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The Spanish Inquisition: The Motives, the Persecution and the Aftermath

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             The mention of the Spanish Inquisition would bring up images of torture, cruelty and oppression by the Catholic Church. Some even consider the Church as the “forerunner of the secret police of modern dictatorships” (Lemieux 44). Accuracy regarding the picture of the institution and the actions they have radically made to fight out heresy and unbelief in the land is examined to determine as to the extent of justification can be awarded to the church.

            The historical context of the Spanish Inquisition has a number of different versions from different authors; one can only try to reconcile their differences in a general outline of the purposes and motives of the inquisition, the historical development of the Inquisition, the methods of operation and punishment and the aftermath of the Inquisition.

            There are a lot of different views regarding the Spanish Inquisition. Some see it as a ruthless means of “imposing religious uniformity and eradicating any traces of heresy from Spain” (Lemieux 52).  However, some can see it as an “apparatus for strengthening royal power” or as an educational tool for the Catholic citizens of Spain (Lemieux 53). It can also be perceived as a cultural decay (Lemieux 53). The origins of the Inquisition had something to do with religious and racial differences that were resolved by the stronger entity by massive persecutions. The Inquisition played significantly a huge factor why Spain was tat was exclusive to Catholicism as Jews, Muslims and Protestants made up the majority of the victims of the Inquisition persecution (Lemieux 53).

            The Inquisition was considered as an ecclesiastical tribunal that aimed to discover, punish and prevent heresy in the land (Manhattan 37). It was established first in Southern France by Pope Gregory IX in the year 1229. According to him, “truth has rights whose demands must be upheld and promoted in the interests of secular no less than ecclesiastical justice. Error has no right and must be abandoned or uprooted” (Manhattan 37). The Spanish Inquisition was considered as a noble and holy responsibility of the Catholic Church.

Motives and Purposes

            The Spanish Inquisition was established in the year 1478. It was done to create a court to detect and punish heretics (Don Quixote.org, Spanish Inquisition). Even if the whole thing remained loyal to the purposes that it started with, the process and everything that surrounded the Inquisition was somewhat ambiguous (Don Quixote.org, Spanish Inquisition). The original intent behind the Inquisition was the complete annihilation of the Albigensians (Manhattan 37). It was seen as the start of series of massacres of heretics throughout the Middle Ages (Manhattan 37). It was widely feared because of the ferocious methods used against those who are suspected of heresy (Manhattan 37). Those that doubt the dogmas of the Catholic Church and those that dared to test the authority and truth of the Church as well as those who rebel against the Pope’s authority were considered guilty of heresy (Manhattan 37).

            King Philip II wanted to eradicate heresy but he also wanted to bring about reformation and a strengthening of the Spanish church and religion (Lemieux 54). He even told his Inquisitor-General, Espinosa in 1574 that he favors and assists the affair of the Inquisition because he believed in the reasons it stood upon (Lemieux 54). Furthermore, he said he was doing it for himself more than he is doing it for anyone else because he saw it as his obligations to support it (Lemieux 54). This statement then points to the lines drawn between the Inquisition being used as a political power and as a religious power (Lemieux 54).

            It was for certain that there has been considerable royal patronage and there was an extension of power for the State because of it (Lemieux 54). Most of the works of the Inquisition worked in line with the aims of the Crown (Lemieux 54). However, most of the time, the monarchs avoided the use of abuse and manipulation with the powers of Inquisition wherein it was not authorized by the Church like persecuting those who were their political opponents (Lemieux 54).

            At first, the Inquisition was the effort of the Church to consolidate Spain and to drive out the Moors from the country (Nosotro, Government sanctioned religious persecution). It was their goal to maintain “sangre limpia” that was synonymous to purity in terms of race and religion (Nosotro, Government sanctioned religious persecution). Further into the mission, Inquisition turned into a hunt for anyone who went against the Catholic Church (Nosotro, Government sanctioned religious persecution).

            During this time, the Spanish government and the officials of the church declared that there was a responsibility to be pure and unified as a Spanish-Catholic race and this forbade intermarriages between Catholics and non-Catholics to prevent the destruction of the ideal purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) (Don Quixote.org, Spanish Inquisition).

