The Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition: the Truth behind the Black Legend (Part II)


The Spanish Inquisition was not only a controversial organization, but also little understood by the general public. It was an institution that is haunted by a dark legend and, as you know, legends often times have some truth and some falsehood to them. In this case the falsity begins with its origin, which is neither medieval nor Spanish, as is commonly believed.

Read Part I

The Inquisition and the Moors

The Inquisition not only persecuted the Jewish converts, but was also responsible for prosecuting Moriscos (baptized Moors), the converts from Islam who were suspected of not fully embracing their new faith, despite having accepted baptism. The Moors were concentrated mainly in the kingdoms of Granada, Valencia, and Aragon and many of them kept their Islamic religion secret. However, the policy against the Moors was different than that for the Jewish community.

In the beginning, the Moors were Christianized in a much more peaceful way for two main reasons: first, in Valencia and Aragon the vast majority of Moors were also parts of the nobility and to chase them would have meant going against the economic interests of this powerful establishment; secondly, in Granada there was fear in causing a rebellion in a vulnerable area, at a time when the Turks were lords and masters of the Mediterranean.

The expulsion of the Moors (1894), by Gabriel Puig Roda

The expulsion of the Moors (1894), by Gabriel Puig Roda. Museum of Fine Arts in Castellón. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Despite this, towards the middle of the sixteenth century during the reign of Felipe II, the rebellion of the Alpujarras took place: an uprising that was repressed with severity, increasing the executions and deportations of the Moors to other areas of Spain. In fact, according to  Henry Kamen , “From the 1570s, in Aragon and Valencia the Moors formed the bulk of the persecutions of the Inquisition. In the court of Granada itself, the Moors represented 82% of the accused between 1560 and 1571.”

On April 9, 1609, Felipe III ordered the expulsion of all Moors. This decision was implemented in a phased manner between 1609 and 1613. The first Moors were expelled from the Kingdom of Valencia. Next were those of Andalusia, Extremadura, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and the kingdom of Murcia. In total about 300,000 people were expelled, most of them from Valencia and Aragon, kingdoms that lost a third and a sixth of the population, respectively.

The decision to expel them was eventually taken for various reasons. These include the fact that, despite over half a century of forced conversion to Christianity, the Moors continued to avoid the rest of society; also it was taken into account that after the  rebellion of Las Alpujarras , the Moors were believed to have posed a real problem for national security; also, there was a period of recession, due to a decrease in the arrival of resources from the Americas, leading the Christian population to watch the wealthier Moors with resentment.

The Spread of the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition

Fictitious image of a supposed inquisitorial torture chamber. XVIII century engraving by Bernard Picart. Bernard Picart's engravings were part of the black legend built around the Spanish Inquisition

Fictitious image of a supposed inquisitorial torture chamber. XVIII century engraving by Bernard Picart. Bernard Picart's engravings were part of the black legend built around the Spanish Inquisition. ( Wikimedia Commons )

In the late sixteenth century Spanish political exiles, such as Gonzalez Montano in Germany and Antonio Perez, former secretary of Felipe II, in France and England, spread the germ of the Black Legend. Media in Europe willingly embraced the anti-Spanish slander, according to the Spanish scholar H. Kamen, due to their rivalry in the maritime domain (Britain, France) and their desire to get rid of the Spanish political dominance (Netherlands and northern Italy).

Portrait of Antonio Perez, former secretary of Felipe II, diffuser of the black legend about the Spanish Inquisition in England and France. Antonio Ponz work

Portrait of Antonio Perez, former secretary of Felipe II, diffuser of the black legend about the Spanish Inquisition in England and France.  Antonio Ponz work. Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial.  (Wikimedia Commons )

During the eighteenth century, engravings by the French artist Bernard Picart showing inquisitorial torture spread, despite the fact that they did not show the whole picture. Nonetheless, it is true that the torture used was truly terrible, with the purpose to produce great physical pain to the accused, short of mutilation or death in order to get his confession (in the case of heresy, the confessed defendant was free of capital punishment.)

 The methods of torture used by the Inquisition were primarily three: the pulley, the cloth, and the rack. The torment of the pulley was to hang the accused from the ceiling with a pulley by a rope tied to the wrists and weights tied to the ankles, raising the victim slowly up and dropping them suddenly, in which the person’s arms and legs suffered violent pulls and sometimes they were even dislocated. 

The cloth, also called water torture , consisted of tying the prisoner to an inclined ladder with their head lower than their feet and putting a cloth in the victim's mouth, then forcing her to swallow water poured from a jug. This provided the impression of drowning - in the same session a victim could be subjected to the punishment with up to eight buckets of water. 

On the rack the prisoner's wrists and ankles were bound with ropes that were progressively twisted through a lever.

The Inquisition used torture less often than other contemporary courts (it was ordinary use in all areas). Spanish scholars, such as  Henry Charles Lea  and Henry Kamen, with clear statistical data confirm that in reality torture was only used in 1% or 2% of cases during the toughest times of the Inquisition (until 1530) and only in the busiest courts.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century continued to purport the Spanish “Black Legend” all the way into the nineteenth century and another Spanish exile, Juan Antonio Llorente, former secretary of the Holy Office in Madrid, became the best diffuser of the Black Legend. He wrote Critical History of the Spanish Inquisition , a work that contains some interesting elements alongside numerous blunders of a statistical nature.

