The Policies and Truths of the Spanish Inquisition

“The Catholic faith is like a lion in a cage. You don’t need to defend it – you simply need to open the cage door.” – Archbishop Fulton Sheen


There is a lot of false information about the Spanish Inquisition still lingering everywhere in the world today.  Newspapers, mass media, and even text books perpetuate these falsehoods and keep them going, handing them down to the next generation. In this piece I will attempt to open the cage door to the truth about the Spanish Inquisition. Today, thanks to unbiased scholars whose works are checked and revered amongst their peers, we can help clear up these misconceptions by checking the historical facts with actual documentation that clearly point out that what we think we know about the Inquisitions is a lot different than what they really were.

An inquisition is the act of inquiring deeply; a thorough investigation.  The Inquisitions were conducted by the Roman Catholic Church to discover and suppress heresy.  Heresy is defined by the Catholic Church as the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.  All Catholics are obliged to believe all the teachings of the Church, otherwise they are no longer Catholic. The Churches duty then, as it is now, is to make sure that no self-proclaiming Catholic pervert the teachings of the Church and lead others astray from the truths of the faith.

The common belief amongst most people was that the Inquisition forced millions of people to convert or die, and that the inquisition used extreme methods of torture to force all non-Catholics to convert to Catholicism or be burned alive at the stake.  The truth is much different.  The inquisitions were put in place to protect both guilty and innocent people from the gross injustice of state leaders and mob aggression, establishing a level of justice and order throughout much of Europe.

According to Professor Henry Kamen’s, The Spanish Inquisition – An Historical Revision there was less terror, bigotry, and persecution associated with it than has been previously believed. Another reference was Professor Edward Peters book “Inquisition”; he states: “There was never, ‘The Inquisition’, a single all-powerful, horrific tribunal, whose agents worked everywhere to thwart religious truth, intellectual freedom, and political liberty. That is ‘The Inquisition’ of folklore, martyrology artwork, and post-Enlightenment fiction.”  Other sources I pulled from in my research was a BBC Television documentary titled The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition., and Brenda Stalcup’s, The Inquisition (Turning Points in World History).

I have chosen to focus mainly on the Spanish Inquisition of 15th century Spain.  The Spanish inquisition was instituted to look into the matter of the conversos, who were Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism.  None of the inquisitions were started just to round people up and force-feed them the Catholic Faith or burn them at the stake. Inquisitions were always begun in response to a specific problem that was being very poorly handled.

In the year 711 the Muslims invaded Spain and had complete rule of the country until 1492.  By 1502 the Christians reclaim Spain and the rulers issued an order requiring all Muslims to convert to Christianity, and when this didn’t work, they imposed brutal restrictions on the remaining Spanish Muslims.  Many people in Spain were resentful and distrustful of the Muslims and Jews and sometimes formed mobs to attack them, forcing them to convert or die, many converted, but their conversions were regarded with suspicion because they had been forced.  These forced conversions were neither handled nor endorsed by the Catholic Church and yet today the motivation for them is laid solely at the feet of the Church. I must also note that the motivation for the Inquisition in Spain came not from the church, but from the king and queen of Spain who asked for an Inquisition to be conducted.

Professor Kamen notes that, “Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition and that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed in the whole of the Spanish monarchy.” The flip side to this is that some inquisition officials were unjust and cruel and wrongly punished both innocent and guilty people.  I’m not here to say that the inquisitions were without blame, but I would like to show that by and large the courts of inquisition were the most just and humane legal systems that existed anywhere in Europe at the time.  And they were started to protect people from unjust treatment, not to harm them with unjust rulings.

