The origin of Monforte is located on Monte de San Vicente (Mount Saint Vincent). This vantage point, that even today dominates the city, was known by the Romans as "Castro Dactonio." A Castro was the Celtic name given to a fortified hill village. Before the arrival of the Romans the people who lived in the Castro were known as Lemavos. The name means residents of the fertile land. (Lemos: a humid and fertile earth)
Although the settlement was destroyed in the eighth century by the Muslims, it re-emerged in importance with the arrival of a Benedictine community which had been given the task of repopulating the territory and in particular to expand Christianity. An important Jewish colony also established itself here dedicated to the trade of silk, silver, leather and cloth.
During medieval times, Monforte was the perfect example of a city-fortress. Located on the hill top, the city was built around a monastery and a castle and surrounded by a defensive wall studded with watchtowers. At the foot of the hill the river Cabe was a source of wealth and life. Large sections of these walls are still preserved as are three city gateways and three towers, one of which – the imposing Torre del Homenaje - can be visited.
Monforte's name comes from the Latin words Mons Fortis (strong hill). The first time the city is referred to by this name appears in a document of the twelfth century. At this time the city was already seen as belonging to the House of Lemos.
Monforte was also affected by the 15th century revolts by the peasants against the oppression of their feudal lords, known as the Imadino revolt. The head of the House of Lemos was one of those who fought and defeated the rebellious peasants and was rewarded by the king with the title of Conde de Lemos (Count of Lemos), thus linking the city and the family in perpetuity.
Monforte enjoyed years of splendour during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the seventh Count of Lemos held important positions at court as the President of the Council of the Indies, Viceroy of Naples and President of the Supreme Council of Italy.
The Count was also a patron of the great Spanish writers of the age like Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Góngora. His greatest legacy to the city of Monforte was the donation of his private collection of Spanish and Italian religious art which can be seen today in the Museo de Arte Sacro de la Madres Clarisas (Monforte’s Museum of Sacred Art), one of the most important in Spain.
Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro; the great-uncle of the 7th Count, has also left his mark on the city with his construction of the imposing building of the College of Our Lady of Antigua, known as the Galician Escorial. It also houses an important collection of paintings of which the highlights are several works by El Greco.
In the early nineteenth century Napoleon Bonaparte's intended invasion of Spain returned Monforte to the fore as it prepared to oppose the invader. The city became a centre for the manufacture and distribution of weapons as well as playing an important role in the recruiting and equipping of soldiers. All this led, of course, to the French deciding to try and raze Monforte..
At the end of this century in 1883, King Alfonso XII inaugurated the Madrid to Coruña railway, a line that turns the capital of Lemos into an important railway junction. Two years later, in 1885, the king granted Monforte the title of City.
The arrival of the railways marked a period of growth in all aspects of life in Monforte, both social and economic, turning it into a prosperous and active city. However in the mid-twentieth century the rail system was gradually dismantled, the railway communication centre was moved to nearby Orense and most of the railway workshops, which were considered the most important in Galicia, were moved to Leon. Monforte entered an era of economic decline.