Shields of Grace

Letter of nobility granted to Sebastián Lorenzo Gondín, Lisbon, Portugal, 1610. Facsimile. Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico (No. 18).

Faced with deadly religious discrimination that demanded more than faith and less than the truth, conversos turned to heraldry.


Heraldry, or the practice of communicating a family’s origins, is an ancient practice that perhaps began as early as the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, during the thirty-first century BCE— over five thousand years ago. Coats of arms that depict armor shields with mythical creatures, imposing structures, and elaborate decorative elements appeared during the European Middle Ages (600–1500 CE) as a symbolic way of communicating a clan’s origin and lineage. The more ancient your family, the more noble. By the tenth century, European common culture held that blood relationships and parentage organized society, determined your identity, and prescribed your loyalties to family and friends. In essence, your family shield mattered because it determined your future and fate in the complicated realm of human relationships. In late medieval Spain and the early modern Americas, coats of arms took on a new and even more imperative role in culture as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim coexistence collapsed in 1492.


For Spain and the Spanish Atlantic world on the eve of 1492, there was no place for religious pluralism, much less cultural divergence. At the Alhambra palace in Granada, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella set in motion an elaborate plan to forget, deny, and erase the Iberian Peninsula’s interreligious past and create a united “Catholic” Spain. There would be no Jewish or Muslim future.

In the course of one year—1492—three momentous events transpired. The Reconquista, the Christian effort to reclaim their lands from Islamic invaders who had resided in Spain since 711, was fulfilled on January 1. The last remaining Islamic kingdom, Nasrid Granada, surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella, and the monarchs assumed residence in the ornate Alhambra palace. By March 31, the papal-named Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) cast out every last Jewish man, woman, and child with their Alhambra Decree, or the Edict of Expulsion. In 1502 they would do the same to all Spanish Muslims. On the significant day of Christmas, Christopher Columbus “discovered” or encountered the New World when he landed at Hispaniola. At the cusp of a new century, Catholic Spaniards believed that divine providence had chosen them as an instrument to create a new European and American world that would become what we now call Spanish civilization.


There was just one problem with this cultural recasting of Spain and its history: it hid uncomfortable genealogical and religious truths that not even the Spanish nobility could escape. Spain was crafted from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian families who had co-resided on the Iberian Peninsula for over eight centuries. In densely populated cities like tenth-century Islamic Córdoba and thirteenth-century Christian Sevilla, with populations of 300,000 to 500,000, families breached religious lines and intermarried. Conversions back and forth from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, while not routine, did introduce genealogical mixing that accumulated over the centuries.

Jews who converted to Christianity were known as conversos, whereas converts from Islam were called moriscos. By the late fifteenth century, both groups of religious converts were considered suspect in their sincerity of belief. The Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1478, was explicitly charged with seeking out and punishing those converts who had reverted to their prior religions. Moreover, Spain was obsessed— fanatically—with blood purity, or the perception that religious beliefs were transmitted through carnal, blood-borne characteristics. Jewish and Muslim ancestries were considered anathema and incompatible with being a true Catholic. Limpieza de sangre, or cleanliness of blood, determined if you were a “good Christian” or a “bad Christian.” (See the feature in our Fall 2016 issue, “Blood Oaths,” about Juan de Oñate’s quest to join this order. This question of ancestry would haunt Spanish and American families during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as they pursued official credentials to communicate their Catholic worthiness.


In the late 1550s, a well-connected Spanish noble, Don Francisco de Hurtado de Mendoza, was denied a prestige that he was entitled to: admission into one of Spain’s Christian military orders. The highest among these was the Order of Santiago, which was founded in the twelfth century as a collection of knights who fought the Spanish Reconquista in the name of Saint James the Moorslayer. While the age of knights had long disappeared, during the sixteenth century, great families regularly secured this honor.

Why was Hurtado de Mendoza unable to receive his knight’s habit? Because his proof of cleanliness of blood suggested he was descended from Jews. This determination could be used to deny any Spanish subject a role in the royal administration, city council, military orders, and church.

Furious over this attack on the honor of his nephew, in 1560 Cardinal Francisco de Mendoza y Bobadilla wrote a provocative letter to the Spanish king, Philip II, and attached to it his sensational manuscript, El tizón de la nobleza: O máculas y sambenitos de sus linajes (The Stain of the Spanish Nobility: Or the Blemishes and Disgraces of Its Lineages).

The cardinal’s work was a comprehensive denunciation of the hypocrisy of the nobility. In it the cardinal exposed the Jewish and Muslim origins of many of Spain’s leading families. Cardinal Mendoza asserted, “[T]he knights, dukes, counts, and marquises of the republic, those that illuminate the republic and who are the petals of the rose that all can see . . . in these noble hearts there is infamy and backbiting and scandal that separates them from the people.”

