The young widow Beatrice Mendes has lived in Antwerp for six years, helping Diogo Mendes, her husband's brother, run the family business. She has developed her already keen business sense, and at his death in 1542, she finds Diogo has left everything to her.

Beatrice Mendes is now administrator of one of the greatest fortunes and one of the greatest businesses in Europe. She faces many challenges, not the least of which are the ever-present charges of Judaizing leveled by European rulers trying to confiscate the family's fortune. This, and her new responsibilities, slow her process toward the ever yearned for East, where Marranos may once again live as Jews.

Fresh proceedings against Diogo for heresy had perhaps been in contemplation at the time of his death, being delayed only in order to collect overwhelming evidence. From the point of view of the imperial treasury [of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor], they would obviously have been lucrative, for a condemnation on this charge entailed automatically the confiscation of a man's entire property. (It was this that gave the Inquisition much of its impetus, as well as much of its horror.) It did not seem equitable that his death should involve the emperor in loss; and posthumous proceedings were therefore opened against him.

Doña Beatrice fought courageously against the danger, piling up evidence of [Diogo's] unimpeachable orthodoxy, bringing witnesses to prove his Christian zeal, placating the officials with gifts of money, using every possible expedient and sparing no reasonable expense; there was obviously no other course that could be taken, save to accept defeat and confiscation. In the end it was agreed to withdraw the charge, with its somewhat problematical outcome, on condition that she lend the emperor the sum of 100,000 ducats free of interest for two years to meet his most pressing requirements.[1]

It was a great, but, in view of her wealth, by no means a crushing sum that was involved. She had opposed governmental greed, wearing the mask of religious zeal, by adroitness, casuistry and lavish use of money; and she had been victorious. This was the first of her long series of triumphs. But it proved a dangerous precedent.

In the resplendent but by no means exclusive court of the queen regent in Brussels, the enormously wealthy widow, still young and still attractive, found a cordial welcome. Her daughter, Brianda or Reyna (her Jewish name), was universally courted for her exceptional beauty, as well as for the great fortune which would one day be hers.

Even her niece, Diogo's young daughter, who was hardly more than a baby, began to be considered in the marriage market. The queen regent had her own ideas on the subject, regarding the young heiresses in the light of prizes to be conferred on nobles whom she and the emperor wished to reward or favor; and there was at one time some talk of bringing them up in court and marrying them off without any regard to what they or their mothers felt about it.[2]

Though this threat was averted, the importunity of the suitors remained. The most pressing and most favored among them was Don Francisco d'Aragon, son of one Nuño Manuel and an illegitimate descendent of the Aragonese royal house. He now pressed his claim with the damsel, with the mother and with the Holy Roman Emperor himself, to whom he promised no less than 200,000 ducats on loan, out of his wife's coffers, if the marriage took place. It was equivalent to a promise to share the spoil.

The queen regent, however, knew something of [Doña Beatrice's] character and fixity of purpose; and her reply to this communication was by no means encouraging. She of course promised to do what she could and proposed to speak to the mother on the subject when she was next in Antwerp. But it would not be easy. They had already had one encounter, in which she herself had been worsted, and Doña Beatrice had the knack of avoiding awkward summonses to Court, when she did not wish to come, on the score of ill-health.

It is a delicious picture, of the all-powerful ex-Queen of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands, sister and deputy of the Holy Roman Emperor, trembling at the prospect of an awkward conversation with the still young, but apparently very determined, Marrano businesswoman.

In due course, nevertheless, she found herself in Antwerp and obediently broached the question. Doña Beatrice, fervent Jewess that she was at heart, had no intention of allowing her daughter to marry an an "Old Christian" and be lost to her faith. She did not dare to say this openly, but it was possible for her to express her views about the prospect of [Brianda] becoming the wife of an elderly wastrel. She did not mince words. She would rather, she said, see the damsel dead.[3]

Conversations continued interminably, the emperor temporizing, the regent hesitating, Don Francisco importuning, Doña Beatrice procrastinating. Suddenly, one day, towards the close of 1544[4] it was discovered that the Mendes mansion in Antwerp was empty of its principal inhabitants. Doña Beatrice, realizing that it was impossible to hold out indefinitely against the emperor and his representative, had left the city on the pretext of taking the waters at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle); her sister and the two damsels had accompanied her, together with such of their treasure as they could carry in their baggage. They had now gone beyond their ostensible destination and obviously had no intention of returning. Before long they appeared in Venice.

footnotes [1] This detail, absent from the Flemish records published thus far, is provided in the responsa of Rabbis Moses di Trani and Joshua Soncino. It is borne out, however, by a casual reference in the other sources-a curious example of historical dovetailing [back].

[2] J. Lucio d'Azevedo, Historia dos Christãos Novos Portugueses, p. 368: the damsel is referred to as being the daughter of Francisco Mendes Bemvisto (=Benveniste), demonstrating how notorious the Jewish origin of the family must have been. [back]

[3] Verbal communication on one or more occasion from the late Lucien Wolf, based on a record which I have been unable to trace among his papers. [back]

[4] It is generally stated that the family left Antwerp in 1543. But from the documents published by Ginsburger in the "Revue des Etudes Juives," LXXXIX, 179-192, it is obvious that they were still in Flanders in May, 1544 but fled some while before April 1545. From the Hebrew sources, it appears that the flight took place some two years after Diogo Mendes' death, i.e., in the winter of 1544-5. [back]


From: Roth, Cecil. Doņa Gracia of the House of Nasi. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1948.

Map of Travels or DONA GRACIA Introduction




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