Born in 1502, Miguel López de Legazpi was the youngest son of Don Juan Martínez López de Legazpi and Elvira de Gurruchátegui. He was born to a noble family and lived in the small town of Zumárraga, in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa in Spain.
Between 1526 and 1527, López de Legazpi worked as a councilor in the municipal government of his home town. In 1528, after Hernán Cortés had established settlements in Mexico, López de Legazpi went to Mexico (New Spain) to start a new life. This was due to the death of his parents and his dissatisfaction with his eldest sibling, who inherited all of the family fortune. In Tlaxcala, he worked with Juan Garcés and Juan's sister, Isabel Garcés. López de Legazpi would go on to marry Isabel and have nine children with her. Isabel died in the mid 1550s.
Between the periods of 1528 and 1559, he worked as a leader of the financial department council and as the civil governor of Mexico City. He was later commissioned by the viceroy, Luis de Velasco, in early 1564, to lead an expedition in the Pacific Ocean, to find the Spice Islands where the previous explorers Ferdinand Magellan, and Ruy López de Villalobos had landed in 1521 and 1543, respectively. The expedition was ordered by King Philip II of Spain, after whom the islands were eventually named. The viceroy died in July of that year, but the Audiencia and López de Legazpi completed the preparations for the expedition. On the early morning of November 21, 1564, armed with five ships and 500 soldiers, he sailed from the port of Barra de Navidad, New Spain, in what is now Jalisco state, Mexico.
López de Legazpi's troops arrived in the Philippine archipelago and landed in the shores of Cebu on February 13, 1565. After a brief struggle with hostile natives, they left the island in search of food, water, supplies, and other rich resources. On February 22, 1565 they reached the island of Samar guided by Datu Urrao. The Spaniards and their indigenous allies left the island for the nearby islands of Limasawa and Leyte, guided by Datu Bankaw. Their ships drifted to the coast of Bohol on March 16, 1565 where they befriended with Datu Sikatuna and Rajah Sigala; López de Legazpi made a blood compact with the native chieftain, Datu Sikatuna, as a sign of friendship between the two peoples. There, the Spaniards obtained spices and gold after convincing the natives that they were not Portuguese.
On April 27, 1565, the Spaniards and their indigenous allies went back to the island of Cebu, attacking and destroying the village of Rajah Tupas. There, they founded the first Spanish settlements, naming it Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jesús (Town of the Most Holy Name of Jesus) and Villa de San Miguel (Saint Michael's Town).
In 1567, 2100 Spanish, Mexican soldiers and labourers arrived in Cebu under orders of the Spanish King. They established a city and built the port of Fuerza de San Pedro which became their outpost for trade with Mexico and protection from hostile native revolts.
In 1568, López de Legazpi sent one of his men back to Spain to report on his progress. He himself remained in Cebu and did not accompany his men during the conquest of Manila because of health problems and advanced age. Having heard of the rich resources of Manila, he dispatched two of his Lieutenant-commanders, Martín de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo, to explore the northern region.
In late 1569, a force of 300 Spanish soldiers, cavalrymen, and several of their native allies, left Cebu and began exploring the Northern regions of the Visayas. The Spaniards founded the islands of Panay and Mindoro, where they encountered Chinese sea pirates in the area. Goiti and Salcedo fought with sea pirates on the Eastern coastline of Mindoro and defeated them off the island. The Spaniards later established settlements in the area.
The native inhabitants were pagans and part of the motivation of the Spaniards was to convert the natives into Roman Catholics. Aside from baptizing the natives and giving them Christian names, the Islands also lost its former name and from then on was known as Filipinas in honor of Felipe II de España (Philip II of Spain).
"After the islands had been conquered by the sovereign light of the holy gospel which entered therein, the heathen were baptized, the darkness of their paganism was banished, and they changed their own for Christian names. The islands also, losing their former name, took--with the change of religion and the baptism of their inhabitants--that of Filipinas Islands, in recognition of the great favors received at the hands of his Majesty Filipe the Second, our sovereign, in whose fortunate time and reign they were conquered, protected, and encouraged, as a work and achievement of his royal hands."
On May 8, 1570, they arrived in Manila and entered Manila Bay. The Spaniards were overwhelmed by the size of the harbour. There, they were welcomed by the natives. Goiti's soldiers camped there for a few weeks, while forming an alliance with the muslim tribal chief, Rajah Sulayman.
On May 24, 1570, after quarrels and mis-understanding had erupted between the two groups, the Spaniards marched on to the towns of Tondo and the city of Manila, where a battle was fought against Rajah Sulayman's warriors. The heavily armed Spanish soldiers defeated the natives and conquered the area.
In the same year, more reinforcements arrived in the Philippines, prompting López de Legazpi to leave Cebu. He took 250 soldiers and 600 native warriors to explore the regions of Leyte and Panay. He followed Goiti and Salcedo to Manila the following year, after hearing the city had been conquered.
In Manila, López de Legazpi formed a peace pact with the native councils, Rajah Sulayman, Rajah Matanda, and Rajah Lakandula. Both groups agreed to organize a city council, consisting of two mayors, twelve councilors and a secretary. López de Legazpi finally established a permanent settlement there on June 24, 1571, and he also ordered the construction of the walled city of Intramuros. He proclaimed the town as the island's capital and permanent seat of the Spanish colonial government in the western Pacific Ocean.
With the help of Augustinian and Franciscan friars, he established a government on the islands. He became the first Spanish governor of the Philippines and worked to convert the natives to the Catholic religion. Those who opposed his rule were tortured and executed, while those who supported him were awarded with encomiendas.
López de Legazpi governed the colony for a year before dying of heart failure in Manila in 1572. He died poor and bankrupt, leaving only a few pesos behind, due to having spent most of his personal fortune during the conquest. He was later laid to rest in San Agustin Church, Intramuros. He did not live to see the commemoration of Manila in 1574, where the city was given the title Distinguished and ever loyal city of Spain (Insigne y Siempre Leal Ciudad de España) by the king of Spain.
By the time of López de Legazpi's death, the regions of Luzon, Visayas and parts of northern Mindanao had already passed to Spanish rule. For the next 256 years, the Philippine Islands became a territory of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and was administered as a Spanish colony.