Conversos (Jewish converts to Catholicism) Take Over the Cathedral of Plasencia, Circa 1422

by Dr. Roger Louis Martinez-Davila.

At the opening of the 15th century, transformational events transpired in the Kingdom of Castile and Leon. Among the most important were the massive anti-Jewish “pogroms” of the 1390s, the generation of new noble families, and the significant impact of a new Castilian group — Jewish converts to Catholicism. Also known as “New Christians” or “conversos”, two families in particular dictated the future of Plasencia during the 1400s when then garnered control of the Cathedral of Plasencia. Remarkably, just as anti-Jewish fervour was increasing in Castile, so was the political, religious, and economic power of former Jews (like the Santa Maria family) who aligned themselves with the lower nobility (like the Carvajal family). In essence, the collective power of the conversos and lower nobles prepared Castile as it approached its imperial dreams at the end of the fifteenth century.

Photo 1: The “old” Cathedral of Plasencia (Catedral Vieja).

The quest to capture a cathedral was no small undertaking and it endow its victors with incredible economic opportunities for one’s family. To partake in a church diocese’s patronage opportunities necessitated friends on the cathedral’s leadership chapter, which was the primary governing body that controlled the cathedral and all of its possessions.  To control these opportunities, a family needed to hold its own canonships and more importantly, be able to form close alliances with other monopolistically-oriented families.

The quest to capture a cathedral was no small undertaking and it endow its victors with incredible economic opportunities for one’s family. To partake in a church diocese’s patronage opportunities necessitated friends on the cathedral’s leadership chapter, which was the primary governing body that controlled the cathedral and all of its possessions.  To control these opportunities, a family needed to hold its own canonships and more importantly, be able to form close alliances with other monopolistically-oriented families.

During the 1420s and 1430s, the Carvajals (an extended family of Old Christians and conversos) and Santa Marías (first generation conversos) committed themselves to these principles and to each other as they labored to find access to the Cathedral of Plasencia’s chapter, and later, master control of the entire organization.  In 1422, seemingly insignificant events unfolded in Plasencia that ushered over 100 years of converso-control over the cathedral.

A likely motivation for the clans’ interest in church professions was the understanding that throughout the Middle Ages other families had successfully utilized ecclesiastical positions to advance socially and economically.[1]  Exploring the Carvajal and Santa Marías’ entry into the leadership of the Cathedral of Plasencia reveals how European families accessed church positions and their attendant rewards.

In 1422, at the end of Gonzalo de Estúniga’s term as bishop, the family relations and patronage initiatives of the Carvajals and Santa Marías began to coalesce due to a consequential shift in the membership of the cathedral’s governing apparatus. Bishop Estúniga’s Vicar General, Dr. Gil Martínez de Soria, presided over the first transformative event. Specifically, he exposed the Fernández family’s corrupt governing practices, and in the process, weakened the stature of the family.[2]

These changes had a decidedly positive impact on the upperward mobility of the Santa Marías and the Carvajals.  In the aftermath of these revelations, the Santa Marías gained a new role in the chapter—the Archdeaconship of Coria.  Prebendary Gil Gutiérrez de la Calleja, who was the sole Santa María family on the chapter since 1407, now welcomed Alfonso Rodríguez de Maluenda in 1422 into the cathedral chapter.  The addition of this archdeacon was significant because it introduced a rising Santa María family leader into Plasencia’s community. Alfonso Rodríguez’s converso pedigree was impeccable from the Santa María’s perspective as he could claim his mother, María Nuñez, was the sister of Bishop Pablo de Santa María, the influential Senior Chancellor of King Juan II.[3]  Like the Santa Marías, the caballero Carvajal clan gained new prominence on the chapter.  The cathedral chapter appointed Gonzalo García de Carvajal as the Archdeacon of Plasencia and Béjar sometime before 1422.  This post must have been particularly satisfying to the family as Gonzalo’s brother, Diego García de Béjarano, had previously been threatened with excommunication in 1410 by the Cathedral of Plasencia.

