Peñíscola: A History


The Costa del Azahar offers several prehistoric sites with cave paintings, dating from 7000 to 3500. The most important sites are located in the region of El Maestrazgo, home to the rock shelters of the gorge of La Valltorta, around Tírig.


Throughout history, the supposedly insurmountable citadel of Peñíscola would be conquered many times.

Iberians (Before 700 BC and after)

There is sufficient archaeological evidence to believe that indigenous people inhabited the ancient fortified port before 700 BC, the so-called Iberians.

Phoenicians (c. 800-600 BC)

The Phoenicians (c. 3000-539 BC) from the Eastern Mediterranean controlled ports all over the Mediterranean. They settled in the seaport of Peñíscola around the 7th – 6th century B.C. (Their alphabet became the basis of the Greek alphabet).

Greeks (c. 600-237 BC)

Shortly after the Phoenician settlement, the Greeks colonized the city. The Greek era produced the first written sources about Peñíscola between the 6th and 1st century BC. Several authors, most notably Strabo (64 or 63 BC – 24 AD), depicted a city the Greeks called Chersónesos (Χερσόνησος), which translates as peninsula.

Hannibal and the Carthaginians (c. 237-217 BC)

The expanding Carthaginian Empire (c. 8th century BC- 146 BC) conquered large parts of the Iberian Peninsula, including Peñíscola, in the second half of the 3rd century BC. They originated from Carthage, a suburb of present-day Carthage in Tunisia. The Romans referred to the Carthaginians as Poeni, a derivation from the word Phoenikes (Phoenicians), from which the adjective Punic is derived.

Carthage was originally a seaport established by the Phoenicians, and their language, Phoenicio-Punic, was closely related to Phoenician, a Semitic language (like Arabic or Hebrew).

The Carthaginians would oppose Rome from the middle of the 3rd century onward, in the so-called Punic Wars, which ended in the complete defeat of Carthage by Rome and the expansion of Roman control in the Mediterranean world. When Carthage finally fell in 146 BC, the site was plundered and burned.

Carthage had one of histories’ greatest military leaders in its ranks, Hannibal Barca/Barkas (247 BC – c. 183–181 BC), who commanded the Carthaginian forces against Rome in the Second Punic War (218–201 BC).

Hannibal was taken to Spain by his father and at an early age and was made to swear eternal hostility to Rome. His life was one of near constant struggle against Rome.

In Spain, Hannibal quickly emerged as a successful general. He was proclaimed commander-in-chief at the age of 26, consolidated the Punic hold on Spain, and conquered various Spanish areas. He married a Spanish princess, Imilce. In 221, he made the seaport of Kart-hadasht his base (modern Cartagena, 20 km south of the Valencian Community).

The conquest of Saguntum (Costa del Azahar) in 219, led to the Second Punic War, declared by Rome and conducted, on the Carthaginian side, almost entirely by Hannibal. He made the necessary preparations for carrying the war into Italy.

Hannibal started from Cartagena with an army of around 90,000 soldiers — as well as 37 elephants. He travelled north, crossing the present-day Costa del Azahar, and carried forward with his army from Iberia to Italy over the Pyrenees and the Alps. He won several battles in Italy, but did not lay siege to Rome itself.

After 16 years in southern Italy he returned to Carthago in North Africa where the Romans now formed an acute threat. He was finally defeated in the Battle of Zama (202 BC), in modern-day Tunisia. This was the last and decisive battle of the Second Punic War and ended Carthage’s chances to significantly oppose Rome.

Romans (217 BC - first half 5th century AD)

The Romans had originally intended to take the war to Spain on their own initiative. They were forced to do so defensively to prevent Carthaginian reinforcements from reaching Hannibal, after his rapid invasion of Italy.

By 217 BC they had already conquered Peñíscola, one year after Hannibal set out to Rome. The Romans translated the Greek name of the city: (paene + insula, “almost + island”), which would give rise to the current name, Peñíscola.

Middle Ages

Visigoths (first half 5th century – c. 718)

Roman rule in Spain, and elsewhere in the Western Empire, was undermined during the 5th century by the migrations of Germanic tribes.

