Spanish Inquisition 2/3

Coat of arms of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition

Spanish Inquisition began to run relatively late. As you will read in this article, in some parts it differed from the Episcopal and the Papal Inquisition. In addition, she had a lot more hypocritical and sinister effect in their terror. But before that, I need to explain the position of Spain and the circumstances in which the Inquisition was created.

During the 13th century, Spain was not a united state. Most of the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslim powers, while the Christian part divided between several autonomous kingdoms, not always friendly.
Aragon was the first Christian kingdom on the peninsula in which the Inquisition was founded in 1238. In other areas (Castile, Leon and Portugal) the Inquisition appeared in 1376.

Inquisition as a matter of state

Isabella sat in a Castilian throne in 1474, and her husband Ferdinand became king of Aragon 1479. From that moment they rule together in the united kingdom.

One of the major decisions of the royal couple was that of establishing its own inquisition to clean the Spanish territory of Islamism, Judaism, paganism and Christian heresy. This policy in the form of the Inquisition, which resembles a policy of ethnic cleansing, was established in 1478. Unlike other Inquisitions, this was not a means of papacy, but responsible to Isabel and Ferdinand.

Isabela I of Castile
Luis de Madrazo: Isabela I of Castile
Their form of ruling was some kind of theocracy where Church and State have collaborated closely, which meant that the Inquisition belonged to the state as well as it belonged to Church. So it acted as a means of royal politics. This is best confirmed by Ferdinand's statement to Aragon inquisitors:

“Even though you, like the others, enjoy the title of the Inquisitor, remember that we have nominated you, the queen and I, and that without our support you are almost helpless.”

Terror begins

On the November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV issued a bullet that created a unique Spanish Inquisition. The right of appointment and dismissal of Inquisitors had monarchs. Thus Ferdinand and Isabella in 1480 appointed two Dominican inquisitors that operated in the south, the territory of which was in the hands of the Moorish kingdom of Granada.

The first auto da fe was performed on February 6, 1481, when six people were burnt. In Seville, 288 people died at the stake, and 79 were convicted of life imprisonment. In February next year the Pope has allowed the appointment of seven Dominican inquisitors. He probably regretted it because one of them was Tomas de Torquemada, the cruelest inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, and possibly of the whole Inquisition at all.

The Inquisition continued to grow: in 1485 inquisitorial courts were established on four locations, and by 1492 they operated in eight major cities.

But a few months after the nomination of Torquemada, complaints from Spanish bishops came to light. This prompted the pope to issue a Bull in which he expressed his discontent and consternation:

“... Many true and religious Christians, based on the testimony of enemies, rivals and slaves, with no valid evidence are thrown into secular prisons, where they were subjected to torture. They have been deprived of their goods and possessions, and are devoted to the secular hands to be executed, which in many causes anger. (...) The Inquisition is not driven by the thoroughness of faith and desire for the salvation of souls, rather than a desire for wealth. “

The pope took the power away from Inquisition and demanded that the inquisitors be placed under the supervision of local bishops.

Ferdinand II of Aragon
Michael Sittow: Ferdinand II of Aragon
It angered Ferdinand, who threatened:

“So, do not push this thing further, but entrust us to solving those questions.”

The Pope has given up and on October 17, 1483 released a new Bull in which he established a Council of the Supreme and General Inquisition, which had a role of inquisition supreme authority. La Suprema, a new service of the main inquisitor was founded, whose first leader was Tomas de Torquemada until his death in 1498.

Tomas de Torquemada

All this has meant putting inquisition courts in Spain under the jurisdiction of the centralized administration with Torquemada on forefront. He almost had the same power and influence Ferdinand and Isabella had. In the opinion of one historian Torquemada developed institution of the Inquisition “tirelessly and persistently, filled with relentless zeal and cruel fanaticism.”

Here are some interesting facts about Torquemada:

  •          rejected the offered Sevilian diocese
  •          he always wore a Dominican uniform, never the luxurious one
  •          was convinced vegetarian
  •          he had a huge fortune
  •          stayed in luxurious palaces
  •          he traveled accompanied by 50 horsemen and 250 armed foot soldiers

Tomas de Torquemada
Tomas de Torquemada

He was also paranoid. While dining, he always had a “unicorn horn”, a talisman supposed to protect him from poison. It is not known how it worked.

One of the best Machiavellian of his time, Torquemada had the skills of an excellent psychologist, and in diplomacy he used shrewdness. The results of his work are best displayed in numbers:

  • On February 23, 1484, 30 victims were burnt alive in Ciudad Real

  • 1485-1501 in Toledo burned 250 people

  • 1491 in Barcelona executed 3, and 220 in absentia were sentenced to death

  • 1492 in Valladolid, 32 victims were killed at the same time

Of course, there have been more atrocities, but for them one article is not nearly enough. And death was not only thing at stake. One year after Torquemada’s death, inquisitor of Cordoba was charged with extortion and fraud, and his successor continued the line. He was arresting rich people, even members of pious Christian families, to plunder their possessions.

Who were the conversos?

Methodologies, techniques and procedures of the Spanish Inquisition were made following the example of its medieval precursor. But the main distinction, as I have previously noted, was the direct responsibility: the Spanish version of the Inquisition was under the Spanish crown, and the Episcopal and papal under the Pope.

Another special feature characterized the Inquisition on the Iberian Peninsula: the main aim of the Spanish Inquisition was the Jewish population. As we already know from the first article of this series, in France and Italy, the victims were Christian heretics: Cathars, Waldensians, little brothers and alleged heretics, such as the Templar Knights.

