The Spanish Inquisition was the Inquisition acting in Spain under the control of the Kings of Spain. This Inquisition was the result of the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims and the policy of converting Spanish Jews and Muslims to Christianity. The Inquisition was an important tool in enforcing the limpieza de sangre ("cleanliness of blood") against descendants of converted Jews or Muslims.
In the 15th century, Spain was not a single state but a confederation of reigns, each with their own administrations: The Crown of Aragon and Castile, ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella, respectively. In the Crown of Aragon, a confederation of Aragon, Baleares, Catalunya and Valencia, there was a local inquisition from the Middle Ages, as in the rest of the European countries, but not in the Reign of Castile.
Much of the Iberian peninsula had been ruled by the Moors, and the southern regions, particularly Granada, were heavily populated by Muslims. Until 1492, Granada was still under Moorish rule. The large cities, especially Seville, Valladolid, capital of Castile, and Barcelona, capital of the Crown of Aragon, had large Jewish populations centered in Juderías.
There was a long tradition of Jewish service to the Crown of Aragon. Ferdinand's father, John II of Aragon, appointed Abiathar Crescas, a Jew, as his court astrologer. Jews held many prominent posts, both religious and political. Pedro de la Caballeria, a Marrano, played a major role in arranging Ferdinand's marriage. Castile even had an unofficial Crown Rabbi, a professing Jew.
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 the Inquisition was his method for achieving that. Many historians believe the Spanish Inquisition was instituted as a way of weakening Ferdinand's primary political opposition at home. It is also possible that there was a financial motivation. Jewish financiers had lent Ferdinand's father many of the funds which he had used to pursue the alliance by marriage with Castile, and many of these debts would be wiped if the noteholder were condemned in court. The Inquisitor whom Ferdinand installed in Saragossa Cathedral was assassinated by New Christians (forced converts).
Ferdinand was an astute politician, and developed close ties with St. Peter's in Rome as part of his political manoeuvering, aimed at consolidating the independent realms (joined by his marriage to Isabella) into a single state to be left to his heir. However, he did not want the Pope to control the Inquisition in Spain, as he was jealous of any other power within his borders.
The Pope did not want the Inquisition established in Spain at all, but Ferdinand insisted. He prevailed upon Rodrigo Borgia, then Bishop of Valencia and a cardinal, to lobby Rome on his behalf. Borgia was partially successful, as Pope Sixtus IV sanctioned the Inquisition only in the state of Castile. Later, Borgia was to have Spain's support for his own papacy as Pope Alexander VI.
Ferdinand and Isabella appointed Tomás de Torquemada in 1481 to investigate and punish conversos — Jews and Moors (Muslims) who claimed to have "converted" to Catholicism but continued to practice their "former" religion in secret. Some disguised Jews had even been ordained as priests and even bishops. Detractors also called converted Jews Marranos, a pejorative word that can also be translated "pigs". 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 baptised (New Christians) or expelled. If they carried on with Jewish religion, they were sinful relapses ("fallen again").
Sixtus IV was Pope when the Spanish Inquisition was instituted in Seville. He worked against it, but bowed to pressure from Ferdinand of Aragon, who threatened to withhold military support from his kingdom of Sicily. Sixtus issued the Bull establishing the order in 1478. Nevertheless Sixtus was unhappy with the excesses of the Inquisition and took measures to suppress their abuses.
The Pope disapproved of the extreme measures being taken by Ferdinand, and categorically disallowed their spread to the kingdom of Aragon. He alleged that the Inquisition was a cynical ploy by Ferdinand and Isabella to confiscate the Jews' property. Despite his title of "Most Catholic King", and his ongoing attempts to woo the Pope to his side politically, Ferdinand continued to resist direct Papal influence in his lands. He decided to use strong-arm tactics against the Pope.
Ferdinand had some important levers he could use to bend the Pope to his will. Venice, traditionally the defender against the Turks in the East, was greatly weakened after a protracted war with them which ran from 1463 to 1479. The Turks had taken possession of Greece and the Greek islands. France, as always, was looking for signs of weakness which it could use to its advantage. And in the midst of all these threats, in August of 1480 the Sultan had attacked Italy itself, at the port of Otranto, with several thousand janissaries. They pillaged the countryside for three days, largely unopposed.
Under these conditions, Ferdinand's position in Sicily — he was king of Sicily as well as Aragon and several other kingdoms—gave him the leverage he needed. He threatened to withhold military support of the Holy See, and the Pope relented.
Sixtus then blessed the royal institution of the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand had won everything he sought: the Inquisition was under his sole control, but had the blessing of the Pope, and the royal coffers were swelling with the loot of the Jewish victims.
Sixtus IV died in 1484, and was succeeded by Pope Innocent VIII. Unlike his predecessor, Innocent supported the Spanish Inquisition wholeheartedly, going out of his way to facilitate it. He ordered all Catholic monarchs to extradite fleeing Jews back to Spain where they could stand trial.
The Inquisition, as a religious court, was operated by Church authorities; however, if a person was found to be heretical, they were turned over to the secular authorities to be punished. Torture was often used to gain repentance. Punishments ranged from public shame to burning at the stake—dead after garroting (strangulation) for those who repented, alive for the unrepentant, or in effigy for those condemned in absentia. These punishments were conducted in public ceremonies (called auto da fe) that could last a whole day. The clerical members of the tribunal were assisted by civilians (familiares). The office of familiar of the Inquisition was very prestigious.
Many persons made such accusations out of revenge, or to gain rewards from the Crown. Very probably the Crown itself was behind some of the allegations, in the desire to appropriate wealthy Jews' lands, property and valuables.
The Inquisition was also used against focuses of early Protestantism, Erasmism and Illuminism and in the 18th century against Encyclopedism and French Illustration. In spite of the actions of the other European Inquisitions, witchcraft was not a big concern. Accused witches were usually dismissed as mentally ill.
The Inquisition was removed during Napoleonic rule (1808–1812), but reinstituted when Ferdinand VII of Spain recovered the throne. It was officially ended in 1834.
Numbers are difficult to establish with accuracy, but some estimates suggest that between four and eight thousand Jews were burnt alive during the fifteen years Torquemada held the office of Grand Inquisitor, as well as a smaller number of Moriscos, or Moorish converts. About 125,000 people were tried by church tribunals as suspected heretics in Spain.
The Spanish Inquisition is an important part of the Black legend against Spain.
It gave rise to the Mexican Inquisition, which persued those who fled from the originial Inquisitors to the Americas with the help of various explorers and conquistadors.
The Spanish Inquisition in the arts
The Spanish Inquisition has also been a topic in art, literature, movies, and comedy:
- Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. (Yale University Press, 1999). ISBN 0300078803
- —This revised edition of his 1965 original contributes to the understanding of the Spanish Inquisition in its local context.
- Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (4 volumes), (New York and London, 1906-1907)
- Simon Whitechapel, Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (Creation Books, 2003). ISBN 1840681055
- B. Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, (New York : New York Review Books, 2001). ISBN 0940322390