the Convento San Marcos functioned as a monastery until “excloisteration” in 1837; it subsequently went through numerous uses from the mundane to the sinister before becoming a museum and hotel. among the mundane uses: a high school, a veterinary college and stud farm, a Jesuit residence home, military offices, and military barracks.
in the 1870s the government proposed leveling the building to provide space for alternative projects but the plan was fortunately scuppered. this building is one of the few pre-modern buildings that still stands outside the city walls; after walking between all the period buildings that line the warren-like streets within the walls of the city, it’s rather remarkable to emerge onto the wider avenues beyond, packed with bland 20th century construction. there are certainly unique architectural sites outside the walls and their overpowering modernity provided a peculiar contrast to the site of the Plaza San Marcos but mostly it was blocks of flats and the characterless but functional facades of any modern city.
on the more sinister end of uses, the Convento San Marcos served as a prison — both during its time as a monastery and after it fell under government control. during the mid-17th century, the politician and and poet, Francisco de Quevedo found himself an unwitting occupant of the basement dungeons of the monastery. he’d allegedly written a satire against the king but his true “crime” stemmed from engendering the enmity of the prime minister of the time, the Count Duke of Olivares. because of his (honorary) membership in the Order of Santiago, Quevedo was permitted to serve his sentence in the Order’s headquarters, rather than in a civil penitentiary. while imprisonment did nothing for his physical health, during the four years he spent at San Marcos Quevedo wrote three of his most notable philosophical works (Life of Saint Paul, Providence of God, and Constancy and Patience of Saint Job). upon his release, he retired to another monastery, where he died two years later (in 1645).
while certainly no easy punishment for Quevedo in the 17th century, the unwilling guests of the 20th century had an even harsher experience within the walls of the ex-monastery. during the Spanish Civil War, the building served as a concentration camp for republican prisoners and other opponents of the Franco regime. between 1936 and 1940, the prisoner population reached some 6,700 men while a further 15,000 filtered through on their way to other prison camps elsewhere. numerous executions took place within the grounds and it became a symbol of repression in León and throughout Spain. when we visited, they had an exhibit in the cloisters featuring remembrances from those who’d been imprisoned in the monastery during the Franco regime. harrowing stuff.
the building was given over to the Parador chain in 1964 for conversion into a luxury hotel and museum (housed in the church and cloisters). the church houses an array of art collected from around the area, as well sculptures designed and crafted at the time of the church’s construction. numerous famous and royal guests have stayed at the Parador, including the King and Queen of Spain, who first visited in 1970 while still Prince and Princess, as well as Latin American presidents, Nobel winners and others.