The cardinal argued that the common people were better than the Spanish nobility because they were not completely tainted by Jewish and Muslim lineages. Lashing out at his peers, Cardinal Mendoza used his manuscript to list each noble house that was no better than his own or his nephew’s. El tizón de la nobleza (on opposite page) is an important historical resource because it is a primary source, written by an author who lived as these events unfolded.

Among those families named who later figured prominently in colonial New Mexico were the descendants of the Santa María and Álvarez de Toledo clans. A Jewish convert to Christianity who later became the bishop of Burgos, Pablo de Santa María, was the great-great-uncle of Juan de Oñate, who colonized New Mexico in 1598. Likewise, Alonso Álvarez de Toledo was the progenitor of the Quintana family, who settled in New Mexico in the late seventeenth century.


Cardinal Mendoza’s exposé of the Jewish and Muslim origins of many elite families, as well as blood-purity laws that prohibited their descendants from serving in government and religious positions, had long-lasting effects on Spanish families. The concern was even more important for Spanish-American families, as the Spanish monarchy prohibited them from immigrating to or residing in the Americas.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, elite families in Spain and the Americas became consumed with proving their superior noble status and Christian pedigree. Families created new forms of official documentation—the probanza and ejecutoria—that were in turn presented to the Spanish Crown as a validation of the clan’s heraldic claims. However, these documents were rarely officially vetted for accuracy. Only during an inquisitorial process might falsifications become known. A probanza provided genealogical evidence that included elaborate family trees verifying the clan had no Jewish or Muslim ancestries. Likewise, the ejecutoria, or letter of patent, confirmed the noble status of the family. At times, and in the hope of reshaping their humble origins or a problematic religious past, families employed falsified and selective genealogies to improve their social standing.

Illuminated patent letters, such as the one for Diego de Mora in 1598, relayed the pedigree of the family and presented key family members in devotional scenes. An important aspect of one’s patent letter would include the family’s heraldic crest. Older noble families typically had crests with less detail, for example, a simple shield with a bar. Newer noble families, such as this one, included more symbols. Lacking Old Christian pedigrees, converso and morisco families rarely had simple coats of arms. It is unknown if de Mora was an Old Christian; however, during the 1590s other de Mora family members in Córdoba were sentenced by the Inquisition for heretical beliefs. This was the nature of patent letters: they provided plausible Catholic credentials in an age of religious hypervigilance.

In the convoluted early modern Spanish world, the ideal defense of one’s pedigree was to offer the most convincing argument of religiosity: a beautifully illuminated patent letter with a prayerful scene. In a letter for Isabel de Collazos from 1571, the imagery speaks to the family’s adoration of the Madonna and Christ. Often, these letters would also single out important historical events, such as the Reconquista, to communicate a family’s involvement in the endeavor. Saint James the Moorslayer (Santiago de Matamoros) is depicted on his traditional mount, a white horse, as he tramples a Muslim to death—highlighting the family’s fervent belief in eradicating other faiths such as Islam. The simplicity of Isabel’s coat of arms says that this family may have been of older Christian origins. Yet, in 1603, another Collazos family from the Spanish city of Llerena was convicted of practicing Islam in secret.

The exquisite Habsburg coat of arms, a double-headed eagle, confirms that King Carlos V issued a 1545 proof to Juan Alonso de Espinosa. Prominent in the shield is the importance of the kingdoms of Castile and León (the castle and lion symbols), which held title to the Spanish Americas—titles that Carlos V received from his grandmother, Queen Isabella. Characteristic and very readable in this letter is the long list of possessions of Carlos V, lands that reached from the Iberian Peninsula to Sicily to Flanders and Tierra Firme (a reference to a portion of the Spanish Americas). The Espinosa family crest also presents a helmet atop its shield, a reference to the recipient’s knightly origins. During the sixteenth century, the extended Espinosa clan in Córdoba, Cadiz, and Sevilla was investigated by the Inquisition.

In another letter of nobility, dated 1549, Juan Berdugo and his family repeatedly communicated the message that they are of knightly (caballero) origins by presenting two decorative family trees deeply rooted in the bodies of fallen knights. Likewise, the family’s genealogy is carefully managed in what it does and does not present. For example, the tree diverges sharply to the right to show that a distant relative was a member of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Sancto Oficio). Similarly, at the top, it displays more recent and prominent relatives who are members of the Catholic Church (racioneros) and professors (lectores de philosophía). What the tree excludes is intriguing: why is the genealogic tree so thin in its middle portion?

Two of the Spanish families presented in a charter letter from 1623 were definitely of Jewish origins, even though their genealogical patent letters claimed Old Christian status. For example, Andrés and Francisco de Cervantes Cabrera, who are portrayed praying at the crucifixion, were descended from the Jewish Ha-Levi, Coronel, and Senior families. Similarly, Gonzalo Muñoz de Loaysa descended from the Ha-Levi family via his Loaysa relations. The Loaysas also proclaimed their Catholic loyalty in a prior letter from 1568, as Gonzalo Muñoz de Loaysa and his spouse, María Treviño, are presented praying in front of an apparition of Mary.

