Reform of the Spanish Church Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In union with Queen Isabella I, the archbishop Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros undertook sweeping reforms of the Spanish clergy, including the elimination of corruption within the monasteries and convents and a return to a life of simplicity and austerity. The reforms in Spain long preceded the more widespread Counter-Reformation in Europe that began in the mid-sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

Isabella I, queen of Castile, with her husband Ferdinand II, king of Aragon, had welded Spain into a viable political entity by 1492. The grandees of Castile had been brought to heel, heretics had been dealt with, commerce and prosperity developed and Granada, the hated symbol of Islam within Spain, had been taken. Catholicism;Spain Isabella I Jiménez de Cisneros, Francisco Ferdinand II (1452-1516) González de Mendoza, Pedro Alexander VI Delfini, Gil Isabella I (queen of Spain) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Jiménez de Cisneros, Francisco González de Mendoza, Pedro Alexander VI Delfini, Gil

Yet a great dream from Isabella’s childhood spent at the scandalous court of her brother Enrique had not yet come true: the reform of the Spanish clergy. To accomplish this, the queen needed an ally of far greater moral probity and religious persuasion than her militant spouse, Ferdinand. Finally, after years of quiet searching, the queen discovered someone anxious and able to carry out her great plans of reform and revitalization, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. A simple pious cleric of great moral energy, he was destined to rule united Spain as regent.

Jiménez compensated for his poor origins by a keen intelligence and an intense moral purpose. He was educated at the famous university of Salamanca and then at Rome itself, where the pope was so impressed with the young Spaniard’s promise that he sent him to Toledo with a letter promising him the first vacant benefice there. Unfortunately, the incumbent archbishop of Toledo, Carillo, demanded the first such position available and clapped Jiménez into jail for six years. The future primate wisely regarded this imprisonment as an opportunity for quiet study. A few years later Jiménez took the Franciscan habit, moved to a tiny hut to discipline his body, and honed his mind by studying Chaldean and Hebrew.

In 1482, the new archbishop of Toledo, Pedro González de Mendoza, gave the friar’s career a fateful turn by proposing Jiménez as Isabella’s confessor.

In his first interview with the queen, Jiménez laid down immediately the conditions under which he would serve. He was not to be forced to meddle, or advise, in affairs of state; he was to be allowed to beg his food as any good Franciscan; and he was to be permitted his rigorous self-abnegation. The queen found him a sympathetic personality and agreed to have him as confessor on his terms. For more than three years, Isabella studied the sexagenarian at close hand, observing his piety, his willpower, and his dedication to clerical reform as provincial of the Franciscans. Finally, on the death of Mendoza, she decided to nominate him for the primacy of Spain. Franciscans;Spain

Jiménez was discomfited when he opened the papal message naming him archbishop-elect. He actually fled from Madrid, so that it required another papal bull to force him to take up the office. Once installed, however, the new archbishop vigorously began to reform his Church. The episcopal palace of the proud Mendoza was divested of its treasures and lackeys; sumptuous banquets gave way to the coarse food of the Franciscans. When the libertine Pope Alexander VI grew impatient with this unheard-of zeal, he ordered some of the former splendor restored; the ascetic Jiménez obeyed, though he continued to wear a hair shirt under his gorgeous robes of state and spent his nights in prayer on the floor rather than in the vast archiepiscopal bed.

Since the Spanish Franciscans had grown especially powerful and corrupt, Jiménez began his task of reforming the Spanish clergy with the especially debased Conventuals. Traveling alone throughout Spain in his coarse brown robe, the gaunt old man and his poor donkey would suddenly appear at the door of a religious house. With piercing eyes he would examine every detail of daily life in the house, including the corporate books. Then, with a sheaf of details, he would call the chapter to assemble and would lay before the monks the unvarnished facts of their own corruption, laziness, and greed. Those who refused to reform, he summarily dismissed. Otherwise a kind man, Jiménez pensioned those unsuited to the religious life.

The queen, too, assisted directly in the reform effort. Sitting in the shade of the convent patio with her embroidery, she would admonish the nuns to higher standards of religious conduct and of piety, but always, to use her own phrase, con blandura (with tact).

The protest against Jiménez even reached Rome, so that Gil Delfini, general of the Franciscan Order, was sent to investigate the Spanish prelate’s unpopular work. After a spectacular clash with the implacable Isabella, the inspector submitted an unfavorable report. Isabella, however, was not to be blocked in her project, and her own Roman agents successfully defended the aged archbishop. Armed with new powers, Jiménez next whipped into line the other religious orders; Dominicans, Augustinians, and Benedictines soon entered the fold of the reformed.

Finally, it was necessary to complete the great work with a thorough overhaul of the regular clergy. Cathedral clergy were forced to live a more rigid communal life, their two houses were sold, and their mistresses were dismissed. Again, over all objections, Isabella supported the prelate with her determined tact and political acumen.


The work of Jiménez and Isabella affected a startling reform of the Spanish clergy long before the Reformation took place in northern Europe. Isabella had given Spain a cleansed faith through the Inquisition; she and her archbishop together gave Spain a clergy more worthy of the faith. Their work paved the way for Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Ávila.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boruchoff, David A., ed. Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Anthology of essays that seek to penetrate the carefully crafted public image of Isabella to gain insight into her character and life. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Reginald Trevor. The Golden Century of Spain, 1507-1621. 1937. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. A detailed account of the creation of Spain’s global empire and its impact on the nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, John. Spain, 1516-1598: From Nation State to World Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991. A serious academic treatment of the first century of rule by the house of Austria; an excellent survey of all aspects of Spanish society during the 1500’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mariejol, Jean Hippolyte. The Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella. Translated and edited by Benjamin Keen. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961. A reliable and readable account of Spain’s birth as a nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merton, Reginald. Cardinal Ximenes and the Making of Spain. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1934. Argues that Jiménez’s religiousness colored all other activities of his long and fruitful career as churchman and statesman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plunket, Ierne Arthur Lifford. Isabel of Castile and the Making of the Spanish Nation, 1451-1504. 1915. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1978. An old but still useful work detailing Isabel’s role in forging the modern nation of Spain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic. 3d rev. ed. 3 vols. New York: Hooper, Clark, 1841. Reprint. Abridged by C. Harvey Gardiner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. A romantic and dramatic study that, despite an abundance of nineteenth century prejudice, opened up a whole new era of scholarship for Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawlings, Helen. Church, Religion, and Society in Early Modern Spain. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Critical reexamination of Catholicism in early modern Spain, both within the institution of the Church and in the larger Spanish society. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rummel, Erika. Jiménez de Cisneros: On the Threshold of Spain’s Golden Age. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1999. Concise survey of Cisneros’s life and influence upon the course of the Spanish church and nation, with a final chapter summarizing his posthumous image. Includes genealogical table, two appendices, bibliography of works cited, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Hefele, the Rev. Dr. The Life of Cardinal Ximenes. Translated by the Rev. Canon Dalton. London: Catholic Publishing and Bookselling, 1860. Ponderous tome that has become the standard English biography of Jiménez. No other work so ably examines the many facets of Jiménez’s genius as church reformer, statesman, translator, and productive ecclesiastical author.

Oct. 19, 1469: Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella

Nov. 1, 1478: Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition

1492: Jews Are Expelled from Spain

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

Categories: History