At the foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range, the complex was commanded by King Philip II of Spain as a necropolis for the Spanish monarchs and the seat of studies in aid of the Counter-Reformation. It was designed by the architects Juan Bautista de Toledo, Giambattista Castello, and Juan de Herrera in an austere classical style, and built from 1563 to 1584. It's shaped as a grid in memory of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. It is said that during the battle of Saint Quentin, the Spanish troops destroyed a small hermitage devoted to the saint. As a compensation and thanking his victory, the King decided to dedicate the monastery to the saint.
The complex has an enormous store of art, including works by Titian, El Greco, Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and others. Also at the complex is a library containing thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts. It is the burial site for most Spanish kings since Philip II.
The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an extremely popular tourist attraction, often visited as a day trip from Madrid. It is close to the Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos.
The surrounding town of El Escorial is also home for the popular summer courses of Universidad Complutense.