Spanish Inquisition

From New World Encyclopedia

Auto de Fe in la Plaza Mayor de Madrid, by Francisco Rizi, 1683

The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1478 by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and was under the direct control of the Spanish monarchy. It was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabella II.

The Inquisition, as a tribunal dealing with religious heresy, had jurisdiction only over baptized Christians. During a large part of its history, however, freedom of religion did not exist in Spain or its territories, so in practice the Inquisition had jurisdiction over all royal subjects. Between 3000 to 5000 people died during the Inquisition's 350 years, but debate continues about the extent and nature of atrocities committed and about the number of victims. Originally politically motivated, it aimed to use religion to foster national unity but later became the object of Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda which "painted Spaniards as barbarians who ravished women and sodomized young boys."[1] It was the secular authorities that punished those found guilty, so the Inquisition may best be seen an example of how religion can be used by the State to promote its agenda, rather than "a metaphor of the Church's 'dictatorial, controlling, damning' pronouncements."[1] Due to creation of the "Black Legend", the Spanish Inquisition may have gained a reputation for inhumanity disproportionate to what actually took place. On the other hand, it remains a regrettable part of the human story, a fact which should not be clouded by the claims and counter-claims of those for whom it is the subject of cultural war.



The Inquisition was created through the papal bull Ad abolendam, issued by Pope Lucius III in 1184 C.E. as a way to combat the Albigensian heresy in southern France. There were a number of tribunals of the Papal Inquisition in various European kingdoms during the Middle Ages. In the Kingdom of Aragon, a tribunal of the Papal Inquisition was established by the statute of Excommunicamus of pope Gregory IX in 1232 during the era of the Albigensian heresy. Its principal representative was Raimundo de Peñafort. With time, its importance was diluted, and by the middle of the fifteenth century it was almost forgotten, although still existing in law.

There was never a tribunal of the Papal Inquisition in Castile. Members of the episcopate were charged with surveillance of the faithful and punishing transgressors. However, in Castile during the Middle Ages, little attention was paid to heresy.


Much of the Iberian Peninsula was dominated by Moors, following their invasion of the peninsula in 711 until they were finally defeated in 1492. The reconquest did not result in the expulsion of Muslims from Spain, but instead yielded a multi-religious society made up of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. Granada and large cities, especially Seville, Valladolid, the capital of Castile, and Barcelona, the capital of the Kingdom of Aragon, had large Jewish populations centered in juderias.

The Reconquista produced a relatively peaceful co-existence—although not without periodic conflicts—among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the peninsular kingdoms. There was a long tradition of Jewish service to the Aragon crown. Ferdinand's father John II named the Jewish Abiathar Crescas as court astronomer. Jews occupied many important posts, religious and political. Castile itself had an unofficial rabbi.

Nevertheless, in some parts of Spain towards the end of the fourteenth century there was a wave of anti-Semitism, encouraged by the preaching of Ferrant Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija. The pogroms of June 1391 were especially bloody: in Seville, hundreds of Jews were killed, and the synagogue was completely destroyed. The number of victims was equally high in other cities, such as Cordoba, Valencia, and Barcelona.[2]

One of the consequences of these disturbances was the massive conversion of Jews. Before this date, conversions were rare, more motivated by social than religious reasons. From the fifteenth century a new social group appeared: conversos, also called new Christians, who were distrusted by Jews and Christians alike. By converting, Jews could not only escape eventual persecution, but also obtain entry into many offices and posts that were being prohibited to Jews through new, more severe regulations. Many conversos attained important positions in fifteenth century Spain. Among many others, physicians Andres Laguna and Francisco Lopez Villalobos (Ferdinand's Court physician), writers Juan del Enzina, Juan de Mena, Diego de Valera and Alonso de Palencia, and bankers Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez (who financed the voyage of Christopher Columbus) were all conversos. Conversos—not without opposition—managed to attain high positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, at times becoming severe detractors of Judaism.[3] Some received titles of nobility. As a result, during the following century it was even claimed that virtually all Spanish nobility were descended from Jews.[4]

Motives for instituting the Spanish Inquisition

There is no unanimity among historians about Ferdinand and Isabella's motives for introducing the Inquisition. Historians have suggested a number of possible reasons.

  1. To establish political and religious unity. The Inquisition allowed the monarchy to intervene actively in religious affairs, without the interference of the Pope. At the same time, Ferdinand and Isabella's objective was the creation of an efficient state machinery; thus one of their priorities was to achieve religious unity to promote more centralized political authority.
  2. To weaken local political opposition to the Catholic Monarchs. Strengthening centralized political authority also entailed weakening local political opposition. Resistance to the installation of the Inquisition in the Kingdom of Aragon, for example, was often couched in terms of local legal privileges (fueros).
  3. To do away with the powerful converso minority. Many members of influential families such as the Santa Fes, the Santangels, the Caballerias, and the Sanchezes, were prosecuted in the Kingdom of Aragon. This is contradicted, to an extent, by the fact that Ferdinand, King of Aragon, continued to employ many conversos in his administration.
  4. Economic support. Given that one of the measures used with those tried was the confiscation of property, this possibility cannot be discarded.

Activity of the Inquisition


Alonso de Hojeda, a Dominican from Seville, convinced Queen Isabella that crypto-Judaism existed among Andalusian conversos, during her stay in Seville between 1477 and 1478.[5] A report, produced at the request of the monarchs by Pedro González de Mendoza, archbishop of Seville, and by the Segovian Dominican Tomás de Torquemada, corroborated this assertion. The monarchs decided to introduce the Inquisition to uncover and do away with false converts, and requested the Pope's assent. On November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV promulgated the bull Exigit sinceras devotionis affectus, establishing the Inquisition in the Kingdom of Castile. The bull gave the monarchs exclusive authority to name the inquisitors. The first two inquisitors, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martín were not named, however, until two years later, on September 27, 1480 in Medina del Campo.