Auto da fe of the Spanish Inquisition
Auto da fe of the Spanish Inquisition, wood engraving by Bocort
Source: CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0,

According to the authors of the book Inquisition, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, the Spanish Inquisition was precedent of Nazism pathology of the 20th century by perseverance and systematic action. To understand this, we have to reach out again to the circumstances and context.

In the mid-14th century in Castile civil war broke out. As usual, both sides sought a scapegoat. This time they were Jews. The Jewish society in Spain was numerous thanks to the tolerance of earlier Islamic rulers.

Persecutions of the Jews began. Climax of violence was in 1391 when hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jews were killed. Therefore, it is no wonder many Jewish families have renounced their faith and converted to Christianity. These converts were called conversos. No one harbored the illusion they were true converts; it was assumed they continued to practice their faith in secret. There were further those who practiced Christianity as bad as they practiced Judaism.

Nevertheless, conversos were constant targets of anti-Semitic oriented population. Many have gained wealth and were prominent and influential people in high positions in the royal and civic administration, even in the Church. Even families of conversos dominated city governments. Here is a more detailed insight into who's been conversos:

  • 1390. Rabbi of Burgos accepted Catholicism, became a bishop, the papal delegate and the prince's tutor
  • treasurer of King Ferdinand
  • at the head of the five largest royal administrative services were Conversos
  • four bishops in Castilla
  • official court chronicler
  • three secretaries of Queen Isabella
  • one of Torquemada’s uncles

Their status of prominent rich man awoke jealousy and anger so Inquisition prosecutions promptly found them.

The burning of a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist, Anneken Hendriks, who was charged with heresy
The burning of a 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist,
Anneken Hendriks, who was charged with heresy
But, the Inquisition was dealing with heretics, or Christians who have drifted away from orthodoxy. Over other religions, Judaism and Islam did not have any powers. This meant that a large number of the population was out of inquisitorial control.

But, when someone truly wants it, finds the way to get it. The Inquisition first struck at judaizers, Conversos who were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism or returning baptized Jews back to Judaism. As this heresy could apply to all Jews, it was difficult to gather or invent evidence for the Inquisition.

To expel or not to expel?

A kind of salvation for the Inquisition was a preacher Alonso de Espina. He hated Jews and conversos, and with the support of the masses, he called for the eradication of Jews from Spain.

The Inquisition took advantage of his program and began its anti-Semitic propaganda. The techniques 450 years later will apply Joseph Goebbels were used. Constantly repeated the incredible accusations that had taken root in the consciousness of the people, were taken as true. 

Using anti-Semitism as something that has affected almost the entire nation, the Inquisition proposed directly to the king and queen to deport all the Jews from Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella knew of the dangers it entails: the persecution of Jews and conversos would have devastating effects on the economic power of the country. But equally, they could not go against the enormous pressure of the Inquisition and the general atmosphere that was created.

Thus on 1 January 1483 monarchs issued a proclamation that all Jews from Andalusia would be expelled. May 12, 1486 it passes.

Since the monarchy needed the money for a civil war against the Muslims, complete persecution of Jews was postponed. In fact, there is evidence of a secret agreement between Torquemada and the Spanish crown by which the Jews in certain areas were spared of prosecution, as long as the monarchy needed their money, or until they win the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition
The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition.
Source: CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0
Final persecution

This was followed by an introduction to the final persecution of Jews that started with the big fraud, known as the “Holy Child of La Guardia.” On November 14, 1491 five Jews and six conversos were burned at the stake for allegedly deceiving communion wafers and ritual murder of a child. Earlier, the Jews were accused of this awful act, but no missing child was found in this case, and there were no remains where the child was allegedly buried. The inquisitorial services proclaimed it all over the country, adding fuel to the fire of the already overwhelming anti-Semitic mood of citizens.

Two weeks after Granada, the last Muslim enclave, capitulated, and in March next year by the royal edict was ordered all the Jews in Spain have to convert or leave the country.

The final figures support the fact that the Jews and conversos were more important target than heretics even before the final prosecution. Of the victims who are destined between 1488 and 1505 99.3% were Jews or Conversos. From1484 til 1530 91.6% of the victims in Valencia comprised Jews and conversos.

The end is near

Spain Inquisition continued to work with the same zeal for another 200 years, but after 1730 its power and influence waned. The main reason for this is that Spain could not be isolated from the rest of a tolerant Europe. Servants of the Inquisition themselves were indifferent and unconcerned unless it came to their interests such as salaries.

This sluggishness was enhanced during the French Revolution, and in 1808 Spain was occupied by the French army led by Napoleon's Marshal Joachim Murat. The Bourbon dynasty was overthrown. Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte was crowned for the king.

The Inquisition Tribunal by Francisco Goya
Francisco Goya: The Inquisition Tribunal  

Although inquisitors accepted the new regime, they caught Murat’s Secretary, declared atheist. On December 4, 1808 Napoleon himself came to Madrid, and on the same day issued a decree abolishing the Inquisition and draws all its assets.

Inquisition was nominally restored by the Burbon Ferdinand VII who came to the throne in 1814. Despite unplanned and purposeless activity, the last persecution of Jews in Spain was in Cordoba 1818. Two years later, the inhabitants of Barcelona and Valencia took the building of the Inquisition and burned the archives.

On July 15, 1834 was finally abolished by an official decree.

References and resources:

1. Baigent, Michael. Leigh, Richard. Inquisition. (2002). Biblioteka Saturn.


  1. The inquisition was truly a terrifying ordeal! Thank you for shining a light on this part of our world history!