The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan



February 28th, 1574. The great square in Mexico city, the largest city on earth, is crammed with thousands of Mexicans and hundreds of Spaniards.  The everyday life of  the city has come to a halt as people from across New Spain have gathered to watch a show trial, a mass condemnation and a public execution by fire.


A huge stage has been built in front of the cathedral to seat the accused, the accusers and most of the dignitaries of Church and State in the Viceroyalty.  The privileged sit under ornate canopies; the rest, including the seventy prisoners, sit un-shaded in the glare of the Mexican sun.  This is an Auto de Fe, an Act of Faith, organised by the Spanish Inquisition, its first in New Spain, although Autos have been a feature of life in old Spain for almost a century since the first Auto in Seville in 1481.  It promises a blend of sadism and spectacle unparalleled since the days of the Roman gladiators.


Mexico cathedral today

Mexico cathedral today

The Spanish Inquisition grew out of the violent anti-Semitism of late Mediaeval Spain.  The Iberian  kingdoms had once been known as the Land of the Three Faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam –  and they had lived in a harmony remembered as the convivencia.  This began to break down in the late 14th century, with a wave of anti-Jewish riots starting in Seville and spreading across Spain and culminating with the total expulsion of the Jews in  1492.  Not surprisingly many Jews chose to become Christians to escape the violence and discrimination, becoming the so-called Conversos or New Christians.  They were mainly town dwellers and often successful in commerce and the professions.


Conversion was an insecure refuge.  Anti-Converso riots replaced ant-Jewish progroms.  The Inquisition, which had its origins in the Cathar wars in southern France in the 13th century, was introduced into Spain in 1481 to root out crypto-Judaic practices; that is to rob, torture and burn Conversos.  Known as The Holy Office it developed a large bureaucracy with its own courts and prisons and a host of informers (‘familiars’), which owed only nominal allegiance to the Pope.  Attempts at Papal ‘interference’ were strongly resisted with the support of the Spanish Crown. Whether the Crown controlled the Inquisition or vice versa is problematic.  Probably it was like the relationship of Party and Government in a one-party dictatorship – they used each other for their own  ends.


But on this morning in February there were no prisoners on the stage of Jewish descent.  Most of them were English sailors driven to New Spain by a storm six years earlier.  They had arrived as a gang of smugglers led by John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who were trying to break into the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  After trading illegally around the Caribbean they were forced by bad weather to take refuge in the harbour of San Juan d’Ulloa, the out-port of Vera Cruz, the main entry to New Spain.  By bad luck they arrived at the same time as the fleet from Spain bringing the new Viceroy.  Hawkins tried to bargain his way out but the Viceroy sprang a surprise attack and only two of the five English ships escaped.


The Mary Rose was a contemporary of John Hawkin's ships

The Mary Rose was a contemporary of John Hawkin’s ships

One was the little Judith, captained by Francis Drake, who spent the rest of his life revenging himself on Spain.  The other was the Minion, an obsolete warship hired from the Royal Navy commanded by John Hawkins, loaded with survivors from the other ships.  There was no hope that this battered vessel could get them all home, so about 400 of them were stranded on a beach south of the Rio Grande.


Most of the stranded men decided to march south to trust themselves to the mercies of the Spaniards but a large party chose to head north into the unknown.  Eleven months later four of them arrived in Canada and reached England in a French ship.  The southbound party was rounded up by the governor of the northern frontier of New Spain and force marched to Mexico city.  There they were imprisoned for a while before being paraded in the main square and given away as ‘servants’ to whoever cared to take them.


Some of them did very well for themselves.  Miles Philips,  who was 14 when he was stranded, was sent to a silver mine to superintend the Indian workers and made a considerable amount of money illegally making and selling religious ornaments.  Many of the men found Mexican consorts and had settled into society when the Inquisition struck.


The first Inquisitors landed at Vera Cruz in 1571 and set up shop in Mexico city.  In 1573 they launched a series of raids across New Spain to seize as many of Hawkins’ crew as they could find.  Sixty to seventy were brought to the Inquisitorial prison in Mexico city and held there for about 18 months to be ‘put to the question’ (i.e. tortured).  The preferred ‘instrument of persuasion’ was el potro, the water-board.


