Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros

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Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros

Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517) was born into a noble Castilian family, but chose to turn his back on all the riches of his birth and instead became a Franciscan friar. He retained his acquaintances in society, and because of them was offered the position of confessor to Queen Isabella, a position he held until the day she died. He retained his own hermetic approach to life while gaining more and stronger influence over Spanish politics, culminating in his elevation to the Cardinal of Toledo. In a fit of religious fervor Cisneros instituted a religious reformation across his country. He also was respon sible for the printing of the Complutensian Polyglot, which was a consolidation of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts of the Bible.

Destined for the Church

Jiménez de Cisneros was born in 1436 into a low noble family in Torrelaguna in Castile. He was destined for the church early in life, and so his education was inclined towards that end; he was interested in politics and law, and attracted by the ways in which he could use them to further his religious policies. He began his education at the hands of an uncle before he was sent to attend the Alcala de Henares school. From there he went on to attend the University of Salamanca, where he graduated around 1460 with a bachelor's degree in Law. Upon graduation he traveled to Rome to take on the role of consistorial advocate, which meant that he essentially worked for the assembly of cardinals. While there he came to the notice of Pope Sixtus V, who was impressed by the young cleric.

The Pope bestowed upon Jiménez a letter that gave him possession of the first vacant benefice (a church position that offered a way to make a living), which turned out to be Uzeda. Archbishop Carillo refused to accept the letter, however, preferring to give the benefice to one of his own followers, and when Jiménez argued, he was jailed. He was free to leave prison at any time if he would give up all rights to the position, but Cisneros refused. He stayed in prison for six years until Carillo gave in and gave the benefice to him. Jiménez, in turn, exchanged the benefice immediately for a chaplaincy at Siguenza, under Cardinal Mendoza the bishop of Siguenza. Mendoza then gave him the position of vicar-general of his diocese.

Chucked In Prominence for Life of Franciscan

In his positions, Jiménez gained much acclaim for his work, and by the early 1480s Jiménez was a prosperous and successful clergyman on his way to high rank in the church, but he seemed to have changed his mind about his life's direction. Instead of a highly paid and admired position, Jiménez chose to enter the poor Franciscan Order, which at the time was the leading religious reform movement, proposing a return to stricter and more orthodox Christianity. He began a life of retreat at the friary of San Juan de los Reyes, which had recently been founded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella at Toledo. Although he led a life of solitude, he maintained contacts with Cardinal Mendoza and the court. He built a hut in the woods near the friary of Our Lady of Castanar and lived there at times, away from the rest of the world. This was not to last for very long, however.

Served as Confessor for Queen Isabella

Because of his worldly contacts, when Queen Isabella, who was a devout Catholic, was looking for a personal confessor in 1492, a comrade suggested Jiménez for the position. He agreed to take on the post as long as he was able to keep to his religious life and only go to court when called for. Isabella quickly agreed and the two developed a strong and longstanding relationship that would last the rest of her life. As Jiménez's relationship with Isabella strengthened, so his power throughout the Kingdom rose. Isabella came to depend on Jiménez not only as her confessor, but also for his council about affairs of state. He became so invaluable to her, in fact, that she brought him to Barcelona in 1493 when she and her husband King Ferdinand moved there. He was moved in order to oversee the reforms in Catalan monastic life, as well as to continue his job as royal confessor. Isabella admired him so much that in 1494 she appointed him to the position of Minister provincial of the Catalan order for Spain.

Jiménez's old friend, Cardinal Mendoza, died in 1495, and Isabella secretly obtained a papal bull naming Jiménez to Mendoza's Archdiocese of Toledo, the richest and most powerful position in Spain. The Archdiocese came also with the office of chancellor of Castile, quite a different life, it would seem, from the one that Jiménez wanted and was pursuing. Even with all of his obligations, however, Jiménez maintained a simple life. For a cardinal, Jiménez was very austere and simple, so much so that not long after his ascension to his cardinalship he received a missive from Rome berating him for his lack of circumstance. He was told that he should change his way of life to more suitably reflect the grandeur of his rank. Jiménez, however, despite the admonishment, continued to maintain only the outward appearance of richness, using it to hide his personal asceticism.

Initiated Crusade For Religious Reform

Jiménez managed to keep to his ascetic lifestyle so well that at court he impressed people with his way of life as well as his sense of purpose and mission. He was so austere, in fact, that he did not just accept the usual lack of luxuries, but increased them immensely. Just a few of the things he added to his religious rights were the fact that he insisted on sleeping on the bare ground, wearing a hair shirt, and doubling his fasts, and generally denied himself any luxuries at all, and all done with a fervor. And he kept the Spartan-like lifestyle up for his entire life, no matter how high his rank reached.

