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The  Spanish  Inquisition
The Full Story


Is it true that during the Spanish Inquisition evil Catholic monks developed various horrendous mechanisms of torture in their dungeons such as the Iron Maiden to force Protestants and Jews to become Catholics ?

The Spanish Inquisition is one of the favorite topics of those seeking to attack the Catholic Church.  Ever since the 1500’s fictionalized accounts have accused the Inquisitors, and the Catholic Church in general, of enormous atrocities.  One book popular with Fundamentalists claims that 95 million people died under the Inquisition.  However, the population of Europe was probably between 70-75 million at the time, and so that would have meant that every person in Europe (including the “inquisitors”  themselves) would have to have been killed  (plus about 20  million more that didn't exist!) …


Context of the Times

Spain had just concluded a bloody battle with the Moslems.  The Moslems were known for their ruthless killing of every man woman and child of the Catholic towns that they had captured.  Complicating this issue was the fact that the Jews had fought on the side of the Moslems.  At night the Jews would open up the city gates of the Catholic towns to the invading Moslem Moors.

In the centuries before, the Jews had been granted permission by the Catholics in Spain to come there as refugees.   Unlike the Catholics who considered usury as sinful, the Jews became very powerful in the business of money lending. 

“In Aragon they charged twenty percent, in Castile thirty-three percent, and in the famine of 1326, in Cuehca they refused to lend money for sowing except at forty percent interest. Added to this was their practice of insulting the Christian religion. Even today the epithet, “Christian dog” (perro cristiano), comes from those times.”

Because of the devastating years of battle with the Moslems, and those Jews who assisted them, Spain had rescinded the Jew’s permission to stay there and ordered them to leave Spain in order to preserve the fragile government. 

Some Jews had faked conversion.  Because the government did not want to make itself vulnerable to possible traitorous acts committed by those who were still aligned with Moslem forces it needed to make determinations as to whether or not those who claimed to be converted to Christianity were being honest.  It was the Inquisitors job to make this determination.  The Inquisition had no jurisdiction, and therefore no authority over any practicing Jew or Moslem because they were not baptized.   The Inquisition only investigated professed Christians suspected of being fakes.  The Inquisitors did use some torture in their examinations, but any statement that was made during this torture was not accepted as evidence if the individual later retracted any such confession.  It was the state and not the Church that carried out the sentence or punishment against those who were found guilty.

There are several websites on the Spanish Inquisition, but each that I have found lacks some important elements that are on one or more of the other sites.  Rather that list each site, some of which are no longer functional, and have the reader sift through all the overlapping, I have excerpted the main points below.  Unlike myself, some of these webmasters do this full time and ask for donations to make ends meet.  So, if you are one of those who have falsely accused the Church and who wish to make restitution, you contact them. ( I do not accept contributions since I have a full time job.)


Isabella the Catholic     

[web site no longer functional]

Causes of Disruption

“One of the most urgent problems facing Ferdinand and Isabella was that of the Jews and the Moslems. For several centuries Spain and suffered the effects of Jewish and Moslem intrigue, ever since the Moorish takeover in 711 when Moslems and Jews had worked jointly to overthrow a beleaguered Christian Kingdom.

“In many instances Jews had opened city gates to invading Moors. The new caliphate could not help but bestow some gifts of gratitude on their helpers. Whole cities were placed in their care Granada was known as the city of the Jews and their power in central and southern Spain was almost unchallenged. If Isabella found it necessary to expel the Jews when Spain had been recovered from the Moors, it was for the simple reason that the ally of an enemy should receive the same treatment as the enemy. There were several other reasons why the Catholic sovereigns, in dealing with the Jews, would have to take drastic steps—steps which many would think unjustified.  …

Muley Aboul Hassan, the Mohammedan leader of Granada, went into action before the ink was dry on the agreement. With 35,000 men he stormed and took the town of Ciefo in three days and put every man, woman, and child to death. …”

[End Quote]


Spanish  Inquisition

A  New  Study


The Inquisitors took extensive notes on what they did.  These extensive notes were compiled in numerous volumes and kept in their library.  They were made for the exclusive use of the inquisitors, and therefore this enabled them to make a most accurate account of what really happened.  These volumes of texts were just recently made available to the scholars. 

