Elizabethan “Marranos” Unmasked

In 1588, Mrs. Mary May sued Dr. Hector Nunes, a Portuguese physician and merchant, in the Court of Queen’s Bench for debt. It seems that Mrs. May’s late husband, Richard, had received insufficient profit for his cloth investment aboard the ill-fated voyage of the “Red Lion of London” to Lisbon in December of 1586. The case was not decided until June 14, 1599, in the Court of Chancery, with Mrs. May prevailing. The case presents some intriguing information concerning Portuguese “Marrano” religious practices in Elizabethan England.

When Richard May and other London merchants joined together to ship English goods aboard the “Red Lion of London,” a vessel owned by a London commercial syndicate, they were aware that Dr. Nunes had a safe conduct pass and a commercial license from the Marques Santa Cruz, a powerful member of the Spanish government. Dr. Nunes was able to obtain the license despite the Spanish ban against the importation of English goods into Lisbon. The vessel arrived safely in Lisbon but the cargo and vessel were seized by Portuguese authorities, apparently due to English ownership of the cargo. Or was it because the Nunes family were Jews?

Mary May’s suit depended upon the testimony of William Wilson, a former Christian servant of Bernal Lewes, a brother-in-law of Nunes. Wilson told the court that it “was well known in Lisbon that Lewes, his sisters and kin in London lived in Jewish ceremonies.” It is quite clear that his statement led to the following Interrogatory: “Was the arrest of Lewes due to Judaism or some other heresies held by Lewes and (Peter) Freire (another Nunes brother-in-law) and their sisters contrary to the religion of Spain or from a private quarrel between Lewes and Freire and some people in Lisbon?”

Wilson replied that he did “not know if Lewes and Freire were accused thereof.” William Wilson was not able to categorically state that Lewes and Freire were accused of being practicing Jews. On the other hand, he stated that their “great quarrels with the Portuguese in Lisbon […] were increased by the arrival of their goods.”

William Wilson displayed his personal knowledge of the Nunes family by discussing the impact of Anthony Veiga and John Fernyandas, converts to Catholicism. Both men had been temporary residents in London. They had visited the home of Lewes. Veiga and Fernyandas claimed that they had personal knowledge that Lewes and his sisters were Jews. They returned to Lisbon and accused Lewes of “Jewish practices of Judaism.” The accusations occurred despite Wilson’s insistence that Freire and Lewes had given Veiga "large sums of money not to tell the Inquisition.”

Wilson also had personal knowledge that “Gratia Freire, Peter’s sister and the wife of Alvaro Grammaxe, resident of Villa Nova, Portugal, was jailed for Jewish ceremonies. Her husband paid great sums for her release from her being sent to the Holy House” (Holy House of the Inquisition).

The following Interrogatories can be directly attributed to William Wilson and his brother, Thomas, a servant of Ferdinando Alvarez, a Nunes kinsman by marriage: “Did Lewes, Lyma and Ferdinando Alvarez (all Nunes kin) and their wives and children live in one house in London? Did some of them live in London as Jews using divers ceremonies of meates, newe moones, feasts of sweet and unleavened bread for several days together every year? When did these feasts of sweet and unleavened bread occur? Did they make their Sabbath day Saturday?”

Thomas Wilson, William’s brother, stated that both families did “commonly towardes Easter light a great candle and set it in a basin with 4 white loaves about the candle in the midst of a great room in Ferdinando’s house.” Furthermore, he stated that they would “come into the same room barefoot and stay there a long time looking for Christ.”

It is my contention that William was responsible for the structure of the Interrogatories during the lengthy trial in Chancery. Furthermore, I feel that financial remuneration was the reason for William’s enthusiastic testimony during the trial. William had no outstanding grudges against Bernal Lewes, his former employer and brother-in-law of Dr. Hector Nunes. He was more assertive and frank than his brother Thomas, whom I feel was more of a placid individual. William spoke for both of them.

