The Castle and its History

Find out when this historic monument was created and join us as we delve into its fascinating history.


the history

Since the SXV

Historical documentation and research

After analysing the available historical documentation and the architecture of the castle itself, the researchers have been able to determine that the fortress was almost certainly built between 1468 and 1492, that is, at the end of the Middle Ages, by the 2nd Duke of Medina Sidonia: Don Enrique Pérez de Guzmán y Fonseca el Magnífico. The two dates are explained by the fact that 1468 is when Don Enrique received the Duchy from his father, Juan de Guzmán, and the second, 1492, is the year in which the 2nd Duke died. We know that it was the 2nd Duke and not his father who built the castle, among other reasons, because a small sign carved in stone called a segur, a kind of butcher’s hatchet, appears in different parts of the fortress. It was customary in the Middle Ages for lords to bear, in addition to the family heraldry – which was passed down through inheritance – a personal symbol that was unique to them. We know that that of the 2nd Duke of Medina Sidonia was the segur, which he placed, among other places, on the Puerta de la Sirena and on the mural paintings of the vault of the Aula Maior.

However, on the basis of certain historical data and construction peculiarities, it is possible to refine this chronology a little more: we know that by 1478 the castle must have been, if not completely finished, at least very advanced in its construction. There is no evidence of any construction phase prior to that date, and the later additions, with the exception of the courtyard, are of little importance, so we are dealing with a building that is genuinely late medieval. It is true that there was a castle in Sanlúcar prior to the castle of Santiago – which is why our castle was called the Alcázar Nuevo for a time – but that one was located in another part of the city.

The Guzmán lineage goes back to the well-known Guzmán the Good, who, according to tradition, preferred to throw the dagger with which his own son was to be killed rather than surrender the town of Tarifa, which he was defending in 1295. In any case, his lack of paternal-filial affection, and other no less important gestures of arms, earned him social advancement, personal enrichment, and political elevation, three processes that in the Middle Ages were closely and often indissolubly associated. As a result, Guzmán el Bueno obtained in the following years, either by royal donation or by purchase or barter, a series of towns in what is now the province of Cádiz. At the time of his death, during the siege of Algeciras in 1309 – an enterprise that would be one of the family obsessions throughout the Middle Ages – and in unclear circumstances, the Guzmán controlled Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Vejer, Conil, Barbate, Zahara, Lepe, Ayamonte, Chipiona, Rota, El Puerto de Santa María and Chiclana, as well as other minor places. He had firmly laid the foundations for the prosperity of his lineage, which in barely a century and a half was to become one of the most powerful in the whole of Castile. The beginning of this rise was undoubtedly due to the intelligent territorial policy of Guzmán el Bueno, who also clearly saw the economic potential of the fisheries on the Atlantic coast of Andalusia, which he obtained the privilege of exploiting as early as 1299. The Crown entrusted the Guzmans with the defence of the Andalusian coast from the end of the 13th century, a trust that would continue uninterrupted until the mid-17th century. Thanks to this support, and immersed in the general context of the Christian advance along the Strait of Gibraltar, the lineage reached the point of controlling a large part of the main population centres in the current provinces of Cadiz, Seville and Huelva, including the city of Seville itself. It is not surprising then that it was a Guzmán who received from King John II, in 1444, the first ducal title granted by the monarchy in medieval Castile.