The black legend of the Inquisition is associated with the abuse of torture and enrichment of the court by confiscating inmates’ goods. Sometimes the Holy Office is presented as an organization of prey. It is true that the accused had their assets confiscated to cover the costs of the arrest and the court, but according to scholars Ramón Carande and Fernand Braudel it never constituted a business, although they admit that Jewish converts were abused from 1480 to 1725.

Engraving, probably the sixteenth century, showing various methods of torture in a castle of current Slovakia. Three torture methods of the Spanish Inquisition are shown

Engraving, probably the sixteenth century, showing various methods of torture in a castle of current Slovakia. Three torture methods of the Spanish Inquisition are shown. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Statistics on the Spanish Inquisition

For quite some time there has been confusion about the number of fatalities caused by the Inquisition in Spain. At this point it should be clarified, however, that those executed for heresy were not the only victims of the Inquisition: there were lesser penalties (imprisonment, fines, penance, etc.) and also the families of the prisoners were marked by infamy for generations. Hence the importance given in Spain during the seventeenth century regarding the "purity of blood" i.e. not having Jewish converts or Moorish ancestors.

The first figures (later refuted) on inquisitorial victims came from Thumb , Palencia and Bernáldez who said that, between 1481 and 1488, there were about 2,000 people executed in Andalusia - mostly Jews baptized who reneged on their new faith. Up until the nineteenth century, figures provided by J.A. Llorente asserting that 9.2% of people accused of witchcraft during the Spanish Inquisition were executed were considered valid. This was later proven wrong as well.

In 1986, experts  Contreras and Henningsen published the findings of a study of 50,000 inquisitorial cases between 1540 and 1700, a period of great social influence of the Inquisition. Their conclusions assert that only 1.9% of defendants were sentenced to the stake. Meanwhile,  Escandell claims that between 1478 and 1834 (years of re-founding and then the abolition of the Inquisition), 1.2% of the accused were sentenced to death by the courts.

The auto de fe" by Pedro de Berruguete.

"The auto de fe" by Pedro de Berruguete.  (Wikimedia Commons )

The methods used by the Inquisition were no more cruel and intolerant than those used by courts in other European nations such as Germany, Italy, Portugal, England, or France. The Inquisition was not the cause of Spain remaining “culturally backward” (another general assumption) between the 16th to 17th centuries. Indeed, many scholars have actually called this period the Golden Age of Spanish culture. 

Finally, all historians seem to agree that from the late fifteenth century to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Inquisition was one of the darkest legends of Spanish history.

Featured image: "The Court of the Inquisition" by Francisco de Goya (1812-1819). ( Wikimedia Commons )

This article was first published in Spanish at and has been translated with permission.  

By: Mariló TA


Bartolomé Bennassar: Spanish Inquisition: political power and social control. Barcelona: Critic, 1981

Kamen, Henry: The Inquisition: A Historical Review. Translation of Maria Borras. Barcelona: Critic, 1999.

José Antonio Escudero: The Spanish Inquisition.

Holy Inquisition.

Gabriel Bernat: The Spanish Inquisition.

Luis de la Cruz and Immaculate Badenes: The Spanish Inquisition


I think that when we talk about History it's a good idea to put the facts in their historical context. I mean: first, Inquisition was not a spanish invention and second spanish inquistion was also not the worst. In fact, it was often better to be tried by the inquistion that by an "ordinary" court. That's the reason why many common criminals commited blasphemy to be tried by the inquisition.

Maybe you're right. If I'm correct the inquisition in the Netherlands was more or less directly directed by the King himself (first Charles V and later Philips II) and less by the Roman Catholic authorities, which makes it a political thing - at least partly. But at the same time it is well known that especially King Philips II was a VERY devout catholic so his motivation probably was religion rather than politics.

I was commenting on the article not your view on history, Ab. Anyway at the core of my point was the fact that the Spanish Inquisition and it's “regional office” in the province of the Netherlands, was primarily a religious mechanism used by the Spanish monarchs is not wrong. Interestingly, there is one case in Northern Spain where an inquisitor unwittingly sparked an episode of Witch Hysteria, similar to the Salem witch trials. The representatives of the local bishops were appalled and stopped the inquisition. The laws governing witness testimony were altered to try and prevent reoccurances. There is a common error of conception where the papacy is treated as a simple autocracy and this negates the actions of local church structures where bishops acted off their own authority. Kings regularly thought that going through Rome would get them what they wanted without realising that there were plenty of things that the Pope couldn't control. 

I don't think that's true. The relevance of my first comment was that the Netherlands by inheritance under Charles V had become part of the Spanish 'Empire'. And the inquisition was active in the Netherlands as well especially against the upcoming protestantism which was quite popular in Northern Europe. In a period of some 40 years over 1300 people were killed by beheading, drowning, burrying some of them alive or by burning them at the stake. Because of that the Dutch revolted and in the end The Netherlands declared themselves independent in 1581 and fought an eighty year religious and independence war with Spain (1568 -1648).

I think it's very obvious that the Spanish Inquisition’s first and foremost use was to persecute people who weren't Spanish enough, rather than Christian. The situation was even more complicated when looked at from that much more political standpoint. The labels of catholic, moor, or jew have much more significance to an absolute “catholic” monarch from that perspective, and give him a much stronger reason to allow the suppression of difference  than appeasing an Italian with a big hat. The Catholic Church was a powerful force, yes indeed, but it very rarely superseded the intentions of the ruler in any country. Politics always wins over religion when you look close enough.


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