The Spanish, or Iberian, peninsula had lain at a crossroads for Europe for centuries, and was very diverse in terms of population. The people there included Basques, Celts, Phoenicians, Goths, Visigoths, Berbers, and Jews, just to name a few. During the Middle Ages, Spain was politically fragmented. Moors, who were Muslims from North Africa, invaded and established control over a large part of the peninsula in 711.
By 1030, Muslims controlled a majority of the territory in Spain and what would eventually be Portugal. The Moorish areas of Spain, known as the Caliphate of Cordoba, were known for their learning and culture. The Basques had a separate area in Navarre, and the Franks had control of a small area in the north known as the Spanish March. Spain was definitely a fragmented region.
For the next 700 years many who lived in Spain dreamed of driving out these non-Christian invaders and reconquering the territory for Christians in what was known as the Reconquista. Portugal split off as a separate area in the 12th century CE, and slowly the Reconquista began moving in fits and starts instead of in a steady process. Even though many historians claim that Spain was not completely unified under one ruler until the reign of Charles V in 1516, the 1469 marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile finally brought together much of Christian Spain.
First, Isabella had to establish her right to Castile, since her niece Juana, with the support of her fiance King John II of Portugal, challenged Isabella’s claim to the throne. In 1479, the conflict was settled in the Treaty (or Peace) of Alcacovas-Toledo. This treaty gave Isabella the right to succession in Castile, as well as giving Castile ownership of the Canary Islands. In exchange, Castile gave Portugal the island chains of the Azores, Maderias, and Cape Verdes. Castile also surrendered claims to various lands in West Africa, as well as “lands discovered and to be discovered…and any other island which might be found and conquered from the Canary islands beyond toward Guinea.” This language would later be of interest after 1492.
Ferdinand succeeded his father as ruler in 1479, and together he and Isabella set about to capitalize upon their plans for the expansion of their influence. Ferdinand and Isabella also resumed the Reconquista with a renewed zeal. The fall of Grenada in 1492 finally ended the Muslim territorial presence on the Spanish mainland, and earned Ferdinand and Isabella renown as protectors of the Catholic Faith.
The year 1492 was indeed a turning point. Spain’s religious diversity was definitely viewed as a defect to be remedied. The Muslims and Jews of Spain were given a simple choice: convert to Christianity, or be exiled. The Jews who agreed (either through free choice or torture) to become Catholics were known henceforth as Conversos, while those who chose exile became known in the Jewish world as the Sephardim. Muslims who converted were called Mudejars. Some Mudejars and Conversos continued to practice the faith of their ancestors in secret, and it became the job of the Inquisition to root out these crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims. Unfortunately, even the most the devout of the Conversos were never really trusted to be genuine in their faith, and were often subject to the Spanish Inquisition as well. Ironically, the most famous name associated with the Spanish Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada, was actually a descendant of Conversos.
So while 1492 marked the end of the Reconquista, it also marked an apparent shift for the crusading impulse involved in homogenizing Spanish society. Competition between the Spanish and Portuguese in the field of exploration provided a chance to expand the boundaries of the Christian world. Under the aegis of Ferdinand and Isabella, Cristofero Colon embarked in 1492 on a voyage to find a new route to Asia, and in 1493, Pope Alexander VI, who was a Spaniard from Catalan, divided the unexplored territory of the world between Spain and Portugal in the Papal bull Inter Caetera, which was later formalized in theTreaty of Tordesillas.
The rest, as they say, is history.