Chapter Two


. . . fearful of the punishment which for [his heresies] he deserved [he] determined to try to kill himself, without waiting for Justice to fulfil its legal obligations towards him . . .

Évora 1490–1545

IN 1474 A WHALE was beached and killed on the Portuguese coast near Setúbal, not far from Lisbon. The waxen monster from the deep had been attacking and devouring fishermen along the coast. As it lay inert upon the sands, a Portuguese rabbi announced that this was the Leviathan of the Old Testament, and that the Messiah was at hand.1 Just as in Spain, this was a time of omens; the great struggle was near.

Yet the cataclysm stayed away. Even as the inquisitorial flames licked the quemaderos of Seville, Ciudad Real and Zaragoza, in Portugal everything was normal. The old king, Afonso V, died in 1481; John II replaced him, and in 1490 John’s own son, Crown Prince Affonso, was betrothed to Princess Isabella of Spain. The pattern of alliance, advancement and mutual self-interest continued.

The city of Évora, less than forty miles from Portugal’s border with Spain, was chosen to celebrate the royal wedding of Affonso and Isabella. In the days before the Spanish princess’s arrival, there was dancing in the palaces. Parties spilled out of noble houses in the crooked streets beneath the Roman aqueduct. Mummers staged farces. Culture revealed its animalism at the bullfights. As the royal chronicler Rui de Pina put it, ‘the general excitement really made it seem as if the earth was shaking’.2

On 27 November 1490 Princess Isabella entered Évora. All the African slaves had been expelled from the city for ten days for her arrival, and John II had ordered the most beautiful young girls from the area to be brought in. Local farmers and stockmen brought cows and goats from their pastures, pigs with their piglets and cows with their calves. Five squares in the town were set aside for provisions so that no one would go hungry. The king built a banqueting hall of wood for the occasion. The windows of town houses were filled with boughs from orange and laurel trees and with jewels and tapestries.3

So much colour! Muslims were ordered to come from every Moorish community in the country; the best dancers, singers and musicians were demanded, and John II paid for them to have fine clothes and financed their journey. As Princess Isabella entered the town she was greeted by the Moors and the large local Jewish population with farces, dancing and revelry. Soon the farces filled the town. In one pageant John II himself appeared at the head of a great fleet of ships ‘portrayed on cloths painted with wild waves, accompanied by an awesome roar of artillery and trumpets and kettledrums, with tremendous shouts and the racket of whistles, and beside him were shipmasters, pilots and sailors dressed in brocade and silk . . . and the awnings of the ships were made of brocade, the sails of white and violet taffeta, the cordage of gold and silk’.4 In Portugal in 1490, theatricality did not yet imply the autos-da-fé.

As in any masquerade, John II had chosen the image which best characterized his identity. He depicted himself at the helm of a country changing by the month because of its maritime exploits – those exploits which were as terrifying as the noise that accompanied him, but grand and beautiful in their own way. The farces performed by the Jews and Muslims of Évora were also highly symbolic and in keeping with the traditions of court celebrations of the period. But these were among the very last such farces which would be performed in Portugal. Soon such raucous inter-cultural festivities would be decisively in the past. Intolerance was spreading from one part of Iberia to another.

The Inquisition did not move at once from Spain to Portugal. Some fifty-eight years separated the Inquisition’s formation in Spain in 1478 and its Portuguese establishment in 1536. But attitudes and fears moved with greater vim and what had been let out could not so easily be contained. Almost sixty years later, as the converso Álvaro de Leão festered in the cells of the Inquisition in Évora, he must have wondered what sort of future it was that the world had sleepwalked into; the freedom and spontaneity of the celebrations that had graced that city in 1490 were crumbling husks of memory buried under a sediment of fear.

ON 10 JANUARY 1545 the prosecutor of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Évora put forward his case against Álvaro de Leão. Leão was a merchant, born in the frontier town of Mogadouro in north-eastern Portugal near the lush green forests alongside the Douro river. Leão came from a large family of five brothers and one sister; over the course of the next fifty years, the dealings of these people, their children and their grandchildren would encapsulate much of the global history of the Inquisition.

