Protestant Liaison: A Reformation Mini-Bio

Great history is often the tale of great men and their deeds of valor and vice. Silent are the chants of hungry peasants, of expelled minorities, and far too often the voices of women. The story of the Protestant Reformation shares equally in this gender gap with other periods, yet for a few individuals, their voices can be given new life through a return to the primary sources. In a strange turn of events, some of the forgotten cries of the downtrodden can be heard again through the words of their oppressors in the form of Inquisition procesos – the abbreviated trial records of the legal arm of the Holy Roman Church containing the often verbatim quotations of the participants.

Twenty-nine men and three women were accused and tried for Reformation crimes by one such Inquisition court in Toledo, Spain between the years 1575 and 1610. Their influence and impact seems small compared to names like Luther, Calvin, and Knox, so it is fair to ask whether these individuals were truly reformers at all. It is quite possible that some of them never understood Reformation doctrine. In which case, they are merely accused of “Reform crimes” as a derogatory addendum to their often-lurid cases. However, through the Inquisition trial records it is clear that some Reformation doctrines and ideas had successfully leapt across the Pyrenees Mountains and into the hearts and minds of everyday citizens from different backgrounds. This is the story of one of these people.

The case involved a nun who had moved to Spain from her native Vienna. Ursula de la Cruz was from the Monastery of La Magdalena in Madrid, not far from Toledo. She is brought before the court for the crimes of being Reformados and making “heretical and dangerous dogmatic proposals.”[1] Since the trial record is relatively short, it is possible and worthwhile to exposit it in its entirety to discuss the nature of her offenses.[2]

Ursula de la Cruz, native of Vienna, a nun in the Monastery of La Magdalena, in Alcalá de Henares [Madrid]. I confess to the commissioner of Alcalá by commission of vide supra[3] of having doubted some things concerning the Articles of Faith of the Catholic Church, deliberately doubting some items, especially the virginity of Our Lady and the sacraments, and deliberately departing from the faith and pronounced some heresies of which I heard in my homeland [Austria] though no one listened, and insulted Christ and ate meat on Friday for the disparagement of the Holy Faith.

Clearly, Ursula is confessing to the court in hopes of escaping punishment. In what could very well be a genuine public recantation of secret sin, she outlines her intentional, “deliberate,” issues with certain parts of the Articles of Faith. While denial of the virgin birth was not a question raised by the Reformation, the nature of the virgin birth and concerns with the veneration of Mary certainly were of large debate.[4] However, the most interesting note on this portion is that Ursula claims her “heretical” ideas came from her homeland of Austria.

The Vienna Reformation was initially well received. The Wien Museum writes: “Luther’s ideas fell on fruitful ground, even finding favor with Emperor Maximilian II.[5] Yet his successors refused to tolerate any form of Protestant worship, forcing much of the population to take refuge in the castles on the outskirts of Vienna.”[6] The strong counter-Reformation in the city caused most Reform ideas to be carried out in secret – no doubt Ursula’s illicit ideas were products of clandestine preaching and teaching.

The great offense mentioned by Ursula at the end of this first portion of the trial speaks to her eating meat on Friday. Sola fide refuted this reliance on anything added to the gospel message. Most prominent Reformers spoke often about justification through faith alone and only achieving salvation through the grace of God. Breaking the Friday meat fast was just another attack on the authority of the Church over the daily lives and behaviors of its members and directly challenged the authority of Rome over declaring what God wanted and expected of people (without referencing supporting Scripture to reinforce the statements). After her confession, Ursula’s trial continues with a favorable response to her contrite and forthright heart.

Looking at the above, her confession commanded the commissioner to acquit her and she abjured her mistakes and then afterwards the said Ursula de la Cruz confessed again to the late Juan de Llano as [to the] commission of vide supra. Having had the same mistakes he had abjured and confessed, and the above was brought to face these Holy Officials. In the audiences which they had with her, she had confessed to have had those same mistakes and never went away from them although she was acquitted and absolved, and now wants to live and die in the Holy Catholic Faith and asked for mercy.

