Spanish Inquisition: Meaning, Torture Methods, Deaths, & Shocking Facts

In human history, the Spanish Inquisition occupies a distinct place in terms of the sheer level of brutality that was perpetrated by the Spanish monarchs who were authorized by the Catholic Church to cleanse Europe’s population of heretics.

Initially aimed at Catholics who did not properly follow the beliefs of the Catholic Church, the Spanish Inquisition steadily began to go after non-Catholics. For more than three centuries, ethnic and religious minorities in the various Spanish kingdoms were targeted, resulting in what could only be described as an orchestrated ethnic and religious cleansing. The goal of the political and religious establishment back then was to end the diverse nature of the Spanish kingdoms.

From the 16th century until the end of the inquisition, Spain was known as a devout Catholic territory. As a result, the country was avoided by people who were not of their faith. This affected Spain negatively because it hampered its economic, cultural and technological growth. Spain ultimately became isolated.

It is important to understand what led to the Inquisition, the people involved, and how it affected millions of lives. We should not only gain knowledge but draw lessons to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Meaning of Inquisition

The Catholic Church coined the word “inquisition” from the Latin verb “inquiro”, which means “inquire into”. The Church had set a precedent for inquisitions as far back as the 12th century in France and Italy.

The types of Inquisitions that existed before the Spanish Inquisition

The different types of inquisitions established before the Spanish Inquisition were;

The Medieval Inquisition

This Inquisition was first established in 1184 by the Roman Catholic Church to suppress heresy. It lasted till the 1230s. The target of this inquisition were Catharists (also called the Good Christians) and Waldensians in France and Italy.

What exactly did the Roman Catholic Church consider to be heresy? In the words of Robert of Lincoln, who was the Bishop of Lincoln, heresy was “an opinion chosen by human perception, created by human reason, founded on the Scriptures, contrary to the teachings of the Church, publicly avowed, and obstinately defended”. There were different inquisitions based on the location set up under the Medieval Inquisition such as;

Legatine Inquisitions

The 12th century saw the rise of other religious movements which were direct reaction to the immoral behaviors of priests.

Some of the priests engaged in illegal marriages and also owned considerable amounts of wealth which were against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The Catharist movement grew even more as well as the Waldensians. The legatine inquisition was established by  Pope Gregory IX to root out those movements it deemed heretics.

Papal Inquisition

Due to the “jungle justice” dealt on the alleged heretics in the other inquisitions, the Pope thought it was best to establish a tribunal that would deal with accused heretics in a legal and orderly manner. Thus, in 1231, Pope Gregory IX appointed Papal Inquisitors from various regions in Europe.

The Papal Inquisition was thorough and detailed compared to the Legatine inquisition. The initial aim of the Inquisition was to “inquire into” beliefs that were different from the Catholic doctrines and explain the orthodox doctrines to the alleged heretic to get them to convert.

However, those who refused to convert were handed over to the civil authorities. Heresy back then was a crime punishable by imprisonment and sometimes execution.

But as time went on the Pope lost control of the tribunal and it literally became a witch hunt. It was used by monarchs and religious leaders to maintain the social order, and any movement seen as a threat to their authority was tagged as heresy.

Some of the victims of these political witch hunts were the Knights Templar, a wealthy organization of Catholic knights who had pledged to protect Christians in the holy city of Jerusalem. In time, they had become so powerful that King Philip IV of France was threatened by their influence and sought to end the order. Some members of the Templars were arrested and falsely accused of heresy. They were tortured and sentenced to death in 1314 under the watch of Pope Clement V. Their property and assets were seized and shared in three ways, the Catholic Church, King Philip IV of France, and King Edward II of England.

It was those kinds of Papal inquisitions that ultimately gave rise to the Spanish Inquisition.

What was the Spanish Inquisition?

The Spanish Inquisition is often described by some historians as one of the worst cases of man’s inhumanity to man. This period will always be remembered as a dark part of the history of Spain and the Catholic Church. Image: Inquisition torture chamber. Mémoires Historiques (1716)

Ironically the Spanish Inquisition was established during the reign of Queen Isabella I in 1478 and abolished by Queen Isabella II about three hundred years later.

