When perhaps 120,000 Jews (the number an estimate) were expelled from Spain in 5252/1492 about half of them flooded over the border to rebuild their lives in Portugal.
As Garcia de Resende, the attendant of the King of Portugal, Joao II, records in his royal memoirs: “The same year that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile, as Catholic princes, expelled all the Jews from their kingdoms, the Jews, helpless and yet retaining their stubbornness in not wanting to become Christians, resorted to our king and asked him, as a favor, that he harbor them in his kingdoms, for which they would provide him with a large sum of money.”
Thousands of Jews died of diseases contracted during the forced march from Spain to Portugal and thousands more were robbed or murdered by farmers and bandits. For most of them Portugal was only meant to be a temporary stop before moving on. Each Jew had to pay a tax in order to remain in Portugal for eight months and any Jew caught evading the tax or over-extending his welcome was branded as a slave. The children of Jewish slaves were deported to the African jungles to perish or survive as Christians:
“In this year of 1493… the king gave to Alvaro de Caminha the Captaincy of the Island of Sao Tome (off West Africa) of right and inheritance; and as for the Castilian Jews who had not left his kingdom within the assigned date, he ordered that, according to the condition upon their entry, all the boys, young men and girls of the Jews be taken into captivity. After having them all converted into Christians, he sent them to the said island with Alvaro de Caminha, so that by being secluded, they would have opportunities for being better Christians, and [the king] would have this reason for the island to be better populated, which, as a result, culminated in great growth.” Only 600 wealthy or skilled families were given the right to stay in Portugal indefinitely, in exchange for a tax of 100 cruzados.
The Jews’ reprieve in Portugal was cut short when King Joao died three years after the expulsion and was replaced by his cousin, 28-year-old Manuel. At first, he was good to the Jews and freed those who had been enslaved. But then he decided to consolidate his rule by marrying Isabel, the eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Isabel’s parents agreed to the match on one condition – that he banish Portugal’s Jews. In December 5257/1496 Manuel decreed that every Jew must leave Portugal by October 5258/1497.
When about 20,000 Jews made their way to Lisbon on their way to exile the king herded them into the huge Rossio Plaza. The children were kidnapped and each parent was presented with a choice – to be exiled without their children or convert. For three days, the Jews were left to roast under a broiling sun without food or water while priests wandered among them, exhorting them to embrace the “true faith.” Then they were dragged into churches and converted by force.
“I saw many persons dragged by the hair to the font,” Bishop Coutinho wrote thirty years later. “Sometimes, I saw a father, his head covered in a sign of grief and pain, lead his son to the font, protesting and calling to G-d to witness that they wished to die together in the law of Moses. Yet more terrible things were done with them did I witness with my own eyes.” At the end of this ordeal, only eight Jews were forced to leave Portugal. The chief rabbi, Rav Shimon Maimi refused to convert and he perished after being buried up to his neck for a week. As for the rest, it was quietly agreed that for twenty years the forcibly converted Jews’ private behavior would not be too closely scrutinized.
Dona Gracia was born in Lisbon, in about 5270/1510 to Alvaro and Phillipa de Luna, one of the 600 families that had received permanent resident status on their arrival. She received the Christian name Beatrice and her Hebrew name, Gracia, is the Spanish translation of Chanah (chen). Her brother, Dr. Miguez, was the king’s private physician.
Fifteen years after her birth, the quiet tolerance enjoyed by the Jews in Portugal dissipated with the crowning of King Joao III. He was a vicious anti-Semite and correctly suspected the Jews of clinging to their religion on the sly.
Things became even worse after David HaReuveni arrived in Lisbon and urged the king to wage war against the Moslems in Eretz Yisroel. The king’s interest in this idea turned to enmity after he discovered that a Converso (Marrano) courtier had circumcised himself because of HaReuveni’s promises of redemption. In addition, King Joao III had married Catherine, a granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. She began urging him to introduce the Inquisition into Portugal. Leading Portuguese Jews lobbied and bribed the Vatican to delay the dreaded decree.