The prosecutor laid out his case with care. Leão, who was around thirty years old, lived in the desolate hills between Mogadouro and the nearby town of Cortiços. It was in Cortiços, the prosecutor alleged, that he ‘was seen to keep the law of Moses and its ceremonies, keeping the Jewish fasts by not eating on them until stars could be seen, and giving alms to conversos in the Jewish manner, as tzedakah’. Álvaro de Leão prayed like a Jew. He gathered with other conversos in a sort of synagogue, keeping the Jewish sabbath, lighting candles on Friday nights and refusing to work on Saturdays. Leão was arrested with his wife Lianor de Carvajal on suspicion of Judaizing and they were both remanded in the inquisitorial prison of Evora.5

Álvaro denied it all. He worked on Saturdays just as he did during the week, going to local markets and selling his goods. He was known as a good Christian who always went to hear mass on Sundays and holy days, paying for masses to be said throughout the year. He had been baptized at the age of eight days just like the Old Christians were. He was a devoted Christian, and there was no reason to doubt his good faith.6

The prosecutor was not convinced. Prisoners often claimed innocence on their arrest; they had to be worn down. The prosecutor was used to a battle of wills; he had learnt to enjoy the struggle to impose his own over the defendants. In Mogadouro and Cortiços, he alleged, it was public knowledge that Leão had committed these crimes. He had refused to pay for the curtains and large sacramental candles for the altar, and even if it was true that ‘he kept the Sundays and feasts of the Church it was also true that [Leão] kept and keeps the Jewish rites and ceremonies’.7

And then, abruptly, the case was shelved. Leão was sent back to the inquisitorial jail to ponder his crimes and consider repentance. He was to spend more than three years there before his case was resolved.

Leão could have been forgiven for thinking that there was some sort of vendetta against him and his family. His brother Jorge was also in the inquisitorial jail in Évora, along with Jorge’s wife Branca. Like Álvaro, Jorge and Branca lived in Cortiços and Jorge was a trader there – the brothers had been arrested together on the same day.8 Meanwhile, one of Álvaro and Jorge’s maternal uncles, Bernardo López, had also been arrested by the Inquisition and was in the same prison.9 A spell had been cast on these families which it would take centuries to break.

This case was typical of events in Portugal. In the 1480s many conversos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition had gone to Portugal, and when the Spanish Jews had been expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 the majority had gone to Portugal as well – the ‘easy option’.10 These refugees had settled in towns such as Mogadouro, within spitting distance of the Spanish frontier, where they lived in uneasy coexistence with their neighbours and were blamed for the arrival of plagues which afflicted Portugal in every year between 1477 and 1496.11

The converso refugees often intermarried to an almost unhealthy degree. Thus Álvaro’s sister Catalina was married to Gaspar de Carvajal,12 who was himself related to Álvaro’s own wife Lianor. Both the Carvajal and Leão families were from Mogadouro, and had strong connections to the parts of Spain just across the frontier, which were likely to have been their original stamping ground before the exodus in 1492.13

These outsiders were easy targets for a country attempting to come to terms with its own power. Portugal was then a nouveau riche among the nations of Europe. The conquest of Goa and the exploration of the African coast from Senegal to Kongo had given this, the final sliver of Europe before the Atlantic, control of the spice trade to Europe from Asia and of the slave and gold trade to Europe from Africa. Manoel I, John II’s successor, had been called ‘the fortunate’; John II was known as the ‘golden king’.14 Not everyone was as complimentary, however; Francis I of France, in a foretaste of Napoleon’s dismissal of the English as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, had described Manoel I as ‘the grocer king’.15

Unprecedented amounts of money poured into Portugal. Under John II gold from Mina – located in modern Ghana – supplied almost half of the country’s entire monetary wealth.16 With money abundant as never before, the royal court soon became a monster. After Manoel I’s death in 1521 the new king John III journeyed up and down the country with a huge train of retainers who wrought havoc wherever they stopped. Among the layabouts who masqueraded as courtiers, gambling and robbery were rife. Thesefidalgostrailed large numbers of servants in their wakes who all demanded sustenance and provisions. Food, horses and carts were stolen. Orchards and woods were laid waste as a sort of entertainment. The fidalgos had so many retainers that there was a chronic shortage of farm labour in the countryside. Fields lay fallow – razing others to the ground did not help matters.17

Such casual excess was typical of a society which had recently experienced an unprecedented concentration of power. In order to convince oneself that the trappings of success were not mere chimeras, such power had to be wielded in full view of others. This inevitably meant that those less fortunate than the new oligarchy had to suffer. Unlike Spain, Portugal did not have a large Muslim population which could be conquered and subdued, since the Portuguese reconquest had been completed by the middle of the 13th century and the Muslim population easily assimilated.18 The power would therefore have to be directed elsewhere and fortunately, with the mass immigration of conversos and Jews from Spain in the 1480s and in 1492, there was an obvious alternative.

