Spanish inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition: The Truth behind the Dark Legend (Part I)


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.

The Origins of the First Inquisition

Death at the stake was used as a method of execution since the Roman Empire. With the progressive Christianization of Europe it was a forged mentality that heresy, a serious attack on faith, was equivalent to the crime of treason. In terms of heresy, it was considered treason against divine majesty. 

The first inquisition, called the Episcopal Inquisition, came about through the papal bull  Ad abolendam , from the late twelfth century, and was spread by Pope Lucius III as a tool to combat the Albigensian heresy present at the time in southern France. Fifty years later Pope Gregory IX created the Pontific Inquisition with the Bull Excommunicamus.

Thus the ideas for Inquisition were already established in several European Christian kingdoms during the Middle Ages. As for the Iberian Peninsula, the Inquisition was only present at the time in the Corona de Aragon/Crown of Aragon.

Shield of the Spanish Inquisition

Shield of the Spanish Inquisition. The sword symbolizes the treatment of heretics and the olive branch of reconciliation with the repentant. Surrounding the shield are the words "Exurge domine et judica causam taum. Psalm 73." A Latin phrase meaning: Arise, O God, to defend your cause, Psalm 73. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The “Soft” Repression in Spain

In Spain, the witch hunt could actually be called a small hunt, as the “witch mania” in Spain was less intense than in the rest of Europe, although it took place for a longer period. The Spanish Inquisition came about from the widespread witch hunts that developed in Europe in the late fifteenth century, following the Bull Summis desiderantis afectibus  by Innocent VIII (1484) and, especially, following the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum , by Kraemer and Sprenger (1486), which bluntly stated: “Haeresis est maxima opera maleficarum non credere” (the worst heresy is to not to believe in witches). A prominent case that came about from these publications was that of Logroño, and the famous witches of Zugarramurdi .

In other parts of Europe the story was different. In southwest Germany, for example, from 1560 to 1670 AD 3,229 ‘witches’ were executed according to data from  Delumeu; in Scotland, there were 4,400 killed from 1590-1680, and in Lorena, over 2,000 were executed from 1576 to 1606. But in Spain the punishment was often less severe, and abjuration of levi was more common, in which the accused was warned, reprimanded, fined, banished for a while (no more than 8 years), and often publicly flogged. 

In fact, during the Spanish Inquisition from its beginning in 1478 until its abolition in 1834 (almost 400 years of existence), a total of 130,000 people were judged, of which less than 2% (less than 2,600) were sentenced to death. For a long time the numbers of accused and those condemned to the stake were confused, and absolutely absurd and erroneous execution figures were presented, stating that there were more than 100,000 people executed.

The acquittal rate was large since the tendencies at the time were to believe that the alleged witches had drunk wine and were sick of torpor. Even when the accused had confessed to witchcraft and a pact with the devil, the Inquisition warned:

"to not proceed in these cases only if they are said to be witches and supposedly have committed the crimes, only to continue if the accused have been seen to commit the crimes, because often times what they say they have seen and done happens in their dreams, and to judge what they saw and did as true without having seen the accused in the act will result in inflaming the persecution of persons who are not guilty .”

The coven, painting by Francisco de Goya, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid

The coven, painting by Francisco de Goya, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, 1797-1798. ( Public Domain )

No clear data on the conviction of witchcraft has been kept for all of Spain, except for information in Catalonia and Valencia. In these two places, a clear structure divided into five different phases of witch hunting is observed:

  • The first, (1560-1600), very low figures recorded, with five-year averages showing less than 8 people.
  • The second is the height of the  witch mania  in the 1600s, with a total of 60 accused witches in Catalonia and 12 in Valencia.
  • The third stage covers the long period between 1610 and 1660, with an average rate of about 15 victims every five years in Catalonia and 12 every five years in Valencia. This highlights how the Court of Valencia was dedicated from 1610-20 with the problem of the Moors and the subsequent expulsion of Muslims after the Reconquista/Re-conquest.
  • The fourth stage covers the decade between 1660 and 1670, when there was a new intensification in witch accusations: no less than 53 in Catalonia in the five-year period from 1665-1670.
  • The last and final stage involves the return to the figure of less than 20 trials per five years.

