Spanish Inquisition

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history; Religious disputes

The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and was under the direct control of the Spanish monarchy. It was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabel II.

The Inquisition, as an ecclesiastical tribunal, had jurisdiction only over baptized Christians. However, since religious freedom did not exist in Spain during a large part of its history, jurisdiction of the Inquisition extended in practice to all the royal subjects.


The Inquisition was created through the papal bull Ad abolendam, issued at the end of the 12th century by Pope Lucius III as a way to combat the Albigensian heresy in southern France. There were a number of tribunals of the Papal Inquisition in various European kingdoms during the Middle Ages. In the Kingdom of Aragon, a tribunal of the Papal Inquisition was established by the statute of Excommunicamus of pope Gregory IX, in 1232, during the era of the Albigensian heresy. Its principal representative was Raimundo de Peñafort. With time, its importance was diluted, and, by the middle of the 15th century, it was almost forgotten although still existing in law.

There was never a tribunal of the Papal Inquisition in Castile. Members of the episcopate were charged with surveillance of the faithful and punishment of transgressors. However, in Castile during the Middle Ages, little attention was paid to heresy.


The Spanish Inquisition was motivated in part by the multi-religious nature of Spanish society following the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. Much of the Iberian peninsula was dominated by Moors following their invasion of the peninsula in 711 until they were expelled by means of a long campaign of reconquest. However, the reconquest did not result in the full expulsion of Muslims from Spain, but instead yielded a multi-religious society made up of Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Granada to the south, in particular remained under Moorish control until 1492, and large cities, especially Seville, Valladolid, and Barcelona, had large Jewish populations centered in juderias.

The reconquest produced a relatively peaceful co-existence - although not without periodic conflicts - among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the peninsular kingdoms. There was a long tradition of Jewish service to the crown of Aragon. Ferdinand's father John II named the Jewish Abiathar Crescas to be court astronomer. Jews occupied many important posts, religious and political. Castile itself had an unofficial rabbi.

Nevertheless, in some parts of Spain towards the end of the fourteenth century, there was a wave of anti-Judaism, encouraged by the preaching of Ferrant Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija. The pogroms of June 1391 were especially bloody: in Seville, hundreds of Jews were killed, and the synagogue was completely destroyed. The number of victims was equally high in other cities, such as Cordoba, Valencia and Barcelona.

One of the consequences of these disturbances was the massive conversion of Jews. Before this date, conversions were rare, more motivated by social than religious reasons. But from the 15th century, a new social group appeared: conversos, also called new Christians, who were distrusted by Jews and Christians alike. By converting, Jews could not only escape eventual persecution, but also obtain entry into many offices and posts that were being prohibited to Jews through new, more severe regulations. Many conversos attained important positions in fifteenth century Spain. Among many others, physicians Andres Laguna and Francisco Lopez Villalobos (Ferdinand's Court physician), writers Juan del Enzina, Juan de Mena, Diego de Valera and Alonso de Palencia, and bankers Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez (who financed the voyage of Christopher Colombus) were all conversos. Conversos - not without opposition - managed to attain high positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, at times becoming severe detractors of Judaism. Some even received titles of nobility, and as a result, during the following century some works attempted to demonstrate that virtually all of the nobles of Spain were descended from Jews.

Motives for instituting the Spanish Inquisition

There is no unanimity among historians about Ferdinand and Isabella's motives for introducing the Inquisition into Spain. Historians have suggested a number of possible reasons.

  1. To establish political and religious unity. The Inquisition allowed the monarchy to intervene actively in religious affairs, without the interference of the Pope. At the same time, Ferdinand and Isabella's objective was the creation of an efficient state machinery; thus one of their priorities was to achieve religious unity to promote more centralized political authority.
  2. To weaken local political opposition to the Catholic Monarchs. Strengthening centralized political authority also entailed weakening local political opposition. Resistance to the installation of the Inquisition in the Kingdom of Aragon, for example, was often couched in terms of local legal privileges (fueros).
  3. To do away with the powerful converso minority. Many members of influential families such as the Santa Fes, the Santangels, the Caballerias and the Sanchezes, were prosecuted in the Kingdom of Aragon. This is contradicted, to an extent, by the fact that Ferdinand, King of Aragon, continued to employ many conversos in his administration.
  4. Economic support. Given that one of the measures used with those tried was the confiscation of property, this possibility cannot be discarded

Activity of the Inquisition


Alonso de Hojeda, a Dominican from Seville, convinced Queen Isabel of the existence of crypto-Judaism among Andalusian conversos during her stay in Seville between 1477 and 1478. A report, produced at the request of the monarchs by Pedro González de Mendoza, archbishop of Seville and by the Segovian Dominican Tomás de Torquemada, corroborated this assertion. The monarchs decided to introduce the Inquisition to Castile to uncover and do away with false converts, and requested the Pope's assent. On November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV promulgated the bull Exigit sinceras devotionis affectus, through which the Inquisition was established in the Kingdom of Castile. The bull also gave the monarchs exclusive authority to name the inquisitors. The first two inquisitors, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martín were not named, however, until two years later, on September 27, 1480 in Medina del Campo.

At first, the activity of the Inquisition was limited to the dioceses of Seville and Cordoba, where Alonso de Hojeda had detected the centre of converso activity. The first Auto de Fé was celebrated in Seville on February 6, 1481: six people were burned alive. The sermon was given by the same Alonso de Hojeda whose suspicions had given birth to the Inquisition. From there, the Inquisition grew rapidly in the Kingdom of Castile. By 1492, tribunals existed in eight Castilian cities: Ávila, Córdoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo and Valladolid.

Establishing the new Inquisition in the Kingdom of Aragón was more difficult. In reality, Ferdinand did not resort to new appointments, he simply resuscitated the old Pontifical Inquisition, submitting it to his direct control. The population of Aragón was obstinately opposed to the Inquisition. In addition, differences between Ferdinand and Sixtus IV prompted the latter to promulgate a new bull categorically prohibiting the Inquisition's extension to Aragon. In this bull, the Pope unambiguously criticized the procedures of the inquisitorial court, affirming that,

many true and faithful Christians, because of the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves and other low people--and still less appropriate--without tests of any kind, have been locked up in secular prisons, tortured and condemned like relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and properties, and given over to the secular arm to be executed, at great danger to their souls, giving a pernicious example and causing scandal to many.

