Category Archives: Spanish History

The Political Picture:
1492 looms large in Spanish history, often talked of as annus mirabilis with particular reference to the conquest of Granada, the last Islamic outpost of what had once been the powerful state of Muslim al-Andalus, and to the discovery of Las Indias (America).

But for the Jews of Spain and for the defeated Muslims, 1492 might more appropriately be called annus horribilis. Shortly after the surrender of Granada, the Jewish communities of Spain (the Sephardim, after Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain) were faced with an unpleasant choice offered to them by Ferdinand and Isabel, the Catholic Monarchs: either exile or conversion to Christianity. Thousands left and the remainder converted. But with this decree, the Catholic Monarchs brought to an end over 1000 years of Jewish life in the peninsula, and Sepharad** was no more.

**Nevertheless, many descendants of those who chose exile still retain an emotional tie with Sepharad.  E.g. a Sephardic synagogue established in 1958 in Toronto, Canada, for example, is named the Petach Tikva Anshe Castilla Congregation “The gates of hope for the people of Castile.” There are others who dream nostalgically of a return to Sepharad, a dream which seems within reach following an announcement in November 2112 that the Spanish government would grant automatic citizenship to Jews who were descendants of those Jews who chose exile in 1492. This has provoked strenuous protests from numerous Anusim, descendants of those who converted to Catholicism under duress following the decree, but who can trace their Jewish roots through rituals retained by their predecessors and practiced secretly. Protests have also been voiced by the descendants of Muslims forced into exile or to convert to Catholicism.

Spain’s Jewish community in the Middle Ages (roughly 500 to 1500) was larger than that of all the other European countries combined, and by the end of the period was distributed fairly widely throughout the country, primarily in urban areas.

They were tolerated by the Visigoths until 589 when, following the religious unification of the country under the Catholic faith, they remained the only religious outsiders.  A series of decrees in the 600s made life exceedingly difficult, and it is likely that the Jews viewed the arrival in Hispania of Muslim forces in 711 favourably, given the tolerance with which their co-religionists in North Africa were treated by the conquering Muslims.

Under Islamic rule, the Jews enjoyed relative stability and prosperity as dhimmis until the arrival of the fundamentalist  Almoravids (1086-1145) and the even more zealous Almohads (1146-1212). Repression and persecution forced thousands to flee to the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragón, where they were welcome.

Following the defeat of the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the early 13th century (1212), al-Andalus was reduced to the taifa of Granada. With thousands of disaffected Muslims who fled there from the advancing Christians, Granada now had little tolerance for non-Muslims, and Jewish presence was limited to a few trading communities along the coast.

Little is known of the Sephardim in the Christian north in the early years when the emerging Christian kingdoms (Asturias, León, and the Spanish Marches south of the Pyrenees) were in a constant state of flux.

What appears to have happened is that as the Christians continued their southward march, Jews already living in the reconquered lands remained where they were, induced by certain privileges such as royal protection, land grants, and tax exemptions. Nevertheless, in spite of their privileges, they still suffered discrimination, especially amongst the masses, and they were excluded from positions of authority, e.g. in government or the army.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, they were joined by their co-religionists fleeing Almoravid and Almohad repression.  The new arrivals were welcomed by Christian monarchs who needed to replace fleeing Muslims and to recolonize conquered territory.  It was generally speaking a time of opportunity for the Jews, with some rising to prominence and influence in the courts of Castile and Aragón, especially as physicians or financial administrators. One such figure is Joseph ha-Nasi Ferrizuel, personal physician to the conqueror of Toledo, Alfonso VI of Castile (r. 1065-1109).

Christian attitude towards Jews in Spain generally continued to be tolerant in the 13th century despite the increased religious overtones of Christian expansionism. However, certain events north of the Pyrenees during this period signalled storm clouds of anti-Semitism that would soon cast their shadows over the peninsula: 1. The founding of the Dominican and Franciscan religious orders in Rome (1206 and 1209 respectively), the two mendicant/preaching orders most notoriously involved with religious debates to convert Jews to Christianity**;

**One notable debate was held as early as 1263
in Barcelona between a former Jew, Pablo
Christiani and Rabbi Moses ben Nahman.

2. The Fourth Lateran Council, convoked by the Pope Innocent III in 1215, which promulgated the segregation of Jews into exclusive Jewish quarters and decreed that Jews had to wear distinctive, round yellow patches;

3. The creation of the Inquisition, ca 1231, intended initially to confront Albigensian or Cathar heresy in the south of France, but later indelibly linked with Spain;

4. The eviction in 1290 of Jews from England, to be followed shortly by expulsions from France (1306) and several other parts of northern Europe.

The storm clouds of anti-Semitism during the 13th century reflected a general hardening of attitudes in northern Europe. They mirrored the increasing religious fervour of Christians inflamed by the rhetoric of extremists urging crusades, which took off in the late 11th century (1096) and continued unabated in the 13th.

Hatred for Muslims in the Middle East was often conflated with hatred for the Jews living in Europe. Christians were reminded that the enemies of Christ were not only the Muslims in Jerusalem but also dwelt amongst them in the form of the Jews. There were outbreaks of violence spurred on by images of Jews as sinister figures inspired by the devil to seek the destruction of Christianity.

All kinds of fantastic crimes were attributed to the community, from the regular desecration of the Eucharist bread (believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ) to the killing of Christians to obtain their blood, which brewed together with spiders, lizards, frogs and human flesh formed a concoction guaranteed to disguise their distinctive odours.

Easter was a particularly harrowing period for it was a time –so rumour ran– when Jews murdered Christian children to re-enact the crucifixion or obtain their blood for ritual purposes. It was a rumour sufficiently established and widespread for the broad-minded Alfonso X of Castile (1221-1284) to include it in his famous code of laws (the Siete Partidas): And because we have heard it said in some places Jews celebrated and still celebrate Good Friday … by way of contempt: stealing children and fastening them to crosses, and making images of wax and crucifying them, when they cannot obtain children; we order that, hereafter, if in any part of our dominions anything like this is done, and can be proved, all persons who were present … shall … be brought before the king, and after the king ascertains that they are guilty, he shall cause them to be put to death in a disgraceful manner (Constable ed. 269-70).

The seeds for a change of attitude during the 14th century in Spain and beyond (15th century) were well and truly laid.

Role of the Jews in Christian Spain.
One of the consequences of the Moorish conquest of Hispania was that the Mediterranean became virtually an Islamic sea. Trade between Europe and the Orient was rendered difficult by hostility between Christians and Muslims. 

It is here that the Jews, as commercial agents with contacts with fellow Jews dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and along the trade routes, played a vital role in maintaining an economic lifeline between East and West. And being multilingual, with a command of early Spanish as well as Arabic and Hebrew (the lingua franca amongst educated Jews), they moved easily across national boundaries.

For Christian Spain, the constant proximity of and the dangers posed by Islam was a daily reminder of deep rooted cultural differences between the two groups. Complicating the picture was the frequent hostility between the developing Christian kingdoms as they fought for dominance over each other and for expansion to the south. Castile and Aragón were especially aggressive. The point is that the Christian kingdoms, above all Castile, developed a highly militaristic spirit, shared too by the settlers required to repopulate the reconquered border forts, villages or towns.

As the Christians pursued the business of  war against each other or against al-Andalus, they left the Jews to apply their particular skills in those areas vital to the well-being of a community: the organisation of a commercial and administrative infrastructure as part of the transition from Muslim to Christian rule.

Here the Jewish trade network was valuable for the transport of goods and commodities: food and clothes, military equipment etc. They also established trade fairs and carried out many of those professional jobs that help society run.

There were Jewish farmers, shopkeepers, tailors, peddlars, smiths, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, builders, masons, carpenters, textile workers, potters, market gardeners, and so on.  This was especially so in Castile where –unlike in Aragón– there were far fewer Mudejars (Muslims who chose to remain in lands conquered by the Christians), traditionally associated with these pursuits.

What differentiates the Sephardim from the Mudejars and explains their greater impact is that they were also widely employed in public offices as administrators of estates, lawyers, scribes, physicians, translators, emissaries, tax collectors, the same influential positions that they had earlier occupied under the Moors.

It was these occupations that made them particularly valuable to the monarchs and the nobility, but it was these occupations too that made them objects of resentment among the commoners, and were to be instrumental in the explosion of anti-Semitism at the end of the 14th century.

Jewish expertise in the public service not only allowed the kings and nobles to pursue their military goals, it also ensured protection for the Jews at the highest level. Indeed, the favours and relative stability the Jews enjoyed in Christian Spain for some 300 years (approx. 1075-1350) were owed primarily to the protection of the monarchy and nobility.

As eternal strangers condemned to wander for having crucified Christ, they had no direct authority over Christians, and their legal status was that of property of the king.  Legally, politically and physically, they were totally vulnerable. And yet thanks to their expertise as administrators of noble estates and royal courts, or physicians to the kings, or diplomats, the Jews acquired power and influence beyond their numbers.

The protection of the powerful, however, carried with it dangers. On the one hand it could wax and wane according to the rise and fall of kings.  On the other, it made the Jews vulnerable to the resentment of the common people, because of their perceived influence and preferential treatment: the right to have legal disputes with Christians heard by special judges appointed by the king; collection of their own taxes which they paid directly to the king, exemption from most municipal obligations, and in particular because of their role as tax collectors or money lenders.

With the institution of the Cortes (i.e. Parliament) in León 1188, and in Castile in 1250, the voices of the common people were transmitted directly to the monarchs and their concerns about the influence of the Jews became part of an ongoing power struggle between the crown, the nobles and the cities. Representatives of the latter constantly petitioned the kings in several meetings of the Cortes to remove all Jews and other royal representatives from municipal appointments.

Nevertheless, daily contact between Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities, led to a substantial degree of tolerance and coexistence (convivencia is the much used term now) that marked the difference between Spain and the rest of Europe for much of the Medieval period.

Clearly the Jewish communities felt reasonably comfortable in the peninsula, although it is important to keep in mind that there were sporadic outbursts against minorities and that coexistence was in general one of expediency, based primarily on commerce or some other necessity (e.g. as administrators of estates, tax gatherers, physicians, diplomats, translators).

As long as the expanding Christian kingdoms needed the expertise and manpower of the Sephardim, they were tolerated. And the protection of kings and nobles was vital. The events of 1492 show what happened when that support was withdrawn.

Aguilar, M & Robertson, I Jewish Spain: A Guide Madrid 1986
Barton, Simon   A History of Spain  Basingstoke: Hampshire 2nd. ed.  2009
Constable, O R Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources Philadelphia 1997
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain London 1992
Gerber,  Jane S  The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1992
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Netanyahu, Benzion The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain New York 1995
Roth, Cecil “The European Age in Jewish History (to 1648)” in Finkelstein, Louis ed.  The Jews: Their History  New York 1970
For a summary of the Spanish government’s decision to grant automatic citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were exiled in 1492, see
Three very interesting articles on Spain’s rediscovery of its Sephardic past:,0,3961982.story

The Jews in Early 15th-Century Spain.
The Jews in early 15th-century Spain faced a very uncertain future. The 14th century ended with  horrendous massacres in 1391 and the subsequent mass conversion of thousands of Sephardim (from Sepharad, the name that Jews gave to Spain).

