We will rack you

The leg irons recovered from liberated Christian prisoners of the Moors that decorate the walls of the San Juan de los Reyes monastery in Toledo are a shock reminder that Spain was until even just a few decades ago interminably at war with itself. There was of course the Spanish Civil War last century, but for close on a thousand years the Christian northern and southern Moorish regions were continuously pushing against one another for supremacy.

The fragmented Christian kingdoms such as Aragon and Castile eventually learnt how to work together and the Reconquista under Ferdinand and Isabella that culminated in the capture of Granada in 1492 brought to an end the Caliphate and a great civilisation. You just have to wander round the gardens, ponds and fountains of the Alhambra and marvel at the intricate marble-worked stalactites of the ceilings to feel an overwhelming sense of loss.

The Fall of Granada was Ferdinand and Isabella’s cherry on the cake, and the whole mop-up operation was facilitated by the Spanish Inquisition which had been set up in 1478 specifically to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’. Many Jews had accepted baptism to avoid the stake but others adopted a Catholic facade whilst continuing to practice their faith. As with closet Catholics in Elizabethan England some years later, the authorities were especially alarmed by this Third Column in their midst and were determined to eradicate it.

Toledo Irons 1

In 1480 Torquemada, himself from a converted Jewish background, was appointed as the first Grand Inquisitor and went for it literally hammer and tongs. He persuaded the king and queen to expel all Jews who refused to convert in 1492 and ten years later these were joined by the Spanish Moslem population. Back in the glory days of the Caliphate, in places like Seville, Granada, Toledo and Cordoba, Spain had been one of the most tolerant countries in Europe and now it was the most intolerant of all.

Toledo - Santa Maria la Blanca

Santa Maria la Blanca – a former synagogue in Toledo’s more tolerant days

Incidentally, many of the 160,000 who left Spain at that time were embraced with open arms by the Ottoman Sultan and encouraged to settle and practice their trades in Constantinople, where they thrived to the advantage of all.

Toledo Moorish gate

Typical Moorish arch

As the Spanish Empire grew and spread to Portugal, Latin America and the Spanish Netherlands the Inquisition followed the armies like a sinister shadow, in the way that the Nazi SS and Einsatzgruppen followed the German Wehrmacht eastwards during the Second World War. The Inquisition was finally put down like a mad dog in Portugal in 1820 and in Spain in 1834, although by that time its worst excesses were well in the past.

Toledo Irons 2

Toledo streets

As I walked down the streets of Toledo…

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