On the eastern outskirts of Palma is a wooded hill, rising 113 m (365 feet) above the city, and on its summit is the unmistakable profile of Bellver Castle. Jaime the Conqueror stated his desire to build a castle on the hill following his conquest of Mallorca in 1229 but nothing happened until his son Jaime II appointed an architect in 1300. Pere Salva was supervising the conversion of the Almudaina when he ordered to take control of the ambitious project and for the next nine years teams of men toiled to make the King's wish come true.
Bellver Castle's circular ground plan is both unique in Spain and unusual in Europe. It has an inner courtyard surrounded by two colonnaded floors while the central well gives access to the underground water cistern. The castle has four towers on the cardinal points of the compass and while three are attached to structure, the fourth, the Torre de l'Homenatge (Homage Tower), stands on its own. A bridge connects the tower's second floor door to the rest of the castle and it is said that prisoners were dropped into the ground floor dungeon nicknamed 'The Pot' to await their fate.
The castle originally had battlements on the top balconies and towers but they were converted into gun ports when artillery was invented. Windows were added at the same time. The whole structure is surrounded by a four metre deep dry moat faced in stone.
The castle was originally built as a countryside residence for the Kings of Mallorca but it was besieged in 1343 when Peter IV of Aragon captured the island from James III. Following James's death at the battle of Llucmajor in 1349, Queen Violante, her children James and Isabella and other supporters were imprisoned inside its walls.
At the end of the 1300s King John I of Aragon moved his court to the castle, to escape the plague ravaging the peninsula, and in 1391 peasants besieged it when anti-Semitism was rife in the city. Although a Lord Warden governed the castle, King Martin I of Aragon gave the lordship to the Valldemossa Charterhouse in 1408. In 1521 Bellver Castle became a safe haven for nobles looking to escape the Brotherhoods, following riots caused by rising taxes. They eventually broke in and massacred those inside. Two years later Joanot Colom and other leaders of the Brotherhood were held here before they were executed.
The castle was rarely used by the island's Viceroys after the massacre but it was often used as a prison for influential hostages, particularly as the island was isolated from mainland politics. Supporters of Phillippe d'Anjou were held here during the War of Spanish Succession between 1701 and 1714 when several European powers fought to unite Spain and France. Following the Bourbon victory, supporters of the Habsburg pretender were incarcerated in the castle and in 1717 it was turned into a full-time military prison with its own garrison. Later Habsburg pretenders to the Spanish throne were also locked inside Bellver Castle's walls.
At the beginning of the 19th century the lawyer Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos became an influential man in Spain and his paper on land reform stirred up conservative opposition. When Charles IV appointed Manuel de Godoy as his new Prime Minister, Jovellanos had to retire as Minister of Justice. He continued to oppose Godoy's plans to work with the French until he was imprisoned in Valldemossa monastery in 1801. Jovellanos was moved to Bellver castle a year later and although the cold damp rooms played havoc with his health he carried on writing, often referring to his tower as his living tomb. He was released after the fall of Godoy in March 1808 and worked to oppose Napoleon's occupation of Spain until his death in 1811.
Thousands of French soldiers were captured at the Battle of Bailén, a major victory for Spanish troops in the Peninsular War (or the War of Independence), in July 1808. While many of the officers were held in Bellver Castle, the rank and file were left to rot on Cabrera Island (see the page on Cabrera Prison Camp).
General Luis R. de Lacy fought bravely against the French throughout the Peninsular War, even planning to poison Napoleon with flour laced with arsenic. Following the expulsion of French troops in 1814 he was disgusted to hear that Ferdinand VII refused to accept the 1812 Constitution and was demanding a return to an absolute monarchy. De Lacy planned to stop the King but a revolt known as the Pronouncement of Lacy in April 1817, was betrayed and failed. De Lacy was arrested and sentenced to death in Barcelona but protests on the streets meant he had to be taken to Palma and shot in Bellver Castle. The new Cortes of Madrid declared him a heroic martyr in 1820 and a plaque near the gate remembers the brave General.
In May 1905 the War Council handed Bellver Castle over to the Royal Heritage organisation and in 1931 Alexandre J. i Rosselló negotiated its transfer to Palma City. However, only five years later the castle was once more a prison, when the Spanish Civil War began and over 800 Republican prisoners were held inside its walls. Many were executed at the City cemetery, including Alexandre Rosselló and Emili Darder i Cànaves, Palma’s Republican May
The castle eventually shook off its dark past and after a tasteful restoration reopened as the city's museum in 1976. There is a large display about the history of Mallorca the island and Palma the city on the ground floor. On the second floor is Cardinal Despuig's collection of Roman artifacts and a display about Gaspar de Jovellanos. The wonderful central courtyard is used for concerts and many other gatherings. The breathtaking view from the roof over Palma Bay and the city is second to none.
On the slopes below the castle is a chapel dedicated to Saint Alonso Rodriguez and it was built on the initiative of Marques de Ariany, Francis Cotoner between 1879 and 1885. Saint Alonso was keeper of Mont Sion Convent in the city and he used to accompany a priest to the Bellver Castle, to hear take confessions and give communion. Legend has it that while Alonso was staggering up the hill in hot weather, Our Lady appeared, wiped his brow and promised to protect him.
The woods were often used for hunting and riding but at one stage a woman known as Joana the Witch lived in a cave. Nowadays the Sunday following Easter Sunday is a time to gather forest the celebration of the Diumenge de l'Àngel.
Deep in the woods are two huge manmade caves, each measuring 250 meters long by 200 wide; a massive 30,000 m2. They started life as one huge cave dug at the same time as the building of Bellver Castle. While the outer dressed stone of the castle walls was brought from distant quarries, poor quality stone was extracted from the hill for embankments and backfill.
In 1935 the Army planned to fill the caves with petrol tanks but following the start of the Civil War in 1936 the public was banned from Bellver forest. Prisoners were used to build a thick wall down the centre of the cave, creating a munitions store and a fuel store.
The caves were cleared in 1967 and the army handed over the forest to the city of Palma. Today the caves can be visited during the feast of San Sebastian during the third week in January.
For details of current admission prices and opening times visit the Palma Council Website.
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