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The Spanish Inquisition was a judicial institution that lasted between 1478 and 1834. Its ostensible purpose was to combat heresy in Spain, but, in practice, it resulted in consolidating power in the monarchy of the newly unified Spanish kingdom. Its brutal methods led to widespread death and suffering.
The Roman Catholic Church had established inquisitions in the past. Taking their name from the Latin verb inquiro (“inquire into”), these commissions had authority to question supposed heretics about their religious practices and loyalties starting in the 13th century.
Unlike much of western Europe at the time, medieval Spain was a multiracial and multireligious country with large Muslim and Jewish populations.
Moors, members of the Muslim population of Spain and Portugal, ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula starting in the 8th century. Christian states spent several centuries working to expel the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, a campaign called the Reconquista. The last Moorish kingdom in Spain was conquered in the late 15th century. Many historians believe that the crusading spirit of the Reconquista was preserved in the subsequent Spanish emphasis on religious uniformity.
Anti-Semitic sentiment grew toward Spain’s substantial Jewish population. During the reign of Henry III of Castile and Leon (1390–1406), Jews faced increased persecution. Pogroms in 1391 were especially brutal, and the Jewish community faced the choice between baptism and death.
Many Jews were killed upon refusal to convert to Christianity. Those who adopted Christian beliefs, the conversos (Spanish for “converted”) still faced suspicion and prejudice. Marranos, Jews who had apparently converted but continued to practice their faith in secret, were considered a major threat to Spanish society.
The marriage of Ferdinand II and Isabella I in 1469 united the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Called the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella further united the Spanish kingdoms into an imperial force. In 1478 Pope Sixtus IV issued a papal bull, or decree, authorizing the Catholic Monarchs to name inquisitors in order to enforce religious uniformity and to expel Jews from Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella sought to use the Inquisition to increase their absolute power over the centralized regime.
The first Spanish inquisitors were so severe in their methods that Sixtus attempted to intervene, but his efforts were in vain as Ferdinand and Isabella realized how useful the Inquisition was to their royal power.
The Inquisition was characterized by secret procedures, the use of torture during interrogation, and the complete lack of rights for the accused.
The autos-da-fé (Portuguese for “acts of faith”) were public ceremonies during which sentences against the condemned were read. These ceremonies were elaborate and popular spectacles with processions, oaths of obedience to the Inquisition, and sermons. The condemned were afterward turned over to secular, or nonreligious, authorities to actually carry out the punishments. Extreme punishments included execution or life imprisonment.
In 1483 the pope was convinced to authorize the Spanish government to name a grand inquisitor to act as head of the Inquisition. The grand inquisitor had the power to name deputies and hear appeals, which he did with the assistance of a council of five.
Tomás de Torquemada was the first grand inquisitor, and his name became associated with the brutality characteristic of the Inquisition. He issued 28 articles that outlined crimes that could be investigated by inquisitors as well as methods used for interrogation and punishment. Torquemada used torture and the confiscation of property to terrorize and intimidate his victims. An estimated 2,000 people were burned at the stake during Torquemada’s tenure as grand inquisitor.
Torquemada convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to issue the Alhambra Decree on March 31, 1492, which resulted in 160,000 Jews being expelled from Spain.
Francisco, Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, named grand inquisitor in 1507, promoted the suppression of the Muslim population of Spain with the same zeal that Torquemada had directed at Jews. Islam was banned in Spain by decree of Phillip III in 1609, and by 1614 some 300,000 Moriscos, Spanish Muslims who had previously agreed to baptism, were expelled, with tens of thousands executed for refusing expulsion.
The Protestant population of Spain was small, but, as it was considered a threat upon the rise of the Reformation, the Inquisition eliminated it as well.
Having largely purged the country of Jews and Muslims—as well as many former members of those faiths who had converted to Christianity—the Spanish Inquisition turned its attention to prominent Roman Catholics. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was twice arrested on suspicion of heresy, and the archbishop of Toledo, the Dominican Bartolomé de Carranza, was imprisoned for almost 17 years.
The supreme council of the Spanish Inquisition oversaw 14 local tribunals in Spain and several in the Spanish colonies, including in the Americas. A similar inquisition was established in Portugal in 1547, lasting until 1821.
Though the excesses seen under Torquemada diminished somewhat, autos-da-fé continued into the mid-18th century. The Spanish Inquisition was suppressed by Joseph Bonaparte in 1808, restored by Ferdinand VII in 1814, suppressed in 1820, and restored in 1823. It was finally suppressed permanently by Spanish queen regent María Cristina de Borbón in 1834.