The Spanish Inquisition was a somewhat judiciary institution set up to curb heresy in the Spanish Catholic Church. However, it was a camouflage for the Spanish monarchy to consolidate power by trying to feed on the fears of the people. That fear had its roots in the growing population of the Jewish community in Spain.

The Catholic monarch feared that the Jews were a threat to their Catholic faith and likewise the throne. As a result, the Church set up the inquisition to identify heretics (targeting mostly the Jews and the Moors) and root them out of the system by forced conversion to Catholicism or expelling or killing the accused heretic.

Reasons for the Spanish Inquisition

Spain in the 15th century had become a melting pot for different cultures and religions. There were Moors (a term used to describe Muslims during the Middle Ages) who had made the Iberian Peninsula their home after their ancestors invaded that region in the early 8th century.

By the middle of the 13th century, the Spanish had retaken the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors and expelled most of the Moors; however a large number remained and formed a huge community in places like Granada.

There was also a large community of Jews that had settled in cities such as Seville, Valladolid, Barcelona, and Juderia. They had all lived together in harmony for centuries.

Catholic monarchs and royal couple Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon used the Inquisition to consolidate their royal power. Image: Catholic monarchs – Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon

Anti-Semitic behavior picked up steam in Europe around the 14th century when England and France expelled their Jewish community for fear they would grow large and take over the important levers of the kingdoms.

Gradually, the anti-Semitic sentiment spread to other parts of Europe, such as Spain and Portugal. After the violent anti-Jews riots that took place in Seville, Córdoba, and all the way to Barcelona, leading to loss of lives, over 200,000 Jews converted to Catholics. Those converts were called conversos, or the “New Catholics”. The conversos were forcibly baptized to exempt them from the restrictions imposed on Jews by the government and Church.

As time went on, the conversos gradually grew and dominated in a lot of areas such as business, trade, and other professions. Subsequently, they became very successful and became the wealthy middle class of Spain. Despite the persecution and conversion of Jews and Moors in large numbers, there were still growing fears that the new converts were practicing Judaism and Islam in secret. The Catholic converts that practiced Judaism in secret were termed as Marranos.

An overzealous priest named Tomás de Torquemada, who had gained the trust of Queen Isabella I, suggested to the monarchs that an inquisition be set up to identify the Jews and Moors who had refused to renounce their religions for good.

Triggered by the success of the Jews and their quest to unite the Spanish kingdom as one kingdom under Roman Catholicism, the Spanish monarch agreed to set up an inquisition in the kingdom.

On November 1, 1478, at the urging of the Catholic monarchs – Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, Pope Sixtus IV signed a papal bull allowing the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition.

The papal bull came towards the latter years of the Reconquista, the period in which the Spanish crown fought to regain territories previously held by Muslim rulers in the Iberian Peninsula.

The Activities of the Inquisition

The tribunal consisted of three members, the Inquisidor General, the secretary, and one other member. The Pope had little to no control over the Spanish Inquisition as it was controlled strictly by the monarchs.

Tomás de Torquemada was appointed Inquisitor General by the Spanish monarchs and approved by the Pope in 1483. The enthusiastic priest quickly set up the proceedings for the tribunal.

Tomás de Torquemada was the first Inquisitor General. He was appointed by the Pope in 1483. Torquemada’s goal was to root out the new Catholic converts who were still practicing their religions in secret.

When the three-man inquisition came into a town, they would announce their presence with a mass and then they would read out the Edict of Grace. This gave a 30-day grace period to heretics to confess and receive punishments ranging from whipping to expulsion. The grace period was also a period when accusations were gathered as friends turned against friends.

Neighbors would spy on their neighbors with the hope of finding evidence that they were heretics. Little things such as the way a person ate would lead to an accusation of heresy. The accusations were made under the cover of anonymity as suspects were not allowed to know their accusers. This encouraged false accusations, stemming from jealousy or petty quarrels. Initially, the inquisition did not target Jews but Christians or conversos (New Christians) who practiced Judaism in secret.

After the accusations were made, the suspect would be investigated by the inquisitors and eventually detained. The accused would remain in detention, sometimes for years, while the inquisitor investigates the accusations.