Jiménez, in his position of Cardinal, instantly started a vigorous program of clerical reform. He managed to obtain a papal bull in 1495 that gave him the necessary permission to visit and help the regular clergy of his archdiocese to put through the reforms the Jiménez found were essential for the health of the Spanish church. In 1499 another papal bull entrusted him with visiting and reforming the mendicants throughout Spain. Mendicants were an order of friars that were not allowed to own property, and so work and beg for a living. Jiménez was constantly on the lookout for any situation within the church that might need his attention. He epitomized, at this time, the crusading fervor of Spain during the 1500s. When Isabella decided to expel Jews from Spain in 1492, it was seen as Jiménez who helped her make the decision. He was also seen as very intolerant of the Granadine Moors who had recently been conquered by the Spanish. It was Jiménez who wanted to strengthen those church movers who were interested in firmly following the laws of the church against their counterparts, those who believed in accumulating wealth. He also took steps to ensure that nunneries were suitably funded and were attached to the reformed congregations of their particular orders, rather than the more radical ones. His acts were very influential on a generation of reformers, but unfortunately for Jiménez, the mercilessness with which he carried out his reforms often aggravated people and created resentment in the ranks, ensuring that the changes were slow and would be of short duration. Because of this, Jiménez's work remained largely unfinished until after the Council of Trent, which took place from 1545 to 1563. The Council was a strong reform movement that Jiménez would have approved of, but he was long gone when it occurred.

Crucial in Ascendancy of the Throne

These delays caused Jiménez to be incredibly impatient at the slow progress, so to deal with the issues, Jiménez started a forced conversion of the Muslim population. This coercion goaded even larger rebellions in the kingdom of Granada and foreshadowed the horrible death of Spanish Islam over the subsequent century. To Jiménez this forced expulsion of non-Christians was a return to the early church's fervor and he wished to spread the reformation even further. He next extended what became known as the Isabelline Reconquista to Africa, where he sent troops on crusading campaigns to the Barbary Coast. In 1509 the crusaders managed to conquer Oran, which was Jiménez's goal.

In the meantime there were a few problems back at home. Isabella died in 1504, and then her heir, Philip of Austria, died in 1506. These events triggered a severe crisis about who would reign over Spain. King Ferdinand the Catholic was made to give up his title of King of Castile when his wife, Isabella, died. When her heir died too, Ferdinand was established as regent until Charles of Ghent, the next person in line to rule, was old enough to rule. Jiménez, dealing with his crusades and other religious reforms, was also forced to deal with the mess of who would rule Spain. It was he who managed to bring about this agreement, doing so against opposition from the Castilian nobility. For his help, Ferdinand saw to it that Jiménez was made the inquisitor general in 1507. The two men remained in collaboration until Ferdinand died in January of 1516. At that time Jiménez took on the role of regent on Charles's behalf. This created even more unrest and the country remained seriously fractured until Charles made it to Spain in September of 1517; Jiménez was more than equal to the challenge, however, of keeping all the disquieted peoples at bay and any bloodshed from occurring. He did this by establishing a permanent militia of around thirty thousand men to crush any serious rebellions. Charles was from the Flemish court and had to transfer power over Spain to his court; it has been thought that the successful transition would not have occurred if it had not been for Jiménez's statesmanship. Jiménez was on the way to meet with young King Charles when he died at Roa on November 8, 1517.

Set Up University of Alcala de Henares

Even after all the political and religious reforms that Jiménez managed to bring about in his lifetime, he was mostly remembered for his role later in life as Renaissance patron and founder. In 1499 he started his construction on the University of Alcala de Henares, which opened in 1508. One of the greatest things the University did, under Jiménez's orders, was called the Complutensian Polyglot, which was a consolidation of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts of the Bible. It was published between 1513 and 1517 and was comprised of six volumes. He was also responsible for the publication of the works of Vincent Ferrer, Catherine of Siena, Angela da Foligno, and Girolamo Savonarola, to name a few, all great spiritual leaders in the church.


Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, 6 volumes, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000.

Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 1995.


"Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros," NNDB, (January 6, 2006).

"Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros," New Advent, (January 6, 2006).

"The Iberian Peninsula," Bartleby, (January 6, 2006).

"Jimenez de Cisneros, Francisco, Cardenal," Brittanica Online, (January 6, 2006).

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Ximenes variant spelling in English of Spanish Jiménez in the name of the Spanish cardinal and statesman Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517), Grand Inquisitor for Castile and Léon from 1507 to 1517.