What Exactly Was the Spanish Inquisition?

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“Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!” But perhaps they should have. The Spanish Inquisition is one of the most well-known periods of religious persecution in history, instituted to weed out what was considered heresy at the time.

Today there are numerous cultural references of the Spanish Inquisition, including the famous sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The irony is the heretical unorthodoxy of Monty Python is precisely the type of thing that could place someone on trial!

Historical Context of the Spanish Inquisition

Spain was not the only European country to have an inquisition. The Inquisition was a medieval office of the Catholic Church, initiated in various forms by papal bull (a form of public decree). The sole purpose from the Church’s perspective was to combat heresy, particularly within the church itself.

Inquisitors, who were those in charge of the local Inquisition, were restricted to searching for heretics among the clergy and church members. The Pope instituted numerous Inquisitions during the Middle Ages to combat various religious movements in Europe, including the Waldensians and the Cathars, sometimes referred to as Albigensian.

These, and groups like them, had been established by local clergy who began teaching doctrine that ran contrary to the official teachings of the Church. The Pope would appoint Inquisitors with special powers to travel to the region, investigate the claims, hold trials, and carry out sentences.

Inquisitions were also used during the 13th and 14th centuries to reform the Church by punishing clergy for various abuses of their power, such as taking bribes.

The Inquisition in Spain

The form the Spanish Inquisition took was different. Known officially as The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, it is most closely associated with the later Middle Ages, but in reality, it existed for centuries. It began in 1478 and continued until it was formally ended in 1834.

What enabled it to last for over 350 years also set it apart from the typical Inquisition. Much of this has to do with the size, history, and politics of the Iberian Peninsula.

Inquisitions were not new in the Iberian Peninsula (a region divided between Portugal and Spain today and comprising much of their territory). The Kingdom of Aragon and the region of Navarra participated in the Inquisitions, which were implemented throughout much of Europe in the 13th century. Finally, it came to Portugal in the 14th century.

How was the Spanish Inquisition Different to Others?

The main point of difference of the Spanish Inquisition compared to other Inquisitions of the time was that it managed to set itself apart from the Catholic Church.

In 1478, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile sent a request to Pope Sixtus IV asking for a papal bull allowing them to appoint their own Inquisitors.

The Pope granted this request, and two years later, the monarchs established a council with Tomás de Torquemada as its president and first Grand Inquisitor. From that point on, the Spanish Inquisition could operate independently of the Pope, despite his protests.

Spain’s Unique Socio-Political Situation

The activities of the Spanish Inquisition still operated under the auspices of seeking out heretics within the church, but it became quickly apparent that much of its work was motivated by the crown’s desire to consolidate power through religious persecution and political maneuvering.

Before the rise of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Iberian Peninsula was made up of several smaller, regional kingdoms. This was not unusual in Europe during the Middle Ages.

France, Germany, and Italy were in similar political situations as a result of the feudal system which dominated the way of life. However, what had been unique to Spain was that much of the Iberian Peninsula had been under Muslim rule for several hundred years, after the invasion and conquest of much of the peninsula by the Muslim Moors.

The Reconquest of the peninsula took place in the 1200s, and by 1492, the final Muslim kingdom of Granada fell. For centuries Iberian residents lived in an environment of multicultural tolerance with large populations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, a situation unheard of in the rest of the European continent. Under the staunch Catholic rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, that began to change.

Targeting the Muslims and Jews of Spain

Expulsión de los judíos
The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (in 1492) –  Emilio Sala Francés. Public Domain.

Various theories have been proposed as to why. It seems that a confluence of political streams led to the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella pursuing this course.

For one, the world was in a massive upheaval geographically. This was the age of exploration. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, funded by the Spanish crown.

European monarchies were seeking to expand their kingdoms, influence, and treasuries at all costs. The Spanish Inquisition would force loyalty to the crown and discourage political dissent.

At the same time, European monarchs were consolidating power through politically advantageous marriages. It was believed that Spain’s tolerance of Jews and Muslims made them less than desirable allies.

In the 1480s, as the Inquisition was getting underway, several Spanish cities passed laws forcing both Jews and Muslims to either convert to Christianity or be expelled. These forced converts, Jewish “conversos” and Islamic “moriscos,” were the target of much Inquisition activity. Ferdinand and Isabella were driven by a desire to cement the influence of a united Spanish kingdom in global affairs.

