What Was the Spanish Inquisition?

The mere words “Spanish Inquisition” struck fear into the hearts of Spaniards for more than three centuries. Continue reading to find out why the Spanish Inquisition was so horrifying.

Dec 16, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
what was the spanish inquisition
Saint Dominic presides over an Auto-da-Fé by Pedro Berruguete, 1490s, via spainisculture.com


The Spanish didn’t invent the Inquisition, and a number of theories abound as to why the Spanish Inquisition developed into such a formidable institution for more than 300 years. The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I used the Inquisition as a way to consolidate their power at the expense of the Pope. Only Christians could be tried in the Inquisition’s courts, but religious discrimination was rife during the era of the Inquisition. Various non-religious transgressions were also tried in the Inquisition’s tribunals before the Inquisition was signed out of existence in 1834.


The Origins of the Spanish Inquisition

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Left, engraving of the banner of the Spanish Inquisition; right, the banner of the Inquisition in (Portuguese) Goa, by Bernard Picard, 1722, via the Wellcome Collection


The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, more commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition, was established in 1478. There had been previous Inquisitions in regions of modern-day Spain during the 13th and 14th centuries, but these lacked the force of their 15th-century successor. The Spanish Inquisition started towards the end of the Reconquista (c. 718-1492) when a series of Christian states fought to recapture territory from the Muslims (Moors) who had occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 8th century. Inquisitions had occurred all around Europe in the Middle Ages, but later, there were only Portuguese and Roman Inquisitions that occurred during parts of the same time period as the Spanish Inquisition.


The Spanish Inquisition was originally intended to primarily identify heretics, or those deemed by the Roman Catholic Church to hold false religious beliefs, among those who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism and Islam. During the course of the Inquisition, people of other religions and even those who had committed crimes that weren’t strictly religious became victims of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition reached as far as Spanish-held territories in the Americas.


Hypotheses Behind the Spanish Inquisition

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King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, via Christianity


Compared to much of Europe, Spanish society had been fairly multi-religious. Although Muslims and Jews had never been treated as equals by Christians, Jews weren’t expelled from the territory as they had been in France and England around the turn of the 14th century, and Muslims were still tolerated after the end of the Reconquista in 1492. However, by the end of the 14th century, unrest did occur, and to be able to obtain skilled work, an estimated 200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism. Named the conversos, or New Christians, many obtained positions in the government, Church, and even nobility. According to this hypothesis, the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition was a response to a society that was “too” tolerant of other religions.

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Another hypothesis that explains the creation of the Tribunal of the Inquisition is that it was done to standardize the many laws and various jurisdictions into which Spain was divided. King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile married in 1469, and the dynastic union of their two kingdoms shaped the later unification of Spain. While their domains remained separate, they and their descendants could maintain power by forming an executive, legislative, and judicial arm that answered only to the Crown and had the power to act in both kingdoms. Catholicism was the only institution that both kingdoms had in common, and due to its popularity, it could not be attacked easily by the nobility.


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Map of 15th century Spain, via hispanicmuslims.com


Other hypotheses that may explain why the Spanish Inquisition came into being include the “Ottoman Scare,” “Placate Europe,” and “Keeping the Pope in Check.” The Ottoman Empire was expanding at this time, and Ferdinand may have wanted to make sure that citizens of Spain didn’t have a religious reason to support an Ottoman invasion or, in the case of the Jews, be indifferent to it. Both monarchs needed to improve their relations with the rest of Europe, and both were able to use the Spanish Inquisition to control the Pope’s power since the head of the Spanish Inquisition was the monarch of Spain, not the Pope.


The Spanish Inquisition also enabled the monarchs to apply contemporaneous philosophies by thinkers such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini to create a more centralized and unified state. Economically, given that one of the penalties that the Inquisition could impose on convicts was the confiscation of property, some scholars have hypothesized that the creation of the Spanish Inquisition was a way to finance the Crown.


Of course, no one can say with any certainty which of these hypotheses, how many of them, or to what extent, were behind the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. However, social, political, international relations, philosophical, and economic reasons could all have been catalysts for the establishment of the Inquisition.