Nevertheless, pressure by Ferdinand caused the Pope to suspend this bull, and even promulgate another one, on October 17, 1483, naming Tomás de Torquemada Inquisidor General of Aragón, Valencia and Catalonia. With it, the Inquisition became the only institution with authority throughout all the kingdoms of the Spanish monarchy, and, in all of them, a useful mechanism at the service of the crown. However, the cities of Aragón continued resisting, and even saw periods of revolt, like in Teruel from 1484 to 1485. However, the murder of the inquisidor Pedro Arbués in Zaragoza on September 15, 1485, caused public opinion to turn against the conversos and in favour of the Inquisition. In Aragón, the inquisitorial courts were focused specifically on members of the powerful converso minority, ending their influence in the Aragonese administration.

Between the years 1480 and 1530, the Inquisition saw a period of intense activity. Sources differ as far as the number of trials and executions that took place during those years. Henry Kamen risks an approximate number of 2,000 executed, based on the documentation of the Autos de Fé. Of them, the immense majority were conversos of Jewish origin.

Expulsion of the Jews

Although the Jews who continued practicing their religion were not an object of persecution on the part of Holy Office, they were a target of suspicion because it was thought that they urged conversos to practice their former faith: in the trial at Santo Niño de la Guardia in 1491, two Jews and six conversos were condemned to be burned for practicing a supposedly blasphemous ritual.

On March 31, 1492, scarcely three months after the reconquest concluded with the fall of the last Nazari Kingdom of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella promulgated a decree ordering the expulsion of Jews from all their kingdoms. Jewish subjects were given until July 31 of the same year to choose between accepting baptism and leaving the country definitively. Although the decree allowed them to take all their possessions with them, land-holdings, of course, had to be sold, and gold, silver and coined money were forfeit. The reason given to justify this measure was that the proximity of unconverted Jews served as a reminder of their former faith and seduced many conversos into relapsing and returning to the practice of Judaism.

A delegation of Jews, headed by Isaac Abravanel, offered a large sum to the monarchs as compensation for the revocation of the edict. It is believed that the Kings rejected the offer under pressure of the Inquisitor General. It is said that he burst into the room and threw thirty pieces of silver on the table, asking what would be the price this time to sell Jesus to the Jews. Although likely apocryphal, along the margins of this story one sees the influence of the Inquisition on the idea of the expulsion of the Jews.

The number of the Jews that left Spain is not known, not even with an approximation. Historians of the period give extremely high figures ( Juan de Mariana speaks of 800,000 people, and Isaac Abravanel of 300,000). Nevertheless, current estimates significantly reduce this number. (Henry Kamen estimates that, of a population of approximately 80,000 Jews, about one half or 40,000 chose emigration ). The Spanish Jews emigrated mainly to Portugal (where they were later expelled in 1497) and to Morocco. Much later, the Sefardim, descendants of Spanish Jews, established flourishing communities in many cities of Europe, North Africa, and, mainly, in the Ottoman Empire.

Those who remained enlarged the group of conversos, who were the principal concern of the Inquisition. Given that all the Jews who remained in the Kingdoms of Spain had been baptized, continuing to practice Judaism put them at risk of being denounced. Given that during the three months prior to the expulsion there were numerous baptisms--some 40,000 if one accepts the totals given by Kamen--one can logically assume that a large number of them were not sincere, but were simply a result of necessity to avoid the expulsion decree.

The most intense period of persecution of conversos lasted through 1530. From 1531 through 1560, however, the percentage of conversos among the Inquisition trials lowered significantly, down to 3% of the total. There was a rebirth of persecutions when a group of crypto-Jews was discovered in Quintanar de la Orden in 1588; and the last decade of the sixteenth century saw a rise in denunciations of conversos. At the beginning of the 17th century, some conversos who had fled to Portugal began to return to Spain, fleeing the persecution of the Portuguese Inquisition that was founded in 1532. This translated into a rapid increase in the trials of crypto-Jews, among them a number of important financiers. In 1691, during a number of Autos de Fe in Mallorca, 36 chuetas, or conversos of Mallorca, were burned.

During the 18th century, the number of conversos accused by the Inquisition dropped significantly. The last trial of a crypto-Jew was of Manuel Santiago Vivar, which took place in Cordoba in 1818.

Repression of Protestants

Conversos saw the 1516 arrival of Charles I, the new king of Spain, as a possible end to the Inquisition, or at least a reduction of its influence. Nevertheless, despite reiterated petitions from the Cortes of Castile and Aragon, the new monarch left the inquisitorial system intact.

During the 16th century, however, the majority of trials were not focused on conversos. Instead, the Inquisition became an efficient mechanism to prune the few buds of protestantism that had begun to appear in Spain. Curiously, a large percentage of these Protestants were of Jewish origin.

The first of these trials were those against the sect of mystics known as the " alumbrados" of Guadalajara and Valladolid. The trials were long, and ended with prison sentences of different lengths, though none of the sect were executed. Nevertheless, the subject of the "alumbrados" put the Inquisition on the trail of many intellectuals and clerics who, interested in the Erasmian ideas, had strayed from orthodoxy (which is striking because both Charles I and Philip II of Spain were confessed admirers of Erasmus). Such was the case with the humanist Juan de Valdés, who was forced to flee to Italy to escape the process that had been begun against him, and the preacher, Juan de Ávila, who spent close to a year in prison.

The first trials against Lutheran groups, as such, took place between 1558 and 1562, at the beginning of the reign of Philip II, against two communities of Protestants from the cities of Valladolid and Seville. The trials signaled a notable intensification of Inquisition activities. A number of enormous Autos de Fe were held, some of them presided over by members of the royal family, and in which approximately one hundred were executed. After 1562, though the trials continued, the repression was much reduced, and it is estimated that only a dozen Spaniards were burned alive for Lutheranism through the end of the 16th century, although some 200 faced trial. The Autos de Fe of the mid-century virtually put an end to Spanish Protestantism which was, throughout, a small phenomenon to begin with.