With his appointment as archdeacon, Gonzalo García initiated the Carvajal family’s first significant occupational transition.  Generations of Carvajal men had served ascaballeros (knights) in the king’s armies, however none had ever pursued a churchman’s livelihood.[4]  For several hundred years, the Carvajals had labored, like the Mendoza family, as “military entrepreneurs”.[5]  However, only those warriors with extensive existing personal wealth, proven military talent, and the desire for financial and social advancement could readily enter the upper echelon of Castile’s nobility.[6] Unfortunately, the Carvajal clan lacked significant wealth and could only boast modest successes on the battlefield in relationship to their counterparts.[7] Further, like all noble families, their social and economic status was always in jeopardy. A noble clan could rapidly degenerate in status if the family’s size exceeded the economic capacity of its resources or if they failed to generate sufficient male heirs to perpetuate the clan’s lineage. [8]

Sometime after the Plasencia caballeros’ cathedral tax revolts of 1396 and 1403-1410, the Carvajal family guided Gonzalo García toward ecclesiastical service.  The family’s decision forever redirected the trajectory of the Carvajals of Plasencia and began the family’s social and economic metamorphosis.  With these early family initiatives in place by the first decade of the 1400s, the Carvajal family was at the forefront of occupational change among Castile’s caballero clans and sprinted ahead of other noble families like the Mendozas who delayed their entry into the ecclesiastical world by an additional fifty years.[9]

Swift changes in the diocese’s leadership decidedly shifted power in favor of the Santa Marías and Carvajals, thus allowing them to collect multiple roles on the cathedral chapter. The two families’ fortunes improved after the departure of Bishop Estúniga in 1422, and the short tenure of Bishop Friar Diego de Badan who governed from 1422-1423.[10] Between 1424 and 1425, both the membership of the cathedral chapter shifted in favor of the Santa María and Carvajal families and the king named Gonzalo García de Santa María the Bishop of Plasencia.[11] These events were the first indication that the joint family confederation was beginning to dominate local ecclesiastical offices.

To hold cathedral power, the Carvajal-Santa María confederation needed to decrease the power of its rivals and place even more members in key positions. An opportunity arose with the death of Archdeacon Pedro Fernández de Soria, when the chapter selected Dr. Gil Martínez de Soria as the new Archdeacon of Trujillo and Medellín.[12] This change in leadership effectively marked the end of the Fernández family’s influence on the chapter.

It was the opening that the Carvajals and Santa Marías had patiently awaited.  With the Dr. Gil Martínez’s cooperation, the new makeup of the chapter fell decidedly into the arms of the family partners. The Santa María, Carvajal, and Martínez families equally shared the council’s three commanding archdeacon titles.  In the early 1420s, of the fourteen identified members of the cathedral’s governing chapter, four were Santa Marías (Gutiérrez de la Calleja and Rodríguez de Maluenda), one was a caballeroCarvajal, another a caballero Almaraz (intermarried with the Santa Marías and Carvajals), and two were Martínez clansmen.[13]  Only one Fernández family member remained on the chapter, severely diluting their influence. Thus, the cathedral chapter’s power was not simply autonomous and institutionally separate from its membership, but rather an actual reflection of local families’ ability to impose their authority over the local church and the community.[14]   Put simply, a family’s canonships equaled power.  (See Table 1: Cathedral Chapter Membership, 1414-1425).


  • Gonzalo García de Carvajal, Archdeacon of Plasencia and Béjar (Dean for part of 1424)
  • Gil Martínez de Soria, Archdeacon of Trujillo and Medellín and Vicar General
  • Alfonso Rodríguez de Maluenda, Archdeacon of Coria
  • Gonzalo Gutiérrez de la Calleja, Treasurer
  • Sancho Ortiz de Estúñiga, Canon (Dean for part of 1424)
  • Diego Blasquez, Canon (Dean for part of 1425)
  • Andres Pérez, Canon (Dean for part of 1425)
  • Gil Gutiérrez de la Calleja, Prebendary
  • Alfonso Gutiérrez de la Calleja, Prebendary
  • Diego Martínez de Soria, Prebendary
  • Blasco Gómez de Almaraz, Prebendary
  • Pedro González, Prebendary and Notary
  • Juan Sánchez, Sacristan
  • Gómez Fernández, Canon

Table 1: Cathedral Chapter Membership, 1424-1425

With a dominant position on the cathedral chapter, the Santa Marías and Carvajals now shared a common interest in creating a working majority that would ensure the successful nomination of their candidate for bishop. The Santa Marías wished to enhance their growing prominence on the chapter.  Like their counterparts, the Carvajals and Almarazes desired new patronage opportunities for their families, but also hoped to shield their families from further church tax investigations. The Martínez and Estúniga families further shared this interest of continued participation in church’s benefits. The Estúnigas, while increasingly estranged from the Plasencia churchmen, were indebted to the families that now ruled the chapter.[15]  Thus, each family had a vested interest in Gonzalo García de Santa María’s appointment as the new bishop in 1424.  Even though the Carvajals did not necessarily appear to have much to gain from a Santa María bishop, the forthcoming years demonstrated that the Santa Marías would be extremely generous with patronage and wealth building initiatives on behalf of the Carvajal clan.

