Spanish Inquisition

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Goya's depiction of an Inquisition tribunal

The Spanish Inquisition was part of the overthrow of the Islamic conquest of Spain, and the restoration of Spain to Christianity. Non-Christians, particularly Muslims but also adherents to other religions, such as Judaism, were given the choice to leave the nation or convert to Christianity. Founded by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain, and authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478, the Spanish Inquisition examined challenges to the genuineness of claims of conversion to Christianity. It was primarily a political tribunal attempting to eradicate all remnants of sympathy with the Moorish dominance in Spain that occurred from 711 until 1492, when the expulsion was complete.

Restoration of a country to Christianity is an abomination to Leftists, who refer derisively to the Spanish Inquisition and exaggerate its excesses. Yet liberals typically welcome Islamic conquest over Christianity, which typically entails far more violence and injustice.

Today the term "Spanish Inquisition" is used to refer to an overly intrusive and oppressive official investigation.


Since the 13th century Spain had been divided into 3 distinct regions:

An Inquisition had existed in Aragón since 1232, when Pope Gregory IX had issued the Papal Bull Declinante, although Castile had never had an Inquisition and Granada was an independent Islamic stronghold. In 1474 Isabella succeeded to the throne of Castile and her husband Ferdinand to that of Aragón in 1479. They made a political decision to force religious conformity across all three regions, and the enforced conversion of the Jewish and Muslim population were crucial to their aim.

Spanish Jews had been persecuted since the 7th century, but the persecution reached new heights in the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1235 Jews were forced to wear a yellow circular patch for easier identification. In 1391 massacres of Jewish communities began, in Majorca, Aragón and Seville (where at least 4000 were killed).[1] Tens of thousands of Jews converted to Christianity to escape death, but the sincerity of these conversos was questioned. Ferdinand and Isabella, along with the rest of the ruling elite believed that the Jews and the conversos posed a genuine threat to their power and saw a full Inquisition as a means of reasserting the predominance of the aristocracy. The Jews who did not become conversos, were forced to leave Spain. This expulsion, in the main, took place in 1492, the year that Columbus, financed in part by confiscated Jewish wealth, discovered America. They fled mainly to the countries around the Mediterraenean - North Africa, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, as well as to Holland. From Holland, they went to the Americas. They are called Sephardic Jews, as they continued speaking the language of Spain, Spain being called in the Hebrew language, Sepharad.

Tomás de Torquemada

Isabella first established the Consejo de la Suprema y general Inquisición in 1483, designed primarily to operate within the Kingdom of Castile. It was headed by the newly appointed Inquisitor-General, Fray Tomás de Torquemada. Torquemada was a Dominican Friar and confessor to Isabella. On 17 October 1483 Sixtus IV appointed Torquemada as Papal Inquisitor-General for Aragón, Valencia and Catalonia, with permanent standing tribunals in Saragoza, Barcelona and Valencia. This was the first organization in Spanish history that possessed equal powers throughout the entire country.


After 9 years of warfare, Granada finally fell to the Spanish in January 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella set up their royal house in the Alhambra, by joining the palace of Comares (the official throne of the Sultans of Granada) with their own Palace of the Lions. This ended several centuries of Islamic rule in southern and western Spain. Their finances bolstered by the conquest, the King and Queen no longer needed the financial support of the Jewish businesses in Spain, and on 31 March they issued the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of all Jews from Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31, 1492, unless they converted to Roman Catholicism. About 400,000 left before the allotted date, losing their livelihoods and being forced to pay exorbitant taxes as they departed. (This Jewish money helped fund Columbus's voyage to America, which departed on 3 August 1492.) Around 50,000 Jews chose to convert and remain in Spain.

