Philip ii of Spain and His Italian Jewish Spy

in Journal of Early Modern History
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A bitter conflict between the Spanish and Ottoman empires dominated the second half of the sixteenth century. In this early modern “global” conflict, intelligence played a key role. The Duchy of Milan, home to Simon Sacerdoti (c.1540-1600), a Jew, had fallen to Spain. The fate that usually awaited Jews living on Spanish lands was expulsion—and there were signs to suggest that King Philip ii (1527-1598) might travel down that road. Sacerdoti, the scion of one of Milan’s wealthiest and best-connected Jewish families had access to secret information through various contacts in Italy and North-Africa. Such intelligence was highly valuable to Spanish forces, and Philip ii was personally interested in it. However, this required Sacerdoti to serve an empire—Spain—with a long history of harming the Jews, and to spy on the Ottomans, widely considered as the Jews’ supporters at the time. This article offers a reflection on Simon Sacerdoti’s story. Examining how a Jew became part of the Spanish intelligence agency helps us understand how early modern secret information networks functioned and sheds new light on questions of Jewish identity in a time of uprootedness and competing loyalties.

Philip ii of Spain and His Italian Jewish Spy

in Journal of Early Modern History



  • 9

    MatarIslam in Britain 1558-1685174.

  • 11

    MalcolmAgents of Empire37.

  • 12

    MalcolmAgents of Empire223.

  • 14

    LevinAgents of Empire154.

  • 15

    Carnicer and MarcosEspias de Felipe II: Los servicios secretos del Imperio español13-27. By contrast in England Sir Francis Walsingham ran Queen Elizabeth’s entire intelligence network for her. Béatrice Pérez ed. Ambassadeurs apprentis espions et maîtres comploteurs. Le système de renseignement de l’Espagne au temps modernes (Paris 2010).

  • 17

    H. G. Koenigsberger“The Statecraft of Philip II,” European Studies Review 1 (1971): 1-21; Carnicer and Marcos Espias de Felipe II 59-78.

  • 18

    Koenigsberger“The Statecraft of Philip II” 6.

  • 19

    Cited by Carnicer and MarcosEspias de Felipe II146.

  • 20

    Ibid. 119-130 and 303-331; also MalcolmAgents of Empire223-231; Arenal and Wiegers A Man of Three Worlds 1-20.

  • 23

    Letter quoted by Gurkan“Espionage in the 16th Century Mediterranean” 378.

  • 24

    Quoted by Gurkan“Espionage in the 16th Century Mediterranean” 387. There is some evidence to suggest that Nasi too was courted by Christian forces including Spain and that he himself had made overtures in Spain’s direction although the extent of Nasi’s role as a “double agent” is disputed. Baron dismissed Nasi’s overtures to Spain as made up and impulsive Salo Wittmayer Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews 2d ed. (New York 1952) xviii 92; Rosenblatt and Gurkan on the other hand see him as a shrewd political operator who would not have had any compunctions about giving information to Spain if it served his interests: Rosenblath “Joseph Nasi Friend of Spain” 257-286; Gurkan “Espionage in the 16th Century Mediterranean” 383.

  • 32

    SegreGli ebrei Lombardi nell’età spagnola24; Shlomo Simonsohn The Jews in the Duchy of Milan. A Documentary history of the Jews of Italy (Jerusalem 1982) 1128 1133 1153 1168 1175.

  • 33

    SimonsohnThe Jews in the Duchy of Milan1367-68.

  • 37

    Cecil Roth“Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos, and the Counts of Savoy,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 57 (1967): 469-470.

  • 52

    Andrew Hess“The Battle of Lepanto and Its Place in Mediterranean History,” Past and Present 57 (1972): 53-73; Malcolm Agents of Empire 162-172.

  • 59

    SegreThe Jews in Piedmont447-453. Joseph ha-Cohen recorded the 1565 expulsion too but got a number of the facts wrong. He dated it to 1566 called the Duke Joseph Filibert instead of Emmanuel Philibert and wrote that the Duke “who was greedy” ordered the Jews to pay 4000 golden coins or leave his lands. The Jews left but few days later they came back with 2000 golden coins after which the duke readmitted them and granted them a new condotta or “covenant” with a yearly tax of 1500 golden coins. Joseph ha-Kohen “Emek ha-Bakha” 170. Apparently when not in Milan or Genoa places Joseph was intimately familiar with the level of accuracy of Emek ha-Bakha decreases.

  • 61

    Roth“Joseph Nasi Duke of Naxos and the Counts of Savoy” 469-470.

  • 62


  • 66

    SegreThe Jews in Piedmont55; Beinart “Settlement of the Jews in the Duchy of Savoie in the wake of the Privilege of 1572” 72-85.

  • 69

    John Elliott“A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past and Present 137 (1992): 48-71; Guiseppe de Luca “Trading Money and Empire Building in Spanish Milan (1570-1640)” Polycentric Monarchies 18-125; Alberto Marcos Martin “Polycentric Monarchies: Understanding the Grand Multinational Organizations of the Early Modern Period” Polycentric Monarchies 217-226.

  • 71

    Ha-KohenSefer Emeq Ha-Bakha112-13. The name Samuel should be Simon as attested in numerous Spanish documents in the archives of Simancas.

  • 73

    DurstelerVenetians in Constantinople1-20.


  • View in gallery
    A page out of a report by ambassador Juan de Vargas Mexia on the “trade” mission to Constantinople that Simon (not named here) accomplished for the Duke of Savoy. A sensitive passage was encoded. After the letter reached Philip’s administration in Madrid, the letter was decoded in the left margin and above the text.


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