Hector Nunes, a secret Crypto-Jewish provided intelligence data on Spanish activities to Queen Elizabeth I

    May 2009            
Jewish Magazine Site Search: Google


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society


Alien Influence in Elizabethan Ireland

By Charles Meyers

This paper will argue that Dr. Hector Nunes, a secret Crypto-Jewish Portuguese merchant, physician, and spy, residing in Elizabethan London from 1546 until his death in September 1591, was unafraid to wage a public battle against the Earl of Desmond, an Irish nobleman in possession of his property, with the aid of two men he treated medically (1) and provided intelligence data on Spanish activities in the Low Countries, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Indies, between 1578 and 1591, (2) Lord Burghley, the Treasurer of England, and his colleague, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Principal Secretary of Queen Elizabeth I and the head of her intelligence network. In particular, it is contended that the transmission of intelligence data caused Burghley and Walsingham to write letters the Lord Deputy Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, the Chancellor of Ireland, Sir William Gerrard, and the Lord Justice, Sir William Drury, between 1570 and 1579. Both of these arguments however, are open to question since surviving documentation does not begin until 1578. However, it is the only plausible explanation for the countless hours spent aiding a foreign doctor born in Evora, Portugal. Their efforts however, did not bring about a fruitful conclusion to Nunes' long standing suit begun in 1566. Gerrard sent Burghley a letter dated August 16, 1579, in which he declared, "The threat of an uprising in Ireland against English rule caused him to resolve the suit although not in the manner that Nunes had desired." (3) The Chancellor's reply had no merit in reality. An equitable settlement between Nunes and Desmond would not have caused him to rebel against English rule in Munster. Instead, the answer may lie in Gerrard's fear of the religious consequences of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald's landing at Smerwick on July 18, 1579, with foreign soldiers and papal support. (4) Fitzmaurice had been a thorn in England's side since 1569. (5) He could have become a lightning rod for Catholic dissension in Ireland. However, Gerrard's fears were unfounded. Supporters did not flock to his cause. Desmond did not join him. The rebellion ended with Fitzmaurice's reported death on August 18, 1579.

Heitor Nunes was born in Evora, Portugal in approximately 1520. It is argued that his unknown parents were forcibly baptized before his birth by the Catholic Church. Allegedly, he attended St. Antao in Evora. There aren't any surviving records of his earlier education. Official records at the University of Coimbra indicate that he received a B.A. in 1540 and a medical degree on July 7, 1543. (6) Afterwards, he seemed to have left Portugal only to re-appear in Bristol at the home of his uncle, Dr. Henrique Nunes, and aunt, Beatriz Fernandes. (7) Official records do not indicate how long he remained there. However, we do know that he arrived in London as early as 1546. (8) Foreigners received a frigid reception in England. They were unwanted and had to quickly become self sufficient. Dr. Nunes was unable to practice medicine openly without the approval of the Royal College of Physicians of London. It is alleged that he practiced medicine illegally among the poor in the East end of London. The College fined him in 1553. (9). In order to maintain himself, he must have become a foreign merchant involved in importing and exporting products to and from London to the Iberian Peninsula as soon as possible. Language proficiency in Portuguese and Spanish aided his efforts.

Dr. Hector Nunes' long standing dispute with the Earl of Desmond began in 1566. Salvador Nones (Nunez), a commercial colleague, complained to the Spanish ambassador to England, Guzman de Silva (1564-1568), that he and other merchants "dwelling in Antwerp had been spoiled on the seas by John Furbussher (Frobisher) and others." These goods had been brought to Danglett and "other places in that realm of Ireland within his jurisdiction and authority." (10)

The Privy Council sent a letter to the Earl of Desmond dated November 23, 1566, in response to the ambassador's complaint. Desmond was required to "aid and assist the bearers (of the letter)…according to such process as they shall bring unto him from the Admiralty Court." Furthermore, he was to pursue and apprehend the "malefactors and to cause the said goods to be delivered to the bearers so that there may not have further just cause of complaint." (11)