An image frequently misinterpreted as the Spanish Inquisition burning books they did not approve of.  This is actually Pedro Berruguete's La Prueba del Fuego (1400's).  It depicts a legend of St Dominic disputing with the Cathars: they both consign their own writings into the flames, and while the Cathars text burned, St Dominic's miraculously leapt from the flames.
An image frequently misinterpreted as the Spanish Inquisition burning books they did not approve of. This is actually Pedro Berruguete's La Prueba del Fuego (1400's). It depicts a legend of St Dominic disputing with the Cathars: they both consign their own writings into the flames, and while the Cathars text burned, St Dominic's miraculously leapt from the flames.

As one manifestation of the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition worked actively to impede the diffusion of heretical ideas in Spain by producing "Indexes" of prohibited books. Such lists of prohibited books were common in Europe a decade before the Inquisition published its first. The first Index published in Spain in 1551 was, in reality, a reprinting of the Index published by the University of Louvain in 1550, with an appendix dedicated to Spanish texts. Subsequent Indexes were published in 1559, 1583, 1612, 1632, and 1640. The Indexes included an enormous number of books of all types, though special attention was dedicated to religious works, and, particularly, vernacular translations of the Bible.

Included in the Indexes, at one point or another, were many of the great works of Spanish literature. Also, a number of religious writers who are today considered Saints by the Catholic church saw their works appear in the Indexes. At first, this might seem counter-intuitive or even nonsensical — how were these Spanish authors published in the first place if their texts were only to be prohibited by the Inquisition and placed in the Index? The answer lies in the process of publication and censorship in Early Modern Spain. Books in Early Modern Spain faced prepublication licensing and approval (which could include modification) by both secular and religious authorities. However, once approved and published, the circulating text also faced the possibility of post-hoc censorship by being denounced to the Inquisition — sometimes decades later. Likewise, as Catholic theology evolved, once prohibited texts might be removed from the Index.

At first, inclusion in the Index meant total prohibition of a text, however this proved not only impractical and unworkable, but also contrary to the goals of having a literate and well educated clergy. Works with one line of suspect dogma would be prohibited in their entirety, despite the remainder of the text's sound dogma. In time, a compromise solution was adopted in which trusted Inquisition officials blotted out words, lines or whole passages of otherwise acceptable texts thus allowing these expurgated editions to circulate. Although, in theory, the Indexes imposed enormous restrictions on the diffusion of culture in Spain, some historians, such as Henry Kamen argue that such strict control was impossible in practice and that there was much more liberty in this respect than is often believed. And Irving Leonard has conclusively demonstrated that, despite repeated Royal prohibitions, romances of Chivalry, such as Amadis of Gaul, found their way to the New World with the blessing of the Inquisition. Moreover, with the coming of the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, increasing numbers of licenses to possess and read prohibited texts were granted.

Despite repeated publication of the Indexes and a large bureaucracy of censors, the activities of the Inquisition did not impede the flowering of Spanish literature's "Siglo de Oro," although almost all of its major authors crossed paths with the Holy Office at one point or another. Among the Spanish authors included in the Index are: Gil Vicente, Bartolomé Torres Naharro, Juan del Enzina, Jorge de Montemayor, Juan de Valdés, and Lope de Vega, as well as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes and the Cancionero General, by Hernando del Castillo. La Celestina, which was not included in the Indexes of the 16th, was expurgated in 1632 and prohibited in its entirety in 1790. Among the non-Spanish authors prohibited were Ovid, Dante, Rabelais, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Jean Bodin and Tomás Moro. One of the most outstanding cases — and best known — in which the Inquisition directly confronted literary activity is with Fray Luis de Leon, noted humanist and religious writer of converso origin, who was imprisoned for four years, (from 1572 to 1576) for having translated the Song of Songs directly from Hebrew.

The Inquisition and the Moriscos

The Inquisition did not exclusively target Jewish conversos and Protestants. A third group suffered its rigors as well, although to a lesser degree. These were the moriscos, in other words, converts from Islam. The moriscos were concentrated above all in three zones: in the recently conquered kingdom of Granada, in Aragon, and in Valencia. Officially, all Muslims in Castile had been converted to Christianity in 1502; those in Aragon and Valencia were obliged to convert by Charles I's decree of 1526.

Many moriscos maintained their religion in secret; although, in the early decades of the 16th century, an era of intense persecution of conversos of Jewish origin, they too were soon pursued by the Inquisition. There were various reasons for this: in the kingdoms of Valencia and Aragon, a large majority of the moriscos were under the jurisdiction of the nobility, persecution would have been viewed as a frontal assault on the economic interests of this powerful social class. In Granada, the principal problem was fear of rebellion in a particularly vulnerable region during an era when Ottoman Turks ruled the Mediterranean. As a result, the moriscos experienced a different policy, peaceful evangelization, a policy never followed with the Jewish converts.

Nevertheless, in the second half of the century, late in the reign of Philip II, things changed. Between 1568 and 1570, the revolt of the Alpujarras occurred, a revolt that was suppressed with unusual harshness. In addition to secular penalties of execution and deportation of moriscos to other regions of Spain, as had previously occurred, the Inquisition intensified its attention to the moriscos. Beginning in 1570, in the tribunals of Zaragoza, Valencia and Granada, morisco cases became much more abundant. Beginning in the decade of 1570, in Aragon and Valencia moriscos formed the majority of the trials of the Inquisition. In the tribunal of Granada itself, moriscos represented 82 percent of those accused between 1560 and 1571. Nevertheless, the moriscos did not experience the same harshness as Jewish ' conversos and Protestants, and the number of capital punishments was proportionally less.