At times, letters sent mixed signals. Although Sebastián Lorenzo Gondín’s letter of 1610 speaks the most important detail about the Gondín family, that none are of “the Jewish nor Moorish race” (“Raza de Judio, ni Moro”), the letter also states the family heralded from the Spanish North African city of Ceuta and that the letter was issued from Lisboa (Lisbon), Portugal. Both of these factors, which apparently could not be eliminated from the creation of this document, would have cast doubt on the family, as North Africa was a haven for deported Muslim and Jewish families. Further, to be known as Portuguese in this era was synonymous with being called a Jew in Spanish territories.


Official credentials did not insulate the sixteenth-century converso Carvajal family of Mexico City from the prying eyes of the Inquisition. Their falsified papers were vetted—as well as their religious practices—by their own extended-family members who controlled the Mexican Inquisition.

Although conversos were officially prohibited from entering the Americas, conquistadores of Jewish origins led the charge in the conquest of Aztec Mexico in 1519. This included the Spanish Extremadurans, Antonio de Carvajal the Elder and his wife, Catalina de Tapia; Bernardino Vázquez de Tapia and his wife, María de Peralta; and Juan de Cervantes y Casaus and his wife, Luisa de Lara y Adrada. Each of these families had converso ancestries that linked back to the Ha-Levi/Santa Marías originally from Burgos, Spain, who were implicated as conversos in El tizón de la nobleza.

With official settlement papers and proofs of good lineage in hand, in 1580 Governor Luis de Carvajal “the Senior” brought 259 Portuguese and Spanish colonists to Mexico. Several Mexican elites, such as the conversos Simón de Coca and Leonel de Cervantes, lent Carvajal 8,000 ducats to pay the financial bond for the settlement. Their efforts to bring a mix of Catholic and crypto-Jewish Spaniards to the northern Mexico seemed to work.

But by the 1590s, the Mexican Inquisition began an investigation of Luis de Carvajal “the Younger” and his immediate family. It was a very unusual turn of events, and of traditional family loyalties, because one part of the Carvajal family turned on the other.

Rampant religious fears pulsed through Mexico City as many elite Mexican families came under suspicion of practicing Judaism—patent letters and genealogical proofs be damned. Dr. Leonel Cervantes de Carvajal; his brother, Bishop Juan de Cervantes; and his cousin, Alonso de Peralta, collaborated in the investigation of their extended kin, Luis the Younger. Perhaps, intent on saving themselves and their positions, Bishop Cervantes personally informed Luis the Younger that he would be tortured until he confessed to being a crypto-Jew. In 1596 Alonso de Peralta signed Luis’s execution order and that of his immediate family members. After the executions of 1596, Luis the Younger’s sole surviving sister, Mariana, was placed into the protective custody of Luisa de Castilla, who was the great-aunt of inquisitor Leonel. After watching her for several years, in 1600 the Inquisition determined Mariana had relapsed into practicing Judaism, and she was burned at the stake.

Anxiety and distress permeated the Mexican Carvajal family at the opening of the seventeenth century. According to an administrative record of the Inquisition, in a final brazen act, in 1642 Dr. Leonel Cervantes de Carvajal “seized and embargoed papers from the records of the Holy Office [of the Inquisition]. Within these papers, he changed various names of persons as well as their contents under the pretense that he was searching for errors.” What documents he modified, confiscated, and destroyed we will never know.


The memories of these aspiring early modern families are buried deep in archives in Spain and her former American colonies. On parchment and paper they claimed noble lineages and ancient Christian pedigrees, and denied any connection to Islam and Judaism. Their ancestors were illustrated as knights, and their kinsmen and kinswomen were painted into Christian devotional scenes. Yet, these exquisitely decorated patent letters and genealogical trees also confessed a profound cultural and religious discomfort with Spain’s past and its medieval blood lineage after eight hundred years of interreligious commingling. The documents reveal a perpetual obsession that afflicted Spain and the Spanish Americas: how could these noble families ever rid themselves of the indelible stain of Jewish and Muslim ancestries? These post-1492 Spaniards believed there was no way to eliminate the blemish, and thus, they denied, obliterated, and forgot the memory. They hid behind their shields.

Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila is the co-curator of the Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and New World Identities exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum. He is a specialist in the history of medieval Spain with emphasis on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim coexistence. His forthcoming book, Reconciling Blood and Faith: Creating the Converso Carvajal–Santa María Family in Early Modern Spain, will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Presently he is an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs and a CONEX Marie Curie Fellow at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (Spain).