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Contemporary illustration of the Auto-da-fe held at Valladolid Spain 21-05-1559

Why Did the Spanish Inquisition Allow Some Witches to Stay Alive?

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The Spanish Inquisition has a reputation for having been very bloody and cruel. However, in some regions of Spain their actions were barely visible and were focused on heretics but not witches. Most of the people accused of witchcraft were actually sent back home and lived as if the Inquisition didn’t exist.

The horror of the trials started in 1478, when King Ferdinand V (1452 – 1516) and his wife, Queen Isabela I (1451 – 1504) requested papal permission to establish the Spanish Inquisition. Although practices like this were known of in 13th century, it was always focused on issues other than witchcraft. 5,000 men and women were accused of witchcraft, but less than 1 percent were sentenced to death.

Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.

Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. (Public Domain)

The Worst Side of the Spanish Holy Inquisition

The cruelest of the Royal Inquisitors was Tomas de Torquemada, who lived between 1420 and 1498. He created a model of the Inquisition concerned with converting people to Christianity and punishing people who didn't want to follow that path. Most of the victims of their activity were Muslims and Jews. All of the trials, tortures, and hearings were officially arranged to protect the Christian faith.

With time, the grand inquisitor Torquemada became synonymous with the cruelest acts performed in Spain due to the fight for his faith. He tortured and burned thousands of people, but currently he’s one of the legendary people of the Catholic Church and he appears on the altars of many important churches. However, it should be noted that most of the priests who worked for the Holy Inquisition never followed his practices.

Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada.

Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada. (Public Domain)

The Spanish Inquisition during the activity of Torquemada cultivated the ceremony called the auto-de-fe, during which hundreds of heretics could have been burned at one time during the “festival.” Similar things happened to the bones of the Inquisitor, which were stolen and burned, perhaps by “witches” for revenge.

Auto de Fe in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid.

Auto de Fe in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid. (Public Domain)

Witches and Enchantresses

One of the most important creators of the definition of a witch in Spain was St Isidor of Seville. He believed that there were not only witches, but also enchantresses, necromancers, hydromancers, fortune tellers, astrologists, and healers who used magic to help people. In many regions of Spain, witches were not as strongly punished as enchantresses. According to Salzar, the youngest of the three judges who worked in the Basque region at the beginning of the 17th century:

''The real question is: are we to believe that witchcraft occurred in a given situation simply because of what the witches claim? No: it is clear that the witches are not to be believed, and the judges should not pass sentence on anyone, unless the case can be proven with external and objective evidence sufficient to convince everyone who hears it. And who can accept the following: that a person can frequently fly through the air and travel a hundred leagues in an hour; that a woman can get through a space not big enough for a fly; that a person can make himself invisible''.

St. Isidore, depicted by Murillo.

St. Isidore, depicted by Murillo. (Public Domain)

In the most rural parts of the country, the priests were so busy with serving people and searching for Jews, Muslims, and other heretics, that they didn't have enough time to follow the women who were planting herbs, making potions, or celebrating the phases of the moon.

Spanish Traditions of Witchcraft

The roots of witchcraft in Spain come from the times of the domination of the Celts and the flourishing of local tribes. The Goths appreciated these practices as well. For centuries, witchcraft was taught in the Cave of Salamanca (Cueva de Salamanca), a place where the so-called “witches” studied their craft. The traditional places of their meetings were in Zugaramurdi or Viana in Nawarra, Barahoa in Soria, Aezcoa in Basque country, Vallgorguina or Llers in Catalonia, Trasmoz in Aragonia, Penamelera in Asturia, Seville in Andalusia, and Coiro in Galicia.

Modern day Cave of Salamanca.

Modern day Cave of Salamanca. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first witch burned in Spain was Garcia de Valle, who died in 1498 in Saragossa. In 1526, the inquisitors and Spanish theologists met in Grenada. They decided that if the witch informed the Church about her profession, she would be patronized and none of her goods would be confiscated. Apart from this, nobody else could be judged by the statement of the witch. The judges decided to check if the woman accused by her neighbors for being a witch was really outside during the sabbath or if she stayed at home.

Inquisitors and Galician Meiga

In Galicia, the main center of the witch trials was in Santiago de Compostela. Witches in Galicia, Leon, and Asturias were called meigas, which relates to the Latin word magicus. In Catalunia, witches were called bruixes, and in other parts of Spain they were known as brujas. Meigas were considered as both good and evil, sometimes stunning, and sometimes ugly. Most of them were actually considered as women who shouldn't be disturbed by the Church.

In Galician, there is a popular expression “Eu non creo nas meigas, pero habelas hainas,” meaning: “I don’t believe in witches, but they exist.” Most of the Spanish witches who were burned died earlier by being poisoned by the priests. Each execution was strongly criticized by local people, who mostly believed that witches were healers who could save a life and help in many ways.

Persecution of witches.