The permanent tension caused by the large population of Spanish moriscos forced the search for a more radical and definitive solution, and on the April 4, 1609, during the reign of Philip III, an expulsion order was decreed that would take place in stages, concluding in 1614, and during which hundreds of thousands would leave Spain. Many of those expelled were sincere Christians; all, of course, were baptised and were officially Christians. A small number of peninsular moriscos remained in Spain and, during the 17th century, the Inquisition pursued some trials against them of minor importance: according to Kamen, between 1615 and 1700, cases against moriscos constituted only 9 percent of those judged by the Inquisition.

Other offenses

Two old priests showing the application of torture under the supervision of the Inquisition.
Two old priests showing the application of torture under the supervision of the Inquisition.

Although the Inquisition was created to halt the advance of heresy, it also occupied itself with a wide variety of offenses that only indirectly could be related to religious heterodoxy. Of a total of 49,092 trials from the period 1560–1700 registered in the archive of the Suprema, appear the following: judaizantes (5,007); moriscos (11,311); Lutherans (3,499); alumbrados (149); superstitions (3,750); heretical propositions (14,319); bigamy (2,790); solicitation (1,241); offenses against the Holy Office of the Inquisition (3,954); miscellaneous (2,575).

This data demonstrates that not only New Christians (conversos of Jewish or Islamic descent) and Protestants faced persecution, but also many Old Christians were targeted for various reasons.

The category "superstitions" includes trials related to witchcraft. The witch-hunt in Spain had much less intensity than in other European countries (particularly France, England, and Germany). One remarkable case was the case of Logroño, in which the witches of Zugarramurdi in Navarre were persecuted. During the Auto de Fe that took place in Logroño on November 7 and November 8, 1610, 6 people were burned and another 5 burned in effigy. In general, nevertheless, the Inquisition maintained a skeptical attitude towards cases of witchcraft, considering it — in contrast to the Mediaeval Inquisitions — as a mere superstition without any basis. Alonso de Salazar Frias, who, after the trials of Logroño took the Edict of Faith to various parts of Navarre, noted in his report to the Suprema that, "There were no witches nor bewitched in the region after beginning to speak and write about them"

Included under the rubric of heretical propositions were verbal offenses, from outright blasphemy to questionable statements regarding religious beliefs, from issues of sexual morality, to behaviour of the clergy. Many were brought to trial for affirming that simple fornication (sex without the explicit aim of procreation) was not a sin or for putting in doubt different aspects of Christian faith such as Transubstantiation or the virginity of Mary. Also, members of the clergy itself were on occasion accused of heretical propositions. These offenses were infrequently paired with severe penalties.

The Inquisition also pursued offenses against morals, at times in open conflict with the jurisdictions of civil tribunals. In particular, there were numerous trials for bigamy, a relatively frequent offense in a society that only permitted divorce under the most extreme circumstances. In the case of men, the penalty was five years in the galley (tantamount to a death sentence). Women too were accused of bigamy. Also, many cases of solicitation during confession were adjudicated, indicating a strict vigilance over the clergy.

Inquisitorial repression of the sexual offenses of homosexuality and bestiality, considered, according to Canon Law, crimes against nature, merits separate attention. Homosexuality, known at the time as sodomy, was punished by death by civil authorities. It fell under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition only in the territories of Aragon, when, in 1524, Clement VII, in a papal brief, granted jurisdiction over sodomy to the Inquisition of Aragon, whether or not it was related to heresy. In Castile, cases of sodomy were not adjudicated, unless related to heresy. The tribunal of Zaragoza distinguished itself for its severity in judging these offenses: between 1571 and 1579 more than 100 men accused of sodomy were processed and at least 36 were executed; in total, between 1570 and 1630 there were 534 trials and 102 executed.

In 1815, Francisco Xavier de Mier y Campillo, the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition and the Bishop of Almería, suppressed Freemasonry and denounced the lodges as “societies which lead to sedition, to independence, and to all errors and crimes.” He then instituted a purge during which Spaniards could be arrested on the charge of being “suspected of Freemasonry”.


Beyond its role in religious affairs, the Inquisition was also an institution at the service of the monarchy. This does not imply, however, that it was absolutely independent of papal authority, since at various points its activities depended on approval from Rome. Although the Inquisitor General, in charge of the Holy Office, was designated by the crown, his selection had to be approved by the Pope. The Inquisitor General was the only public office whose authority stretched to all the kingdoms of Spain (including the American viceroyalties), except for a brief period (1507-1518) during where there were two Inquisitor Generals, one in the kingdom of Castile, and the other in Aragon.

The Inquisitor General presided over the Counsel of the Supreme and General Inquisition (generally abbreviated as "Counsel of the Suprema"), created in 1488, which was made up of six members named directly by the crown (the number of members of the Suprema varied over the course of the Inquisition's history, but it was never more than 10). Over time, the authority of the Suprema grew at the expense of the power of the Inquisitor General.

The Suprema met every morning, save for holidays, and for two hours in the afternoon on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The morning sessions were devoted to questions of faith, while the afternoons were reserved for cases of sodomy, bigamy, witchcraft, etc.

Below the Suprema were the different tribunals of the Inquisition, which were, in their origins, itinerant, installing themselves where they were necessary to combat heresy, but later being established in fixed locations. In the first phase, numerous tribunals were established, but the period after 1495 saw a marked tendency towards centralization.

In the kingdom of Castile, the following permanent tribunals of the Inquisition were established:

  • 1482 In Seville and in Cordoba.
  • 1485 In Toledo and in Llerena.
  • 1488 In Valladolid and in Murcia.
  • 1489 In Cuenca.
  • 1505 In Las Palmas ( Canary Islands).
  • 1512 In Logroño.
  • 1526 In Granada.
  • 1574 In Santiago de Compostela.

There were only four tribunals in the kingdom of Aragon: Zaragoza and Valencia (1482), Barcelona (1484), and Mallorca (1488). Ferdinand the Catholic also established the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily (1513), housed in Palermo and Sardinia. In the Americas, tribunals were established in Lima and in Mexico (1569) and, in 1610, in Cartagena de Indias (present day Colombia).

