… Misery loves company…

The Spanish Inquisition

It was 1478, and the Catholic sovereigns Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were determined to have a united country.

They did not believe this noble ambition could be achieved unless all their subjects accepted one religion, which they were determined to bring about through persuasion, if possible, and if not, by force.

Spain was on the verge of becoming one of the wealthiest nations of the period. Arguably, a  large part of this was due to the Jewish community. Despite their significant contributions to Spain’s wealth at that time, the Jewish community dealt with considerable pressure to profess belief in Christianity in order to free themselves from widespread persecution. Many did confess their conversion, with those who did so being referred to as conversos. Reports surfaced of heresy among the conversos, thus fueling unease among the Spanish Church hierarchy. They wrung their hands in worry over the sincerity of the swelling ranks of converts.

Meanwhile, a contingent  pf Jews and conversos set about celebrating the Jewish Passover, albeit secretly. Unfortunately, a cavalier suitor of a Jewish girl had come calling, happening upon the decidedly Jewish “mysterious celebration”. Word of this secret event spread quickly. The timing couldn’t have been worse in that particular religious climate;  the Catholic Church was actively celebrating Holy Week. Reacting badly to the news, Pope Sixtus authorized the Spanish Crown to instigate an Inquisition to investigate this blaspheme. The Crown, rather than the Catholic Church,  would appoint the bishops assigned to complete the Inquisition. Their assignment was to to ‘purify the nation of heretics’. One of the first (and more notorious) Inquisitors was Tomás de Torquemada, Inquisitor General of Castile and Aragón. Torquemada was charged with the centralization of the Spanish Inquisition, and soon proved himself to be pragmatic,  committed and feared in his work as Inquisitor General.

The Spanish Inquisition was particularly terrifying because of its inherent characteristics. Soon no Spaniard could feel safe; even St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Theresa of Ávila were investigated for heresy. The censorship policy went so far as to condemn books approved by the Holy See. The situation went from bad to worse. The Spanish Inquisition was much harsher, more highly organized, and far freer with the death penalty than the medieval Inquisition; its autos-da-fé became notorious. The accused never knew who their accusers were, and once arrested, accused heretic’s properties were seized. Properties  appropriated were initially administered by the Crown, and later managed by the General Inquisitor. This particular scenario opened the door to accusations stemming from personal reasons or to gain wealth, property.

It was soon clear the Inquisition was not limited to ‘purifying’ only those of the Jewish faith. Even if the accused was the model of a devout Christian, he/ she was tried severely on account of his familial roots, or ancestry. Those accused were forfeit a lawyer or counsel for their defense.

Punishments and torture are forever linked to the Spanish Inquisition. The trials , deemed to be for spiritual matters, were administered by the Church. Be that as it may,  punishment tended to be a very physical affair, so punishment and torture to acquire confessions of the accused were were handled by the (more secular) state.

Neither the young nor the old were safe from the Inquisition with torture beset upon both young and old to extract confessions and the names of accomplices.  The young and the old were thought to provide a more ‘pure’ confession. Showing characteristic benevolence reflective of the times, the church would recommend mercy on condition that if proven guilty, the accused  may be punished by death. If the guilty evaded death by auto-de-fe, and instead were sentenced to merely perish in the prisons, neither they nor their families were past the worst of it. Their dead bodies, along with effigies of those that had eluded the tribunals and escaped to distant lands would be taken, along with the remaining living, and burned. Whatever lands owned by these people would be confiscated, if not already.

The Spanish government tried to establish the Inquisition in all its dominions; but in the Spanish Netherlands the local officials did not cooperate, and the inquisitors were summarily chased out of Naples in 1510, apparently with the pope’s connivance. The Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished in 1834.

The Spanish Inquisition was extremely well documented, with literally tens of thousands of pages of reports, confessions, property seizures, auto de fe’s and tribunal records.  Among this pile of paperwork, the numbers of the deceased have emerged. According to researchers, approximately 323,362 thousand people were burned alive, and  an additional 17,659 were reportedly burnt in  effigy. Apparently, the greatest number of those poor souls were of Jewish ancestry.

The Spanish Inquisition was intended to purity the Catholic faith, Spain, and it’s people. Although this may have come about may have come about with noble intent,  the aristocracy of the period would certainly have reason to perpetuate the Inquisition through the seizure of property and possessions.


See E. M. Peters, Torture (1985) and Inquisition (1988). For the Spanish Inquisition, see studies by A. S. Tuberville (1932, repr. 1968), C. Roth (1938, repr. 1964), R. E. Greenleaf (1969), P. J. Hauber (1969), H. A. F. Kamen (1965 and 1998), and E. Peters (1989).