Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Spanish Inquisition permitted the Catholic Church and its inquisitors to prosecute converted Jews suspected of heresy, but it soon expanded to enforce orthodoxy by pursuing converted Muslims, alleged witches, Protestants, and others within Spain for more than three hundred years.

Summary of Event

The term “inquisition” denotes the judicial persecution of heretics by special Church courts. The Spanish Inquisition differed from other such tribunals in that it was directly under the authority of the Crown, but it was not the first inquisition to operate in Spain. Although no medieval inquisition was ever organized in the kingdom of Castile, one had been founded in the kingdom of Aragon in 1233 to combat the Catharist religion centered in neighboring France. By the fourteenth century, few traces of heresy remained among Iberian Christians, and since the inquisition had no jurisdiction over unbaptized Jews and Muslims, it almost ceased to function. In its place, Spain’s crusading Christians focused on the reconquest (Reconquista) Reconquista of southern regions still occupied by Muslims. Inquisition;and Jews[Jews] Inquisition;Spain Torquemada, Tomás de Sixtus IV Espina, Alonso de Ferdinand V Henry IV of Castile Isabella I Henry IV (king of Castile) Espina, Alonso de Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Isabella I (queen of Spain) Torquemada, Tomás de Hojeda, Alonso de Sixtus IV Innocent VIII

An engraved depiction of a procession leading to an auto-da-fé—a public condemnation of the accused—in Spain.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

While Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306, they were allowed limited rights to reside in Spain until 1492. Jews;refuge in Spain When Jewish communities grew and prospered, however, anti-Semitism became increasingly widespread. After Barcelona and other cities experienced terrible pogroms in 1391, thousands of Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, to be called conversos (converts), “New Christians,” or marranos (pigs). Catholicism;and Jews[Jews] By the middle of the fifteenth century, there were approximately 250,000 conversos in Spain, and many succeeded in occupying important positions in government and business, leading to bitter resentment by “Old Christians.”

Following their baptisms, conversos often continued to adhere to food taboos and other Hebrew traditions alien to Spanish culture, and Old Christians tended to suspect that they were also guilty of secretive Judaizing heresies. The more ethnocentric Spaniards even believed that Jews constituted a separate race, and that their “impure blood” made it impossible for them to become good Christians. In the city of Toledo in 1449, there was a violent anti-converso riot, leading to a harsh ordinance, a Sentencia-Estatuto, which limited severely the political and economic rights of all conversos, whatever their postbaptismal behavior. Although the king of Castile and the pope prevented the ordinance from being enforced, it continued to have widespread support by the public.

In the 1460’, conservative Spanish churchmen, both despising and fearing the conversos, agitated to convince King Henry IV of Castile to establish an inquisition for Castile. Alonso de Espina’s large treatise, Fortalitium fidei Fortalitium fidei (Espina) (1460), warned of contamination by heresies of all kinds, but concentrated on the converso threat with the racist argument. Catholicism;Spain

Alonso de Oropesa, prior of the Order of St. Jerome, also called for an inquisition, but without Espina’s racism. Henry was persuaded, and after unsuccessfully appealing to the pope to authorize an inquisition, he organized a panel of bishops in Toledo in 1463 to investigate charges of heresy.

With Henry’s death in 1474, Castile’s new monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella I, were fervent crusaders and nationalists, and they also wished to discredit Henry, who had been considered lax in combating heresy and its evils. Beginning in 1475, one of their first acts was to reactivate the inquisition that was already established in their royal domain of Sicily. During the early years of their reign, they were probably influenced by Isabella’s personal confessor, Tomás de Torquemada, a Dominican friar obsessed with the goal of eradicating unorthodox beliefs and practices.

In 1477, the young Queen Isabella visited the city of Seville, where she heard a sermon by another crusading Dominican, Alonso de Hojeda, who claimed to have discovered a circle of Judaizing conversos. Isabella appointed investigators, and they confirmed Hojeda’s charges. Armed with this new evidence, the “Catholic Monarchs” requested a papal bull to establish an inquisition in Castile. Apparently, the monarchs acted from several motivations: They wanted to save souls from condemnation, to promote religious conformity, to centralize their political control, to appease public prejudices, and also to raise funds.

On November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull that authorized the monarchs of “genuine devotion and sound faith” to appoint two or three “God-fearing” priests as inquisitors. At first, Sixtus expected that the Church would exercise its traditional control over the Inquisition, but Ferdinand and Isabella quickly declared that the Holy Tribunal was a royal institution, meaning that confiscated property would be seized by the Crown.

