The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition

August 5, 2013 | 1 comment

Many Catholics squirm at the very mention of the Spanish Inquisition, oftentimes conceding to claims that it was the most brutal time in Church history. But was it really as brutal as it is often described?

If you have never seen the BBC documentary The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, I highly recommend it. At a little over forty-five minutes, it summarizes the most recent scholarship about the "Black Legend," how it began, and why it persists.

Here are just a few of the more interesting points covered in the documentary:

  • The "Black Legend" began as an anti-Spanish propaganda campaign that succeeded largely because of the invention of the printing press. The Inquisition was the prime target.
  • Inquisitors were not fanatical priests as they are often portrayed. In fact, many of them were not priests at all but legal experts trained in Spanish schools.
  • Contrary to popular belief, torture was rarely used. It was used less by the Inquisition than it was in the tribunals of other countries throughout Europe at the time.
  • Stories about cruel torture methods used by the Inquisitors and the terrible conditions in which prisoners were kept were completely falsified. The Inquisition actually had the best jails in Spain.
  • Prisoners of secular courts would actually blaspheme so that they could be transferred to Inquisition prisons and escape the maltreatment of the secular prisons.
  • Persecuting witchcraft was a craze in Europe at the time, and secular courts were not tolerant of these kinds of offenses. The accused were often burned at the stake. The Inquisition, on the other hand, declared witchcraft a delusion. No one could be tried for it or burned at the stake.
  • The Inquisition was virtually powerless in rural areas.
  • In the entire sixteenth century, the Inquisition in Spain executed only about 50 people, which is contrary to the "Black Legend," which numbers the executions in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Of all the Inquisitions together throughout Europe, scholars estimate that the number of people executed ranged somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. That averages, at most, about fourteen people per year throughout the entire continent over a period of 350 years.

The entire documentary is available on Youtube.


Jon Sorensen earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-...

Understanding The Inquisition
In the annals of history, perhaps no story sets itself so violently against the Catholic Church, and Catholic Spain as the black legend of the Inquisition. From claims of the most grotesque tortures, secretive and unjust legal proceedings, and tens of thousands of brutal executions, the Inquisition in the modern world is almost a byword for tyranny. And yet, the truth of the matter is quite different. In Understanding The Inquisition, Mr. Christopher Check, examines the origins of the Roman, and later Spanish Inquisition, its purposes and procedures, and some of the most persistent myths surrounding it.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Jimmy Roane - Allen, Texas

Admittedly, this is a dark part of Catholic history; however, the Catholics were not alone in this.

Calvin viciously persecuted the Spaniard, Michael Servetus, having him burnt alive on October 27, 1553. As early as 1545, Calvin had written, “If he [Servetus] comes to Geneva, I will never allow him to depart alive.” He kept his promise.

Furthermore, King Henry VIII of England, took upon himself the role of grand royal inquisitor, took the lives of some 100's of Catholics, many who were cruelly tortured.

Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of King Henry VII proved herself to be no less a master at killing Catholic than did her father.

The memory of the holocausts under Elizabeth I and Cromwell have been forever seared into the psyche of the Irish race. Cromwell’s evil idea that Irish Catholics were “barbarous wretches” was, also, unfortunately, passed into the British mindset.

So, there is definitely enough blame to go around.

April 23, 2014 at 11:17 am PST

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