They offer the real documentation as to what happened.  See below the findings of a non-Catholic study of these documents that was broadcast on the BBC.  The immediately following article contains that data and is the newest on this page, and it is based on this recent obtained objective data and is therefore the most reliable.

A New Look At the Spanish Inquisition

by Edward O'Brien

We're all familiar with the popular idea of the Spanish Inquisition, which for centuries has been depicted as a monstrous tyranny imposed upon Spain by sinister Church and state officials. .. .  Some fundamentalists have claimed that millions died in this fashion.

.. .  Men of great imaginative genius such as Edgar Poe have written of inquisitorial terrors as though they were worse than the Gestapo's. I remember being appalled by the powerful prose of Poe's, The Pit and the Pendulum.

Historians have known for some time that the popular view of the Spanish Inquisition is only part of the "Black Legend"-that body of writings which, since the 16th century, has vilified both Spain and its Catholic faith. In the 16th century, Catholic Spain was the great continental power. Her Protestant enemies were jealous of Spain and many resorted to lies to help bring down Spanish power and control. Spaniards were described by Northern Europeans as dark, cruel, greedy, treacherous, ignorant, and narrow. The Inquisition was fiercely attacked with gross exaggeration. Thus, a combination of political rivalry, contempt for the Catholic faith, and anti-Spanish racism created a distorted image of the Inquisition.

Now, however, new and startling information is beginning to blow away the dark cobwebs of lies and myths-that racist distortion of the Spanish national character and Hispanic culture.  On June 9th, 1995, the BBC documentary - The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition - was aired on Ancient Mysteries. TV often trashes the Church, but not this time. Spanish scholars using computerized searches through the actual records left by the officers of the Inquisition are showing that the Inquisition had neither the power nor the desire to put Spain under its control.  .. .

A most important point made by the Spanish scholars is that the inquisitional courts of the Church were both more just and more lenient than civil courts and religious courts elsewhere in Europe at the time. Prisoners in Spanish secular courts, knowing this would sometimes blaspheme in order to be sent to the courts of the Inquisition where conditions were better. .. .

Modern Spanish scholars point out that other nations have worse records than Spain in dealing with heretics. English Catholics suffered horribly under Protestant regimes. American historian William T. Walsh writes: "In Britain, 30,000 went to the stake for witchcraft; in Protestant Germany, the figure was 100,000" (, p. 275). In Scotland, too, alleged witches were cruelly put to death. Karl Keating quotes from the : "It is well-known that belief in the justice of punishing heresy with death was so common among the 16th-century Reformers-Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and their adherents-that we may say their toleration began where their power ended" (C.E., s.v., "Inquisition," 8:35). Such facts are embarrassing to lovers of the Black Legend.

Two books useful for Catholics who want to learn about the real Inquisition of history are by William T. Walsh, and by Karl Keating. Both authors are Catholic but neither whitewashes the Spanish Inquisition. There abuses: instances of cruelty, persecution, and personal vengeance. It would be strange if there were no abuses in a human institution that lasted so long. The BBC documentary says torture was used, but it could not last more than 15 minutes and could never be used twice on the same person. Walsh says that for torture to be used, a doctor had to be present, and at his command it had to be stopped. 

And there were other safeguards.

In any case, no Catholic should ever whitewash the Inquisition. We must honestly acknowledge that three Popes-Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, and Alexander VI-tried to moderate the undue severity of the early Spanish Inquisition. We must also face this question: Why should anyone ever be put in prison or put to death for believing heresy? That is not the way of the Gospel, nor the path of reason. Walsh pointedly says that no Catholic today wants a return to the Inquisition. Nor do we want cover-ups of the past, for as Leo XIII said, "The Church has no need of any man's lie."

We do serve God in truth and so we should know the full truth about the Inquisition and refute the preposterous myths made up by enemies of the Church.

