Fernando Mendes (1647-1724)
Fernando Mendes was a well-respected Jewish physician, who attended both Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza. Catherine ( 25 November 1638 – 31 December 1705) was queen consort of England, of Scotland and of Ireland from 1662 to 1685, as the wife of King Charles II.
In 1662, he had been brought over as her doctor from Portugal to England, when she married. Mendes was a converso and actively a Roman Catholic, yet also a conflicted and a hidden Jew, throughout his life in England. An additional interesting insight was that the Queen’s marriage dowry had been arranged by Jewish financiers. This indicates how close the Portuguese Jewish conversos were to the heart of the royal families in both Portugal and England.
Mendes was a merchant, politician and doctor, who attended the royal family at the time of the outbreak of the Great Plague of London, which took hold in the beginning of May 1665, and forced the King and his court to flee to Oxford. Mendes was recently mentioned in the Jewish Chronicle on 6 May 2020. He attended Charles II during his final illness and his family lived at Somerset House in the Strand, the Queen’s palace. Even in 1706, he was still consulted about the health of Pedro IV in Lisbon. This study will also highlight how close the Mendes family was to Queen Catherine herself. As she was seriously missing her Portuguese homeland, she became very close to the Mendes family. She insisted that Fernando’s baby daughter should be baptised at Somerset House and also take her name; she further indicated that she wanted to be the godmother of Catherine (1679-1756) at the baptism. The Queen continued to take an active interest in her godchild, as she had no children, which continued to cause many problems in her relationship with Charles. This close and intimate, almost familial, Mendes connection has been missed from much of the earlier Anglo-Jewish histories.
Fernando Mendes is a good example of what a converso or a Crypto-Jew meant in practice. For most of his life in England, he maintained his Catholic tradition out of loyalty to the Queen, who had Priests in residence for her daily mass at Somerset House. This personal conflict within Protestant England fuelled deep suspicions about the negative influence of ‘Papists’ on the Queen, and by association also for Catherine Mendes. She was later recognised as a famous artist, and one of the few outstanding female Jews of the time. She married her cousin, Anthony Moses da Costa (c.1667—1747), a wealthy trader in diamonds, coral, and bullion. Her father later paid the cost for his continuing Catholic faith, when his membership of the College of Physicians was cancelled in 1689, because they described him as a Papist.
In 1688, he was also denied a family inheritance from his wife’s uncle, because he was not considered to be Jewish enough. He was never circumcised or took any part at Bevis Marks, in contrast to his wife Isabel, who was an observant Jew. However, all his children were married there. Yet, as he faced death, he requested permission along with a gift of £100, to be buried next to his wife in the Sephardic (Velho) cemetery at Mile End, because he could not face the prospect of a Christian burial. This unusual request was graciously granted by the synagogue. This presaged a similar plea by Samson Gideon (1699-1762), the most famous Jew in the eighteenth century, who had married a Christian wife. He was buried there too; he had been secretly making regular contributions to the synagogue under an assumed name. For so many of these conversos, who had vehemently chosen to reject any genuine religious commitment, at death they wanted to be part of the Jewish community. There were many others like Mendes and Gideon, who could not ultimately escape their Jewish heritage.
Reflection and Prayer:
I was surprised to discover my relationship to Mendes – see below – but could understand the pressures he lived under – born Jewish, raised Catholic, persecuted as a Catholic in Protestant England, and at the time of his death wanting both a Jewish and Catholic burial. So often Jewish disciples of Jesus, caught in the interface between the different faith communities and at the mercy of the asymetries of power, their own witness, wealth and willingness to serve led them to eke out a precarious survival amongst the leaders of their day. Today Jewish disciples of Yeshua face similar challenges, all the while processing their own identities and faith perspectives.
A prayer of Cardinal Newman: The Mission of My Life
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
With thanks to Rodney Curtis for his research and interview on Youtube – https://youtu.be/5G0uc7yZHpQ