The naming of Bishop Santa María, as well his first actions, suggest that he and the cathedral chapter’s families shared an alignment of interests.  In 1425, just after the chapter named Dr. Gil Martínez as archdeacon, the bishop rewarded him with the Vicar General’s seat.[16]  While the Vicar General was a member of the cathedral chapter, he was the bishop’s only personally appointed local authority.[17]  Further, the Cathedral of Plasencia’s Foundational Statute (Estatuto Fundamental) of 1254 dictated that the cathedral chapter determined the archdeaconships and other council positions.[18] The willingness of both the chapter and the bishop to confide their trust in the doctor signaled a new direction for the Cathedral of Plasencia.  The bishop and chapter rewarded Dr. Gil Martínez with a church position for their allegiance to the Carvajal-Santa María family confederation and his prior attack on the Fernández family’s corrupt church practices.

Likewise, the Castilian bishop-appointment process positioned the Santa María-Carvajal dominated cathedral for an exponential growth in power and unity. Although the king was not required to consider a cathedral chapter’s input, customarily he would take into account a chapter’s recommendation for bishop.[19] Although no records detailing the politics surrounding Bishop Gonzalo García de Santa María’s actual appointment are preserved, it is likely that the Santa María-Carvajal dominated chapter recommended him as their candidate for bishop to the king.  Subsequently, the pope confirmed the king’s choice.

Unlike the three bishops appointed prior to his term, Bishop Santa María’s placement was therefore indicative of the development of a new alliance of families in the Cathedral of Plasencia.[20]  The selection of Gonzalo as bishop was also ideal from the perspective of those who had King Juan II’s ear in Burgos.  Key among those advisers was the new bishop’s father, Pablo de Santa María.  The coalescence of royal and local agreement on one candidate virtually assured that the Cathedral of Plasencia and its dominant families would rule the bishopric with little external or internal interference.

If the Castilian king did take into account the Plasencia chapter’s recommendation for bishop, then Bishop Santa María’s engagement with the cathedral is significant because it attests to his family’s distinct role in shaping the Extremaduran church. Gonzalo García de Santa María’s selection as Bishop of Plasencia is not only further evidence of the rapid expansion of the converso Santa Marías inside the royal administrative and ecclesiastical center in Burgos, but also indicates that their leadership reached into the Castilian periphery of the Extremadura.  Perhaps, the Placentino leaders’ decision to recommend him to be their bishop also reveals that these men recognized the value of favoring this administratively and royally connected family.  The rewards were not insubstantial; by accepting the position of bishop, Gonzalo García de Santa María was entitled to one-third of Plasencia’s collection of church taxes (diezmos).[21]

Once the Santa María and Carvajal clans controlled the bishop’s position and the majority of positions on the cathedral chapter, in 1425 the two families began rewarding the chapter membership.  Crucial among such benefits was the authority to lease its tax collection power to local entrepreneurs.  Customarily, the chapter might elect to use this financial tool so that the church could both guarantee itself a precise income and expedite the collection of that income. Specifically, the churchmen leased to Juan Ruiz de Camargo the cathedral’s tax collection of diezmos, the annual church tax assessed on locally produced goods such as wine, wheat, cattle and hogs. [22]  From these tax proceeds, the Cathedral of Plasencia distributed one-third directly to the cathedral chapter, paid one-third to the bishop, and reinvested the last third in “the works of the church.”[23] Thus, the church received an “advance” on future tax levies that would be collected by Juan Ruiz.

Individuals like Juan Ruiz chose to rent these tax collection powers with the expectation that they could realize a profit by collecting more tax revenues than the purchase price of their lease. In the four-year agreement with Ruiz, the Cathedral of Plasencia leased the right to collect and keep one-eighth of the annual church taxes for a portion of the diocese.[24] On December 26, 1425, the chapter gathered to disburse the proceeds from this contract.[25] Juan Ruiz paid the dean and cathedral chapter 18,000 maravedis, which the Santa Marías and Carvajals promptly divided among the thirteen church canonships. Thus, each of these officials received an additional 1,400 maravedis– a substantial amount considering that a canon earned an annual salary of 230 maravedis.[26]

Bibliographic Sources:

[1] David Herlihy, “Three Patterns of Social Mobility in Medieval History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Spring, 1973): 624, 626.

[2] ACP Actas Capitulares Tomo I (1399-1453) Traslado, Folios 61v-62.  See also my prior discussion of these events in Chapter Two.