For example, Fray Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor whose very name is now a symbol of ruthless cruelty, actually checked the excessive zeal of the earlier inquisitors in many ways, including the limiting and mitigating of torture. Walsh thinks that torture under Torquemada was no worse than that used by American police in the 1930s. Also, under Torquemada's entire tenure as Grand Inquisitor (1483-1498), 100,000 prisoners passed before his various tribunals throughout Spain. Of this number, less than 2% were executed. In Barcelona, from 1488 to 1498, “one prisoner out of 20 was put to death” (23 executions). Torquemada is not the monster of the Black Legend; still, he was responsible for an estimated 1,000 or possibly up to 1,500 deaths.


Beyond the Myth of The Inquisition: 
Ours Is "The Golden Age"

Brian Van Hove, S.J.


Are they aware the Inquisition was never primarily an anti-Protestant body, and that Philip II of Spain never had a consistently anti-Protestant foreign policy?

The figures given above for punishments in Valencia and Galicia suggest an execution rate of well under 2 per cent of the accused. .. .  during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries less than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru _ possibly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice.

Muslims and Jews did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition because they were not baptized. On the other hand: All properly baptized persons, being Christians and members of the Catholic Church, came under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.



Fr. William G. Most


This topic is a favorite for attacking the Church. We need to remember two things: 1) Actions are not the same as teachings. The fact that the Church had some abuses is clear. .. .

2)The abuses were much less than most people think. For a good account see Warren Carroll, The Glory of Christendom (part of a seven volume series—the data below is from his work) on the Inquisition, and on sad abuses by the Popes in the Middle Ages. Further all governments of Europe around this period severely punished heresy. In England, the offender, often a Catholic priest who had merely said Mass, was hanged, drawn and quartered while still alive.

In France and Spain especially, the Cathar heretics were a danger not just to the Church, but to the state, and to all. In 1229 a council at Toulouse required that everyone in Languedoc, where most of the Cathars were, to take an oath and renew it every other year, to remain a good Catholic, and to denounce heretics. But Cardinal Frangipani heard testimony from a former Cathar, William of Solier, who said that to make such names public would endanger the lives of the informants. Out of this grew the Inquisition, established by Pope Gregory IX in 1233 to be staffed by Dominicans. The Cathars then were as dangerous as terrorists today, and brought fear, cruelty, bloodshed and war wherever they had sufficient numbers. In southern France it took the full armed power of the King of France to overcome them.

But then they went underground. Persons accused by the Inquisition were not allowed to know the accusers, to protect the accusers—this sort of thing happens in protection of witnesses in U. S. courts today. But the person arrested was to make a list of his personal enemies and none of their testimony would be used against him. What modern court allows such a thing? Torture was used, but quite infrequent, and not lasting in its effects. In the 50 years of the operation there were no more than 5000 executions, which was small in comparison to the total executed for other crimes in the same period. Some Inquisitors did abuse their power, but they were promptly and strongly curbed by Pope Gregory IX. In 1242 the Cathars murdered ten of the Inquisitors.

As to the Spanish episode, the Turks in 1480 attacked the south Italian city of Otranto. 12, 000 people were killed, the rest made slaves. The sacred book of Islam does call for killing all "infidels" (The Koran says: When ye encounter unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them, and bind them in bonds. . . ."—cited from B. Palmer, Understanding the Islamic Explosion, Horizon Books, 1980, p. 36). The Turks killed every cleric in the city and sawed the archbishop in two. So Queen Isabel sent a fleet to Italy. In September of 1480, when it was clear the Turks might do the same to any coastal city, Isabel established the Inquisition. It dealt with the special problem of those who pretended to become Christian, but were not really converted, and might open the gates of the city to the Turks.

Torture was used only occasionally and it was the government that inflicted that and death, after the Inquisition turned them over. The Inquisition had no authority over practicing Jews and Moslems, only over professed Christians suspected of being fakes. After the appointment of Tomas de Torquemada as Inquisitor General in 1483 its tribunals were so fair that many preferred to have it hear their cases rather than the regular courts. Again, those questioned could not see their accusers, but could make a list of their enemies, and all testimony from them was discarded.

