Isabel – Protector of Jews

“Not surprisingly, a foreign traveller commented on Isabella that
‘her subjects say publicly that the queen is a protector of Jews’[i]

“From 1416 onwards the Aragonese crown protected the
Jews and conversos firmly, rejecting all attacks on them.”[ii]

For Queen Isabel the Jews were a people she admired and a people under her protection. In 1475 Pope Sixtus IV complained of Jews subverting Christian faithful in Spain. Nevertheless when the people of Cordova, following gruesome riots, tried to exclude conversos from public office, they found the newly-crowned queen opposed to them. Netanyahu writes it is possible that:

“on her own initiative, or moved by the highly placed conversos in her Court, the Queen instructed the authorities in Cordova to abolish their anti-conversos ruling, which conflicted with the laws of the kingdom and the Church.”[iii]

But Isabel was not an absolutist monarch. Towns, cities and nobles had the means and often the rights to govern as they saw fit. Over her lifetime Isabel united all Spain by her leadership, her virtue and her vision. But she could never simply enforce her will on the country against the wishes of the people. Thus in the clash between Christians and Jews, Isabel ultimately was not able to get her own way. Professor Netanyahu puts the blame for the conflicts and the expulsion squarely on the towns and municipalities. An example comes from the converso historian Diego de Valera concerning the city council of Córdoba where:

“there was a great enmity and rivalry, since the New Christians were very rich and kept buying public offices, which they made use of so arrogantly that the Old Christians would not put up with it.”

Isabel’s actions showed she hungered for honesty and tolerance. Newly crowned she contributed toward the restoration of the synagogue in Gerona and guaranteed the Jews the practice of their religion. When Jews in Trujillo protested that the alcaide Pizarro had been forcing them to do degrading work Isabel had Pizarro suspended from his post. When maltreatment continued under Caceres, Queen Isabel sent a letter of security to insist the Jews not be abused. On 6th September 1477 Isabel confirmed the law of the Cortes of Burgos (dated 1379) which forbade the levying of special taxes on Jews. Isabel decreed:

“For this is my own letter: I acquire and accept under my custody and my protection and royal safeguard the Jews themselves and their synagogues (in my kingdoms and dominions) and to everyone of them and to their individuals and goods and I preserve them from all persons…”[iv]

She further insisted Christians respect Jewish law:

“Do not put pressure on them on [their Sabbath]…I command you, each and everyone, not to take, or allow to be taken, by force or against their will, the said synagogues and houses of prayer, neither their burials or properties.”

As a just sovereign Isabel assiduously took on the duty of protecting all her subjects, especially those who were vulnerable. Kamen writes:

“Given the Jews were constantly on the defensive against powerful municipal interests, the interventions of the crown in local politics present an impressive picture of the monarchy protecting its Jews.”[v]

Despite the tensions, reasonable and unreasonable, between Jews, conversos and Christians, Isabel tried to remain a friend to all people of goodwill. God Himself had commanded:

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” – Leviticus 19:33-34

In 1478 there were further riots in Seville due to tensions with conversos and Jews. There was a growing resentment against the attempts of some to undermine Christianity. In 1480 the Cortes of Toledo (a local parliament), in an effort to diminish Jewish influence on Christians, ordered Jewish neighbourhoods be established away from Christian neighbourhoods, giving the Jews two years to move. In 1482 the Spanish Inquisition was established to discover which conversos were undermining the Faith. As early as 1461 Franciscan monks had petitioned their superior for a tribunal such as existed in France to try heretics.[vi] Isabel hoped the praxis of it would bring an end to the insidious attacks on the Church and thus deliver order and peace. In the 30 years of Isabel’s reign about 100,000 persons, many of them conversos, were questioned by the Inquisition. Of these, more than 80,000 were found innocent and usually very promptly. Another 15,000 were found guilty, but after a public declaration of faith, auto de fe, they were unconditionally released. About 2,000 were executed.[vii] This enormous effort was carried out largely by trained lawyers and in reality the Inquisition bore no resemblance to the myth which grew up about it [see appendix B]. It had no jurisdiction over Jews as Jews, but only over those who professed to be Christian, or those who were directly attacking the Church. Isabel also battled against abuses committed by the Inquisition, which were notable in its earliest years. While over the long-term the Inquisition was outstandingly successful, nevertheless it was not able to put an end to the trouble caused by false conversos.

