Fortified Tower Houses of Northern Spain

Cuzcurrita del Rio TironThe area of the Spanish mainland bordering the Atlantic Ocean that today is known as Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, was little influenced by Islamic occupation and culture in the Middle Ages.

The culture of the Visigothic era persisted and developed in this independent and strongly Christian territory. That is not to say the region did not suffer from local power struggles and warfare between lords and landowners because it most certainly did.

Vitoria Fortified TowerGenerally speaking though, the major landholdings and territories were established and disputed farther south and this is where the significant castles and estates were situated.

The area under discussion here, in the northernmost part of Spain, was comprised of smaller territorial areas that would become somewhat unified within the kingdoms of Asturias and Navarre and eventually Castile. However, the local aristocracy and their relatively modest estates would persist. Santillana Towerhouse

As a result of this political system in the region, the fortifications of the landowners would also be of modest size. Although a number of significant medieval castles were built in the area, such as at Frias, in Castilla y Leon and at Castro Urdiales in Cantabria, amongst others, the small, fortified tower house was the typical castle of the region.

Fortified tower houses occur all across the area and are found in rural or country locations and within towns and villages as well. These structures built by the noble families of the region are notable for their simplicity. Often they comprise of a residential tower surrounded by a simple walled enclosure. Some examples in country locations had additional defences in the form of a moat or ditches outside of the walls.

The form of these simple tower house castles persisted for many centuries with an early example being found at Mendoza near Oviedo, which dates from the 13th century. The towers could be very austere buildings, unsuited to the levels of residential comfort a noble family would expect and these forms were probably designed as very prominent watchtowers.

Quintana TowerhouseA very interesting example of a fortified country tower house can be found at Quintana, in the Sobra valley in Cantabria near Regules. This tower, called Torre de los Velasco, dates to the 15th century and has a ground floor entrance doorway with two upper floors above. The ground floor of these tower houses was generally used as storage space for goods and possibly in times or trouble, for animals. The access to the upper residential floors was gained via a stair from this basement.

Quintana curtian wallThe square section tower at Quintana was surrounded by a curtain wall, adding protection to the tower. It is particularly well preserved and shows three sides of the enclosing wall complete with only the east side removed. The wall was about 3 metres high; probably not crenelated at the top but with arrow loops piercing the wall. Quintana wallwalkA narrow walkway went around the wall allowing a watchman to circulate the perimeter of the walls. The tower became a stronghold during the 19th century Carlist wars and some re-fortification took place at this time. It is likely that some of the outer wall as we see it today dates from this time built on the original medieval foundations.

QuintanaAt each corner of the enclosure at Quintana was a tower, rectangular in plan and protruding from the line of the curtain wall. Two of the (presumed) four corner towers at the northwest and southeast are well preserved and although the southern tower has been converted for use as an animal shelter, much of the medieval stonework has survived.

Quintana-Soba viewThe corner towers in this case were open backed but possibly had timber walls and a timber framed doorway into the tower. The corner towers are small and used as defensive features and also possibly storage space – they do not appear to have had any residential function.

Another fine tower, this one in a semi-rural position, can be found in the small village of Mogrovejo in the Cantabrian portion of the Picos de Europa Mountains. Mogrovejo TowerThis tower overlooks the village and is visible for a considerable distance within the surrounding area although particularly from the village and fields that formed the territory of the landowner who built it. Mogrovejo Tower detailThis tower also had an enclosing wall although now much reduced and incorporated into later buildings that adjoin the site today. Mogrovejo tower may date from the late 13th century.

Many urban towers were built in the area too. These buildings could represent an urban residence in a large village or town of a local family and built in a castellated style to emphasise their prestige and wealth. In such cases several local families could each build a fortified tower house within the same town thus providing groups of towers in close proximity and each vying with the other to adopt the best location or the most impressive building.

Markina TowerhouseThese urban towers do not appear to possess walled courtyards or enclosures as their rural counterparts did. Good examples of these urban fortified towers can be found at Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Vitoria in Asturias and Markina-Xemein in the Basque Country.

Vitoria TowerOther urban towers can be found within towns where a single landowner or lord dominates and therefore their fortified tower house will be a prominent building within the town and dominating the streets and houses that are built around it.

A good example of this can be found at Potes in Cantabria, in the town that was the main centre of the eastern Picos de Europa and on the main transport route through this part of the mountain range and giving access to the fertile grounds and coastal villages and ports to the north. Potes TowerhouseThe tower at Potes, called the Torre del Infantado, dates from the 15th century. It is a large residential tower of four floors with a ground floor entrance. Potes tower turretThe top storey gives access to a small circular turret at each of the four corners with a machicolated parapet running around. The latter was probably added in the post medieval period, probably in the 16th century.

Santillana TowerhouseThese tower houses, in all their variety, are in varying states of preservation and found all over this area of northern Spain. Some of the towers are open as museums or as ruins and accessible, others are on private land or still inhabited. All are interesting and worthy of further study.


Photos on this page top-botom: Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron; Vitoria; santillana del Mar; Quintana-Soba (x5); Mogrovejo Tower (x2); Markina-Xemein; Vitoria; Potes (x2); Santillana del Mar.