Pombal Reforms the Inquisition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Inquisition in Portugal was transformed from an institution of the Church to secular, state control. It continued its repressive practices, applying them to political opponents of the socioeconomic orthodoxy of the marquês de Pombal’s government and its reforms.

Summary of Event

The Inquisition was a judicial institution of the Roman Catholic Church, established in the late Middle Ages to combat heresy, superstition, and unorthodox thought. It had the authority to jail, torture, and apply the death penalty against those it accused. It acquired a character of fanaticism not unlike modern campaigns against political and religious radicals. [kw]Pombal Reforms the Inquisition (1769) [kw]Inquisition, Pombal Reforms the (1769) [kw]Reforms the Inquisition, Pombal (1769) Inquisition in Portugal [g]Portugal;1769: Pombal Reforms the Inquisition[1930] [c]Government and politics;1769: Pombal Reforms the Inquisition[1930] [c]Organizations and institutions;1769: Pombal Reforms the Inquisition[1930] [c]Religion and theology;1769: Pombal Reforms the Inquisition[1930] Pombal, marquês de Carvalho e Mendonça, Paulo de Clement XIV

Spanish monarchs obtained papal authorization for the Inquisition in their kingdom as part of their successful campaign during the fifteenth century to drive Muslims and Jews Jews;Inquisition out of Spain. The Inquisition continued in that country as a means of monitoring the fidelity of those who converted from these religions rather than face exile. Observing how the Inquisition augmented Spanish royal authority, the kings of Portugal requested establishment of the religious court in their country as well. By 1547, the Portuguese Inquisition was fully installed.

In Portugal as in Spain, the Inquisition assumed authority for investigating New Christians, individuals who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism. These individuals were often also engaged in the new trades and commerce of Portugal’s expanding empire. Thus, the Portuguese Inquisition came to be suspicious of elements who challenged established socioeconomic authority and of new ideas or innovative trends. It thereby became a powerful ally of the vested interests of the landed aristocracy and the traditional merchant class.

The Inquisition was headed by an inquisitor-general, a powerful religious and political office. The inquisitor-general was invariably a cardinal or bishop and on several occasions became regent of the kingdom. The Inquisition constituted a significant bureaucracy within the Portuguese state, with lawyers, prosecutors, judges, clergy, police officials, prison wardens, spies, and clerks. In the centuries after its founding, it authorized the imprisonment and torture of thousands and the execution of hundreds of people. Executions consisted of public burnings, staged to instill maximum intimidation and loyalty to the established order.

It was not only the Inquisition that repressed Portuguese entrepreneurial initiatives. Portugal was under Spanish royal and commercial control from 1580 to 1640. Over the course of the seventeenth century, its rich, worldwide seaborne empire withered away under attack from the expanding mercantile empires of the Dutch, French, and English. Nevertheless, it held on to its colony of Brazil. During the eighteenth century, the discovery of gold and diamonds in Brazil reinstated Portugal’s fortune. An extraordinary amount of this wealth, however, was traded for manufactured goods from Great Britain.

The key economic philosophy of the eighteenth century was mercantilism. One of its main principles held that the wealth of a nation was measured in the amount of gold and silver it held. Nations should be self-sufficient in terms of agriculture and manufactures, maintaining a positive and not a negative trade balance with other nations. In accord with mercantilist practice, Portugal’s economy was grossly out of balance. A chief advocate of mercantilism in Portugal was the chief minister of King Joseph I, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello. In power for nearly a quarter century, from 1755 to 1777, he was ennobled as the Marquês de Pombal in 1769, and it is by this name that he is known to history.

Pombal understood that Portugal’s economic deficiencies were linked to social and cultural inadequacies. The educational system had no curriculum to teach modern philosophy, the natural sciences, or values favoring commerce and entrepreneurship. He saw the cause of this backwardness in two sources: the Jesuit Jesuits;Inquisition religious order, which controlled secondary and higher education, and the Inquisition, which intimidated those who would express innovative thoughts or new values.

