The Inquisition was a powerful office set up within the Catholic Church to root out and punish heresy throughout Europe and the Americas. Beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, the Inquisition is infamous for the severity of its tortures and its persecution of Jews and Muslims.
Its worst manifestation was in Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition was a dominant force for more than 200 years, resulting in some 32,000 executions.
The Inquisition has its origins in the early organized persecution of non-Catholic Christian religions in Europe. In 1184 Pope Lucius III sent bishops to southern France to track down heretics called Catharists. These efforts continued into the 14th Century.
During the same period, the church also pursued the Waldensians in Germany and Northern Italy. In 1231, Pope Gregory charged the Dominican and Franciscan Orders to take over the job of tracking down heretics.
The Job of Inquisitors
Inquisitors would arrive in a town and announce their presence, giving citizens a chance to admit to heresy. Those who confessed received a punishment ranging from a pilgrimage to a whipping.
Those accused of heresy were forced to testify. If the heretic did not confess, torture and execution were inescapable. Heretics weren’t allowed to face accusers, received no counsel, and were often victims of false accusations.
Bernard Gui wrote the influential guidebook for Inquisitors called “Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Depravity” in the early 14th Century. Gui himself pronounced over 600 people guilty of heresy and was featured as a character in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.
There were countless abuses of power. Count Raymond VII of Toulouse was known for burning heretics at the stake even though they had confessed. His successor, Count Alphonese, confiscated the lands of the accused to increase his riches.
In 1307, Inquisitors were involved in the mass arrest and tortures of 15,000 Knights Templar in France, resulting in dozens of executions. Joan of Arc, burned at the stake in 1431, is the most famous victim of this wing of the Inquisition.
In the late 15th Century, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain believed corruption in the Spanish Catholic Church was caused by Jews who, to survive centuries of anti-Semitism, converted to Christianity.
Known as Conversos, they were viewed with suspicion by old powerful Christian families. Conversos were blamed for a plague and accused of poisoning peoples’ water and abducting Christian boys.
Ferdinand and Isabella feared that even trusted Conversos were secretly practicing their old religion; the royal couple was also afraid of angering Christian subjects who demanded a harder line against Conversos—Christian support was crucial in an upcoming crusade against Muslims planned in Granada.
Ferdinand felt an Inquisition was the best way to fund that crusade, by seizing the wealth of heretic Conversos.
In 1478, under the influence of clergyman Tomas de Torquemada, the monarchs created the Tribunal of Castile to investigate heresy among Conversos. The effort focused on stronger Catholic education for Conversos, but by 1480, the Inquisition was formed.
That same year, Jews in Castile were forced into ghettos separated from Christians, and the Inquisition expanded to Seville. A mass exodus of Conversos followed.
In 1481, 20,000 Conversos confessed to heresy, hoping to avoid execution. Inquisitors decreed that their penitence required them to name other heretics. By the year’s end, hundreds of Conversos were burned at the stake.
Hearing the complaints of Conversos who had fled to Rome, Pope Sextus proclaimed the Spanish Inquisition was too harsh and was wrongly accusing Conversos. In 1482 Sextus appointed a council to take command of the Inquisition.
Torquemada was named Inquisitor General and established courts across Spain. Torture became systemized and routinely used to elicit confessions.
Sentencing of confessed heretics was done in a public event called the Auto-da-Fe. All heretics wore a sackcloth with a single eyehole over their heads. Heretics who refused to confess were burned at the stake.
Sometimes people fought back against the Inquisition. In 1485, an Inquisitor died after being poisoned, and another Inquisitor was stabbed to death in a church. Torquemada managed to round up the assassins, burning at the stake 42 people in retaliation.
Torquemada’s downfall came when he investigated members of the clergy for heresy. Complaints to Pope Alexander VI convinced him that Torquemada needed tempering. Torquemada was forced to share leadership with four other clergymen until he died in 1498.
Diego de Deza took over as Inquisitor General, escalating the hunt for heresy within cities and rounding up scores of accused heretics, including members of the nobility and local governments. Some were able to bribe their way out of imprisonment and death, reflecting the level of corruption under de Deza.
After Isabella’s death in 1504, Ferdinand promoted Cardinal Gonzalo Ximenes de Cisneros, the head of the Spanish Catholic Church, to Inquisitor General. Ximenes had previously made a mark in Granada persecuting the Islamic Moors.
As Inquisitor General, Ximenes pursued Muslims into North Africa, encouraging Ferdinand to take military action. Upon seizing African towns, the Inquisition became established there. Ximenes was dismissed in 1517 after pleas from prominent Conversos, but the Inquisition was allowed to continue.
Rome renewed its own Inquisition in 1542 when Pope Paul III created the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition to combat Protestant heresy. This Inquisition is best known for putting Galileo on trial in 1633.
In 1545, the Spanish Index was created, a list of European books considered heretical and forbidden in Spain, based on the Roman Inquisition’s own Index Librorum Prohibitorum. In other nods to Rome’s concerns, the Spanish Inquisition focused on the rising population of Spanish Protestants in the 1550s.
In 1556, Philip II ascended the Spanish throne. He had previously brought the Roman Inquisition to the Netherlands, where Lutherans were hunted down and burned at the stake.
Inquisition in the New World
As Spain expanded into the Americas, so did the Inquisition, established in Mexico in 1570. In 1574, Lutherans were burned at the stake there, and the Inquisition came to Peru, where Protestants were likewise tortured and burned alive.
In 1580 Spain conquered Portugal and began rounding up and slaughtering Jews that had fled Spain. Philip II also renewed hostilities against the Moors, who revolted and found themselves either killed or sold into slavery.
Philip II died in 1598 and his son, Philip III, dealt with the Muslim uprising by banishing them. From 1609 to 1615, 150,000 Muslims who had converted to Catholicism were forced out of Spain.
By the mid-1600s the Inquisition and Catholic dominance had become such an oppressive fact of daily life in Spanish territories that Protestants avoided those places altogether.
End of the Spanish Inquisition
In 1808, Napoleon conquered Spain and ordered the Inquisition there to be abolished.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Ferdinand VII worked to reinstate the Inquisition but was ultimately prevented by the French government, which helped Ferdinand overcome a fierce rebellion. Part of the agreement with France was to dismantle the Inquisition, which was defunct by 1834.
The last person to be executed by the Inquisition was Cayetano Ripoll, a Spanish schoolmaster hanged for heresy in 1826.
The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition still exists, though changed its name a couple of times. It is currently called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.