Meanwhile, Dona Gracia married her maternal uncle, Francisco Mendes, at the age of 18. He and his brother Diogo had started out as gem dealers and then became exceptionally wealthy international merchants, a trade that had massively expanded during Portugal’s Fifteenth century “age of exploration.” Portuguese and Spanish mariners ventured into the unknown to blaze new routes to the Far East in search of pepper, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Portugal built up a massive sea trade after explorers, like Vasco da Gama, discovered a route to the Far East via South Africa.
Francisco was from the Beneviste family of Aragon, Spain and served as an unofficial rabbi for the Lisbon’s secret Jews. When Francisco died, in 5296/1536, he wrote in his will: “I also declare, of estate my wife… has one half and her daughter (Ana)… two thirds of the other half.”
In one stroke, Dona Gracia went from being a housewife to becoming one of the wealthiest women in Europe. Indeed, becoming a widow was almost the only way a woman could gain such power in those days, inspiring the Spanish proverb – “better a widow than a married woman.”
The Portuguese king lusted after the huge inheritance. While he could not touch Dona Gracia’s share, he figured out how to gain control of her daughter Ana’s fortune. In May 5297/1537 he sent the following letter to the powerful Count of Castanheira:
“I want the daughter of Francisco Mendes to be brought to the house of the Queen, my wife, in order for her to grow up and learn all the fine customs. I command you to speak with Mendes’ brother, and with other relatives who seem appropriate to you, and tell him, on my behalf, that I will take pleasure in their sending the daughter of Francisco Mendes to the house of the Queen where she will be very well and at ease. “And from here, with the estate that her father left her, an honorable person will marry her and they will be content” (abridged).
Of course, whoever married her would have to share her inheritance with the king.
To Dona Gracia, the news came like a thunderbolt. It meant not only losing almost half her husband’s fortune but, even worse, of losing her daughter to Catholicism. After paying off 5,000 ducats to the Vatican (part of the bribe to delay the Inquisition), she made plans to leave for Antwerp via England on “urgent and necessary business,” taking along her daughter, her sister and brotherin- law, and two nephews.
The year of her arrival in England coincided with the first authorized English translation of the Bible by King Henry the Eighth. It was part of his effort to break with the Catholic Church when it refused to annul a marriage to one of his wives. Only three years earlier, William Tyndale had been executed for daring to print an English Bible. This may have inspired Dona Gracia’s later sponsorship of a Spanish Bible.
Dona Gracia’s departure from Portugal was part of a wave of departure of Conversos from Spain and Portugal. They were making their way to the Moslem Ottoman Empire via cities such as Antwerp, Rome and Venice, where they were free to practice Yiddishkeit. These Jews were secretly aided by other Jews who risked being murdered as heretics for the crime of supplying them with funds and transport, and transferring refugees’ assets.
One such Jew was Dona Gracia’s brother-in-law in Antwerp, Diogo Mendes. Back in 5292/1532, he had been betrayed by a child of a family he had helped flee to Brussels, and escaped the heretic’s pyre through royal connections. Back in 5290/1530, King Charles V of Spain had already complained that “people simulating the Christian religion and deceiving Christians under the appearance and garb of Christians” were fleeing “to the land of the Turks and other enemies.”
The king appointed two men to stop them, including Jean Vuysting, whom Shmuel Usque describes “as the cruelest persecutor of Israel since the loss of the Temple.” “He laid in wait, in the state of Milan, and there arrested [the Jews] by the cartload,” Usque relates. “Since he did not have the authority to kill them, he despoiled them of their last garment. He subjected the weak women and wearied old men to a thousand tortures to reveal what possessions they had brought with them, and how many others were to follow, so he could await and arrest them.” Diogo was hounded by charges of heresy until his death. Even then, Dona Gracia had to fight the charges of heresy against him to save his property from being confiscated. As for herself, her days in Antwerp were numbered. Soon, tragedy would strike and force her to flee to Italy.
(A source: “The Woman who Defied Kings: the Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi” by Andree Aelion Brooks, Paragon House, 2002)