It was a time of crisis, and many historians –both Jewish and non-Jewish– agree that this period represents a massive erosion of faith in Jewish history. But it was only the beginning of a sustained proselytising crusade that lasted well into the 1400s, and Ferrán Martínez –the main firebrand who ignited the 1391 attacks on the judería of Seville, which then spread across the country– was not alone in his determination to cleanse the country of Jews.

Two contemporaries, one an ascetic Dominican priest from Valencia and the other a learned bishop from Burgos contributed mightily to the conversions of thousands of Jews to the “true faith” at the beginning of the 15th century. 

The priest, Vicente Ferrer (1350-1419), had travelled widely through France, Italy and Spain and was known for his saintly qualities, living frugally, wearing coarse clothes and shunning the temptations of courtly life. His sermons touched on all aspects of daily life of the time, with particular attention paid to the temptations of the flesh and the wiles of women.

Highly articulate and persuasive, it wasn’t long before Ferrer attracted followers who distinguished themselves by self-flagellation with chains until they bled and inflamed the passions of all those who witnessed them as they accompanied their leader on his missionary ventures. But it is for his work as a saviour of the Jews that St Vincente Ferrer, the “Apostle of the Faith,” is best known, especially towards the end of his life when he undertook a campaign of conversion in response to a call by the antipope, Benedict XIII (a friend, and Aragonese by birth).

The saintly Dominican did not believe in forced conversion; the word rather than the sword was his weapon, his tongue was a rapier shredding opposition where Martínez had wielded a hammer. He vigorously advocated enforced separation of Jews (and Mudejars: Muslims living under Christian rule) from the Christian majority, a matter that may not seem unusual since it was normal for the juderías to be enclosed within a walled enclave. But not all Jews lived in juderías and what Ferrer pursued was complete segregation in an attempt to marginalise and demoralise the Sephardim even further, and render them less resistant to his message of salvation.

Pulpit from which San Vicente Ferrer preached, in the Patio de los Naranjos, Cathedral of Seville.

Against a background of popular hostility and with the memory of 1391 still fresh (Ferrer was largely responsible for the attacks of 1391 in Valencia), the eloquent but blistering sermons of Maestre Vicens, which all Jews over 14 were obliged to attend, had the desired effect.

Wherever he went, Jews –huddled behind the altar or close to the pulpit– were urged to see the light of truth and convert. And large numbers did. In Toledo in 1405, the centre of what was left of Sephardic life at that time in Spain, there was some resistance and an angry Vicente Ferrer marched into the judería, entered one of the main synagogues and promptly reconsecrated it to the Virgin Mary, Sta María la Blanca**.

**Although later put to a variety of uses, including a refuge for reformed prostitutes, a barracks and a carpenter’s workshop, the building still stands as one of the two synagogues remaining from a rich past.

Like Martínez and Ferrer, Pablo de Santa María, a learned bishop from Burgos was also fanatical in his zeal to convert Jews, but unlike them he had a much more intimate knowledge of his enemies’ culture: he was himself not only a converted Jew (a Converso) but a former chief rabbi of Burgos!

Born Solomon Halevi (1352-1435) of a wealthy Sephardic family, he was a leading intellectual and defender of the Jewish faith in his disputes with Christian scholars.  But he was no stranger to the aristocratic court of Juan/ John I (ruled 1379-90) of Castile either, which may help to explain his decision to convert –together with his family, with the exception of his wife, whom he later divorced– during the pogrom of 1391.

As Pablo de Santa María, he quickly rose through the ecclesiastical ranks, becoming eventually the bishop of Cartagena and finally of the very town where he had served as chief rabbi. The conversion of such an esteemed figure undoubtedly had a profound impact on the Sephardic community, but even more upsetting must have been the hatred Santa María subsequently displayed to those who remained loyal to their faith.

With access to the highest ranks, Pablo de Santa María was instrumental, with Vicente Ferrer, in the passage of the infamous Laws of Valladolid of 1412 that were designed not only to marginalise and demoralise the Sephardic communities totally but also to humiliate them at the same time.

Besides complete segregation –which was to be completed within eight days on the pain of loss of all possessions– there could be no more friendships between members of the different faiths, no eating together, no business or commercial/ trading contacts. Jewish doctors could no longer attend sick Christians or give them medicines, or talk idly to them.  They could no longer serve Christians as smiths, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, butchers, carriers or clothiers and were prohibited from attending Christian weddings or funerals, or any ceremony honouring Christians. 

Even the time-honoured tradition of allowing Jewish law to be applied by Jewish judges in internal disputes was denied. And finally, all Jewish males were forbidden to shave their beards or trim their hair, a humiliating decree to make them look as dirty or unattractive as possible to the Christians. These detailed prohibitions paradoxically give an idea of the normal social relationship between Sephardim and Christians; their enactment aimed at the total exclusion of Jews from Spanish life, a truly isolated ghetto experience.

What then was left for the Jews?  They could, of course, hope for some protection from the nobility, as had happened on numerous occasions or there was emigration. But the authors of the Laws of Valladolid had anticipated such possibilities, for nobles were prohibited from offering shelter, and any attempt at emigration would entail the loss of all goods and enslavement to the monarch “forever.”  The Sephardim, then, were caught in an ugly trap, the only “escape” being conversion, which was probably the real intention of the Laws of Valladolid in the first place.

Although the Jews were targets for conversion everywhere, the Laws of Valladolid had particular application for Castile. A modified version was passed in Aragón, also in 1412, shortly after the Castilian regent, Fernando, became king of Aragón.

But the Jews of Aragón were also unwilling witnesses to one of the most celebrated debates of the Middle Ages, a debate that was fired ironically as much by the greatest crisis that the Christian church had found itself in up to that moment as by religious fervour.

The Great Schism of 1409 threatened to tear the Church apart as three “popes” claimed the supreme title. One was Benedict XIII, friend of Vicente Ferrer. It was Benedict who initiated the famous debate –known as the Disputation of Tortosa, 1413– as part of his general campaign to convert the Jews of Spain and so demonstrate to all his worthiness and credentials as a pope by completing what others had failed to do.

It was, in effect, a crusade, a word that still resonated in Europe and one that harmonised perfectly with the conversionist activities of Martínez, Ferrer and Pablo de Santa María.

The debate was not to discuss the relative merits of Christianity and Judaism but to demonstrate to the Jews that the promised Messiah had come in Jesus Christ and that the Talmud –the authoritative body of Jewish tradition– in fact confirmed His coming. 

The disputation dragged on well over a year and the result for Benedict and his main spokesman, Jerónimo de Santa Fe –a former physician to Benedict, and recently converted by none other than Vicente Ferrer!– was a decisive victory. This might be expected given who it was who produced the “official” verdict, and the restrictions placed on the Sephardic representatives**.

**For example, Jerónimo de Santa Fe cited texts from the Talmud which the rabbis defending Judaism claimed did not exist, but they were not allowed to see those texts.The rabbis also laboured to counteract the “indisputable truth” that Jesus was the Messiah based on the false syllogism: “He who fulfils the prophesies is the Messiah,/ The prophesies were fulfilled by Jesus,/ Therefore Jesus is the Messiah” (Paris 106).

But what could not be overlooked was the unpleasant fact that numerous members of distinguished Sephardic families, including scholars, were baptised during the debates. As a result, thousands of disheartened Jews followed their leaders and whole juderías throughout Castile and Aragón disappeared completely. These mass conversions were debilitating blows that seemed to give theological proof that the Messiah had indeed come, and that to oppose such evidence was no more than wilful refusal to accept the truth.

With so many conversions, the Christian assault on Jewish beliefs in Castile and Aragón seemed highly successful, but the consequences carried an unexpected and deep sting that poisoned Spanish society for generations.

Although Jews continued to make valuable contributions to their country, they continued under pressure in the second half of the 15th century, but the situation of those who converted and their descendants (Conversos) turned out to be far more problematic than could have been imagined!

Aguilar, M & Robertson, I Jewish Spain: A Guide  Madrid 1984
Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain  New York 2009
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain London 1992
Gerber,  Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York1992
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Netanyahu, Benzion The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain New York 1995
Paris, Erna  The End of Days  Toronto 1995

The Jews in 14th-century Spain.
The attitude of tolerance towards the Sephardim (from Sepharad, the name that Jews give to Spain) that existed roughly from 1075 to 1350 in the emerging Christian kingdoms of Iberia began to turn ominously during the 14th century.

The struggle between crown and cities over the role and presence of the Sephardim, already under way in the 13th century, continued unabated, with the Sephardim caught uncomfortably in between. The Jews enjoyed the protection of the crown for their administrative expertise much to the annoyance of Christian city dwellers who objected to the perceived favoured status of the Jews and to their role as tax collectors etc.

At the same time the Jews faced continuing pressure from the preaching orders (Dominican and Franciscan) to convert to Christianity, a missionising programme carried over from the 13th century.

Surrounded by a sea of Christians, the Jews were always subject to discrimination despite the protection of the crown and nobles. Conversion to Christianity was always a threat to the community, and any unusual event might trigger some to look to Christianity as a means of protection or salvation.

Towards the very end of the 13th century (1295), for example, a wave of messianic prophesies and apocalyptic visions took root in the Jewish communities in the Castilian town of Avila, and a certain Sepharad named Abraham proclaimed himself a prophet.

Thousands of Jews, believing Abraham’s prophecy that the Messiah would arrive on a certain day in July 1295, gathered to greet Him.  But instead of the Messiah, they found crosses sticking miraculously to their clothes. Disillusioned many reportedly converted to Christianity.

One individual deeply affected by these events was the physician, philosopher and rabbi Abner of Burgos (born ca. 1260). He struggled with doubts for several years while serving his community until he had a dream (ca 1317) in which the Jews themselves were blamed for their problems, and he was urged to become a “teacher of righteousness” to lead them to the truth. 

A second dream around 1320, in which a man appeared clothed with crosses convinced him to convert to Christianity, after which he dedicated his life to proselytising for his new faith as sacristan in a prominent church in Valladolid, under a new name, Alfonso de Valladolid. Abner’s conversion and the zeal with which he praised Christianity’s superiority later gave way to advocating the separation of Jews and Christians and the active persecution of his former religious brethren.

Abner’s conversion and his harsh attacks on his former religion and its followers were but one of several disturbing factors that had a profound impact on the quality of life of the Sephardim in the 14th century. Of these other factors, we can begin with:
1.  Severe and unpredictable weather patterns –cold and floods– during the first 20 years of the century. Priests everywhere were quick to pounce on the Jews as the source of the problem.
2.   Increased rumours from northern European countries of alleged Jewish atrocities entered the peninsula, and made the Jews particularly vulnerable when the Bubonic Plague struck and ravaged Europe from 1348 to 1350.

The Plague hit Barcelona and Valencia in May 1348 and within a few months had penetrated deeply inland and decimated many towns and villages. As in other European countries, public order broke down as looters raided shops and peasants boldly settled on lands abandoned by the nobility.  Faced with terror and egged on by fear, people turned desperately to God for mercy and looked for scapegoats. 