Composition of the tribunals

Initially, each of the tribunals included two inquisitors, a calificador, an alguacil (bailiff) and a fiscal (prosecutor); new positions were added as the institution matured.

The inquisitors were preferably jurists more than theologians, and, in 1608, Philip III even stipulated that all the inquisitors must have a background in law. The inquisitors did not typically remain in the position for a long time: for the court of Valencia, for example, the average tenure in the position was about two years. Most of the inquisitors belonged to the secular clergy (priests, rather than members of the religious orders), and had a university education. Pay was 60,000 maravedíes at the end of the 15th century, and 250,000 maravedíes at the beginning of the 17th.

The fiscal was in charge of presenting the accusation, investigating the denunciations and interrogating the witnesses. The calificadores were generally theologians; it fell to them to determine if the defendant's conduct constituted a crime against the faith. Consultants were expert jurists who advised the court in questions of procedure. The court had, in addition, three secretaries: the notario de secuestros (Notary of Property), who registered the goods of the accused at the moment of his detention; the notario del secreto (Notary of the Secreto), who recorded the testimony of the defendant and the witnesses; and the escribano general (General Notary), secretary of the court.

The alguacil was the executive arm of the court: he was responsible for detaining and jailing the defendant. Other civil employees were the nuncio, ordered to spread official notices of the court, and the alcalde, jailer in charge of feeding the prisoners.

In addition to the members of the court, two auxiliary figures existed that collaborated with the Holy Office: thefamiliares and the comissarios (commissioners). Familiares were lay collaborators of the Inquisition, who had to be permanently at the service of the Holy Office. To become a familiar was considered an honour, since it was a public recognition of limpieza de sangre — old Christian status — and brought with it certain additional privileges. Although many nobles held the position, most of the familiares many came from the ranks of commoners. The commissioners, on the other hand, were members of the religious orders who collaborated occasionally with Holy Office.

One of the most striking aspects of the organization of the Inquisition was its form of financing: devoid its own budget, the Inquisition depended exclusively on the confiscaciones of the goods of the denounced. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of those prosecuted were rich men. That the situation was open to abuse is evident, as stands out in the memorial that a converso from Toledo directed to Charles I:

Your Majesty must provide, before all else, that the expenses of Holy Office do not come from the properties of the condemned, because if that is the case, if they do not burn they do not eat.

Functioning of the inquisition

The Inquisition operated in conformity with Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church; its operations were in no way arbitrary. Its procedures were set out in various Instrucciones issued by the successive Inquisitor Generals, Torquemada, Deza and Valdés.


When the Inquisition arrived in a city, the first step was the Edict of Grace. Following the Sunday mass, the Inquisitor would proceed to read the edict: it explained possible heresies and encouraged all the congregation to come to the tribunals of the Inquisition to "relieve their consciences". They were called Edicts of Grace because all of the self-incriminated who presented themselves within a period of grace (approximately one month) were offered the possibility of reconciliation with the Church without severe punishment. The promise of benevolence was effective, and many voluntarily presented themselves to the Inquisition. But self-incrimination was not sufficient, one also had to accuse all one's accomplices. As a result, the Inquisition had an unending supply of informants. With time, the Edicts of Grace were substituted by the Edicts of Faith doing away with the possibility of quick, painless reconciliation.

The denunciations were anonymous, and the defendant had no way of knowing the identity of his accusers. This was one of the points most criticized by those who opposed the Inquisition (for example, the Cortes of Castile, in 1518). In practice, false denunciations were frequent, resulting from envy or personal resentments. Many denunciations were for absolutely insignificant reasons. The Inquisition stimulated fear and distrust among neighbors, and denunciations among relatives were not uncommon.


After a denunciation, the case was examined by the calificadores, who had to determine if there was heresy involved, followed by detention of the accused. In practice, however, many were detained in preventive custody, and many cases of lengthy incarcerations occurred--lasting up to two years--before the calificadores examined the case.

Detention of the accused entailed the preventive sequestration of his or her property by the Inquisition. The property of the prisoner was used to pay for procedural expenses and the accused's own maintenance and costs. Often the relatives of the defendant found themselves in outright misery. This situation was only remedied following instructions written in 1561.

The entire process was undertaken with the utmost secrecy, as much for the public as for the accused, who was not informed about the accusations that were levied against them. Months, or even years could pass without the accused being informed about why they were locked up. The prisoners remained isolated, and, during this time, the prisoner was not allowed to attend mass nor receive the sacraments. The jails of the Inquisition were not worse than those of civil society, and there are even certain testimonies that occasionally they were much better. Some prisoners died in prison, as was frequent at the time.

The trial

The inquisitorial process consisted of a series of hearings, in which both the denouncers and the defendant gave testimony. A defense counsel was assigned to the defendant--a member of the tribunal itself--whose role was simply to advise the defendant and to encourage him or her to speak the truth. The prosecution was directed by the fiscal. Interrogation of the defendant was done in the presence of the Notary of the Secreto, who meticulously wrote down the words of the accused (the archives of the Inquisition, in relation to those of other judicial systems of the era, are striking in the completness of their documentation). In order to defend himself, the accused had two possibilities: abonos (to find favorable witnesses) or tachas (to demonstrate that the witnesses of accusors were not trustworthy).

In order to interrogate the criminals, the Inquisition made use of torture, but not in a systematic way. It was applied mainly against those suspected of Judaism and Protestantism, beginning in the 16th century. For example, Lea estimates that between 1575 and 1610 the court of Toledo tortured approximately a third of those processed for heresy. In other periods, the proportions varied remarkably. Torture was always a means to obtain the confession of the accused, not a punishment itself. It was applied without distinction of sex or age, including children and the aged.

The methods of torture most used by the Inquisition were garrucha, toca and the potro. The application of the garrucha, also known as the strappado, consisted of suspending the criminal from the ceiling by a pulley with weights tied to the ankles, with a series of lifts and drops, during which arms and legs suffered violent pulls and were sometimes dislocated.. The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had impression of drowning. The potro, the rack, was the instrument of torture used most frequently.