Incarcerated in the inquisitorial jail of Évora, Á lvaro de Leão could not, of course, see how his own plight mirrored that of others in Spain and elsewhere, and indeed said something about the spending of power which characterizes aspects of the humanexperience. What he could do, however, was feel hatred and despair. In January 1546, a year after his first arrest and interrogation, he tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the belly button, making a hole four fingers wide. The inquisitorial authorities had little sympathy. Leão, they said, ‘fearful of the punishment which for [his heresies] he deserved determined to try to kill himself, without waiting for Justice to fulfil its legal obligations towards him’.19 Amid the seething religious atmosphere of Portugal at the time, there cannot have been many people who would have awaited these ‘legal obligations’ if they could have taken matters into their own hands instead. Nonetheless, it was frustrating when prisoners did not wait for the Inquisition to give them the punishment which they deserved.

Lisbon 1497–1506

MANOEL I came to the throne in 1495 aged 26. His predecessor John II had died from an outbreak of plague which had also carried off eight nearer claimants than Manoel, and thus many saw his kingship as preordained. Who if not a chosen one could become king in such circumstances? His birth itself was supposed to have been a miracle, with his mother Dona Beatriz racked by labour for several days until a religious procession passed the doors of her house and raised the host – the boy was born at once.20

Manoel was a well-built man with a round head distinguished by a prominent forehead. He had chestnut hair, greenish, mirthful eyes and a melodious voice. Music was perhaps his greatest love, and with Portugal’s new wealth he brought singers and musicians from all over Europe to his court. Manoel lunched and dined to musical performances on Sundays and feast days, listening to cornets, harps and tambourines, and to moriscos playing lutes. Following Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the route to India during his epic voyage of 1497–9, Manoel had five elephants brought back to his kingdom, which went before him whenever he rode through Lisbon, preceded by a rhinoceros.21

Manoel’s injection of the exotic was a reflection of the country which he inherited in 1495. Lisbon at this time was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. The size of London or Cologne, it was thronged with foreigners attracted by the new trading routes.22 Men and women freely shared one another’s beds and played cards until dawn. People rode horses with very short stirrups, in the morisco style, and some saddles were made of silver or gold.23 As well as the bustling port and the busy streets running off it, there were olive groves within the city walls until 1500.24 The city’s centrepiece was the Rossio, a large irregular square fringed by hills on two sides and running down towards the banks of the Tejo river; it was by the Rossio that the offices of the Inquisition would be established.

In Lisbon it was obvious that the Portuguese had no intrinsic aversion to the foreign. But just as the country was opening up to influences from outside, there was an inner sense of a need for national definition. Groups, as most people have learnt from their own experience of friendships and professional networks, gain their shape in large part not only from deciding who is to be included, but also from deciding who is to be excluded.25 As foreign traders and products were being welcomed into the country and the number of African slaves grew, those perceived outsiders already in the country fell under closer scrutiny. This inevitably turned attention towards the Jewish and converso population.

At first, Manoel acted charitably towards the Jewish refugees who had arrived from Spain in 1492. Where John II had enslaved many of them after they had failed to depart within one year of being granted sanctuary, one of Manoel’s first acts was to free the Jewish slaves. However in 1496 he sought the hand of Isabella, the same daughter of the Reyes Católicos who had been married in such lavish circumstances to John II’s son Affonso at Évora.*1Affonso had died shortly after the wedding and Isabella was now a widow. It was Isabella herself who imposed the condition that she would only agree to the marriage if Manoel expelled all the Jews from Portugal.

Manoel made his decision. On 5 December 1496 he issued a decree giving Jews until the following October to leave Portugal. At first this seemed compassionate in comparison to the expulsion from Spain, where the Jews had been given only four months to leave and had been unable to take money or jewels with them. Yet things in Portugal were to turn out differently. Manoel was worried; by some estimates the Jews comprised 10 per cent of his population.26 Since he could not afford to lose them, he decided to prevent them from leaving in the first place.