[3] Cantera Burgos, Alvar García de Santa María y su Familia de Conversos, 385.  Note:  Alfonso Rodríguez de Maluenda was the son of María Nuñez and Juan Garces Rodríguez Maluenda. María Nuñez, a Jewish convert to Christianity, was the sister of Pablo de Santa María.

[4] Real Academia de la Historia Coleccíon Salazar y Castro, C-20, Folios 197-217.  This statement is based on my thorough review of sources in the RAH, AHHSN, and the ACP.

[5] Nader, The Mendoza Family in the Spanish Renaissance 1350-1550, 40.

[6] Herlihy, “Three Patterns of Social Mobility in Medieval History,” 639-641.

[7] The Carvajals were of caballero origins, lower noble status, and of modest wealth.

[8] Ibid., 632-633.

[9] The caballero Mendoza family did not aggressively advance into the church service until King Juan II’s 1458 appointment of Pedro González de Mendoza as Bishop of Calahorra.  Even though the Mendozas recognized the importance of ecclesiastical service in the pursuit of higher social stations, the family only accepted the king’s offer of the bishop’s position after they understood the king would not provide them what they truly desired, new seigniorial titles.  See Nader, The Mendoza Family in the Spanish Renaissance 1350-1550, 49-51.

[10] ACP Legajo 129, Documento 10, Folio 16v-17; ACP Legajo 129, Documento 11, Folio 15.

[11] ACP Actas Capitulares Tomo 1 (1399-1453) Traslado, Folio 29v; ACP Legajo 129, Documento 10, Folios 16-16v.

[12] ACP Actas Capitulares Tomo 1 (1399-1453) Traslado, Folio 114v.

[13] Ibid., Folios 65v, 66, 67v-69, 75-76, 98-98v, 99v-100v, 105, 114v, 119, 121v-122, 143v, 151.  Note:  The Santa María family includes the de Calleja, Maluenda, and Salamanca families.  The Santa María and Gómez de Almaraz families had intermarried during this period.  Specifically, María Gómez de Almaraz was married to Juan González de Santa María during time period of 1406 to 1421.  See ACP Legajo Legajo 143, Documento 12; ACP Legajo 270, Documento 13. Additionally, Bishop Gonzalo García de Santa María had three pages or servants that he paid, but were not members of the chapter.  They were Gonzalo de la Calleja, Gonzalo de Salamanca, and Gabriel Sánchez.

[14] Similarly, during the 16th century the Cabero and López de Calatayud families utilized their dominance over the Diocese of Ávila’s cathedral chapter for familial advancement and benefit.  However, the events in Ávila occurred over one hundred years after the Carvajal and Santa María confederation’s activities in Plasencia, and the neither of the Ávila families came from a caballero background.  See Bilinkoff, The Ávila of Saint Teresa, 29-33.

[15] Bishop and Royal Counselor Pablo de Santa María had recommended to the king that Gonzalo de Estúniga be appointed as Bishop of Plasencia from 1415 to 1422.  See Luciano Serrano, Los Conversos, 62.

[16] ACP Actas Capitulares Tomo 1 (1399-1453) Traslado, Folios 121v-122.

[17] Ibid., Folio 60v-65v; Herbermann, The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v., “Vicar General” by William H.W. Fanning.

[18] ACP Legajo 129, Documento 10, Folio 10.

[19] Vaquero, Diccionario de Historia Eclesiástica de España (Madrid: CSIC, 1972), s.v. “Iglesia y Estado,” by T. de Azona.

[20] Ibid.

[21] ACP Legajo 282, Documento. 1. “Constituciones Sinodales publicadas por Senor D. Domingo I, natural de Béjar, y aprovadas por el Cabildo Placentino, en 14 de Junio de 1229. Vertidas del latin al castellano, martes 3 de Abril de 1313,” Unfoliated.

[22] ACP Actas Capitulares Tomo 1 (1399-1453) Traslado, Folios 75-76.

[23] Ibid.; ACP Legajo 282, Documento.’ 1. “Constituciones Sinodales publicadas por Senor D. Domingo I, natural de Béjar, y aprovadas por el Cabildo Placentino, en 14 de Junio de 1229. Vertidas del latin al castellano, martes 3 de Abril de 1313,” unfoliated.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ACP Actas Capitulares Tomo 1 (1399-1453) Traslado, Folios 75-76.

[26] To make the financial distribution to the thirteen canons an easily rounded amount, Dean Sancho Ortiz de Estúñiga included an additional 200 maravedis in church funds with the disbursement.  Therefore, the 18,000 maravedis payment plus the 200 maravedis adjustment equaled 18,200 maravedis, or 1,400 per canonship.