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Spanish Inquisition

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Spanish Inquisition

Torture, terror, imprisonment. From 1478 to 1834, the Spanish Inquisition swept through Spain and extended its reach across Europe and the Americas. Designed to combat heresy, it also served to consolidate the monarchy’s power, contributed to foreign wars, and instilled fear in populations due to its infamously brutal methods.

Heresy

A belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine (here that doctrine was Catholicism).

Spanish Inquisition timeline

The Spanish Inquisition spanned almost 400 years, so it’s best to have an overview of the key events to understand its effects on Spain and across the world. The Spanish Inquisition’s focus transformed throughout the years, initially focusing its efforts on conversos (Jewish converts), then moriscos (Muslim converts), and later Protestants.

DateEvent
1478Pope Sixtus IV issued the papal bull that authorised the Inquisition in Castile. It quickly spread throughout Ferdinand and Isabella's domains.
1483The monk Tomás de Torquemada became the first Grand Inquisitor. He was renowned for his reign of terror, reportedly burning 2000 people at the stake.
1492The Catholic Monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree, which ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Thousands chose to convert to Catholicism to avoid expulsion. This decree was not formally rescinded until 1968.
1507Francisco, Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros was appointed the Grand Inquisitor and focused the Inquisition's efforts on Moriscos.
1570The Inquisition spread to the Americas, and the first tribunal took place in Lima, Peru.
1609King Philip III of Spain and Portugal issued a decree, ordering the expulsion of all Muslims and Moriscos from Spain. Thousands were forcibly relocated (mainly to North Africa) and thousands were killed or died on the journey.
1834María Cristina de Borbón, acting Queen of Spain (regent) issued a decree abolishing the Spanish Inquisition.

Background of the Spanish Inquisition

Whilst the Spanish Inquisition is arguably the most famous form of religious persecution of Europe, it was not the first of its kind. To understand the Spanish Inquisition, we must look at its predecessor as well as other inquisitions in Europe.

The medieval Inquisition

In the twelfth century, the Roman Catholic Church developed the Inquisition to combat heresy, particularly within the Christian community. Countries like France and Italy used the inquisitions to focus on eradicating movements they considered heretical to Roman Catholicism, such as Catharism and the Waldensians.

These two movements were Christian but diverged from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, hence were seen as heretical. At this time, the power of the monarchy was growing dramatically, and across Europe, these inquisitions were seen as a useful tool to control religion in their kingdoms and consolidate power.

The medieval Inquisition played a considerable role in Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but lost traction throughout the years as the Catholic Monarchs focused on the Reconquista.

Reconquista

Spanish word for ‘reconquest’, which was used to describe the Catholic monarchs' efforts to regain the territories on the Iberian Peninsula that they had lost to the Moors in the eighth century.

The reasons that led to the creation of the Spanish Inquisition

If there was already a medieval Inquisition, then why did Spain create their own? And why was it so infamous? To understand its origins, we need to take a look at the population of the Iberian Peninsula, how the monarchy’s role changed, and Spain’s approach to non-Catholics in the realm.

Convivencia

The Iberian Peninsula was home to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic populations living in what the historian Americo Castro coined as convivencia or co-existence, claiming they lived in relative peace. Although historians continue to debate whether this convivencia really existed, it is true that hostilities grew throughout the medieval period. Christians fought the Muslims (Moors) to try and reconquer old territories, and the Jewish population on the peninsula faced increased persecution, violence and killings.

Iberian Peninsula

The geographical area that is now Spain and Portugal.

During the Medieval period, anti-Semitism was rife across Europe and countries such as England and France expelled their Jewish populations in 1290 and 1306, respectively. In contrast, the Jewish population on the Iberian Peninsula remained the largest in Europe and many Jews held notable positions. Historian Henry C. Lee describes Jews as enjoying great ‘power in the courts of Kings, prelates and nobles, in Castile and Aragon’.¹

Conversos

In the late 1300s, however, the Iberian Peninsula saw some of Europe's worst antisemitism. Henry III of Castile and Leon (1390–1406) took the throne and began forcing Jews to convert to Christianity by offering baptism or death. In the Pogrom of 1391, antisemitic mobs flooded Spain’s streets and committed violence against the Jews. The pogrom began with the Spanish cleric Ferrand Martinez's agitation in Seville and quickly spread throughout Spain. Jewish populations in Castile, Aragon, and Valencia were attacked, their homes destroyed and many were murdered. Fearing for their lives, thousands accepted conversion to Christianity or attempted to escape the country. The pogrom was one of the largest attacks on Jews during the Middle Ages.

Pogrom

An organised massacre of a specific ethnic group (here, Jewish people).

