Villena’s strategic geographic location, together with its rich underground water supplies, have determined the town’s role in history and explain why this area has been home to nearly all prehistoric cultures, from the Mid-Palaeolithic 50,000 years ago.
Although traces of the Neolithic and the Copper Age remain, it is the Bronze Age that really put Villena on the map of history.
Proof of this can be seen in its fantastic gold treasure that gave rise to the term Villena-style goldsmithing. The continued presence of early cultures here is demonstrated by the remains of Iberian settlements and Roman villas scattered around the local area.
We know that in the Islamic period, this city of gardens marked the northern border of the Moorish kingdom of Murcia. Its frontier position means that the name of Villena crops up in various episodes of the Reconquest. The Christian conquest of Villena took place in 1240, led by the Commander of Alcañiz on behalf of king Jaime I and the Crown of Aragón. When the Treaty of Almizra was signed in 1243, the town was handed over to Castile.
King Fernando II created the title of Lordship of Villena and granted it to his son, the Infante Don Manuel. It remained in the Manuel family and later passed into the Pacheco family until 1488, when the Catholic Monarchs made it part of crown property. The land was a Lordship, Principality, Dukedom and then a Marquisate. It was part of today’s provinces of Almería, Murcia, Albacete, Alicante, Valencia and Cuenca and consisted of twenty-three towns.
The turn of the 16th century opened a period of peace, only broken by the eternal land dispute over Los Alhorines between Caudete and Villena. In 1525, Carlos I granted it town status.
During the War of Succession between the Austrias and the Bourbons, Villena supported the latter, represented by Felipe V, and its castle became a convenient troop base for putting an end to the Kingdom of Valencia laws at the Battle of Almansa in 1707. This earned the town the title of Most Noble, Very Loyal and Extremely Faithful, still seen today in the coat of arms.
The urban appearance of Villena in the late 18th century was of an open city with no walls, firmly set on the road to progress with the arrival in the mid-19th century of the railway linking Alicante and Madrid, and the line connecting it with Alcoy. The town was once again reminded of its history when it became part of the province of Alicante in 1836.
It would be true to say that Villena has a strong attachment to its Atalaya Castle. Its commanding position against the skyline evokes the town’s mix of Moorish and Christian cultures. It is certainly Villena’s most remarkable monument and, together with the Treasure, it is part of the town’s identity. Its striking appearance and historic value led it to being declared a Historic and Artistic Monument in 1931. Nowadays it enjoys greater protection under the status of Asset of Cultural Interest.
Several archaeological digs carried out in the 1970s revealed that the Atalaya Castle dates back to the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Its location on the hill of San Cristóbal, a spur of the Sierra de la Villa mountains, enabled it to control and defend surrounding land.
It was used from the Moorish era right up until contemporary times and has seen many events, including Moorish occupation and the Spanish War of Independence.
Following the Christian conquest in 1240, the fortress passed into the hands of the Infante Don Alfonso of Castile, who created the Lordship of Villena for his brother the Infante Don Manuel, who was in turn succeeded by Don Juan Manuel. This well-known writer spent a great deal of time in the castle with his literature and hunting pursuits. He strengthened the castle defences to accommodate his fiancée, the daughter of Jaime II of Aragón, who spent several years there until she was old enough to be his wife.
Architecturally speaking, the castle is surrounded by a double defensive wall and is built on a more or less rectangular layout. The outer wall is defended by twelve towers and the inner wall by round turrets and a great keep with four floors. The first two date from the Moorish era and the others from Christian times, as can be seen from the coats of arms of Juan Pacheco, Marquis of Villena, on all four sides.
The most striking features of the keep are the Almohad vaulting on the first two floors, the pointed vaulting over the staircase and the graffiti preserved on the walls of the various halls, depicting Islamic and Christian symbols and made by prisoners during the Spanish Wars of Succession and Independence.
What else to see in Villena
The Monument to Ruperto Chapí stands in Paseo de Chapí and was made in 1947 by the local sculptor Antonio Navarro Santafé as a tribute to the great musician born in Villena. The piece is carved from Monóvar stone from the Sierra del Morrón mountains and consists of the seated figure of Chapí surrounded by allegoric figures from two of his works: La Bruja, on his left and La Revoltosa, on his right.
The square of Plaza de Santiago is the most characteristic urban space in Villena’s historic quarter. The square’s irregular layout is arranged around the church of Santiago and is the setting for many of the town’s important buildings.
It was originally the centre of the old Christian settlement, unlike the Moorish part of town concentrated around the mosque, which stood on the site now occupied by the Church of Santa María.
Today, Plaza de Santiago is still the town’s cultural, social, civic, religious and recreational centre, with the Casa de Cultura, Town Hall, Casa del Festero, Tourist Office, Church of Santiago and numerous leisure facilities clustered here. One of its most attractive features is that it provides an overview of how architecture developed here, from the Gothic-style church, to the Renaissance Palacio Municipal (where the town hall is based) and finally the post-modern style of the Casa de Cultura.
Plaza de las Malvas, to the west of La Corredera, still preserves Baroque-style 18th century buildings, with their brightly-coloured plasterwork façades. The most important building in the square is the palatial home of the Mergelina family.
The Plaza Mayor (main square), next to Calle Mayor, follows the tradition of most Spanish main squares. It serves as a connection between the historic quarter and the modern town.
The Selva family house, an excellent example of the 19th century middle class building style, is in Plaza de Santiago and is a palatial home on three floors plus a fourth floor recessed from the façade.
The Mergelina family palace was built as a nobleman’s house in the late 17th century, and is now a residential home for the elderly. It still preserves its complete Baroque façade.
The Palacio Municipal, commissioned by Pedro de Medina in the early 16th century, is a Renaissance style building. The building work has been attributed to Jacobo Florentino, a sculptor who had worked alongside Michelangelo in Florence and who, after working in Granada and Murcia, died in Villena in 1526.
The historic centre and the Arab quarter can both trace their origins back to the Atalaya castle, around which the Moorish settlement was built. The settlement spread around what is now the church of Santa María, the former mosque, which was purified by the Christians following the Reconquest.