The Jew was an obvious choice in the popular mind, and the plague was, to most commoners, a sure sign of God’s displeasure that the Anti-Christ was allowed to flourish in Christian lands. As instruments of the devil, the Jews were targets for revenge, despite papal and royal condemnation of such attacks, and despite the fact that they too were victims of the plague.

They were accused of deliberately poisoning wells (often using lepers to carry out their foul deeds!) as part of a diabolical conspiracy to rule the world. In France Jews were accused of receiving poisons and their orders from Toledo, a “Jewish city”, or from the “King of Granada” whose bribes inflamed Jewish greed.
3.  In Castile, the social dislocation following the plague was further aggravated by a dynastic civil war from 1350 to 1369 between Pedro/ Peter I and a coalition of nobles led his bastard half-brother Enrique/ Henry of Trastámara.

The Jews found themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma during this war. Pedro generally favoured the Jews and actively punished those found guilty of harming his Jewish subjects. He named as his chief treasurer Samuel Halevi, and even gave him permission to build the beautiful Sinagoga del Tránsito in Toledo (1355) at a time when the construction of synagogues was prohibited in Spain.

Interior of the Sinagoga delTránsito,Toledo. Main prayer hall, with the Ark (where the Torah is kept) in the east wall.

Enrique, tapping in on popular anti-Jewish sentiment, accused Pedro of being a “king of the Jews” intent on delivering Castile into Jewish hands. He went further, claiming that Pedro was actually the son of a Jewess, and painted himself as the defender of Christian rights. It was a deliberate anti-Semitic smear that resulted in the massacre of Jews in Toledo and several other cities in Castile and Aragón (as the war spilled over into the neighbouring kingdom).

Muddying the political waters for the Sephardim was internal hostility amongst groups of them in Pedro’s court. Samuel Halevi was one victim of this hostility. After having been denounced by some fellow Jews for conspiracy, he was imprisoned in Seville in 1360 where he died soon after under torture.

Pedro hung on to power for another nine years, but Enrique –with the assistance of French mercenaries– relentlessly assumed more and more control of the country. As he did so, his anti-Semitic rhetoric decreased and as readily as he had earlier condemned Jewish influence in his brother’s court, so now he began to look to Jewish financiers for support. 

The quandary for the Sephardic leaders is not difficult to understand.  Should they go over to Enrique when Pedro was still alive?  Should they support the man who had so vilified them when his brother and their protector might still make a come-back? How far could they trust Enrique?  The decision was made for them in 1369 when Pedro was stabbed to death by his brother in a struggle in a French mercenary’s tent. It was an inglorious ending to a headstrong king, known to history as both el Cruel and el Justiciero (“strictly just”)

Enrique II may have used the anti-Semitic card to great effect in his struggle against his half-brother, but with his enemy dead he now absorbed many of Pedro’s Jewish administrators into his court so that the royal treasury once more assumed a Jewish character. This may have comforted the Sephardic minority but it infuriated their Christian antagonists who felt betrayed by the king who had promised to cleanse the court of Jewish influence.

4.  One of those who may have felt frustrated by Enrique’s about turn was a relatively obscure archdeacon, Ferrán Martínez, from the small town of Ecija, near Seville.  This lowly priest with a vitriolic tongue and obsessive determination channelled the hostility of the masses, perhaps more than any other individual, against the Jews.

Beginning in 1378 and disregarding several royal and church injunctions over period of 14 years, he preached virulent sermons in Seville that advocated the destruction of all synagogues and the elimination of all Jews from the kingdom. Death might have been Martínez’s choice, but being a churchman he had to adhere –at least outwardly– to the Church’s dictate that forbade the killing of Jews; conversion should be the objective.

Martínez’s strength was in the people, the traditional enemies of the Sephardic community, and it is in their hostility that he found support.  Nevertheless, the situation might have remained a stalemate between him and the authorities but for the death of Enrique/Henry II in 1379, and his son Juan/John I in 1390.

Both had defended their Jewish subjects; both recognised their dependence upon them.  Martínez, of course, owed them nothing. When Juan died, his heir was a sickly 11-year old, and the kingdom was ruled by a divided and weak regency. With no authoritative figure to protect them, the Sephardim were particularly vulnerable, and Martínez now had a free hand. 

On top of that, a disastrous attempt to conquer Portugal (ending with the humiliating treaty of Aljubarrotas, 1385, recognising Portugal’s independence), and another epidemic that ravaged Andalusia added fuel to the feeling of frustration and provided fertile soil for hostility.

The assault that broke out in the narrow streets of the judería next to the cathedral of Seville on June 4, 1391 was the first of a massive tidal wave that swept, like a plague affecting Jews only, northwards via Córdoba and Segovia until by August it had reached Burgos. It spread, too, into Aragón, where coincidentally Martínez’s nephew was a priest and also virulently anti-Jewish.

The speed, breadth and hostility with which the attacks spread underline the depth of hate for the Sephardim among the Christian masses.  Martínez was, in a way, the match that lit the conflagration, and the flames of hate fanned outwards with a fury that left the Sephardic community more devastated than at any previous time in its history. 

From being one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, it lost –within three years—an estimated one-third of its number, and had been severely traumatised. The savagery of the pogrom in Seville was unprecedented in Spanish history. By the time the riots reached Burgos, with one of the largest Sephardic communities in Castile, most of the Jews rushed to the baptismal fonts rather than face the massacres, the news of which had undoubtedly sped north ahead of the actual disturbances.

Concrete figures are notoriously difficult to determine and the number of men killed and wives and children sold into slavery varies widely.  Suffice it to say that the major aljamas/juderías (Jewish quarters) of Spain were totally destroyed within three years, and an estimated loss of one-third of the Sephardic community was enough to severely demoralise the remaining Jews and weaken their resolve. And the 15th century bought no relief, if anything matters got even worse.


Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain London 1992
Gerber,  Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1992
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Netanyahu, Benzion The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain New York 1995
Paris, Erna  The End of Days  Toronto 1995
Ziegler, Philip  The Black Death Harmondsworth, Middlesex 1969. Reprinted 1975
Image of the interior of the Sinagoga del Tránsito:

Jews and Conversos in 15th-Century Spain.
A brief glossary:
Converso(s): used primarily to refer to converts from Judaism to Christianity and their descendants, but sometimes included Christianised Muslims and descendants;
Cristiano(s) nuevo(s) (New Christian(s): a Converso, increasingly came to be used to designate difference from the Cristiano(s) viejo(s) (Old Christian(s);
Marranos: a disparaging term (meaning swine) used to refer to ostensibly converted Jews and their descendants who secretly followed their Jewish faith. Now frequently replaced by Crypto-Jew;
Anusim: Hebrew word meaning forced converts and their descendants;
Meshumadim: a willing convert to Christianity;
Mudejar(s): Muslims living under Christian rule;
Sephardim: Jews living in Spain (from Sepharad, the Hebrew name for Spain).

The 14th and 15th centuries were periods of fundamental and unpleasant changes for the Jews of Spain, (made up primarily of Castile and Aragón, but not including last remnant of Muslim al-Andalus: the Kingdom of Granada).

The pogroms of 1391 and subsequent mass conversions were followed in the early 15th century by continued pressures on the Sephardim to apostate. Names of fanatical Christian priests such as Ferrán Martínez and Vicente Ferrer, and equally zealous Jewish converts to Christianity like Pablo de Santa María or Jerónimo de Santa Fe, resonated throughout the juderías (also aljamas) of the country.

The mass conversions, however, had results that complicated social relationships in unforeseen ways, and their impact was to be felt into the 16th century and beyond.

Conversions of Jews to Christianity had taken place periodically from early times, but what distinguishes the period of approximately 1391 to 1415 is the unprecedented number of Jewish converts, a large percentage of whom –because of their employment in public offices and their closer contact with the Christian upper classes– belonged to the elite of their community.

The result is that in the 15th century we have a complicated social picture: First there were Christians of old stock, Cristianos viejos (the majority), joined now by a significant and highly visible number of “New Christians” (Conversos or Cristianos nuevos). There still remained a substantial community of Jews, many of whom prospered despite the trying times. And in Aragón and eastern and southern Castile many Mudejars added to the social mix.

Of the thousands of Conversos, many were genuine converts (e.g Pablo de Santa María), but on the other hand, the numerous forced, rushed or mass conversions also meant that there were inevitably many ostensible Cristianos nuevos who felt no real attachment to their new faith and continued practicing their old beliefs in secret (i.e. they were Crypto-Jews, Marranos).

Outwardly they were Christians, but within the walls of their houses and in their personal life, they still followed Judaic laws and rituals as far as possible. They lived double lives, reinventing themselves by publicly taking on Christian names (those of saints being particularly popular), but given the speed with which conversions took place they were hardly able to assimilate a new Christian identity and cast off their Jewish customs overnight.

They found themselves caught between the familiarity of their Judaic culture and the demands of their new religion. This meant publicly renouncing their former values, attending church instead of the synagogue, acknowledging Christ as the Messiah and the Virgin Mary as his mother, working on Saturdays and changing radically their dietary habits. A traumatic task at the best of times, but under the ruthless conditions of the day it was fraught with insecurity, uncertainty and possible ostracism from both camps.

Genuine Conversos, eager to convince their “Old Christian” neighbours of the truth of their conversion, often went out of their way to mock their Jewish past, attack their ancient beliefs, denounce as heretics those who secretly practiced Judaism, or actively persecute those remaining Jews, in the manner of Pablo de Santa María.

Consequences of Conversion.
Given the proselytising zeal in the years following the 1391 pogroms, it wasn’t long before the sincerity of many converts began to be questioned.  Ironically, the question of their sincerity might have not become a major issue but for the consequences of their becoming Christians.

Simply put, once baptised all Conversos were Christians and therefore enjoyed all the privileges of belonging to the majority group. In other words, they could no longer be discriminated against on religious grounds and could now freely take up positions which Christian commoners had long sought to deny Jews and participate fully in the social and economic life of the Christians.

Old Christians, for their part, found that the new converts not only remained what they had been as Jews (merchants, traders, shopkeepers, physicians, financiers, administrators etc.), but now had even more access to power.

Three new areas in particular opened up for the Cristianos nuevos: the nobility, the church (and religious orders), and public offices. Jews had long served as administrators of noble estates, but a more intimate relationship –such as marriage– had been rare.

Now, however, as “Christians” they faced no religious obstacle and many noble, old Christian families and wealthy Converso families contracted marriage to their mutual advantage: for the Conversos it secured protection and instant “respectability,” for the Christian upper classes it was largely a commercial transaction often to improve their economic lot. Indeed, intermarriage became such a common practice that by the end of the 15th century, it was claimed that most noble houses contained Jewish ancestry.

As for the Church and the religious orders, they could hardly discriminate against the Conversos, and indeed had done much to persuade Old Christians to receive their new religious brethren generously (after all, why should the Jews convert if they were going to be ill-treated!). 

As a result, numerous Conversos made significant advancement within the ranks of the church and the religious orders, the transformation of Solomon Halevi, chief rabbi of Burgos into Pablo de Santa María, bishop of Burgos being but one example.