We must remember again that every government in Europe punished treason and heresy by painful death. Yes, the Inquisition is to be blamed for some things, but not as badly as the legend says.


Phony Statistics


.. .. .. Many Fundamentalists believe, for instance, that more people died under the Inquisition than in any war or plague; but in this they rely on phony "statistics" generated by one-upmanship among anti-Catholics, each of whom, it seems, tries to come up with the largest number of casualties.

But trying to straighten out such historical confusions can take one only so far. As Ronald Knox put it, we should be cautious, "lest we should wander interminably in a wilderness of comparative atrocity statistics." In fact, no one knows exactly how many people perished through the various Inquisitions. We can determine for certain, though, one thing about numbers given by Fundamentalists: They are far too large. One book popular with Fundamentalists claims that 95 million people died under the Inquisition.

The figure is so grotesquely off that one immediately doubts the writer’s sanity, or at least his grasp of demographics. Not until modern times did the population of those countries where the Inquisitions existed approach 95 million.

Inquisitions did not exist in Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, or England, being confined mainly to southern France, Italy, Spain, and a few parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The Inquisition could not have killed that many people because those parts of Europe did not have that many people to kill! .. .. ..

The crucial thing for Catholics, once they have obtained some appreciation of the history of the Inquisition, is to explain how such an institution could have been associated with a divinely established Church and why it is not proper to conclude, from the existence of the Inquisition, that the Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ. This is the real point at issue, and this is where any discussion should focus.

To that end, it is helpful to point out that it is easy to see how those who led the Inquisitions could think their actions were justified. The Bible itself records instances where God commanded that formal, legal inquiries—that is, inquisitions—be carried out to expose secret believers in false religions. In Deuteronomy 17:2–5 God said: "If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it; then you shall inquire diligently [note that phrase: "inquire diligently"], and if it is true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones."

It is clear that there were some Israelites who posed as believers in and keepers of the covenant with Yahweh, while inwardly they did not believe and secretly practiced false religions, and even tried to spread them (cf. Deut. 13:6–11). To protect the kingdom from such hidden heresy, these secret practitioners of false religions had to be rooted out and expelled from the community. This directive from the Lord applied even to whole cities that turned away from the true religion (Deut. 13:12–18). Like Israel, medieval Europe was a society of Christian kingdoms that were formally consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is therefore quite understandable that these Catholics would read their Bibles and conclude that for the good of their Christian society they, like the Israelites before them, "must purge the evil from the midst of you" (Deut. 13:5, 17:7, 12). Paul repeats this principle in 1 Corinthians 5:13.

These same texts were interpreted similarly by the first Protestants, who also tried to root out and punish those they regarded as heretics. Luther and Calvin both endorsed the right of the state to protect society by purging false religion. In fact, Calvin not only banished from Geneva those who did not share his views, he permitted and in some cases ordered others to be executed for "heresy" (e.g. Jacques Gouet, tortured and beheaded in 1547; and Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553). In England and Ireland, Reformers engaged in their own ruthless inquisitions and executions. Conservative estimates indicate that thousands of English and Irish Catholics were put to death—many by being hanged, drawn, and quartered—for practicing the Catholic faith and refusing to become Protestant. An even greater number were forced to flee to the Continent for their safety. We point this out to show that the situation was a two-way street; and both sides easily understood the Bible to require the use of penal sanctions to root out false religion from Christian society.

The fact that the Protestant Reformers also created inquisitions to root out Catholics and others who did not fall into line with the doctrines of the local Protestant sect shows that the existence of an inquisition does not prove that a movement is not of God. Protestants cannot make this claim against Catholics without having it backfire on themselves. Neither can Catholics make such a charge against Protestants. The truth of a particular system of belief must be decided on other grounds, and defamatory charges against one side or another only generate too much heat, not enough light.

iron maiden
: a torture device consisting of a hollow iron statue or coffin in the shape of a woman that is lined with spikes which impale the enclosed victim.


