The Spanish Inquisition


The Spanish Inquisition is known for the terror it caused the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula. Although the Inquisition originally began to purify the nation from heretics, it came to have more materialistic, racial, and political motives, instead of just purification. The beginning of the Inquisition is generally credited to the reign of Ferdinand V and Isabella. In truth, it began before that time, and carried on long after Ferdinand and Isabella passed away. In order to better understand the Inquisition and the reasons behind it, it is necessary to first examine the events that led up to it.

The Jewish people are often associated with wealth and with being a plague to the society to which they belong. Fourteenth-century Spain was no different. In the city of Seville, there was an archdeacon named Martinez who continually tried to incite the people to purge themselves of the “dirty” Jewish citizens. After several reproaches by the Spanish Cardinal and the Pope, Martinez finally succeeded. On Ash Wednesday (March 15,1391), Martinez incited his congregation to riot. The crowd moved enmasse towards the Juderia (Jewish quarter). Some of the participants were captured by the police and flogged or beaten, but that was not enough to stop the mob. Although they did not succeed that day to destroy the Jews, the feelings that Martinez had evoked lay simmering until June 6th when the mob sacked the Juderia of Seville. It is believed that the victims numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands (C. Roth, The Spanish Inquisition, 1964). After that episode and a few sporadic others, the Jews thought themselves to be free of those problems, but this was not to be the case.

When Ferdinand V and Isabella were married, it united Aragon and Castille, the two most powerful states in Spain. At the time, Spain was on the verge of becoming one of the wealthiest nations of the period. A large part of that was due to the Jewish community. After their ordeal with Archdeacon Martinez, many Jews had professed to believe in Christianity to free themselves from persecution. It is doubtful, however, that many of the conversos, as they were to become known, were truly converted to the Christian faith. However, these conversos came to enrich and perhaps dominate almost every aspect of Spanish society (Roth, 1964). The problem was that the Jews were getting all of the things the non-Jewish, Catholic people wanted. The Jews were able to gain wealth and positions of power and authority in the kingdom as new Christians. The Catholics, however, could not do anything to them because these new Christians were at least in profession Christian.

The hierarchy of the Spanish church became concerned with the reports of heresy of some of its new members. Then in 1478, the time came that the “true Christians” had been waiting for. A young cavalier, who was trying to court a Jewish girl, went to meet the girl and came upon a group of Jews and conversos in some mysterious celebration. That night was the Jewish Passover, and the assembled had come together to celebrate it. The problem was further exacerbated because that week was also the Holy Week for the Catholic church. News spread quickly of the blaspheme that had been done. A few months later, at the urging of the heads of the Spanish church, Pope Sixtus issued a Papal Bull giving authority for an Inquisition. However, the authorization was actually given to the Spanish crown. They were to be the ones who would appoint the bishops to complete the Inquisition. Thus, the Spanish Inquisition was founded to purify the nation from heretics (Roth, 1964). Although purification was the original intent for the Inquisition, it came to have more materialistic, racial, and political motives, which led to the terror for which it is infamous.

The Spanish Inquisition was executed at the request of Isabella. She was a very pious and devout Catholic. One of her advisers, who would later become the first General Inquisitor, was Thomas de Torquemada. A rumor exists that while advising the queen in her youth, Thomas had her take a vow that should she ever reach the throne, she would devote herself to the termination of heresy and the persecution of the Jews (Roth, 1964), which at the time seemed unlikely. Now, however, she was in a position to do what she had vowed to do. Besides, the queen had already said she wanted “one country, one ruler, one faith” (N. Dirksen and M. Johnson, The Spanish Inquisition’s Effect on the Church, 1996).

The Catholic sovereigns were determined to have a united country, and they did not believe this ambition could be achieved unless all their subjects accepted one religion. This they were determined to bring about through persuasion, if possible, and if not, by force. Spain under Isabella and Ferdinand was ripe for the Inquisition; that was why the cruel institution was embraced so heartily and continued to survive until the nineteenth century (J. Plaidy, The Spanish Inquisition, 1967, p.86).

It is likely that Isabella truly wanted to end heresy within the Catholic faith. Ferdinand, however, was not as pious as his wife and probably saw the opportunity for wealth. It is highly likely that some of Spain’s early triumphs abroad and at home were financed through the Spanish Inquisition. This idea of financing without increasing taxes could be seen as Machiavellian in nature. Machiavelli suggested that in order for a ruler to hold his principality, he must not overburden his people with taxes, yet he must not spend all of his funds either, or he would risk not being able to finance the maintenance of his kingdom (N. Machiavelli, The Prince, 1965). It is not likely, however, that Machiavelli would have been pleased with the attitude that the “Catholic Kings” had produced in their subjects.