The monarchs permitted a two-year warning period before appointing three Dominicans as inquisitors, but then the tribunals energetically began their work. In 1481, inquisitors claimed to have uncovered a converso plot to take up arms in Seville, and trials resulted in the first large public condemnation, known as an auto-da-fé, or act of faith. Auto-da-fé (burning at stake)[auto da fe (burning at stake)] Within a year, more than two hundred conversos had been turned over to the secular government to be burned alive, while hundreds more were given severe penalties, including various combinations of imprisonment, public floggings, wearing the sanbenito (sackcloth coat), and confiscation of property. Impressed by the popularity of the public punishments, Ferdinand quietly reorganized and reactivated the Inquisition within his kingdom of Aragon.

In 1482, after Pope Sixtus and Ferdinand briefly disagreed about the harsh methods being used against the conversos, the pope, recognizing his need for Spanish support, agreed to the appointment of eight more inquisitors, and granted the two monarchs permission to conduct the tribunals as they saw fit. The following year Sixtus accepted appointment of the infamous Torquemada as inquisitor-general of Castile. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII expanded Torquemada’s jurisdiction to include all of Spain.

Within the first decade under Torquemada’s direction, Spain’s Inquisition gave death penalties to about two thousand people (who were mostly conversos). Although these proceedings have often been criticized for their widespread use of torture, undisclosed accusations, secret witnesses, and absence of counsel, such procedures were not essentially different from those used by other ecclesiastical inquisitions or by many secular courts at the time.


Originally founded to find and punish conversos who were not truly converted, by the turn of the century the Spanish Inquisition also began to examine the orthodoxy of Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity). During the sixteenth century, the Inquisition expanded its interests to campaign against Erasmian humanism, Protestantism, witchcraft, unorthodox books, and forbidden practices such as polygamy and homosexuality. Inquisition;witchcraft Inquisition;Humanism Inquisition;sexuality While the Spanish Inquisition’s influence declined after the seventeenth century, it continued to issue death penalties as late as 1780 and was not abolished until 1834. Throughout this long history, the best evidence indicates that the Inquisition condemned approximately three thousand people to be burned at the stake and also rendered about fifty thousand harsh penalties.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, James M. Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Part of the Daily Life Through History series, this book surveys the effects of the Inquisition on every aspect of mundane existence, from the royal court to rural farming communities, from military life to the daily experience of students. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baer, Yitzhak. A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. Vol. 2. Translated by Louis Schoffman. Philadelphia: Jewish Publishing Society, 1966. Provides a balanced account of how the Inquisition affected the Jewish and converso communities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, John. The Spanish Inquisition. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 1999. Analysis of the motivations behind the Inquisition, its political and religious functions, and its cost in lives and suffering. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A follow-up to Kamen’s previous work. Attempts to argue that the Inquisition was neither as widely accepted nor as cruel as is generally believed. While accepting the judgment that the Inquisition had disastrous and brutal effects upon the Jewish population, Kamen argues that it was not an all-powerful instrument of terror and domination, and that other nations of the time in fact used torture more frequently and malevolently. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lea, Henry Charles. The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion. New Delhi, India: Goodword Books, 2002. Analyzes the lives of the converted Muslims (Moriscos) in Spain during the Inquisition, up to the early seventeenth century. Recommended reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liss, Peggy. Isabel the Queen: Life and Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A sympathetic biography with chapter 10 devoted to the queen’s role in the Inquisition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Llorente, Juan Antonio. A Critical History of the Inquisition in Spain. Reprint. Williamstown, N.Y.: John Lilburne, 1967. Classic work of 1818, written by a former inquisitor using original archives. Llorente’s numbers are now considered inflated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Netanyahu, Benzion. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. 2d ed. New York: New York Review Books, 2001. A scholarly, massive, and one-sided concentration on the anti-Semitism of the Inquisition, with the questionable thesis that almost no conversos remained loyal to the Jewish faith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: Free Press, 1988. The best relatively brief history of all major inquisitions from the thirteenth century, with an excellent discussion of sources and interpretations. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roth, Norman. Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. A study of the experience of Jews under the Inquisition, especially those who attempted to convert to Catholicism. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitechapel, Simon. Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. London: Creation, 2003. A somewhat sensational and one-sided but informative portrayal of Torquemada and the horrors of the Inquisition. Includes bibliographic references.

Oct. 19, 1469: Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella

1473-1600: Witch-Hunts and Witch Trials

1492: Jews Are Expelled from Spain

Beginning c. 1495: Reform of the Spanish Church

Aug. 15, 1534: Founding of the Jesuit Order

Categories: History