"The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition,"

The Inquisition Myth, which Spaniards call "The Black Legend," did not arise in 1480. It began almost 100 years later, and exactly one year after the Protestant defeat at the Battle of Mühlberg at the hands of Ferdinand's grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1567 a fierce propaganda campaign began with the publication of a Protestant leaflet penned by a supposed Inquisition victim named Montanus. This character (Protestant of course) painted Spaniards as barbarians who ravished women and sodomized young boys. The propagandists soon created "hooded fiends" who tortured their victims in horrible devices like the knife-filled Iron Maiden (which never was used in Spain). The BBC/A&E special plainly states a reason for the war of words: the Protestants fought with words because they could not win on the battlefield. 

The Inquisition had a secular character, although the crime was heresy. Inquisitors did not have to be clerics, but they did have to be lawyers. The investigation was rule-based and carefully kept in check. And most significantly, historians have declared fraudulent a supposed Inquisition document claiming the genocide of millions of heretics.

What is documented is that 3000 to 5000 people died during the Inquisition's 350 year history. Also documented are the "Acts of Faith," public sentencing of heretics in town squares. But the grand myth of thought control by sinister fiends has been debunked by the archival evidence. The inquisitors enjoyed a powerful position in the towns, but it was one constantly jostled by other power brokers. In the outlying areas, they were understaffed - in those days it was nearly impossible for 1 or 2 inquisitors to cover the thousand-mile territory allotted to each team. In the outlying areas no one cared and no one spoke to them. As the program documents, the 3,000 to 5,000 documented executions of the Inquisition pale in comparison to the 150,000 documented witch burnings elsewhere in Europe over the same centuries  ...

One facet of the Black Legend that evaporates under scrutiny in this film is the rumor that Philip II, son of Charles V, killed his son Don Carlos on the advisement of the aging blind Grand Inquisitor. But without a shred of evidence, the legend of Don Carlos has been enshrined in a glorious opera by Verdi.  ...

Discrediting the Black Legend brings up the sticky subject of revisionism. Re-investigating history is only invalid if it puts an agenda ahead of reality. The experts - once true believers in the Inquisition myth - were not out to do a feminist canonization of Isabella or claim that Tomas de Torquemada was a Marxist. Henry Kamen of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona said on camera that researching the Inquisition’s archives “demolished the previous image all of us (historians) had.”

Our 20th century crisis of man playing God - usurping power over conception, life, and death - leaves us with no alternative but to qualify our demythologization of the Inquisition with a reminder: 3,000 to 5,000 victims are 3,000 to 5,000 too many.

Also see
Everyone Expects the Spanish Inquisition   by Joseph Pearce



Edgar Allen Poe

Even Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a fictionalized account of the Spanish Inquisition.

Edgar Allen Poe's short story,

The Pit and the Pendulum

“ … Another step before my fall, and the world had seen me no more and the death just avoided was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition. To the victims of its tyranny …

I now lay upon my back, and at full length, on a species of low framework of wood. To this I was securely bound by a long strap resembling a surcingle.

[Surcingle - belt for cassock: a belt worn around a priest’s cassock (archaic)
Encarta® Reference Dictinary]

The sweep of the pendulum had increased … But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that it had perceptibly DESCENDED. …

I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture. …

 Inch by inch -- line by line -- with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages -- down and still down it came! ... The odour of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. …

There could be no doubt of the design of my tormentors. Oh, most unrelenting! Oh, most demoniac of men! ... ‘Death,’ I said, ‘any death but that of the pit.’ ”

And so on for twenty pages reads the most familiar literary indictment of the wickedness of the Spanish Inquisition.  It ends with a triumphant reversal over the Inquisitors.

“ .. .. ..An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell fainting into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.” 

And so ends Edgar Allen Poe's short story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Although interesting literature, it is, to be sure 98%  fiction, just like many other anti-Catholic accounts of this time period.



See Video
The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition
Documentary by BBC and A&E. 1994.
In English with Spanish subtitles
en inglés con subtítulos en español.

Also on YouTube




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