Spanish and Roman Inquisitions

Spanish inquisitions

The Inquisition in the early modern period was a permanent papal judicial institution of the Roman Catholic Church that was to eradicate heresies, originally dealing with alchemy, sorcery, and witchcraft, as well as dealing with heretical groups like the Cathars and subsequently with relapsed converts or “heretics” who refused to recant.

The most well-known of the inquisitions was the Spanish Inquisition, which was established in 1478 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile, with the support of, and carrying the authority of, Pope Sixtus IV. Although the inquisitor-general was appointed by the pope, the Spanish Inquisition was run by the Spanish monarchy.

The first inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition worked from Seville and were so vindictive that even Pope Sixtus IV tried to moderate them. However he was not successful as the Spanish government established grand inquisitors in Castile and placed Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia under the power of the Spanish Inquisition.

The first grand inquisitor was the Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada, who terrorized his victims using torture and the threat of execution to extract confessions, which resulted in as many as 5,000 people being burned to death at the stake before the practice was ended in 1834.

Torquemada’s reputation for brutality quickly became well known, and other inquisitors were appointed, with the Spanish Inquisition established in Sicily in 1517, although attempts to set it up in Naples and Milan failed. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V introduced it into the Austrian Netherlands in 1522 to use it against Protestants there, and its use continued until 1834, operating in South America.

As well as the Protestants, Muslim and Jewish communities in Spain were singled out by the Inquisition. In the case of these communities, the Spanish Inquisition only had the role of dealing with those who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who went back to their original religious beliefs.

While many Jews and Muslims left Spain for North Africa, many Jewish converts, known as the conversos, and the Muslim converts known as Moriscos, remained in Spain, where some continued to be strong business leaders. It was not long after conversion that some reverted to following their original beliefs and they were deemed, by the Spanish Inquisition, as being relapsed converts.

A prisoner undergoing torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition
A prisoner undergoing torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition

A study of the 49,092 trials held by the Spanish Inquisition between 1560 and 1700 showed that 11,311 were of Moriscos, 5,007 of conversos, 3,499 of Lutherans, 14,319 for heresy, and 3,750 for superstitions, including witchcraft, and 3,954 were for offenses against the Inquisition itself.

Even when the Inquisition tried heretics—often using dubious evidence gained from the torture of the accused—the results were usually that the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

The burning was done not only to purge the sin, but also to serve as a warning of the flames of hell. Occasionally if people recanted and accepted the church teachings, they would be freed. More often they were strangled and spared the punishment of being burned alive. These trials and executions were know as autos-de-fe.

As well as persecuting heretics and suspected heretics, the Spanish Inquisition drew up lists of banned books, which were also burned. Its role served to create a united political unit in Spain, weaken opposition to the Spanish monarchy, and to strengthen the Catholic orthodoxy against the Protestants.

Pope Sixtus IV accused the rulers of Spain of profiting from the Inquisition as people found guilty of heresy had their property confiscated by the state. The Spanish Inquisition survived until it was banned by Napoleon in 1808, and by royal edict in 1834.

The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 and staffed by cardinals and other papal officials with the role of defending the integrity of the Roman Catholic faith. This involved arraigning people on charges of heresy, sorcery, blasphemy, and witchcraft. With trials presided over by a cardinal, it had jurisdiction on the Italian peninsula and on other parts of Europe under papal rule, such as Avignon.

It was this group that tried the astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1633, when he faced the Inquisition on the suspicion of heresy, following the publication of his ideas about the Earth’s moving around the Sun. Although Galileo escaped with his life, another astronomer, Giordano Bruno, was not so lucky and was burned at the stake for heresy. Bruno is now often considered the first martyr for science.

Generally the Roman Inquisition was not as fierce as its counterpart in Spain, except during the rule of Pope Paul IV (1555–59) and Pope Pius V (1566–72), the latter having been a grand inquisitor himself. It was Paul IV who declared at the start of his short reign that he felt that matters of doctrine were far more important than all other matters facing the papacy.

Indeed Paul IV personally oversaw much of the persecution himself. The persecution of the Protestants in Italy meant that they were eliminated as threats to the states in late Renaissance Italy. The Inquisition continued its activities well into the 19th century but has long since ceased to be a force in Italy or elsewhere.