The Earl of Desmond did not respond to the Privy Council's letter. Sir Henry Sidney, the Governor of Ireland, made an effort to help Dr. Nunes. In 1570, Sidney arranged for the case to be presented to a jury at Dingle in the county of Kerry, Ireland. The jury decided that Desmond was liable for 629 pounds, 6 shillings, and 8 pence besides court expenses. Letters were sent to Sir William Fitzwilliam, Sidney's successor as Lord Deputy of Ireland, reminding him that Nunes' court award would be paid by rents and duties normally paid to Desmond by farmers renting the land from Sir William St. Leger. They were directed to "stay their rents for the use of the Doctor and his commercial colleague, George Dyas (Dias)." However, the Lord Chancellor, Gerrard, indicated that this process had been unsuccessful based on the following reasons: "The land was not let, some tenants paid no rent, or still some paid directly to Desmond, and the Earl himself escaped out of jail." (12)

The contradictory nature of the Privy Council's directives and governmental initiatives in

Ireland on behalf of Nunes and his colleague, George Dias, is readily seen in a letter sent to the

Mayor of Bristol on February 5, 1572. The Council informed him that "according to a letter written to the Lord Mayor of London, that the Earl of Desmond traveling toward Ireland, should not be molested by any of his creditors until he arrives in Dublin. There, he was ordered to deliver bonds that will satisfy the claims of those that who claimed that he owed them money." (13) In addition, the Privy Council issued orders providing him with a carriage and horses for his wife and retinue to the port for embarkation to Ireland.

Official records do not confirm that Fitzwilliam was able to implement the Dingle jury's award when Desmond returned to Ireland. This is evident by a Council letter dated February 7, 1572. They sought that justice be "done to Doctor Hector in a suit against the Earl of Desmond." (14)

On May 1, 1574, the Council directed Fitzwilliam to "give order that execution might take place of the "grant made of the lands of St. Marie Abbey, belonging to the Eearl of Desmond to Nonnez's use." (15) It is argued that the new correspondence emanating from Burghley and Walsingham was in part due to their presence at that meeting in Greenwich.

Two years later, the Privy Council at the behest of Lord Burghley and Secretary Walsingham, sent a letter to Sir William Drury, knight, appointed Lord President of Munster in Ireland. The letter was on behalf of Hector Nonnez, and his colleague, George Dias, merchants of Portugal. Drury was directed to "procure restitution of certain goods and merchandises which came to the hands of the Earl of Desmond and the Countess, his wife." The letter also indicated that "proofs and a copy of an order had been sent to the Lord Deputy by her Majesty's letters." (16)

This letter is significant since the Council indicated that Drury and not Lord Deputy Sidney, would be attempt to resolve the conflict between Nunes and Desmond. They required him to visit Desmond and use "all good means for restitution to end this suit that had long troubled their Lordships." (17) Perhaps, this was a subtle message to Sidney to actively aid Dr. Nunes.

It is argued that intense Council pressure caused Sidney to send his personal secretary, Edward

Waterhouse, to Queen Elizabeth I and the Privy Council in May 1577. He carried with him instructions and a Memorial to be delivered to the Council and Her Majesty. Sidney sought to inform Burghley and Walsingham that at their directions and "special recommendations of Doctor Hector and his causes, that I will be very careful to aid him in any way possible." He promised to write to the Lord President on this matter, but declared that the "Time is very unimportant for the present, to enter into causes of that nature." (18)

Sidney sought to justify a further delay in dealing with Desmond, by indicating that "spoil and disorder was committed within Desmond's jurisdiction making it difficult to collect the debt." Furthermore, "Desmond hasn't any concern to provide enough money to pay off his debts and creditors." In addition, he reminded members of the Privy Council that since Desmond was able to take his son from England, which had been the best way to assure re his credit, or pay any debt." In addition, he reminded Council members that since Desmond "was able to retrieve his son from England, which had been the best and assured pledge of his loyalty, his obedience to directives could no longer be guaranteed." (19) However, Sidney did not want to lose the support of Burghley and Walsingham. He suggested that the "Doctor shall appoint hereafter any agent or factor here, to follow the matter for him." (20)

