Although the ‘modern’ Kingdom of Murcia was established at the time of the Christian Reconquest in the mid-13th Century, the early years were by no means straightforward. The City of Murcia had finally established its precedence over Cartagena in the second half of the 12th Century, but there were conflicts between Castile and Aragon, while the period saw in-migration from the north to replace the Moors who had left by Christian settlers.
Dislocation was inevitable. Equally inevitably, there were internal conflicts between those who sought to wield power in the city, while, in the first half of the 14th Century, the Moors of Granada expanded their frontiers to near Moratalla, Lorca and Caravaca causing great uncertainty in Murcia itself. The Plague was now also a threat with the first great outbreak documented in 1348-49, while in that of 1395-96, the City of Murcia alone is said to have lost over 6,000 inhabitants. In this sense, the 14th Century was not a great one for the Kingdom and City of Murcia, with a vicious cycle of depopulation, insecurity and reduced agricultural production.
In some senses, the 15th Century was not too much different. Although Alfonso Yánez Fajardo II dedicated the twenty years of his governorship in the early years of the century to establishing a solid network of family alliances, this did not prevent a fratricidal war in mid-century after his death. The Moors also recovered some territory in mid-Century with Cieza sacked in both 1448 and 1477. As a result, population in 1475 (say, 10,000) was probably about the same as 100 years before, although this would hide some recovery from the plagues at the end of the previous century. The second half of the 15th Century also had its fair share of natural disasters. There were plagues in 1450 and 1468 (though 1412 had also been a notable year in this regard). There were the usual periodic floods by the Río Segura and nine harvests were lost between 1452 and 1479. However, unlike in the previous century, at least the 15th Century saw appreciable economic development despite these difficulties. Indeed, the Genoese were now to be found represented in Murcia, perhaps attracted most of all by the regeneration of the silk industry, which had begun during the later years of the 14th Century. One expression of all of this was probably in the spate of chapel building in the Cathedral in the first half of the century.
The next century was perhaps most marked by the population growth. From maybe 10,000 people at the end of the 15th Century, the City of Murcia reached about 16,000 in 1591. There was a corresponding increase in the Kingdom as a whole, fuelled both by a high birth rate as well as in-migration; not that this progress was at all smooth. There were, for example, plagues in 1507 and 1524, and bad harvests between 1504 and 1509. A major famine in 1576-77 also occurred after cereal production had begun to stagnate in the preceding years. Feuds between the principal families still arose and there were uprisings known as the “Rebellion Comunera” in 1520-21 in the towns including Murcia, fuelled also by repression and social and economic constraints.
The economy was beginning to move forward, stimulated by a wider European demand for primary products. There was no longer a threat from the Moorish Kingdom of Granada which had finally fallen to the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. From the end of the 15th Century, the Murcian huerta began to be planted with mulberries to the extent that they covered 60% of the area in the mid-years. Although the lack of local skills meant that the growth of the silk industry at this time was quite slow, there was at least outside capital from Genoa and Castile to help in its development. The area of cultivated and irrigated land also increased, partly in response to measures taken after the 1576-77 famine. Many construction projects began in the City of Murcia including the Cathedral tower of the period. There was also a great increase in the number of monasteries and convents in the city.
Unfortunately, the subsequent 17th Century was not a particularly good one for Murcia. It began with the King, Felipe III, ordering the final expulsion of the Moriscos (Moors who had remained in Spain after the Reconquest, but had not converted to Christianity). There had been a revolt by the Moriscos in the south of Spain in 1568 which had awakened old fears and after which much forced resettlement had taken place. In Murcia, the situation had been very different with the Moriscos relatively well integrated into society. However, all were covered by the order. There was some opposition in Murcia from its political leaders to the expulsion because of the potential effects on their economic interests, but on 19th October 1613, the King issued a final decree, giving the Moriscos 10 days to sell their goods before deportation. 8,000 Murcian Moriscos subsequently left via Cartagena, though a good number of Mudejares (Moors who had converted to Christianity) managed to stay.
It would have been bad enough if that it been all, but it was not; far from it. 1648 saw a major epidemic of plague which arrived from Valencia despite the Murcians best efforts to isolate the City of Murcia from it. It also came after a decade of bad harvests and 30% of the Kingdom’s population were said to have perished in it. Subsequent years were not much better and, indeed in 1651, there was the famous flood of San Calixto which inundated virtually the whole of the City of Murcia and caused a massive loss of life and property, including the mulberry trees in the huerta. Locusts were a constant pest throughout the century and one source notes a marked increase in banditry as well! It is perhaps surprising that the Kingdom of Murcia as a whole probably had about the same population (slightly over 100,000) at the end of the century as it had at the beginning.
Despite these problems and difficulties, the first half of the 17th Century can boast of the activities of a famous Murcian native; one Diego Saavedra Fajardo. He was born in Algezares, near the City of Murcia on 6th May 1584 and had an illustrious life as a diplomat and author. Between 1612 and 1617, he was Secretary to Cardinal Gaspar de Borja, the Spanish Ambassador in Rome. He subsequently gained the confidence of King Felipe IV and, by 1633, was in Bavaria as Spanish Ambassador to the Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian I. He spent much time in Germany thereafter pursuing peace during the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War until he returned to Madrid in 1645, dying there in 1648. In 1884 his remains were repatriated to Murcia Cathedral.
Taken from “Exploring Murcia – Murcia City”, by Clive and Rosie Palmer. Clive and Rosie have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com