At first, the activity of the Inquisition was limited to the dioceses of Seville and Cordoba, where Alonso de Hojeda had detected converso activity. The first Auto de Fé was celebrated in Seville on February 6, 1481: six people were burned alive. Alonso de Hojeda himself gave the sermon. The Inquisition then grew rapidly. By 1492, tribunals existed in eight Castilian cities: Ávila, Cordoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo, and Valladolid.

Establishing the new Inquisition in the Kingdom of Aragón was more difficult. Ferdinand did not resort to new appointments; he resuscitated the old Pontifical Inquisition, submitting it to his direct control. The population of Aragón was obstinately opposed to the Inquisition. In addition, differences between Ferdinand and Sixtus IV prompted the latter to promulgate a new bull categorically prohibiting the Inquisition's extension to Aragon. In this bull, the Pope unambiguously criticized the procedures of the inquisitorial court, affirming that,

many true and faithful Christians, because of the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves and other low people—and still less appropriate—without tests of any kind, have been locked up in secular prisons, tortured and condemned like relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and properties, and given over to the secular arm to be executed, at great danger to their souls, giving a pernicious example and causing scandal to many.[6]

Pressure by Ferdinand caused the Pope to suspend this bull. October 17, 1483 he promulgated another bull, naming Tomás de Torquemada Inquisidor General of Aragón, Valencia and Catalonia. This made the Inquisition the only institution with authority throughout all the kingdoms of the Spanish monarchy, and, in all of them, a useful mechanism at the service of the crown. The cities of Aragón continued resisting, and even saw periods of revolt, like in Teruel from 1484 to 1485. However, the murder of the inquisidor Pedro Arbués in Zaragoza on September 15, 1485, caused public opinion to turn against the conversos in favor of the Inquisition. In Aragón, the inquisitorial courts focused specifically on members of the powerful converso minority, ending their influence in the Aragonese administration.

Between the years 1480 and 1530, the Inquisition saw a period of intense activity. The exact number of trials and executions is debated. Henry Kamen suggests an approximate number of 2000 executed, based on the documentation of the Autos de Fé. The majority of victims were conversos of Jewish origin.[7]

The Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews

Jews who continued practicing their religion were not persecuted by the Holy Office, but it was suspicious of them because it was thought that they urged conversos to practice their former faith. In the trial at Santo Niño de la Guardia in 1491, two Jews and six conversos were condemned to be burned for practicing a supposedly blasphemous ritual.

On March 31, 1492, scarcely three months after the reconquest concluded with the fall of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella promulgated a decree ordering the expulsion of Jews from all their kingdoms. Jewish subjects were given until July 31, 1492 to choose between accepting baptism and leaving the country. Although they were allowed to take their possessions with them, land-holdings, of course, had to be sold; gold, silver, and coined money were forfeit. The reason given to justify this measure was that the proximity of unconverted Jews served as a reminder of their former faith and seduced many conversos into relapsing and returning to the practice of Judaism.

A delegation of Jews, headed by Isaac Abravanel, offered a large sum in compensation to the monarchs in exchange for revocation of the edict. This offer is believed to have been rejected under pressure of the Inquisitor General. It is said that he burst into the room and threw 30 pieces of silver on the table, asking what would be the price this time to sell Jesus to the Jews.

The number of the Jews that left Spain is not known. Historians give extremely high figures (Juan de Mariana speaks of 800,000 people, and Isaac Abravanel of 300,000). Nevertheless, current estimates significantly reduce this number. Henry Kamen estimates that, of a population of approximately 80,000 Jews, about one half or 40,000 chose emigration.[8] The Spanish Jews emigrated mainly to Portugal (where they were later expelled in 1497) and to Morocco. Much later, the Sefardim, descendants of Spanish Jews, established flourishing communities in many cities of Europe, North Africa, and, mainly, in the Ottoman Empire.

Those who remained enlarged the group of conversos who were the preferred objective of the Inquisition. All the Jews who remained in the Kingdoms of Spain had been baptized, and so continuing to practice Judaism put them at risk of being denounced. Given that during the three months prior to the expulsion there were numerous baptisms—some 40,000 if one accepts the totals given by Kamen—one can logically assume that a large number were not sincere, but were simply the result of necessity to avoid the expulsion decree.

The most intense period of persecution of conversos lasted through 1530. From 1531 through 1560, the percentage of conversos among the Inquisition trials lowered significantly, down to 3 percent of the total. There was a rebirth of persecutions when a group of crypto-Jews was discovered in Quintanar de la Orden in 1588; and the last decade of the sixteenth century saw a rise in denunciations of conversos. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, some conversos who had fled to Portugal began to return to Spain, fleeing the persecution of the Portuguese Inquisition that was founded in 1532. This translated into a rapid increase in the trials of crypto-Jews, among them a number of important financiers. In 1691, during a number of Autos de Fe in Mallorca, 36 chuetas, or conversos of Mallorca, were burned.

During the eighteenth century, the number of conversos accused by the Inquisition dropped significantly. The last trial of a crypto-Jew was of Manuel Santiago Vivar, which took place in Cordoba in 1818.

Repression of Protestants

Conversos saw the 1516 arrival of Charles I, the new king of Spain, as a possible end to the Inquisition, or at least a reduction of its influence. Nevertheless, despite reiterated petitions from Castile and Aragon, the new monarch left the inquisitorial system intact.[9]

During the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers bore the brunt of the Inquisition. Curiously, though, a large percentage of Protestants were of Jewish origin.

The first target were members of a group known as the "alumbrados" of Guadalajara and Valladolid. The trials were long, and ended with prison sentences of different lengths. No executions took place. In the process, the Inquisition picked up on rumors of intellectuals and clerics who, interested in the Erasmian ideas, had allegedly strayed from orthodoxy (which is striking because both Charles I and Philip II of Spain were confessed admirers of Erasmus who had introduced humanist concepts). Juan de Valdés was forced to flee to Italy to escape the Inquisition, while the preacher, Juan de Ávila spent almost a year in prison.

