Conversos & Crypto-Jews


The term Crypto-Jews  refers to Jews who appear to have converted to Christianity but actually live secretly as Jews. This double identity was risky for individuals and for their descendants. Crypto-Jews were described as such in the medieval Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon – the twin forerunners of the Spanish state – and later in Portugal.

Moors better
When the Muslim Moors overran the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, the condition of Jewish communities improved. New Muslim rulers were generally tolerant towards Jews, allowing them to play important roles in civic and intellectual life. For Jews, this period came to be seen as a Golden Age.

Sadly this didn’t last, and Jews’ situation worsened in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is when power transferred to more puritanical and zealous Muslim sects, first Almoravids, then Almohads. Their attitude to Jews was more hostile. At the same time, the Christian Reconquista was wresting most of the Iberian peninsula from Moorish control. Consequently,  large Jewish communities were transferred from Muslim to Catholic rule.

Forced to convert
At first the Jews were tolerated and protected by their new Catholic rulers. But anti-Jewish sentiment, provoked by prejudice, resentment and ignorance, grew over the fourteenth century. From the 1390s onwards, Jews were pressured to convert to Christianity in order to survive. Their lives were menaced by persecution, outrages and massacres.

Conversion eventually led conversos to abandon Judaism and completely assimilate into Christian society. For some, forsaking Judaism was the road to social elevation: in 1415, former Jew Solomon ha-Levi was anointed as Archbishop of Burgos. For others, conversion was opportunistic and they continued to practise their Judaism secretly. This might involve observance of Jewish dietary laws, observing Shabbat, taking part in Jewish funeral rites and keeping Jewish prayer books. There is some dispute among historians about the proportion of conversos who secretly continued their Jewish faith. However, within the general Catholic population, there was a widespread view that the Christian beliefs of conversos were sham. Conversos were often accused of ‘judaizing’ – secretly engaging in Jewish rituals. 

Conversion not enough
Throughout the fifteenth century, conversos faced scapegoating, attacks and pogroms. They were attacked after failed harvests and tax rises. Secret Jews were viewed with deep suspicion as threats to the Catholic social order. Jealousy and resentment were also factors: many conversos attained positions of significant wealth and influence that provoked jealousy from ‘old’ Christians. 

The degree of suspicion and mistrust reached such a pitch that, in 1478, the Pope granted permission for the setting up of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the realms of Castile and Aragon. In Portugal, this did not happen until 1536. Inquisition tribunals had existed sporadically in other parts of Europe since the twelfth century to deal with a variety of heretical practices. It is notable that this was the first instance of its operation under royal rather than Papal authority. The Tribunal’s initial rationale was to stamp out  ‘heresy’ among Jewish and Muslim converts.

Enter Torquemada
In 1483, the notorious Tomás de Torquemada, himself of converso descent, was appointed as the first Inquisitor General. Torquemada’s seething hatred of Jews and Muslims drove his actions. By the end of the 1480s, Inquisition courts were well-established and active throughout Castile and Aragon. They deployed torture and made extensive use of denunciations to extract confessions. These courts meted out a variety of punishments, ranging from property confiscation to imprisonment to, in a minority of cases, death. It is important to note that the jurisdiction of the Inquisition did not extend to Jews: its remit was limited to Christians, not least Cristianos Novos, the Jews who claimed to be Christians. They were suspected of apostasy and engagement in non-Christian practices.

By the end of the fifteenth century, it is likely that most of the large Jewish populations of Castile and Aragon had converted. In 1492, those Jews who refused to convert were expelled from those realms. Five years later, Portuguese Jews, including the Castilian Jews who had fled there in 1492, were forced into mass conversion. This created a significant converso community in Portugal. But even that did not prevent the 1506 Lisbon massacre of hundreds who were of Jewish origin. For the remaining Crypto-Jews the ferocious zeal of the Inquisition made itself felt, although in Portugal several decades after Spain.

Inquisitorial punishments
Over the first 30+ years of its activity in Castile and Aragon, the Inquisition punished an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 conversos. These victims were former Jews and Muslims: there are accounts that 700 of them were burnt at the stake. This happened at an early, particularly energetic stage of the Inquisition. By the middle of the sixteenth century, in what had by then become the unified kingdom of Spain, Crypto-Judaism had largely disappeared. The Inquisition had achieved its goal: those conversos who were secretly practising Judaism but escaped condemnation and the death sentence eventually renounced their Judaism and assimilated.

Some cases were still to come up before Inquisition tribunals until well into the eighteenth century. And remarkably, pockets of converso descendants were still clinging onto residual Jewish beliefs in isolated villages in northern Portugal until the early twentieth century.

Seeking sanctuary in England
Some Spanish and Portuguese Crypto-Jews chose exile. Many ended up in Antwerp and Amsterdam but, throughout the sixteenth century, small groups also came to England. A few individuals achieved prominence, if not notoriety, such as the diplomat Hector Nunez and Elizabeth I’s physician, Roderigo Lopez.

Although the authority of the Inquisition did not extend to England, these tiny secret Jewish communities were not free from danger. In the middle of the century, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, most felt compelled to flee the country. And in 1609, James I expelled a number of Portuguese Crypto-Jews suspected of judaizing. Nevertheless, during the first half of the seventeenth century, a small community of Spanish and Portuguese Crypto-Jews, largely merchants, managed to subsist. Arguably their most prominent and well-connected member, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, attended mass at the Spanish ambassador’s chapel whilst secretly practising Judaism. In 1655, he was the first Jew in England to be endenizened (naturalised).

Another prominent member of the community, Antonio Rodrigues Robles, brought a case in 1656 against the seizure of his property. England was at war with Spain, and the goods belonging to Spanish merchants had been confiscated. Robles argued that he was a Jew rather than a Spaniard and was therefore exempt from the confiscation. He won his case and his property was returned to him. This verdict implicitly recognised a Jewish presence in England.

No longer in hiding
Acknowledgement like this paved the way for the tacit agreement to the opening of a discreet London synagogue and, in 1657, the establishment of  the first Jewish graveyard in Mile End. At that point there were around 100 Jews living in London. More formal toleration followed under the reign of Charles II, and the community gradually expanded.

Crypto-Jews openly practised Judaism. In Spain and Portugal, Crypto-Judaism withered through conversions and the work of the Inquisition, but in England it disappeared fairly quickly, because toleration rendered it unnecessary. Meanwhile, the Inquisition remained active until 1821 in Portugal and 1834 in Spain.