Rise to power
Coat of arms of Cardinal Cisneros.
He was born as Gonzalo Jiménez de Cisneros in Torrelaguna in Castile in 1436, the son of hidalgos Alfonso Jiménez y María de la Torre, from the villa of Cisneros, Palencia. He studied at Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca, where in 1456 he obtained a bachelor's degree in law. In 1459 he traveled to Rome to work as a consistorial advocate, where he attracted the notice of Pope Pius II. He returned to Spain in 1465 carrying an "executive" letter from the Pope giving him possession of the first vacant benefice. That turned out to be Uceda. However, Alfonso Carrillo de Acuña, the Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, refused to accept the letter, wishing instead to bestow the benefice upon one of his own followers. When Cisneros insisted, he was thrown in prison, first at Uzeda and afterwards in the fortress of Santorcaz. For six years, Cisneros held out for his claim, free to leave at any time if he would give it up, but at length in 1480 Carrillo relented at Cisneros' strength of conviction and gave him a benefice. Fearing further reprisals, Cisneros traded it almost at once for a chaplaincy at Sigüenza, under Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza, the bishop of Sigüenza, who shortly after appointed him vicar general of his diocese.
At Siguenza, Cisneros won praise for his work and he seemed to be on the sure road to success among the secular clergy, when in 1484 at the late age of forty-eight he abruptly decided to become a Franciscan friar. Giving up all his worldly belongings, and changing his baptismal name, Gonzalo, for that of Francisco, he entered the Franciscan friary of San Juan de los Reyes, recently founded by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile at Toledo. Not content with the normal lack of comforts for a friar, he voluntarily slept on the bare ground, wore a cilice, doubled his fasts, and generally denied himself with enthusiasm; indeed throughout his whole life, even when at the height of power, his private life was rigorously ascetic.
He retired to the isolated friary of Our Lady of Castañar and built a rough hut in the neighboring woods, in which he lived at times as an anchorite, and later became guardian of a friary at Salzeda. Meanwhile, Mendoza (now Archbishop of Toledo) had not forgotten him, and in 1492 recommended him to Isabella as her confessor. Jiménez accepted the position on condition that he might still live in his community and follow the religious life, only appearing at court when sent for. The post was politically important, for Isabella took counsel from her confessor not only in religious affairs but also matters of state. Isabella's Alhambra Decree, which expelled the Jews from Spain, followed almost immediately upon Cisneros' appointment as her confessor. Cisneros' severe sanctity soon won him considerable influence over Isabella, and in 1494 he was appointed Minister Provincial of the order for Spain.
Cardinal Mendoza died in 1495, and Isabella had secretly procured a papal bull nominating Cisneros to Mendoza's Archdiocese of Toledo, the richest and most powerful in Spain. With this office was also given the office of chancellor of Castile. Isabella tried to surprise him by presenting the bull as a gift in person, but Cisneros did not react as she had hoped. Instead, he fled her presence, and ran away, only to be overtaken by Isabella's messengers several miles outside of Madrid and convinced to return to court for further discussion. Cisneros resisted the appointment for six months and reluctantly agreed only after a second papal bull ordered him to accept. Despite his lavish new position, Cisneros personally still maintained a simple life; although a message from Rome required him to live in a style befitting his rank, the outward pomp only concealed his private asceticism.