Spanish Inquisition

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The Spanish Inquisition was the Inquisition acting in Spain under the control of the Kings of Spain. This Inquisition was the result of the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims and the policy of converting Spanish Jews and Muslims to Christianity. The Inquisition was an important tool in enforcing the limpieza de sangre ("cleanliness of blood") against descendants of converted Jews or Muslims.

Pedro Berruguete. Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe (1475).
Pedro Berruguete. Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe (1475).



In the 15th century, Spain was not a single state but a confederation of realms, each with their own administrations, such as the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile, ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella, respectively. In the Crown of Aragon, a confederation of the Kingdom of Aragon, Baleares, Catalunya and Valencia, there was a local inquisition from the Middle Ages, as in the rest of the European countries, but not in the Kingdom of Castile & Leon.

Much of the Iberian peninsula had been ruled by the Moors, and the southern regions, particularly Granada, were heavily populated by Muslims. Until 1492, Granada was still under Moorish rule. The large cities, especially Seville, Valladolid, capital of Castile, and Barcelona, capital of the Crown of Aragon, had large Jewish populations centered in Juderías.

There was a long tradition of Jewish service to the Crown of Aragon. Ferdinand's father, John II of Aragon, appointed Abiathar Crescas, a Jew, as his court astrologer. Jews held many prominent posts, both religious and political. Pedro de la Caballeria, a Marrano, or Jewish convert, played a major role in arranging Ferdinand's marriage to Isabella. Castile even had an unofficial Crown Rabbi, a professing Jew.


The Aragonese Ferdinand was not above using religion as a means of controlling his people. He wanted the Jewish and Muslim religions wiped out in his domains, and the Inquisition was his method for achieving that. Many historians believe the Spanish Inquisition was instituted as a way of weakening Ferdinand's primary political opposition at home. It is also possible that there was a financial motivation. Jewish financiers had lent Ferdinand's father many of the funds which he had used to pursue the alliance by marriage with Castile, and many of these debts would be wiped if the noteholder were condemned in court. The Inquisitor whom Ferdinand installed in Saragossa Cathedral was assassinated by New Christians .

Ferdinand was an astute politician, and developed close ties with St. Peter's in Rome as part of his political manoeuvering, aimed at consolidating the independent realms (joined by his marriage to Isabella) into a single state to be left to his heir. However, he did not want the Pope to control the Inquisition in Spain, as he was jealous of any other power within his borders.

The Pope did not want the Inquisition established in Spain at all, but Ferdinand insisted. He prevailed upon Rodrigo Borgia, then Bishop of Valencia and the Papal Vice-Chancellor as well as a cardinal, to lobby Rome on his behalf. Borgia was partially successful, as Pope Sixtus IV sanctioned the Inquisition only in the state of Castile. Later, Borgia was to have Spain's support for his own papacy as Pope Alexander VI.

Sixtus IV was Pope when the Spanish Inquisition was instituted in Seville. He worked against it, but bowed to pressure from Ferdinand of Aragon, who threatened to withhold military support from his kingdom of Sicily. Sixtus issued the Bull establishing the order in 1478. Nevertheless Sixtus was unhappy with the excesses of the Inquisition and took measures to suppress their abuses.

The Pope disapproved of the extreme measures being taken by Ferdinand, and categorically disallowed their spread to the kingdom of Aragon. He alleged that the Inquisition was a cynical ploy by Ferdinand and Isabella to confiscate the Jews' property. Despite his title of "Most Catholic King", and his ongoing attempts to woo the Pope to his side politically, Ferdinand continued to resist direct Papal influence in his lands. He decided to use strong-arm tactics against the Pope.

Ferdinand had some important levers he could use to bend the Pope to his will. Venice, traditionally the defender against the Turks in the East, was greatly weakened after a protracted war with them which ran from 1463 to 1479. The Turks had taken possession of Greece and the Greek islands. France, as always, was looking for signs of weakness which it could use to its advantage. And in the midst of all these threats, in August of 1480 the Sultan had attacked Italy itself, at the port of Otranto, with several thousand janissaries. They pillaged the countryside for three days, largely unopposed.

Under these conditions, Ferdinand's position in Sicily — he was king of Sicily as well as Aragon and several other kingdoms—gave him the leverage he needed. He threatened to withhold military support of the Holy See, and the Pope relented.

Sixtus then blessed the royal institution of the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand had won everything he sought: the Inquisition was under his sole control, but had the blessing of the Pope, and the royal coffers were swelling with the loot of the Jewish and Moorish victims.

The Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews

See also: History of the Jews in Spain

Ferdinand and Isabella appointed Tomás de Torquemada in 1481 to investigate and punish conversosJews and Moors (Muslims) who claimed to have "converted" to Catholicism but continued to practice their "former" religion in secret. Some disguised Jews had even been ordained as priests and even bishops. Detractors also called converted Jews Marranos, a pejorative word that can also be translated "pigs." The Inquisition started by targeting Conversos in Seville, and tribunals were established in quick succession at Cordova, Jaen, and Ciudad Real, followed by Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia. Between 1486-1492, 25 auto-da-fes were held in Toledo alone, there would eventually be over 464 auto-da-fes targeting Jews between 1481 and 1826. In total, more than 13,000 Conversos were tried from 1480-1492. The Inquisition against the Conversos culminated in the expulsion of all of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Muslim Spain had proved a safe haven for Jews, and quickly became the center of Jewish intellectual life. However, several months after the fall of Granada an edict of expulsion was issued against the Jews of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella (March 31, 1492). It ordered all Jews of whatever age to leave the kingdom by the last day of July, but permitted them to remove their property provided it was not in gold, silver, or money. The reason alleged for this action in the preamble of the edict was the relapse of so many "conversos," owing to the proximity of unconverted Jews who seduced them from Christianity and kept alive in them the knowledge and practises of Judaism. No other motive is assigned, and there is no doubt that the religious motive was the main one. It is claimed that Don Isaac Abravanel, who had previously ransomed 480 Jewish Moriscos of Malaga from the Catholic monarchs by a payment of 20,000 doubloons, now offered them 600,000 crowns for the revocation of the edict. It is said also that Ferdinand hesitated, but was prevented from accepting the offer by Torquemada, the grand inquisitor, who dashed into the royal presence and, throwing a crucifix down before the king and queen, asked whether, like Judas, they would betray their Lord for money (It should be pointed out that this incident exists purely as a rumor. There is not documented basis for its authenticity. See: Warren Carroll's thoroughly documented Isabel: the Catholic Queen). Whatever may be the truth of this story, there were no signs of relaxation shown by the court, and the Jews of Spain made preparations for exile. Over 200,000 Jews were eventually expelled, many of whom fled to Turkey or North Africa, and tens of thousands died during the expulsion. The expulsion from Spain led to the creation of the Sephardic Jewish community, and was viewed as such a betrayal that Sephardic Jews were forbidden by tradition from ever resettling in Spain (which would have been impossible in any case until 1858, when the Edict of Expulsion was finally repealed)

With the expulsion of the Jews, the Inquisition had free reign, as its authority was supposed to extend only to Christians, not Jews or Muslims, and every Jew in the King's states had been baptised (New Christians) or expelled. If they continued practicing the Jewish religion, they were sinful relapses ("fallen again").

Operation of the Inquistion

This picture is described as displaying Roman Catholic Church officials presiding over the torture of a man during the Spanish Inquisition. But since the Spanish Inquisition was an important part of the Black Legend, it’s hard for non-experts to know which texts and pictures are accurate descriptions of the inquisition procedures.
This picture is described as displaying Roman Catholic Church officials presiding over the torture of a man during the Spanish Inquisition. But since the Spanish Inquisition was an important part of the Black Legend, it’s hard for non-experts to know which texts and pictures are accurate descriptions of the inquisition procedures.

Sixtus IV died in 1484, and was succeeded by Pope Innocent VIII. Innocent twice issued bulls asking for greater mercy and leniency for the conversos. He ordered all Catholic monarchs to extradite fleeing Jews back to Spain where they could stand trial.

The Inquisition, as a religious court, was operated by Church authorities; however, if a person was found to be heretical, they were turned over ("relaxed") to the secular authorities to be punished, since "the Church does not shed blood." Torture was often used to gain repentance. Punishments ranged from public shame (dressing in the sambenito) to burning at the stake—dead after garroting (strangulation) for those who repented, alive for the unrepentant, or in effigy for those condemned in absentia. These punishments were conducted in public ceremonies (called auto de fe) that could last a whole day. The clerical members of the tribunal were assisted by civilians (familiares). The office of familiar of the Inquisition was very prestigious.

Many people made such accusations out of revenge, or to gain rewards from the Crown. The Crown itself may have been behind some of the allegations, in the desire to appropriate wealthy Conversos' lands, property and valuables.

The Inquisition was also used against focuses of early Protestantism, Erasmism and Illuminism and in the 18th century against Encyclopedism and French Enlightenment. In spite of the actions of the other European Inquisitions, witchcraft was a bigger concern for the Spanish people than for the Inquisition. Accused witches were usually dismissed as mentally ill.

