expanded the existing Studium Generale
into a large five-college University
On 20 May 1293, King Sancho IV of Castile granted the Archbishop of Toledo, Gonzalo García Gudiel, a Royal Charter to found a Studium Generale (as Universities were known at that time), named El Estudio de Escuelas de Generales in Alcalá de Henares. One of its alumni, Cardinal Cisneros, made extensive purchases of land and ordered the construction of many buildings, in what became the first university campus ex-novo in history: The Civitas Dei, or city of God, named after the work of Augustine of Hippo. On 13 April 1499, Cardinal Cisneros secured from Pope Alexander VI a Papal bull to expand Complutense into a full university. This Papal Bull conferred official recognition throughout Christendom to all degrees granted by the University. It also renamed the institution Universitas Complutensis, after Complutum, which was the Latin name of Alcalá de Henares, where the University was originally located.
In the 1509–1510 school year, the Complutense University already operated with five major schools: Arts and Philosophy, Theology, Canon law, Philology and Medicine. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Complutense University became one of the greatest centers of academic excellence in the world. Many of the leading figures in science, arts and politics of that age studied or taught in Complutense's classrooms. Special colleges were created for students of foreign origin, such as Flemish or Irish.
In 1785, Complutense became one of the first universities in the world to grant a Doctorate to a female student, María Isidra de Guzmán y de la Cerda. In comparison, University of Oxford did not accept female scholars until 1920, and the University of Cambridge did not grant a Ph.D. to a female student until 1926.
In 1824, Francisco Tadeo Calomarde further expanded Complutense by merging it with the University of Sigüenza. By a royal order of 29 October 1836, Queen Regent Maria Christina suppressed the university in Alcalá and ordered its move to Madrid, where it took the name of Literary University and, in 1851, of Central University of Madrid. The University would be known under this name until its original name of "Complutense" was restored in the 1970s.
The University of Madrid awarded Albert Einstein a Doctor of Science degree Honoris Causa on 28 February 1923; this was the first Doctor of Science degree Honoris Causa that Albert Einstein accepted from a European university. In April 1933 the Minister for Education and the Arts, Fernando de los Ríos, announced that Einstein had agreed to take charge of a professorship in a research institute, which would bear the name Instituto Albert Einstein, under the University's School of Science. However, as the political situation began to deteriorate throughout Europe, Prof. Einstein ended up accepting a similar position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
The University greatly expanded during the 19th century, and its accommodations in central Madrid proved to be increasingly inadequate. Besides the greater number of students, after its move from Alcalá the University had been based in a number of preexisting, government-acquired properties – mainly aristocratic mansions and royal châteaux from centuries past, abandoned by their owners for more contemporary lodgings. Though they were not without their charm, the ancient buildings were not ideal as educational settings, and the early 20th century witnessed the students of the Central University attending philosophy lectures and anatomy lessons in elaborate spaces that had served as ballrooms and salons only a few decades prior.
This situation changed in 1927, when by royal decree King Alfonso XIII ceded state-held lands in the proximity of the Palace of La Moncloa to establish space for the University of Madrid. At the time, this constituted all of the land between the Royal Palace and the Palace of El Pardo, and today it comprises a vast swath of western Madrid referred to as the "Ciudad Universitaria", or University City of Madrid.
A council appointed by King Alfonso XIII had decided that the new University of Madrid would require the innovative architecture and planning. A team of academics was sent on an international expedition to visit the most prestigious universities in Europe and North America, to combine the best of both continents and design the utopian academic setting. The trip took them to 19 universities in the American northeast, as well as to Paris, Lyon, Oxford, Berlin, Hamburg, and numerous other European cities, all in an effort to discern the best possible building structure. The architectural tendencies of the era, however, ended up having a greater influence than the academics' visits to Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, La Sorbonne or the University of Berlin; while the final plans from this period are hardly recognizable to anyone familiar with the contemporary campus, the buildings from the era that managed to survive the design revisions, the Civil War and the Franco regime betray the period's fondness for the German Bauhaus movement. Indeed, the original buildings, exemplary amongst them the Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy and Odontology, are an homage to structural functionalism and the graceful utilitarianism of the 1920s.
In the 1970s, following the political instability of the regime of Francisco Franco, the University of Madrid was renamed, dividing existing colleges between the Complutense University of Madrid and the Technical University of Madrid. When the city of Alcalá de Henares decided to open a university within the older campus buildings, it was named Universidad de Alcalá de Henares to clearly distinguish it from the Complutense University.