The Start of the Spanish Inquisition

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Pope Sixtus IV, painted by Pedro Berruguete, via Fine Art America


On a trip to Seville in 1477-1478, Queen Isabella was informed by a Dominican friar that Crypto-Judaism was transpiring in Seville. Crypto-Judaism was the act of continuing to observe the Jewish religion despite officially being a member of the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Seville and a Dominican friar, Tomás de Torquemada, backed this statement.


In 1478, Ferdinand and Isabella requested a papal bull from Pope Sixtus IV to establish an inquisition in Spain. Pope Sixtus IV was pressured into permitting the Spanish monarchs to control the Inquisition because Ferdinand threatened to withdraw military support when Spanish troops were needed to help protect Rome from the Ottoman Turks. Four years later, Pope Sixtus IV condemned the excessive brutality Ferdinand and Isabella used to carry out the Spanish Inquisition.


The first two inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition were not named until 1480. The first auto-da-fé was held in Seville in 1481. Autos-da-fé (Portuguese for “act of faith”) were public ceremonies held during the Inquisition in which judgments of the accused were announced and later sentences were carried out by secular authorities. At the first auto-da-fé in Seville, six people were burned alive. Over the next decade, Inquisition tribunals expanded to eight other cities in Castile. In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV issued a new papal bull prohibiting the extension of the Inquisition into Aragon.


In 1483, Jews were expelled from Andalusia, an area comprising much of southern Spain. Pope Sixtus IV wanted to curtail the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition, but he was instead pressured by Ferdinand to issue a new papal bull. Ferdinand had threatened the pope with the separation of the Inquisition from Church authority. Sixtus caved in to this demand, and on October 17, 1483, Tomás de Torquemada was named Inquisitor General of Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia.


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Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, via eladelantado.com


Torquemada promptly established procedures for the Inquisition. The new court was announced with a thirty-day grace period for confessions. (This grace period was abolished in the early 16th century.) Neighbors also had the opportunity to denounce their neighbors. The court used physical torture to exact confessions from those who had already been found guilty. Crypto-Jews – of whom evidence against them might be the fact that no smoke came from their chimneys on Saturday, the Sabbath, or the purchase of vegetables rather than meat before Passover – were initially allowed to confess and do penance. Those who relapsed were executed.


In 1484, Sixtus IV’s successor, Pope Innocent VIII, tried to allow appeals to Rome against the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand responded in December 1484 and again in 1509 by declaring death and confiscation to anyone who attempted to petition Rome without Spanish royal permission. As a result, the Inquisition’s authority was unmatched throughout all the realms of the Spanish monarchy. The murder of an inquisitor in Zaragoza in 1485 helped turn public opinion against the conversos. Across Aragon, the courts of the Inquisition concentrated on the powerful converso minority, signaling an end to their influence in Aragon’s public offices.


The Spanish Inquisition reached the height of its activity between 1480 and 1530. Estimates state that around 2000 executions took place in this period, with the majority being Jewish conversos. Accurate records from this era don’t exist, but based on evidence from autos-da-fé, 91.6% of those judged in Valencia from 1484 to 1530 were of Jewish origin, while in Barcelona 99.3% of those judged were of Jewish origin.


Religious Groups Targeted by the Spanish Inquisition

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Jewish conversos leaving Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, via Jewish Heritage Alliance


The Spanish Inquisition held no authority over non-Christians, though it could try those who claimed they were Christians while practicing a different religion. The first group to be targeted in large numbers was Jewish conversos. One reason the Inquisition had been created was to stop conversos from observing Jewish practices. In March 1492, the Alhambra Decree gave all Jews the choice between expulsion from Spain or conversion to Catholicism. Enforcement of the Alhambra Decree was more stringent in southern and coastal regions. Of approximately 80,000 Jews and 200,000 conversos, around 40,000 emigrated. The most extreme period of persecution against the conversos lasted until 1530, although there were mild increases in the denunciation of Jewish conversos later in the 16th century and the 17th century.