The assertion that "confessionem esse veram, non factam vi tormentorum" (the confession was true and free) sometimes follows a description of how, presently after torture ended, the subject freely confessed to his offenses.

Some of the torture methods attributed to the Spanish Inquisition were never used. For example, the " Iron Maiden" never existed in Spain, and was a post- Reformation invention of Germany. Thumbscrews on display in an English museum as Spanish were recently argued to be of English origin. The “Spanish Chair,” a device used to hold the victim while the soles of their feet were roasted, was certainly in existence in Spain during the period of the Inquisition. It is uncertain, however, whether it was in fact used.

Once the process concluded, the inquisidores met with a representative of the bishop and with the consultores, experts in theology or canon law, which was called the consulta de fe. The case was voted and sentence pronounced, which had to be unanimous. In case of discrepancies, the Suprema had to be informed.


The results of the trial could be the following:

  1. The defendant could be acquitted. In actual practice, acquittals were very rare.
  2. The process could be suspended, in which the defendant went free, although under suspicion, and with the threat that his process could be continued at any time. Suspension was a form of acquittal without admitting specifically that the accusation had been erroneous.
  3. The defendant could be penanced. Considered guilty, he had to abjure publicly his crimes (de levi if it was a misdemeanor, and de vehementi if the crime were serious), and was condemned to punishment. Among these were the sambenito, exile, fines or even sentence to the galleys.
  4. The defendant could be reconciled. In addition to the public ceremony in which the condemned was reconciled with the Catholic Church, more severe punishments existed, among them long sentences to jail or the galleys, and the confiscation of all property. Also physical punishments existed, such as whipping.
  5. The most serious punishment was relaxation to the secular arm, that implied burning at the stake. This penalty was frequently applied to impenitent heretics and those who had relapsed. Execution was public. If the condemned repented, he was garroted before his body was given to the flames. If not, he was burned alive.

Frequently, cases were judged in absentia, and when the accused died before the trial finished, the condemned were burned in effigy.

The distribution of the punishments varied much over time. It is believed that sentences of death were frequent mainly in the first stage of the history of the Inquisition (according to García Cárcel, the court of Valencia employed the death penalty in 40% of the processings before 1530, but later that percentage lowered to 3%).

The Autos de Fe

If the sentence were condemnatory, this implied that the condemned had to participate in the ceremony of an auto de fe, that solemnized his return to the Church (in most cases), or punishment as an impenitent heretic. The autos de fe could be private (auto particular) or public (auto publico or auto general).

Although initially the public autos did not have any special solemnity nor sought a large attendance of spectators, with time they became solemn ceremonies, celebrated with large public crowds, amidst a festive atmosphere. The auto de fe eventually became a baroque spectacle, with staging meticulously calculated to cause the greatest effect among the spectators.

The autos were conducted in a large public space (in the largest plaza of the city, frequently), generally on holidays. The rituals related to the auto began the previous night (the "procession of the Green Cross") and lasted the whole day sometimes. The auto de fe frequently was taken to the canvas by painters: one of the better known examples is the painting by Francesco Rizzi held by the Prado Museum in Madrid and which represents the auto celebrated in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid on June 30, 1680. The last public auto de fe took place in 1691.

Decadence of the inquisition

The arrival of the Enlightenment in Spain slowed inquisitorial activity. In the first half of the 18th century, 111 were condemned to be burned in person, and 117 in effigy, most of them for judaizing. In the reign of Philip V, there were 728 autos de fe, while in the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV only four condemned were burned.

With the Century of Lights, the Inquisition changed: Enlightenment ideas were the closest threat that had to be fought. The main figures of the Spanish Enlightenment were in favour of the abolition of the Inquisition, and many were processed by the Holy Office, among them Olavide, in 1776; Iriarte, in 1779; and Jovellanos, in 1796. The latter sent a report to Charles IV in which he indicated the inefficiency of the Inquisition's courts and the ignorance of those who operated them:

friars who take [the position] only to obtain gossip and exemption from choir; who are ignorant of foreign languages, who only know a little scholastic theology...

In its new role, the inquisición tried to accentuate its function of censoring publications, but found that Charles III had secularized censorship procedures and, on many occasions, the authorization of the Council of Castile hit the more intransigent position of the inquisition. Since the Inquisition itself was an arm of the State, being within the Council of Castile, it was generally civil censorship and not ecclesiastic that ended up prevailing. This loss of influence can also be explained because the foreign Enlightenment texts entered the Peninsula through prominent members of the nobility or government, influential people with whom it was very difficult to interfere. Thus, for example, the Encyclopedia entered Spain thanks to special licenses granted by the King.

However, with the coming of the French Revolution, the Council of Castile, fearing that revolutionary ideas would penetrate Spain's borders, decided to reactivate the Holy Office that was directly charged with the persecution of French works. An Inquisition edict of December 1789, that received the full approval of Charles IV and Floridablanca, stated that:

having news that several books have been scattered and promoted in these kingdoms... that, without being contented with the simple narration events of a seditious nature... seem to form a theoretical and practical code of independence from the legitimate powers.... destroying in this way the political and social order... the reading of thirty and nine French works is prohibited, under fine...

However, inquisitorial activity was impossible in the face of the information avalanche that crossed the border, seeing in 1792 that ,

the multitude of sedititious papers... does not allow formalizing the files against those who introduce them...

The fight from within against the Inquisition almost always took place in clandestine form. The first texts that questioned the inquisitorial role and praised the ideas of Voltaire or Montesquieu appeared in 1759. After the suspension of pre-publication censorship on the part of the Council of Castile in 1785, the newspaper El Censor began the publication of protests against the activities of the Holy Office by means of a rationalist critique and, even, Valentin de Foronda published Espíritu de los mejores diarios, a plea in favour of freedom of expression that was avidly read in the salons. Also, Manuel de Aguirre, in the same vein, wrote On Toleration in El Censor, the El Correo de los Ciegos and El Diario de Madrid.

