How the Portuguese Secret Jews (Marranos)
Saved England

By Manuel Azevedo

Last year England celebrated the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of Jews after their expulsion in 1290. In 1656, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, born Manuel Dias Soeiro in Lisbon, the son of a New Christian nail vendor, convinced Oliver Cromwell it would be just and profitable to allow Jews to return to England. Although Cromwell’s formal request to Parliament failed and Manasseh died a broken man, Jews did indeed acquire the right to live, work and worship in England. The arrest and seizure of the property of Antonio Rodrigues Robles was reversed on the grounds that he was not a Spanish Catholic but a Portuguese Jew (England was then at war with Spain). Accordingly, by legal precedent, Portuguese Jews were safe to live in England, albeit they were not accorded equal status until the 19th century.

Portugal and England have the longest enduring alliance in the world, starting in 1386 with the marriage of John I of Portugal to a cousin of Richard III, Philipa, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The marriage cemented the alliance against a common enemy, Castile. While England’s rescue of Portugal from the Napoleonic invasions is generally well known, England’s salvation by crafty Portuguese secret Jews has been kept a secret.

Until recently it was believed that there were no Jews in England between 1290 and 1656 but as revealed by the distinguished historian, Cecil Roth, in the History of the Jews in England, Portuguese secret Jews masquerading sometimes as Catholics, other times as Protestants (Marranos) settled in England during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

In 1492, the Sephardic Jews (i.e. Iberian as contrasted with Ashkenazi from Germany/Poland) were expelled from newly created Spain. Portugal, already a unified nation for more than 300 years did not follow suit although King Manuel, under duress by his future Spanish mother- in-law, in December 1496 ordered the Sephardim of Portugal to leave within ten months. However, the Machiavellian king had no intention of losing his most creative and learned subjects. Using devious means such as removing children under 14 years of age from their parents to be raised by Christian families, the king forced approximately one fifth of the population to become Christians. Those who refused were simply dragged by their hair to baptismal founts in Lisbon while they waited for promised ships that never arrived. A handful, such as Abraham Zacuto, the King’s astronomer who developed the nautical tables relied on by Vasco da Gama to find a sea route to India, managed to get out.

The king assumed that the forced ones, Marranos, or in Hebrew Anousim, would be assimilated within a generation. He even promised not to inquire into their private religious practices for twenty years, which he later extended. However, the Marranos, outwardly Catholic, remained Jews in their hearts, secretly observing essential Judaism to the twentieth century, despite nearly 300 years of persecution by the Inquisition.

The Spanish expulsion of 1492 caused great suffering and dislocation, including a huge rise in the number of Jews immigrating to Portugal as described by Samuel Usque in Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, published in Portuguese at Ferrara in 1553, a foundational work of Portuguese literature. In April of 1506, fanatical Dominican monks led an unruly mob through the streets of Lisbon for three days of devastation, plundering and killing two to four thousand New Christians (Jewish converts). In response, the king publicly hung the Dominican friars and the ring leaders and removed travel restrictions imposed on New Christians in 1497. Soon a steady stream of the wealthy and educated Marranos started leaving Portugal, settling in Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bordeaux, Rouen, Livorno, Naples, Venice, Ferrara, Ragusa, Salonica, Constantinople, Bristol, London, and Dublin, before moving onto the New World in the 17th century.

In 1512, the House of Mendes, which had the monopoly of the pepper trade from recently encountered India, enabled it to open a branch office in Antwerp. The heir to the Mendes stupendous fortune, widowed Dona Gracia Mendes, or Beatrice de La Luna Nassi (the Senyora), the most adored woman in the Marrano world (see The Woman who defied Kings, by Andree Brooks) passed through Bristol in 1537 during her flight from Lisbon to assist her brother-in-law Diogo Mendes in Antwerp. Mendes had an agent in England and financed not only Henry the VIII, but also, John III of Portugal, Francis I of France, Charles V, (un)Holy Roman Emperor, Emperor Maximilian (Charles’ grandfather), Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and Ercole II, Duke of Ferrara. In 1532, Henry VIII intervened personally on Diogo’s behalf when Charles V arrested him in Antwerp on charges of Judaizing.

Diogo Mendes’ agent in the ports of Southampton and Plymouth was instrumental in forming a small but vibrant community in Bristol, which held regular secret religious services in the house of one Alves Lopes. One of its members, Dionsio Rodrigues had a distinguished court clientele and had been a former physician to the royal court in Portugal. He was burned in effigy by the inquisition in Lisbon.