In 1482 war broke out with Muslim-held Granada which was to last ten years. Christian Spain needed stability more than ever and Isabel and Ferdinand were supremely responsible for making that happen. Where there was internal division and instability the sovereigns were duty bound to find answers. The region bordering Granada was Andalusia. Here too many Jews had interests in a Muslim victory and so in 1483 Queen Isabel rescinded their permission to remain in Andalusia. In 1484, as a measure against the continuing proselytising by Jews among Christians, Isabel, with a bull from Pope Sixtus IV, limited Christians’ communication with Jews.

As resentments between the two groups increased, so did the number of decrees Isabel and Ferdinand issued to stabilise the situation. Luís Suárez Ferandez has indexed 266 such documents.[viii] For example, in 1485 the Kings gave protection to Castilian Jews from lawsuits. In 1486 they again annulled discriminatory laws made in Burgos, in this case laws attempting to expel all Jews who had married in the past three years and to cap the number of resident Jews. In 1488 the Kings lessened Segovia’s restrictions on trading, and scratched completely an ordinance in Medina del Campo which prohibited the sale of firewood and bread in the Jewish quarter. The following year in the same place the Kings again ruled in favour of the Jews. When certain cities in Aragón, such as Saragossa, attempted to enclose the Jews, both Isabel and Ferdinand came out firmly against such measures.[ix] From Jews in Plasencia came complaints that an official sent to help them was making things worse; the official was replaced by a royal edict of 18th May 1491.[x] When Jews of Medina de Pomar in Bilbao complained of harassment Isabel and Ferdinand gave an order that:

“By canon law and in accord with the laws of our kingdoms, the Jews are tolerated and suffered, and we command you to tolerate and suffer them, that they may live in our kingdoms as our native-born subjects.”[xi]

Henry Kamen shows:

“the crown actively favoured Jews and former Jews...Ferdinand and Isabel intervened repeatedly to protect their Jews from excesses (as late as 1490 they began an enquiry into Median del Campo’s ban on Jews setting up shops in the main square)”.[xii]

But there was no coming together of Jews and Christians. Powerful people close to the throne were counselling Isabel to expel the Jews altogether. Unity for Spain, won at enormous cost, finally seemed within grasp as the 780-year war with the Moors approached an end. Threats to unity took on their full significance. Isabel gave the proposition of expulsion increasing consideration.

“When the local expulsions had failed, after ten long years, to stem the alleged heresies of the conversos, the crown decided on the most drastic measure of all—a total expulsion of the Jews.”[xiii]

[i] Kamen, p.12

[ii] Jaume Riera Sans, Judíos y conversos en la reinos de la Corona de Aragón durante el siglo XV (Toledo, 1993)

[iii] Netanyahu, p. 917. Half of Avila’s population of 7,000 was Jewish.

[iv] For the original Castilian see Anastasio Gutierrez, Expulsion de los Judios de Espana, p. 154

[v] Kamen, p.16

[vi] C. Carrete Parrondo, Los conversos jerónimos, p.101

[vii] In 1794 during the French Revolution more men and women were executed in twenty days than the Inquisition under Queen Isabel gave over to execution in twenty years.

[viii] Luís Suárez Fernandez, Documentos acerca de la expulsión de los judíos, (Valladolid, 1964)

[ix] Motis Dolader, Minorités et marginaux en Espagne et dans le Midi de la France (VIIe-XVIIIe siècles) (Paris, 1986)

[x] Warren H. Carroll refers to this long list of letters and decrees in Isabel of Spain, (Christendom Press, 1991), noting that no less than ten are specifically cited in a single paragraph in Romón Menéndez Pidal, director, Historia de Espana, Volume XVII: “Espana de los Reyes Católicas,” ed. Luis Suárez Fernández and Manuel Fernández Alvarez (Madrid, 1969), Part 2, pp.251, 262-3.

[xi] Liss, p.304-5.

[xii] Kamen, p.15, 19

[xiii] Ibid. p.19

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