By his own admission, Simon Sebag Montefiore is not “the type of person to start weeping on television” – but he was certainly moved by the terrible discovery his ancestors had been burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition.
The startling revelation came while the 50-year-old bestselling author and historian researched his latest BBC series, Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain, which charts 2,000 years of Spanish history.
In the second episode, which airs on BBC Four tonight (Tuesday), Sebag Montefiore also found out from a researcher that his family does not originate from Italy as previously thought, but rather has roots in Spain.
The writer, who is descended from the family of Sir Moses Montefiore, said “one of the mysteries” about where his relatives came from has finally been solved thanks to the discovery of documents relating to the Carvajal family.
Their patriarch, Luis, had moved his family sometime in the late 16th Century to Mexico, believing it would provide them with safety from the Spanish Inquisition, which persecuted heretics and Jews.
Armed with a certificate proving he did not have ‘Jewish blood’, Luis was appointed royal governor of Almaden province. But one day he clashed with a rival and the political feud escalated. He and his family were arrested and tortured in 1596.
Luis and his daughter, Isabel, died in prison. His son, also named Luis, was burned at the stake alongside his sister Leonore, who Sebag Montefiore is directly descended from.
Incredibly, a poem written by Leonore stating how proud she was of her Judaism and praying for a serene death are among the documents found by researchers.
While their lives ended tragically, Leonore had a son, Joseph Leone, who managed to escape the brutalities of the Inquisition. He moved to Italy, where he maintained his Jewishness and changed the family name to Montefiore.
The author, who is married to novelist Santa Montefiore, says: “In terms of the emotion, it’s amazing how many centuries and generations later one can be moved by something, by a very human story and a family story.
“The poem Leonore wrote was very touching and I’m not really the type of person who starts weeping on television, but I was very moved. It was an extraordinary thing to find out.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore looks over the rooftops of Granada, Spain, from the Alhambra.
The second episode also deals with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, a decree that meant the community had three months to pack up and leave, or convert to Christianity, although many among those who stayed lived a secretly Jewish life behind closed doors.
Spain’s expulsion, according to Sebag Montefiore, was “one of the greatest traumas” heaped upon the Jewish people, alongside the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, the Bar Kokhba revolt, the pogroms in Ukraine and the Holocaust.
This and the Spanish Inquisition, through which King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella schemed to rid their kingdom of non-Christian believers, through conversion, torture and death, is among the reasons Sebag Montefiore wanted to produce his new series on the country’s history.
He adds: “Spain is such an important part of Jewish history and I’m Sephardic, so I’ve always been very much interested in that part of the world.”
It was of course no mean feat reducing 2,000 years of history, stretching from Spain’s roots as a coveted Roman colony, to the rise and fall of the Muslim states, conquest in the Americas, rule under the Napoleonic Empire, civil war, and finally today’s democratic monarchy.
Referring to his previous history programmes for the BBC, Sebag Montefiore quips: “Yes, it’s always a challenge, but I’ve done 5,000 years of Jerusalem, 4,000 years of Rome and 2,000 years of Istanbul in three hours. I think we’ve got the most exciting bits in there anyway.”
In the third and final episode, Sebag Montefiore looks at the reign of King Philip II and the launch of the great Armada against England. He also explores the reign of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons, descent into civil war and dictatorship under Franco – when anti-Semitism and hardships for Spain’s Jews once again come to the fore.
Looking ahead to next year, the father-of-two, whose books include the award-winning Young Stalin, Jerusalem: The Biography and Catherine The Great and Potemkin, will be busy once again with his new book, The Romanovs: 1613-1918, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 28 January.
Drawing on new archival research, the book is a chronicle of triumph and tragedy, love and death and “growing obsession, if not fetish, with the Jews and their influence on Russia.”
Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain continues tonight and on Tuesday, 22 December, 9pm, BBC Four, and is available on BBC iPlayer.