Dr. HectOR NUñES, PORTUGUESE PHYSICIAN,
MERCHANT AND CRYPTO-JEW
IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND 1547 -1591
BY cHARLES mEYERS.
From HaLapid Winter, 1999
Dr. Hector Nuñes, lying in the throes of approaching death in September of 1591, commended “ unto God and to his protection his honor Lord Burghley and all his noble familie." In the same breath, he also sought Burghley's aid "to protect and assist my poore wife in all needful and reasonable causes." These comments can be found in his last will and testament dated 1 September 1591, nine days before he died.
What caused Nuñes, a Portuguese physician and merchant, resident in England since approximately 1546, to utter a plaintive plea to the Lord Treasurer of England, Burghley, concerning his wife and executrix, Elinor? Why did Nuñes see fit to ask God to protect Burghley and his family? What kind of relationship did they have that would warrant these words on his deathbed? This paper will attempt to explore and explain why Nuñes, a Portuguese denizen of England as of 1579, would have the temerity to seek the direct intervention of the Lord Treasurer of England, Lord Burghley, on behalf of his wife after his death. Furthermore, the paper will seek to explain why Nuñes' aspirations were never realized.
Surviving documentation does not explain when and where Nuñes and Burghley met. Further, we have no idea when his service to Lord Burghley began and why. What is easier to ascertain are the reasons behind his offer of aid to Burghley and England. Dr. Hector Nuñes was a Portuguese subject when he arrived in England in approximately 1546/7. It is quite possible that Nuñes fled the existing Inquisition in his hometown of Evora, Portugal. But, his immediate concern was to seek a medical license from the Royal College of Physicians. Nuñes was unsuccessful in this objective. Therefore, as a Portuguese subject and alien, he had to seek an immediate source of income in order to justify his conditional existence in England. He turned to commerce as a source of livelihood.
Nuñes took advantage of his knowledge of the Iberian Peninsula and language fluency, to focus his immediate energies there. However, his marriage to Elinor Freire in 1566 gave his fledgling commercial efforts a shot in the arm. Peter Freire in Lisbon and Bernal Luis in Segovia, Spain, Elinor's brothers as well as her cousin Jeronimo Pardo, based in Lisbon, were heavily utilized by Nuñes between 1566 and 1591 in foreign commercial pursuits on the continent. In order to avoid the continuous embargoes between Spain and Portugal, goods were earmarked for Freire and Luis, subjects and residents of their prospective countries. They in turn would ship goods from the Indies, Brazil, and the Peninsula to Nuñes, a Portuguese resident alien in London. It proved to be a family affair for almost 25 years until his death in September of 1591. However, importation of commerce by Nuñes was a means to an end. He relied upon Freire and Luis to send him data pertaining to Spanish activities in the Low Countries and Portugal during this same time period.
Nuñes was an avowed patriot of England. He took the intelligence sent to him and immediately sent translations to the Lord Treasurer of England, Burghley, and Sir Francis Walsingham, the Principal Secretary of Queen Elizabeth 1. Based on surviving documentation, the greatest amount of correspondence took place between Nuñes and Burghley.
Beginning on August 14, 1578 if not sooner, Nuñes sent letters to Burghley concerning events in Portugal, activities of the Spanish fleet, and finally, in 1591, six days before he died, a letter entitled “The means by which to take Portugal, the ease and the necessity.”————- Nuñes' final letter is significant in that he presented Burghley and the Queen with a detailed plan for the retaking of Portugal with English and French troops. Next, Nuñes proceeded to suggest to the Queen that she should send by “ordinary messenger some of my papers to the Duke of Parma and a letter that he would write to him to find out his opinion of me and my business.”
Whether he was boldly asserting himself or enhancing his self image, in the next instance Nuñes declared to the Queen, "I am a person of quality." Perhaps, as the angel of death waited in the wings, Nuñes could no longer be silent. He had to ensure that Burghley was reminded of all of his past efforts guaranteeing the survival of England. Nuñes was attempting to set the stage for his plea to Burghley: protect and assist Elinor after my death. His plea was found in his will and testament dated September 1, 1591.
In his lengthy will, Nuñes requested Lord Burghley, “To protect and assist my poore wife in all needs and reasonable causes.” But, the plea in his will was sharply ignored by Burghley. This is evidenced by the length of Mary May's suit in Chancery against Dr. Nuñes' widow and executrix, Elinor, and her cousin, Ferdinando, from 1591 to 1599.
Mary May brought suit against Nuñes in 1588 in the Court of King's Bench for monies allegedly owed her late husband's estate, Richard, a prominent London merchant, for the ill advised voyage of the Red Lion of London to Lisbon in December of 1586. Despite Bernal Luis' claims that the family possessed a commercial license from the Marques Santa Cruz, a powerful member of the Spanish establishment, the ship was seized upon entry in Lisbon along with her cargo and crew, on suspicion that the goods belonged to Englishmen. Luis, Nuñes' brother-in-law, went to Madrid to seek the vessel’s release. Luis literally disappeared but, Portuguese trade goods did return with the vessel in January 1587. But, according to May, profits from these goods did not compensate her late husband for his initial investment in the voyage. Incomplete and fragmentary Chancery case records do not provide researchers with a clear picture of all of these events. There are more questions than answers.
