Romance and Danger in Elizabethan England

In 1589, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese converso and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I, was executed for treason. The story of his daughter and her conflicts over her secret identity is fictionalized in the novel The Quality of Mercy.

“Did you happen to leak out any other family secrets?”

Rebecca blushed and said, “No.”

“You told him, eh?” the hag said coldly.

“No!” Rebecca started to cry. “Yes… I mean no. I told him nothing that would do us in. I swear to you, Grand-mama, we mostly bespoke soft words of love.”

“What did you tell him, for God’s sake?”

“I… once told him… I was the first time we were together in the city. He… he thinks we’re secret Papists.”

“Good Lord – “

“It doesn’t matter to him.” Rebecca pulled a lace handkerchief from her purse and dried her tears. “Grandmama, the North is full of secret Papists.”

“So you did no harm by telling your Willy that we’re Papists, eh, Rebecca?”

“Calm yourself, Grandmama;’ Rebecca begged.

The old woman released Rebecca’s shoulders. She folded her skeletal hands into fists, tears streaming from her eyes. Rebecca held the old woman, feeling such deep love for her. She knew how much her grandma had suffered for her religious beliefs, how she’d been imprisoned in the Old Country. But England was not Portugal, and she told the old woman this.

“No one is going to burst into our house and arrest us because of our silent prayers!” Rebecca said. “Our queen wouldn’t allow it.”

“You think the English would show sympathy to the Jew?”

“The nobility knows our bloodline. They know that Solomon Aben Ayesh — the Jewish Duke — is our uncle. The Queen entertains him royally. They don’t care what we do in private.”

“Not yet.”

“Grandmama’,’ Rebecca said. “I pray you to believe me. Shakespeare can keep a secret.”

“Let me tell you something about secrets, Becca,” Grandmama said angrily. “I spent eight years of my life in a Portuguese dungeon because my sister could not keep secrets. It happened Yom Kippur, of all days, and my spoiled sister did not desire to fast as ordained by God. In a tearful fit of anger at my parents, she informed her Viejo Christian lover that her family was forcing her to starve. She went on to explain our old customs to him. On our fast days we greased our utensils and trenchers to make it appear as though we’d eaten. That we secretly changed the bed linens on Friday day. And you know what her drunken scum lover did? He went and reported us to his priest. We were all arrested, including my sister, who was shown leniency only because she’d borne witness against her parents. Ah, but God wrought a final revenge on her soul. She was forced to watch her parents sizzle on the stake — roasted and blackened like lambs on a spit. All because she could not keep secrets!”

Rebecca covered her mouth. Never had grandmama spoken so openly about her wretched experiences in the Old Country.

“Shall I tell you about my life in a dungeon, Becca?” the hag continued in a hoarse whisper.

Rebecca said nothing. Her body began to shake. She knew she was about to hear something terrible.

Grandmama said, “You’re a woman who has yearned to be a man. Now act like one and listen. I’ll tell you what your father and Uncle Jorge have told your brother and cousins.”

She spoke softly as Rebecca rocked her. She explained that after her entire family was arrested, the men of the Holy Office tried to extract a confession of Judaizing from her. When she refused, they resorted to their torture.

“First they tied my wrists behind my back, attached my bound hands to a strappado — a pulley — and hoisted me off the floor. Left me dangling like a cobweb on the ceiling for hours, Becca. Finally the men of the tribunal felt me ready to confess. They lowered me to the ground and brought over a scribe, urged me to admit my guilt before them and God. I spat in their faces and resisted. The Inquisitor grew very angry. He attached weights to my ankles and once again raised me to the ceiling.

“When the strappado could not bring out from me the evidence against my friends, the Holy Office tried the aselli. I was laid naked upon a trestle table that had running across it sharp-edged rungs. They cut slowly, first into the shoulders, then the arse, then the thighs and calves, finally the back almost to the spine. I still bear the scars, girl.”

Rebecca covered her face and trembled. The hag lay her bony hand atop her granddaughter’s shoulder.

“Eight hundred years our people lived in Iberia, Becca! Eight hundred years! And now our ways, our houses of prayer are gone! Destroyed! And those who try to secretly practice our old ways are ferreted out and burnt. Our mission is one of the few hopes they have left. We provide them a route of escape, with papers and a country willing to accept them. And even once they settle elsewhere, they, as secret or open Jews, are never safe.

“We reside here in England and live as secret Jews only to help those in Iberia escape from the jaws of the Holy See,” the hag continued. “The men in our family put their lives in great peril, sneaking on ships, working countless hours to accumulate gold that is given to the monarchs to keep them quiet. You must do your part and cause your father no more pain.”

“As God is my witness, I’ll be a dutiful daughter.”

Faye Kellerman is a Los Angeles-based novelist and mystery writer.