History of the Spanish Inquisition

Although the term The Inquisition always conjures up images of the Spanish Inquisition, in actual fact the very first papal bull founding one was at the end of the 12th century in southern France. There were further examples in Europe during the Middle Ages, even in the Kingdom of Aragón itself, before, in 1478, Isabella sought permission for her version under the infamous leadership of the Dominican monk, Tomás de Torquemada. It was not finally abolished until 1834 ironically in the reign of the second Isabella.

Auto-da-fé by Francisco Rizi
Francisco Rizi painting from 1683 of the Act of Faith (auto-da-fé) held in Plaza Mayor in Madrid in 1680.

Right at the beginning of our story it needs to be stressed that most legends of the Spanish Inquisition recorded in Britain were written by Protestant authors and may have been severely overstated. Historical revisionists, notably British historian Henry Kamen, have claimed that the accounts were greatly exaggerated as part of what has been termed ‘The Black Legend’. They suggest that, even allowing for huge omissions in documentation, the total number of executions triggered by the Inquisition in the 350 years of its existence would not have exceeded 5,000; it was certainly nowhere near the 12,000 previously claimed.

In the early days after the Christian Reconquest of the major part of the peninsula there was a relatively peaceful period of co-existence between the Christians, Moors and Jews. Fernando’s father had had a Jewish astronomer in his court and Jews held many vital high positions. At the end of the fourteenth century, however, the passionate Archdeacon of Ecija, Ferrant Martinez, began a heated anti Jewish campaign. In Seville, consequently, hundreds of Jews were killed and the synagogue destroyed. Similar events occurred in Barcelona, Córdoba and Valencia.

This led to a new social group being formed – conversos; Jews who escaped persecution by converting to Christianity. Subsequently, Fernando’s personal physician and many other high-ranking officials were conversos. When Isabella visited Seville at the end of 1477 she was persuaded that many of the conversos were, in fact, insincere converts who were disloyal to both the Catholic Church and the royal authority. The Monarchs’ first requests to Pope Sixtus IV to re-introduce the Inquisition were refused – the Roman authorities were apparently concerned about papal authority being weakened – but the ever resourceful Fernando threatened to withdraw his military support for the Papal conflict with the Turks and so permission was granted.

Initially the Inquisition was confined to Seville and Córdoba, with the very first Auto de Fé being in Seville in 1481, when six people were burned to death. The Auto de Fé was a ceremony which either celebrated the return of the condemned person to the Catholic Church, which happened in the majority of cases, or punished him or her as an unrepentant heretic. In time they became great public spectacles, usually held in the largest square of a city, on a public holiday, and frequently lasting an entire day. If you visit the Prado Art Gallery in Madrid, watch out for Rizzi’s terrifying painting of the Auto de Fé held in Madrid in 1680.

By 1492, that year again!, there were Inquisitions in 8 different Castilian cities. In the first 50 years, Kamen estimates that around 2,000 executions took place, mostly of Jews. The resultant panic amongst Spanish Jews meant that upwards of 200,000 of them, mainly traders, doctors and academics, left the country; leaving a hole that was very difficult to fill as well as depriving the rulers of much needed taxes.

During the 16th century, the Inquisition also began to target Protestants in Spain for the first time. Of course, there were, in reality, very few Protestants in the country at that time and, although 100 people were executed as Protestants from 1560 up to the end of the century, most of them, in fact, were probably intellectuals or clerics who, because of their academic interest in the works of Erasmus, were seen as being dangerous by the mainstream church.

The church, with the full co-operation of the royal family, began to enforce a rigorous censorship of books and ideas. Salamanca University has some fascinating books which show the censorship marks and the cut out columns from some of their historical texts. It was also in Salamanca that the famous Friar Luis Ponce de Léon was twice taken by the Inquisition – the first time whilst delivering a lecture to students – because, amongst other things, he had made a translation of the biblical Song of Songs directly from the Hebrew

In the early 17th century, the Inquisitors turned their attention towards the Muslims again and, between 1609 and 1614 more than 250,000 mainly Spanish Muslims were driven out of their country. It was at the same time that trials related to witchcraft took place, although the witch hunt in Spain was less pronounced than in many nearby countries such as Germany, France and England.

The arrival of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century began to put a stop to the activities of the Inquisition. By the time Carlos III and Carlos IV were ruling the country only four people were condemned and burned. The end came when the Inquisition was completely and definitively abolished on July 15th, 1834.

During the years of the Inquisition many Spaniards considered it a triumph for Roman Catholicism, but its costs were high. Many economically important citizens were expelled or killed. The censorship of books and the prevention of students studying overseas, to stop them bringing Protestant ideas into the country, and the general atmosphere of fear and mistrust cut Spain off from many of the intellectual developments in Europe. Spanish universities, some of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, became academic backwaters. Additionally, of course, the need to protect royal legitimacy, power and prestige forced Spain into fighting wars it could not win, causing even more damage to the country’s society and economy.

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