The Visigoths entered the Roman province of Hispania in 415. They gradually expanded their influence within the Iberian Peninsula, shifted their capital from Toulouse to Toledo, and eventually conquered all of Hispania and ruled it until the early 8th century.

A new superpower had arisen from the Arabian Desert and was on its way.

Muslims (c. 718-1233)

A century after Muhammad’s death, the Muslims had built an Empire, which extended from the Chinese border in the East to southern France.

The Muslims landed in Calpe (Gibraltar) in 711 and rapidly overran Spain, meeting only feeble resistance from the leaderless Visigoths. By 718 the Muslims were in control of nearly the whole Iberian Peninsula.

Peñíscola would live under Muslim control from 718 until 1233. Arabic geographers called it Banaskula or Baniskula. The fortress was more or less located on the border with Christian realms, and became the operating base from where the Moors would raid coasts and conduct incursions into Catalonia.

Jaime I and the Kingdom of Aragon (1233-1479)

James I of Aragon (1208-1276), known as Jaime El Conquistador (James The Conqueror), the most illustrious king of Aragon (1213–76), is one of the most important figures in the history of Peñíscola, and the Costa del Azahar in general.

In 1227, he began his great (and successful) campaigns of reconquest against the Muslim rulers of the Kingdom of Valencia. In 1233, he seized the castle of Peñíscola.

The Knights Templar

Jaime offered the castle to the Knights Templar, who had protected and educated him as a child. The present Templar castle was built between 1294 and 1307, on the remains of the Arab citadel.

Their typical cross is still visible above the entrance of the castle and throughout.

Interlude: Pontifical Peñíscola and Papa Luna

In the beginning of the 14th century, the legitimacy of the Roman papacy was contested, because of a political, rather than a theological dispute. Avignon became a second pontifical city with so-called antipopes, in 1309.

In 1376, Pope Gregory XI returned from Avignon to Rome. He died shortly after, in 1378. The cardinals elected the Italian Urban VI. A faction of the College of Cardinals disputed the election of Urban VI and elected Clement VII the same year, who settled in Avignon.

This meant the beginning of the Great Western Schism in the Roman Catholic Church (1378-1417). Pedro de Luna was elected pope by the cardinals supporting Avignon in 1394, with the understanding that he would abdicate voluntarily if that would help to end the division in the church.

This he later refused to do, when asked to resign by the French princes who had been among his supporters. Eighteen of his 23 cardinals deserted him, and the papal palace in Avignon was besieged by the French (1398).

In 1403 Benedict escaped from the palace to Provence, rallied his cardinals, and won back the obedience of France. In 1408, the French declared themselves neutral in the dispute.

In 1409, a number of cardinals tried to end the rift during the Council of Pisa, by pronouncing both reigning popes of the day, Gregory XII (Rome) and Benedict XIII (Avignon) deposed. They elected Alexander V in their stead. Both popes refused to abdicate, with the result that there were now three reigning popes who considered themselves as rightful popes: Gregory XII, Benedict XIII and Alexander V.

Benedict still possessed the allegiance of some states, but had to take refuge in the castle of Peñíscola in 1415. The same year, the Council of Constance pronounced Benedict deposed, and elected Martin V in 1417, who was generally accepted.

This officially ended the Great Western Schism.

Benedictus lost all governmental recognition, except that of Armagnac (France) and of Scotland.

But he refused to yield to Pope Martin V, and maintained to the end of his life that he was the rightful pope. He created four new cardinals as late as November 1422.

Thus, Peñíscola prides itself in being a pontifical city, alongside Rome and Avignon, when Benedictus XIII took up his residence there (1415-1423).    

After the pontifical period, Peñíscola became one of the cities within the Kingdom of Valencia once again, the formation of which started with the conquests of Jaime El Conquistador in the 13th century.

Early Modern, Modern and Contemporary History

Dynastic Union: Ferdinand and Isabella (1479-1516)

In 1479, the crowns of the Christian kingdoms of Castile (roughly western Spain) and Aragon (roughly eastern Spain) were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile (1451 –1504) and Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516; also known as Ferdinand V of Castile from 1474 onward).

They married in 1469 and ruled as joint sovereigns over the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Their monarchy became the second most powerful one in Europe, after the Valois of France.