Sidney's recommendations were reinforced by instructions given to Waterhouse by another secretary, Edward Molyneux. Waterhouse was told to remind Burghley that in an earlier letter, he had told him that the best "course for Doctor Hector was to make James Gold, her Majesties Attorney in the Province of Munster, to be his Agent, for the following of his cause against the Earl of Desmond, doe he is the aptest and most sufficient Man to do it." Molyneux ended his instructions by seeking to curry favor with Burghley. He told Waterhouse to inform Burghley that if Sidney's friendship can serve Nunes in good stead, "he shall be sure of it." (21)

Soothing words did not translate into any positive results for Nunes' long standing suit against

Desmond. It is argued that on May 27, 1578, through the intervention of Walsingham, the Council sent a letter to Lord the Chancellor on behalf of Doctor Hector. They sought restitution "to be made unto him by the Earl of Desmond for certain wares of his being in his possession." (22)

Two days later, Queen Elizabeth I, sent a letter to Lord Chancellor Gerrard. She told him that…"we have thought good to require your Lordship in your return into that realm, upon conference with the Lord Deputy (Fitzwilliam) and such further instructions as the parties (Dias and Nunes) shall exhibit unto you, to deal in a friendly sort with the said Earl of Desmond, either by yourself if (if convenient) or else by the means of the Lord President of Munster that at this Dr. so often request." In addition, she ordered Lord Gerrard that "according to "justice and honor, he was to assure that the parties were satisfied of so much as shall be found due unto them for the principal debt and also such other reasonable allowances as may be by you thought to be convenient, for such costs and damages as they have been at." The Queen also requested Gerrard (to) "advertise us what you have brought to pass." (23)

It is my contention that Elizabeth I's letter caused Gerrard to write to Burghley on January 3, 1579. Gerrard did not mention the Queen's letter. Instead, he referred to his letters dated November 28, 1578. He attempted to explain his inactivity by insisting that other matters had occupied his time. Gerrard did confirm that that he had read the "hundred sheets of paper given him by Hector (Nunes) which contain

certain letters and notes." Without details, he discusses the proceedings in the case. He concluded his letter by emphasizing that the matter had been referred to "Sir Henry Sidney and Sir William Fitzwilliam, governors in Ireland, "amongst others." (24) However, it is also argued that Gerrard did refer the matter to the Lord Justice, Drury.

Drury wrote to Burghley on January 6, 1579. The initial sentence by Drury indicated his respect for the powerful position occupied by the Lord Treasurer. He told him, "Touching Doctor Hector, I have been as careful and desirous, upon your Lordship's estimation, that none under Majesty can be of more or like, to do all that (is) in me to help him in his long suit." Drury attempted to provide an explanation for the lack of activity on Nunes' behalf. He told Burghley that Desmond "had always been so bare and unable to make money wherewith to satisfy him." In order to maintain himself, Desmond "had willingly racked his tenants beyond law and reason." Furthermore, "forcing him would not have aided the repayment of debts that he had owed in Dublin for a long period of time." Drury insisted that if he had pressed him, "there

would have been a dangerous outcome especially while he was so fickle and his state so needy. If he had tampered with him for politics sake, I would have suffered." In exasperation, Drury declared that he did not know what "may be done with him. Desmond denies utterly that he ought to answer anything at all." (25)

Drury sought to depart on a positive note. He told Burghley that if Desmond's estate improved, and he was able to "make payment unto the Doctor, in which case or by other occasion, I shall be able to procure him (Hector) his dues." In addition, he sought to mollify Burghley by declaring that "I leave the course of action to your Lordship's great wisdom to consider." (26) Flowery words at best. Perhaps, he sought to lessen the Council's wrath which had fallen upon his fragile shoulders.

