Secrets of the Spanish Inquisition Revealed


When it comes to Catholic urban legends, the granddaddy of them all is the Spanish Inquisition. From sixteenth-century Elizabethan England to twenty-first-century Fundamentalism, the Spanish Inquisition has served as the source and summit of anti-Catholic rhetoric.

The Spanish Inquisition contains all the elements of a classic Catholic urban legend. A distorted historical understanding shared by Catholics and non-Catholics alike makes a useful club against any position taken by the Church today in the public arena. Any Catholic apologist or spokesperson for a Catholic position in contemporary culture knows this. It is virtually impossible to engage in any discussion without someone raising the Spanish Inquisition to score effective, if irrelevant, debating points.

The Spanish Inquisition carries the whole nine yards. It’s the story of the Church as the enemy of freedom, of burning heretics in autos-da-fe, and ghastly engines of torture worked by cackling monks. It is the world of Edgar Allan Poe’s "Pit and the Pendulum" and innocent Bible-believers martyred for their faith. It’s part of a papal-dominated "dark ages" that hurled Spain backwards in time, only truly beginning to emerge after the fall of Franco in the twentieth century.

The historical reality of the Spanish Inquisition has its own tragedies, without a doubt, and it remains an ugly part of Europe’s past. The Spanish Inquisition was surely on the mind of Pope John Paul II when he made the Millennium apology for the wrongs of the past. But the real history of the Spanish Inquisition is far from the caricature that most people carry as part of their anti-Catholic cultural baggage. What we allege to know of the Spanish Inquisition is often little more than post-Reformation propaganda.

Prejudicial Roots

The real Spanish Inquisition came late to European history. The classic inquisition that existed in various parts of Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had little impact on the Spanish peninsula. The Inquisition was nonexistent in Spain or Portugal at that time. It was only after the mid-fifteenth century that the Spanish Inquisition developed. And its primary target was not so-called "heretics." The ugly truth of the Spanish Inquisition is that it was aimed primarily at descendants of Jewish converts who were accused of secretly practicing their old faith. And the motivating factor may have been greed, jealously, and racial pogroms, rather than preservation of the unity of faith.

Spain was unique in Western Europe for the racial diversity of its population. In addition to a large Muslim population, Spain had the single largest Jewish community in the world in the thirteenth century, numbering about 100,000. For centuries, Jews and Christians had lived together in a generally peaceful, if separate, coexistence.

In the summer of 1391, however, this was shattered in Spain when angry anti-Jewish riots erupted. Whether these riots were racial, nationalistic, or religious in origin—and this is still disputed among historians—the result was mass conversions to Christianity among the Jewish population. There is little doubt that many, if not most, of these conversions were forced. And many certainly converted to save their own lives.

These Jewish converts from the fourteenth century would be called conversos (or the more scornful term, marranos) as a means to distinguish them from traditional "old" Christian families. That identity would remain with such families for years. Over time, these converso families were allowed to integrate fully into Spanish society. In many cases, their Jewish religious identity and heritage were lost. They fully participated in Spanish life and practiced the Christian faith, and many became leaders in government, science, business and the Church. Though it was eventually legislated that those forced to convert could return to Jewish practice, many did not.

These converso families stirred up the forces and prejudices that dominated the Spanish Inquisition. The "old Christians," jealous of the conversos’ success and their growing wealth, saw them as opportunists and invented their own urban legend—that these conversos dominating Spanish life were secretly maintaining the faith of their ancestors. This legend was one of the major motivating factors of the Spanish Inquisition.

Pursuit of "Secret Jews"

In the fifteenth century, Spain was engaged with the Muslims in the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula. The two traditional kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, united through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, finally conquered the Muslim region of Granada in 1492. In the kingdom of Castile, anti-converso sentiment and anti-Semitism had risen dramatically during the nationalistic fervor of the Reconquista. The conversos in many ways were viewed as worse than the Jews because they were "backsliders" who had access to privilege and position. A new anti-Semitism was on the rise in Spain as it was forging a national identity and unity. An inquisition was deemed necessary to root out the "false" conversos.

In 1478, Frederick and Isabella requested a papal bull establishing an inquisition. It was granted, and by 1482 the inquisition had been placed under the Dominican Friar Tomas de Torquemada.

Why did the monarchs want an inquisition? Ostensibly, the reason was investigation of the allegations against the conversos as having secretly returned to the Jewish faith. They also wanted to assure unity of faith throughout the peninsula. But there was also a burning desire—not necessarily felt by the monarchs, but certainly shared by the enemies of conversos—to confiscate converso wealth, and to kick them out of public life so that the "old Christian" families could take their place.

But even at this early point in the history of the Spanish Inquisition, the papacy was having second thoughts. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) complained about the activities of the inquisition in Aragon and its treatment of the conversos. But, as throughout much of Europe, the papacy had lost much control over the actions of local inquisitions. Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) complained fruitlessly as well. The inquisition in Spain was controlled by Spanish authorities, not the authority of the papacy.

In March 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion—or conversion—of the remaining Jews in Spain. Indeed, the hope on their part was conversion. Most evidence indicates that their motivation was religious. But whatever their motivation, the results were twofold. First, many Jews fled. Second, a large number converted—which naturally aggravated the popular picture of "secret Jews" within the Christian community of Spain.