None of the testimony presented by the Wilson brothers in Chancery can be corroborated. Thomas told the court that his Passover testimony was derived from the observations of blackamoors (black slaves) in the Alvarez and Lyma household. In fact, the majority of the surviving religious testimony presented by the Wilson brothers came from the household slaves. I do not have to emphasize that the “transmission” of verbal information to others loses much of its validity in the process. Here more so. Illiterate slaves and Christian servants were the sole transmitters of this vital religious data. How do we judge their observations and words?

The small and secretive “Marrano” community in Elizabethan London, bereft of emotional, educational, and religious support from Jewish congregants nearby, apparently endeavored to follow the customs and dictates of their ancestral religion. Thomas Wilson’s testimony tells us, first, that they celebrated the Sabbath by not working and by wearing their best clothes.

Second, they attempted to have a proper Sabbath meal complete with “loaves of bread,” two for each family in the household. Third, the Alvarez and Lyma families attempted to prepare the household for the Passover holiday. Fourth, there is some understanding that they made an effort to celebrate Yom Kippur by walking without shoes. Finally, there is a possibility that they attempted to maintain Jewish dietary laws, since an Interrogatory suggests that they used “divers ceremonies of meates.”

If true, the fragmented and inconclusive religious testimony presented by the Wilson brothers in Chancery confirms the families’ devotion to Judaism. Beyond this, it would be inappropriate to make any additional assertions until other information is uncovered.

I would love to tell you that my research process was totally organized and structured. It was not. I have been dealing with fragmented and incomplete Elizabethan law cases concerning Dr. Hector Nunes and his kinsmen for the last 25 years.

I came upon the Mary May suit merely by chance in the course of searching bundles of Chancery documents for distinctive time periods that could possibly apply to Dr. Nunes and his kinsmen. Originally, while pursuing a doctorate on Tudor-Stuart England at Kent State University in Ohio, I came upon the publications of the late Lucien Wolf, foreign editor of the London Daily Graphic. Wolf had spent many years researching the Inquisition papers in Spain and published the paper Jews in Elizabethan England in 1928 through the Jewish Historical Society of England. In 1969, I attempted to pursue Wolf’s citations on the entire Elizabethan London “Marrano” community in the English History section of the main public library in Cleveland. In the course of pursuing this research objective, I discovered one prominent member of the community, Dr. Hector Nunes. My interest was thoroughly piqued.

The “shootings/accident” at Kent State University in May of 1970 caused me to lose my teaching fellowship. Rather than continue my studies without any financial aid, I traveled to Europe with a backpack. I toured Portugal, Spain, France, and England. In England, I went to the Public Record Office in London looking for a “needle in a haystack.” I had specific time periods in mind together with Nunes’ name and those of his kinsmen. But the court case records of Admiralty, Chancery, and Requests did not have proper indices to search and still do not to this day. It was all hit and miss. I literally went through case records one by one from 1970 to 1993.

Once in a long while, I had specific citations to work with, but even that meant searching through individual numbered bundles. Even when I came upon data pertaining to Dr. Nunes, it had no beginning, middle, or conclusion. This meant that somehow I had to “flesh out” the subject matter by utilizing other primary sources such as the Acts of the Privy Council of England, New Series, or the Calendars of State Papers, Domestic, Foreign, Spanish, or Addenda. These sources have distinct printed indices which I utilized heavily. However, much of the time I had to rely upon my own creativity and secondary sources for background materials on the subjects and topics mentioned in the primary case citation data.

My paper is only the first step in the process. Lucien Wolf published his definitive paper nearly 70 years ago. Although he documented members of the community and their actions, he did not report any actual religious practices of the “Marrano” community nor of any individual members. Without Mary May’s suit in Chancery, we would be still relying upon his original research. It is time for other scholars to continue and enhance the research that I began over 25 years ago and still continue to this very day.