Reprinted with permission from
Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered
, published by Alfred Knopf.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, the Catholic Monarchs
In 1469, Prince Fernando of Aragon married his cousin, the Castilian heiress Isabel. Five years later, Isabel ascended her country’s throne. It was a formidable alliance, both of personalities and of political destinies.Although intensely pious, Isabel was described by her contemporaries as a “mistress of dissimulation and simulation,” a woman capable of pursuing her goals without scruple or sentiment. Fernando, in turn, although a dynamic and attractive figure, a brave soldier and respected commander, could be as ruthless and duplicitous as his wife. When informed that Louis XI of France complained of having twice been deceived by him, Fernando protested: “The king of France lies. I deceived him not twice, but ten times.”
Isabel and Fernando operated from a base of promising strength. By law, Castile and Aragon remained separate and independent. In actual fact, the linked resources of their kingdoms enabled the “Catholic Monarchs” to transform Spain into a major European empire. During the 1470s and 1480s, the two rulers conducted a vigorous, unrelenting campaign to break the power of the nobility. To that end, they shrewdly discerned the political advantage implicit in a joint campaign of reconquista. By pressing the onslaught against Granada, Islam’s last foothold on the peninsula, Fernando and Isabel might harness the support of the church and the religious passions of their subjects, including the fractious on behalf of “Christian civilization.” At the same time, under the mantle of reconquest, a second goal might be achieved. This was an expedient and unifying crusade against heresy within the Christian community itself.
For the Jews, the new royal strategy was a matter of grave moment. On the one hand, such men as Abraham Senior and Isaac Abravanel held important positions [as court Jews] under Fernando and Isabel and enjoyed the warm esteem of their rulers. Indeed, it was specifically the queen’s political ambition that revived their historic fiscal talents, and those of other Spanish Jews. “All the Jews in my realm,” Isabel declared as late as 1477, “are mine and under my care and my protection and it belongs to me to defend them and keep justice.” Yet by then, her “care and protection” hardly could be reconciled with the royal intention of manipulating the nation’s religious fervor. Within the frontiers of Christian Spain, the issue of conversos was fast becoming an inflamed public lesion. To treat that wound, and to foster their subjects’ ideological unity, Isabel and her husband turned to a mechanism of vast latent potential. It was an “inquisition into heresy and backsliding.”
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