10 Crazy Facts about the Spanish Inquisition

Do you think you know about the Spanish Inquisition? Some of the ten crazy Spanish Inquisition facts in this list will surprise and even astonish you.

Nov 28, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
artist s depiction spanish inquisition facts
An artist’s depiction of the Spanish Inquisition, via theguardian.com


Over the three and a half centuries that the Spanish Inquisition lasted, some surprising, extraordinary, and even shocking events occurred. The crimes people were punished for under the Spanish Inquisition varied beyond merely religious. Although the Spanish Inquisition was conducted under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, the Spanish monarchs had a high degree of independence. This list of crazy Spanish Inquisition facts will likely make you think differently about the Spanish Inquisition and reveal facts you didn’t already know.


1. The Pope Didn’t Support the Spanish Inquisition

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Portrait of Pope Sixtus IV, via historycollection.com


At the request of the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, Pope Sixtus IV issued a papal bull on November 1, 1478, which authorized the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, the Pope was pressured into issuing the Papal Bull. King Ferdinand had threatened to withdraw military support that the Pope needed to fight the Ottoman Turks during a period of expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

On April 18, 1482, Pope Sixtus was so chagrined by the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition that he issued another papal bull. He wrote that the Inquisition in Spain had been “moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls, but for the lust for wealth.” He also stated that many true and faithful Christians had been deprived of justice as a result of the Inquisition, “causing disgust to many.” Among the surprising Spanish Inquisition facts is the fact that the Pope didn’t support the Spanish Inquisition. King Ferdinand bristled at the Pope’s words and wrote to him, asking him not to take the matter further and leave the Inquisition in the hands of the Spanish monarchs. Pope Sixtus backed down and suspended the 1482 papal bull.

In 1483, Jews were expelled from all of the Andalusian regions of Spain. Once again, the Pope wanted to crack down on the Spanish Inquisition’s abuses. Yet again, King Ferdinand threatened the Pope by stating that he would separate the Inquisition from the Roman Catholic Church’s authority. Pope Sixtus acquiesced, and in October 1483, Tomás de Torquemada was named the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.


2. The Spanish Inquisition Punished Witchcraft Far Less than in Other Countries

witchcraft trial spanish inquisition facts
Artist’s rendition of a witchcraft trial during the Spanish Inquisition, via allthatsintersting.com


One of the lesser-known Spanish Inquisition facts is that fewer people were tried for witchcraft in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition than in other European countries at the time. The Spanish Inquisition placed a much greater focus on the crime of heresy. Germany had the highest witchcraft execution rate, while France, Scotland, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also had high execution rates. Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish Inquisition had limited jurisdiction over witchcraft cases. Secular authorities handled most cases of sorcery and witchcraft.

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Between 1609 and 1614, as many as 7,000 people were accused of witchcraft in the Basque region of Spain. Some 2,000 were investigated and tortured, but only 11 were executed. Of those 11, six were burned at the stake, and the other five were tortured to death in prison. In comparison, approximately 200 people were investigated for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials in the 17th century in the United States, and 24 died.


3. Freemasons Were Targeted in the Spanish Inquisition

freemasonry in spain
Freemason symbol on a Spanish Lodge, via mallorcaphotoblog.com


The first Freemason Lodge was founded in Spain in 1728. At first, the first Freemason Lodges in Spain counted only English and French expatriates as their members. The British presence can be explained by the fact that they had controlled Gibraltar from 1713. Freemasonry soon spread surreptitiously throughout southern Spain and among Spaniards. In April 1738, the Pope issued a papal bull condemning Freemasonry and prohibiting Catholics from joining. Later that year, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition published an edict claiming exclusive jurisdiction over the prosecution of Freemasonry. He asked the public to denounce Freemasons under the threat of ex-communication and a fine.


When the Spanish monarchy was restored in 1814, after the brief reign of a Napoleonic king, the persecution of Freemasonry reached its zenith during the Spanish Inquisition. The new Grand Inquisitor, a bishop, published two edicts in 1815. In these edicts, he accused the Masons of plotting “not only against thrones, but greatly against religion.” The public was encouraged to betray Freemasons, with anonymity guaranteed. Military officer Juan Van Halen was arrested for being a Freemason in 1817 and tortured for two days.


4. A Future Catholic Saint & an Archbishop Were Accused of Heresy

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Saint Ignatius of Loyola, painted by Peter Paul Rubens, via franciscanmedia.org


Among the little-known Spanish Inquisition facts was the arrests of members of the Church. Before he was ordained as a priest in 1537, Saint Ignatius of Loyola was suspected of heresy by the Spanish Inquisition. Born Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola, Ignatius underwent a religious conversion in the early 1520s. He then lived an ascetic life and went on pilgrimages, including to the Holy Land.