As a result, through 1530 the primary activity of the Spanish Inquisition was aimed at pursuing alleged conversos. Records of the Spanish Inquisition show that virtually the only "heresy" prosecuted was the alleged secret practice of the Jewish faith. Some two thousand people from the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition through 1530 were convicted conversos. Many of these had already fled; they were burned in effigy.

Stronghold of the Faith

As the Lutheran revolt and its various offshoots spread across Europe after 1530, the Spanish Inquisition became entrenched as a means to protect the faith in Spain from the infiltration of Protestant ideas, but also most certainly to buttress royal power. Yet, for numerous reasons unique to Spain, Protestant ideas never took hold at all.

The image of the Spanish Inquisition torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of simple Bible-believing Protestants has no basis whatsoever in historical fact because there were virtually no Protestants in Spain.

During the Reformation period in Spain, the Spanish Inquisition certainly looked for evidence of Protestantism. Contemporary trends were viewed suspiciously even when those investigated were clearly Catholic in their origins. Prior to 1558, historians estimate that there were probably fewer than fifty cases of alleged Lutheranism among Spaniards that came to the notice of the Spanish Inquisition.

In the late 1550s, however, a small group of Protestants, possibly numbering about 120, was discovered. The crown reacted in horror. Though Spain anticipated a tidal wave of revelations and discoveries of pseudo-Protestants, in the 1560s secular authorities rounded up only about two hundred so-called Protestants.

In the last decades of the sixteenth century, perhaps an additional two hundred were accused of being followers of Luther. But it is generally conceded that most of these were far from Protestants. As in many parts of Europe during the inquisitions, the alleged heretics were really those who had perhaps made crude—usually drunken—irreligious sentiments, or were prosecuted more for anti-clericalism than any great apostasy.

The Spanish Inquisition continued to exist until its formal abolition in 1834, though by 1730 most of its worst offenses were in the past. For the most part, it remained as it had been: aimed primarily at Catholic conversos of Jewish heritage and, later, similar converts from Islam.

No Cackling Monks

But what of the cackling monks wielding gruesome instruments of torture, and heretics burned by the thousands in autos-da-fe?

There were no cackling monks. As in any area where an inquisition operated or in the secular legal system throughout Western Europe, civil authorities conducted torture to elicit information. While we look back at this with obvious repulsion, the simple fact is that torture was commonplace in all judicial systems throughout Western Europe.

How did the Spanish Inquisition function? In many ways, much as inquisitions functioned elsewhere. An inquisition was announced in a community, and an "edict of grace" allowed for self-confessing offenses without serious penalties. By the sixteenth century, inquisition trials were usually not public, and evidence was collected before the trial itself. If sufficient proof existed, the person in question was arrested.

Since evidence was gathered in advance, the trial was not considered a means to determine guilt or innocence. Rather, the trial was meant to solicit confession and conversion. Torture was used to gain information or confession but not for punishment. It was never conducted by clergy but by paid professionals representing the secular authorities.

The accused was usually given three opportunities to admit to wrongs. Unlike the medieval inquisitions in much of Europe, the accused was allowed legal (though often pretty ineffective) counsel if the goal was exoneration. Mostly, counsel helped the accused explain the mitigating circumstances, which typically involved being drunk at the time.

These were church trials, not secular ones, and varying degrees of penance were pronounced at the conclusion. As in most medieval inquisitions, the majority of cases did not involve outright heresy. Charges such as bigamy, lewd living, adultery, and blasphemy made up the routine cases.

The most serious charges—and those most often leveled at the conversos—were of unrepentant heresy or relapsing into heresy. Those deemed guilty were turned over to the secular authorities and burned at the stake. It should be noted that after the bitter persecution of the conversos in the first two decades of the Spanish Inquisition, very few were actually executed. Most of the condemned were burned in effigy, as they would have fled before the inquisition began.

Public Acts of Penance

The auto-da-fe (literally, "act of faith") that followed trials in Spain is the most infamous—and misunderstood—part of the Spanish Inquisition. Artistic representations of the auto-da-fe by the anti-Catholic propaganda mill usually consist of wild-eyed crowds salivating as heretics are tortured and burned in the public square.

The reality was that an auto-da-fe was a unique.aspect of the Spanish Inquisition that involved a public, liturgical act of faith. Usually held in a public square after the inquisition trial was concluded, an auto-da-fe involved Mass, prayer, a reading of the sentences handed down, and a procession of the guilty. It was a religious act stressing the hoped-for reconciliation of those accused. The autos-da-fe had no torture and no burning. If execution took place, it did so separately from the auto-da-fe and was far less public.

After the monarchy had abolished the Spanish Inquisition in the nineteenth century, and with the rise of historical studies based on research rather than propaganda, a truer image of the Spanish Inquisition has slowly made its way into the history books. Though not a part of its history of which the Church is proud, the Spanish Inquisition is hardly the "black legend" that still grips the popular imagination.

History created by Reformation polemics is not history. It is just Catholic urban legend.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 9.