End of the Inquisition

During the reign of Charles IV and, in spite of the fears that the French Revolution provoked, several events took place that accentuated the decline of the Inquisition. In the first place, the state stopped being a mere social organizer and began to worry about the well-being of the public. As a result, it had to consider the land-holding power of the Church, in the señoríos and, more generally, in the accumulated wealth that had prevented social progress. On the other hand, the perennial struggle between the power of the Throne and the power of the Church, inclined more and more to the former, under which, Enlightenment thinkers found better protection for their ideas. Manuel Godoy and Antonio Alcala Galiano were openly hostile to an institution whose only role had been reduced to censorship and was the very embodiment of the Spanish Black Legend, internationally, and was not suitable to the political interests of the moment:

The Inquisition? Its old power no longer exists: the horrible authority that this bloodthirsty court had exerted in other times was reduced... the Holy Office had come to be a species of commission for book censorship, nothing more...

In fact, prohibited works circulated freely in public bookstores of Seville, Salamanca or Valladolid.

The Inquisition was abolished during the domination of Napoleon and the reign of Joseph I (1808-1812). In 1813, the liberal deputies of the Cortes of Cadiz also obtained its abolition, largely as a result of the Holy Office's condemnation of the popular revolt against French invasion. But the Inquisition was reconstituted when Ferdinand VII recovered the throne on July 1 of 1814. It was again abolished during the three-year Liberal interlude known as the Trienio Liberal. Later, during the period known as the Ominous Decade, the Inquisition was not formally re-established, although, de facto, it returned under the so-called Meetings of Faith, tolerated in the dioceses by King Ferdinand. These had the dubious honour of executing the last heretic condemned, the school teacher Cayetano Ripoll, garroted in Valencia July 26 of 1826 (presumably for having taught deist principles), all amongst a European-wide scandal at the despotic attitude still prevailing in Spain.

The Inquisition was definitively abolished July 15, 1834, by a Royal Decree signed by regent Maria Cristina de Borbon, during the minority of Isabel II and with the approval of the President of the Cabinet Francisco Martínez de la Rosa. (It is possible that something similar to the Inquisition acted during the first Carlist War, in the zones dominated by the carlists, since one of the government measures praised by Conde de Molina Carlos Maria Isidro de Borbon was the re-implementation of the Inquisition).

Death tolls

The historian Hernando del Pulgar, contemporary of Ferdinand and Isabella, estimated that the Inquisition had burned at the stake 2,000 people and reconciled another 15,000 by 1490 (just one decade after the inquisition began).

The first quantitative estimates of the number processed and executed by the Spanish Inquisition were offered by Juan Antonio Llorente, who was the general secretary of the Inquisition from 1789 to 1801 and published, in 1822 in Paris his Historia critica de la Inquisición. According to Llorente, over the course of its history, the Inquisition processed a total of 341,021 people, of whom at least 10% (31,912) were executed. He wrote, "To calculate the number of victims of the Inquisition is the same as demonstrating, in practice, one of the most powerful and effective causes of the depopulation of Spain." The principal modern historian of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea, author of History of the Inquisition of Spain, considered that these totals, not based on rigorous statistics, were very exaggerated.

Modern historians have begun to study the documentary records of the Inquisition. The archives of the Suprema, today held by the National Historical Archive of Spain (Archivo Histórico Nacional), conserves the annual relations of all processes between 1560 and 1700. This material provides information about 49,092 judgements, the latter studied by Gustav Henningsen and Jaime Contreras. These authors calculate that only 1.9% of those processed were burned at the stake.

The archives of the Suprema only provide information surrounding the processes prior to 1560. To study the processes themselves, it is necessary to examine the archives of the local tribunals; however, the majority have been lost to the devastation of war, the ravages of time or other events. Pierre Dedieu has studied those of Toledo, where 12,000 were judged for offenses related to heresy. Ricardo García Cárcel has analyzed those of the tribunal of Valencia. These authors' investigations find that the Inquisition was most active in the period between 1480 and 1530, and that during this period the percentage condemned to death was much more significant than in the years studied by Henningsen and Contreras.

García Cárcel estimates that the total number processed by the Inquisition throughout its history was approximately 150,000. Applying the percentages of executions that appeared in the trials of 1560-1700--about 2%--the approximate total would be about 3,000 put to death. Nevertheless, very probably this total should be raised keeping in mind the data provided by Dedieu and García Cárcel for the tribunals of Toledo and Valencia, respectively. It is likely that the total would be between 3,000 and 5,000 executed. However, it is impossible to determine the precision of this total, owing to the gaps in documentation, unlikely that the exact number will ever be known.


How historians and commentators have viewed the Spanish Inquisition has changed over time, and continues to be a source of controversy to this day. Before and during the 19th century historical interest focused on who was being persecuted. In the early and mid 20th century historians examined the specifics of what happened and how it influenced Spanish history. In the later 20th and 21st century historians have re-examined how severe the Inquisition really was, calling into question some of the conclusions made earlier in the 20th century.

The Spanish "Black Legend"

In the mid-16th century, coincident with the persecution of the Protestants, there began to appear from the pens of various European Protestant intellectuals, an image of the Inquisition that exaggerated its negative aspects for propagandistic effects. One of the first to write about this theme was the Englishman John Foxe (1516-1587), who dedicated an entire chapter of his book The Book of Martyrs to the Spanish Inquisition. Other sources of the black legend of the Inquisition were the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispanicae Artes, authored under the pseudonym of Reginaldus Gonzalvus Montanus (possibly an allusion to German astronomer Regiomontanus), that was probably written by two exiled Spanish Protestants, Casiodoro de Reina and Antonio del Corro. The book saw great success, and was translated into English, French, Dutch, German and Hungarian and contributed to cementing the negative image that the Inquisition had in Europe. The Dutch and English, political rivals of Spain, also built on the black legend.

Other sources for the black legend of the Inquisition come from Italy. Ferdinand's efforts to export the Spanish Inquisition to Naples provoked many revolts, and even as late as 1547 and 1564 there were anti-Spanish uprisings when it was believed that the Inquisition would be established. In Sicily, where the Inquisition was established, there were also revolts against the activity of the Holy Office, in 1511 and 1516. Many Italian authors of the 16th century referred with horror to the actions of the Inquisition.