Two days later, on January 8, 1579, Drury wrote another letter to Burghley, seeking to placate him. He declared that "No one under her Majesty can hope to do more-to (reach) some good end of his long suit but he (Desmond) has always been unable to make enough money to satisfy him, so the writer does not know any way in the world to deal with him." His concluding statement sought to demonstrate renewed activity on Nunes' behalf: "He will try and bring the suite to a proper conclusion." (27)

It is argued that Drury's words failed to deter Burghley and Walsingham from continuing their efforts to obtain equity for Dr. Nunes in his long suffering suit against the Earl of Desmond. On that same day, bowing to increased pressure emanating from both men, Lord Chancellor Gerrard wrote a letter to Walsingham, in which he declared: …"because your Honor may thereby pray my proceeding and meaning of the Doctor in his cause…I assure your Honour I have not only in the Doctor's cause taken some pains but in respect of your recommendations been careful to bring his desire to go end as I hope my letter to the Lord Treasurer will (reveal)." However, he ended on a negative note by emphasizing …"and that must be his only help." (28)

If Gerrard's words were meant to mollify Walsingham and Burghley, he was sadly mistaken. On

April 5, 1579, the Privy Council sent another letter recommending "Dr. Hector for the debts due him by the Earl of Desmond." (29) Gerrard did not reply until August 16, 1579. In a rather abrupt and brusque manner, he told Burghley that "This scarre (threat of an uprising in Ireland) hath wrought Your honor's Doctor Mr. Hector in his cause desperate for a time, which I had in good forwardness to have brought to some end, although not such as he coveted." (30) His actions were arbitrary and capricious.

Settlement of Nunes' suit would not have caused open rebellion. This contention can be substantiated by a message from the queen on May 29, 1578. She told Gerrard that "Hector would be content to yield unto his Lordship some reasonable days and condition of payment as without further charge and trouble might be assured of that had been long due unto him." (31) Therefore, it is argued that Gerrard's immediate concern was not Nunes, but the invasion of Ireland by James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald at Smerwick on the Dingle Peninsula, in southwest Ireland, on July 18, 1579.

Gerrard had good reason to be worried about the actions of Fitzmaurice. Black identifies him as the Geraldine leader in the Munster Confederacy of 1569-1573. Also, he "constituted himself the apostle of an all-Catholic island under the joint patronage of Spain and Rome." The time however, was not "ripe for foreign intervention."(32) In contrast, the landing at Smerwick with foreign troops and papal support, added a new element to the equation. His military force was recruited, supplied, and paid for by Pope Gregory XIII and his subordinates. (33) Quite possibly, additional ships and men would have been sent from Spain if he had proved to be successful.

The local English government in Ireland had been concerned with Fitzmaurice's activities as early as 1576. On March 16th of that year, Sidney had written the Privy Council that intelligence "between James Fitzmaurice and the rebels, indicated their hope to invade here." (34) Three years later on August 3, 1579, Edward Waterhouse, Sidney's former secretary, wrote a letter to Walsingham describing the significance of Fitzmaurice's landing at Smerwick. He declared that "this rebellion is the most perilous that ever was begun in Ireland. Foreign help in multitudes is looked for presently." (35)

Walsingham and the Elizabethan government were quite familiar with Fitzmaurice's previous activities. On January 8, 1577, Walsingham had sent intelligence to Sidney, the Lisbon Advices, which indicated that Fitzmaurice had left the Portuguese court without any success except for an "Irish Friar, lately made Bishop in Spain, in a French ship with one hundredth soldiers well appointed (armed)." Allegedly, he was traveling to Brittany to "fetch his wife from there." Walsingham however concluded, that "we are in truth advertised that he is going to Ireland." (36)

On September 12, 1577, Sidney and the Irish Privy Council wrote a letter to the Queen. They expressed their fears that Fitzmaurice would invade Ireland. Sidney sought permission to send every year, news of the "Estate of Ireland." They also included "Letters of Advertisements of James Fitzmaurice's invasion (plans)." (37) In their minds, these plans were a precursor to the likelihood of foreign invasion.