A failed attempt to assassinate King Joseph in 1758 became the springboard whereby Carvalho e Mello addressed his criticism of both these agencies. He implicated Jesuits and reactionary aristocrats in the attempted regicide, and the king declared in 1759 that members of the order were in rebellion against the Crown. During that year and next, the Jesuits’ vast properties in Brazil and Portugal were confiscated and they were expelled from Portuguese territories. Their considerable educational institutions were taken over by the royal government, and their curricula were modernized in accord with Carvalho e Mello’s Enlightenment objectives.

The expulsion of the Jesuits prompted a dispute with the Papacy, and diplomatic relations between Portugal and the Vatican were suspended from 1760 to 1769. Carvalho e Mello used the decade to place the Catholic Church in Portugal under government control. Central to this objective was secularization of the Inquisition, Secularism;and the Inquisition[Inquisition] ending its existence as an independent court system separate from the government. Already in 1768, Carvalho e Mello ended the Inquisition’s police powers, incorporating them into a new office of the intendant general of police. The Inquisition’s power to censor books was transferred to a Royal Censorship Board, and the distinction between Old and New Christians, which it had had the authority to determine, was abolished.

In 1769, the newly ennobled Pombal made his climactic move against the Inquisition. He ended its financial self-sufficience, making it dependent on the state to function, by ordering it to transfer the property it confiscated to the state treasury. He abolished its authority to authorize capital punishment, ending its public burning of heretics. Finally, he appointed his brother, Paulo de Carvalho e Mendonça, archbishop of Évora, to be inquisitor general. As a measure of reconciliation between the Vatican and Portugal, Pope Clement XIV elevated Inquisitor General Carvalho e Mendonça to cardinal the following year. However, the Pombaline inquisitor held his new post and elevation only briefly, dying in 1770. The regulations for the Inquisition to follow as a royal court were completed and published by 1774. As an arm of the royal judicial system and with an extensive police, spy, and imprisonment infrastructure, the secularized Inquisition became an effective vehicle for the prosecution of Pombal’s political enemies.


The Marquês de Pombal’s secularization of the Inquisition ended a judicial travesty that was a remnant of the late Middle Ages. Constituted in Portugal not for theological reasons but for political ones, the Inquisition became a vehicle for enforcing established sociocultural thought and practices in general. By the eighteenth century, even its rationale for censorship of books and the determination of purity of Christian descent were debilitated.

Secularization, however, did not end the Inquisition’s function as an instrument of suppression; it merely shifted the paradigm of its focus. The sociocultural forces it had suppressed were the ones that Pombal promoted. Those who now opposed his “enlightened” educational program of modern philosophy, the natural sciences, and entrepreneurial values became its new enemies. The contradiction of this development is not puzzling when one considers the many wars waged by imperial powers on lesser peoples for the sake of civilization, culture, or democracy.

Pombal’s secularizing reform of the Inquisition encapsulates the contradiction of “enlightened despotism.” Advocating action in favor of new thought and rational ideology, it applied ancient methods of repression and violence. Ultimately, Pombal’s reforms did end the Inquisition in Portugal. Less than two generations later, with the Napoleonic invasion of the country, the Inquisition was finally abolished in 1808. Who better than Napoleon I, the ultimate dictator of the Enlightenment, to give the coup de grace to this remnant of European theocracy?

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bengt, Ankarloo, and Gustav Henningsen. Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. Includes a chapter on the administration of the Inquisition in Portugal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burns, E. Bradford. “The Role of Azeredo Coutinho in the Enlightenment of Brazil.” Hispanic American Historical Review 44, no. 2 (May, 1964): 145-160. Examines the role of the inquisitor appointed by Pombal to develop clerical education in Brazil, who had a leading role in the independence movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duncan, Thomas Bentley. Pombal and the Suppression of the Portuguese Jesuits: An Inquiry into Causes and Motives. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Chicago, 1961. Reviews scholarly literature regarding motives, methods, and consequences of Pombal’s hostility to the Jesuits.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maxwell, Kenneth. Pombal: Paradox of the Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Most complete account in English of the life and work of Pombal by a noted scholar of Portuguese history. Richly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Theileman, Werner. Século XVIII: Século das luzes, século de Pombal. Frankfurt, Germany: TFM, 2001. Papers from a recent European conference on Pombal and the Enlightenment.

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Categories: History