Tomas de Torquemada

Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498) served as the Grand Inquisitor in Spain's zealous movement to restore Christianity among its populace in the late fifteenth century. Known for an extreme devotion to his cause and loyalty to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Torquemada headed an organization of ecclesiastical courts which imprisoned, tortured, and burned suspected nonbelievers at the stake. It is estimated that at least 2,000 died in Spain during his tenure.

Torquemada was born in 1420 in Valladolid, Spain. He was the nephew of a celebrated theologian and cardinal, Juan de Torquemada, who himself was a descendant of a converso. This was the term that designated a Spaniard who had converted to Christianity from Islam or Judaism. In the eighth century, Moors invaded Spain. This powerful group of North African nomadic peoples had originally come from Mauritania. Recent converts to Islam, they conquered the southern half of Spain and established the Umayyad emirate there. Over the next few centuries Moorish Spain thrived, and great mosques were built; religious tolerance, however, was also the order of the day, and Spain's Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted peacefully, however tenuous the arrangement. Even the most famous folk hero from this era, El Cid, was a Christian who entered into the service of a Muslim ruler in the late eleventh century. By the 1200s, however, the Moors were losing much territory to hostile Christian armies from the northern half of Spain, and soon the Moorish strongholds of Toledo and Cordoba began to surrender.

Religious tolerance began to ebb in the newly Christian Spanish kingdoms. Laws against Jews were enacted in several towns and cities. They were compelled to wear a special symbol or were restricted in business matters. They could not work as grocers or butchers, for example, and could not hire a Christian to work for them; in other cases, heavy fines were levied on Jews who did not appear on the religious feast day of Corpus Christi to pay respect to the annual procession. Many Muslims and Jews began to convert, finding it more socially, politically and economically expedient to join the Christian fold. An ancestor of Torquemada's did so in the 1300s. In 1391 unruly summer mobs rioted against wealthy Jews in the kingdom of Castile and forcibly baptized them. The unrest spread to Seville, Cordoba, Valencia and Barcelona. Many of those who refused to convert were slain.

An Era of Religious Intolerance

New tensions arose, however, for Christians came to regard the conversos with distrust. It was rumored that many conversos practiced their true faith in private or took part in secret and blasphemous ceremonies that mocked the Christian mass. But Christianity itself was far from an orderly, organized religion in Spain at the time. Priests complained that most believers were alarmingly ignorant about the very origins of the faith, its tenets, and the sacraments; many thought that some sort of magic was involved in the liturgy. Such was the situation when Torquemada took his religious vows as a Dominican monk in the mid-1400s.

Torquemada served as the prior of the Monastery of Santa Cruz at Segovia for 22 years. His more public career, however, would be closely linked to Spain's Queen Isabella I. Her marriage to Ferdinand, scion of a long line of anti-Moorish Spanish rulers of Castile and Leon, made her one of the most powerful women in the world in her day. She came to know Torquemada when he was prior of the Monastery of Santa Cruz and she was living in Segovia. She requested that he become her confessor, or personal priest, and when she assumed the throne in 1474, Torquemada rose to a position of great influence at her court and became confessor to Ferdinand as well. She offered the monk grander ecclesiastical titles for his service as an adviser to them, which he declined. Torquemada was already well-known for his fanaticism: he had been the first to introduce a statute of limpieza sangre, or "pure blood," into a Dominican house, and had supervised a book burning of works considered heretical at a monastery in Salamanca.

The Role Accorded the Dominicans

The term "Inquisition" had been used as early as 1233 to designate a new type of ecclesiastical court that could determine heresy among Christian ranks and bring the accused back to the fold; the court also held the power to punish suspected nonbelievers if they refused to confess and repent. The Dominican order to which Torquemada belonged was granted special powers by Rome and came to be the leaders of inquisitions at a local level, first in Germany, then in parts of France and Italy. The initial inquisitions in these places were decidedly unpopular and unsuccessful, and in some cases the inquisitors themselves were killed.

Ferdinand and Isabella, deciding that a wholesale separation of Christians from non-Christians was the solution to Spain's unrest, asked Pope Sixtus IV to establish an Inquisition in Spain in 1478. The first attempts were disorganized and encountered much resistance. Ferdinand and Isabella again asked Rome to intervene. They were then allowed to establish seven Inquisition courts across Spain in February of 1482. Torquemada became head of one of the tribunals, having met the stipulations of the post: the inquisitors had to be at least forty years old, possess a flawless reputation, and be well-versed in theology or canonical law.

