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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Castell de Montjuïc in Barcelona

What is Castell de Montjuïc?

Castell de Montjuïc, or Montjuïc Castle in English, is a 17th-century castle set on Montjuïc Hill in Barcelona that was once a military fortification and prison, but now serves as a municipal centre.

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Castell de Montjuïc History

Located on the edge of the city, Montjuïc Hill is a dominant feature of Barcelona's landscape. The hill has played an essential role throughout the city's history due to its strategic value, commanding access to Barcelona by land and by sea. Here on its peak is a 17th-century military fortification that’s been the setting for numerous bloody episodes throughout its 400-year history, and is symbolic of the long political struggle between Catalonia and mainland Spain.

The first stone of Montjuïc Castle was laid in 1640 during the Catalan Revolt, a popular uprising against the Spanish crown. The military fortification, built in just 30 days, was used as a base for operations against King Philip IV's army. It was the epicentre of the Battle of Montjuïc, in which the popular Catalan army defeated the king's troops. Following their victory, the Catalan General Assembly elected Louis XIII of France Count of Barcelona and ruler of Catalonia, yet still the conflict between central Spain and Barcelona continued for over a century.

After many decades of struggle, the Bourbon King Philip V eventually defeated the Catalan army. In September 1714, he gained control of the fortress and the city at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Locals remember this date as the moment when they lost their independence and were forced to submit to mainland Spain.

Given the importance the make-shift fortress had assumed, Philip’s son King Ferdinand VI ordered the castle to be rebuilt, to enhance its defences. Construction began in the 1750s under the supervision of military engineer Juan Martín Cermeño. The present-day castle very closely resembles the structure completed by him in 1779. During its refurbishment, the fortification was equipped with 120 cannons that were turned on Barcelona and its citizens on several occasions, in order to quell uprisings against the central government.

Montjuic castle canon

For the next 200 years, Montjuïc Castle was used as a prison, torture centre and execution ground. During the late 19th century, it was synonymous with barbarism. Records show that government forces assassinated several prominent anarchists in the castle moat. Notably, in October 1909, the founder of the liberal Escuela Moderna (or Modern School), anarchist-supporting Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, was executed here after being accused of fomenting a popular insurrection that had raged for a week (also known as la Setmana Tràgica or ‘the Tragic Week’). A decade later, around 3,000 workers were imprisoned in the castle during the so-called Canadenca strike, which paralysed all public services in Barcelona.

During the Spanish Civil War, the castle was used again by both Republican and Falangist forces as a place to imprison, torture and execute opponents. One of these executions was that of Catalan politician and President of the Catalan government, Lluís Companys. Though Companys had managed to escape the country during the war, he was deported back by Nazi Germany and handed over to General Franco's troops in 1940 – and executed at the castle shortly afterwards.

The Francoist government continued using the castle as a political prison until 1960 when General Franco decided to close the jail and open a Military Armour Museum in the grounds instead. The castle was eventually handed back to the city in 2007 and the city council organised a festival in honour of Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia and Lluís Companys. The event marked the start of the castle's new role as a municipal centre.

It’s hard to imagine that Montjuïc Castle once instilled such fear and terror in the inhabitants of the city, some of whom still recall the horrors that took place there. Yet the site has begun to move away from its dark past. Today, the location hosts regular public events – exhibitions, conferences and live music – allowing the citizens of Barcelona to write an optimistic new chapter in the history of one of its most forbidding landmarks.

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