Q is for Queen of 1492

Expulsion of Jews from Spain, 1492. Painting by Solomon Hart, from freespeech.org.

Isabella I of Castile was a bad ass monarch, one of the strong queens of history. She and hubby Ferdinand made the ultimate move to propel their newly-formed country into a world power. They did it with conviction, with strength and piety… and by instituting a religious pogrom to eliminate all the unbelievers and launching the Inquisition. Welcome to Spain, 1492.

Young, Catholic, and Virtuous in Intention

When her father died without a male heir, Isabella was the named heir, but she had to fend off others who tried to take the throne. It was Castile at issue at the time, and neighboring states in Afonso and Aragon both vied for her hand in marriage and tried to create dynasties to absorb Castile. Isabella had long been engaged to Ferdinand of Aragon. She kept that promise and united Castile and Aragon together.

Young Isabel, next to Madonna on the Fly, 1520. Photo from wikimedia.

Once enthroned in Spain, Isabella did enact some improvements at first. Her father, Henry IV, had built huge debts. She collected taxes and revised rules to address valuation that had let the wealthy skate free. She administered the medicine fairly, with all but the poor required to contribute to new better times. She also reduced crime, built infrastructure, and did support this guy who had a crazy idea about a new way to find a trade route to India. He would go west because the Italians and the Mediterranean locked up and the Portuguese were trolling the cost of Africa.

Isabella and Ferdinand were also both deeply Catholic. Their new “country” had once been nearly half settled by non-Catholics, Muslims in particular. Slowly and surely, they were pushing the Moors out of of Spain, and with the Moors were anyone else that wasn’t Catholic–namely Jews.

The 1492 Alhambra decree, photo from wikpedia.

The Other 1492*

The year that Columbus was sent off to explore was a busy one for Spain. It was the year that they finally captured southern Spain back from the infidels, taking the key to city of Granada. Within three months, they issued an edict to expel all practicing Jews from Spain. It was called the Alhambra Decree.

Supposedly Isabella was concerned about the economic impact of pushing out Jews who were productive and a backbone of commerce in the area. One of the solutions was a requirement that they leave behind their precious metal. They were also given only a few months to gather their belongings, making it difficult to call in open loans and other business ventures. The monarchs were highly influenced by the Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, and he pressed for the strongest restrictions possible.

An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition: Wellcome Library, London.


Torquemada had interesting techniques, not only burning heretics, but generating whatever penance was determined from interrogation and accusation in public. These were called auto-da-fés. Looks a lot like a Roman crucifixion to me.

Even if Isabella wasn’t the driving force behind the persecution of Jews (and Muslims and witches and…), she was satisfied for it to happen on her watch. As Catholicism was pressed forth, the Pope was pleased enough to designate them with a title “Catholic monarchs.”

Isabella by the Spanish School, photo from wikipedia.

Spain Makes Amends

After 500 years, Spain decided they might revoke the decree. It took until 1968 for Spain to eliminate the Alhambra Decree. The Catholic Church had started the process in 1965, with the pope formally apologizing. Spain had to think about it for three more years. In 2012, they passed another rule allowing anyone who could prove that their family had been impacted to become automatic Spanish citizens.

A bit too little, too late, don’t we think?

I wonder if anyone can prove who emerged from the lineage of Torquemada. Maybe there’s a little auto-da-fees that we can shake out of that tree. But I’m such a dreamer!

*A lot of these ideas were provided to me in a terrific Great Course that I listened to a few years’s back. “The Other 1492: Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Making of an Empire,” by Teofilo F. Ruiz. You might be able to track it down through a library system.

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