The Suprema

Ferdinand and Isabella had divided the administration of Spain into 5 Councils:

  • the Council of State
  • the Council of Finance
  • the Council of Castile
  • the Council of Aragón
  • the Council of the Inquisition - more commonly known as the Suprema [2]

The Suprema was controlled and organized by the Office of the Inquisitor-General, and Torquemada put great efforts into the role. He created the first set of rules, the Instrucciónes Antiguas, in 1484 on the basis of his own experience, with additions in 1485, 1488 and 1498.[3] New tribunals were established - by 1520 there were 22 temporary tribunals, plus twelve permanent tribunals in Castile and four in Aragón. Each had a large staff and two Inquisitors. The Inquisitors were required to be "masters of theology" and at least 40 years of age (although later the age limit was dropped to 30.) Additionally, each tribunal also employed:

  • an alguazil (a "constable" responsible for arrests)
  • several calificadores (assessors of evidence)
  • a fiscal (prosecutor)
  • gaolers
  • chaplains
  • clerks
  • notaries
  • "familiars"

The tribunals were overseen by visitadores ("travelling inspectors") who reported to the Suprema. The "familiars" were the spies and informers of the Inquisition. These posts could be bought and sold and were often hereditary. Their number was vast - in the 16th century there were 805 in Toledo, 805 in Granada and 1,009 in Santiago.


When targeted by the Inquisition, a particular village or locale would receive notice from the familiars of a "period of grace" - heretics were urged to come forward or denounce others known to them. This remained the basic method of locating suspected heretics. Suspects could be denounced for activities as varied as "smiling at the mention of the Virgin Mary, eating meat on a day of abstinence, or non-heretical offences such as urinating against a church wall or assertions to a man's wife that he did not believe fornication was a sin."[4] Many people denounced themselves for fear that a friend or neighbour would do so anyway, and such fears, counter-accusations and chain reactions of denounciations within small communities vastly increased the terror of the Inquisition.

Arrest and imprisonment

The calificadores were required to make an assessment of the evidence before a suspect was arrested, although in practice this was only carried out when there were complex theological matters involved. In straight forward cases of Judaism or relapsed Islamic or Jewish converts, this stage was eliminated. Arrest followed swiftly, at any time of day or night, and the alguazil was accompanied by a notary who made an exhaustive inventory of the belongings of the suspect should the sentence involve confiscation. The suspect was then taken to one of the permanent Inquisition prisons, or casa di penitencia, which propaganda and legend have made seem much worse than they really were. There are many recorded incidents of prisoners who sought transfer to an Inquisition prison from the ordinary gaols, even going so far as to denounce themselves as heretics. However, the prisons used for suspects during interrogation, the cárceles secretas, were far worse to assist in the psychological break down of suspects.


A clear picture of their activities can be seen in this account:

"The depositions of the witnesses are shown to the defendant, with names of witnesses suppressed. Everything is read distorted and contorted - with so many obscurities and circumlocutions and with the wording so vague, as to seem the language of any creature other than a rational being. In the deposition formulas specially noticeable are the holy wiles: when they say "He heard from a certain person whom he has named," it is to be understood that it is the defendant himself from whom he heard it! When the prisoner has answered as well as he can, his advocate opportunely appears. In the presence of the Inquisitors he indicates to the prisoner the evidence by which he is hardest pressed, and the one remedy left - a shrewd guess at his assailant, with a view to consideration of possible exceptions against him; he advises him to try, for some days, to recall to memory those with whom he may chance to have had feud - because, if enmity can be established through legitimate investigation, this one exception will repel any man from giving evidence in this tribunal; he warns him that he can deny evidence that is not sufficiently consistent. This is the utmost assistance which a prisoner can expect from his advocate; and thus he is bidden back to his prison. Three or four days later he is called to audience, and is asked if he can remember and explain anything - the advocate inquiring if he has made any guess at the witnesses. Prisoner brings forward what he can remember - begging them to see whether by chance his delators are among these. If he has not guessed correctly, not only is his reply wasted, but also the three or four days trouble of guessing - and the accusation remains unshaken. But should it chance that he guesses right, the advocate asks him what exceptions he can use against the persons named by him. The exceptions set forth, and the witnesses named by whom defendant will prove them, after prisoner has been allowed to repose for some months in his prison they summon him again to the contest; and the Inquisitor tells him that the witnesses named by him have been heard - so that he should see whether he has anything to say for himself, or whether he wishes to conclude. Defendant concluding, the Fiscal also concludes; and afterwards the Inquisitors, with the assessors and the consultors, pass sentence - when the theologians, monks and clerks have weighed whatever defendant has said bearing on doctrine and the Faith. The marks of their more than leoine claws are confiscation of property, perpetual or temporary imprisonment, a mud-colored garment commonly called sambenito, perpetual infamy to all posperity."[5]

