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Cisneros (sitting) visits the construction of the Hospital of the Charity. Sanctuary of the Charity of Illescas (Toledo) by Alejandro Ferrant (1844–1917)

Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, O.F.M. (in his lifetime, known as Ximénes de Cisneros)[1] (1436 – November 8, 1517) was a Spanish cardinal and statesman. Starting from humble beginnings he rose to the heights of power becoming a religious reformer, twice regent of Spain, Cardinal, Grand Inquisitor, missionary of the Moors, promoted the Crusades in North Africa, and founded the Complutense University (currently the largest in Spain). Among his literary works he is best known for funding the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first printed polyglot of the entire Bible.

Cardinal Cisneros' life coincided with a dynamic period in Spanish history during the reign of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile when Spain underwent many reforms, from which it emerged in the Golden Age of empire (1500-1700), and Cisneros had much to do with it. Modern historian John Elliott said as far as any particular policies that can be attributed to Spain's rise "they were those of Ferdinand and Cardinal Cisneros." [2]


Rise to power

Coat of arms of Cardinal Cisneros.

He was born as Gonzalo Jiménez de Cisneros to a poor family in Torrelaguna in Castile in 1436 and studied at Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca. In 1459, he traveled to Rome to work as a consistorial advocate where he attracted the notice of Pope Pius II. He returned to Spain in 1465 carrying an "executive" but letter from the Pope giving him possession of the first vacant benefice. That turned out to be Uceda. However, Alfonso Carillo de Acuña, the Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, refused to accept the letter, wishing instead to bestow the benefice upon one of his own followers. When Cisneros insisted, he was thrown in prison. For six years, Cisneros held out for his claim, free to leave at any time if he would give it up, but at length in 1480 Carillo relented at Cisneros' strength of conviction and gave him a benefice. Cisneros traded it almost at once for a chaplaincy at Sigüenza, under Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza, the bishop of Sigüenza, who shortly appointed him vicar-general of his diocese.

At Siguenza, Cisneros won praise for his work and he seemed to be on the sure road to success among the secular clergy, when in 1484 at the late age of forty-eight he abruptly decided to become a Franciscan friar. Giving up all his worldly belongings, and changing his baptismal name, Gonzalo, for that of Francisco, he entered the Franciscan friary of San Juan de los Reyes, recently founded by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile at Toledo. Not content with the normal lack of comforts for a friar, he voluntarily slept on the bare ground, wore a hairshirt, doubled his fasts, and generally denied himself with enthusiasm; indeed throughout his whole life, even when at the height of power, his private life was rigorously ascetic.

He retired to the isolated friary of Our Lady of Castañar and built a rough hut in the neighboring woods, in which he lived at times as an anchorite, and later became guardian of a friary at Salzeda. Meanwhile Mendoza (now Archbishop of Toledo) had not forgotten him, and in 1492 recommended him to Isabella as her confessor. Jimenez accepted the position on condition that he might still live in his community and follow the religious life, only appearing at court when sent for. The post was politically important, for Isabella took counsel from her confessor not only in private affairs but also matters of state. Cisneros' severe sanctity soon won him considerable influence over Isabella, and in 1494 he was appointed Minister Provincial of the order for Spain. Cardinal Mendoza died in 1495, and Isabella had secretly procured a papal bull nominating Cisneros to Mendoza's Archdiocese of Toledo, the richest and most powerful in Spain. With this office was also given the office of chancellor of Castile. Isabella tried to surprise him by presenting the bull as a gift in person, but Cisneros did not react as she had expected. Instead, he fled her presence, and ran away, only to be overcome by Isabella's guards and forced to accept the position against his will. Despite this, Cisneros personally still maintained a simple life; although a message from Rome required him to live in a style befitting his rank, the outward pomp only concealed his private asceticism.

Reform, Revolt and Crusade

From his new position Cisneros set about reforming the Franciscan order in Spain. The ordained friars had to give up the practice of having "wives" (or concubines). They had to reside in the parish where they were supposed to work, attend confession, and preach every Sunday. There was intense opposition. By 1498 the reforms were expanded to include not only Franciscans but other religious orders as well. The resistance was so fierce that four hundred monks and friars fled to Africa with their "wives" and converted to Islam. The Minister General of the order himself came from Rome to interfere with the archbishop's strict reforms, but the stern and inflexible but Jimenez, backed by the influence of a strong Queen, held firm in his convictions.