What is clear is the length of Mary May's suit, the financial inability of Mrs. Nuñes to settle the suit quickly, and there are implied difficulties that Nuñes’ widow had in comprehending the English language and laws applicable to and hearing on her case in Chancery. It is argued here that her husband's past services to the English government warranted aid for her after his death. These services included intelligence gathering and conveyance to Burghley and Walsingham; his active role in peace negotiations with Spain between 1585 and 1587, at the behest of Walsingham; with the former Portuguese ambassador to England, Antonio Castillo; and his medical aid to Burghley for his severe gout condition and to the ailments of other English notables, including Sir John Perrott, the Lord Deputy for Ireland. But, in the mindset of English governmental leaders, their obligation ceased despite his pitiful plea to Lord Burghley in his will: “...to aid his wife in all needful and reasonable causes.” Where was Burghley during the lengthy May trial? Why was Mrs. Nuñes allowed to languish through interminable court-room sessions and postponements, solely at the mercy of lawyers that she could ill afford or understand? Did she receive any aid or support from Burghley? Surviving court case documentation does not provide any answers to these immediate questions.
In the absence of documentation that could possible clarify the situation before us, it behooves this researcher and writer to set forth his interpretation of events after Nuñes' death in September of 1591. London was a provincial and regulated city in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Alien immigrants were welcomed and utilized for their services. Religious toleration was extended to the diverse Protestant mix that they represented. But, toleration did not extend to Catholics and Jews especially.
In 1290, Edward I had expelled Jews from England. In the intermittent years, a small number had passed through and temporarily resided in the land. The Domus Conversorium in London had housed Jewish converts. King Henry VIII had imported a Jewish adviser in his divorce preceding. Even Queen Elizabeth I employed a lapsed or converted Jew as physician, Dr Roderigo Lopez. But, royal toleration only went so far. They knew that Nuñes and his immediate family, including Ferdinando Avares and Alvaro Lima, were observing Jewish holidays such as Passover and maintaining the Jewish Sabbath. But, they needed intelligence pertaining to Spanish activities especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Thus, they had no alternative but to accept heretical Jewish religious activities on a temporary basis.
The death of Dr. Hector Nuñes in September of 1591, relieved them of any further obligations to the family. Nuñes had been the focal point of intelligence activities and the recipient of export licenses from Burghley. Now, the account was closed. All obligations ceased. Elinor Nuñes was allowed to sway in the wind during the lengthy May trial in Chancery, a victim of her faith and circumstances. What path lay ahead of her alone in a hostile Christian world? Her choices were rather limited: remain and face the ire of political authorities for her known religious convictions or choose to leave England for any region or country willing to accept her. Either path could prove to be hazardous.
Mrs. Elinor Nuñes, alone in a foreign and alien Christian country without friends nor knowledge of the language, was placed in this untenable position due to the naivete of her late husband. He mistakenly thought that he had a personal relationship with Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham in particular, as well as with other members of the English ruling elite. Nuñes also felt that members of the London commercial elite, whom he had aided and supported throughout his residence in England, would come to the aid of his widow. In both instances, Nuñes was mistaken.
Hector Nuñes was the reincarnation of Jews in the Middle Ages, who sought political and social acceptance by working directly either for local rulers or the Crown itself, But, once the ruler died or they themselves passed on, any obligation towards their families ceased. Furthermore, Nuñes failed to grasp that any so called debt owed him was amply repaid during his lifetime. Export licenses were freely granted despite the ongoing friction and ensuing embargoes with Spain, especially in the 1580's. Debtor protection was granted by the Queen in 1573. It is quite probable that Burghley and Walsingham had persuaded Elizabeth I to grant Nuñes and his immediate family a year of protection from his creditors. In 1573 and 1584/5, Walsingham was publicly acknowledged in official English state papers, for aiding Nuñes when his creditors sought immediate payment and, if necessary, imprisonment. But, like his Jewish predecessors in other countries, all debts ceased when they died. Why should it be any different for Nuñes here?
As far as the London commercial elite were concerned, they had even shorter memories. Their minds and memories focused on immediate profits. Once they were realized, their focus was on the next commercial venture. Nuñes had served an immediate need but once the objective was accomplished, it was time to move on. His death was only a ripple in their lives. His memory was soon forgotten in the next adventure facing them and the profits to behold. Whether it was a sense of obligations fulfilled, poor memories, or even knowledge of Nuñes’ heretical religious beliefs, the fact remains that Mrs. Nuñes was left to her own initiatives. No one cared and aid was not offered by Burghley or the commercial establishment. Nuñes was not one of their own. He was a Portuguese alien, and even worse, an heretical Jew. Why should anyone care? The proverbial wandering and outcast Jew was alive and well in Elizabethan England.
Society For Crypto Judaic Studies