In 1517, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros ¬—confessor of the queen Isabella I of Castile, archbishop of Toledo, cardinal and general inquisitor, governor of the Kingdom of Castile twice, reformer before Luther and member of the Franciscan Order¬— died in the Burgos town of Roa. Five hundred years without an exceptional statesman which even French historians, drawing a parallel between him and Cardinal Richelieu, do not hesitate to admit the superiority of that Spanish ecclesiastic. “He was the greatest statesman that Spain has had. If Cisneros had lived for ten more years, the outlook of Spain would have changed radically”, according to Hispanist Joseph Pérez. The great master of historiography Pierre Vila had seen in him a modern man “perhaps the most insightful and progressive of the Europe of his time “.

Cisneros came to power when he was more than 50 years old but behind him there is hardly any biographical news. We know, on the contrary, that 1492 was a capital year in his rise to the power of the Crown of Castile and the glory of the Church. Queen Isabella chose the Franciscan as confessor and three years later, due to a very personal and unusual decision of the Monarch, he became archbishop of Toledo. Encouraged by the Queen, Cisneros prepared an extensive program of reform of his diocese, putting the accent on the moral and intellectual advancement of the clergy. He clearly understood that the increase of the cultural level of the pastors would immediately have an impact on improving the religious education of the faithful. Throughout Europe, restless personalities sought for a renewed spirituality within the orthodoxy of the times. Cardinal Cisneros was one of them, the eminent representative of the Spanish pre-reform.

The reformist drive of Cisneros had its most outstanding cultural manifestation in the creation of the University of Alcalá de Henares, soon converted into one of the turbines of European thought. Both the University and the most beloved work by Cisneros, the Polyglot Bible of Alcalá de Henares in which the grammarian Antonio de Nebrija collaborated, were mainly instruments at the service of the necessary formation of the clergy and of the better understanding of the Sacred Scriptures.

Another important date in the biography of Cisneros was 1504. Isabella I of Castile died and the archbishop of Toledo was in the eye of the storm in a particularly convulsive time due to the complex succession of the Queen in the Castilian throne. A regency presided by Cisneros tried to maintain order among the aristocratic groups and to accelerate the return of Ferdinand of Aragon to Castile, who had retired to Aragon. As a reward, Ferdinand of Aragon gave him the cardinal’s hat and, shortly after, appointed him as general inquisitor. Never in the history of Spain an ecclesiastical achieved so much power.

At the time of death, in 1516, Ferdinand of Aragon did not hesitate to entrust Cardinal Cisneros the regency of his Kingdom until the arrival to Spain of his grandson Charles V and I, Holy Roman Emperor. The legacy of the Catholic Monarchs had to be safeguarded in its entirety. Unfortunately, the wise archbishop of Toledo, who was respected and feared, could not transmit to the inexperienced Charles his idea of politics —so different from the patrimonial and dynastic conception in which the one of Habsburg had been educated— because death came to him before meeting the royal heir.

The commemoration of the 5th Centenary of Cardinal Cisneros testifies what Spain thinks of itself and reveals those acts and principles that are considered proper and universal. With him, we recognise the architects of Spain who took us to a common homeland, declared from all ideologies, defended from all cultures, recognized from all traditions. All this demands the excited memory of our heroes and the severe warning against those who seem to have forgotten them.

– Fernando García de Cortázar –

Professor of History of Spain. University of Deusto