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Ferdinand & Isabella

(1452–1516; 1451–1504)

Ferdinand and Isabella were the monarchs whose marriage created the union of Castile and Aragon which formed the Kingdom of Spain . Because of their religious zeal, they became known as the "Catholic monarchs." A popular tradition, partly corroborated by documents, credits Jewish and Converso courtiers with a primary role in arranging the marriage contract concluded in 1469 between Isabella, heiress to the crown of Castile, and Ferdinand, prince of Aragon. On the death of Henry IV in 1474, Isabella and Ferdinand began to reign in Castile, then with the accession of Ferdinand to the throne of Aragon in 1479, the two realms were united.

In its first phase their policy adhered to the tradition of relative tolerance which characterized the attitude of the kings of Christian Spain. Generally, this was expressed in their willingness to extend their protection to Jewish communities or individuals whenever they were subjected to outbursts of mob hatred and fury instigated by monks. At the same time the Catholic monarchs employed Jews like Abraham Seneor , Meir Melamed , Isaac and Joseph Abrabanel , and Conversos like Alfonso de la Cavalleria , Gabriel Sánchez , and Luis de Santangel in the administration of the state.

The first sign of deterioration in their attitude toward the Jews can be detected when, at a session of the Cortes held in April 1476 at Madrigal, the monarchs promulgated sweeping edicts for judicial and administrative reforms, including revocation of all the rights of the aljamas ("communities") to exercise criminal jurisdiction. Resolving that unified Spain should also be united in faith, they determined to eradicate the sin of heresy which had spread amid the Conversos, namely the tendency to revert to Judaism. In this they were clearly influenced by their desire to win the support of both the clergy and the burghers, who demanded that extreme measures be taken against the Conversos. The outcome of all these pressures was the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in 1480. Traditionally, Isabella has been regarded as the living symbol of the religious awakening in Spain, but an examination of the letters exchanged between the king and the queen shows that they acted in perfect accord, moved by the same fanatical urge.

As the Inquisition's investigations in the 1480s proved that the Conversos did indeed tend to revert to Judaism in large numbers, the monarchs concluded that, owing to the close relations between Jews and Conversos, the latter would persist in their heresy. The decision to expel the Jews may have been foreshadowed by the eviction from Andalusia in 1483, but the general expulsion order was promulgated on March 31, 1492. During the three months given to the Jews of Spain to prepare their departure, the royal couple endeavored to ensure that the expulsion took place in accordance with their instructions, lest the Jews be robbed of their property; but this was often to no avail. On July 30, 1493, they issued a letter of protection to all Jewish exiles returning to Spain from Portugal to be baptized, pledging that their property would then be restored to them without loss. It seems that in their decision to expel the Jews from Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella were motivated principally by arguments of a political and religious nature, for the sake of which they were willing to sacrifice every other practical consideration.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.