In 1540, Gaspar Lopes, a cousin of Diogo Mendes, was arrested in Milan and compromised the fledging Bristol community. In 1542 the Privy Council ordered the arrest of certain Merchant Strangers and their property. Despite the intervention of the queen regent of the Netherlands, many left although some of the Marranos in London remained, including Martin and Francisco Lopes, uncles of Michel Montaigne on his mother’s side. During the reign of Edward VI the Bristol community revived and included the surgeon Antonio Brandão of Santarem, a nephew of the illustrious medical analyst and author, Amatus Lusitanus (João de Rodrigo de Castelo Branco). Beatrice Fernandes, wife of Dr. Henriques Nunes, led secret religious services in her house. However, with the reaction against the Reformation under Mary, the ostensible Catholics once again scattered.

The commercial expansion under Queen Elizabeth and the overthrow of Mary’s Catholicism ushered in a new era. The Marranos were back with a hundred or more members in London. Jorge Ãnes (anglicized as Ames) and family had been in London since 1521. One of his sons commanded an English garrison in Ireland where he became mayor. Another son, Dunstan was a purveyor to the Queen. Their sister Sarah married Rodrigo Lopes who was the Queen’s doctor. He was the first house physician appointed at St. Bartholomew’s hospital. Unfortunately, he was caught in political intrigue between Spain and Dom Antonio, the claimant to the Portuguese throne (son of Violante Gomes, a New Christian), and was unjustly hung for treason at Tyburn on June 7th, 1594. During the four month trial anti-Semitism reached its apogee, with published rumours that the Jews wanted to buy St. Paul’s cathedral to convert it into a synagogue! Cecil Roth attributes Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Shylock to the fate of Lopes.

The Marranos of London, including, the shipping magnate and arms supplier to Parliament, Antonio Fernando Carvajal a native of Fundão, Francisco Lopes D’Azevedo, the Spinoza family agent, and the Lopes brothers, were outwardly Protestants, but collected money for a secret synagogue in Antwerp. They held Jewish religious services in secret near the Tower of London. With an extensive network of family ties, Marranos established trade routes between the New and Old worlds, especially in sugar, timber, coffee and tobacco as well as precious stones and spices from the orient. London replaced Lisbon as the diamond centre of the world. (See The Coffee Trader and Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss and The First Global Village, How Portugal Changed the World by Martin Page).

By 1585, Protestant England was at war with Catholic Spain, which had annexed Portugal in 1580. The Spanish king claimed his cousin’s crown when the unmarried Portuguese monarch was killed at the ill-fated battle of Alcacer-Quibir in Morocco. The combined crown lasted until 1640. Phillip the II of Spain, a devout Catholic who had been spurned by Elizabeth the 1st, was intent on doing the Pope’s bidding, re-instating Catholicism in England. Preparations for a massive invasion started.

Hector Nunes was born of New Christian parents in Evora, around 1520, after the forced baptism of 1497 but before the onset of the Inquisition in Portugal. He attended Coimbra University, as a Catholic of course, and graduated in medicine in 1543. By then the Inquisition had started its monstrous work, especially in Evora. He immediately fled to England to join his family. At first engaged in trade, he was eventually certified by the Royal College of Physicians and even elected Censor of the College in 1562. He became a highly sought after physician, treating the likes of Lord and Lady Burlghey and Sir John Penott, Lord Deputy of Ireland.

He was soon providing Burghley and queen Elizabeth’s Ministers, notably the principal secretary Walsingham, intelligence information on Spanish military and naval movements. Nunes' large scale trading was a perfect cover for his espionage activities. The wily Nunes even corresponded directly with Phillip the Catholic. He had an extensive network of informants including his own brother-in-law in Madrid who was later arrested. Roth notes that Nunes was so important to the government that the Privy Council even protected him from creditors. He was appointed as a special commissioner in insurance cases. He was treated unlike any other Portuguese merchant of the period.

On May 30th, 1588, the ‘Invincible’ Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon to invade England with approximately 140 ships, 25, 000 men and 180 priests. They were intent on taking England in the name of Catholicism and root out Protestantism. They had the Pope’s blessing.

Unbeknownst to the commander of the Spanish fleet, one of Nunes’ ships from Lisbon contained more than salt and figs. It is said that Nunes was in the middle of supper when he received the despatch with the news of the Armada’s departure. He arose from his half eaten dinner, and headed straight to Walsingthams house with the news. England was ready for the Spanish fleet. Less than 70 Spanish ships limped back home.

Not only was England saved, but also the defeat of the ‘Invincible’ Spanish Catholic Armada had significant military, political, and religious importance for years to come. The power of the Pope and the Catholic Church were curbed and the way opened for Manasseh’s ultimately successful plea to Cromwell entitled:

To his Highnesse the Lord protector of the Common-wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Humble Addresses of Menasseh ben Israel, a Divine, and Doctor of Physick, in behalfe of the Jewish nation.

( this article first appeared in in a slightly altered form)


from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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