A Medieval Holocaust

The Inquisition launched a reign of terror in Spain. People could be summoned from their homes and taken to a secret place for questioning simply on the basis of an anonymous denunciation made to the Inquisition authorities. The accused were kept in darkness so they could not see their accusers or judges, and testimony that would normally be discounted in a court of law-from thieves, the excommunicated, or criminals-was acceptable. The accused was not allowed to have a lawyer or legal clerk to help him with his case, since they, too, would be viewed as accomplices to heresy by the court. They were also compelled to swear an oath of truth before taking the stand, and a refusal to utter the oath was automatic grounds for imprisonment. The auto-da-fe, or a mass public bonfire of nonbelievers, began to occur with alarming frequency.

In 1483 Torquemada became Grand Inquisitor of Castile, and on October 17, 1483, Ferdinand appointed him chief inquisitor of Aragon. He convened a general assembly of the other inquisitors in 1484 in Seville, and gave them an outline with 28 points to conduct their inquiries. In 1488 he was named head of the Consejo de la Suprema y General Inquisicion, which gave him virtual papal powers over a large part of Spain. Nothing could take place without his approval, including a prison term, an excommunication order, or an auto-de-fe; he also controlled the priests and bishops, and even went after some of them as heretics as well. Opposition remained strong in many places; in some cities, Jewish or converso families had risen to prominence in politics and finance and spoke out against the Inquisition's methods, which included heinous, though bloodless according to Church law, forms of torture. Jews, however, were immune from prosecution by the Inquisition, since it was an ecclesiastical court charged with determining heresy within its own ranks.

Abuse of Power

The terror and officially sanctioned lawlessness of the Inquisition was the result of its violation of several human rights tenets. The prosecutor and judge were the same person, which compelled him to make his charges stick to the defendant at all costs. Secondly, all suspects were presumed guilty, and Torquemada instructed his judges that a person might outwardly be very devout, but in his or her heart could be a nonbeliever; it was the judge's role to ask a series of questions on theological topics to determine his true belief. If the defendant still professed his innocence-his belief in Christianity as dictated by the Church, that is-he could be imprisoned for an unspecified length of time. Those who survived, confessed, and were set free were forced to wear a sanbenito, or special penitential garment with a large "X" on it. Those convicted and excommunicated could appeal to the Holy See in Rome, but Torquemada had jurisdiction over all appeals as well. The property of those condemned was seized by the inquisitors for the state, and in other cases bribes were paid for release.

Torquemada's role as Grand Inquisitor allowed him to ruthlessly implement these policies across the entire Iberian peninsula. Scholars estimate that under Torquemada's watch, 2,000 to 8,800 Spaniards were burned at the stake. His powers sometimes invoked the wrath of Rome, but he was closely allied with Ferdinand and Isabella, who were determined to eradicate Spain's religious problems-by ridding the kingdoms of non-Christians entirely. A large number of those summoned before the Inquisition courts were conversos; in Catalonia, 1,199 were tried between 1488 and 1505, and 1,191 of them were conversos. Some Jews settled old scores, lying about conversos who had treated them with disdain, and accused the new Christians of practicing Jewish customs in secret.

Spain's Jews Expelled

The dilemma led many to suggest that Spain's Jews should be expelled en masse, and Torquemada convinced Ferdinand to enact a decree that would ban Judaism from Spain entirely in 1492. A coalition of powerful Jewish families offered the king 30,000 ducats in return for rescinding the expulsion decree, and Ferdinand contemplated accepting their offer. Reportedly Torquemada appeared before his patron with a crucifix, said, "Judas Iscariot sold Christ for 30 pieces of silver; Your Highness is about to sell him for 30,000 ducats. Here He is; take Him and sell Him," and with those words laid the cross on the table. Ferdinand submitted, and some 80,000 Jews were forced into exile. That same year, Spanish royal forces had seized that last stronghold of Moorish Spain at Granada, making the country, at least outwardly, a homogenous Christian nation.

The Inquisition still continued, however. Torquemada served as Grand Inquisitor until his death on September 16, 1498, in the city of Avila. Diego de Deza succeeded him and the Inquisition was carried on, in varying degrees of harshness, for the next 300 years. After the rise of Protestantism in the late 1500s across many other parts of Europe, and the subsequent pyrrhic religious wars this engendered, the Inquisition courts in Spain were used to root out anti-Catholic sentiments. It spread to Spanish colonies in Central and South America as well. It was abolished by a Revolution of 1820, but only in 1869 was a law guaranteeing religious liberty for all enacted in Spain.


Kamen, Henry, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, Yale University Press, 1998.

O'Brien, John A., The Inquisition, Macmillan, 1973.