The Spanish Inquisition was particularly terrifying because of its inherent characteristics. The accused never knew who their accusers were. Once arrested, the accused heretic’s properties were seized. These properties were then administered at first by the Crown, and later by the General Inquisitor. This fostered the means for anyone to accuse for personal reasons, or to get gain. In many areas, “. . . men began to wonder whether a man’s worldly wealth, as well as his descent, was now become [sic] an incriminating circumstance” (Roth, 1964, p. 60). The Inquisition certainly did not limit itself to purifying only those of the Jewish faith. This was especially true if the accused was found to have any Jewish blood in his ancestry. Even if the accused was now a devout Christian, he was tried as severely as possible because of his roots. The accused was also not allowed to have a lawyer or counsel for his defense, and the names of all witnesses were kept secret from him (Roth, 1964).

The punishments and tortures used to gain confessions are the most famous parts of the Inquisition. Because the trials were for spiritual matters, the Church handled them. However, the punishments were usually very much physical, so they were handled by the state. There were many means of this physical torture for confession. The two most famous or infamous were the strappado or pulley, and the aselli or water torment. The strappado was a device that used ropes to strap a person in by their arms and legs, and then weights were attached to the ends of these ropes. The person was raised to a certain level and then the ropes were released. This created a situation where the body would be stretched painfully, sometimes enough to produce death (see Figure 1). The aselli was accomplished as a person was brought to lay down on a trestle with sharp-edged rungs and secured with an iron band. Their feet would be elevated above their heads. The accused then had a small piece of linen forced into the gullet. Using a jar (jarra), water would be poured into the mouth and nose producing a state of semi-suffocation. The process would be done repeatedly. While doing that process, the cords binding the limbs would be tightened until it would seem the very veins would explode (Roth, 1964). The torture would not be stopped, but a break could be taken. The difference is that if the torture were stopped, it could not be started again according to church law. But, if the torture was only suspended, it could be resumed at a later time.

The tortures were used on old and young alike to get confessions and to learn of accomplices. In this way, the Spanish tried to ensure they would be pure. Once a confession was reached, if it was heinous enough, the perpetrator would be sentenced to death.

The sentence of death was carried out as the accused was thrown into a fire as an auto de fe (act of faith). The fire was reserved for those who would not admit their heresy, those who relapsed in their heresies, and to other dissenters. The guilty were burned because the church believed they (the church) should not be a direct party in the shedding of blood. To remain free of blood, the church “relaxed” or handed over the guilty to the secular arm. Once handed over, the church would recommend mercy with the qualifier that if the accused was guilty, they be punished by death. It was understood that the secular authorities would immediately condemn those with “relaxed” status to death (Roth, 1964). If the guilty were fortunate enough to die in the prisons instead, they and their families were still not safe. Their dead bodies, along with effigies of those that had escaped to other lands, would be taken along with the living and thrown into the fire. This allowed the lands of all of those people to be confiscated, if that had not already been done. There truly was no escape from the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition.

It has been suggested that this was an ethnic, as well as religious, purification. The difference between the Spanish Inquisition and the Papal Inquisition was that the Spanish Inquisition was turned over to secular authorities. The secular authorities were the ones who were in charge of the maintenance and perpetuation of the Inquisition. It was therefore a primary instrument of Spanish absolutism. Moreover, its independent status enabled it to amass wealth, heaped up by repeated confiscations, and this in itself rendered it a force to be reckoned with in the affairs of the country (Roth, 1964, p. 73).

From the actions of the Spanish Inquisition, it is apparent it was an ethnic cleansing. The Spanish Inquisition and its actions caused 200,000 loyal, but Jewish, Spaniards to leave the country. Surely, the Spanish Inquisition was about more than just religious purity. The crown gained in many ways due to the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand and later monarchs were able to use the guilty as rowers for their war ships. Also, besides increasing in wealth because of the Inquisition, the Spanish crown gained a certain amount of control over the Catholic church in Spain. Because Pope Sixtus gave the authority to the crown, the Catholic church lost some authority and control of Spain.

In summary, the Inquisition in Spain began in 1478 and officially ended in 1808. During that time, 323,362 people were burned and 17,659 were burned in effigy. It is one of the darkest periods in Spanish history. By far, the greatest number of cases tried were for Judaising (Roth, 1964). These were also the cases that were tried the most severely. There were other minorities, of course, that were persecuted, but the majority were Jews. The Inquisition definitely had racial overtones. Although, it can be said that Queen Isabella officially initiated the Spanish Inquisition for the purity of faith, nation, and people, this is probably not the case. The materialistic desires of the aristocracy certainly factor into the reasons for the perpetuation of the Inquisition.

The inquisition is like most other dark periods of history. It was primarily brought on because of prejudices and greed. When one people excel within a society and they make up the minority, they historically are labeled as scapegoats for the problems of the rest of society. The Renaissance period was obviously the same. It seems strange that in the history of man we still have not found a way to deal with our own petty jealousies.


Johnson, Matthew & Dirksen, Nathaniel. (1996). The Spanish Inquisition’s Effect on the
Church. Overlake High School Summer Project, [].

Machiavelli, Niccolo (translated by Henry C. Mansfield). (1985). The Prince. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Plaidy, Jean. (1967). The Spanish Inquisition. New York: The Citadel Press.
Roth, Cecil. (1964). The Spanish Inquisition. United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.