The Kingdom of Spain is located in the extreme southwest of the European continent, and occupies approximately 85 percent of the Iberian Peninsula. Spain is bordered on the west by Portugal, in the northeast by France, and by the great wall of the Pyrenees Mountains. The Iberian Peninsula that the Spanish inhabited was occupied by various other civilizations, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, and Muslims, and Spain is now associated with having a very rich, eclectic culture as a result.
The development of Christian society and culture in the first 300 years following Islamic conquest in Spain was slow, but major changes occurred for the Spanish in the 12th and 13th centuries. The population grew, communication with northern Europe intensified, commerce and urban life gained in importance, and the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal emerged as the governing bodies of the Iberian Peninsula. These kingdoms reached the frontiers that they would keep, with minimum amount of alteration, until the end of the Middle Ages, when Isabella I became Queen of Castile.
Isabella began participating in the royal court at the age of 13; and when Portugal, Aragon, and France offered their marriage candidates, she favored Ferdinand of Aragon. Isabella ascended to the throne as Queen of Castile to rule sensibly and with a prudent political program. Her unification of the states of the Iberian Peninsula into a single entity, the maintenance and control over the Straits of Gibraltar, policy of expansion into Muslim North Africa, reform of Spanish Catholicism, and support for the exploration and expansion of the unknown were evidence of her wisdom and capabilities as Queen. In 1492 Columbus, with the blessing and financial backing of Isabella, sought a route to the legendary rich markets of China and Japan. He instead discovered what would become known as "The New World", the present day Americas. This voyage gave way to a new golden age of expeditions and conquest, as the Americas contained gold, a valuable resource that Spain happened to be desperately bereft of at the time.
The Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes came to the New World with the sole purpose of seeking out new frontiers and riches in the unknown. Men like Cortes became known as Conquistadores, adventurers who undertook their expeditions in the vast landmasses of the Americas at their own expense, risking their lives without aid from the Spanish royalty. Their conquests included campaigns in Guatemala, Peru, Cuzco, Columbia, Chile, the Bay of Honduras, and as far as the Pacific coastal regions. The Conquistadors, however, were given to fighting and searching for gold, and were swiftly replaced by administrators and settlers from Spain who governed in their place.
The twin forces of disease and conquest combined to devastate the indigenous peoples of the Americas, allowing the Spaniards to carve out an enormous empire comprising most of North and South America. Many of the Spanish colonies proved to yield fabulous wealth in the form of gold and sugar, but working conditions were so harsh that large numbers of Africans were brought across the Atlantic as slaves to replace the Indians who had died working on the plantations. These lucrative operations inevitably became high-profile targets of pirates and other raiders who were endorsed by European powers such as England. The Monarchy of Spain endeavored to retaliate by building an armada of warships that was dubbed "The Invincible Armada". The armada was a collection of over 130 naval warships and transport-ships, which contained approximately 8,000 seamen and 19,000 soldiers. King Philip II (1556-98) directed this armada to invade England when the various and frequent raids on Spanish commerce in the Caribbean became intolerable. England's success in repelling the Spanish fleet saved England and the Netherlands from potential consolidation into the Spanish Empire, but despite the Armada's defeat, Spain remained temporarily the strongest land power in Europe.
Thereafter, Spain declined in power quickly; the enormous influx of gold and silver from the Americas debased the Spanish currency, and most of the nation's military might was wasted in the quagmire of religious conflict known as the Thirty Years War (1618-48). By the beginning of the 18th century, Spain had become somewhat marginal in international politics, even though it continued to hold vast territories in the Americas. Spain's period of imperial power and exploration left a legacy that consisted of 18 nations in Latin American, the Spanish presence in the Phillipines, and the ever-growing Spanish-speaking population in the United States today. It is also due to the work of Jesuit missionaries from Spain that hundreds of millions of people in Latin America practice Roman Catholicism to this day. In 1975 Spain transitioned into a constitutional monarchy by way of a democratic constitution and is now recognized for its eclectic culture as well as for the glory and mystique that it once possessed in its youth.