March 26, 2011
Saturday January 29, 2011 found members of the Spain Society SAR joining the España DAR in the town of Simancas just outside the city of Valladolid in north central Spain. A cold foggy day brought us to this historic town to tour the Archivo General de Simancas (AGS) the first official archive in the world of the Kingdom of Castile, dating from 1540. We were honored with a personal tour by José Luis Rodríguez de Diego, just retired after 12 years as Director of the archives, and his wife, Isabel Aguirre who still works there. The archives are located in a 15th century castle, whose location, design and strength of its walls hold the secret to the success of architect Juan Herrera’s renovations that make it perfect for storing millions of Royal Spanish government documents. Mr. Rodriquez showed us where the front door still has remains of the original leather which covered the wood to protect it from fire. Definitely an architect with ideas before his time, Herrera renovated the castle to include storage rooms with no windows, to avoid light damaging the documents; ventilation systems in the walls; and other rooms with large windows for research.
The founding King, Philip II (of Spanish Armada fame), made an unprecedented edict to the incumbent director in 1588 that open flames for lighting and heating, as well as water were not allowed in or around the building to further protect and preserve the documents stored there. In the same year a group of archivists was formed to organize and control the documents, which were growing at the rate of 500 a day. An interesting estimation is that if you lined up all the stored documents it would be 14 km long. Papers include mostly administrative activities and Royal correspondence, the bulk of all the handwritten correspondence and documents written by the kings and ministers of Spain concerning every matter at hand, whether it be a land dispute, a petition for a change in policy or the most important document signed by the last Moorish King in Granada after losing the battles to the Christian forces which resulted in the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492. Special rooms for the royal papers are lined in carved wood on two levels for perfect storage and safekeeping. Today the whole building has been renovated with security systems for protection against fire or water damage.
We were able to see and hold original documents dating from the 1500’s. Especially interesting were papers with secret codes in case of enemy capture. The early documents are on cloth-based paper that feels just like modern paper. Many of the documents are now available on the internet (Archivos General de Estado- AER) for study under “Estado Inglatera” “Secretaria de Guerra” or “Secretaria de Estado Inglatera”. They also have catalogue books of documents held in the Archives relating to the American Revolution. AGS is of special interest to Americans because the military papers stored there could certify which Spaniards assisted the colonists in our Revolutionary War. This opens up membership in SAR for both descendents of Spaniards living in was then part of Spain, for example in New Mexico or Louisiana; and Spaniards who made a contribution to our independence.
The tour was followed by lunch in the town and free time to visit the Casa Museo de Colón. (Christopher Columbus Museum) which houses the history of his voyages to discover America. It is a very modern museum, of three stories, with video shows about his travels and cultures on three stories. Columbus died on May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, only two years after his final voyage. He was only 54 yrs old.
(Thanks to Diane Bucey and the DAR for their original notes, and for the photographs)