The first trials against Reformation influenced Protestants took place between 1558 and 1562, at the beginning of the reign of Philip II, against two communities of Protestants from the cities of Valladolid and Sevilleas.[10] These trials signaled a notable intensification of Inquisition activities. A number of enormous Autos de Fe were held. Some of these were presided over by members of the royal family, and approximately one hundred people were executed.[11] After 1562 the trials continued but the repression was much reduced. It is estimated that only a dozen Spaniards were burned alive for Lutheranism through the end of the sixteenth century, although some 200 faced trial.[12] The Autos de Fe of the mid-century virtually put an end to Spanish Protestantism which was, throughout, a small phenomenon to begin with.


Spanish painting from the 1400s by Pedro Berruguete showing the miracle of Fanjeaux. According to the Libellus of Jordan of Saxony, the books of the Cathars and those of the Catholics were subjected to trial by fire before Saint Dominic. The Catholic books were rejected three times by the flames.

As one manifestation of the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition worked actively to prevent heretical ideas spreading in Spain by producing "Indexes" of prohibited books. Such lists were common in Europe a decade before the Inquisition published its first. The first Index published in Spain in 1551 was, in reality, a reprinting of the Index published by the University of Louvaine in 1550, with an appendix dedicated to Spanish texts. Subsequent Indexes were published in 1559, 1583, 1612, 1632, and 1640. The Indexes included an enormous number of books of all types, though special attention was dedicated to religious works, and, particularly, vernacular translations of the Bible.

Included in the Indexes were many of the great works of Spanish literature. Also, a number of religious writers who are today considered Saints by the Catholic church saw their works appear in the Indexes. Books in Early Modern Spain faced pre-publication licensing and approval (which could include modification) by both secular and religious authorities. However, once approved and published, the circulating text also faced the possibility of post-hoc censorship by being denounced to the Inquisition, sometimes decades later. Likewise, as Catholic theology evolved, once-prohibited texts might be removed from the Index.

At first, inclusion in the Index meant total prohibition. However, this proved not only impractical and unworkable, but also contrary to the goals of having a literate and well educated clergy. Works with one line of suspect dogma would be entirely prohibited, even if the rest of the text was considered sound. In time, a compromise solution was adopted in which trusted Inquisition officials blotted out words, lines, or whole passages of otherwise acceptable texts. These expurgated editions were then allowed to circulate. Although in theory the Indexes imposed enormous restrictions on the diffusion of culture in Spain, some historians argue that such strict control was impossible in practice and that there was much more liberty in this respect than is often believed. Despite repeated Royal prohibitions, romances of Chivalry such as Amadis of Gaul[13] found their way to the New World with the blessing of the Inquisition. Moreover, with the coming of the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, increasing numbers of licenses to possess and read prohibited texts were granted.

The activities of the Inquisition did not impede the flowering of Spanish literature's "Siglo de Oro" although almost all of its major authors crossed paths with the Holy Office at one point or another.[14]

Among the Spanish authors included in the Index are: Gil Vicente, Bartolomé Torres Naharro, Juan del Enzina, Jorge de Montemayor, Juan de Valdés, and Lope de Vega, as well as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes and the Cancionero General, by Hernando del Castillo. La Celestina, which was not included in the Indexes of the sixteenth century, was expurgated in 1632 and prohibited in its entirety in 1790. Among the non-Spanish authors prohibited were Ovid, Dante, Rabelais, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Jean Bodin, and Tomás Moro. One of the most outstanding cases—and best known—in which the Inquisition directly confronted literary activity is with Fray Luis de Leon, noted humanist and religious writer of converso origin, who was imprisoned for four years, (from 1572 to 1576) for having translated the Song of Songs directly from Hebrew.

The Inquisition and the Moriscos

The Inquisition did not exclusively target Jewish conversos and Protestants. Moriscos (converts from Islam) suffered its rigors as well, although to a lesser degree. The moriscos were concentrated in the recently conquered kingdom of Granada, in Aragon, and in Valencia. Officially, all Muslims in Castile had been converted to Christianity in 1502; those in Aragon and Valencia were obliged to convert by Charles I's decree of 1526.

Many moriscos maintained their religion in secret. In the first half of the century, they were ignored by the Inquisition. Many moriscos were under the jurisdiction of the nobility, so persecution would have been attacking the economic interests of this powerful social class. As a result, the moriscos experienced a different policy, peaceful evangelization, a policy never followed with the Jewish converts.

Nevertheless, in the second half of the century, late in the reign of Philip II, things changed. Between 1568 and 1570 the revolt of the Alpujarras occurred, a revolt that was repressed with unusual harshness. Beginning in 1570, in the tribunals of Zaragoza, Valencia, and Granada, morisco cases became much more abundant. In Aragon and Valencia moriscos formed the majority of the trials of the Inquisition during the same decade. In the tribunal of Granada itself, moriscos represented 82 percent of those accused between 1560 and 1571. [15] Nevertheless, the moriscos did not experience the same harshness as Jewish conversos and Protestants, and the number of capital punishments was proportionally less.

The permanent tension caused by the large population of Spanish moriscos forced the search for a more radical and definitive solution, and on April 4, 1609, during the reign of Philip III, an expulsion order was decreed that would take place in stages, concluding in 1614, and during which hundreds of thousands would leave Spain. Many of those expelled were sincere Christians; all, of course, were baptized and were officially Christians. A small number of peninsular moriscos remained in Spain. During the seventeenth century the Inquisition pursued some trials against them of minor importance: according to Kamen, between 1615 and 1700, cases against moriscos constituted only 9 percent of those judged by the Inquisition.

Other offenses

The Inquisition existed to combat heresy but it was also occupied with a wide variety of offenses only indirectly related to religious heterodoxy. Of a total of 49,092 trials from the period 1560–1700 registered in the archive of the Suprema, appear the following: judaizantes (5,007); moriscos (11,311); Lutherans (3,499); alumbrados (149); superstitions (3,750); heretical propositions (14,319); bigamy (2,790); solicitation (1,241); offenses against the Holy Office of the Inquisition (3,954); miscellaneous (2,575).

This demonstrates that not only New Christians (conversos of Jewish or Islamic descent) and Protestants faced persecution, but also many Old Christians were targeted for various reasons.