The main features of inquisitorial procedure are evident - secrecy of witnesses, the "holy wiles" of the Inquisitors, and the "guessing game" nature of the tribunal's interrogation. The importance of an existing "feud" reinforces the idea advanced by Kieckhefer[6] for witchcraft and Kamen[7] for the Spanish Inquisition that spiteful gossip and revenge were the main causes of suffering under the Inquisition. It is evident that anti-Spanish propaganda, both in England and in Rome in the late 16th century, gave a much exaggerated picture of the workings of the Spanish inquisition, but although "in some respects we can modify the picture of a cruel and merciless Inquisition, what cannot be explained away is the atmosphere that prevailed prior to arrest and condemnation."[8] This atmosphere of secrecy was prolonged throughout the trial and also the process of torture.

An anonymous English writer of the time backs up the above account and demonstrates further how secrecy was used to instill fear:

"But if the accused doe not sufficientlie justifie himself, he is condemned to torture. And with his Curate he is constrained to goe, through a place verie hidious, to a room underground, where he findeth the Judges set. There is ye Executioner, covered with a long black linen robe verie straight like a sacke, having his head and face covered with a blacke hoode having but two holes before his eyes - this done to amaze the Patient, as if a devill came to punish his Misdeeds. If he confesse nothing, they sometimes martyre him more than two houres."[9]

The interrogation in the tribunal chamber might also be cut abruptly short by the fiscal, saying that, in spite of his continued advice to tell the truth he felt that the prisoner was being reticent and that he would therefore ask that the prisoner be "questioned" - that is, tortured. Llorente describes that prisoners spent the entire trial in anxious expectation of the fiscal making this request. This further underlines the extent to which secrecy and fear were the main weapons of the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps even more than the torture itself.[10]


Torture by garrucha

The modern concept of the inquisition torture-chamber as a place of deviously refined cruelty is "an error due to sensationalist writers who have exploited credulity."[11] The historian Henry Charles Lea estimated that between 1575 and 1610 only around 32% of those prisoners whose offenses made them liable for torture were actually tortured.

Moreover, the use of torture was a common part of legal procedure throughout Europe at the time, to promote truthful testimony by witnesses. It was the medieval approach to discouraging perjury, and not invented by or limited to the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition's use of torture was subject to strict rules laid down long before by Clement V - but these were usually bent. For example, a prisoner could only be tortured once, so the Inquisitor would state clearly at the end of session that torture was being "suspended", not ended, so that the records would show the continuation of a single application of torture rather than a second session.

Torture was applied by a public executioner in the presence of an Inquisitor, a representative of the local bishop, and usually a doctor. Few victims appear to have died under torture, and cases of permanent injury or loss of a limb were, comparatively, rare. The three most common methods were the garrucha, similar to the strappado; the toca, or ordeal of water; and the potro, a form of the rack. The use and number of torture implements was much smaller than is imagined, and usually a free confession in the chamber was sufficient to avoid torture altogether.

While there are examples of prisoners being mutilated, losing toes and fingers and having limbs broken, it appears that merely the sight of the instruments in the chamber were enough to produce confession. Only the most obstinate prisoners received the full application of torture. Torture was also used fully against witnesses who gave contradicting testimony or retracted accusations they had made earlier.

Sentence and Auto de Fe

Engraving of an auto de fe in Spain (1559)

As the arrest took place after assessment of the evidence, the prisoner was effectively found guilty at the instant of his arrest. Interrogation served not to prove guilt or innocence, merely to obtain a confession, after which penance could be assigned. Kept in ignorance of the precise charge and so unable to formulate a plausible defence, the prisoner was advised "to search his conscience, confess the truth, and trust to the mercy of the tribunal."[12] Theoretically this could last for months, even years, before finally the prisoner was informed of the charges. There were defence lawyers available, known as abogados de los presos, but as they were themselves full-time officials of the Inquisition, they were particularly ineffective and distrusted by prisoners.