            The persecution was for Jews, Muslims, non-Catholic Christians, and even witches; basically anyone who were accused by informants. The Inquisition became the instrument of the state but the state did pretty much everything the church had told them to do (Nosotro, Government sanctioned religious persecution). Violence was used to impose religions and majority beliefs on others (Nosotro, Government sanctioned religious persecution).

            Under the Spanish Inquisition, a lot of people were killed because they would not give up their religious beliefs and throughout history it was common for people to use the name of God as their justification for killing others (Nosotro, Government sanctioned religious persecution).

Brief History of Spanish Inquisition

            In 1480, the Turks attack the city of Otranto in South Italy and 12,000 people died and the others were made into slaves (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). The Turks even killed the clerics in the city and sawed the archbishop in half (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). Queen Isabel sent a fleet to Italy. In the month of September in the same year, the fear the Turks would do the same thing to Spain enabled King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella to establish the Inquisition (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). It was aimed at dealing with a specific problem of determining those who were pretending to be Christians but were not really converted and to open the gates of the city for the Turks to invade (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).

            It was also a time wherein the West was in fear of following the fate of Constantinople who fell under the sword of Islam (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).         It was such threat that Pope Sixtus IV officially authorized the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 if it was going to be needed, the King of Spain approved of it two years later (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). The focus was the threat of the conversos.  Even if Spain was freed from Islamic control after 800 years of oppression, Islam still ruled in the Granada area up to 1492 (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).

            The Spanish Inquisition was entirely controlled by the Spanish kings and the pope named the Inquisitor General as named by the kings (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). Supposedly, the Spanish Inquisition had no authority over practicing Muslims and Jews but only those who were pretending to be Christians and posed a threat in the country (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). However, it also served to come against Islam, Judaism and repelled Protestantism in the sixteenth century (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).

            The conversos then included mainly Muslisms (Moors or Moros) and Jews (Marranos) who secretly practiced their former religion despite the fact that they converted to Christianity (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). It supposedly had to important responsibility of clearing the names of the people who were but falsely accused (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). The judges that were chosen were at least 4o years old, had an impeccable reputation, known for his virtue and wisdom, masters of theology or doctors of canon law and required to follow the ecclesiastical rules and regulations (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).

            On September 17, 1480k, the kings appointed two Dominicans as inquisitors for Seville. Fray Tomás Torquemada was one of them and was considered as the true organizer of the Spanish Inquisition (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).  The Spanish Inquisition was considered much harsher and more highly organized than the Medieval Inquisition; they also used the death penalty more (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). Spaniards felt the threat of Spanish Inquisition as even St. Ignatius of Loyal and St. Theresa of Avila was investigated for heresy (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).

            According to other historians, the Inquisition was set up to deal with the growing number of converted Jews who were still practicing their Jewish traditions despite their conversion to Catholicism (Lemieux 44). In 1518, the Inquisition was permanently unified under the Inquisitor-General (Lemieux 44). The Spanish Inquisition was highly noted to be controlled by the Spanish crown and not Rome where Vatican was located (Lemieux 44). The head and the officials were royal appointees and the operations were mostly without reference to the Papacy, even appeals to Rome regarding the Inquisition were blocked by the Crown (Lemieux 44).

            According to historian Henry Kamen, the Inquisition was founded on fear and secrecy (Lemieux 44). Moral offences were included in those punished by this procedure with reference to blasphemy, bigamy and sodomy (Lemieux 44). However, there was a period of grace or amnesty in the 1500 (Lemieux 44). During this time, those who voluntarily came forward to acknowledge their sins were reconciled to the church with minor penalties (Lemieux 44). Normally, each tribunal included three inquisitors who conducted their visitations across their “patch” (Lemieux 45).  They were highly reliant on their informants who were also called familiars to pinpoint their suspects (Lemieux 45).

            The first auto de fetook took place on February 12, 1486 (Alpert 128). From that date towards the year 1501, there was about 2,791 people were tried and 1, 096 were burnt at stake having been declared guilty of heresy against the church (Alpert 128). There were five hundred who died before the persecution and those that managed to escape had effigies burnt to symbolize the shame they had for their crimes against the church (Alpert 128). The bones of those who died were crushed and scattered.

