Persecution, Inquisition & Expulsion


There are two expulsions of Jews which form the planks of this short history: that of 1290 from England and that of 1492 from Spain.

Jews are first mentioned as a presence in Spain in Church records of 312. In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish communities in Spain grew and became sizeable. However, from the 14th century, Catholic antisemitism sanctioned by Rome threatened Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula.  

This was a European Catholic phenomenon but the first official removal of Jews from a European land was in England. This was the edict for their expulsion by King Edward I in 1290. Archives reveal attacks against Jews across Catholic Europe by Dominican and Franciscan monks before the setting up of the Inquisition in Spain in 1478.

The Spanish Inquisition 

The Inquisition was aimed at revealing Jews who had outwardly converted to Catholicism but were suspected of adhering to Judaism in private. They were labelled as conversos, marranos, anusim  or New Christians. In 14th century Castile and Aragon, there were virulent campaigns to root out individuals, secretly practising Judaism, or Islam. 1391 was a particularly bloody year for Spanish Jews. In Seville, four thousand were murdered. In Cordoba, two thousand Jews were slain. Butcheries were also carried out in Barcelona, Girona, Lérida, Jaén, Mallorca, Toledo and Valencia. 

An Act of Faith, better known by its Portuguese name as auto-da-fé, was an act of public penance imposed on those accused of heresy, including betrayed secret Jews claiming to be Catholics. These were huge staged theatrical spectacles held in main squares of cities, for example in Madrid’s Plaza Major which was even covered with a huge sunscreen sheet. This made a dramatic spectacle of Jewish humiliation comfortable for Catholic audiences. Victims were paraded dressed in clownish, san-benito costumes and many were forced to walk with a noose around their necks.  

Auto-da-fé was the prologue to systematic tortures and dubious judicial practices which led to a variety of sentences, in the most severe cases burnings at the stake as well as expropriations and imprisonment, and sometimes burning in effigy. New Christians discovered to be practising Jews were accused of Jewish observances such as hand washing before prayer, changing clothes on the Jewish Sabbath and not eating pork. 

How many Jews were killed?

It is estimated that over two thousand autos-da-fé were conducted. The number of people executed by the Spanish Inquisition is still debated by historians. Estimates ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 victims over the three centuries of the Inquisition’s activity, have been suggested. 

The wave of persecutions of Jews and Muslims by the political alliance made by Isabel of Castile to Fernando of Aragon in 1469 eradicated Judaism and Islam from the last Iberian bastion of Moorish rule in Granada. 

In 1492, Isabel and Fernando achieved their conquest to Christianise all of Spain. This is the year of Jewish expulsion and the start of the Sephardi story which touches English history from the 15th century onwards. 

Between 1479 and 1481 four hundred Jews were burnt at the stake in Seville. In Castilian Andalusia, possibly two thousand Jews were burned alive, thousands of others were banned from working, suffered imprisonment and had their property confiscated. Whole Jewish communities became destitute. Persecution and murder of Jews was also common practice in the Aragonese dependencies of Sicily and Sardinia and in the Spanish colonies of America.

The last auto-da-fé was held in 1790 but it was not until 1834 that The Spanish Inquisition was abolished.

The poison spreads to Portugal

This story of the eradication of the Jews from the Peninsula spreads into Portugal. Many Spanish Jews fled there for safety but, in 1536, the Portuguese established the Inquisition copying their Spanish neighbour. Therefore auto da fé was active in the whole Iberian Peninsula and it spread to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in America. Brazil. Goa and Port Verde were Portuguese colonies implementing  Auto da fé to root out Jews. 

According to historian Antonio Jose Saraiva, 40,000 individuals were charged by the Portuguese Inquisition. Of those, in the main cities alone, 1,175 might have been burned at the stake until the last auto da fé in 1765. 

Emigrants to England

Many of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who entered England covertly left from Lisbon. Archives in London show that their legal documents are written in the languages where they had once felt that they had belonged. These few Jews managed to escape and with them they brought the culture and languages of their previous lives – Spanish and Portuguese.