Where are Sephardic Jews from?

By Guest, 10 September 2019 - 12:59pm

Who Do You Think You Are? genealogist David Mendoza explains the history of the Sephardic Jews persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition - and how you can research your Sephardic ancestry

Sephardic Jews
A Sephardic Jewish marriage in Portugal (Credit: Historical Picture Archive/Corbis/Getty)

Everyone has heard of the Spanish Inquisition.

Less well known is that tens of thousands of Britons descend from their victims, because Oliver Cromwell invited Sephardic (Iberian) Jews to settle in England in 1656.

This includes, as Who Do You Think You Are? revealed, TV presenter Mark Wright.

But who were they?

Read the full version of this article in our latest issue, on sale now

In 1492 the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims was completed. Jews who refused to convert were expelled. 

Some of the refugees set sail into the Mediterranean, eventually settling in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. A smaller group crossed into Portugal. They, and the indigenous Portuguese Jews, were forcibly converted to Christianity five years later, with no option of leaving.

It is this Portuguese population we are tracing.

Portugal lacked the resources to provide the converts with religious instruction, and they were mostly left alone for a couple of generations.

Some became convinced Christians; others remained secretly loyal to Judaism.

Regardless of their beliefs, the conversos were all officially labelled ‘New Christians’ and suffered discrimination.

The Inquisition, a tribunal against Catholic heresy, was already operating in Spain.

It was under royal rather than Papal authority, and was funded by what it confiscated from its prisoners.

Virtually everyone arrested was found guilty. Most first offenders admitted guilt, had their property confiscated, were ‘reconciled’ to the Church, and escaped with their lives. However, repeat offenders were burned alive.

Through bribing the Vatican, the Inquisition was kept out of Portugal until 1536.

But when it arrived, it was ferocious. ‘Judaisers’ – people accused of secretly practising Judaism – were often the principal target.

By that time the Spanish Inquisition had largely wound down, having exhausted its pool of potential victims.

King Sebastian of Portugal died in Morocco in 1578. His cousin, Philip II of Spain, seized the throne.

An unforeseen consequence was that Portuguese New Christians, fleeing persecution and attracted to a booming economy, moved in numbers to Spain.

This migration continued until Portugal declared independence from Spain in 1640.

The Inquisition came back to life.

Another territory rebelling against Spain was the Protestant Netherlands.

In 1593 the city of Amsterdam allowed New Christians to settle and revert to the Judaism of their ancestors.

The wealth they brought led to other cities welcoming the ‘Portuguese Nation’.

Jews settled openly in Livorno, Tuscany, under the Medici, Altona near Hamburg and London. They lived as nominal Catholics in Bordeaux, Bayonne and elsewhere.

These migrant merchants spread across their new countries’ empires, while still trading with relatives in Spain and Portugal.

It was not uncommon for someone to be born, married and buried in three different countries, sometimes under three different names. So how do we research them?

These five websites from different countries offer a good place to start.


1. Sephardic Genealogy

Sephardic Genealogy

This website provides links to Sephardic genealogical resources around the world.

2. WieWasWie


A name search on this Dutch genealogy portal can take you to pages linked to original documents in various Dutch archives.

3. Archief Van De Portugees-Israëlietische Gemeente

Archief Sephardic Jews

The archive of Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community is now almost entirely digitised. Section 5.2.6 has the vital records of congregation. You can download the website’s English manual here.

4. Arquivo Nacional — Torre Do Tombo

Digitarq Arquivos

The national archive of Portugal holds Inquisition, parish and other historic records. Much of its collection has now been digitised, including the annotated processo on page 65. A simple search would be for someone’s name plus the word judaísmo.

5. RAMBI - Index of Articles on Jewish Studies


Before the internet and the digitisation of documents, Sephardic history was the exclusive domain of academics. Family historians should always check for previous research, and review the bibliographies.



Get more expert advice on tracing your family tree every week with our free email newsletter:




Five things you might not know about Mark Wright
previous blog Article
Mark Wright finds out his ancestors were victims of the Spanish Inquisition on Who Do You Think You Are?
next blog Article
Five things you might not know about Mark Wright
previous blog Article
Mark Wright finds out his ancestors were victims of the Spanish Inquisition on Who Do You Think You Are?
next blog Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here