In April 1497, during Lent, Manoel ordered the forcible baptism of Jewish children under the age of fourteen. These children were to be taken from their parents, sent to live elsewhere and educated in the Christian faith at the king’s expense. Many of the Old Christians were moved at the plight of the Jews ‘and themselves took the Jewish children into their houses so as not to see them swept up by other hands, and saved them’.27 Where their children could not be saved, ‘huge groans were raised, and the air filled with the lamentations and sobs of the women’.28

At last here was a form of cataclysm, but not that imagined by the rabbi who saw the whale on the beach at Setúbal. Some of the Jews drowned their own children rather than see them taken from them. Others committed suicide. Life, good order, law; all had been turned on their heads.

In the end, 20,000 Jews made their way to Lisbon, the only port in the whole country from which Manoel permitted them to depart (they could not of course cross Portugal’s land border into Spain). Here the king imprisoned them. The deadline expired. The vast majority of the Jews were baptized and thus kept in the country, though a few did manage to leave for North Africa.29 Manoel gave his own newly created conversos an amnesty of twenty years. During this period there would be no Inquisition and they could learn the Catholic faith. Their only consolation was that many of these poor souls had their children returned to them.30

The forced conversion of the Jews of Portugal was widely seen in Christendom as a travesty of Catholic doctrine. Traditional Catholic theology rejected such forced conversions and urged that people should be brought to the faith through teaching and persuasion. Even one of Manoel’s chroniclers described the act as ‘unjust and iniquitous’,31 and the hypocrisy of the justification of the conversions is summed up by the fact that, according to Manoel’s own ordinances, no African slave could be converted without his consent if over ten years old.32

In these circumstances one could not expect the Catholicism of people like the parents and grandparents of Álvaro de Leão to be anything other than insincere. It was natural that they would attempt to maintain their cultural and religious identity. And yet, within forty years, the Portuguese Inquisition would declare this a heresy; having created a phenomenon, the Portuguese crown would set about persecuting it.

BY 1506 EVERYONE IN PORTUGAL was aware of the way in which the Spanish Inquisition dealt with converso heretics. Everyone, moreover, was aware that the conversos in Portugal were mostly simulating their Christianity. The plague still afflicted Portugal, and someone needed to be blamed. The atmosphere was ripe for a popular auto, sanctioned only by prejudice.

That year, in one of the chapels of the city’s Dominican monastery a strange light was seen on one of the crucifixes. Some took it as a miracle. Others were not so sure, and one converso, whose common sense was overcome by his honesty, declared that it looked more like a lit candle put next to the image of Christ. Overhearing this, some parishioners grabbed the man by the hair and dragged him into the street, where he was beaten, kicked and then burnt in the Rossio before a large mob.

One of the witnesses to the burning was a friar who began to incite the mob against the conversos. Two Dominican friars then came out from the monastery with a crucifix in their hands screaming, ‘Heresy, heresy!’ In what was clearly a popular version of the autos of Spain, where the Dominicans were the religious order in charge of the Inquisition, a mob of 500 people then ran through the narrow streets of the city, seizing conversos wherever they found them, killing them on the spot or dragging them half-dead to bonfires where they were burnt alive. The mayor of Lisbon tried to defend the conversos with sixty armed men, but the people turned on him and nothing could be done. The bonfires were stoked by servants and African slaves. There they glittered on the riverbank and in the Rossio, and that day 500 people were burnt.

Things worsened. The following day, a crowd of 1,000 broke down the doors of houses where they knew conversos were hiding. They pulled men, women and children out of churches, tearing images of Christ and the Virgin from their hands. The victims were dragged through the streets by their legs, crushed against walls and thrown onto the bonfires.

By Tuesday the fury had lessened, although not less than 1,900 people had died in the carnage. Manoel, who was out of the city, trying to avoid the plague, had the friars who had incited the crowd with their crucifixes burnt to death.33 Probably, his first feeling was anger at the mob taking the law into their own hands; yet what had happened was largely his fault for craving power through his marriage to Isabella and forcing the conversions.

How these actions coexist with Manoel’s gracious sensibilities is difficult to grasp. For this was also the musical ruler, the sponsor of fine architecture such as the Jeronymite monastery in Belén, a few miles down the estuary of the Tejo from Lisbon, with its haunting sense of interior space offset by finely detailed embellishments. The solidity of this vast undertaking – fifty years in the making – was such that it was one of the few buildings to withstand the great earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, and its off-white façade still dominates the Tejo today.