Ignatius gained followers but was mistrusted by the church hierarchy because he was a non-ordained person who encouraged others to reflect on their spiritual experiences. He was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition in Alcala, imprisoned, tried, and found innocent. Subsequently, he left Alcala for the city of Salamanca, where once again, he was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and found innocent. After his second acquittal, he and his companions left Spain to study in Paris. Saint Ignatius would go on to co-found the Jesuit Catholic religious order.


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Archbishop of Toledo, Bartolomé de Carranza, via es.paperblog.com


The Archbishop of Toledo, Bartolomé de Carranza, was also suspected of heresy. He was first denounced to the Spanish Inquisition in 1530 for limiting the papal power and holding views sympathetic to Erasmus, the Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian. Nothing came of this first accusation, and he was soon made a professor of philosophy and regent in theology. By 1557, Carranza was the Archbishop of Toledo.


The following year, the Grand Inquisitor had Carranza arrested on the grounds of heresy based on a book he had published, sermons, and letters found in his possession. Although the Council of Trent approved his book on the Catholic catechism in 1563, Carranza was imprisoned in 1559. He appealed to Rome and was taken there at the end of 1566. Not until April 1576 was Archbishop Carranza found not guilty of heresy. He still received lesser punishments and died less than a month after he was found not guilty. The fact that an archbishop could be imprisoned for more than 18 years is another example of surprising Spanish Inquisition facts.


5. “Unnatural Marriage” Was a Crime Under the Spanish Inquisition

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Elena, also known as Eleno, de Céspedes, via riabrodell.com


Both the Catholic Church and Spain emphasized the reproductive nature of marriage. Another example of unusual Spanish Inquisition facts is the fact that “unnatural marriage” was a crime. An unnatural marriage was a marriage or attempted marriage between two people who couldn’t procreate. If a man was unable to have children due to a genetic or medical condition, had damaged genitals due to a procedure like castration, or was wounded in war, he couldn’t get married in Spain. A marriage could also be declared unnatural because of the female partner, although this was harder to prove.


Elena de Céspedes (also known as Eleno) was born approximately in 1545. Around the age of 16, they married and had a child. During childbirth, as they later told the Inquisition, they had “grown” male genitalia. The baby was left with a friend, and Céspedes began to travel around Spain, working a variety of jobs, including as a surgeon. Elena later began dressing as a man. In 1584, Céspedes applied for a marriage license for marriage to a woman. The vicar of Madrid questioned whether Céspedes was really a man. Several people, including a doctor, a surgeon, and a lawyer, examined Céspedes and declared them to have male genitalia.


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An official Spanish Inquisition document that recorded Céspedes’ case, via dbe.rah.es


In 1587, a neighbor denounced the couple, and the couple was arrested for sodomy, sorcery, and disrespect for the marriage sacrament. Céspedes claimed to be a hermaphrodite who was a biological woman at the time of their first marriage and a biological man at the time of their second marriage. Céspedes underwent another investigation and was found to be a woman. (It seems that Céspedes did have a genuine intersex condition and even medical examiners were confused.)


Céspedes received the standard sentence a male bigamist would receive – 200 lashes and ten years of incarceration. (The bigamy charge was for never declaring the death of their husband.) Céspedes was also publicly humiliated at an auto-da-fé, a public ritual used during the Spanish Inquisition for condemned heretics to carry out public penance. Céspedes’ conviction for disrespect for the marriage sacrament, among other crimes, is yet another example of remarkable Spanish Inquisition facts.


6. The Structure of the Trials Was Similar to Modern Trials

inquisition tribunal francisco goya
The Inquisition Tribunal, painted by Francisco Goya.


When people consider Spanish Inquisition facts, they don’t often consider the fact that the trials were “fair” or at least followed established procedures. A number of officials were part of the Spanish Inquisition. The head of the Inquisition was the Grand Inquisitor, and several inquisitors of either legal or theological backgrounds worked in their localities. Other staff included lawyers, notaries, theologians who could attest to crimes against faith, procedural consultants, secretaries, officers responsible for the detention of the defendant, the tribunal’s spokesperson, and jailers.


Accusations against those who committed crimes were usually anonymous, but denunciations were then examined to determine whether heresy or another crime had actually been committed. Until the trial, the accused could be held in prison. Before the trial, a series of hearings occurred during which both the accused and the denouncers gave testimony. The defendant was assigned a defense lawyer. A notary meticulously recorded the defendant’s testimony.


While torture was used in the jails, confessions obtained during torture were not admissible in court. At the time, torture was common in both civil and religious trials in Europe, often without justification. The Spanish Inquisition strictly regulated when, what, to whom, how many times, for how long, and under whose supervision torture could be carried out. Torture was used when the authorities were satisfied that they had iron-clad proof of the defendant’s guilt, and they then tried to elicit a confession. Spanish civil courts used torture much more freely.


7. Some People Committed “Religious” Crimes to Avoid Going to Secular Prisons

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The Tower of the Inquisition at Alcázar of Córdoba, Spain, via encirclephotos.com


While it’s not true that all the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition were in better condition than the royal prisons or ordinary ecclesiastical jails, there were several cases of accused people committing crimes simply to be transferred to an inquisitorial prison. In 1629, a priest from Valladolid made some heretical statements just so he could be transferred to one of the Spanish Inquisition’s prisons.