The prison was not escape proof.  While researching this piece I discovered that the original of an arrest warrant issued by the Mexican Inquisition was on sale on a web site for a firm of dealers in antique maps.  It was for the arrest of two of Hawkin’s men who had tunnelled out of their cell in  1573.  There is no other record of this  incident and we do not know what became of the escapees.


All the prisoners were accused of heresy.  Strictly speaking the Inquisition had authority only over Catholics, to seek out lapses of faith, but since England had been a Catholic country before 1558 most of the prisoners had been baptised as Catholics.  Miles was four years old when England changed religion.


Being a Catholic was no salvation.  William Collins of Oxford had at one time intended to be a priest and had been arrested in London for  his Catholic sympathies. He was convicted at the Auto on 68 charges and sentenced to serve as a galley slave.


The Auto was carefully rehearsed, not least by the prisoners.  They spent all night rehearsing the procession from the prison to the square, clad in their penitential robes, including the tall conical cap or sanbenito, holding lighted candles and chanting a Latin hymn, and then climbing the stage and taking their seats in the proper order. Once there they sit for much of the day, listening to the bishop’s sermon and then being called to the front one by one to be sentenced.  Only those condemned to die had been told their sentences, and that only the night before.  Like an awards ceremony, the lesser sentences were dealt with first, building up to the finale.


At the end of the day two Englishman and Irishman are burned at the stakes standing ready on the other side of the square.  The other prisoners are given varying  sentences of public flogging and penal servitude, including several sent to the galleys in Spain.  The low body count was typical for an Auto.  The Holy Office killed thousands but it was not genocidal.  It preferred to confiscate, torture and enslave and the stage elaborate spectacles to create a climate of terror.  Mary Tudor’s five year reign of terror in England killed at a far faster rate so that even her husband, Philip of Spain, urged restraint.


The puzzle is why the Inquisition bothered to put on such an elaborate show to punish a group of English sailors who had lived peaceably, if sometimes nefariously, in the country for six years.  They wore their Protestantism lightly, never evangelised and all recanted as soon as they were arrested.  There was certainly no ‘Lutheran’ threat.  The theory I put forward in my book, Freedom’s Pilgrim, is that the Inquisition did not yet feel strong enough to take on the Conversos, many of whom held important positions in New Spain and preferred to make their mark on a group of foreigners without influential friends.


The Holy Office at length got to grips with the Conversos. The Converso captain who had rounded up the wandering Englishmen and who later became governor of New Leon on the Rio Grande himself died at an Auto in Mexico in 1596, together with his wife and five sisters. In all Mexico city witnessed 60 Autos (the last in 1820), the greatest being in 1649 when 109 Conversos were convicted and 13 burned.  This sustained persecution drove the Conversos out of public life and suppressed their lingering Jewish practices, but clearly the Jewish bloodline still survives in present day Mexico and the South-West United States.


Mile Philips, the teenage silver merchant, was sentenced to slavery and later escaped to make his way back to England eleven years later after an amazing series of adventures, which he later told to the chronicler Richard Hakluyt who published them in his compendium Principal Navigations and Discoveries of the English Nation in 1589.  I have based Freedom’s Pilgrim on this story, but including things Miles would not dared to have revealed, including the identity of the senorita he brought home with him.


I will  be putting some more background pieces on my blog https://busywords.wordpress.com, such as the strange and eventful voyage of the  Minion and the long trek of the Englishmen who walked from Mexico to Canada by way of Florida which sparked off England’s interest in colonising North America. The last years of Miles’ exile were spent in Spain, so I may write something about the Barbary pirates and the last Moslem rising in Spain.


Sources:  Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, Richard Hakluyt, 1589 (Penguin 1972)

Inquisition, The Reign of Fear, Toby Green, Macmillan 2007

Various internet searches, including material from the Encyclopaedia  Judaica.




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