Sidney sent two more letters to the queen which emphasized the gravity of the situation there. On February 12, 1578, he informed her that last year based on reports and letters from members of the English Privy Council, it was apparent that the "Arch rebel James Fitzmaurice, intended to bring in foreign power to invade this your realm." He declared that this immediate threat forced him to utilize a "greater force both of horsemen and foot men…to make fortification of many places…to have in hold mariners and sea men, and to employ other extraordinary charges which might have well been spared." (38) The second letter dated April 20, 1578, recommended that for your "Majesty's honor and for the safety of the nation…your Majesty should continue to prosecute them (rebels) till they be utterly extinguished." (39)

A new rebellion fueled by the importation of foreign troops would set a precedent for future Irish conflicts against English rule. However, the zealous religious philosophy of Fitzmaurice should have been cause of greater concern to the authorities than the introduction of foreign soldiers on Irish soil. Once he landed at Smerwick on July 18, 1579, (40) he sent messengers in all directions with proclamations and letters to the Irish nobility urging them to take up arms and join the Papal General, Dr. Sanders, an English Jesuit, in the "great and new struggle for faith in the country." One of the proclamations stated that "Our Holy Father Pope Gregory XIII, perceiving the destruction of Christian souls in Ireland and England, due to Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England…has caused schism and spread heresy. He proposed to deprive her of the unjust possession of the kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland, and England, which she used for the chief instruments of her impiety." Fitzmaurice continued his diatribe by describing her as a woman "hated by her own subjects for compelling them to forswear their Christian faith touching the supremacy of Christs' Vicar on earth." Also, he attacked her for not leaving an heir to the crown as a reward for those that "should fight for her or revenge them that shall fight against her." Fitzmaurice concluded with a statement that set off alarm bells among English officials, "As for my part, I am God be praised, long since resolved to die for God's honor and faith. " (40)

Fitzmaurice's words demonstrated his potential as a religious leader. He could have been a

serious threat to English rule in Ireland had he lived. Drury and Gerrard fully understood the gravity of

the situation there. News of his death was reported on August 18, 1579. It was greeted with a sigh of

relief from English soldiers and officials. (41) His invasion and death had taken center stage in England

and Ireland. Dr. Hector Nunes' cause was a casualty of war. The imperial designs of England were far

more important than a Portuguese alien's plea for justice and equity.


1 British Library, Lansdowne Mss. 27, n. 43, 17 October 1578.

See also: British Library, Lansdowne Mss. 33, n. 39, ff. 76r, 76v, 28 June 1581& Lansdowne Mss. 43., n. 55, 28 January 1584. Sir Harris Nicholas, Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton (London: Richared Bentley, 1847), 340; Conyers Read, Lord Burghley And Queen Elizabeth, II (Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), 204 & 261; W.S.C. Copeman, A Short History of the Gout and the Rheumatic Diseases (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 59-61 & Winifred Wulff, ed. Rosa Anglia (London: Simpkin, Marshall Ltd., 1929), xiii.

2 Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 283. See also: Calendar of State Papers, Reign of Elizabeth, May-December 1582, 386; National Archives, State Papers 89/1, n. 89, 14 October 1582 & State Papers 94/2, n. 48, f. 102r, 102v, 25 September1585; Calendar of Letters and State Papers Relating to English Affairs, IV. Elizabeth, 1587-1603, 221; Robert Watson, The History of the Reign of Philip The Second, King of Spain (1816-1818), 328 & 333 & Historical Commission Reports, Part II: 1582, 53n, 1185.

3 National Archives, State Papers 65/68, p. 181, n. 40, f. 64r, 16 August 1579

4 Myles V. Ronan, The Reformation in Ireland Under Elizabeth 1558-1580: From Original Sources (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 612.

5 Reverend James MacCaffrey, History of the Catholic Church: From the Renaissance to the French Revolution, II (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), 328.