Conversos of Jewish origin weren’t the only ones who became victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand and Isabella had gained control of Granada, the last part of Spain to be ruled over by Muslims, in 1492. In 1502, a royal decree gave Muslims in Granada the stark choice between expulsion or conversion. The Revolt of the Brotherhoods, which took place between 1519 and 1523 in Aragon, was an anti-monarchist and anti-feudal movement that also had anti-Islamic elements. Muslim conversos, known as moriscos, in Aragon were given the choice of expulsion or conversion as a result of the Revolt of the Brotherhoods.


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The Expulsion of the Moriscos as depicted by Vicente Mostre, 1613, via marefa.org


Although Muslims had generally integrated with their Catholic neighbors more so than their Jewish counterparts, tensions between Old Christians and moriscos worsened in the second half of the 16th century. From 1570, cases against moriscos became the predominant cases of the Spanish Inquisition in Zaragoza, Valencia, and Granada. (Even so, moriscos weren’t treated as badly overall as Jewish conversos and Protestants.) Between 1609 and 1614, the Expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain saw hundreds of thousands of moriscos leave Spain. Some of those who stayed or returned found themselves pursued by the Inquisition, although not to the same extent as the Jewish conversos.


In addition to Jewish and Muslim conversos, Protestant and Anglican Christians were also pursued by the Spanish Inquisition. Because there were few Protestants in Spain, the numbers who were persecuted were relatively low. The first trials, around 120 of them, against those called Lutherans took place between 1558 and 1562. Approximately 100 Protestants were executed after autos-da-fé were held. More Spaniards were accused of being Protestants towards the end of the century, although many of them weren’t of the Protestant religion. The accusations against “Lutherans” were often used to identify agents of foreign powers and those disloyal to the Spanish Crown’s political power. Rather than religious practices, blasphemy, disrespect to church images, and eating meat on forbidden days were taken as signs of heresy. Because Spain never went to war against Christian Orthodox countries, the Spanish Inquisition virtually never investigated Orthodox Christians.


Non-religious “Crimes” of the Spanish Inquisition

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The Zugarramurdi Witch Trials, 1610, via ancient-origins.net


Compared to some of its European neighbors, Spain persecuted comparatively few cases of witchcraft. A few people were burned (either their actual bodies or in effigy) after an auto-da-fé in 1610, but the role of the Spanish Inquisition in cases of witchcraft is much more limited than is generally believed. Authority over witchcraft and sorcery tended to remain in secular hands.


Bigamy, blasphemy, sodomy, and “unnatural marriage” (marriage between two people who could not procreate) were crimes pursued by the Spanish Inquisition. In addition to sexual crimes such as bestiality, pedophilia, and incest, family crimes such as child abuse or neglect were punishable by the Spanish Inquisition. Non-religious and non-family crimes included human trafficking, smuggling, forgery of money and documents, tax fraud, espionage for a foreign power, illegal weapons, and swindles.


In 15th century Spain, the distinction between religious and non-religious crimes didn’t exist as it does today. Counterfeiting money and heretic proselytism were treated similarly because both were “spreading falsifications.” Public blasphemers and street con artists were both considered to be misleading the public in a harmful way. The Spanish Inquisition’s religious and secular activity also overlapped on occasion. Someone who was being investigated for heresy related to a foreign authority might also find themselves investigated for espionage.


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The expurgation of a text by Tycho Brahe, Danish astronomer, by the Spanish Inquisition, via University of Glasgow Library


The Spanish Inquisition also used censorship as a way to limit the spread of heretical ideas. First compiled in other parts of Europe, the Spanish Inquisition published its first Index of banned books in 1551. Many of the books that were prohibited or heavily restricted were religious or great works of Spanish literature. Rather than banning books in their entirety, sometimes passages, lines, or even individual words were expurgated, but the book remained in circulation. Some books that were placed on the Index were later removed while other books that had been freely available were later blacklisted. This censorship proved largely ineffective as scholars and the elite maintained access to these books.