Note that the above figures refer to people accused of witchcraft - not those convicted, let alone executed.

One of the most common penalties when the defendant was convicted as guilty was to be "whipped while walking the streets," in which case, if it was a male, he was stripped naked to the waist, often mounted on a donkey to suffer greater disgrace, and flogged by the executioner with the designated number of lashes. During this journey through the streets, pedestrians and kids showed their hatred and contempt for the heretic by throwing stones at him.

"Condemned by the Inquisition" by Eugenio Lucas

"Condemned by the Inquisition" by Eugenio Lucas. Nineteenth century, Museo del Prado. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Although the Inquisition was created to prevent the progress of heresy, it also dealt with a wide range of offenses in Spain. Of the total of 49,092 accused in the period from 1560-1700, the following offenses were judged: Judaizing (5007); Moors (11 311); Lutherans (3499); Illuminati (149); Superstitious (3750); proposed heretics (14,319); bigamists (2790); solicitations (by priests on parishioners) (1241); insulting the Holy Office (3954); other (2575).

The Protestant Reformation

During the sixteenth century, the Inquisition was revealed as an effective mechanism to extinguish the few outbreaks of Protestantism in Spain. Oddly, most of these “protestant outbreaks” were Jewish in origin.

The main accusations against Lutherans took place between 1558 and 1562 against two Protestant communities of Valladolid and Sevilla. In these, several crowded auto de fe trials were held, some of them chaired by royals, in which around a hundred people were executed. After 1562, although the trials continued, the repression was much smaller and it is estimated that only a dozen were burned alive through to the end of the 16th century, despite over 200 people going to trial.

The Catholic Kings and the Jewish Community

The Inquisition was not acting directly against the Jewish community. Just against Jewish converts. The object of the Inquisition was to correct errors in the Catholic faith, i.e. combat heresy.

In fact, the Catholic Kings were initially favorable of the Jews (apparently Ferdinand had Jewish blood on his mother’s side) and a large group of Jews served in the court. In Castile and Aragon there were about 220 Jewish communities. The Jews depended directly on the king: they were protected by special laws and contributed unique tributes: however, they were second-class subjects.

As is well known, the  Sephardim (Spanish Jews) were expelled by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, following a political line adopted earlier by other European kingdoms like England and France. Specifically it was on March 31, 1492, just three months after the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, when the Catholic Kings enacted the Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion of the Jews from all their kingdoms. 

Stamped copy of the Decree of the Alhambra

Stamped copy of the Decree of the Alhambra ( Wikimedia Commons )

Isabel and Fernando were well aware that this decision would not be profitable from the economic point of view, since many Jews were engaged in trade and the financial world. But there was great weight on the religious and social causes: the effectiveness of Jewish conversion was feared and they wanted to avoid the mob violence of people against the Jewish communities as well. The alternatives provided to the Jewish citizens were thus to receive baptism or to be forced into exile.

Interior of the Transito Synagogue in Toledo

Interior of the Transito Synagogue in Toledo. ( Wikimedia Commons )

It is also true that the Sephardim lived in special quarters and that the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) urged them to use an external mark to distinguish them from Christians, but that idea of a mark did not spread throughout Spain and had a religious, not strictly discriminatory, purpose.

The number of Jews who left Spain is not known, but current estimates by Henry Kamen  show that a population of about 80,000 Jews, (about half) chose emigration. Spanish Jews immigrated mainly to Portugal (where they were also expelled in 1497) and to Morocco.

In 1691, in auto de fe trials in Mallorca, 36  Xuetes (Mallorcan Jewish converts) were burned for Judaizing. Throughout the eighteenth century, the number of converts accused by the Inquisition was greatly reduced. The last trial against Judaizing was that of Manuel Santiago Vivar, held in Córdoba in 1818.

Now read  Part 2: The Spread of the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition

Featured image: Auto de Fe in the Plaza Mayor. Oil on canvas by Francisco Rizi, 1683. Madrid, Prado Museum. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By: Mariló TA

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


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

Next article