The category "superstitions" includes trials related to witchcraft. The witch-hunt in Spain had much less intensity than in other European countries (particularly France, England, and Germany). One remarkable case was the case of Logroño, in which the witches of Zugarramurdi in Navarre were persecuted. During the Auto de Fe that took place in Logroño on November 7 and November 8, 1610, six people were burned and another five burned in effigy, which went down in history as the Basque witch trials.[16] In general, nevertheless, the Inquisition maintained a skeptical attitude towards cases of witchcraft, considering it—in contrast to the Medieval Inquisitions—as a mere superstition without any basis. Alonso de Salazar Frias, who, after the trials of Logroño took the Edict of Faith to various parts of Navarre, a mountainous region inhabited by the Basque people, noted in his report to the Suprema that, "There were no witches nor bewitched in the region after beginning to speak and write about them" [17]

Included under "heretical propositions" were verbal offenses, from outright blasphemy to questionable statements regarding religious beliefs, from issues of sexual morality to behavior of the clergy. Many were brought to trial for affirming that "simple fornication" (sex without the explicit aim of procreation) was not a sin, or for doubting different aspects of Christian faith such as Transubstantiation or the virginity of Mary. Also, members of the clergy were sometimes accused of heresy.

The Inquisition also pursued offenses against morals, at times in open conflict with the jurisdictions of civil tribunals. In particular, there were numerous trials for bigamy, a relatively frequent offense in a society that only permitted divorce under the most extreme circumstances. In the case of men, the penalty was five years in the galley (tantamount to a death sentence). Women too were accused of bigamy. Also, many cases of solicitation during confession were adjudicated, indicating a strict vigilance over the clergy.

Homosexuality and bestiality, considered, according to Canon Law, crimes against nature, were also punished. Homosexuality, known at the time as "sodomy," was punished by death by civil authorities. It fell under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition only in the territories of Aragon, when, in 1524, Clement VII, in a papal brief, granted jurisdiction over sodomy to the Inquisition of Aragon, whether or not it was related to heresy. In Castile, cases of sodomy were not adjudicated, unless related to heresy. The tribunal of Zaragoza distinguished itself for its severity in judging these offenses: between 1571 and 1579 more than 100 men accused of sodomy were processed and at least 36 were executed; in total, between 1570 and 1630 there were 534 trials and 102 executed.[18]

In 1815, Francisco Xavier de Mier y Campillo, the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition and the Bishop of Almería, suppressed Freemasonry and denounced the lodges as “societies which lead to sedition, to independence, and to all errors and crimes.”[19] He then instituted a purge during which Spaniards could be arrested on the charge of being “suspected of Freemasonry.”[19]


Beyond its role in religious affairs, the Inquisition was also an institution at the service of the monarchy. This does not imply, however, that it was absolutely independent of papal authority, since at various points its activities depended on approval from Rome. Although the Inquisitor General, in charge of the Holy Office, was designated by the crown, his selection had to be approved by the Pope. The Inquisitor General was the only public office whose authority stretched to all the kingdoms of Spain (including the American vice-royalties), except for a brief period (1507-1518) during where there were two Inquisitor Generals, one in the kingdom of Castile, and the other in Aragon.

The Inquisitor General presided over the Counsel of the Supreme and General Inquisition (generally abbreviated as "Counsel of the Suprema"), created in 1488, which was made up of six members named directly by the crown (the number of members of the Suprema varied over the course of the Inquisition's history, but it was never more than ten). Over time, the authority of the Suprema grew at the expense of the power of the Inquisitor General.

The Suprema met every morning, save for holidays, and for two hours in the afternoon on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The morning sessions were devoted to questions of faith, while the afternoons were reserved for cases of sodomy, bigamy, and witchcraft.

Below the Suprema were the different tribunals of the Inquisition, which were, in their origins, itinerant, installing themselves where they were necessary to combat heresy, but later being established in fixed locations. In the first phase, numerous tribunals were established, but the period after 1495 saw a marked tendency towards centralization.

In the kingdom of Castile, the following permanent tribunals of the Inquisition were established:

  • 1482 In Seville and in Cordoba.
  • 1485 In Toledo and in Llerena.
  • 1488 In Valladolid and in Murcia.
  • 1489 In Cuenca.
  • 1505 In Las Palmas (Canary Islands).
  • 1512 In Logroño Navarre.
  • 1526 In Granada.
  • 1574 In Santiago de Compostela.

There were only four tribunals in the kingdom of Aragon: Zaragoza and Valencia (1482), Barcelona (1484), and Mallorca (1488).[20] Ferdinand the Catholic also established the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily (1513), housed in Palermo and Sardinia. In Sicily, the Inquisition functioned until March 30, 1782, when it was abolished by king Ferdinand IV. It is estimated that 200 people were executed during this period. In the Americas, tribunals were established in Lima, Peru, and in Mexico City (1569) and, in 1610, in Cartagena de Indias (present day Colombia).

Composition of the tribunals

Initially, each of the tribunals included two inquisitors, a calificador, an alguacil (bailiff) and a fiscal (prosecutor); new positions were added as the institution matured.

The inquisitors were preferably jurists more than theologians, and, in 1608, Philip III even stipulated that all the inquisitors must have a background in law. The inquisitors did not typically remain in the position for long: for the court of Valencia, for example, the average tenure in the position was about two years.[21] Most of the inquisitors belonged to the secular clergy (priests, rather than members of the religious orders), and had a university education. Pay was 60,000 maravedíes at the end of the fifteenth century, and 250,000 maravedíes at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The fiscal was in charge of presenting the accusation, investigating the denunciations and interrogating the witnesses. The calificadores were generally theologians; it fell to them to determine if the defendant's conduct constituted a crime against the faith. Consultants were expert jurists who advised the court in questions of procedure. The court had, in addition, three secretaries: the notario de secuestros (Notary of Property), who registered the goods of the accused at the moment of his detention; the notario del secreto (Notary of the Secreto), who recorded the testimony of the defendant and the witnesses; and the escribano general (General Notary), secretary of the court.