Persecution of witches. (Public Domain)

One of the examples of these behaviors is Maria Salinia, who was born in Coiro near the Ria de Vigo. Her trial took place after the heroic fight by women near Ria de Vigo, who protected the city and villages in 1617 during the attack of the Ottoman fleet. The trial took place in Santiago de Compostela, but Maria was acquitted and she went back home. She lived in Coiro until her death in 1580. Maria was well known by locals as a “witch”, but she was never disturbed by the church again.

A Wild Land of Witches

Witches in Spain had a better life than in many other parts of Europe. Many of them survived due to the decision by priests who could have sent them to death. Nowadays, people still think that witches exist in many parts of Spain. They also believe that dwarves and fairies exist as well. For centuries, Spain has been considered as one of the most Catholic places of the world, but at the same time ancient cults remained strong in many regions.

Featured image: Contemporary illustration of the Auto-da-fe held at Valladolid Spain 21-05-1559: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


Alan Charles Kors, Edward Peter, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, 2001.

Gustav Henningsen, The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609-1614), 1980.

Jesus Callejo, Historia Czarów i Czarownic, 2006.



impossible to take serious an article that calls Sunday or Domingo, the Sabbath. More so when in Spanish (who does not know this) Saturday is called SABADO.

I have one more reason to add, theft of property. I know that at the Salem witch trials, some of the later accusations involved widows with property that someone else wanted

Following on from your economic theory, these widows, some of whom were old, often became a drain on village resources, which were scarce and expensive, and so accusing them of witchcraft - something which most people did believe in back then - may have been a way to alleviate the struggle of the rest of the village.
However, as I've said, people truly believed in the power of witches and their intent to do evil deeds, the logical act for these people was to eradicate them. The Inquisition was actually quite good for people accused as they only sought the truth and were completely objective in their investigation.

To add, I think many women were accused of witchcraft for two main reasons. Most of these women weren't old spinsters but widows from the many medieval wars and they had to earn a living. Knowing how to treat ailments with local plants was one way to earn a little, and many people preferred to buy a cheap potion that worked rather than give the pennies to the Church then pray to God to cure it.

That's an economic reason because the money went to the old girl instead of the Church but more than that, if people had more faith in an old lady than they had in God then their political system of control through the fear of God (similar to today's fear of terrorism), then their fear system failed.

Spain was THE LAST country in Europe to give in to the Vatican’s INSISTENCE for an “Inquisition” or face the excommunication of her King and Queen. The Spanish Inquisition was NOT RUN BY PRIESTS but by LAWYERS, who insisted on proof of accusations.  An excellent work was put together by BBC/A&E/LIONHEART called “The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition” (1994).  It was quickly suppressed by the people who are quick to call others “fascist”.  Copies may still be found occasionally for sale on eBay (I don’t sell them).   The problem has been 500+ years of malicious slander, libel, defamation by Protestants.  I am Jewish, by the way.  Jews weren’t persecuted by the “government”, only persons who CLAIMED to have converted to Christianity and were still practicing Islam or Judaism in secret.  The Inquisition didn’t just go after false “conversos”.  They went after MORAL CRIMES like prostitution, adultery etc.  Spain did not execute a SINGLE WITCH because they branded “Witchcraft” a DELUSION.  You couldn’t go up in front of a panel of lawyers and tell them some poor Woman had turned you into a “Newt”,  or she had had sex with a demon and given birth to another demon, you had to show proof.  In the meantime, about some 150,000 hapless Women were executed in large European kingdoms for the crime of being too beautiful, by false accusations from fishwives whose husbands had had affairs with them, etc.  The Spanish Inquisition, being run by LAWYERS were anal-retentive when it came to record-keeping.  The total number of “executions” numbered some 5,500.  But even this is misleading as 1/3 were executed “In Effigy” “ relaxados en estatua” (the accused had left the country to avoid a sentence);  1/3 were executed AFTER they had died of natural causes “relaxados en sus huesos” (people died early in those days and it often took years for a case to come up on the docket). An example of this type of ridiculous ritual was once shown in the weekly TV series “Supernatural”, where remains were dug up and burned.  Lastly there was the 1/3 who were actually executed AFTER being given the opportunity to wear a “San Benito” costume (similar to what the KKK adopted as  their despicable uniform), admit to their “sin” and go around the city with a placard around their neck stating what their sin had been. I realize all this will not satisfy the people who are ready to believe the most monstrous lies about a people and a nation, but like George Bernard Shaw wrote, there is nothing funnier than the truth.  The same bigots who were mockingly saying that “Africa Begins and the Pyrenees” of Spain are the same one who disemboweled, drew, quartered starving Subjects for “poaching” the King’s or Queens ‘game’ to have  something for their families to eat, and whipping their sailors mercilessly for the smallest infractions, etc.  Josef Goebbels summed it up in a tidy phrase describing the practice (still very popular these days in USA)  “Accuse others of that of which you are guilty”,  LOL  



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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