The Inquisition was removed during Napoleonic rule (18081812), but reinstituted when Ferdinand VII of Spain recovered the throne. It was officially ended on 15 July 1834. Schoolmaster Cayetano Ripoli, garroted to death in Valencia on July 26, 1826 (allegedly for teaching Deist principles) was the last person executed by the Spanish Inquisition.

It gave rise to the Mexican Inquisition and the Lima Inquisition, which pursued those who fled from the original Inquisitors to the Americas with the help of various explorers and conquistadors.

"Myths of the Spanish Inquisition"

According to a joint BBC/A&E production called "Myths of the Spanish Inquisition" (1994), torture chambers did not exist during the Spanish Inquisition, and the Spanish Inquisition used torture "very infrequently". For example, in Valencia, out of over 7,000 cases, less than 2% experienced any torture at all, usually for no more than fifteen minutes. Less than 1% experienced torture more than once. Researchers found no cases experiencing torture more than twice.

Most of the torture methods once thought to have been employed by the Spanish Inquisition were never used. For example, the "iron maiden" never existed in Spain, and was a post-Reformation invention of Germany. Also, thumb-screws on display in an English museum as Spanish Inquisition torture devices, were only recently attributed to their true origin: William Cecil's persecution and torment of Catholics during Elizabeth I's reign.

Other "Myths of the Spanish Inquisition" include:

  • Roasting a defendant's feet.
  • Bricking a defendant up to starve to death.
  • Smashing a defendant's joints with hammers.
  • Flailing a defendant on the wheel.
  • Ravishing female defendants.

Death tolls

Numbers are difficult to establish with accuracy for the Spanish Inquistion, and there is an ongoing debate between recent historical research supported by the Catholic Church, which holds that the previously accepted death toll of the Inquisition is greatly exaggerated, and other historians, who claim that up to hundreds of thousands, or even more, might have been killed. Some historians and Spanish scholars point to research that suggests that death tolls are exaggerated as evidence of the Black legend, which over-emphasizes the destruction caused by Spain relative to other nations.

Some dubious statistics of large death tolls are given by historians such as Will Durant, who, in, The Reformation (1957) cites Juan Antonio Llorente, General Secretary of the Inquisition from 1789 to 1801, as estimating that 31,912 people were executed from 1480-1808. He also cites Hernando de Pulgar, a secretary to Queen Isabella, as estimating 2,000 people were burned before 1490. Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church gave a number of 8,800 people burned in the 18 years of Torquemada. Matthew White, in reviewing these and other figures, gives a median number of deaths at 32,000, with around 9,000 under Torquemada. R. J. Rummel gives similar figures as "most realistic," though he cites some historians who give figures of up to 135,000 people killed under Torquemada. This number includes 125,000 who are claimed to have died in prison due to poor conditions, leaving 10,000 as sentenced to death.

Thankfully, the Spanish Inquisition kept very good records and these are now being sifted through by historians. They paint a very different picture of sentencing patterns to traditional historians. Geoffrey Parker analyzed 49,000 trial records between 1540 and 1700, representing one third of the total, and found 776 executions took place. This suggests a total of about 2,000 in the period reviewed. Earlier records are less well preserved but do not support the picture of a bloodbath usually painted. Henry Kamen (p. 60) does not believe more than a thousand executions took place in the earlier period. However, he points out that the Inquisitors' activities were heavily slanted towards Jewish and Moslem communities who would have suffered far more than most from their activities. Recent work, sponsored by the Catholic Church, also points to a significantly lower death toll. Professor Agostino Borromeo, a historian of Catholicism at the Sapienza University in Rome, writes that about 125,000 people were tried by church tribunals as suspected heretics in Spain. Of these, about 1,200 - 2,000 were actually executed, although more killings were performed by non-church tribunals.

The Spanish Inquisition in the arts

The Spanish Inquisition has also been a topic in art, literature, movies, and comedy:

See also


  • Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. (Yale University Press, 1999). ISBN 0300078803
—This revised edition of his 1965 original contributes to the understanding of the Spanish Inquisition in its local context.
  • Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (4 volumes), (New York and London, 1906-1907)
  • Simon Whitechapel, Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (Creation Books, 2003). ISBN 1840681055
  • B. Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, (New York : New York Review Books, 2001). ISBN 0940322390
  • Miranda Twiss, The Most Evil Men And Women In History (Michael O'Mara Books Ltd., 2002). ISBN 1-85479-488-4
  • Geoffrey Parker “Some Recent Work on the Inquisition in Spain and Italy” Journal of Modern History 54:3 1982
  • Warrenn Carroll, "Isabel: the Catholic Queen" Front Royal, Virginia, 1991 (Christendom Press) 385 pp., ASIN: 0931888433
  • Myths of the Spanish Inquisition (Television Documentary produced by the BBC) 1994 BBC/A&E

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