The Pogrom created a large population of Jews that had converted to Christianity known as conversos (convertees). Despite their decision, they still faced suspicion and persecution. Among conversos, there was likely a number of people who still continued to practice their faith in secret.

However, it is important to remember that the extent of this may have been exaggerated by antisemitic propaganda at the time. Known insultingly as marranos (the Spanish word for pigs), they were seen as a threat to the Catholic Church and social order and were denounced as a danger to Christian Spain after Ferdinand and Isabella (the Catholic Monarchs) married.

Spanish Inquisition Painting of the Massacre of Jews in Barcelona during the anti-Jewish riots of 1391 StudySmarterMassacre of Jews in Barcelona during the anti-Jewish riots of 1391, by Josep Segrelles, plate for Historia de España, ca. 1910, Wikimedia Commons.

Antisemitism

Hostility and prejudice towards Jewish people, or antisemitism, has been a recurring theme throughout history, leading to horrific consequences. It was highly prevalent in Christian Europe and Spain during the Middle Ages. To understand why (and why conversos were targets of the Spanish Inquisition), we need to look at why resentment rose against Jewish populations.

Judaism originated in the Middle East around 4000 years ago as the religion of Jews, who are the people of the Hebrew bible. Jewish people are an ethno-religious group, this means that they share an ethnic or religious background. One of the beliefs of Judaism is that there is only one God.

Misinformation circulated about the Jewish people in the Middle Ages and fed into people’s distrust and resentment. They were blamed for the Black Plague and labelled usurers - people who lend money at unreasonably high rates of interest. The religious hostility towards Jews, Jewish exclusion from Christian life, and the spread of misinformation led to suspicion and hatred of the Jewish populations.

The Catholic Monarchs: religion

The Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, were key figures in the Spanish Inquisition. Although the system long outlived them, they established it and are associated with the religious fervour that led to their crusade-style mission against heresy.

Isabella and Ferdinand married in 1469, and Isabella was crowned Queen in 1474. She was pious (devoutly religious) in her beliefs, leading to her and Ferdinand being named the Catholic Monarchs. Concerned about religious unity, in 1478, the Catholic Monarchs conferred with Pope Sixtus IV about the threat of non-converters and he soon issued a papal bull. This allowed them to choose inquisitors to investigate religious issues, starting with Seville. A year later in 1483, Castile, Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia were placed under the power of the inquisition.

Papal Bull

An official letter or document, issued by a pope of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Monarchs: power

When Isabella and Ferdinand came to the throne, Spain was divided (different kingdoms were run independently) and the financial situation was unstable. Isabella had overcome the War of Succession in 1474 to become Queen, but it was clear that she needed to establish herself as an authoritative leader to counter any future movements against her. The Spanish Inquisition not only controlled religion across Spain but also allowed the Catholic Monarchs to assert their dominance over formerly independently-run regions.

Exam tip: The extent to which the Catholic Monarchs were motivated by devout religious belief, or saw it as an opportunity to consolidate power by unifying the country under one religion is something that you might want to consider in an exam context.

What was the Spanish Inquisition?

It is clear that the Spanish Inquisition was established to try and root out heretics and establish Christian uniformity, but what actually was the Spanish Inquisition and how did it work?

The Spanish Inquisition was a judicial institution (a system of courts) established to judge anyone suspected of heresy (suspects were often informed upon by neighbours or even friends and family). It consisted of an Inquisitor General and a Council of the Suprema. Six members from the Council would meet with the Inquisitor General every morning to discuss faith-related heresies and three afternoons a week to discuss minor offences such as bigamy.

Bigamy

The act of marrying someone else when you are already married.

There were fourteen tribunals that fed into the Suprema, and each of these had two inquisitors and a prosecutor. One of the inquisitors, known as the alguacil, was responsible for the jailing or torture of the defendant. When the Spanish Inquisition arrived in different areas, people were given a 30 to 40-day edict of grace to confess their heresies. Doing so within this period would lessen their punishment.

Did you know?

Many devout Catholics who had not done anything wrong confessed to heresies during the 30-day edict in fear that they would be tried anyway.

Torture and the Spanish Inquisition

Inquisitors used torture methods to extract confessions, most notably the rack or hanging somebody from the ceiling by their wrists. The accused were often tried in ceremonies known as autos-da-fé (Portuguese for expressions of faith). These ceremonies were grandiose affairs, designed to be watched and to send a message.

The condemned would receive different punishments, ranging from property confiscation or imprisonment to death sentences and being burnt at the stake. Corruption pervaded the Inquisition as inquisitors could profit from confiscation. Those accused were not subject to a fair trial.

Spanish Inquisition An etching showing the torture during the Spanish Inquisition StudySmarterAn etching showing the torture during the Spanish Inquisition, Wikimedia Commons.