A corner of the Jewish quarter in Segovia.

As for public offices, legal constraints had prohibited Jews from holding positions of authority over Christians, but Cristianos nuevos –freed from such constraints– quickly moved into those areas with such success that many Castilian towns, e.g. Burgos, Segovia, were in fact run by Converso families.

On the surface, the sustained assaults of Ferrán Martínez, and Vicente Ferrer and others had certainly borne fruit with the decimation of Jewish communities, but success carried with it an unexpected sting.

The trouble is that instead of eliminating differences and unifying society, the mass conversions at the turn of the 15th century complicated social cohesion by creating a hybrid Christian group that came to be hated as much as or even more than the Jews!  Why?

The Sephardim had been highly visible outsiders, and in them Old Christian resentment had an easily identifiable target. However, as Conversos replaced the Jews in the same spheres of influence and even penetrated the nobility, the church and public offices, commoner resentment soon found a new target in them and their descendants.

It wasn’t long before  whispers and accusations of treason, conspiracies and corruption became widespread, to such a degree that, as with the Jews, the Conversos required royal edicts that specifically protected them from discrimination.

A decree of Enrique/Henry III (1390-1406) commands that if any of the Jews be converted to the Christian faith, “all people of our dominions treat them respectfully, and that none dare detract them or their lineage by mentioning, in an insulting manner, the fact that they had been Jews. [We further order that] they [the Conversos] may have all the offices and honors which the other Christians have” (Netanyahu, 271).

However, in the popular mind, royal protection did no more than foster the belief of preferential treatment and exacerbated the on-going struggle between crown and municipalities (where the voice of common people was heard).

It did not help matters either that the public advancement experienced by the Conversos took place against a background of intense struggles between rival aristocratic factions circulating around the throne of the youthful and politically disinterested king, Juan II (1406-54). 

The king’s favourite and closest advisor, Alvaro de Luna  –the major political figure in Castile during some 30 years of near anarchy before losing royal favour, and his head, in 1453– had a particular political agenda: the promotion of the concept of royal absolutism and the divine rights of kings.  This meant overriding the opinions of the nobles and dispensing with the Cortes (Parliament), where the municipalities had a voice.

As part of this agenda, Alvaro created a new bureaucracy that would not only be loyal to the crown but would work to improve royal control over administrative matters, including taxation. Which is where the Conversos come in.  Luna recognised that the Conversos had the practical experience to carry out these functions and introduced many of them into the royal administration. The resentment of both nobles and commoners was palpable.

Toledo and the Birth of Limpieza de sangre (Purity of Blood).
For the next and crucial step in this story we go to Toledo, the Christian capital of the country and home also to one of the largest Converso communities of Castile.  In January, 1449, Alvaro de Luna arrived at the “imperial” city to raise taxes for the king. 

The man charged with the collection was Alonso Cota, a Converso. There had been poor harvests recently, a chronic shortage of grain and sharp inflation of prices, and then demands for money… they were a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, the commander of the fortress of Toledo, Pero Sarmiento –bitterly disappointed by failed promises from the king and Luna– was in a rebellious mood.

What happened next is not exactly clear.  Some chronicles of the period talk of a spontaneous insurrection by the commoners against the demands for money; others suggest that Sarmiento, sensing an opportunity to take control of Toledo, claimed the Conversos were false Christians, enemies of the Church, and were conspiring to kill all the Old Christians. 

Whatever the case, the Conversos were reviled by the commoners because of their power, and detested by Sarmiento because they supported the king and Luna. With the ringing of cathedral bells to urge them on, packs of Old Christians attacked and destroyed Converso homes, and underlined their resolve by hanging several Conversos in the public square.

But the destruction of Converso property was not what made the Toledo rebellion significant; it was what followed. With the city now in their hands, in June 1449 the rebels promulgated a special statute, called the Sentencia-Estatuto, which set the parameters of social life in Spain for centuries to come.

Following allegations that Conversos conspired to seize control of key offices with the aim of destroying Christian society from within, the Sentencia-Estatuto declared that from henceforth no Conversos or their descendants could hold any public or private office at any time. Despite a papal bull condemning the action of the rebels and the Sentencia, the vitriol directed at the Conversos  as “beasts … sowers of all discord, rich in … perversity” etc. (Reston 20) could not be contained. 

The Sentencia-Estatuto was the first clear articulation that religion was no longer the principal feature distinguishing those living in Spanish society but blood and race (the same criterion would be applied also to converted Muslims –Moriscos).  Purity of blood, —limpieza de sangre— here explodes onto the scene for the first time.  At this moment, however, it expressed the deep felt sentiments of commoners in Toledo; quickly it became a national obsession as restrictions for those with Jewish lineage become widespread. 

It presaged, too, the introduction into Spanish life of an investigative body that became the embodiment of suspicion and terror in its pursuit of heresy: the Inquisition.


Aguilar, M & Robertson, I Jewish Spain: A Guide  Madrid 1984
Gerber,  Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1992
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Netanyahu, Benzion The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain New York 1995
Paris, Erna  The End of Days  Toronto 1995
Phillips William D, Jr. & Phillips, Carla R A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010
Reston, James Jr.  Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors  New York 2005

To the casual reader, the role of both Iberian and Celtic cultures in Spanish history may seem irrelevant when faced with the magnificent legacies of Rome, Muslim and Jewish Spain, the Renaissance etc., but their contributions –whether true or imagined– have woven their way through Spanish history.

The nineteenth century was particularly fruitful as Romanticism cast its eyes back on the distant past in search of roots to bolster rising national patriotism.  As Celtomania swept Europe, in Spain paintings and novels hailed the bravery of Celtic warriors such as the Lusitanian Viriathus or glorified the collective spirit of Numantia, a Celtic (Celtiberian according to some) town whose inhabitants were popularly perceived to prefer suicide to capitulation to the Romans.

During the 19th century, the Iberians were eclipsed by the Celts but by the beginning of the 20th century the flowering of Catalan nationalism was beginning to bear fruit and more was being heard of the Iberians.  In addition, the discovery of the Dama de Elche and other Iberian artefacts in 1897 spurred further interest in establishing a link with a perceived glorious past.

The two worlds being projected along ethnic lines to fit nationalistic aims provoked a series of debates in the early twentieth century over the importance of each at the same time that the country was confronting the old struggle between centrifugal and centripetal forces: Regionalism against centralism, perhaps the  major constant in the history of Spain.

By the 1930s the emphasis had shifted to a more balanced view.  A school primer of Spain’s early history shows a roughly drawn map in which the Iberian Peninsula is divided into 3 areas: the west and north dominated by the Celts, the east and south by the Iberians and in the middle the Celtiberians. 

Each figure representing the three groups is of equal size. But the static figures belie the political turmoil through which the country was passing in the 1930s, and subconsciously perhaps there is a portent of looming war for each figure in the map is bearing arms as if prepared for hostilities.

And hostilities did break out in the vicious Civil War of 1936-39 that ended with the victory of centralism over regional aspirations, of conservatism over liberalism, and as far as the prehistory of Spain was concerned of the Celts over the Iberians.

Under Franco history was rewritten to support political ends and the Celts were the winners initially.  It was argued that the Celts had dominated all corners of the peninsula and the Iberians either had not existed as a race or they were viewed as a subgroup with Celtic attributes whose culture had been modified by contact with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and later the Romans.

The Celtic myth was also supported by the fact that the Celts had entered the peninsula from Europe. From here it was but a short step to pair them with the dogma of Aryan superiority then sweeping through Germany, a myth supported, furthermore, by the work of Spanish archaeologists trained in Germany. 

There was after all ample evidence of the arrival of the Celts in the peninsula from north of the Pyrenees; the same could not be said for the Iberians!  And as for the term Celtiberians, it was quite acceptable for it connoted Celtic superiority, reducing the Iberian role to an appendage.

The Celtophiles were centralists for whom Celtic hegemony over the peninsula was proof enough of an early phase of national unity, a vital building block to which later periods (particularly the 16th century) would add their contribution.   Everything that could be adduced as proof of Celtic greatness was part of the propaganda machine manipulating history to legitimise the Franco regime.

Nevertheless, the pendulum was to swing again and dramatically. Aryanism suffered an ignominious defeat with the collapse of Hitler’s armies and Franco’s spin doctors hurried to revise their historical stance, turning the original argument on its head.  By the late 1950s the Iberians had become the heroes because they were indigenous and thereby the root stock of Spanish identity.  The Celts were invaders, outsiders, and a foreign people!

A good example of the change of attitude is the prominence of the comic hero, El Jabato, in the late 50s, a brave young Iberian in constant battle with Roman troops. What is significant is that it was now an Iberian assuming the traditional role of the Celtic warrior.

With Franco’s death in 1975 and the passage of the country from a unitary state to 17 autonomous communities, a new approach to the Celtic/ Iberian debate has inevitably taken place.

The excesses of earlier have been shunned, but at the same time the proliferation of regional histories has led to a search for identity reaching back even to prehistoric periods.

The search can also lead to demands that artefacts displayed in national museums be returned to their region of origin; for example, both  Elche (Valencia) and Baza (Granada) respectively reclaim the damas (ladies) of Elche and Baza, presently displayed at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.

It would be naive to assume that interest in recovering the past is apolitical and that archaeological digs are purely scientific. Nationalistic fervour can distort and much depends on the wisdom of the political leaders of both the Autonomous Communities and the central government to prevent the pendulum of change from swinging too violently and too far.

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary, 1991
Ruiz Zapatero, Gonzalo  “Celts and Iberians” in Cultural Identity and Archaeology eds. Graves-Brown, P, Jones S, Gamble C, London 1996

“If you haven’t seen Granada you haven’t…”

Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada  (Literally “Who hasn’t seen Granada hasn’t seen anything“).   So the people of Granada claim, with a dig at the city’s Andalusian rivals, Seville and Córdoba.

Located on the edge of a fertile plain (la vega) with the snow capped Sierra Nevada rising dramatically behind it, Granada is certainly worth seeing. But it’s not the location that draws visitors, and certainly not the ungainly modern city; it is Moorish Granada they come to see, and in particular the Alhambra Fortress Palace complex, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful architectural gems in the world.

The Alhambra from the Plaza de San Nicolás in the Albaicín

According to a popular 15th-century ballad, the king of Castile, John II, fell so in love with the Alhambra that he addressed it directly, as if to a woman, and asked it to marry him.  As dowry he offered the cities of Córdoba and Seville, the two earlier centres of Islamic culture in the peninsula.

Early History of Granada.
Virtually nothing remains of Granada’s earliest years when it was first an Iberian and later a Roman settlement called Illiberis.  The Visigoths elevated it to a bishopric, but in 711 it fell to the invading Muslims (or Moors, as they are generally called in the Spanish context). Until 1031, Granada was dependent on Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus  (Muslim Spain). 

After the disintegration of Córdoba’s political power in 1031, Granada emerged as capital of a mini state of the same name, one of numerous minor kingdoms (reinos de Taifa) that sprang up in al-Andalus.