The alguacil was the executive arm of the court: he was responsible for detaining and jailing the defendant. Other civil employees were the nuncio, ordered to spread official notices of the court, and the alcalde, jailer in charge of feeding the prisoners.

In addition to the members of the court, two auxiliary figures existed that collaborated with the Holy Office: the familiares and the comissarios (commissioners). Familiares were lay collaborators of the Inquisition, who had to be permanently at the service of the Holy Office. To become a familiar was considered an honor, since it was a public recognition of limpieza de sangre—old Christian status—and brought with it certain additional privileges. Although many nobles held the position, most of the familiares came from the ranks of commoners. The commissioners, on the other hand, were members of the religious orders who collaborated occasionally with the Holy Office.

One of the most striking aspects of the organization of the Inquisition was its form of financing: the Inquisition depended exclusively on the confiscaciones of the goods of the denounced. Not surprisingly, many of those processed were rich. The situation was open to abuse, as shown in the memorial that a converso from Toledo directed to Charles I:

Your Majesty must provide, before all else, that the expenses of Holy Office do not come from the properties of the condemned, because if that is the case, if they do not burn they do not eat.[22]

Functioning of the inquisition

The Inquisition operated in conformity with Canon Law; its operations were in no way arbitrary. Its procedures were set out in various Instrucciones issued by the successive Inquisitor Generals, Torquemada, Deza, and Valdés.


The first step was the "Edict of Grace." Following the Sunday mass, the Inquisitor would read the edict: it explained possible heresies and encouraged all the congregation to come to the tribunals of the Inquisition to "relieve their consciences." They were called "Edicts of Grace" because all of the self-incriminated who presented themselves within a "period of grace" (approximately one month) were offered the possibility of reconciliation with the Church without severe punishment. This was effective, and many voluntarily presented themselves. Self-incrimination, however, was not sufficient; one also had to accuse all one's accomplices. As a result, the Inquisition had an unending supply of informants. With time, the "Edicts of Grace" were substituted by the "Edicts of Faith," which made no offer of painless reconciliation.

Denunciations were anonymous. Defendants had no way of knowing the identity of their accusers.[23] This was one of the points most criticized by those who opposed the Inquisition (for example, the Cortes of Castile, in 1518). In practice, false denunciations were frequent, resulting from envy or personal resentments. Many denunciations were for absolutely insignificant reasons. The Inquisition stimulated fear and distrust among neighbors, and denunciations among relatives were not uncommon.


After a denunciation, the case was examined by the calificadores, who job was to determine if heresy was involved, followed by detention of the accused. In practice, however, many were detained in preventive custody, and situations of lengthy incarcerations occurred—lasting up to two years—before the calificadores examined the case.[24]

Detention of the accused entailed the "preventive sequestration" of his or her property by the Inquisición. This property paid for procedural expenses, and the accused's own maintenance and costs. Often the relatives of the defendant found themselves in outright misery. This situation was only remedied following instructions written in 1561.

The entire process was undertaken in complete secrecy. The accused were not informed about the accusations levied against them. Months, even years could pass before the accused knew why they were locked up. The prisoners remained isolated, and, during this time, they were not allowed to attend mass nor receive the sacraments. The jails of the Inquisición were not worse than those of civil society, and occasionally they were even much better. Some prisoners died in prison, as was frequent at the time.

The trial

Inquisition torture chamber

The inquisitorial process consisted of a series of hearings, in which both the denouncers and the defendant gave testimony. A defense counsel was assigned to the defendant—a member of the tribunal itself—whose role was simply to advise the defendant and to encourage him or her to speak the truth. The prosecution was directed by the fiscal. Interrogation was done in the presence of the Notary of the Secreto, who meticulously wrote down the words of the accused (the archives of the Inquisition, in relation to those of other judicial systems of the era, are striking in the completeness of their documentation). To defend himself, the accused had two possibilities: abonos (to find favorable witnesses) or tachas (to demonstrate that the witnesses of accusers were not trustworthy).

To interrogate the criminals, the Inquisition used torture, but not in a systematic way. It was applied mainly against those suspected of Judaism and Protestantism, beginning in the sixteenth century. For example, Lea estimates that between 1575 and 1610 the court of Toledo tortured approximately a third of those processed for heresy.[25] In other periods, the proportions varied remarkably. Torture was always a means to obtain the confession of the accused, not a punishment itself. It was applied without distinction of sex or age, including children and the aged.

The methods of torture most used by the Inquisition were garrucha, toca, and the potro. The application of the garrucha, also known as the strappado, consisted of suspending the criminal from the ceiling by a pulley with weights tied to the ankles, with a series of lifts and drops, during which arms and legs suffered violent pulls and were sometimes dislocated.[26] The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had impression of drowning.[27] The potro, the rack, was the instrument of torture used most frequently.[28] The assertion that "confessionem esse veram, non factam vi tormentorum" (the confession was true and free) sometimes follows a description of how, presently after torture ended, the subject freely confessed to his offenses.[29]

Some of the torture methods attributed to the Spanish Inquisition were not used. For example, the "Iron Maiden" never existed in Spain, and was a post-Reformation invention of Germany. Thumbscrews on display in an English museum as Spanish were recently argued to be of English origin. The “Spanish Chair,” a device used to hold the victim while the soles of their feet were roasted, did exist in Spain during the period of the Inquisition but it is uncertain whether it was actually used.

Once the process concluded, the inquisidores met with a representative of the bishop and with the consultores, experts in theology or canon law, which was called the consulta de fe. The case was voted and sentence pronounced, which had to be unanimous. In case of discrepancies, the Suprema had to be informed.