The effects of the Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition had lasting effects, not only for Spain but across the world. It targeted Jewish, Muslim and Protestant populations, as well as indigenous communities in the Americas. This led to horrific consequences for these communities and fostered resentment and dissent that evolved into uprisings.

The Spanish Inquisition at home

In Spain, the Inquisition helped the monarchy greatly increase their power and contributed towards a more homogeneous Spain. Protestantism was quickly eliminated from the country, whereas other countries engaged in long conflicts over religion. This essentially kept Spain largely conflict-free apart from some uprisings, although the Inquisition did involve itself in religious disputes elsewhere. The Inquisition is also credited with preventing the Witch Trials that took over countries like England between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Homogeneous

Composed of parts that are alike (i.e. the population is all one religion or culture).

Economic effects

Financially, the Spanish Inquisition had fewer clear effects according to historian Henry Kamen.² Whilst the crown and inquisitors benefitted from property confiscations and imposing fines, the expulsions of Muslims and Jews left Spain with a deficit in their skilled workforce, which had negative effects on the economy.

The Spanish Inquisition in the Americas

The Spanish Inquisition spread to the Americas, where indigenous communities were forced to convert to Catholicism or face the consequences. These communities had their own culture and religion. Colonists were also targeted by the Spanish Inquisition.

The Eighty Years’ War and Dutch Independence

King Philip II's use of the Inquisition to quell Protestantism in the Netherlands caused dissent and anger about Spain's interference in internal affairs. Revolts over the harsh treatment of Protestants there led to a resistance movement, which evolved into the Eighty Years' War, fighting for Dutch independence. The rebels were eventually successful, resulting in Dutch independence from Spain in 1648.

In an exam context, you might get a question like this:

To what extent was the Spanish Inquisition established for religious purposes?

When answering this question, you should consider the religious motivations of the Catholic Monarchs but also factor in any other reasons the Inquisition may have benefitted them. You will then conclude whith what you believe their motivations were. You might also want to think about how the Spanish Inquisition transformed throughout its implementation and whether that affected its goals. Here are some arguments you may want to include:

Religious motivationsOther motivations
  • Isabella and Ferdinand were pious in their beliefs and truly believed that Catholicism should be the one dominant religion in Spain.
  • Jews, Muslims, conversos, moriscos, and Protestants were all seen as threats to the Catholic faith.
  • The Spanish Inquisition fit in with the religious context of the time. Countries such as England and France also excluded non-Christian religions.
  • The Inquisition established royal authority for the Catholic monarchs, allowing them to assert their dominance in the different realms.
  • Confiscation of property and goods from Jewish and Muslim citizens could prove financially lucrative for the Crown, which had suffered financially in the years before.
  • The Inquisition was used as a means of control and unifying a divided Spain. This consolidated the monarchy's power.

Spanish Inquisition - Key takeaways

  • The Medieval Inquisition preceded the Spanish Inquisition in the twelfth century and was prevalent across Europe.
  • The Iberian Peninsula was a place of convivencia, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived with each other.
  • Antisemitism was rife across Europe and countries such as France and England had expelled Jews.
  • Antisemitism in Spain reached its peak in the Pogrom of 1391. Many converted to Christianity to avoid death, becoming ‘conversos’.
  • The Catholic Monarchs were suspicious of the converted, believing they practised their faith in secret. In 1474 the Pope issued a Papal Bull to begin the Spanish Inquisition.
  • The Spanish Inquisition tried people accused of heresy. Suspects were subjected to torture and the condemned received a range of different punishments, including the confiscation of their property, imprisonment or death.
  • In Spain, the Spanish Inquisition increased the power of the monarchy and made Spain more homogeneous.
  • The Spanish Inquisition also spread across Europe and the Americas; it influenced the Eighty Years' War and spread to the New World.

1. Henry C. Lee, A History of the Inquisition of Spain, Volume 1, 2017.

2. Henry Kamen, ‘Confiscations in the Economy of the Spanish Inquisition’, The Economic History Review, 1965.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition was a judicial institution (a system of courts) set up to try and root out heretics (non-Catholics) on the Iberian Peninsula. Those suspected of heresy were tortured, killed, fined, or jailed by the Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition started in 1478, introduced by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I. It lasted for over three centuries until it was disbanded in 1834.

The purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to root out heretics (non-Catholics) on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. It targeted mainly Jews, Muslims, and Protestants with the aim to eradicate any elements that weren't Catholic.

It is difficult to determine just how many people died during the Spanish Inquisition. Historians debate over the exact number but estimates are generally between 30,000- 300,000. Historians also debate outside of this estimation, some suggesting it was far fewer and some putting the number at over a million.

The Spanish Inquisition was important as it demonstrated the lack of tolerance on the Iberian Peninsula and the transition from convivencia. It resulted in thousands of deaths, and the torture, jailing, and fining of people suspected of heresy.