            Even when Spain was weakening as a former superpower, the Inquisition’s activities even showed a rise as the number of autos de febe in the years 1670 to 1690 reflected in statistics how it reached numbers only achieved in the early years of office from two hundred years before (Alpert 128).

Religious Persecution

            During the Spanish Inquisition, there were three types of main punishment methods for those who were not acquitted. They were to be penanced, reconciled, or relaxed (Lemieux 47). The terms were made to be misleading. The term “relaxed” actually translated to the most severe of the punishments (Lemieux 47). It involved being burn at stake, in person or in effigy. It was reserved for heretics who did not accept repentance or those who had re-offended (Lemieux 47).

            Those that were “reconciled” were not fortunate as they were sentenced to severe flogging and sent for long periods to row in the galleys or were given lengthy prison terms (Lemieux 47). Even if the penitent was excused because of his age and physical condition, they were not excused from public shaming as they were paraded half-naked to the next day on donkeyback through crowded streets and the jeering of the mob, this was also done as “relaxed” victims were brought to the venue where they were burned (Alpert 138). Their property and goods were also confiscated as an additional penalty imposed to those who were reconciled (Lemieux 47).

            When a person was to be “penanced” it reflected the mildest form of punishment (Lemieux 48). The offenders who were given such punishment swore to avoid their sin in the future. They were fined, banished, and/or sentenced to wear a special garment called the sanbenito (Lemieux 48).  The sambenito was usually yellow in color with one or more diagonal crosses to expose their sins and infamy to the public (Lemieux 48). They were made to wear such a garment either for a specific time of a few months or for a lifetime (Lemieux 48). When the offender died or if the sentence was finished, their sambenito would be hung in the local church to serve as the solidifying of the public disgrace of the person, even for his or her generations to come (Lemieux 48). Internal exile can be a better and lighter sentence after a penitent who had spent time in prison however for those who were of high standing in society and had commercial ventures, it was a heavy blow for them as they were expelled from any kind of success (Alpert 138).

            The auto da fe or the act of faith was a widely known feature of the Spanish Inquisition (Lemieux 48).  It characterized by acts of public humiliation (Lemieux 48). It was designed as a religious ceremony for the locality and took place in large public squares (Lemieux 48).  It actually involved a lot of planning an organization as well as expense for the authorities (Lemieux 48).

            The prisoners were processed in the streets (Lemieux 48). A mass was celebrated and the prisoners would be up on the scaffold and their sins would be read out loud (Lemieux 48). Their punishments were announced and afterwards, they were considered reconciled to the church (Lemieux 48). Most autos did not involve capital punishments but some did. The actual burning was not part of the main ceremony and they took place outside of the city because the church were not allowed to shed blood and were carried out by the secular authorities (Lemieux 48).

            The climax of the persecution actually reaced 107 people being burned alive together for having listened to (and not necessarily approved) to the address of a certain Membreque who was a Bachelor of Divinity (Roth 60).  He was accused of having attempted to propagate teachings of divinity (Roth 60).

            In a general auto de feof held on June 30, 1680, there were 118 victims who appeared in Madrid (Alpert 130). It was the image preserved by Francisco Rizzi’s Prado (Alpert 130). In this event, the king demonstrated his religious zeal by the bringing honor to the act with his presence and taking the oath to support the efforts of the Holy Office (Alpert 130). Since auto was grandiose because of the presence of royalty, prisoners were brought to Madrid from the Inquisiton gaols from across the country (Alpert 130).

            In Rizzi’s painting, victims were sitting in four rows of raked seats where one was looking towards the royal box, with the presence of the hushed crowd the Church and the State appeared unified in the fight against heresy (Alpert 130).

            As the other autos, there was a sermon and penitents would be brought one by one to hear their sentences (Alpert 130). The first to be called before the secretaries of Inquisition were those who claimed to be sorcerers, witches, bigamist and imposter priests (Alpert 130).

            When a person was reconciled to the Church they would only know their penance once they are called up in the auto. However, those who would be executed were informed of their sentence a day before (Alpert 131). The officials hoped that it would give them time to repent and to save their souls (Alpert 131).