Most times they were not informed of the reason for their detentions. The inquisitors would hear from relatives of the defendant; and to get information or perhaps the kind of information they wanted, they would resort to torture, intimidation, and threats.

Torture techniques used during the Spanish Inquisition

During the Medieval Inquisition in 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture, and inquisitors were given specific instructions on the kind of torture that would be allowed in the Church against suspected heretics. As a result, it was a widely accepted practice to use torture to obtain a confession from a suspect.

The Spanish Inquisition rammed the tactics and used all forms of torture techniques, from starvation to waterboarding. The inquisitors would cover the crucifix with a veil and then embark on some gruesome tortures. Some other forms of torture used by the inquisitors were:

Strappado: The victim’s hands would be tied at the back and another rope would be tied at the waist. The person would be suspended by the waist. Another name for this form of torture was reverse hanging. This form of torture often led to the dislocation of the shoulders, and could lead to death in extreme cases. As the inquisitors were primarily interested in extracting a confession, they made sure that their victims did not die during the torture process.

Burning at the stake was the harshest form of punishment during the Spanish Inquisition

The Rack: The victim would be laid on a wooden board and the hands and feet would be tied to both ends of the wooden board. Just beside the wooden board is a crank, which would be turned to stretch the ropes tied to the hands and feet of the victim. This would lead to stretching the victim’s limbs and ripping them from the sockets. It would cause excruciating pain as the limbs were pulled out of the sockets.

The inquisitors sometimes used techniques such as mutilation of parts, even though this was forbidden by the Church. They were however allowed to use harsh torture devices until the victim confesses. Subsequently, the inquisitor would also confess to another inquisitor who would clear him of all wrongdoings.

Most times, due to the excruciating nature of the ordeal, the accused would make false confessions just so the torment could end.

Act of Faith (auto-da-fé)

Spanish Inquisition

Auto-da-fé, Plaza Mayor in Lima, Viceroyalty of Peru, 17th century

After getting all the evidence in the trial, the inquisitors would embark on one final ceremony called the Act of Faith (Portuguese: auto-da-fé). This could be called the sentencing of the condemned, and it could be done privately or in the public.

Preparation for this ceremony was planned months ahead and was held when the inquisitors believed they had enough condemned heretics in a particular city. This ritual was usually held in an open space and would include night vigil prayers which would end with a Catholic mass at dawn. After the mass, there would be a breakfast feast.

The prisoners would be paraded in the venue clothed in the ceremonial attire called sanbenito (a symbolic sackcloth worn with a pointy hat). The prisoners wore different colors of the sanbenito, depending on their sentences. Those condemned to death wore black sanbenito, while those who wore yellow were slapped with other forms of punishments.

The ceremony, which in all sense was a public spectacle, usually lasted for several hours. The sentences were read out and those who were condemned to death would be tied to the stake and burned alive.

The accused victims were not the only ones sentenced as their relatives would be stripped of all their properties and left homeless and penniless.

How many people were killed during the Spanish Inquisition?

The very first tribunal sat in Seville in 1481, and six people were found guilty and burnt alive. The first sitting was deemed a success and soon the inquest spread throughout Spain.

It was a very dark time in the history of Spain as well as the Roman Catholic Church. The inquest led to the death of over 32,000 people, many of who were Jews and Muslims all across Spain and its colonies.

Those who were not killed were tortured, and stripped of their place in society as well as their property. The inquest made the Spanish monarch very powerful as they had successfully taken Southern Spain and Granada from the Moors and their dream of a united Catholic Spain was actualized.

After the expulsion of Jews in 1492, the Grand Inquisitor set his eyes on other faiths such as Protestants. The Inquisitors also went after people accused of witchcraft, blasphemy, and members of the Freemasons.

The Spanish Inquisition continued even after the deaths of the instigators Queen Isabella I and Tomás de Torquemada.

Some of the Muslims settled in North Africa after they were expelled from Spain. King Ferdinand II then launched attacks against the regions that took in the fleeing Moors. Those seized towns were made colonies of Spain.

Ferdinand II also set up the inquisition in North Africa in 1511. The persecution of conversos is believed to have continued until 1517.

The inquisition was deemed successful, which led to more inquisitions in Rome and Portugal. It also extended to Mexico in 1570, where thousands of so-called heretics  were tortured and burnt alive in the centuries that followed.