The results of the trial might be:

  1. The defendant could be acquitted. In actual practice, acquittals were very rare.
  2. The process could be suspended, in which the defendant went free, although under suspicion, and with the threat that their process could be continued at any time. Suspension was a form of acquittal without admitting specifically that the accusation had been erroneous.
  3. The defendant could be penanced. Considered guilty, he had to abjure publicly of his crimes (de levi if it was a misdemeanor, and de vehementi if the crime were serious), and condemned to punishment. Among these were the sambenito, exile, fines, or even sentenced to the galleys.
  4. The defendant could be reconciled. In addition to the public ceremony in which the condemned was reconciled with the Catholic Church, more severe punishments existed, among them long sentences to jail or the galleys, and the confiscation of all their property. Also physical punishments existed, such as whipping.
  5. The most serious punishment was relaxation to the secular arm, that implied burning at the stake. This penalty was frequently applied to impenitent heretics and those who had relapsed. Execution was public. If the condemned repented he was garroted before giving his body to the flames. If not, he was burned alive.

Frequently, cases judged in absentia, or in which the accused died before the trial finished, the condemned were burned in efigie.

The distribution of the punishments varied over time. It is believed that sentences of death were frequent mainly in the first stage of the history of the Inquisition.

The Autos de Fe

If the sentence were condemnatory, the condemned had to participate in the ceremony of an auto de fe, that solemnized his return to the Church (in most cases), or punishment as an impenitent heretic. The autos de fe could be private (auto particular) or public (auto publico or auto general).

Initially the public autos did not have any special solemnity or attract large audiences, with time they became solemn ceremonies, celebrated with large public crowds, amidst a festive atmosphere. The auto de fe eventually became a baroque spectacle, with staging meticulously calculated to cause the greatest effect among the spectators.

The autos were conducted in a large public space (in the largest plaza of the city, frequently), generally on holidays. The rituals related to the auto began the previous night (the "procession of the Green Cross") and lasted the whole day sometimes. The auto de fe frequently was taken to the canvas by painters: one of the better known examples is the painting by Francesco Rizzi held by the Prado Museum in Madrid and which represents the auto celebrated in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid on June 30, 1680. The last public auto de fe took place in 1691.

Decadence of the Inquisition

The arrival of the Enlightenment in Spain slowed inquisitorial activity. In the first half of the eighteenth century, 111 were condemned to be burned in person, and 117 in effigy, most of them for judaizing. In the reign of Philip V there were 728 autos de fe, while in the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV only four condemned were burned.

With the "Century of Lights" the Inquisition changed: Enlightenment ideas were the closest threat that had to be fought. The main figures of the Spanish Enlightenment were in favor of the abolition of the Inquisition, and many were processed by the Holy Office, among them Olavide, in 1776; Iriarte, in 1779; and Jovellanos, in 1796.

To survive, the inquisición emphasized its function of censoring publications. Charles III, however, secularized censorship procedures and, on many occasions, the authorization of the Council of Castile overrode a ban by the Inquisition. Since the Inquisition itself was an arm of the State, civil—not ecclesiastical—censorship had priority. This loss of influence can also be explained because the foreign Enlightenment texts entered the Peninsula through prominent members of the nobility or government. Members of the government and the council of Castile, as well as other members close to the court, obtained special authorization for books purchased in France, the Low Countries, or Germany to cross the border without inspection by members of the Holy Office. This practice grew beginning with the reign of Charles III, due to influential people with whom it was very difficult to interfere. Thus, for example, the Encyclopedia entered Spain thanks to special licenses granted by the King.

However, with the coming of the French Revolution, the Council of Castile, fearing that revolutionary ideas would penetrate Spain's borders, decided to reactivate the Holy Office that was directly charged with the persecution of French works.

The fight from within against the Inquisition was almost always clandestine. The first texts to question the inquisitorial role and to praise the ideas of Voltaire or Montesquieu appeared in 1759. After the suspension of pre-publication censorship on the part of the Council of Castile in 1785, the newspaper El Censor began the publication of protests against the activities of the Holy Office by means of a rationalist critique and, even, Valentin de Foronda published Espíritu de los mejores diarios, a plea in favor of freedom of expression that was avidly read in the salons. Also, Manuel de Aguirre, in the same vein, wrote "On Toleration" in El Censor, the El Correo de los Ciegos and El Diario de Madrid.[30]

End of the Inquisition

During the reign of Charles IV and, in spite of the fears that the French Revolution provoked, several events took place that hastened the decline of the Inquisition. In the first place, the state stopped being a mere social organizer and began to worry about the well-being of the public. As a result, it had to consider the land-holding power of the Church, in the señoríos and, more generally, in the accumulated wealth that had prevented social progress.[31] On the other hand, the perennial struggle between the power of the Throne and the power of the Church, inclined more and more to the former, under which Enlightenment thinkers found better protection for their ideas. Manuel Godoy and Antonio Alcala Galiano were openly hostile to an institution whose role had been reduced to censorship and, as the very embodiment of the Spanish Black Legend internationally, was not suitable to the political interests of the moment.

In fact, prohibited works circulated freely in public bookstores of Seville, Salamanca, and Valladolid.

The Inquisition was abolished during the domination of Napoleon and the reign of Joseph I (1808-1812). In 1813, the liberal deputies of the Cortes of Cadiz also obtained its abolition, largely as a result of the Holy Office's condemnation of the popular revolt against French invasion. The Inquisition was reconstituted when Ferdinand VII recovered the throne on July 1 of 1814 but was again abolished during the three-year Liberal interlude known as the Trienio Liberal. Later, during the period known as the Ominous Decade, the Inquisition was not formally re-established,[32] although, de facto, it returned under the so-called Meetings of Faith, tolerated in the dioceses by King Ferdinand. These had the dubious honor of executing the last heretic condemned, the school teacher Cayetano Ripoll, garroted in Valencia July 26 of 1826 (presumably for having taught Deist principles), all amongst a European-wide scandal at the despotic attitude still prevailing in Spain.

The Inquisition was definitively abolished on July 15, 1834, by a Royal Decree signed by regent Maria Cristina de Borbon, during the minority of Isabella II and with the approval of the President of the Cabinet Francisco Martínez de la Rosa. (It is possible that something similar to the Inquisition acted during the first Carlist War, in the zones dominated by the carlists, since one of the government measures praised by Conde de Molina Carlos Maria Isidro de Borbon was the re-implementation of the Inquisition).