Final Spanish Inquisition Quiz

Question

Which Kingdom did Granada become subsumed by after the conquest?

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Answer

Castile

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Question

Which three of these areas were administrative units in Al-Andalus?


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Answer

Portugal and Galicia

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Question

Which dynasty ruled the Emirate of Granda?


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Answer

The Nasrid Dynasty

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Question

What did emir Abu ‘l-Hasan Ali refuse to pay in 1477?

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Answer

The tributes that Granada was expected to pay to the Crown of Castile.

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Question

What event spurred Queen Isabella I to commence a war against the Emirate in 1482?


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Answer

Abu ‘l-Hasan Ali launched a surprise invasion of the city of Zahara de la Sierra (on the Western border of Granada) in 1481. During this invasion, forces killed and enslaved unarmed Christian Zaharans.

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Question

Which of these territories did the Christians take between 1487 and 1489 (choose three)?


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Baza

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Question

What happened to Granada after the Reconquista?


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In legal terms, Granada was not actually ‘conquered’ but agreed on capitulations. The Catholic Monarchs received the keys to the city, but Granada kept their own officials, who were supervised by Castilian governors. The Mudéjars were initially allowed to keep their customs, property, laws, and religion until 1502 when they were forced to either convert to Christianity or be expelled.

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Where did the Catholic Monarchs obtain funding from?

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Answer

Cruzadas

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Why was Granada significant in terms of warfare?


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The conquest of Granada was particularly significant as it marked a new period of Christian warfare. This period was far more destructive and aggressive than that of the medieval Reconquista and marked the beginning of the brutal suppression of non-Catholic religion on the peninsula.

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Roughly how many Moors emigrated during the conquest and why did that have an economic impact?


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Around 200,000 emigrated, meaning the Iberian Peninsula lost a large number of its workforce.

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What moved to Granada in 1526, and what were its effects?


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The Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478, moved to Granada in 1526 and tortured or imprisoned many Muslims suspected of heresy.

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From which sources did Ferdinand supply his army?


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Soldiers raised by the crown

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How did the Conquest of Granada consolidate Isabella and Ferdinand’s image as strong Catholic monarchs?


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It took on the status of a crusade, hence they were seen as the protectors of Catholicism and celebrated for this by many Christians. They were also credited with unifying Spain under Catholic rule.

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Question

What effect did the Conquest of Granada have on overseas exploration?


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The conquest of Granada freed up the Catholic Monarchs to invest resources and energy into overseas exploration. When Christopher Columbus, an inexperienced but determined seafarer, came to Spain to ask for support, the crown agreed (after rejection in 1486) to sponsor his expedition in 1492, no longer having to concentrate their funds and energy on Granada. This decision would result in the expansion of the Spanish Empire into the Americas throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

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What does the term heresy mean?

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A belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine (in relation to the Spanish Inquisition, that doctrine was Catholicism).

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Name two movements that the Medieval Inquisition targeted.

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Catharism and the Waldensians.

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What did convivencia refer to?

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Convivencia (co-existence) referred to the Christians, Muslims and Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula.

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What was the Pogrom of 1391?

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The Pogrom of 1391 refers to antisemitic mobs that flooded Spain's streets and committed violence against Jews.

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What did Pope Sixtus IV do in 1478?

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He issued a papal bull that allowed Ferdinand and Isabella to choose inquisitors to investigate heresy.

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Which areas were placed under the power of the inquisition in 1483? (Choose three)

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Castile

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How did creating the inquisition help Isabella assert her power?

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The Spanish Inquisition not only controlled religion across Spain but also allowed the Catholic Monarchs to assert their dominance over formerly independently-run regions. 

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What were people given to confess their heresies?

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A 30 to a 40-day edict of grace that offered those who confessed a reduced punishment.

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What were the autos-da-fé?

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The term, Portuguese for expressions of faith, was the name of the ceremonies to try those accused of heresy.

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Why was Tomás de Torquemada renowned?

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Due to his reign of terror, reportedly having burnt 2000 people at the stake.

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What did the Alhambra Decree order?

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The Alhambra Decree ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.

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Whose appointment changes the inquisition's focus to moriscos?

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Francisco, Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros 

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How did the inquisition prevent internal wars in Spain?

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The Spanish Inquisition removed Protestantism quickly, meaning that Spain did not face the same religious wars as other countries such as France.

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How did the Spanish Inquisition influence the Eighty Years' War?

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King Philip II's use of the inquisition to quell Protestantism in the Netherlands caused dissent and anger about Spain's interference in internal affairs. Revolts over the harsh treatment of Protestants there led to a resistance movement, which evolved into the Eighty Years' War, fighting for Dutch independence.

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