Eventually, sentence would be pronounced. A jury called the consulta de fe was convened, consisting of the Inquisitors, a representative of the bishop, and occasionally experts in theology and law. Difficult decisions were made by the Suprema itself. The condemned heretic would then appear in an auto de fe, to hear sentence. if heard in private, for lighter offences, this was an auto particular; the public form was the auto publica. Punishments included:

  • Sanbenito
  • Confiscation of goods
  • Imprisonment
  • Exile from the locality
  • Scourging
  • Galley slavery
  • Reprimand
  • Acquittal
  • Relaxation in person
  • Relaxation in effigy

Sanbenito was to wear a yellow-crossed garment as a sign of infamy. Sentencing to the galleys could be for a period up to 10 years or more. Scourging consisted of a public whipping through the streets, either on foot or on a donkey; the usual number was 100 lashes, up to a maximum of 200.

The ultimate penalty was "Relaxation" - a misleading term which actually means "burning at the stake". Heretics who had either died in confinement or escaped justice were "relaxed in effigy", while the less fortunate were handed to the secular authorities for execution. This sentence was reserved for unrepentant or relapsed heretics, and the Inquisitors would attempt until the last moment to get a confession, saving the prisoners life. Even a confession as late as at the auto de fe would earn the benefit of death by strangulation prior to the stake; those who still did not confess were burned alive.

An eye-witness account of an auto de fe describes the spectacle:

"In the great square was raised a high scaffold; and thither, from 7 in the morning until the evening, were brought criminals of both sexes, all the Inquisitions in the kingdom sending their prisoners [here]. Twenty men and women out of these prisoners [in this instance, Protestants], with one renegade [Muslim], were ordered to be burned. Fifty Jews and Jewesses, having never before been imprisoned, were sentenced to a long [imprisonment] and to wear a yellow cap; and ten others, indicted for bigamy, witchcraft and other crimes, were sentenced to be whipped and then sent to the galleys... The grand inquisitor's chair was placed in a sort of tribunal far above that of the king. The nobles here acted the part of the sheriff's officers in England, leading such criminals as were to be burned; the rest were conducted by the familiars of the Inquisition.

The stakes... are about [12 feet] high, and each have a small board, whereon the prisoner is sat within a foot of the top. The [condemned] go up a ladder betwixt two priests, who attend them the whole day of execution. When they come even with the aforementioned board, they turn about to the people and the priests spend nearly [15 minutes] in exhorting them to be reconciled to the see of Rome. On their refusing the priests come down, and the executioner ascending, turns the [prisoner] off the ladder on to the seat, chains them to the stake, and leaves them. Then the priests go up a second time to renew their exhortations; and if they find them ineffectual, tell them at their parting that "they leave them to the Devil, who is standing at their elbow ready to receive their souls, and carry them with him into the flames of hell-fire, as soon as they are out of their bodies." A general shout is then raised, and when the priests get off the ladder, the universal cry is:"Let the dog's beards be made!" which means, singe their beards. This is performed by means of flaming furzes, thrust against their faces with long poles. This barbarity is repeated till their faces are burnt. Fire is then set to the furzes, and the criminals are consumed.

The intrepidity of the 21 men and women in suffering the horrid death was truly astonishing; some thrust their hands and feet into the flames with most dauntless fortitude; and all of them yielded to their fate with such resolution that many of the amazed spectators lamented that such heroic souls had not been more enlightened.[13]

See also


Burning at the stake, Biblical pretext for


  1. Kamen, Henry, The Spanish Inquisition, New York: New American Library (1965).
  2. Turberville, A.S.,Medieval Heresy and the Inquisition, London: Crosby, Lockwood and Son (1920).
  3. Turberville, op cit.; Kamen, op cit.
  4. Kamen, op cit.
  5. Turberville, op cit.
  6. Kieckhefer, Richard, European Witch Trials: Their Foundation in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500, (1976)
  7. Kamen, op cit.
  8. Kamen, op cit.
  9. The Manner of the Spanish Inquisition, Ms Tanner 99, Bodleian Library
  10. Llorente, D. Jean-Antoine, Histoire Critique de l'Inquisition d'Espagne. Paris: Treuttel et Wurtz (1818)
  11. Henry Charles Lea, quoted in Kamen, op cit.
  12. Kamen, op cit.
  13. The account of William Lithgow, quoted in Scott, George Ryley The History of Torture Throughout the Ages, London: Torchstream Books (1949)