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The Notorious Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is a notorious part of Spain s history and the topic of numerous paintings, movies, books and even comedy sketches.

The Catholic Church tends to be blamed for atrocities that occurred but, as you will see below, much of the cruelty was originally due to the financial greed and politics of Spanish monarchs.

Historians also comment on the fact that many Protestant lands had similar institutions which were just as repressive - for example, the consistory in Geneva at the time of the French reformer, John Calvin.

So ... what was the Spanish Inquisition ... how did it start ... when did it end?

Spanish Inquisition - What Was It?

Basically, it was the Spanish counterpart of the medieval Inquisition.

It was established, with papal approval, in Spain in 1478 at the request of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I of Spain.

Centrally directed by the Supreme Council of the Inquisition, it was a religious court operated by Church authorities but under the control of the Spanish monarchy.

Torture was often used to gain repentance and, if a person was found to be heretical, s/he was turned over to the secular authorities for punishment.

These punishments ranged from public shame to burning at the stake - dead for those who repented, alive for those who didn t.

They were conducted in public ceremonies which could last all day - the infamous autos da fe.

Originally, the Spanish Inquisition dealt with the problem of Jews and Muslims who - through strong coercion - had insincerely converted to Christianity.

Later, during the 1520s, it also turned its attentions to persons suspected of Protestantism.

Spanish Inquisition - How Did It Start?

In the 15th century, Spain was not a single state but a confederation of kingdoms, each with their own administration.

The extensive Crown of Aragon was ruled by Ferdinand, whilst that of Castile was governed by Isabella.

Ferdinand and Isabella eventually married, thus consolidating several independent realms into one state.

Much of the Iberian Peninsula had been ruled by the Moors. The southern regions in particular were heavily populated by Muslims and the larger cities had a high Jewish population.

While the Castilian Isabella was a devout Catholic, the Aragonese Ferdinand was not above using religion as a means of controlling his people.

He wanted the Jewish and Muslim religions wiped out in his domains and he saw the Inquisition as a means of achieving that aim.

There was also a strong financial motive - Jewish financiers had lent Ferdinand s father much money.

These debts would be wiped out should the noteholder be condemned in court.

The Pope of the time - Sixtus IV - did not originally want the Inquisition established in Spain at all.

However, Ferdinand prevailed upon Rodrigo Borgia - then Bishop of Valencia and a cardinal - to lobby Rome on his behalf.

Borgia was partially successful and Pope Sixtus IV sanctioned the Inquisiton - but only in the state of Castile.

In 1481, Ferdinand and Isabella appointed Tom s de Torquemada to investigate and punish conversos - Jews and Muslims who claimed to have converted to Catholicism but continued to practice their former religion in secret.

The authority of the Inquisition was supposed to reach only Christians, not Jews or Muslims but, since 1492, every Jew in the King s states had been either baptized or expelled.

Sixtus IV was unhappy with the excesses of the Inquisition and disallowed it to spread to Aragon.

He alleged that it was a ploy by Ferdinand and Isabella to confiscate Jews property and valuables.

However, Ferdinand was King of Sicily and several other kingdoms apart from Aragon and he used this power as leverage against the Pope - he threatened to withhold military supprt of the Holy See.

Consequently, the Pope relented, giving the Spanish Inquisition his blessing.

Ferdinand now had everything he sought:

   the Inquisition was under his control
   it had Papal approval

The Royal coffers began to swell with loot from Jewish and other victims ...

Spanish Inquisition - When Did It End?

Pope Sixtus IV died in 1484 to be succeeded by Innocent VIII.

Innocent VIII supported the Spanish Inquisition wholeheartedly and ordered all Catholic monarchs to extradite fleeing Jews back to Spain where they could stand trial.

During Napoleonic rule - between 1808 and 1812 - it was removed, to be reinstituted when Ferdinand VII recovered the throne of Spain.

It did not end officially until 1834 - a good 350 years after it began.

Nowadays, the Spanish Inquisition receives much criticism but ... are we any more tolerant of differing peoples and faiths to-day?

All about the Spanish Armada.

A general overview of Spanish history.

Return from Spanish Inquisition to Top Tour of Spain home page.