The Organization of the Spanish Inquisition

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The Tribunal of the Inquisition by Francisco Goya, 1814, via arthive.com


There were many official roles for those enforcing the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor was the head of the six-member Council of the Supreme and General Inquisition. Lesser inquisitors, who acted as judges at tribunals, came from legal or theological backgrounds. Many others occupied the roles of lawyers, police officers, procedural experts, secretaries, jailers, and other positions necessary to carry out the Inquisition. Because the Spanish Inquisition had no budget, it relied on the confiscation of the property of those denounced.


When the Spanish Inquisition first arrived in a city, after Sunday Mass, the Inquisitor would read out the Edict of Grace. Members of the congregation were invited to come forward to admit their heresies; the Edict of Grace gave them 30 to 40 days to escape harsh punishment. Those who stepped forward were also encouraged to denounce others. At the turn of the 16th century, the Edicts of Grace were replaced by the Edicts of Faith, which omitted the grace period and instead promoted the denouncement of others. Those who were denounced never knew who it was who gave their names to the Inquisition, and some of these denunciations were falsely made because of ulterior motives.


Once someone was denounced, an official would determine whether a heresy had occurred, and the accused would be detained. Some detainees were imprisoned for up to two years. While they were detained, their property would be taken to pay for the case and the cost of keeping them incarcerated, often leaving their families in penury. When the case came to trial, the defendants could give testimony as well as the people who had denounced them. The accused could either try to find witnesses to attest to their good character or show that the people who had denounced them weren’t reliable witnesses.


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A depiction of the rack torture device as used in the Spanish Inquisition, via owlcation.com


Torture was actually used less often during Spanish Inquisition trials than in other civil and religious trials in the rest of Europe. The Spanish had no such restrictions on torture in their civil courts. The Inquisition concluded that information acquired through torture wasn’t always reliable and could not be used to convict or sentence anyone.


After the trial, there were five possible outcomes: acquittal, suspension, penance, reconciliation, and relaxation. Acquittals were rare, while suspension could lead to further imprisonment until a new trial was initiated. Those who were released after suspension were considered to be acquitted. If the defendant was penanced, they would have to publicly admit their crimes and receive a punishment. When the offender received reconciliation, the punishments were harsher than those of penance. Relaxation was the most severe punishment and could result in death. Those who repented were garroted, while those who showed no remorse could be burned alive.


Those who weren’t condemned to death participated in an auto-da-fé in order to be taken back into the Church or occasionally to be punished as an uncontrite heretic. Autos-da-fé evolved into large public spectacles and could last several hours. A Catholic mass, a procession of the guilty, and a public reading of the sentences formed part of the auto-da-fé. Torture and burning people at the stake never actually took place during autos-da-fé. (Torture took place before the trial finished, and executions occurred after autos-da-fé.)


The End of the Spanish Inquisition

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Queen Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies who was the Queen Regent of Spain when she signed the Royal Decree ending the Spanish Inquisition in July 1834, via historyofroyalwomen.com


By the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish state began to take a more active role in the welfare of the public, and ideas endorsed by the thinkers of the Enlightenment were better protected by the Crown. During the Napoleonic era, when Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte was King of Spain from 1808 to 1813, the Inquisition was abolished. The Spanish Inquisition was reinstated when King Ferdinand VII assumed the Spanish throne in 1814, but over the next two decades, it was abolished and then brought back again. The last person to be sentenced to death in the Spanish Inquisition was executed in 1826. On July 15, 1834, Ferdinand VII’s widow Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies, who was acting as regent to the three-year-old Queen of Spain, Isabella II, signed a Royal Decree formally ending the Spanish Inquisition.


Modern historians estimate that in more than 350 years, some 150,000 people were prosecuted for various offenses under the Spanish Inquisition, and between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed. While numerous historical records of the Spanish Inquisition exist today, there is no comprehensive record that covers all the regions of Spain for more than three centuries. An academic study published in 2021 found that in areas of Spain where higher numbers of citizens were persecuted during the Inquisition, people still have lower incomes, are less educated, and have less trust in others today.

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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.