Granada did not make much of a mark until the 13th century when Christian expansionism from the north quickly swallowed almost all that was left of al-Andalus following the capture of Córdoba in 1236.  Only the kingdom of Granada remained, and as the only Muslim territory left in the Iberian Peninsula, it became the magnet for all disaffected refugees fleeing from the Christians.

Thanks to the pragmatism of its ruler, Muhammad ibn Nasr (who agreed to pay tributes and to assist the Christian King, Ferdinand III, to conquer Seville), the kingdom of Granada remained independent for over 200 more years.

Other factors, too, helped its survival: e.g. its mountainous nature, the possibility of help from Muslim neighbours in North Africa, internal disputes in Castile. Its independence only ended when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, made a concerted effort to conquer the kingdom. The end finally came when the city of Granada itself fell in 1492.

Surrender of Granada.
The surrender of the city of Granada was accompanied by a lot of pomp and ceremony.  Dressed in Moorish clothes, Ferdinand and Isabel entered the city and received the keys from the deposed Moorish king, Abu Abdallah, better known as Boabdil.

It was an imposing spectacle, and the event made waves not only in Granada but in all of Christendom (e.g. a Te Deum –“we thank thee, O Lord”– was sung in London). It so happens that an interested bystander, who himself made waves shortly after, was in Granada trying to persuade the Catholic Monarchs to sponsor his “wild” idea of reaching Asia by crossing the Atlantic.  We know him as Christopher Columbus!

As for Boabdil, he ended his days in Morocco, lamenting the loss of his beloved Granada. On the road leading from Granada to the coast, there is a spot known as El suspiro del moro (The Sigh of the Moor). Legend has it that here Boabdil turned for a last, lingering look at the city. His sigh prompted a crushing rebuke from his mother: “Weep like a woman you who were unable to defend your kingdom like a man.”

Christian Consolidation in Granada.
The conquest of Granada was the highlight of Ferdinand and Isabel’s reign, but there was still some cleaning up to do. First, in 1492 the Jews, and later, in 1502 the Moors, were given the ultimatum of converting to Christianity or going into exile.  This left Spain finally united under one rule and one religion (with the exception of the Muslims of Aragon who retained their religion until 1520s)

The religious zeal of Ferdinand and Isabel was quickly translated into buildings that would be visible statements of Christian domination. Late Gothic or early Renaissance churches, monasteries and convents were built, and mosques were converted to Christian use.

By 1501, in the hillside quarter of the Albaicín (the oldest part of Granada), the Convent of Santa Isabel la Real was already under construction. Over half a dozen small churches sprang up in the Albaicín, many retaining features from previous mosques, e.g. the 11th-century tower (former minaret) of San José, the Arab patio of La Iglesia del Salvador.

The 11-th century tower of San José, formerly a minaret. The bell is a Christian addition; bells were anathema to the Muslims.

An added feature that the king personally organized and paid for was the distribution of church bells, the traditional call to prayer for Christians, but considered anathema to Muslims.

The major buildings that communicated the idea of permanent conquest came at the foot of the Albaicín, where the city had spread itself onto the plain.  The most notable building, although not the largest, is the beautiful Capilla Real (Royal Chapel, constructed between 1506 and 1521) erected as a mausoleum for the Catholic Monarchs.

Ferdinand and Isabel had earlier intended to be buried in Toledo, but decided that it would be more appropriate to be buried in the town which had witnessed their greatest triumph. Adjoining the Capilla Real and rising over it is the Renaissance cathedral, commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs, but not begun until 1521. It replaced the main mosque, which had in the meantime been consecrated for Christian worship.

Renaissance facade. Granada Cathedral.

The construction of religious buildings was also accompanied by other modifications. Streets were widened and straightened, and large squares created (Plaza de Bibarrambla, Plaza Nueva, Plaza del Príncipe) as the town took on a Renaissance Christian character.

Even the Alhambra was not immune.  In 1526, the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles (Carlos) V, while staying at the Alhambra determined that Granada should become a residence for the royal court. This required a building befitting both his royal and imperial status.

Charles V’s palace.

The result is the massive, granite Renaissance Palace that rises over one end of the Patio de los Arrayanes (Myrtles), across from the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors). Fortunately, there is a positive side to this intrusion: two palaces, abutting each other, which allow us to see the architectural preferences of two different cultures.

The Alhambra Palace conveys the lightness of lyric poetry, a particular strength of Arab culture; the Palace of Charles V evokes the grandeur of epic verse. The juxtaposition of the two styles reminds us of something similar in Córdoba, where the Great Mosque contains within it a Gothic church. Coincidentally it was the same king, Charles V, who authorized the construction of the church within the mosque in Córdoba.

Fletcher, Richard    Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard    The Cross and the Crescent  London, 2003
Gilmour, David      Cities of Spain London, 1994
Harvey, L. P   Islamic Spain 1250 to 1500 Chicago 1990
Jacobs, Michael  A Guide to Andalusia London 1990
Nash,  Elizabeth  Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History  Oxford, 2005
Image of  Charles V’s palace:
Image of Granada Cathedral: By Tango7174 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Granada from the 17th to 20th Century.
Following the conquest of Granada in 1492, the victorious Christians quickly established their presence, converting mosques into churches, building new churches, monasteries, convents and a large cathedral where the grand mosque had once stood.  Much of what identified the city as Muslim still remained (the Alhambra, the Albaicín), but Christian architecture was evidence of a new direction in the destiny of the city.

The flurry of building in the 16th century slowed down in the 17th century as the city went into a long decline, as did much of the rest of Spain. There were sporadic attempts at industry in the 18th century, but as in the rest of Andalusia it failed to take root.  Granada was no more than a provincial city with seemingly little ambition.

The situation did not improve in the 19th century.  And but for a stroke of fortune Granada might easily have lost its most prized treasure and source of much of its economic well-being … the Alhambra.

In the early years of the 19th century, the city was taken by Napoleon’s troops during the course of the Peninsular War (or War of Independence to Spaniards). The French not only stationed their soldiers in the Alhambra, but also kept prisoners and stored dynamite in the buildings. Upon retreat, they blew up some of the Moorish towers but fortunately were unsuccessful in destroying the palace complex.

What is clear from travelers’ reports at this time is that Granadinos themselves were indifferent to the beauty of the Alhambra. It was populated by gypsies and the penniless, and served as a prison and military hospital.

Richard Ford, traveling in Spain in the 1830s, is caustic about the neglected state of the Alhambra. Granadinos, he says, “despise the Alhambra as a “casa de ratones,” or rat’s hole, which indeed they have made it… They resent almost as heretical the preference shown by foreigners to the works of infidels rather than to those of good Catholics.” 

It was a foreigner, the American diplomat and scholar Washington Irving, who more than anyone else brought the Alhambra to the popular imagination. While staying in the Alhambra in 1829 he began writing the book for which he is best known: Tales of the Alhambra, a combination of romantic legend and descriptions of the place and the people living there.  At a time when Romanticism was in the air and the exotic was in vogue, the tales of Medieval Muslim Spain were particularly attractive.  Irving’s book sold widely and put Granada on the tourist map.

Modern Granada.
Granada entered the 20th century on the back of its tourist appeal. Although Andalusia at this time was subject to frequent anarchist outbursts from impoverished peasants (“campesinos”), Granada was solidly conservative. Its backbone was the military and the church, and a middle class that was inward looking and unadventurous.

Richard Ford had described the society of Granada in the 1830s as “dull” and “ignorant.” Over 100 years later, the poet Federico García Lorca –one of Spain’s greatest poets and dramatists, and native of Granada–  reproached Granadinos as “the worst bourgeoisie in Spain today.” 

Lorca himself was shot soon after in Granada, an early victim of the Civil War (1936-39) in which Granada –after a brief and bloody purge of anyone with liberal sympathies– quickly sided with the Franco rebels against the central government.

Since the death of Franco (1975), Granada has transformed itself into a prosperous, bustling city.  Its student life is reputed to be the liveliest in Spain, and night life goes on to the early hours of the morning. A magnificent interactive Science Park was opened in the city in May 1995, its ultramodern architecture a symbol of confidence in the city’s future.

The high rise buildings that have invaded the plain (vega), and the congested traffic are the scourge of modern urban sprawl. Modern Granada is a cacophony of blaring car horns and the high pitched buzz of mopeds that weave suicidally between traffic.

Granada: the Albaicín and the Return of Islam.
Standing above the noise on their respective hills overlooking the modern city, the Albaicín (or Albayzín) and the Alhambra restore a balance of sanity. True, there are lots of tourists but there is always a hidden corner, an unexpected discovery to be made.

Albaicín. San Nicolás church to the left. The new mosque’s minaret can be made out in the middle top.

This is especially so in the Albaicín, with its hilly, narrow, winding streets and intimate squares.   It is to the Plaza de San Nicolás that many tourists go for a distant view of the Alhambra, across the gorge that divides the two hills. At dusk, the breathtaking sight of the reddish-coloured Palace against the backdrop of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada is one of the most memorable images they will take with them.

It is views like this that prompted the 20th-century Mexican poet and diplomat, Francisco Alarcón de Icaza, to exclaim: dale limosna mujer/ que no hay en la vida nada/ como la pena de ser ciego en Granada (“Give him alms lady, for there is nothing in life as wretched as being blind in Granada”). These lines can now be found in several spots in the city.

The Alhambra from the Plaza de San Nicolás in the Albaicín

A feature of the Albaicín is the carmen, a Moorish-style house set in gardens with flowers, fruit trees, plants, fountains, and slender, vivid green cypresses, all enclosed by high walls. The cármenes are to old Granada what the patios are to old Córdoba, private spaces, a kind of inner paradise meant for the pleasure of the family.

Another much more recent feature of the Albaicín is the presence of Muslims, many of whom are converts to Islam.  In the streets of the Albaicín now you can find tea houses serving mint tea, coffee, juices accompanied by Arabic music and Arab news reports on the radio.

There are halal butcher shops, and bakeries selling baklava and kenafa (a soft cheese), and shops that sell leather goods, sandals, incense, spices etc.  During the holy month of Ramadan some shops display signs in their windows wishing passersby Feliz Ramadan.

Nevertheless, the major Muslim attraction in the Albaicín is the new mosque sitting next to a convent close to the Plaza San Nicolás.

Granada’s new mosque.

The mosque opened in July 2003, the culmination of 22 years of effort to overcome the various objections raised by city leaders and by neighbourhood resistance.  The opening was attended by various Muslim and non-Muslim dignitaries, including the mayor of Granada, a member of the then ruling right-wing Partido Popular party.

It is the first mosque built in Granada in over 500 years (the Muslims of Granada earlier met in makeshift centres) and carries with it significant symbolic value, not always interpreted in the same way by Muslims in Spain.

Native-born Muslims, who make up most of the congregation, are anxious not to arouse fears of an Islamic reconquest of Andalusia.  They want to promote a tolerant and democratic Islam which is able to live with its Catholic neighbours, not an easy task when al-Andalus was frequently evoked by Osama bin Laden and his followers as territory to be reclaimed for Islam.

