The University of Salamanca (Universidad de Salamanca), located in the town of Salamanca, west of Madrid, is the oldest university in Spain (the older "Estudio general de Palencia", which soon later disappeared, never got the title of University), and one of the oldest in Europe. It was founded by Alfonso IX of León in 1218 as a "General School". This foundation did not last and the university was refounded by Alfonso's son, King St. Ferdinand III in 1243.
In the reign of Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, Queen of Castile, the Spanish government was revamped. Contemporary with the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews, and the conquest of Granada, there was a certain professionalization of the apparatus of the state. This involved the massive employment of "letrados", i.e., bureaucrats and lawyers, who where "licenciados" (graduates) of the Universities, particularly, of Salamanca, and the newly founded University of Alcalá. These men staffed the various councils of state, including, eventually, the Consejo de Indias and Casa de Contratacion, the two highest bodies in metropolitan Spain for the government of the Spanish Empire in the New World. While Columbus was lobbying the King and Queen for a contract to seek out a western route to the Indies, he made his case to a council of geographers at the University of Salamanca. In the next century, the morality of colonization in the Indies was debated by the School of Salamanca, along with questions of economics, philosophy and theology.
By the end of the Spanish Golden Age (c. 1550-1650), the quality of academics in Spanish universities declined. The frequency of the awarding of degrees dropped, the range of studies shrank, and there was a sharp decline in the number of its students. The centuries old European wide prestige of Salamanca evaporated.
Like Oxford and Cambridge, Salamanca had a number of colleges (Colegios Mayores). These were founded as charitable institutions to enable poor scholars to attend the University. By the eighteenth century they had become closed corporations controlled by the families of their founders, and dominated the university between them. Most were destroyed by Napoleon's troops. Today some have been turned into faculty buildings while others survive as halls of residence.
In the 19th century, the Spanish government dissolved the university's faculties of canon law and theology. They were later reestablished in the 1940s as part of the Pontifical University of Salamanca.
Today the University of Salamanca is an important centre for the study of humanities and is particularly noted for its language studies.
Notable students and academic teachers include: