Dona Gracia 1

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)

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