Beyond the Albaicín, on the edge of the town, is the gypsy cave district of Sacromonte, the most popular place to go to for flamenco dancing. There’s a lot of debate about the quality of the shows, but it can be a fun if somewhat more expensive experience than bargained for.  Be cautious is the advice usually given to visitors, especially at night.

June 23, 2020: Visiting Granada? The following is very helpful:

Fletcher, Richard    Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard    The Cross and the Crescent  London, 2003
Ford, Richard    A Hand Book for Travellers in Spain London, 1845
Gilmour, David      Cities of Spain London, 1994
Jacobs, Michael     A Guide to Andalusia London: Viking 1990
Nash, Elizabeth    Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History Oxford 2005
An interesting article on the building of the new mosque in Granada can be read in:

Post-Civil War Spain and the International Community.
The Second World War began in early September 1939, four months after the Civil War ended in Spain.  Given that Germany and Italy had assisted the Nationalist cause, Franco’s sympathies were predictably with the Axis powers.

But with his country exhausted and half of it against him he was hardly in a position to offer much concrete help.  Nevertheless, for both Hitler and Franco there were benefits if they could reach an agreement.

Hitler wanted land access to Gibraltar; Franco wanted food, war material and above all a substantial share of France’s North African colonies, with a view to replacing France as a Mediterranean power.  The two leaders met in the French Pyrenean town of Hendaye on October 23 1940.

A myth has grown up around the scheduled time for the meeting. To Franco’s great embarrassment, his leaky, rickety train arrived a few minutes late, a most inauspicious start when facing the most powerful man in Europe. 

When the war was over, Francoist spin doctors put it out that the caudillo had deliberately kept the Fuhrer waiting for an hour as evidence of his independence and as a ploy to keep the German leader off balance. Detractors quickly pointed to the dreadful state of the Spanish railways as the cause of any delay. 

Whatever the case, Franco irritated Hitler by obstinately reiterating his conditions for Spanish entry into the war. These proved too demanding and all that the Fuhrer was able to extract from the caudillo was an ambiguous promise that Spain would enter the war when the moment was right.  Hitler summed up his frustration later to Mussolini when he remarked that he would rather have three or four teeth removed rather than repeat the experience with Franco.

The right moment to join the war never did materialise.  Franco did declare a vague state of “non-belligerence” and granted refuelling facilities to Axis ships/ submarines in Spanish ports. 

But the closest he got to action in the Second World War was to send a division of Blue Shirted Falangist** volunteers to the Russian front in 1941 as a gesture of goodwill and a means of avenging communist interference in the Spanish Civil War.

**Falange: Spanish right wing party which
appropriated some of the ideas expounded
by fascism (e.g. exaltation of the nation,
with racial overtones, autocratic government).
Founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de
Rivera, son of the dictator, General Primo
de Rivera (1923-30).

It also satisfied Falange wishes of supporting the Axis without offending Monarchist sentiments, which were on the side of the Allies.

By 1943 the tide had turned in favour of the Allies and Franco began to change tack. To the delight of the Monarchists in his camp, he withdrew the Blue Division from the Russian front (it had suffered heavy casualties in the battle of Stalingrad), and for the first time announced Spain to be “neutral”. 

Nevertheless, Spain continued to sell wolfram and other metals to help the German war machine, German radar installation still operated in the country, and German agents still operated on Spanish soil. Also volunteers from the Blue Division still fought in Russia.

A cosmetic change took place within Franco’s office after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944  reflecting new priorities: autographed photos of Hitler and Mussolini –which had shared pride of place with a similar tribute from the Pope– suddenly vanished.

At the same time Franco’s publicity machine started to crank out anti-Bolshevik messages in an attempt to convince the Allies that sympathy for Germany had been inspired by hatred for a common enemy: communism.

Spain’s Isolation.
Franco’s change of heart was patently opportunistic, and when the Second World War ended in 1945 Spain found itself isolated and an international pariah. Britain had elected a socialist government in 1945, France was leaning to the left, and President Roosevelt –and later Truman– of the United States were no admirers of the caudillo. To all he was an unrepentant fascist, an argument to which the Soviet Union also subscribed.

The full extent of Spain’s isolation became clear when the newly created United Nations adopted a resolution moved by Mexico (which had a large contingent of influential Republican exiles) to exclude it from the new organisation. And there was more. In February 1946 France closed its border to commerce with Spain, following the execution of an exiled Republican who had fought in the French Resistance.

In December 1946, the United Nations recommended that all members withdraw their ambassadors from Madrid. In the following year (1947) Spain was excluded from the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe as long as the dictatorship remained. In the meantime, exiled Republicans were agitating vigorously for the overthrow of Franco, and Spanish maquis (resistance fighters) were engaged in guerrilla activities in the north east of the country (the Pyrenees).

Franco’s position seemed precarious, but in fact the threat was more apparent than real.
1. In the first place, he knew from public statements made by members of the United Nations that they had no intention of intervening to overthrow him.  Not only did this strengthen his position at home, it also left exiled Spaniards dispirited and disillusioned. 

2. Secondly, he did have support in a few quarters: the Vatican, Portugal and Ireland recognised his regime, and President Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina was a staunch ally whose gifts of wheat on credit were vital for Franco’s survival for a number of years. 

3. Thirdly, Franco successfully turned diplomatic ostracism into a rallying cry for Spanish patriotism, generating a “them” versus “us” mentality. The state controlled press played this to the full, portraying Spain as a Catholic country, fighting alone against the poison of world communism, rampant freemasonry, and an international conspiracy working to keep Spain weak. The siege mentality was easy to cultivate in a country that had long crusading history.

For Franco, the essential message was that Spain was the first country to successfully crush the Marxist menace. It was a successful ploy, and before long the Western powers turned him from pariah to valuable ally, not because of any change in his politics but because of Spain’s strategic position and his proclaimed battle against the Marxist threat.  In this, Soviet expansionism came to Franco’s aid.

Background to the change of international attitude towards Spain.
In a celebrated speech in March 1946, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, declared that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Europe. Two years later (February 1948) Czechoslovakia was swallowed behind that curtain and shortly after (June) the Russian blockade of Berlin got started.

By now the Cold War was well under way, pitting the Soviet Union against its former Western Allies. In April 1949, the Western Powers created the North American Atlantic Organisation (NATO, from which Spain was excluded)  to contain the Soviet threat.

A few months later (August), the Soviets successfully exploded their first atomic bomb. Before the end of the year (October) China had joined the communist family, and although Mao Tse Tung steered an independent course from Russia, it seemed to the West, and especially the United States, that the sphere of Soviet influence was spreading ominously.

In the United States itself the discovery of a communist spy ring triggered the notorious, countrywide hounding of anyone associated in any way with publicly expressed left wing views.  With the witch-hunting senator Joseph McCarthy given a public forum, Americans were fed a daily diet of the imminent dangers of communism. 

Finally, in 1950 in a move sanctioned by Stalin, North Korea invaded South Korea, under American control since the defeat of Japan in World War II.  This was a challenge the West could not ignore. The Korean conflict was to keep it busy for three years.

To Western observers Soviet imperialism was running rampant, and war in Europe now seemed a distinct possibility.  Suddenly Franco’s repressive regime and fascist connections were conveniently forgotten in favour of his staunch anti-communism, particularly for the Americans. But even more important was Spain’s strategic position, mid way between Europe and Africa and controlling the western end of the Mediterranean.

Result of the change of attitude.
Moves started immediately to end Spain’s isolation. By the end of 1950 the majority of members of the UN voted to reopen embassies in Madrid, with the USA doing so in December. 

On a very tangible level, Washington also authorised a loan of over $62 million to rearm the Spanish army. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Franco’s enemies.  Not only was the caudillo’s position now virtually unassailable, it also allowed him ample opportunity in his end of the year address to the country to justify his past stance and boast of his accomplishments.

More international recognition was to feed Franco’s vanity: in November 1952 Spain was admitted to UNESCO, in August of 1953 a Concordat was signed with the Vatican, and finally in 1955 Spain was received into the United Nations.

In the meantime, a mutual defence pact was signed with the USA in 1953, allowing four air bases and one naval base to be established on Spanish soil, as well as refuelling facilities in Spanish ports.  The pact also included $226 million in military and technological aid.

The decision was not without opposition in Spain, however.  Cardinal Segura  –a religious fanatic who had fanned the flames of discontent in the early years of the Second Republic (1931-39)– now crusaded against the betrayal of Spain’s Catholic identity for heretical dollars. The thought of protestant soldiers contaminating the Catholic purity of the country was enough to drive the aged churchman to distraction. It also earned him the attention of Franco’s secret police from then on.

The Falangists were also uncomfortable with the military pact. For them –and other nationalists– the presence on Spanish soil of troops from the most powerful military nation in the world was a threat to Spain’s sovereignty. 

However, over mutterings of new Gibraltars and grumblings of fraternizing with the enemy that in 1898** had finished off the empire, Franco presented the bases pact as both an alliance of equals and a great service to the West against communism.

**Spain’s defeat at the hands of the USA in 1898
signaled the loss of its three remaining transoceanic
possessions: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
It also plunged the country into a heated,
soul-searching debate over its decay and loss of power.

The caudillo was not above basking in the praise of his own greatness in the way things had turned out, and no doubt preened with pleasure when an editor of the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia Espanola  acclaimed him as the Caudillo of the West, the only truly great man of the twentieth century, a giant by the sides of such dwarves as Churchill and Roosevelt (Preston 626)!

Franco undoubtedly felt such praise more than justified when he was visited in December of 1959 by the President of the United States, General Dwight Eisenhower. It was the high point of his international career, a meeting of two military leaders, and he talked of nothing else during the weeks that followed.

Although there were subsequent visits from Presidents Nixon and Ford, there was no rush by other distinguished political leaders to follow the American example. As leaders of the West, and the driving force behind the creation of NATO, the Americans tolerated Franco because of their strategic interests. 

In return Franco received military aid (even if it was outdated or surplus stuff), but was unable integrate Spain into the North Atlantic military club. Here other members, e.g Britain and France, dug in their heels denying the caudillo valuable propaganda material.

Franco was less concerned with membership of the newly created European Economic Community (EEC). He believed it was a political body run by freemasons and liberals who would demand political liberalisation, which he refused to contemplate.  Nevertheless, persuaded by economic reformers within the Movimiento**, he agreed to open negotiations in February, 1962.

Movimiento (Nacional): a merger in 1937
of right wing factions or “families.” Controlled
by Franco.

The EEC’s refusal to negotiate, however, wounded his pride and justified his subsequent reaction that Spain was still surrounded by enemies.  It continued the rhetoric of post Civil War ostracism, and reaffirmed the “them” versus “us” mentality.

What Franco failed to recognise was that he was an anachronism, and that as long as he insisted on running the country it would remain on the periphery of the European Community. Though Spain’s strategic location was important, Franco’s insistence on retaining power and on executing political opponents (e.g. the notorious case of the Communist activist Julián Grimau in 1963, or Basque rebels in September 1975) ensured that Spain would remain politically on the side lines.

