What Is The Spanish Inquisition?

The Spanish Inquisition in Mexico
‘A Hearing Before the Inquisition,’ engraving by Mexican artist Constantino Escalante. (Public domain)

The Spanish Inquisition was a judicial wing created to battle heresy in Spain and its colonies. Some theorize that the Inquisition was a direct response to the multi-religious nature of the Iberian Peninsula, which was the home to many Muslims. The Spanish Inquisition was brutal in its persecution of heretics and other religions. By the time it closed in 1834, thousands were tortured and died.  

Origins Of The Spanish Inquisition

The Inquisition originated in a Papal Bull during the 12th century to combat heresy in Southern France. Castile, the precursor of modern Spain as one of the few Western European kingdoms that did not adopt the practice, most likely because Castile was in a struggle against the Moors that kept them occupied.  

After Spain completed its conquest of Granada in the late 15th century (known as the Reconquista), for the first time in years, the Iberian Peninsula was in Christian hands. Without external threats, Spain turned inward towards its Jewish population, which was the largest in Europe.  

By the 14th century, most of Europe had expulsed their Jewish communities. They found refuge in Slavic countries or under Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. As Muslim influence faded, persecution of Jews intensified under the rule of Henry III. The pogroms in 1391 killed 4,000 deaths in Seville alone. Faced with death, many Jews chose baptism instead. Those who did were known as conversos, or “converted” in Spanish. Despite becoming faithful Catholics, conversos still faced persecution and suspicion.

Many Jewish converts become Catholics in name only, or Marranos. They were seen to be even more of a threat than Jews who refused to convert. In 1469, King Ferdinand II and Isabella married, unifying Aragon and Castile into Spain. Referring to the Papal Bull from the 12th century, Pope Sixtus IV authorized Spain to form The Spanish Inquisition. King Ferdinand II used the Spanish Inquisition to solidify and increase the monarchy’s power. Early inquisitors proved to be so brutal that Pope Sixtus IV tried to claw back Spanish power, failing to do so.  

The head of the Spanish Inquisition was known as the grand inquisitor. Via the Pope, they were empowered to name their deputies and control the courts. The inquisitor presided over the Council of the Suprema, a governing body appointed by the monarchy. The council grew in power over time, often at the expense of the Grand Inquisitor. 

The first grand inquisitor was Dominican Tomás de Torquemada. He was a brutal fanatic who tortured thousands. He staged elaborate show trials and public tortures in front of massive crowds. People estimated that 2,000 people burned at stake during his tenure.  

Religious and Political Persecution

The Spanish Inquisition began to expand and gain power with the Alhambra Decree in 1492. All Jews were ordered to leave Spain. The enforcement of the Alhambra degree varied from region to region. Coastal areas under threat of Ottoman invasion faced serious enforcement, while areas inland did not. As a result, around 40,000 Jews and conversos emigrated from Spain during this period. Conversos that remained faced heavy persecution up until the 1530s, though there were sporadic instances of them being tried up until 1818.  

Beyond having authority over non-Christians, the Spanish Inquisition had the authority to try and convict Christians. A common misconception during this period was that the Spanish Inquisition heavily persecuted Protestants. There were so few Protestants living in Spain at the time it was a non-issue. Lutheran was a sort of catch-all used by the church to try any Catholics acting in ways deemed offensive to the church. 

Persecution was not limited to religious offenses, but political as well. The Spanish Inquisition served as enforcers for the Spanish Monarchy. Crimes tried included homosexuality, incest, bigamy, fraud, and treason. The line between religious and non-religious crimes was non-existent as there were no secular codified laws.

Legal Process

The basis of most trials was an accusation. Accusations began with the  Edicts of Grace, which the Spanish Inquisition would read at mass. It outlined potential crimes and a grace period to reconcile crimes with the church. Those who repented were encouraged to inform on other sinners. In 1500, they replaced the Edicts of Grace with the Edicts of Faithabolishing the grace period in favor of accusations only. Accusations were anonymous, making false accusations by jilted lovers and rivals typical.

Inquisitors detained the accused while they conducted the investigation. Often they would be detained for periods of up to two years before being informed of their crimes. Their possessions were confiscated and used to pay for their incarceration.

If the accused went to trial, a defense counsel represented them. The defense was a member of the Inquisition. Their role was to encourage the defendant to speak the truth rather than find them innocent like modern lawyers. The accused had two ways to defend themselves. First, they could discredit their accusers. Second, they could find favorable witnesses. Physical evidence was almost non-existant in these trials.

Torture was a common practice in many cases that were not cut and dry. The Inquisition primarily used three forms of torture.  Garuccha was the practice of suspending victims from the ceiling by their arms.  Te Toca, or waterboarding, was they stuffed cloth in the accused’s mouth and used water to simulate drowning. The potro, or rack, was when each limb was tied and stretched out on a table. For each type of crime, the Inquisition restricted how many times they could torture someone. Eight was the max for the most serious of accusations. Torture sessions were only fifteen minutes long, and a physician had to certify the accused would survive.

The trial could end in several ways. The rarest case would be a full acquittal. Prosecutors wanted to leave cases open in case new evidence came to light. Instead, they would suspend the trial, which allowed them to open it back up at any point. For less serious offenses, the church would penance the convicted. Fines and exile were common in these cases. For more severe crimes, reconciliation occurred. Lengthy jail sentences and physical punishments like whippings were doled out. For the worst crimes, the Inquisition deferred the question of execution to the King.  

Decline Of The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was dominant in Spain and its colonies up until the 18th century. By then, the only threat was Enlightenment ideals, which were near impossible to combat. Steps were taken to censor writings, but the slow secularization of government made the Inquisition ineffective.  

Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon, was the first to abolish the Spanish Inquisition after France’s conquest of Spain. King Ferdinand VII reestablished it in 1814 when he reclaimed the throne. The Inquisition was finally permanently ended in 1834 by Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies.  

Alan Behrens

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