See also: Steven G. Ellis, Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community, and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603 (London: Longman's Group Limited, 1985), 259; Richard Berleth, The Twilight Lords: An Irish Chronicle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 53-69; Nicholas Canny, From Reformation to Restoration: Ireland, 1534-1660 (Dublin: Criterion

Press Limited, 1987), 96; Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, VI (New York: AMS Press, 1965), 362; J.B. Black, The Reign of Elizabeth: 1558-1603 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 476 & "Fitzgerald, James," The New Encyclopedia of Britannica, IV, 15th ed., 806.

6 Archivo, University of Coimbra, Heitor Nunes, B.A. 1540 & B.A. in Medicine, July 7, 1543.

7 Dr. David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 1485-1850 (Oxford University Press), 11.

8 High Court of the Admiralty HCA Exemplifications, 1576 N. 148 26 May 1576

9 Sir George Clark, A History of the Royal College of Physicians of London, I. 1578- 1700 (London: College of Physicians, 1878), 54.

10 Acts of the Privy Council, VII, 1558-1570, 317-8.

11 Ibid.

12 National Archives, State Papers 63/65, ff. 45r-46v, 8 January 1579.

13 Acts of the Privy Council, VIII, 1571-1575, 80.

14 Ibid., 81.

15 Ibid., 231.

16 Acts of the Privy Council, IX, 1575-1577, 114.

17 Ibid.

18 Arthur Collins, Letters and Memorials in the Reigns of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, King James, Charles the First, Part of the Reign of King Charles the Second and Oliver's Usurpation, I ( New York: AMS Press, 1973), 187.

19 Ibid. 7

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 189. See also: James Hogan, ed. The Walsingham-Letter Book or Register of Ireland, May 1578 to December 1579 (Dublin: Stationery Office for the Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1959), 15.

22 Acts of the Privy Council, X, 1577-1578, 233.

23 National Archives, State Papers 63/60, f. 145v, 29 May 1578.

24 National Archives, State Papers 63/65, ff. 8r, 9r & 10v, 3 January 1578/9.

25 National Archives, State Papers 63/65, f. 22r, 6 January 1578/9.

26 Ibid.

27 National Archives, State Papers 63/65, ff. 21r, 22r & 23v, 8 January 1578/9.

28 National Archives, State Papers 63/65, ff. 45r-46v, 8 January 1578/9.

29 Acts of the Privy Council, XI, 1578-1580, 93

30 National Archives, State Papers 65/69, p. 181, n. 40, f. 64r, 16 August 1579.

31 National Archives, State Papers 63/60, n. 64, ff. 145r-145v, 29 May 1578.

32 Reverend James MacCaffrey, History of the Catholic Church: From the Renaissance to the French Revolution, II ( Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), 328.

See also: Steven G. Ellis, Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community, and the Conflict of Cultures, 1470-1603 (London: Longman's Group Limited, 1985), 259; Richard Berleth, The Twilight Lords: An Irish Chronicle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 53-69; Nicholas Canny, From Reformation to Restoration: Ireland, 1534-1660 (Dublin: Criterion Press Limited, 1987), 96; Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, VI (New York: AMS Press, 1965), 362 & "Fitzgerald, James," The New Encyclopedia of Britannica, IV, 15th ed., 806.

33 MacCaffrey, 329. See also: Ellis, 279; Holinshed, VI, 406; Myles V. Roman, The Reformation in Ireland Under Elizabeth 1558-1580: From Original Sources (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 560, 563, 577, 479, 591-3, 604 & 609; Canny, 99; Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs, Rome, II. Elizabeth, 1572-1578, xxix, 293 & 546.

34 Collins, 166.

35 Calendar of State Papers, Ireland, Reign of Elizabeth, 1574-1585, 178.

36 Collins, 233-4.

37 Ibid., 202.

38 Ibid., 238.

39 Ibid., 250-1.

40 Ronan, 612.

41 Ibid., 614. See also: Calendar of State Papers, Rome, II, 545; Calendar of State Papers, Ireland, 1574-1585, 182; and Ronan, 633.


from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (www.something.com)