It also ensured that when he died on November 20, 1975, Franco’s funeral would be attended by very few foreign dignitaries. There were representatives of almost 100 foreign countries, but only one head of state, his fellow dictator General Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

This says much of what Franco meant on the international stage. Fossilised in the past, he took his leave of the world with words –to be addressed to the nation as his political testament after his death– that reflect an unchanging and uncompromising attitude: do not forget that the enemies of Spain and of Christian civilisation are on the alert (Preston 779).  In the world community, the majority did not forget that Franco was the enemy of freedom and in the end denied him the reward of international respect.


Barton, Simon   A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Ellwood, Sheelagh    Francisco Franco London, New York 1995
Gies, David T  The Cambridge Companion to Modern Spanish Culture Cambridge 1999
Graham, Helen & Labanyi, Jo  Spanish Cultural Studies: An Introduction Oxford 1995
Herr, Richard  An Historical Essay on Modern Spain Los Angeles 1974
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford  Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Preston, Paul    Franco London 1995
Shubert, Adrian  A Social History of Modern Spain  London 1990
Sueiro, Daniel & Diaz Nosty, Bernardo  Historia del Franquismo Vol 1, Madrid 1986
Tremlett, Giles Ghosts of Spain New York, Berlin, London 2008

Franco: Crusader and Saviour?
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936; on April 1, 1939 it was officially over. This marked the end of the Second Republic (1931-39), which had made a valiant if misguided effort at coming to terms with the country’s past.

The Second Republic had attempted too much, too quickly and with too much passion. As a result it got caught up in the maelstrom of Spanish history and, without being able to extricate itself, got trapped in a terrible, fratricidal war. 

The outcome was a return to the past, to a nation that was once again unitary although far from united. Under General Franco, the Nationalist uprising of 1936 had defeated the legitimately elected Second Republic and paved the way for resurgent conservatism.

More power was now invested in one individual, Franco, than at any time since 1812, when the first constitution had put an end to absolute monarchy. Force had the “virtue” of eliminating the political and social “problems” that had undermined the Second Republic.

The result was a “unified” country or, as the Nationalists preferred to proclaim, borrowing from the Falange hymn, Cara al sol (“Facing the sun”): España una, grande, libre (“Spain one, great and free”). No more regionalism, no more radical claims for land, no more liberalism, republicanism, socialism, anarchism, freemasonry, and above all communism.

What came after the Civil War was a thorough cleansing of republican Spain, the equivalent of the 16th-century limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”). Spain had recovered its purity, its Catholic soul, thanks to Francisco Franco, crusader, conqueror, saviour!

These were not idle expressions. The language of religious wars and conquest was an essential part of that glorious past which fired Nationalist fervour. Perhaps nothing better epitomises this association with the past than the official press communique released before Franco’s victory parade (ironically called the Parade of Peace) in Madrid on May 19: General Franco’s entry into Madrid will follow the ritual observed when Alfonso VI, accompanied by the Cid, captured Toledo in the Middle Ages (Preston 329).

**The Cid in fact did not accompany Alfonso VI when the latter entered Toledo triumphantly in1085. It’s no more than an attractive legend, and in this case useful propaganda.

At the same time, celebrations were to be held in the towns and villages throughout the country commemorating the “Crusade” and its historic significance. In Toledo, for example, medieval jousts took place in which a knight challenged all the knights of the city in the name of God, Spain and Franco! 

The Civil War was portrayed by Nationalists and the Catholic Church not only as a crusade but a reconquest also! A reconquest of Spain’s Catholic heritage, the enemy this time being communists, liberals, freemasons etc. rather than the Moors/Muslims (whose descendants –Moroccan mercenaries– were ironically used to bolster the Nationalist forces).

Franco himself entered a bedecked Madrid on May 18th (Ascension Day that year), symbolically mounted on a white horse. On the following day he took the salute at the parade, against a background of historically symbolic flags from all corners of the country. 

These included the banner of the battle of the Navas de Tolosa (1212), the standard draped over the tomb of the Cid (1043?-1099), and the royal standard from the conquest of Granada (1492)! The parade lasted five hours.  In addition to Nationalist regulars, Falangists*, Carlist **militia (requetes) bearing large crucifixes, and Spanish legionnaires, there were Italian soldiers, Portuguese volunteers, Moroccan mercenaries and members of the German Condor Legion, all receiving prominent placement in the march past.

Only one thing spoiled the celebration … it rained! Even so, the Nationalist spin doctors had an explanation for that:The sun which so often embraced the skin of those heroes did not want to tire them today during the Parade of Peace. As for the dictator, he stood smiling, soaked by the fresh baptismal water of a Spring that will mature the wheat of the cereal fields of Spain (transl. from Suero 37)!

*The Falange, a right wing Spanish party with fascist overtones, created in 1933. In 1937, it was amalgamated with the Carlist Monarchist Traditionalists to form the FET y de las JONS, which in turn were absorbed into the all-embracing Movimiento Nacional or Movimiento, headed by Franco.
**Carlism: a holdover from the civil wars of the 19th century between supporters of Isabel II and Charles/Carlos, claimant to the Spanish throne following the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833.

The theatrical spirit of the parade was far from spent. On the next day, Franco attended a thanksgiving service (Te Deum) celebrated by Cardinal Gomá at the basilica of Santa Barbara. Entering under fronds of palm leaves, and to the roll of artillery fire and the peal of bells, Franco was received by church dignitaries resplendent in all their pomp.

Inside, the choir from the medieval Benedictine monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos chanted a Mozarabic hymn for the reception of princes (Preston 330). Surrounded by a sea of historic banners –the battle flag of Las Navas de Tolosa and the standard of the Battle of Lepanto, for example– Franco handed over to Cardinal Gomá his sword of victory and in turn received the cardinal’s solemn blessing.

It was a fitting marriage of minds: a reactionary Christian institution that yearned to rechristianise Spain in its image and an individual who dreamed of emulating the Spanish heroes of the past. It was also a marriage of convenience, a symbiotic relationship between a church that proclaimed the message of the Prince of Peace and a military leader whose religious sentiment was upheld by an idealised image of a powerful, imperial Spain, similar to that created by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel.

The Franco regime imitated the coat of arms of Ferdinand and Isabel, which included the yoke and arrows adopted by the Falangists as their emblem.

Coat of Arms of the Franco Regime. Yoke bottom left, arrows bottom right.

The  Nationalist propaganda machine worked full time showering accolades upon their leader in those early days. The 5ft 3″ (160 centimetres), portly, balding, socially awkward caudillo with a soft, high pitched voice, was transformed into a divinely favoured superman.  Acclaimed as a messenger from God, saviour, judge, sentinel, the crusader of the West, invincible warrior, father, Franco basked in the glow of sycophantic exaggeration.

The following seems like a caricature but was typical of the kind of drivel that could be read: And in this crucial moment of destiny, here comes a man called by God … there descends from a plane a man, a Spaniard, a soldier.  Greetings, controlled enthusiasm, seriousness, joyful, resolved tension, quick gestures, a clicking of heels and spurs … And the history of the world suddenly changes, and Spain is saved from the abyss (transl. from Sueiro 43-44).

Another example: Summary, compendium, synthesis of the Race of yesterday that vibrates today and is projected into the future… Living incarnation … Man of steel that Spain dreamed of: Renowned warrior with a generous and simple heart who has redeemed –forever– our patriotic land… Bearer of the banners of glory of the heroes of the past: the Cid Campeador, don Gonzalo de Córdoba, don Juan de Austria, and with them –warrior and believer– you are the new doer of deeds for Immortal Spain… Defender of our Catholic Faith… (transl. from Sueiro 45). 

A final example: an editor of the Barcelona  newspaper La Vanguardia Española acclaimed Franco as the Caudillo of the West, the only truly great man of the twentieth century, a giant by the sides of such dwarves as Churchill and Roosevelt! (Preston 626). The list could go on.

Over the 36 years of Franco dictatorship, political, economic and social conditions evolved rapidly, both internationally and nationally. Franco survived as caudillo until his death, refusing to step down.  He insisted his onerous task was divinely sanctioned and would end only when God relieved him of those duties.

He believed himself a great man, a self-image constantly reinforced by state propaganda. Fossilised in the past, he took his leave of the nation with words –to be addressed to the people as his political testament after his death– that reflected an unchanging and uncompromising attitude: do not forget that the enemies of Spain and of Christian civilisation are on the alert (Preston 779). 

In the world community, the majority did not forget that Franco was the enemy of freedom and in the end denied him the glory of international respect. When he died on November 20, 1975, his funeral was attended by very few foreign dignitaries.

There were representatives of almost 100 foreign countries, but the only head of state was his fellow dictator, General Augusto Pinochet of Chile. That sums up the little esteem Franco enjoyed on the international stage.

August 24, 2018: Franco still generates fierce disagreements. A decree to disinter his body buried in the massive mausoleum he had built in El Valle de Los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen) north of Madrid has provoked considerable discussion. For more, read

October 24, 2019: After almost 44 years, Franco’s remains were finally removed by helicopter from the Valley of the Fallen and transferred to El Pardo-Mingorrubio Cemetery, just north of Madrid, where he was buried next to his wife, Doña Carmen, in the family mausoleum. The transfer fulfilled a campaign pledge made by the Socialist Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, shortly after coming into power in June 2018.

The exhumation follows sixteen months of wrangling, with the Franco family and sympathisers mounting a heated attack against the proposed disinterment. Permission was finally granted by the Supreme Court for the transfer on September 24, 2019.

At the cemetery, a Mass was celebrated, led by the priest Ramón Tejero Díez, ultraconservative son of Antonio Tejero, the former Civil Guard who attempted a coup against the Spanish Government on February 23, 1981 (known simply as F-23).

The exhumation has received wide publicity. For more, simply google: Franco exhumation.

Barton, Simon   A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Ellwood, Sheelagh    Francisco Franco London, New York 1995
Gibson, Ian        Fire in the Blood: The New Spain London 1992
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford  Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Preston, Paul    Franco London 1995
Shubert, Adrian  A Social History of Modern Spain  London 1990
Sueiro, Daniel & Diaz Nosty, Bernardo  Historia del Franquismo Vol 1, Madrid 1986
Tremlett, Giles Ghosts of Spain New York, Berlin 2008
Spanish Coat of Arms under Franco:

The Catholic Church: The Church triumphant.
On April 1, 1939, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, crusading leader of the rebellious Nationalist forces, triumphantly declared the Spanish Civil War over. 

The Catholic Church was the institution that most benefitted from Franco’s victory.  Its hierarchy had blessed the Nationalist uprising as a crusade and had justified the war to the world as an “armed plebiscite.”  Now it reaped the reward.  Franco quickly abolished all those Republican** measures that had undermined the Church’s spiritual and social roles, and entrusted it with more power and privilege than it had enjoyed since the 18th century.

**The  Second Republic lasted from
1931 to 1939, although for its last
three years it was embroiled in the
Civil War (1936-39)

For the Church, the privileges constituted a spiritual “reconquista” complementing the political “reconquista” enjoyed by Franco and his Nationalists. What the political “reconquista” meant was the return to Castilian centralism and the elimination of other ideologies. The “reconquista” for the Church signified Catholic monopoly over the life of all Spaniards, a vital privilege if society was to be “re-Catholicised”. 