The king’s blend of ruthlessness and grace can only be explained by the contradictoriness of human beings. That side of us which craves power would suggest that, though Manoel was pleased by fine art, he was roused more by the possibility of possession; this was why he had to have the widow of his predecessor’s son as wife and accepted her demand that he expel the Jews. The insecure pragmatist inside us would suggest instead that Manoel was troubled by the legitimacy of his rule after the death of so many before him in line to the throne, and felt that marriage to the widow of the rightful heir would resolve this.

Thus did the purely personal struggles and vanity of its ruler contribute towards the establishment of Portugal’s own Inquisition, which would affect everyone. Yet this tragedy brought its own irony. Manoel’s queen, Isabella, the initial trigger of so much bloodshed, died herself in childbirth in 1498, bathed in her own cataracts of blood just one year after the forced conversion of the Jews.

LISBON TODAY is one of the most unhurried cities in Europe. The clanking of the bells from trams mingles with the sound of leather on cobbles as people walk up and down the hills which give the city its shape and definition. In a bowl between the Castle of St George – once home to the inquisitorial jail – and the clubs playing fado and Brazilian music in the Bairro Alto, the old Rossio sprawls around a central fountain.

The sides of the Rossio are lined with genteel pavement cafes, shoeshine boys and newspaper stands. Strong coffee and custard pies – pasteis de Belén – are consumed. The atmosphere is at once romantic and decadent, and also shorn of the driving ambition which one can see on the streets of London and New York. It is difficult in this graceful atmosphere to imagine the fires being lit amid the riots of 1506. Yet while the violence has passed on, residues remain.

Though the details were different, the slide in Portugal towards the Inquisition had many similarities to that of its neighbour. In both societies a scapegoat was created out of an anomalous group which the society had no interest in preserving. When institutionalized persecution had begun, it was easier to promote than rein back.

As with Spain, the religious attitudes of the conversos in Lisbon were far from being as straightforward as the lynch mob believed. The fact that some of them took shelter in churches and had to be dragged away from Christian icons tells its own story, as does the fact that some Old Christians settled scores by setting the mob on their enemies, claiming them to be conversos. Portugal was in the grip of the plague, and of mass hysteria. There had already been minor riots against the conversos in 1504 in Lisbon and 1505 in Évora.34 Following events in Spain, Iberian societies knew where to turn for their escape valve in such times of crisis.

Though the riots of 1506 had nothing to do with the Inquisition per se, their mimicry of inquisitorial autos reveals that the Portuguese were well aware of what was occurring in Spain and were preparing to follow suit. Intolerance, once invented in Spain, had been easily exported; it would only be a matter of time before the Inquisition was established in Portugal as well. Once again, the target of persecution had largely been created by the very society which was to profess so much outrage at the enemy within.

Évora 1545–1548

ONCE ÁLVARO DE LEÃO had been rescued from his suicide attempt, two years of stalemate set in. Álvaro’s lawyers tried to claim that their man was insane, but the prosecutor rejected the defence. The accused had acted as a man of perfect good sense when it came to his business affairs, and when making his confession. There was nothing insane about him at all, merely something heretical.35

There was method in the stringing out of inquisitorial cases. The longer someone spent in prison, the more likely it was either that they would incriminate themselves to their fellow inmates, or that these inmates would themselves become so desperate that they would invent stories about other prisoners. The more cowardly, desperate to gain the favour of their judges, were often only too eager to betray their cellmates.

In Álvaro de Leão’s case, a prisoner came forward to claim that Leão had declared that the Messiah would come before the year 1550 and that the Old Christians would repent their maltreatment of the conversos. Álvaro was said to show his support of all those prisoners who refused to confess and to be extremely hostile towards those who were compliant with the inquisitorial process. When one prisoner said to him, ‘Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will soon take us out of here’, Leão was said to have replied, ‘You’re the only one he’ll take’ [suggesting ‘You’re the only one who believes in him’].36

Leão denied everything at first. Then he blamed it all on his wife Lianor. It was she, he said, who had Judaized in the family home, while he had been a good Christian all along. Lianor, he said, had kept all the Mosaic practices, while he had been accused by others in Cortiços and Mogadouro simply because he was rich and disliked. Once they heard this, the inquisitors knew that they had their man. Prisoners would often begin by blaming their nearest and dearest, before finally confessing that they had been seditious heretics all along. So it was with Álvaro, who belatedly admitted attending a covert synagogue in Mogadouro and keeping the sabbath. Now, however, he claimed that he was a good Christian, and that he had made a sincere repentance and conversion to the one faith of Portugal.37

For the inquisitors, confession was everything. In theological terms it represented the sinner’s acceptance of his sin and the possibility of cleansing; in psychological terms it represented the triumph of their will over the prisoner’s and the prisoner’s acceptance of their own powerlessness. So yes, Álvaro admitted, he was a heretic who with his ideas had been subverting the nation’s identity. He was not ‘one of us’. He confessed everything that the inquisitors needed and wanted to hear.