Don Enrique de Guzmán was born around 1430, and became the 2nd Duke of Medina Sidonia, 4th Count of Niebla, 7th Lord of Sanlúcar and Mayor of Seville. He lived through a particularly intense and conflictive period: the final stage of the War of Granada. He was a singular personality, exacerbated by his supporters and vilified by his enemies, especially by the supporters of his great rival, Rodrigo Ponce de León, Count of Arcos and Marquis of Cádiz. The former has traditionally been identified as the prototype of the pre-Renaissance man, and the latter as the paradigm of the Frontier warrior. The two powerful personalities soon clashed. According to Barrantes Maldonado, the 16th century chronicler of the Casa, “this duke was a wise man of good understanding, and he had the courage to undertake great things, and once he had undertaken them he set them in motion and came out with them” and was “an excellent prince and a very valiant lord, of great courage, of notable deeds, of excellent sayings”. Also according to Barrantes, the segur that was the Duke’s emblem was accompanied by a motto: “dangerous things with me ensure their danger”. This was a declaration of intent that went hand in hand with intense fortification construction activity. Although some of these have not survived to the present day, we can affirm that the fortress-building campaign of the 2nd Duke of Medina Sidonia was, in terms of quantity and quality, one of the most important stately fortress-building campaigns in Castile.

Although it may be striking, the castle was not designed for the two reasons that may seem most obvious: it was not built either to control the mouth of the river – for which it was useless – or for the war against the Nasrids. The river was too far for the artillery of the time and the Muslims were already confined to the distant Kingdom of Granada, whose retreat was irreversible. The reasons for the construction of the fortress were certainly diverse, but two stand out: on the one hand, a context of aristocratic struggles for power that characterised the second half of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century in Castile. In this sense, the castle was built against the great rival of the 2nd Duke, already mentioned: the 1st Marquis of Cádiz and Count of Arcos Don Rodrigo Ponce de León, and as a precaution against the intervention of the monarchy in this conflict. On the other hand, the semantic role played by castles in the political culture of the late Middle Ages in Castile, as symbols of the power of their owners, must also be taken into account. All this explains why it was only in the second half of the 15th century that a qualitatively important part of all the castles built in Spain during the Middle Ages were built.

From its construction until 1645, the castle served as a ducal fortress and saw the passage of some illustrious figures who called at Sanlúcar due to its position as a port of departure to the Atlantic: Isabella the Catholic, who is said to have seen the sea for the first time from the castle, Columbus and Magellan, for example. In 1645 the castle was confiscated due to an alleged attempt by the IX Duke to rebel against the Crown. From then on, the castle functioned as a state fortress and had an erratic history, interrupted only by the use of the castle as a barracks to house the Duke of Montpensier’s escort, around 1853. After a brief period of splendour, the castle was finally abandoned and became part of the list of fortresses that the Ministry of War disposed of at the beginning of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was informally ceded by the Ministry of War to the Town Council of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which used it for a wide variety of purposes, such as a hospital for infectious diseases and a canteen. Since then, its progressive degradation and abandonment – which included the installation of a car workshop in the building… – was accentuated and became definitive after the attempts at rehabilitation in the eighties and nineties, which for various circumstances were not definitive, a situation which culminated in the fire in the courtyard in 1995, which destroyed one of the naves of the courtyard and was on the point of destroying the entire wall where the Portada de la Sirena is located.

At a critical moment for the fortress, in 2003 the company Officia won the tender for its management and rehabilitation, and the fortress was ceded to them for fifty years. This is an unusual figure in Spain, but it is common in other neighbouring countries with consolidated and award-winning policies for the management of cultural assets, such as the United Kingdom and France, where there is often a happy coincidence between private property and public bodies, from which the great beneficiary is the heritage itself as well as the public.

A delicate and scrupulous process of intervention then began, aimed at recovering the monument for the public, taking into account all the international criteria for the protection of Historical Heritage, such as the charters of Venice and Baños de la Encina; a process that was supported in parallel by exhaustive historical research in various Spanish archives and on the building itself, the subject of doctoral research. As a result of all this, and in parallel to the meticulous restoration work that will continue for some years to come, the castle was opened to the public for the first time in the summer of 2006, after many years in which the interior was inaccessible both to the people of Sanlúcar and to the general public. This put an end to the long history of deterioration of one of the main late medieval fortresses in Andalusia and of great interest for the study of its specific type of fortification. And so the castle that the Duke Don Enrique built to perpetuate the memory of his lineage was brought back to life, and his name resounded loudly through five hundred and thirty years of impassive time.

Old Pictures & Plans

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