This “re-Catholicisation” was not an easy undertaking keeping in mind that, in supporting the Nationalists during the War, the Church had alienated a large percentage of the population.

How was it possible therefore for the Church to preach peace and Christian love to those it had condemned only a short time before?  For Cardinal Gomá, primate of Spain, the only way was to impose “divine totalitarianism“, i.e. the imposition of Catholic values on all Spanish society. Franco was only too glad to help.

Church Privileges.
The privileged status of the Church was granted immediately following the Civil War. A little later –in June 1941– its rights were outlined in an Agreement between the Vatican and the Franco government, and finally formalised in a Concordat signed in August, 1953.  Amongst the provisions were:

1. recognition of Catholicism as the official religion of the country;
2. mandatory religious instruction at all educational levels in conformity with Catholic dogma;
3. financial support of the church by the state (paying the salary of priests and contributing to the (re)construction of church buildings);
4. guaranteed representation in both press and radio.  To ensure that the Church hierarchy consisted of supportive members, Franco was granted the right to participate in the selection of bishops.  The Concordat remained in effect until December 1979, a year following the implementation of a new democratic Constitution whose provisions rendered the Concordat anachronistic.

The symbiotic relationship between the Franco regime and the Church depended on both parties retaining a shared vision of each other’s role in the destiny of Spain. Each was happy to cocoon the country in a nostalgic, imperial and Catholic past.

But Franco did not let the church dictate the terms of their relationship, and Spain was in no danger of becoming a theocracy.  The same Cardinal Gomá –who had favoured “divine totalitarianism“– was shocked when a pastoral letter of his, which questioned unlimited state power and favoured monitoring the regime’s religious orthodoxy, was banned.  It was a sharp reminder that the Church enjoyed its privileges by the grace of Franco!

For the first ten years or so, things went according to plan.
 There was a healthy attendance at Mass, a high intake of young priests and a robust construction of seminaries and churches. Pilgrimages to local shrines (romerías) were in as were catechism classes.  Mission retreats became very popular, often attended by local politicians. Religious tracts were widely published, and dangerous or offensive books, magazines, photographs etc. were ritually burned in public squares. 

The Inquisition might be dead, but its spirit was still alive in Franco’s crusading Spain.  Religious conformity was demanded, and largely achieved. Those who resisted suffered, especially where jobs often depended on a favourable letter from the local priest.

Change is in the Air.
The power of the Church seemed unassailable.  And yet within twenty years, the Institution was to undergo such radical changes that overturned not only the favours it enjoyed under Franco but the very monopoly over spiritual matters that it had pursued relentlessly for centuries. How could such a startling transformation occur to a seemingly intractable monolith?

Perhaps we can begin by looking outside Spain, specifically to Pope John XXIII who brought profound changes to the Catholic Church.  In 1962 Pope John convened the Second Vatican Council, the purpose of which was to define the role of the Catholic Church in the modern world.

Its conclusions, supporting the defence of human rights and religious and political freedom, rocked the very foundations of both church and state in Spain.  Not only did they alienate the reactionary Spanish church hierarchy from the international body, they also allowed more progressive Spanish priests to air criticisms, drawing their defence on Council documents and papal declarations.  The Spanish Church could hardly accuse its internal critics of heresy etc.!

The destabilising impact of international Catholicism was accompanied too by events within Spain itself.  Catholic intellectuals and even politicians increasingly found contradictions between the blinkered vision of Spanish National Catholicism and the social and economic changes taking place in the 1960s. 

Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation challenged social norms, increasing consumerism fuelled demands for goods and services, and yearly invasions of tourists brought new ideas and new modes of behaviour.  This social and economic transformation was a challenge at all levels, but as a bulwark of the status quo the Church was particularly susceptible.

It was aware of the dangers it faced, especially in the rapidly growing cities, and as early as the 1940s had recognised how important it was to fish in waters that were traditionally anti-clerical.  In those early post-Civil War days, lay Catholic organisations flourished, e.g. the Juventud Obrera Católica (Young Catholic Workers) and the Hermandades Obreras Acción Católica (Catholic Action Workers’ Brotherhoods), carrying the Catholic message to the workers.

But with time as the lay Catholics became more acquainted with the social problems and political injustices faced by workers, so they became more critical of government and employers’ policies.  Gradually they began adopting a more radical, adversarial stance against the government, assuming in many cases a role equivalent to trade unions, officially banned under Franco. Their activities placed the Church hierarchy in a difficult situation.

A consequence of the lay movement was the activity of many of the priests who served as chaplains to the lay members.  Mostly young and idealistic, these priests worked in the barrios to bring the word of God to the workers.

However, in many instances the social awakening of these priests had a greater impact on their own lives than they had on the religious life of those they had been sent to save.  Many of these priests became known as curas rojos (“red priests”), and got engaged in illegal union activities even removing their dog collars as a sign of solidarity with the workers. 

One notable case is Father José María de Llanos, a Jesuit from a wealthy family, who went to work among the poverty stricken peasants from Andalusia crammed into the seething outskirts of Madrid. 

Shocked by what he saw, he soon took up the cause of the poor and dispossessed to such an extent that he admitted that they had redeemed him more than he had redeemed them.  He became actively involved in the workers’ movement, Comisiones obreras(Workers Commission), a clandestine labour organisation and joined the Communist Party. His work amongst the poor of Madrid suggests that his thinking and political activity were much in tune with ideas that were emerging amongst some Catholics, especially in Latin America: liberation theology.

What is ironic about Father Llanos’s activities is not simply a reversal of influence, but also the fact that he had previously had very close links to the Falange** and had even been asked by none other than General Franco to prepare spiritual exercises for him and his wife!

**Falange: Spanish right wing, fascist party.
Founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de
Rivera, son of an earlier dictator, General
Primo de Rivera (1923-30).

The transformation of the Spanish church was also affected by events that took place in Catalonia and the Basque Provinces.  Here religion got mixed with nationalist and linguistic sentiments which led to clashes within the Spanish Church itself.

Even during the Civil War Basque priests had dissented from the mainstream church and had supported the Republic and many were executed by the Franco regime.  In 1960 Basque priests signed letters protesting the abuses of human rights, the suppression of their cultures and the prohibition of their language in their homeland.

In 1964 Catalan priests did the same. Until 1965, priests in these two peripheral areas of the country were even prohibited from giving their sermons in their native languages.  The confrontations between the priests and the Franco regime became increasingly public, and the sight of state police beating priests not only shook the Church but also progressively undermined the legitimacy of the Franco regime.

With pressure from the Vatican, and with the grass roots priests in closer contact with the people, it was only a matter of time before social awareness began to filter upwards through the church hierarchy in Spain. In addition, as older priests and conservative bishops died, younger and more open minded figures replaced them.

Indeed, by 1971  the situation had changed sufficiently for a joint assembly of bishops and priests to issue a remarkable public statement that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.  It was a startling confession in which the Church recognised its failure to be a force for peace during the Civil War:  We humbly recognize and ask forgiveness for the fact that we failed to act at the opportune time as true ministers of reconciliation among our people who were divided by a war between brothers (Rooney. No page number).  It was an important and necessary step towards disengagement from the state.

Franco’s Reaction.
The Franco regime could hardly accept such a declaration without comment.  Almost immediately the caudillo reminded the Church that the Civil War had been fought in defence of Christian civilisation, and that it had been blessed by the bishops as a crusade. 

By now, however, the Church had cast its lot sufficiently with the people to make another radical public statement in January 1973 in which it expressed support for profound changes in our institutions to guarantee fundamental rights for citizens, such as the right of expression and association (Catholic Herald, UK).

Furthermore, the document affirmed that the Church needed no privileges, and that it sought to cooperate with the State but on the basis of a new formula of collaboration that excluded clerics from the state’s political institutions. It also called for reconciliation between Spaniards; no more division into conquerors and conquered.**

**Not all Catholics agreed with such moves.
Right wing groups such as the Brotherhood
of Spanish Priests and Warriors of Christ
the King waged vitriolic attacks on the reformers. 

This voluntary surrender of monopoly over the spiritual life of the people and recognition of freedom of choice was a major step in releasing the Spanish church from its own ghosts. It is one of the defining moments in the history of the Church in Spain. The institution that had fought so long for the soul of Spain had finally recognised the anachronism of battle when it purported to serve the Prince of peace. The crusades were finally over!

This is not to say that the Church abandoned its spiritual responsibilities nor its interests, but in becoming a Church for all Spaniards, it became too a voice of reason and moderation.  In this capacity, and under the guidance of the broad-minded Cardinal Tarancón, it contributed to the transition to democracy in the months following the death of Franco in 1975. 

It still haggled vigorously over the omission of any reference to the Catholic Church in the draft version of the new Constitution (1978) and was rewarded with a brief declaration (Article 16) that the state would maintain appropriate relationship with the Catholic Church and other confessions.  But this was really not much more than a nod to its historic role; the article grants it no more privileges or powers than to other confessions.


Has the Church abandoned its historical role as moral guide and sole guardian of “traditional Spanish values”? Events  in the 1980s and 90s showed a deep rift between State and Church, especially after the election of Socialist governments in 1982, 1986, and 1989.  Issues such as divorce (legalised in 1981), abortion (legalised in 1985), and the decriminalisation of birth control brought accusations from the bishops that the Socialists were destroying the moral fibre of the nation (Gibson 70).

A new Education Act, passed in 1990, removing the compulsory teaching of Ethics and Religion (i.e. Catholicism) from State schools, was condemned by Church leaders for leading the country down the path to secularisation. The Act would, they argued, destroy young people, who will be brought up with neither morals nor feelings (Gibson 68).  Predictably, the Church vigorously opposed same sex marriage (passed in  July 2005), despite strong popular support for the Act.

The  Church is still struggling to retain its power and influence, but in a secular society it is finding the fight increasingly difficult. There are far fewer priests and nuns, seminaries are closing and Spaniards are by and large suspicious of allowing the Church to regain the control it once enjoyed over their lives.


Callahan, William The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875-1998. Washington, D.C.  2000.
Casanova, Julián  La iglesia de Franco  Barcelona 2001
Casanova, Julián and Andrés, Carlos Gil   “Franco’s peace,” in Twentieth-Century Spain. A History. Transl. Martin Douch. Pp. 219-48. Cambridge 2014.

Gibson, Ian    Fire in the Blood: The New Spain London 1992
Graham, Helen & Labanyi, Jo  Spanish Cultural Studies: An Introduction Oxford 1995.
Herr, Richard  An Historical Essay on Modern Spain Los Angeles 1974
Payne, Stanley    Spanish Catholicism: An Historical Overview Madison, Wisconsin 1984
Preston, Paul    Franco London 1995
Rooney, Nicola   ”The role of the Catholic hierarchy in the rise to power of General Franco,”  in Quest, March 2007: 
Shubert, Adrian  A Social History of Modern Spain  London 1990
A very interesting article on Father José María de Llanos in Spanish in Revista Derechos Humanos Ecologia, Sept. 2009
Catholic Herald, March 1975:
An informative article of the Church in modern Spain up to 2005:

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