Professional historians

Before the rise of professional historians in the 19th century, the Spanish Inquisition had largely been studied and portrayed by Protestant scholars who saw it as the archetypal symbol of Catholic intolerance and ecclesiastical power. The Spanish Inquisition for them was largely associated with the persecution of Protestants. Nineteenth century professional historians, including the Spanish scholar Amador de los Rios, were the first to challenge this perception and look seriously at the role of Jews and Muslims.

At the start of the 20th century Henry Charles Lea published the groundbreaking History of the Inquisition in Spain. This influential work saw the Spanish Inquisition as "an engine of immense power, constantly applied for the furtherance of obscurantism, the repression of thought, the exclusion of foreign ideas and the obstruction of progress." Lea documented the Inquisition's methods and modes of operation in no uncertain terms calling it "theocratic absolutism" at its worst. William H. Pres-cott, the Boston historian, likened it to an "eye that never slumbered".

Starting in the 1920's Jewish scholars picked up on Lea's work left off. Yitzhak Baer's History of the Jews in Christian Spain, Cecil Roth's History of the Marranos and, after World War II, the work of Haim Beinart who for the first time published trial transcripts of cases involving conversos.

Inquisition revisionism

One of the first books to challenge the standard view was The Spanish Inquisition (1965) by Henry Kamen. Kamen argued that the Inquisition was not nearly as cruel or as powerful as commonly believed. The book was very influential and largely responsible for subsequent studies in the 1970's to try and quantify (from archival records) the Inquisition's activities from 1480 to 1834. Those studies showed there was an initial burst of activity against conversos suspected of relapsing into Judaism, and a mid-16th-century pursuit of Protestants - but the Inquisition served principally as a forum Spaniards occasionally used to humiliate and punish people they did not like: blasphemers, bigamists, foreigners and, in Aragon, homosexuals and horse smugglers. Kamen went on to publish two more books in 1985 and 2006 that incorporated new findings, further supporting the view that the Inquisition was not as bad as once described by Lea and others. Along similar lines is Edward Peters's Inquisition (1988).

The Spanish Inquisition in the Arts

The Tribunal of the Inquisition as illustrated by Francisco de Goya
The Tribunal of the Inquisition as illustrated by Francisco de Goya


During the 17th century, various representations of the auto de fe were produced, like the large oil painted by Francisco Ricci that represents the auto de fe celebrated at the Plaza Mayor of Madrid in 1680. This type of painting emphasized above all the solemnity and spectacle of the autos.

Criticism of the Inquisition is a constant in the work of painter Francisco de Goya, especially in Los Caprichos (The Whims). In this series of engravings, produced at the end of the eighteenth century, various figures penanced by the Inquisition appear, with biting legends underlining the frivolity of the motives in contrast to the criminal's expressions of anguish and desperation. A foreigner who had been judged as a heretic carries the legend "For having been born elsewhere." These engravings brought the painter problems with the Holy Office, and, to avoid trial, Goya presented the original engravings to Charles IV as a gift.

Much later, between 1815 and 1819, Goya painted other canvases about the Inquisition. Most notably Auto de fe de la Inquisición (pictured).


  • The literature of the eighteenth century approaches the theme of the Inquisition from a critical point of view. In Candide by Voltaire, the Inquisition appears as the epitome of intolerance and arbitrary justice in Portugal and America.
  • During the Romantic period, the gothic novel, which was primarily a genre developed in Protestant countries, Catholicism was frequently associated with terror and repression. This vision of the Spanish Inquisition appears in, among other work, The Monk (1796) by Mattew Lewis (set in Madrid during the Inquisition, but can be seen as commenting on the French Revolution and the Terror); in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturins and in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Polish author Jan Potocki.
  • One of the best known stories of Edgar Allan Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum, explores along the same lines the use of torture by the Inquisition. The types of torture that appear in the story have no basis in history, however.
  • In France, in the early 19th century, the epistolary novel Cornelia Bororquia, or the Victim of the Inquisition, which has been attributed to Spaniard Luiz Gutiérrez, ferociously criticizes the Inquisition and its representatives.
  • Small Gods, (1992) one of the Discworld Novels by Terry Pratchett centres around a small Country - Omnia - in which all the inhabitants are (nominally) followers of the "Great God Om". One of the ways to ensure that all Omnians follow the words of the Omnian prophets, is a torture body, known as the Quisition, which follows the more fanciful claims about torture treatment during the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Carme Riera's novella, published in 1994, Dins el Darrer Blau (In the Last Blue) is set during the repression of the chuetas (conversos from Mallorca) at the end of the 17th century.
  • In 1998, the Spanish writer Miguel Delibes published the historical novel The Heretic, about the Protestants of Valladolid and their repression by the Inquisition.


  • Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum has been taken to the screen many times. Perhaps best known is the version by Roger Corman in 1961.
  • The Inquisition appears in a musical segment of Mel Brooks' movie History of the World, Part I (1981).
  • The film Akelarre (1984) by Pedro Olea, deals with the trial in Logroño of the witches of Zugarramurdi in Navarre.
  • The Inquisition captures the main character in the Polish film Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript).

Theatre and TV

  • The Grand Inquisitor of Spain plays a part in Don Carlos, (1867) a play by Friedrich Schiller (which was the basis for an opera in five acts by Giuseppe Verdi, in which the Inquisitor is also featured).
  • In the Monty Python comedy team's Spanish Inquisition sketch, the Inquisition repeatedly burst unexpectedly into scenes after someone would utter the words "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition", screaming "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!". The Inquisition would then use forms of " torture" like a dish-drying rack, soft cushions, and the comfy chair.
  • The Histeria! episode "Megalomaniacs!" featured a game show sketch based on the Spanish Inquisition titled "Convert or Die!" The sketch was later banned from the episode and replaced with a new sketch about Custer's Last Stand in reruns due to complaints from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights that the sketch was teaching kids to reject Catholicism. However, it was restored when the episode was broadcast on In2TV.

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