In this continuation of her trial, Ursula is acquitted and her sins absolved. However, there seems to be a sequel of sorts when the record picks back up with a new confession. Apparently, guilt caught up with the nun in some way – the Protestant ideas would not die within her. She confesses before the larger group of officials and claims that though it had been absolved, her views on the matters never changed. Now, she wants to not only live as part of the faith, she raises the ever present fear of this time period: death. With so much of both Catholic and Reformation theology tailored to explain the culture of rapid and unexpected death that surrounded the later Medieval and Early Modern world, it is not surprising that Ursula wanted to return to a familiar harbor as she contemplated her own mortality. The sola fide of the Protestants left the lifelong Catholic feeling naked indeed at the pearly gates. Her final plea for mercy would not earn her unanimous support or even the open-ended release she had won the first time around, but it did serve to garner a relatively mild penance. The final portion continues:

[There were] votes in discord. The above was admitted to reconciliation in the hearing room with a life of being taken away and was held in a monastery cell for a year and fasted every Friday [of the year] and that she can hear mass on feast days and communion when the other religious [people].

She would not walk away free. However, she received one of the best outcomes a confirmed heretic could gain: reconciliation. This stands in extreme contrast to the term “relaxation” in which the subject would be handed over to the “secular” authorities (even if such a body existed in theory only) typically for capital punishment. Ursula’s punishment is also crafted to fit the crime. Fish is back on Ursula’s menu as her Friday meat fasts were reinstituted with supervision. Her short-term reward was exactly what she had asked for: to live as part of the Holy Catholic faith. This was symbolized in her allowance to hear mass and take communion. Life in community with other devout persons would be a serendipitous blessing. Her long-term reward answered her second request: to die as part of the same faith – a request insured by her reconciliation being completed in one year providing good behavior from this point forward. She would be free to live out the rest of her days in good standing and thus enter Heaven with the proper credentials and corporate backing.

Thus ends one nun’s Protestant liaison. Her biography, short and unsure. In her story, one can clearly see the intention of the system that tried her. If the Inquisition’s goal had been only to silence its critics, the task was overwhelming successful. Yet at its heart, the institution was less concerned with silence and more concerned with holiness and purity. Historian A. S. Turberville describes why the court never claimed to be a true court of justice in the secular sense: “The Inquisition was created to deal with erring children, not criminals; not merely to pronounce a verdict, but to produce reconciliation and amendment; not to punish, but to penance.”[7] In this analogy, the Church becomes the parent to its impressionable children. With the ideas of the Protestant Reformation dammed up along the northern border of their country, the Spanish authorities held their “finger in the dyke” in the only way they knew how: fierce and firm discipline for any infraction.

Yet the real question still remains: is it fair to call Ursula de la Cruz a Reformer? If one is referring to the corporate propagation of Reformation theology in a consumable way to others, then probably not. She gave no recorded sermons nor produced any writings. However, if being a Reformer is defined as someone who allows the renewed theological ideas to work and ‘reform’ their own hearts, then the term begins to fit. Like the Reformation’s effect on Spain itself, the beliefs did not last long. Nevertheless, this trial of the Inquisition is a story told to understand the transmission and expulsion of new ideas in a society that refused to let Reform take root as they claimed the same holy intentions as their Protestant counterparts – soli Deo honor et gloria.[8]


 [1] “Proposiciones dogmáticas heréticas o peligrosas,” Julio Sierra, 168-169.

 [2] Translated from Julio Sierra, Procesos en la Inquisicion de Toledo (1575-1610) (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2005), 345.

 [3] The Latin phrase vide supra, abbreviated V.S. in Sierra’s work, simply means “see above” (usually in the same document).

 [4] Many Anabaptists and other mainline reformers did take issue with what type of host parent Mary was biologically to Jesus Christ. Bernhard Rothman stated in 1534: “We believe that there one Christ, not born of Mary’s flesh and blood, but rather as the article of faith says, he was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born from Mary, the Virgin. […] the first man was an earthly man from earth, but the second is a heavenly man from heaven. […] if it had been Mary’s flesh that died for us, my God, what comfort and courage could we derive from that?” In: Bernhard Rothmann, “Confession of Faith,” 1534, as published by Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (Scottsdale: Herald Press, 1981), 35-36.

[5] Maximillian II, a Hapsburg, was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1564-1576.

 [6] Wien Museum, “Protestant Vienna: Religious Conflict After Luther,”

[7] A. S. Turberville, Medieval Heresy and the Inquisition (London: Archon Books, 1964), 239.

[8] Lit. “only God, honor and glory” from the Vulgate, I Timothy 1:17. The line is similar to some mottos and defenses for the Spanish Inquisition.

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