Cardinal Cisneros

In 1499 Cisneros accompanied the court of the Spanish Inquisition to Granada, and there joined the Archbishop of Talavera in his efforts to convert the Islamic Moors to Christianity. Talavera had used the more gentle measure of slow conversion through arguments, but Cisneros proceeded with the more direct and quick means of forced mass conversion and ordered the burning of all Arabic manuscripts in Granada except those dealing with medicine. The indignation of the unconverted Mudejar swelled into open revolt known as the First Rebellion of the Alpujarras. The revolt was suppressed and they were given a choice of baptism or exile. The majority accepted baptism and by 1500 Cisneros reported that "there is now no one in the city who is not a Christian, and all the mosques are churches". However, he had created an insoluble problem that would not end until 1609 when the Moors were expelled from Spain. Muslims would remember him as a tyrant.

On November 26, 1504 Isabella died. Ferdinand claimed regency against his son-in-law Philip I of Castile, and Cisneros helped mediate the dispute in the Agreement of Salamanca which left Philip as king of Castile. When Philip died in 1506, Ferdinand was in Naples and Cisneros set up a regent government in his absence, and stopped a plot by a group of high nobles to take over the throne. In return for his loyalty, Ferdinand made Cisneros Grand Inquisitor for Castile and Leon in 1507 and prevailed on the Pope to give him a Cardinal's hat.

The next great event in the cardinal's life was the crusade against the Moorish city of Oran in North Africa, in which his religious zeal coincided with Ferdinand's prospect for political and material gain. A preliminary expedition, equipped at the expense of Cisneros, captured the port of Mers-el-Kebir in 1505; and in 1509 a strong force accompanied by the cardinal in person set sail for Africa, and in one day the wealthy city was taken by storm. Cisneros returned to Spain and attempted to recover from Ferdinand the expenses of the expedition, but Ferdinand was content with taking Oran and because of his greater interest in Italy he would not support Cisneros' plans for a larger North African crusade conquest.

Final years

On January 28, 1516 Ferdinand died, leaving Cisneros as regent of Castile for Charles (afterward Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor), then a youth of sixteen in the Netherlands. Though Cisneros at once took firm hold of the reins of government, and ruled in a determined and even autocratic manner, the turbulent Castilian nobility and the jealous intriguing Flemish councilors for Charles combined to render Cisneros' position peculiarly difficult. In violation of the laws, Cisneros acceded to Charles's desire to be proclaimed king; he secured the person of Charles's younger brother Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor; he fixed the seat of the courts at Madrid; and he established a standing army by drilling the citizens of the towns.

In September 1517, Charles landed in the province of Asturias, and Cisneros hastened to meet him. On the way, however, he fell ill (not without a suspicion of poison[3]). While thus enfeebled, he received a letter from Charles coldly thanking him for his services, and giving him leave to retire to his diocese. A few hours after this virtual dismissal (which some say the cardinal did not have time to learn about) Cardinal Cisneros died at Roa, on the 8th of November 1517.


Cardinal Cisneros was a bold and determined statesman. Described as stern and inflexible, with a confidence that became at times overbearing, he carried through what he had decided to be right, with little regard for the convenience of others or for himself. He was seen as incorruptible, and founded and maintained numerous benevolent institutions in his diocese. His whole life was devoted either to the state or to religion; and his only recreation was in theological or scholastic discussion.

The university at Alcalá de Henares, now known as Complutense University of Madrid, was founded in 1500 and opened in 1508. The university, raised at the sole expense of and fostered by Cardinal Cisnenos, attained a great reputation. At one time 7,000 students met within its walls. In 1836, the university was moved to Madrid, and the costly buildings were left vacant until the creation of the modern University of Alcalá de Henares. Cisneros published religious treatises by himself and others. He also revived the Mozarabic liturgy, and endowed a chapel in Toledo where it was to be used.

He is well known for his sponsorship of the Complutensian Polyglot, the first printed polyglot translation of the Bible in which six different versions were put in parallel columns with the original Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew so that readers for the first time could check all the translations simultaneously. The text occupies five volumes, and a sixth contains a Hebrew lexicon, etc. The work commenced in 1502. The New Testament was finished in January 1514, and the whole in April 1517. The book was dedicated to Pope Leo X but the cardinal died months after it was completed and did not live to see it published.

In 1884, Spanish colonists commemorated Cisneros by founding Villa Cisneros, now Dakhla, Western Sahara.


  • ^  Cardinal Cisneros is known by many name variations. His birth name was Gonzalo, which he dropped in favour of Francisco when he converted to a Franciscan friar, and kept the rest of his life. It is sometimes spelled Gonzales or González (a surname meaning "son of Gonzalo") which is a translation error. Jiménez is the modern Spanish spelling variation of the original Ximénes. Often the "é" is dropped in favor of "e" for English readers, see for example the title of Erika Rummel's 1999 book. The name "Cardinal Cisneros" is often used.
  • ^ Rummel (1999), pg.1
  • ^ According to 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.


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