Death tolls

Historian Hernando del Pulgar, contemporary of Ferdinand and Isabella, estimated that the Inquisition had burned at the stake 2,000 people and reconciled another 15,000 by 1490 (just one decade after the Inquisition began).[33]

The first quantitative estimates of the number processed and executed by the Spanish Inquisition were offered by Juan Antonio Llorente, who was the general secretary of the Inquisition from 1789 to 1801 and published, in 1822 in Paris his Historia critica de la Inquisición. According to Llorente, over the course of its history, the Inquisition processed a total of 341,021 people, of whom at least ten percent (31,912) were executed. He wrote, "To calculate the number of victims of the Inquisition is the same as demonstrating, in practice, one of the most powerful and effective causes of the depopulation of Spain."[34] The principal modern historian of the Inquisition was an American from Philadelphia, from a Quaker family, Henry Charles Lea (1825 - 1909), author of History of the Inquisition of Spain, Vol 1. (1888) considered that these totals, not based on rigorous statistics, were very exaggerated.

Modern historians have begun to study the documentary records of the Inquisition. The archives of the Suprema, today held by the National Historical Archive of Spain (Archivo Histórico Nacional), conserves the annual relations of all processes between 1560 and 1700. This material provides information about 49,092 judgements, the latter studied by Gustav Henningsen and Jaime Contreras. These authors calculated that only 1.9 percent of those processed were burned at the stake.

The archives of the Suprema only provide information surrounding the processes prior to 1560. To study the processes themselves it is necessary to examine the archives of the local tribunals, however the majority have been lost to the devastation of war, the ravages of time, or other events. Pierre Dedieu studied those of Toledo, where 12,000 were judged for offenses related to heresy.[35] Investigations find that the Inquisition was most active in the period between 1480 and 1530, and that during this period the percentage condemned to death was much more significant than in the years studied by Henningsen and Contreras.

It is likely that the total would be between 3,000 and 5,000 executed. However, it is impossible to determine the precision of this total, owing to the gaps in documentation, and it is unlikely that the exact number will ever be known.

The Spanish "Black Legend"

In the mid-sixteenth century as persecution of Spanish Protestants started, various European Protestant intellectuals began to depict the Inquisition as somehow representative of the true, dark and cruel, nature of the Spanish people. One of the first to write about this theme was the Briton John Foxe (1516-1587), who dedicated an entire chapter of his book The Book of Martyrs to the Spanish Inquisition. Other sources of the black legend of the Inquisition were the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispanicae Artes, authored under the pseudonym of Reginaldus Gonzalvus Montanus (possibly an allusion to German astronomer Regiomontanus), that was probably written by two exiled Spanish Protestants, Casiodoro de Reina and Antonio del Corro. The book saw great success, and was translated into English, French, Dutch, German, and Hungarian and contributed to cementing the negative image that the Inquisition had in Europe. The Dutch and English, political rivals of Spain, also built on the black legend.

Other sources for the black legend of the Inquisition come from Italy. Ferdinand's efforts to export the Spanish Inquisition to Naples provoked many revolts, and even as late as 1547 and 1564 there were anti-Spanish uprisings when it was believed that the Inquisition would be established. In Sicily, where the Inquisition was established, there were also revolts against the activity of the Holy Office, in 1511 and 1516. Many Italian authors of the sixteenth century referred with horror to the actions of the Inquisition.

Inquisition revisionism

The late twentieth century saw the development of a revisionist school of Inquisition history, a controversial field of history whose purported aim is to re-examine the traditional history of the Inquisition.

The two most significant and extensively cited sources of the modern analysis concerning the conflicting narratives over the inquisitorial proceedings are Inquisition (1988) by Edward Peters and The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (1997) by Henry Kamen. These works focus on what their authors consider the exposure and the correction of histories that surround the inquisitions today.

The Spanish Inquisition in the Arts

The Tribunal of the Inquisition as illustrated by Francisco de Goya.

During the seventeenth century, various representations of the auto de fe were produced, like the large oil painted by Francisco Ricci that represents the auto de fe celebrated at the Plaza Mayor of Madrid in 1680. This type of painting emphasized above all the solemnity and spectacle of the autos.

Criticism of the Inquisition is a constant in the work of painter Francisco de Goya, especially in Los Caprichos (The Whims). In this series of engravings, produced at the end of the eighteenth century, various figures penanced by the Inquisition appear, with biting legends underlining the frivolity of the motives in contrast to the criminals' expressions of anguish and desperation. A foreigner who had been judged as a heretic carries the legend "For having been born elsewhere." These engravings brought the painter problems with the Holy Office, and, to avoid trial, Goya presented the original engravings to Charles IV as a gift.