Many of the features which become familiar in accounts of the Inquisition are apparent in the case of Álvaro de Leão. We see how family ties became nothing in an inquisitorial hearing, where a man could blame his wife to make himself seem less guilty. The friendships made in inquisitorial cells often trailed ugly motivations in their wake, as prisoners denounced one another for crimes whose theological rationale almost certainly they did not understand. Conversations were started with the intention of drawing others out and with the hope that they could be denounced without the need for exaggeration or plain lying.

Such circumstances reveal the survival instinct in its basest form. Those who were subjected to this sort of treatment reacted in many different ways. Of course there were some who kept their counsel to the end, but many others became bent only on achieving their release at the expense of others. Something of this sordid process could not help but filter out into the society which had turned the conversos into victims.

THE DISCOVERY OF the ‘heresies’ of the Portuguese conversos had to wait for the death of Manoel I. After the riots of 1506 Manoel appears to have suffered something of a crisis of conscience. At least he kept his word: in 1512 he extended the period of grace which the conversos had from the Inquisition until 1533. However, on Manoel’s death in 1521, his successor John III showed less willingness to allow the conversos to integrate peacefully into national life and soon the first inquiries began to be made into the religious beliefs of the forced converts.38

In 1524 John III, goaded by his Spanish wife Catherine, planted a spy among the Portuguese conversos to see what faith they really practised. In Santarém, an old Moorish fortress town perched above the humid plains around the Tejo, he ordered Henrique Nunes to live and eat with the conversos of Lisbon. Though Nunes was himself a converso, he was someone in whom John III had complete confidence, since he had denounced his own brother to the authorities for Judaizing. Nunes had justified his betrayal to himself because he loved ‘God perfectly and the real perfect friend has to be a friend to friends and an enemy to enemies and have no respect for father or mother or brother but only for the truth’.39

With his conscience thus sparklingly clear, Nunes reported that the conversos of Lisbon kept the Jewish sabbath as best they could, that some of them had Jewish calendars of festivals and others acted as ritual slaughterers. They managed to keep Passover without eating yeast, baking some unleavened bread if they could and eating rice or chestnuts as an alternative. Some even married according to Jewish law and had ovens in which Passover cakes could be cooked. Their rabbi was a tailor called Navarro whose wife had been burnt in Spain. Navarro’s daughter knew countless Hebrew prayers by heart, and Navarro had an inordinately long beard which he had sworn not to cut until the Messiah came. Many other conversos had fled from Spain, or had had their parents and other close relatives burnt or reconciled there.40

His reports did not please the converso community and Nunes was murdered. He was rapidly adopted as a martyr, and miracles were said to occur at the place where he was buried. In the same year – 1524 – Jorge Temudo, a parish priest from Lisbon, produced a further report on the practices of the conversos which confirmed much of what Nunes had said and added to popular hostility.41 There was no doubt that the Portuguese conversos were stronger in their Judaizing than those in Spain, since many had come there after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 so as to be able to continue as Jews.

John III could now install his own Inquisition secure in the knowledge of full popular support. There were, in fact, precedents. In the 1480s John II had ordered some of the fleeing Spanish conversos to be tried by the bishops of Portugal for heresy,42 and some of these refugees had even been burnt in autos at the time.43 However, what Portugal lacked was the administrative structure which existed in Spain. It was this which John III really wanted to achieve.

The gathering hostility towards the conversos was such that when a severe earthquake struck the Tejo region in January 1531, the friars of Santarém declared that it was a punishment for the people of Portugal for allowing Jews to live among them. Not everyone was convinced however, and Gil Vicente, the greatest Portuguese poet and dramatist of the age, explained to the friars at a public meeting in the Franciscan monastery that an earthquake was in fact a phenomenon of nature.44

Vicente’s instructive homily had little effect. In December 1531 Pope Clement VII appointed Diogo da Silva the papal inquisitor in Portugal. However, the Portuguese conversos sent a one-eyed envoy, Duarte de Paz, to argue their case in Rome, and the bull appointing Silva was suspended the following October. But the prospect of the Inquisition was now very real.