In 1675, a priest in an episcopal prison pretended to be a Judaizer so he could be relocated to an inquisitorial prison. (A Judaizer was someone who claimed to be Roman Catholic but still adhered to the laws of Moses.) In 1624, when the Spanish Inquisition prison in Barcelona had more prisoners than available cells, they refused to send the extra prisoners to the city prison. They cited 400 starving prisoners and the fact that three or four dead prisoners were removed from the city prison on a daily basis in their refusal.


To add to the list of interesting Spanish Inquisition facts, the inquisitorial jail of Córdoba was singled out for particular praise. In 1820, prison authorities complained about the conditions of the city prison and asked if some of its prisoners could be transferred to the Spanish Inquisition’s prison. It was “safe, clean and spacious. … It has twenty-six cells, rooms which can hold two hundred prisoners at a time, a completely separate prison for women, and places for work.” On another occasion, the inquisitorial prison in Córdoba was described as “well suited to preserve the health of prisoners.”


8. The Spanish Inquisition Wasn’t Limited to Spain

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An auto-da-fé in New Spain in the 18th century, via revista.unam.mx


The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t limited to the country of Spain. It operated in all of Spanish America and even as far afield as the Philippines. In the Americas, two autonomous Spanish Inquisition tribunals were created in Mexico City and Lima, Peru. The Mexico City tribunal had jurisdiction in a territory that included New Mexico, Panama, and the Philippines (New Spain). The Lima Tribunal covered all of Spanish South America until 1610 when a third tribunal was established in Cartagena to oversee New Granada (roughly modern-day Colombia and Venezuela) and the Caribbean Islands.


Not so remarkable among the Spanish Inquisition facts, the Inquisition outside of Spain functioned similarly to the Inquisition in Spain. The pursuit of “Judaizing” conversos, or converts, was a priority for the new tribunals. Autos-da-fé were also carried out. Protestants were also victims of the Inquisition in the New World, more so than in Spain, although prosecutions of foreign Protestants declined in the mid-seventeenth century. While jurisdiction over adultery, fornication, and sodomy (which at the time meant any sexual activity that didn’t lead to procreation) was supposed to lay with the civil authorities, the Holy Office became increasingly involved. The indigenous people of the Americas also became victims of the Inquisition, although they often received more lenient sentences than European immigrants.


9. The Spanish Inquisition Ended in 1808, and 1820, and finally, in 1834

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Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte, King of Spain 1808-1813, via smithsonianmag.com


When Napoleon conquered Spain in 1808, he ordered the abolition of the Inquisition. His older brother, Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte, became King of Spain. Joseph was unpopular in Spain but was installed as monarch after the French invaded the country. Joseph’s reign only lasted until December 1813. Spanish King Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne and worked toward restoring the Spanish Inquisition, although he faced opposition.


During a three-year period between 1820 and 1823, the Spanish Inquisition ended again. A liberal government ruled Spain after a military uprising in January 1820 against Ferdinand VII’s absolutist rule. In 1822, Ferdinand VII applied the terms of the Congress of Vienna and appealed to the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia, and Austria to help restore him to the throne. They refused, but the Quintuple Alliance of the UK, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria mandated France intervene and revive the Spanish monarchy. Ferdinand VII’s absolute power was restored in 1823.


One of the more significant Spanish Inquisition facts is that the last person known to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition lost his life in 1826. In July 1834, the Queen Regent of Spain, Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies, signed a Royal Decree, permanently ending the Spanish Inquisition. She was backed by the government’s President of the Cabinet. By the start of the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church’s role in society had significantly changed from what it had been over three hundred years earlier.


10. Queen Isabella Started the Spanish Inquisition, & Queen Isabella Ended It

queen isabella i and isabella ii
Queen Isabella I of Castile, via biographyonline.net; and Queen Isabella II of Spain, via useum.org


While it wasn’t the same Queen Isabella who started and ended the Spanish Inquisition, it’s another one of those noteworthy Spanish Inquisition facts that there have only been two Spanish queens named Isabella. As monarchs, they acted as bookends to the Spanish Inquisition. Along with her husband, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella I had requested a papal bull from the Pope to start the Spanish Inquisition in 1478.


Queen Isabella II was only three years old when the Spanish Inquisition ended, but she was the reigning monarch (1833-1868). She was the daughter of King Ferdinand VII, and her mother, Maria Christina, in her position as Queen Regent, was able to sign the Royal decree, which ended the Spanish Inquisition. In Isabella II’s early childhood, Spain had transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. (This transition had reduced Maria Christina’s authority over the Spanish Inquisition.) Because there was no longer an absolute monarchy in Spain as of April 1834, Queen Isabella II couldn’t have reinstated the Spanish Inquisition even if she had wanted to.

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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.