            The goal of the friars was still to have the accused repent of their sins and be reconciled to the church. However, even as the burning of at the stake was seen as a failure on the part of the court as the friars ceaselessly tried to persuade them to confess and abjure his sin, the execution was still seen as a representation of the triumph of Good over Evil (Alpert 134).


            The government turned the Spanish Inquisition into an instrument to restore balance and execute hundred of thousand of Jews as a form of revenge and a means of acquiring money and possessions all with one stroke (Don Quixote.org, Spanish Inquisition).

            The abolition of inquisition still marked the families of the persecuted with shame (Roth 268). There were portraits of those who were persecuted that hung in the parish churches that served as a constant reminder (Roth 268). The portraits were even renewed over and over again in oil canvass to secure the quality of the portraits as well as to “secure the everlasting shame of the victims of the heresy-hunts” (Roth 268). The list of the families and the descendants were also posted in the church doors that tainted their legacy for the longest time (Roth 268). Discrimination continued and it was only during the 1860s where the line that divided the old and the new Christians were abolished by the Cortes (Roth 268). This made the presentation of the certificate of pure blood or liempeza to the Corps of Cadets unnecessary (Roth 268).

            Lord Malmesbury, a former British Foreign minister found a site wherein large quantities of bones, skulls, lumps of blackening flesh, pieces of chains and braids of hair in Madrid (Roth 269). There were layers and layers of human remains that manifested the hundreds who had been sacrificed and died during the Spanish Inquisition (Roth 269).

            It was actually only in the Revolution of 1931, decades after the Inquisition was abolished wherein religious equality was recognized by the Spanish constitution and the work that Torquemada started of the brutality of the Inquisition was undone (Roth 269).

            The Spanish Inquisition even offered the model for the rest of the world wherein Inquisitors were designated by the king and delegated pontifical authority (Saraiva 27).  The Spanish Inquisition established the “spiritual arm” of the Crown (Saraiva 27). Established on the pretense of purifying New Christian’s Catholicism from the influence of practicing Jews, hundreds of thousands were killed for under suspicion or actually having different beliefs than of the State and the Church (Saraiva 29). The Portuguese Inquisition was inspired by the Spanish Inquisition however it was based more on a calculate decision and a political move on the part of the Crown to emulate the power the Spanish royalty had with their own country (Saraiva 30).


            The Spanish Inquisition was seen to be more notorious even compared to the Medieval Inquisition for a lot of reasons but mostly because it was crueler because it was administered and entirely controlled by the secular government and not the Church itself (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). It was also focused largely on the conversos wherein Jews were converted under social convenience and duress and were suspected to be secretly practicing their old faith (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity). Protestants and opponents of Catholicism also had a hand in making the Inquisition appear crueler historically despite some excesses than what has actually occurred (Dominguez, The Dark Side of Christianity).

            The church had a theory they perceived to have upheld in the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition that stressed, “Truth has rights, whose demands must be upheld and promoted in the interests of secular no less than ecclesiastical justice” (Manhattan 37). In reality, the truth that the Catholic Church meant was more towards its own truth and anything outside what they believed in was not and cannot ever be considered as the truth (Manhattan 37).

Works Cited

Alpert, Michael.Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Dominguez, J. “The Dark Side of Christianity.” Biblia.com (2004). 14 November 2007. <http://biblia.com/christianity/spanish.htm>.

Don Quixote.org. “Spanish Inquisition.” 1996. Spanish History. 14 November 2007 <http://www.donquijote.org/culture/spain/history/inquisition.asp>

Lemieux, Simon. “The Spanish Inquisition: Simon Lemieux Examines the Hard Facts about the Inquisition and Counters the Common Caricature.” History Review (2002):44+.

Manhattan, Avro. The Vatican in World Politics. New York: Gaer Associates, 1949.

Nosotro, Rit. “Government sanctioned religious persecution of the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust.” Hyperhistory.net (2007). 14 November 2007. <http://www.hyperhistory.net/apwh/essays/comp/c2persecutiongi.htm>.

Roth, Cecil. Spanish Inquisition. New York: WWW Norton and Company, Inc., 1996.

Saraiva, Antonio.The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765. Boston: Brill, 2001.

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