoured seaside resort for the Spanish aristocracy was established in the early 20th century when King Alfonso XIII made the city his summer retreat.

Sadly, much of the Old Quarter was destroyed in a fire which swept the city in 1941, shortly after the devastation of the Spanish Civil War.