Leonor de Cisneros and Other Women of the Spanish Reformation

Leonor de Cisneros and Other Women of the Spanish Reformation


When we think of the Protestant Reformation, countries like Italy and Spain rarely come to mind. And yet, they were deeply affected by it, even though its influence was quickly suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. The Inquisition in Spain was much fiercer than in Italy, producing thousands of martyrs. Many names of these martyrs have disappeared from history, but some – both men and women – still live on. I mentioned some of the men in a previous blog post. Here are some of the women who worked and suffered along with them.[1]

            One of these is Leonor de Cisneros, born around 1535. At eighteen years of age, she married Antonio Herrezuelo, a prominent lawyer and scholar in Toro, an important city in the province of Leon. They gladly joined and became active members.

In 1558, however, the Inquisition discovered the conventicle and arrested thirty of its members during a raid. The prisoners were detained in separate cells in Valladolid, a major city and the seat of the Spanish court.

Separated from her husband and friends, Leonor believed the Inquisition’s lie that they had all recanted, so she agreed to do the same. She didn’t know that Antonio continued to stand firm, even under torture, admitting not only that he had been a follower of Protestant teachings, but that he had taught them to others.

            As customary, at the end of the interrogations the Inquisition took the prisoners to the public square for the auto-de-fè (act of faith), in the presence of the royal family. Those condemned to death had to wear a yellow overgarment called sanbenito and a conical hat, both with images of devils and flames. They were also given one more chance to repent. If they did, they would not be spared death but simply allowed to be strangled before burning.

Penitents like Leonor were also clad in similar garments, but with red crosses instead of images of hellfire. When she crossed paths with her husband, who had been gagged, his looks of disapproval convicted her more than words. Yet, she didn’t have the courage to change her deposition.

The prisoners were then seated according to their status (16 who had recanted and 14 who had stood firm) and their sentences were read. Leonor was condemned to three years' imprisonment in a Benedictine monastery and to confiscation of her property. Antonio and those who had not recanted were burned at the stake. It was May 21, 1559, Trinity Sunday.

When Leonor returned to her cell, she fell upon her knees and begged God’s forgiveness. She then started to openly profess her faith to others. Hoping to change her mind, the Inquisition sent orders that she be instructed, even under torture. This program of “persuasion” continued for eight years. After this, she was reported as an incorrigible heretic, and sentenced to be burned alive at the stake.

The execution took place on September 26, 1568. This time, she looked calm and composed. Her story is one of the most famous of the Spanish Reformation. It has been recounted by James Anderson in his Ladies of the Reformation: Memoirs of Distinguished Female Characters, Belonging to the Period of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Spain (1857) and by William Chapman, Notable Women of the Reformation: The Lives and Times (1884) [both available for free on Google Books] and fictionalized in a work by W.H.G. Kingston, The Last Look.[2]


Other Women of the Spanish Reformation

Recently, the City Council of Seville (a cradle of the Inquisition) has named three of her streets after Isabel de Baena, María de Virues, and María de Bohórquez, and a square after Francisca de Chaves. These streets are near two others named after the Spanish reformers Juan Pérez de Pineda and Casiodoro de Reina.

Isabel de Baena was an illustrious young woman from Seville who opened her home to Protestant services held by Cristobal de Losada. Discovered, she was sentenced to death. The inquisition then ordered her house to be destroyed, the ground salted, and a marble column erected in its place as a memorial of the “crime” committed.

Francisca de Chavez, a nun in the convent of Santa Isabel, in Seville, was a native of Gibraleon and connected with Protestant circles both there and in Seville. Arrested, she was taken to the auto-de-fè in 1560. Clad in the typical sanbenito decked with images of devils, she had had a wooden bit in her mouth and a rope around her neck. With her were five women from her hometown: Leonor Gomez, her daughters Elvira and Teresa, her niece Lucia, and her sister, accused of being “unyielding Lutheran heretics.”

An official document reporting the proceedings describes Francisca “as a godless Christian, departing from the Holy Mother Apostolic and Catholic Roman Church, and following after new doctrines and Lutheran errors condemned by the church.”[3]

Another martyr was María de Bohórquez, a learned noblewoman and a disciple of the Spanish Reformer Juan Gil. She was charged with heretical views before she turned 21. Arrested, she never recanted, even under horrible torture, and displayed much biblical knowledge during her discussions with the monks who had been sent to change her mind. She explained that she had arrived at her conclusions after much study and care, and refused to talk to a man who had recanted his Lutheran views.

            Her only moment of weakness was when, being tortured on the rack, she admitted that her sister had joined her in embracing the same convictions. This caused her sister’s arrest and consequent execution.

When, in 1559, Maria was carried (being unable to walk after the rack) to the final auto-de-fé, some people in the crowd begged that she be spared due to her young age. The authorities consented, provided she recited the Creed, which she did, following it with an explanation according to Protestant teachings. This was the last drop for the inquisitors, who took her to the stake to be burned. The only mercy they allowed was that of strangling her before burning. She later became the subject of a novel, Cornelia Bororquia. Historia verdadera de la Judith by Luis Gutiérrez (1799).

            The initiative by the City of Seville to name some of its streets after men and women of the Spanish Reformation comes on the heels of a decision, by the Sevillian town of Santiponce, to erect a monument to the Spanish Reformer Casiodoro de Reina, translator of the Bible in Spanish. Other cities might follow their example, bringing to light a time in history that has been long silenced.

[3] Frances Luttikhuizen, Underground Protestantism in Sixteenth Century Spain: A Much Ignored Side of Spanish History, V&R Academic 2017,.239


Simonetta Carr