The majority of people were found to be innocent of heresy and allowed to go free. They were brought to an orderly trial without torture, the evidence was heard and they were found to be innocent and then they were released. Torture was only used in 2% of cases.  In Spain under Queen Isabella’s rule about 15,000 people were convicted of heresy but repented and were accepted back into the Church. Unfortunately, a little over 2,000 people were convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.  There were not as many deaths as the popular press claims. Numbers have often been inflated to as high as 9 million by the popular press, with absolutely no scholarly research. This figure is completely incorrect. A broad range of scholars, many of whom were not Catholic, have carefully studied the Inquisitions.   Now am I saying that those two thousand don’t matter?  No, and I’m not saying that it’s OK to burn people at the stake.

Now here’s how the Inquisition functioned.  The court of inquisition would have priests stay in a town or village for a month or so preaching, teaching and hearing confessions. This was called the period of Grace for anyone who wanted to could confess and be forgiven during this period.  If the people accused of heresy repented that was the end of the matter.  If they did not they would be tried and if found guilty the inquisition officials would decide on the method of punishment.

However, most people were not burned at the stake. Common punishments included being required to perform certain good works such as helping to build a church, going on a pilgrimage, or even participating in a crusade.  Stricter punishments could be fines, whipping with rods and wearing colored crosses.  A guilty person might also be imprisoned or excommunicated in which case they would be handed over to the secular authorities.  The inquisitions didn’t actually execute people, if someone’s sentence was serious they would be excommunicated and then punishment was up to the civil courts.

Torture was NOT used as a form of punishment, but for getting at the truth.  Torture was used as a last resort when guilt seemed probable but there was no other way of being certain of the truth.  Very infrequently, the defendant and sometimes even the witnesses were tortured for a short period not to exceed 15 minutes.  Although it was sometimes ignored, the rule was that no one was allowed to be tortured more than once, and the type of torture could not cause maiming or death or even the risk of death.  But many judges recognized that innocent people would sometimes confess to things they didn’t do while being tortured just so the pain would end. So a lot of the judges would not attach too much weight to testimony received under torture.  Keep in mind that torture existed long before the courts of inquisition and the Church was always leery about allowing it at all.

Another example people give for why the inquisitions were so bad, is that when a person was accused of heresy he wasn’t allowed to know who his accuser was.  It’s true that accusers’ names were usually kept secret; this was done because there had been times when the accuser and his family were threatened or even killed for reporting someone to the inquisition.  However, the court balanced this out by letting the accused person produce a list of all his known enemies.  Then the court would investigate to see if any of these people had falsely accused the defendant.  If the accuser was one of the defendants’ listed enemies, the court would take his accusations with a HUGE grain of salt.

Remember, the inquisitions weren’t perfect, but most of the time the courts succeeded in holding to a legal standard much higher than anywhere else in the world at that time.  Even today injustice exists in our court systems.  Professor Kamen states; “A comparison with the cruelty and mutilation common in secular tribunals shows the Inquisition in a relatively favorable light. This, in conjunction with the usually good level of prison conditions, makes it clear that the tribunal had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.”

So, in conclusion, who do we blame for the Inquisition: Christianity, the Catholic Church? I don’t think so.  Blame human nature, and blame also a propaganda machine that was so effective that “even today it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.”  So thanks to recent scholarship we can help lay aside a lot of the bias and false historical claims about the Spanish Inquisition.  I have quoted notable sources and provided factual and statistical information.  And I want to make this clear, I believe firmly in free will, and I don’t believe that divinely orchestrated gift was properly exercised during this time in history.  However, I also believe in the truth.

~ John Andrew Dorsey


Author: Professor Henry Kamen

Title: The Spanish Inquisition

Publication Info: Yale University Press, July 1999

Edition: 1st ed.


Author: Professor Edward Peters

Title: Inquisition

Publication Info: University of California Press; April 1989

Edition: 1st ed.


Author: BBC Television Documentary

Title: The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition

Publication Info: BBC Television Documentary

Edition: 1st ed.


Author: Brenda Stalcup

Title: The Inquisition (Turning Points in World History)

Publication Info: Greenhaven Press; September, 2000

Edition: 1st ed.

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