Founded by Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros in the early 16th century, Alcalá de Henares was the world's first planned university city. It was the original model for the Civitas Dei (City of God), the ideal urban community which Spanish missionaries brought to the Americas. It also served as a model for universities in Europe and elsewhere.
The Henares river valley has been settled by humankind since the Neolithic period. Following the Roman colonization, this strategic site in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula inevitably led to the establishment of a Roman town, Complutum, some 1.5km from the present-day city centre. It was here that the child saints, Justus and Pastor, were martyred in AD 304, and their tomb outside the walls of the Roman town became a sanctuary round which the present historic centre developed.
It was an episcopal see during the Visigothic period, and became part of the Emirate of Córdoba when the Moors overran most of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. The town was relatively insignificant during the Moorish period. A fortress, known as Al-Qal'at ("The Castle"), was built during the 12th century some 4km upstream of the Roman town, and a small settlement grew up around it.
After it was recaptured in 1118, the territory of Alcalá was granted to the Archbishopric of Toledo. The city expanded under successive prelates and the medieval fortified settlement took shape. The core was the episcopal precinct, with the Archbishop's Palace at its centre. To the south was the Christian quarter, with its church, the Jewish quarter lay to the east, along the porticoed Calle Mayor, with the Arab quarter to the north. What is now the Plaza de Cervantes was an open area to the eastern edge of the town, the site of annual fairs and tournaments.
During the late 15th century the urban core expanded with the construction outside the walls of the Franciscan Convent of San Diego, which attracted settlement around it. Following an attack by the King of Navarre a new, stronger wall was built to enclose the areas of expansion to the south and east. The town prospered until 1496, when the Jews were expelled from Spain by Royal edict, taking with them their commercial activities. However, the urban fabric remained intact, making possible the creation of a new university city.
This was the brainchild of Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros, who began by founding the Colegio de San Ildefonso. Unlike other university cities in Europe, such as Bologna, Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca, Alcalá de Henares did not develop slowly, adapting itself to its urban surroundings. From the start it was conceived by Cisneros as an entity, which took over a partly abandoned medieval town and converted it into a city whose function was solely that of a university. This involved the creation of houses to lodge professors and students and the provision of services such as a sewer system and paved streets. The little Chapel of St Justus was rebuilt as a church and given the title of "Magistral" whereby its canons became Masters (Magistri) of the University. More centres of learning were added progressively: there were eventually to be twenty-five Colegios Menores (Lesser Colleges), whilst eight large monasteries were also colleges of the University. This model of "university colleges" and "university convents" was to be adopted widely in the New World, as well as elsewhere in Spain.
In the New Privileged Law of 1509 Cisneros created an effective legal framework for his vision. The primary objective of the university was to train administrators for the Church and for the Spanish Empire. The Complutense Polyglot Bible (1514-17) illustrates the type of work that began in Alcalá: a masterpiece of typography, it took ten years to complete and established the bases of modern linguistic analysis as well as the accepted structure for dictionaries. This work was supported by that of Antonio de Nebrija, who was the author of the first European grammar of a Romance language (Gramática de la Lengua Castellana), published in 1492, which was to be the model for similar grammars in many European and native American languages. The New Laws of the Indies were prepared in Alcalá and published there in 1542, the work of the law faculties of the University.
From the mid 17th century, however, saw the number of students, estimated to have been over 12,000 in the 16th century, begin to decline in favour of Madrid, where the Church had begun to establish university colleges and convents on the Alcalá model. This process continued until 1836 when, following the disenfranchisement of church and university properties by Mendizabal, the University was transferred to Madrid, where it survives today under the title of the Complutense University of Madrid.
Alcalá de Henares found itself as a result deprived of its raison d'être. The historic buildings of the University, and the urban fabric of the city itself, were at risk, but they were preserved by the actions of the citizens of Alcalá themselves. In a unique act the Society of Joint Owners (Sociedad de Condueños) purchased most of the University buildings and preserved them, in some cases unoccupied, to await the return of the University to the city. Others were converted for military use, retaining their principal features intact.
The city began to expand with the arrival of the railway in 1856. It did not develop substantially, however, until the 1960s, when there was heavy domestic immigration from other parts of Spain to what was becoming an industrial centre. Fortunately, this development, largely unplanned and uncontrolled, did not affect the historic centre, still largely owned by the Society of Joint Owners or the army and further protected by being declared an Historic Area in 1968.
Calls for the return of the University began in 1970, when the Madrid institution had begun using "Complutense" in its title. In 1974 that university established a School of Economics in Alcalá. It was not until three years later that the present University of Alcalá de Henares was inaugurated.
In 1985 a covenant was signed for the military buildings to be renovated and restored to their original use, and the seven buildings that comprised the original foundation of Cisneros were handed over by the Society of Joint Owners. Other historic buildings were purchased and integrated into the University or given associated cultural functions.