Much later, between 1815 and 1819, Goya painted other canvases about the Inquisition. Most notably Auto de fe de la Inquisición.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ellen Rice, "The Myth of the Spanish Inquistion", first published in Catholic Dossier 2 (6) (Nov-Dec 1996): 16-17. Retrieved September 17, 2023.
  2. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998, ISBN 9780300075229), 17. Kamen cites approximate numbers for Valencia (250) and Barcelona (400), but not solid data about Cordoba.
  3. Notably Bishop Pablo de Santa Maria, author of Scrutinium Scripturarum, Jeronimo de Santa Fe (Hebraomastix) and Pedro de la Caballeria (Zelus Christi contra Judaeos). All three were conversos. (Kamen, 39).
  4. Notably the Libro verde de Aragon and Tizón de la nobleza de España (cited in Kamen, 38).
  5. The meaning of the terms converso and crypto-Jew has attracted debate. Here, converso refers to someone who has sincerely renounced Judaism or Islam and embraced Catholicism. Crypto-Jew refers to someone who accepts baptism yet continues to practice Judaism.
  6. Cited in Kamen, 53.
  7. He offers striking statistics: 91.6 percent of those judged in Valencia between 1484 and 1530 and 99.3 percent of those judged in Barcelona between 1484 and 1505 were of Jewish origin (Kamen, 60).
  8. Kamen, 29-31.
  9. The Cortes of Castile asked the king to reform the inquisitorial process no fewer than four times, in 1518, 1520, 1523, and 1525. The Cortes of Aragon at did so at least once, in 1518 (Kamen, 78-81).
  10. These trials, specifically those of Valladolid, form the basis of the plot of: Miguel Delibes, The Heretic: A novel of the Inquisition (Woodstock, NY: Overlook: 2006, ISBN 9781585675708).
  11. Kamen, 99, gives the figure of about 100 executions between 1559 and 1566. He compares these figures with those condemned to death in other European countries during the same period, concluding that in similar periods England, under Mary Tudor, executed about twice as many for heresy: in France, three times the number, and ten times as many in the Low Countries.
  12. Kamen, 99-100.
  13. Garci Rodriguez De Montalvo, Herbert Behm, and Edwin Place, Amadis of Gaul, Books I and II, rev. ed. (Studies in Romance Languages) (University Press of Kentucky, 2003, ISBN 978-0813190341).
  14. "Siglio de Oro or "century of gold" was a period when Spanish literature and art flourished.
  15. Kamen, 217.
  16. These trials are the theme of the film Akelarre, (1984) by the Spanish director Pedro Olea.
  17. Cited in Kamen, 264.
  18. Kamen, 259.
  19. 19.0 19.1 William R. Denslow and Harry S. Truman, (foreword), 10,000 Famous Freemasons Part I and Part II. Missouri Lodge of Research, (original 1957) (reprint ed. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004, ISBN 1417975792).
  20. Kamen, 141.
  21. Ricardo García Cárcel, Orígenes de la Inquisición Española: El tirbunal de Valencia 1478-1530 (Barcelona: Península, 1980, ISBN 8429712127), 24. (in Spanish).
  22. Cited in Kamen, 151.
  23. Over the course of the trial, their identities often became apparent.
  24. "In the tribunal of Valladolid, in 1699, various suspects (including a girl of 9 and a boy of 14) were jailed up to two years with having had the least evaluation of the accusations presented against them" (Kamen, 180).
  25. H. C. Lea, Vol. III, 33, Cited in Kamen, 185.
  26. Rafael Sabatini, Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition a History (original 1924) (reprint ed. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0766131610), 190.
  27. George Ryley Scott, The History of Torture throughout the Ages (London: Kegan Paul, 2003, ISBN 071030837X), 172.
  28. James Carrol, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2002, ISBN 0618219080), 356.
  29. cited by Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989, ISBN 9780520066304), 65.
  30. The argument presented in the periodicals and other works circulating in Spain were virtually exact copies of the reflections of Montesquieu or Rousseau, translated into Spanish.
  31. Church properties, in general, and those of the Holy Office in particular, occupied large tracts of today's Castile and Leon, Extremadura, and Andalucia. The properties were given under feudal terms to farmers or to localities who used them as community property with many restrictions, owing a part of the rent, generally in cash, to the church.
  32. Historians have different interpretations. One argument is that during the Ominous Decade the Inquisition was re-established, but the Royal Decree that would have abolished the order of the Trienio Liberal was never approved, or at least, never published. The formal abolition under the regency of Maria Cristina was thus nothing more than a ratification of the abolition of 1820.
  33. Cited in Kamen, 62.
  34. Juan Antonio Llorente, Historia Critica de la Inquisicion de Espana. Tomo IV (1822/1826 English translation) (Madrid: Hiperión, 1980, ISBN 9788475170084), 183.
  35. J-P Dedieu, Los cuatro tiempos, in Bartolomé Benassar, Inquisición española: poder político y control social (Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1981, ISBN 9788474231564), 15-39.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Benassar, Bartolomé. Inquisición española: poder político y control social. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1981. ISBN 9788474231564
  • Carrol, James. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2002. ISBN 0618219080
  • Carroll, Warren. Isabel of Spain: the Catholic Queen. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1991. ISBN 9780931888427
  • De Montalvo, Garci Rodriguez, Herbert Behm, and Edwin Place. Amadis of Gaul, Books I and II, rev. ed. (Studies in Romance Languages). University Press of Kentucky, 2003. ISBN 978-0813190341
  • Delibes, Miguel. The Heretic: A novel of the Inquisition. Woodstock, NY: Overlook: 2006. ISBN 9781585675708
  • Denslow, William R. and Harry S. Truman, (foreword). 10,000 Famous Freemasons. Part I and Part II. Missouri Lodge of Research, (original 1957) reprint ed. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004. ISBN 1417975792
  • García Cárcel, Ricardo. Orígenes de la Inquisición Española: El tirbunal de Valencia 1478-1530. Barcelona: Península, 1980. ISBN 8429712127 (in Spanish)
  • Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998 ISBN 9780300075229
  • Lea, Henry Chares Lea. A History of the Inquisition of Spain. (4 volumes), New York and London: Macmillan, (1906–1907), reprinted NY: AMS Press, 1988. ISBN 9780404191597.
  • Llorente, J. A. Historia Critica de la Inquisicion de Espana. Madrid: Hiperión, 1980. ISBN 978-1020578687
  • Netanyahu, Benzion. Toward the Inquisition: Essays on Jewish and Converso History in Late Medieval Spain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780801434105
  • Peters, Edward. Inquisition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989. ISBN 9780520066304
  • Roth, Cecil. The Spanish Inquisition. NY: Norton, (original 1937), reprinted 1996. ISBN 9780393002553
  • Roth, Cecil. History of the Marranos. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, (1932) reprinted New York: Hermon Press, 1974. ISBN 9780872030404
  • Sabatini, Raphael. Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition a History. (original 1924) reprint ed. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0766131610
  • Scott, George Ryley. The History of Torture throughout the Ages. London: Kegan Paul, 2003. ISBN 071030837X
  • Stalcup, Brenda. The Inquisition. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001. ISBN 9780737704860
  • Whitechapel, Simon. Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. London: Creation Books, 2003. ISBN 9781840681055

External links

All links retrieved September 17, 2023.


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