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On This Day: Jews Banished From Spain During Spanish Inquisition

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: February 13, 2023

On March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain issued the Alhambra Decree, which ordered the expulsion of Jews from Catholic Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella Issue Alhambra Decree

Spain in the Middle Ages had a diverse population of Christians, Jews and the Muslim Moors. Christians grew in power during the 14th and 15th century, and increasingly began to persecute Jews and force the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. Many Jews converted to Christianity to escape persecution, but some of these “conversos” continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, who had married in 1469 to unite the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, set out to eliminate heresy in their kingdom. In 1478, with permission from Pope Sixtus IV, they formed the Spanish Inquisition to identify and punish Catholic heretics.

In January 1492, Moorish forces in Granada, the last Muslim-held territory in Iberia, surrendered to the armies of Aragon and Castile, completing the reconquest of Spain by the Christians. With the Moors defeated, Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada—himself a converso—convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to take action against the remaining Jews and establish Spain as a fully Christian territory.

On March 31, Ferdinand and Isabella released the Alhambra Decree, which declared that all Jews must leave Spain before the end of July.

Sources in this Story

  • PBS: Secret Files of the Inquisition: Conversos and the Inquisition
  • History World: History of Spain: The Catholic Monarchs: AD 1469-1481
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture: The Edict of Expulsion of the Jews
  • Jewish Virtual Library (Jewish Literacy): The Spanish Expulsion, 1492
  • Rice University: The Galileo Project: The Inquisition
  • New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia: Inquisition

“We order all Jews and Jewesses of whatever age they may be, who live, reside, and exist in our said kingdoms and lordships … that by the end of the month of July next of the present year, they depart from all of these our said realms and lordships … under pain that if they do not perform and comply with this command and should be found in our said kingdom and lordships and should in any manner live in them, they incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their possessions,” it stated.

The Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, was not part of the Spanish Inquisition—which had authority over only Catholics—but it was issued as part of the monarchs’ desire for greater orthodoxy. The Jews, they feared, were trying to “subvert and to steal faithful Christians from our holy Catholic faith and to separate them from it,” according to the decree.

Over the next four months, many Jews converted to Christianity, while others tried desperately to organize passage to Portugal, Turkey, North Africa, Italy and other territories.

“Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety,” writes Joseph Telushkin in “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History.” “In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds, and many Jews were knifed to death by brigands hoping to find treasures in their stomachs.”

Background: Spanish Inquisition

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The Spanish Inquisition is the most famous of the inquisitions carried out between the 12th and 19th centuries by the Roman Catholic Church to punish followers who held beliefs that opposed the teachings of the church.

The Inquisition, which refers to the ecclesiastical tribunal that carried out the investigation and trials of heretics, was a tool for the Catholic Church to enforce orthodoxy and maintain the power of the central church. The first inquisition of the Middle Ages was carried out against the Cathars of southern France, who rejected the church’s material possessions.

In the inquisitions of the Middle Ages, an inquisitor would seek out alleged heretics and give them an opportunity to confess their heresy. If they refused, the inquisitor used several tactics to elicit a confession, such as threats of death and torture.

A trial would end with the sermo generalis, also known as the auto-da-fé, a public ritual where the punishments of heretics were read. Though an auto-da-fé is often associated with the burning of heretics at the stake, punishments were actually carried out at a later date.

There had been inquisitions in Spain as early as 1226, but the Spanish Inquisition began on Nov. 1, 1478, when Pope Sixtus IV empowered Ferdinand and Isabella to form their own inquisition. Under control of the fervent Torquemada, the Spanish Inquisition overstepped the laws established by the church and became infamous the extensive use of torturing and capital punishment.

The Spanish Inquisition continued in several forms until the 19th century. “It served to repel Protestantism in the sixteenth century, but was unable to expel French Rationalism and immorality of the eighteenth,” writes the Catholic Encyclopedia. “King Joseph Bonaparte abrogated it in 1808, but it was reintroduced by Ferdinand VII in 1814 … It was definitely abolished by the Revolution of 1820.”

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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