The atmosphere in Portugal was that of gathering for the kill. As soon as news of the first bull was heard in Lamego in 1531, people started to discuss what property they wanted from the conversos. Some accused the king of being a coward, and said that he should just put the conversos to the sword and not bother with drawn-out trials. Others said that they and all their relatives were ready to act as witnesses right now, and the most moderate held that John III merely intended to burn the conversos within three years.45

Four years of diplomatic wrangles followed before the all-clear was given by Pope Paul III. The bull permitting a Portuguese tribunal to be established was issued on 23 May 1536 after considerable pressure from Emperor Charles V, ruler of Spain, who was in Rome at the time. Paul III had diluted the powers of the new tribunal by issuing a pardon to conversos the year before and ruling that no crimes prior to that date could be tried. Moreover the new Portuguese Inquisition did not have the same absolute power as its Spanish counterpart: the Pope had the power to elect three inquisitors and the king only one, there was no right of secrecy for witnesses, and the new institution did not yet have the same powers of confiscation as the Inquisition in Spain.46

The resistance of the papacy to the spread of the Inquisition emphasizes how far the new institutions in Spain and Portugal were political. The hatreds expressed by the people of Lamego on hearing of the publication of the bull revealed – as in Spain – that prejudice needed to be channelled. As in Spain, the conversos were the targets, and the papacy, try as it might, could in the end do nothing to protect the scapegoat. A dangerous ideology had created the threat within as a source of unity and power. It was not to be denied.

IN PORTUGAL, the first inquisitor-general was appointed in 1539. Cardinal Henry was John III’s brother. Born in Lisbon on 31 January 1512, it had snowed heavily on his first day of life; as this occurred very rarely in Lisbon, it was taken as a sign that the Lord would give him a clear view of things.

Henry was of medium build and very hardy. He was an excellent hunter and horseman, but also very learned. He was proficient in Latin and had studied Greek and Hebrew. He was a very serious person and spoke with asperity, telling things as he saw them. At the age of fourteen he had taken the habit, and was thus, given his character and position, ideally suited to embedding the new Inquisition in Portuguese society.47

With a basic administrative structure in place, the Inquisition soon began its work. The first edict of grace was read at Évora in 1536, nine years before Álvaro de Leão was imprisoned there. A tribunal followed in Lisbon in 1537, where the accusations flooded in.48 During the next few years courts sprang up all over the country, in places such as Tomar – still quite near Lisbon – and Coimbra, Lamego and Porto, all further to the north.49

These early years in Portugal were not as terrible as the first years had been in Spain. The dependence on Rome meant that the papal nuncio often intervened to secure a more lenient punishment, and there were comparatively few burnings. The first auto occurred in Lisbon in 1540, but in Coimbra one did not occur until 1567.50 The moderating influence of the papacy was not what John III wanted, and his ambassadors spent much of the 1540s pressing Pope Paul III to free the Inquisition from the limitations he had placed on it with the first bull. Eventually, on 16 July 1547, after John III had threatened a break with Rome, Pope Paul III succumbed, but even this was on condition that conversos would be able to leave Portugal freely for a whole year.

This condition was of course anathema to John III, who rejected it out of hand. Eventually he accepted papal conditions that no goods could be confiscated during the first ten years after the 1547 bull and that there should be no sentencing of people to burn in the first year.51 On 10 July 1548, just before the end of the year’s grace, a pardon was issued to the conversos in the jails of the Inquisition and 1,800 people were released from prison; at the same time, the tribunals of Lamego, Porto and Tomar were abolished and the institution was centralized.52 This was perhaps an attempt by John III to show the papacy that he had kept his side of the bargain, and in the event the power to confiscate goods would only be granted in 1579, when John’s brother Henry, the inquisitor-general, was the elderly king.53

One of the beneficiaries of these negotiations was Álvaro de Leão, who would probably have been condemned to the stake at an earlier period in Spain. In Évora, however, he was merely sentenced to abjure (renounce) his errors, and released at the time of this general pardon of 1548.54 Álvaro had more sense than to remain in a place where he had enemies, and migrated to the great market town of Medina del Campo in Castile. Here traders gathered from all over Europe for the annual fairs, where most of the goods from Spain and the New World changed hands.55

