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16 November 1491: The mystery of the Holy Child of La Guardia

A depiction of the Holy Child of La Guardia's crucifixion.
A depiction of the Holy Child of La Guardia's crucifixion. / SUR
  • Six 'conversos' and three Jews were burned alive for the murder of a child who may never have existed, fuelling the expulsion of the Jews from Spain less than a year later

On 16 November 1491, in the Brasero de la Dehesa in Ávila to the north-west of Madrid, nine men, three Jews and six 'conversos' (Jews who had converted to Catholicism), were handed over to the secular authorities and either strangled and burned at the stake or burned alive.

Records of the confessions, extracted under torture, reveal that the men, from La Guardia in Toledo, were accused of two things: the profanation of a Host and the murder by crucifixion of a Christian child on Good Friday and the extraction of his heart for acts of sorcery.

However, trial documents published much later showed that the accused and the witnesses, who were heard separately by the Inquisitors without being brought face-to-face, contradicted each other on a number of details (the age of the child, the names of his parents, the place of his birth and residence, and the place where the crime was supposedly committed). What's more, this child was missed nowhere, no body was ever found, nor the heart. They couldn't even agree on a name. He therefore became known as the Holy Child of La Guardia (El Santo Niño de La Guardia).

This was perhaps the most significant of the so-called 'blood libels' to have occurred in Spain as 'the Holy Child' was quickly made into a folk saint and his death greatly assisted the Spanish Inquisition in its campaign against heresy and crypto-Judaism.

Evidence shows that the trial of those condemned for the murder of the Holy Child had further stoked antisemitic sentiment. During the Middle Ages there were frequent blood libels levelled against the Jewish community in Spain: one of the most well known was the supposed crucifixion of the boy Saint Domingo of Val in Zaragoza in the 13th century and also the boy of Sepúlveda in 1468. However, what this latest case showed, supposedly, was that Jews could pervert their 'converso' relatives and reinforced the view that heresy was a hereditary trait and therefore converts could not be trusted either.

With Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada's encouragement, the murder of the Holy Child was used by Isabella I as one of the reasons for the expulsion of the Jews after the fall of Granada in 1492. The decree was signed on 31 March 1492, just months after the outcome of the trial.

While these blood libel cases claimed a number of victims, there is no evidence that any of the murders or related crimes ever took place. Instead, it formed part of an antisemitic campaign.