How Did the Spanish Inquisition Work?

The process of an Inquisition was one of the most troubling aspects. An inquisitor would arrive in a town or village and begin collecting accusations.

Initially, there was a period called the Edict of Grace. People could confess and be offered reconciliation with the Church, avoiding severe punishment. This was a short-lived aspect since the Inquisition thrived upon the anonymous reporting, or denunciation, of violators.

Anyone could denounce anyone, and the person named would be arrested and held in detention. The cost of prosecuting and detaining the accused was paid for out of their own funds. It was one of the major objections to the Inquisition even at the time because of the apparent injustice.

It should come as no surprise that many of the accused and detained were wealthy men. Many were anonymously denounced simply out of spite, feuds, and greed.

Finally, a trial was held in which the accused had to answer the charges. In many ways, these trials would be recognizable to us today. They were much more balanced than previously held in most of Europe but were by no means fair. The defendant did have an appointed counsel, a member of the Inquisitors, who encouraged the accused to speak the truth. At all times, allegiance to the influence of the king reigned supreme.

Torture and Sentencing

Inquisition torture chamber
A Torture Chamber of the Inquisition. PD.

The Inquisition is most famous for its method of obtaining the truth: torture. This is a funny twist of history. Most records reveal that while torture was used during the Inquisition, it was much more restricted than most civil and legal trials.

Does this make for better or more ethical torture? Regardless, it at least shines light on the legal system of the Middle Ages.

Inquisitions could use torture only as a last resort and only in minimal ways. The torturers were forbidden by church edict from maiming, shedding blood, or mutilating.

Compared to this, state prisoners had it rough throughout Europe. During the reign of King Phillip III (1598-1621), Inquisitors complained about the number of state prisoners who would commit heresy intentionally to be handed over to the Inquisition rather than suffer under the King. During the reign of Phillip IV (1621-1665), people would blaspheme simply so that they could be fed while detained.

If a defendant was found guilty, which the vast majority were, there was a wide range of sentencing options.

The least severe involved some public penance. Perhaps they had to wear a special garment known as sanbenito, which exposed their guilt, as would a branding of some sort.

Fines and exile were also used. Sentencing to public service was very common and often meant 5-10 years as an oarsman. After most of these, reconciliation to the church was available.

The most severe penalty was the death sentence. The Inquisitors could not carry this out themselves, for it was the right of the King to determine if and how someone should die. The Inquisitors would hand impenitent heretics or repeat offenders over to the crown, and the mode of death was often burning at the stake.

How the Spanish Inquisition Ended

Over the centuries, the Inquisition changed to meet various threats. After the peak years focused on driving out Jews and Muslims from Spain, the next threat was the Protestant Reformation.

Those who opposed the heavily entrenched Catholicism of the crown were denounced as heretics. Later, the arrival of the Enlightenment challenged not just the ideas of the Inquisition but its very existence.

To preserve and justify itself against a rising tide, the council became primarily focused on censorship of Enlightenment texts and less on carrying out trials against individuals.

The French Revolution and its ideas caused another spike in Inquisitorial activity, but nothing could halt its decline. Finally, on July 15, 1834, the Spanish Inquisition was abolished by Royal decree.

FAQs About the Spanish Inquisition

When was the Spanish Inquisition founded?

It was founded on the 1st of November 1478 and disbanded on the 15th of July 1834.

How many were killed during the Spanish Inquisition?

Who were the conversos?

The conversos referred to Jews who had recently converted to Christianity to avoid persecution.

How was Spain different to most other European countries at the time of the Inquisition?

Spain was multi-racial and multi-religious, with large Jewish and Muslim populations.

Who headed the Spanish Inquisition?

The Spanish Inquisition was headed by the Roman Catholic Church, along with the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.

In Brief

While the Spanish Inquisition has become a cultural reference for torture and abuse, its violence has been overstated in many ways.

Today, estimates of the number of trials and deaths are far lower than in previous years. Most believe the actual number of people sentenced to death to be between 3,000 and 5,000, and some estimates sit at less than 1,000.

These totals are far less than the deaths caused in other parts of Europe by witch trials and other religiously motivated executions. More than anything, the Spanish Inquisition is a stark example of how religion can be abused and manipulated for political and economic gain.