El Escorial (E7 – Part 1)

July 19, 2010

We are back in Madrid after a weekend trip to Valencia. It is unbearably hot here – today it reached 98 degrees, and as I write this my weather monitor is saying it is still 91, and it is nearly 10 pm! As a result of the heat, we didn’t do very much today and besides we needed some recovery time after our long train ride from Valencia. So today all we did was go to class, have lunch, do a little supermarket shopping, do homework, and then attend a discussion about Reina Sofia Museum, which we went to last Thursday. Before dinner, Dale, Prof. A and I went to have a drink at a bar.

Barradas is busier and noisier than ever – a large group of Spanish military young men and a few women are now staying there, and the din in the dining room is such that we have to shout to make ourselves heard.

Anyway, back to a more tranquil time – last Wednesday!

The first time I came to Spain many years ago, I had no interest or desire to visit El Escorial. I knew it was a large palace but I had seen a lot of fancy palaces, including the Royal Palace here in Madrid and I was sick of palaces.

San Lorenzo del Escorial, partial view
San Lorenzo del Escorial – partial view. This shows how huge the place is!

So I was pleasantly surprised when we toured El Escorial. Actually El Escorial is the name of the town, while San Lorenzo del Escorial is the name of the monastery and palace. The palace-monastery was commissioned to be built by King Felipe II, who had three reasons for building it.

NOTE: The interior pictures of El Escorial were downloaded from the Internet. We were not allowed to take pictures inside. The exterior pictures are mine.

Statues above entrance to the Basilica

1. To celebrate Spain’s victory in the Battle of San Quentin, in a war against the French, in 1557. The victory occurred on August 10, the day of San Lorenzo, a Christian martyr who died in Roman times by being burned on a grill. Legend says that a miracle happened when San Lorenzo was on the grill. He allegedly stood up and said, “Please turn me over, for I am well-done on this side!” Not that I believe in miracles, but it’s a good joke – perhaps the saint had a good sense of humor even during his hour of death! Anyway, above several of the doors of the palace-monastery there is San Lorenzo’s symbol: a simple design of a grill table.

2. To give thanks to God for giving the king such a large and spendid empire to control. Spain at that time was at the peak of its glory as an empire, having consolidated its power not only on the Iberian peninsula (except for Portugal) but also the empire’s extension on four continents. The saying went that the sun never set on the Spanish empire, because it was always daytime in some part of the empire. (I believe something similar was said to refer to the British Empire somewhat later). To give glory to God, the monarch had a large Basilica built in the middle of the monastery. Except for the roof, everything that you

Main altar in the Basilica

see in the basilica is in its original state from the 16th century. The original roof had been painted with a sky full of stars, but King Carlos II had it changed because it wasn´t a religious theme. The main altar describes the martyrdom of San Lorenzo. There are doors on either side of the altar which lead directly to the king and the queen´s chambers so that they could enter the church directly and be seated directly in front. The common people who came to pray here were often relegated to the entrance to the church. To this day, the Spanish will sometimes refer to going to church as ¨”hearing mass” because they could not actually see it, only hear it from where they stood.


The monastery is still functioning although there are a reduced number of monks from the order of Jeronimo still living here. You cannot visit the actual monastery, of course, but you can see their beautiful gardens through the windows.


El Escorial – gardens

As a royal residence, El Escorial was simple and austere, in keeping with King Felipe II´s tastes. Both the king´s and the queen´s apartments consisted of four small rooms – a bedroom, a private oratory, a small living-receiving room and a small study. Felipe II was very work and family oriented. Every single document issued or received by the royal government passed through his hands. He read every single one. He also enjoyed spending time with his family. During the time he lived here, he was married to his third wife, with whom he had two daughters, and his fourth wife, who gave him a male heir to the throne (Felipe III). He was very fond of his two daughters and enjoyed spending quiet evenings with them – he would be reading or studying and they would be sewing or reading or perhaps entertaining him with music (I noticed a harpsichord in the queen´s apartments). Kings and queens didn’t generally sleep together and in fact often had rooms on the opposite sides of their royal residences.

Although he didn’t spend the entire year at El Escorial, Felipe II did die there

Felipe II spent his final days in this bed.

at the age of 72. He had suffered for many years from gout and had to be carried to and from the capital at Madrid, a 7 and a half day journey, being carried on a special chair which had a reclining back. This original chair is still on display.

In a large hall in which the king received important visitors, there are large portraits of the kings, queens and other members of their families. One of them is Don Juan de Austria, the bastard son of King Carlos V (Carlos I of Spain. Don Juan became a hero in battle in the war against the Turks. For this reason, he is buried in a special tomb in Escorial’s mausoleum. On top of this tomb is a statue of the handsome hero, carved out of one single slab of marble.

3. This brings me to the third reason for building El Escorial which was to create a mausoleum in honor of Felipe II´s father, Carlos V. After it was finished, Felipe had the body of his father moved from its modest resting place in the south to the mausoleum of El Escorial. The principal burial chamber is a magnificent marble circle, which has the tombs of all the kings and queens of Spain who are buried there from Carlos V to the present. The only monarchs not buried here are the ones who preferred burial elsewhere. It is believed that the current king, Juan Carlos, and his wife, will prefer a less ostentatious burial place.

Mausoleum – many Spanish royals are buried here. The coffins are all around this round chamber, four per section. There are 9 of these burial chambers.


The parents of Juan Carlos and his grandmother will be buried here; currently their bodies are in a room referred to as the Pudridero (rotting room) until they have decomposed to the point where only bones are left. It is only at this point that the remains are buried in the mausoleum, due to it being a place people can visit so the smell of decomposition must be eliminated first.

In total there are 9 burial chambers in the mausoleum. There is one for the families of the kings and queens, another for children who didn´t live to complete their first communion, the chamber of Don Juan of Austria (battle hero, half brother of Fèlipe II), and the chamber in which are buried the other wives of Felipe II. (The only one buried in the main chamber is the fourth wife, because she was the mother of the future king, Felipe III). The first wife was Maria of Portugal, who was buried there with her son, Carlos of Austria. The mother died in childbirth and the son developed schizophrenia in his teens. He became paranoid and did crazy things, such as going out to the stable and blinding the horses. His father did not understand this disease, of course, but he knew this son could never be king. He even was rumored to have killed his schizophrenic son at the age of 22.

The second wife of Felipe II was Mary I (Mary Tudor) who died without having any children. His third wife is also buried here with her two daughters, Isabel Clara Eugenia and Caralina Micaela. With his fourth wife, Ana of Austria, he had several children, most of which died during childhood. Felipe III of course survived to become king.

These intrigues and tragedies were interesting to hear about and it is no wonder that Felipe II was said to have remarked that a devil was loose in the palace.

El Escorial Library

The final part of the palace that we visited was the famous Library. There were 45,000 books and 5,000 manuscripts in many languages housed here. The books were stored with their bindings facing inward, the pages facing outward. This was to preserve the pages by allowing air and humidity to get to the pages, otherwise they would become brittle. The volumes in the library were mostly donated from private libraries of that time. It was the king´s idea to unite these private libraries into one to make the volumes accessible to more learned people.


Also in the library is the model of the Solar System,  as conceived by Ptolomy, which has the Earth at the center and a series of orbits of the sun and other planets.

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