The Habsburgs (1516-1700)

Ferdinand died in 1516, and the crowns of the Spanish kingdoms devolved to his grandson, Charles I (1516–56). Charles was the ruler of the Netherlands and heir to the Habsburg dominions in Austria and southern Germany. This new union had not been planned in Spain, and at first it was deeply resented. In 1519, Charles was elected Holy Roman emperor as Charles V (Carlos I de España y Carlos V del Sacro Imperio Romano Germánico). The Habsburg dominion lasted from 1516-1700.

During the rebellion of the Brotherhoods (Rebelión de las Germanías, 1519–1523), the castle of Peñíscola served as refuge for the viceroy of Valencia. The rebellion was a revolt by artisan guilds (Germanías, (hermano = brother)) against the policy of Charles V in Valencia.

Under Ottoman pressure and the constant threat of piracy, the castle was heavily fortified with the Renaissance walls, which were finished in 1578.

The Habsburgs dominated Spain and Europe politically and militarily for much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but experienced a gradual decline of influence in the second half of the seventeenth century under the later Habsburg kings.

The Bourbon Dynasty (1700-1808)

After the death in 1700 of Charles II, a period of severe local and international crises broke out. With the extinction of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, the grandson of Louis XIV of France, Philip of Anjou, became (by the will of the childless Charles II) Philip V of Spain (1683-1746).

This heralded the Bourbon period in Spain. Spain and Luxembourg currently have monarchs of the House of Bourbon.

This appointment was subject to a severe international crisis and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) broke out, and turned out to be a significant chapter in the modern history of Peñíscola.

Austria refused to recognize Philip V, a Bourbon, and thereby concede the defeat of its hopes of placing an Austrian candidate on the throne of Spain. To Britain, a Bourbon king in Spain would disrupt the balance of power in Europe in favour of French hegemony. Louis XIV conceived of Spain under a Bourbon king as a political and commercial appendage of France. Britain and Austria invaded Spain in order to drive out Philip V and establish the “Austrian” candidate, the archduke Charles (who was born and raised in Florence).

Under the leadership of the legendary Sancho de Echevarría (16? -1714), the military governor of Peñiscola, the town decided to back Philip V and the Bourbons. This was rather exceptional in Valencia and the Kingdom of Aragon in general. The town was subsequently besieged between 1705-1707 by the English and Dutch armies, itself relying on a small army.

After the end of the war, and the triumph of Philip V, Peñiscola’s inhabitants would be rewarded with fiscal privileges and ennobled advice. Philip V attributed to the city the title of “The Very Noble, Loyal, and Most Faithful City of Peñíscola” (“Muy Noble, Leal y Fidelísima Ciudad“).  

One of the most notable episodes of this chapter was the so-called Battle of the Trenches (La Batalla de Las Trincheras), when the besieged would surprise the besiegers in an ambush.

A remembrance of this particular chapter in Peñiscola’s history is the hermitage church “La Ermita de la Virgen de la Ermitana”, built at Sancho de Echevarría’s command. It was built to thank the people of Peñiscola, on the highest point of the citadel, next to the Templar castle. Unfortunately for him, he died on the day of the inauguration of the church. His body lies at the foot of the great altar of the church.

House of Bonaparte (1808-1814)

During the relatively short French occupation (1808-14), Napoleon offered the Spanish throne to his brother Joseph Bonaparte.

Peñíscola was conquered by the Napoleonic general Suchet. He used it to conduct several military operations, because of its strategic location. The population was ousted from the citadel and took refuge in the Sierra de Irta.

General Francisco Javier de Elío recaptured the citadel, after heavy bombardments that destroyed the entire city.

Nineteenth and twentieth century

During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the main economic activities of Peñíscola were agriculture, fishing and the cultivation of wine, exported through the nearby port of Benicarló, and later the cultivation of carob, olive and almond trees.

The harbour was completed in 1922.

After the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), which ravaged large parts of the city, tourism, which had began to develop to a limited extent in the beginning of the century, became a major economic activity. Significant catalysts were the publications of two films, Calabuch (1956, Luis García Berlanga)); and especially the classic El Cid (1961, Anthony Mann), which introduced the city to a large audience.