In a nutshell: Spanish Inquisition

Nobody expected it, but the brutal period of religious persecution, torture and burnings at the stake raged for over 350 years.

In a nutshell: Spanish Inquisition (public domain)

Who started the Spanish Inquisition?

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The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, or the Spanish Inquisition, was established in 1478 under the reign of Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Isabella I of Castile. The Catholic monarchs wished their country to unite under one religion and one culture.

Was it the only one?

It may be the most remembered, but other inquisitions had existed since the 12th century, designed to combat religious sectarianism. The Medieval Inquisition, for example, was developed by the Roman Catholic Church to suppress heresy.

During the 14th century, these inquisitions had expanded to other European countries including Spain, which set up its own, this time controlled by the crown and not the church.

The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united Spain – and led to the Inquisition. Portrait, c1482 © Getty Images
The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united Spain – and led to the Inquisition. Portrait, c1482 © Getty Images

Who did the Spanish Inquisition target?

Originally, the Inquisition was to ensure that those who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism or Islam had done so properly. This regulation intensified after two royal decrees were issued (in 1492 and 1501) ordering Jews and Muslims to choose baptism or exile.

In the wake of the first decree, more than 160,000 Jews were forced to leave Spain. Anybody suspected of being a heretic was investigated, even those who had converted to Christianity. The Moriscos (former Spanish Muslims who had accepted baptism) faced persecution, as did followers of humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus.

How was the Inquisition run?

The Inquisitor General presided over the six members of the Council of the Suprema. They would meet every morning, as well as an additional two hours, three afternoons a week. Morning sessions addressed faith-related heresies, while afternoons were dedicated to minor heresies, such as sexual offences and bigamy.

Fourteen tribunals fed into the Suprema. These were initially set up in areas where they were deemed to be needed, but were later established in fixed locations. Two inquisitors and a prosecutor sat in each tribunal, with one inquisitor, the alguacil, being responsible for detaining, jailing, and physically torturing the defendant.

The public acts of punishment were called auto-da-fe, or an 'act of faith'. Painting of an auto-da-fe by Francisco Ricci, 1683 © Getty Images
The public acts of punishment were called auto-da-fe, or an ‘act of faith’. Painting of an auto-da-fe by Francisco Ricci, 1683 © Getty Images

What happened during an Inquisition?

The arrival of the Inquisition must have been truly terrifying. Congregations were, at first, encouraged to come before a tribunal voluntarily so that they could confess their heresies, for which they would usually receive lighter punishments. But they were then cajoled or threatened to turn informant on their families, friends and neighbours.

Once someone was accused and the presence of heresy had been established, they would be imprisoned. Their property would be confiscated to cover expenses and maintenance costs, while the imprisonment could last months, if not years. When a case, finally, came before a tribunal, the process consisted of a series of hearings during which both denouncer and defendant gave their version of events.

Were people really tortured?

Yes, but historians are still divided as to the extent to which torture was used and how far it went. Methods of torture seem to have been used to extract confessions, as opposed to a punishment in its own right, but it seems little distinction was given to who was tortured. Women, children, the infirm and the aged were not exempt.

A popular torture method was the rack, which would stretch victims, while others involved suspending a person from the ceiling by the wrists. The accused could also be forced to ingest water with a cloth in the mouth, so they felt like were drowning.

Punishments ranged from wearing a penitential garment for various lengths of time (the rest of their life in some cases), to acts of penance, lashings or, in the case of unrepentant or relapsed heretics, burning at the stake.

The Book Of Martyrs by John Foxe depicts a prisoner being tortured, published c1865 © Getty Images
The Book Of Martyrs by John Foxe depicts a prisoner being tortured, published c1865 © Getty Images

How many people died?

Again, this is hotly debated with estimates ranging from 30,000 to as many as 300,000. There are some, however, who believe that the horrors of the Inquisition have been exaggerated, and that just one per cent of the 125,000 people believed to have been tried were executed.

When did it end?

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Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and Sicily (1806-08) and King of Spain (1808-13) is the man credited with ending the Spanish Inquisition, although it wouldn’t be officially abolished by royal decree until July 1834.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of History Revealed.