Medina del Campo sits on one of the flattest parts of the Castilian plain. Here, in the shadow of the foreboding castle of La Mota, Álvaro would meet other members of his family. His niece Francisca, the daughter of his sister Catalina, had married Francisco Rodríguez de Matos, who traded regularly at the fairs.56 The couple had a large family and also moved to Medina del Campo, in the 1570s. It was here that the branches of the Leão and Carvajal families gathered. As we have seen, Álvaro’s wife was a Carvajal, and his niece Francisca was the daughter of another Carvajal; it was also here that the families would meet Francisca’s brother Luis, now doing great things for the Spanish in Mexico.

It is not difficult to imagine the fears and undercurrents which must have cut through even the most minor interactions in families like this. Álvaro de Leão, as we have seen, believed that he had been denounced by his enemies, and was denounced by acquaintances in the jail of Évora. He had himself denounced his wife. There was no effective defence against false witnesses, and converso contemporaries of Álvaro accused the Inquisition of bribing people to denounce them.57

There was, moreover, no defence against abuse of power for someone like Álvaro who had already been reconciled. In Madrid in the 1520s a rich converso who had been reconciled saw his four daughters become sexual prey for some friars. One of them, Vicente, was seen with his habit off, romping with the eldest girl in her room, and two other girls were seen at dusk entering the lodgings of Charles V’s confessor the bishop of Osma, and not leaving until the dawn had risen.58

One must suspect that these girls fell into the laps of these ugly individuals because of the fear of what might happen should they or their father suffer another accusation. There had been a dangerous concentration of power in Iberia and progressive limitation of local rights and freedoms. The results were there for all to see, and for people like Álvaro de Leão to fear. For all too many people, the religious path had become simply an excuse for the exercise of power.

PERHAPS IT SHOULD NOT be surprising that the Portuguese crown showed little understanding of this process, and of its dangers. Power, and keeping up with their Spanish rivals, were what mattered to the country’s monarchs. So while John III and his brother Henry were determinedly lobbying their case before the papacy, they did not pause to consider how, after the initial bloodletting of the 1480s and 1490s, the new Inquisition had been brought to its knees in Spain by a series of scandals that almost led to its abolition.

On the death of Queen Isabella in 1504 the new king of Castile was Philip I, a Habsburg born in the Low Countries. Isabella’s widower Ferdinand remained only as king of Aragon. Philip suspended inquisitorial trials in September 1505.59 As heretics becameincreasingly difficult to track down tribunals were abolished. Of the seventeen tribunals which had existed under Torquemada, only seven were left by 1506.60 But in this same year Philip died. His wife, Juana – daughter of the Reyes Católicos – took to travelling the country with his corpse and was declared insane. She was incarcerated in a monastery in Tordesillas for the rest of her life, and Ferdinand acted as regent of the couple’s infant son Charles, later Charles V. Thus with its greatest champion effectively ruling the country, the Inquisition was saved.

There was nevertheless an increasing awareness in many circles that inquisitorial justice left much to be desired. The city of Granada complained to Charles V in 1526 that the procedures of the Inquisition meant that ‘good Christians are more in danger than bad ones of being both imprisoned and condemned even though they are blameless, something which has happened many times’.61 The secrecy of inquisitorial procedure meant that ‘many souls have been condemned to hell . . . since they are able to say what they do secretly, they condemn themselves and give evidence about things they have never seen’.62

The complaints from Granada were prompted by the fact that this was the year in which a tribunal was transferred to the city.63 Nevertheless, they underlined the fact that thinking people were well aware of the abuses that were carried out in the name of inquisitorial justice in Spain. They knew about them, but nothing was done to stop them. That supposed guardians of the faith should commit these crimes was of course horrendous but, as we shall see later, it was nothing out of the ordinary.*2 In the final analysis, few people were willing to put their own personal security and material wealth on the line provided that the institution did not affect them. By the time it did affect them, it would, of course, be too late to do anything about it.

The troubles of the Spanish Inquisition were common knowledge in Portugal in these years. To see the dangers of the judicial process that they were about to install, all the Portuguese needed to do was to recall the major crisis which had almost brought down the Spanish Inquisition in 1506: the terrible torture and abuse of power by the Inquisition in the ancient city of Cordoba. But the Portuguese monarchy evidently cared more for power than for what could truly be called justice.

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