The inquisitors also used the inquest to enrich themselves by seizing lands and properties of the accused people, and by the early 19th century, they soon lost all moral standing. Image: The Inquisition Tribunal as illustrated by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya

How and when did the Spanish Inquisition end?

In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte of France conquered Spain. Three years later, in 1811, the French emperor abolished the Spanish Inquisition. However, the practice reemerged after Napoleon was defeated in 1814.

King Ferdinand VII of Spain re-established the inquisition but it lacked the motivation. Eventually, in July 1834, the inquisition was abolished and signed by the minor Isabella II under the approval of the reagent Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies.

The decrees that saw the expulsion of Jews and Muslims were finally reversed in 1968 under the rule of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco.

The Spanish Inquisition was formally ended during the reign of Queen Isabella II on July 15, 1834.

Effects of the Spanish Inquisition

Prior to the Spanish Inquisition, many of the Spanish Jews were very wealthy and influential members of the community. They belonged to the upper-middle class. As those Jews began to flee the Spanish kingdoms, Spain was deprived off those resources. As result, the kingdom began to lag behind, economically, socially and technologically, to the rest of Europe.

In addition to the economic issues that Spain had to grapple with following the departure of those rich segments of the population, the kingdom suffered scientifically and culturally. As the rest of Europe embraced the Enlightenment period, Spain remained somewhat stagnant. This was because the Inquisition aimed at making Spain religiously and culturally homogenous.

With Spanish monarchy using the Inquisition to keep Church and State united, the Spanish monarchs were able to consolidate their power, becoming absolute monarchs for many centuries.

The victims that were lucky to have survived the inquisitions were left to suffer economic hardships for many years. There was also the issue of severe discrimination against them. Those victims and their families lived in fear and paranoia for many, many years.

Other facts about the history of the Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisitors could extract so many confessions simply because of the sheer pain they inflicted on the accused persons. Often times, the victim would not just confess to what they have been accused of, but they garnish their confessions with enough details simply to please the inquisitor.

Here are some more facts about the Spanish Inquisition:

  • The tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition was made up an arresting constable,  a prosecutor, inquisitors, and a scribe. The grand inquisitor, a member of the clergy, was the one who led the tribunal.
  • In some cases, people voluntarily reported themselves and confessed when the Edict of Grace arrived in their town. By confessing to an offence, the person attracted a softer punishment compared to when the person was accused by another person later on. It was also the case that people were allowed to throw accusations against their neighbors anonymously.
  • It was often the case that the accusations levelled against the accused was vague. In some cases, those accusations could range from not frequently attending mass to doing laundry on a Saturday.
  • In 1492, a royal decree (the Alhambra Decree) gave Spanish Jews two options: exile or forced baptism. As a result, several thousands of Jews were expelled from the kingdom.
  • Burning at the stake, also known as “relaxado en persona”, was usually reserved for heretics that were considered unrepentant or previously forgiven heretics that relapsed. About two thousand people suffered this form of punishment.
  • It’s been estimated that about one-third of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition were tortured.
  • The Spanish Inquisition spread to other areas of the Spanish territories and colonies, especially in the New World, as in the cases of the Mexican Inquisition and the Peruvian Inquisition. It is said that those inquisitions were harsher than the Spanish Inquisitions.
  • The full name of the inquisition was the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (in Spanish: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición).
  • All in all, about 160,000 prosecutions took place from the 15th century to the early part of the 19th century. In that period, between 2,500 and 5,000 people died as a result of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • It’s been estimated that by 1614, more than a quarter of a million Muslims had been expelled from Spain. Many of them from places like Granada, Valencia, and Aragon.
  • There were some Roman Catholics that were accused during the Spanish Inquisition. Most famous among them was Dominican Bartoleme de Carranza, the archbishop of Toledo, who was imprisoned for almost two decades. There was also Saint Ignatius of Loyola (born: Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola), who was arrested for heresy. After enduring unimaginable forms of torture, he was found innocent and released.
  • In 1522, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V tried to introduce the inquisitions in the Low Countries in order to turn the countries into Catholicism. Luckily, Charles’ efforts failed to materialize.

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