The first inquisitors were appointed by Ferdinand and Isabella in September 1480, for the district of Seville. Many Sevillian Conversos fled to the countryside, and sought sanctuary with feudal lords. These were inclined to protect them, but the inquisitors threatened the barons with excommunication and confiscation, and the refugees were surrendered. In the city itself some Conversos planned armed resistance; the plot was betrayed; the implicated persons were arrested; soon the dungeons were full. Trials followed with angry haste, and the first auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition was celebrated on February 6, 1481, with the burning of six men and women. By November 4 of that year 298 had been burned; seventy-nine had been imprisoned for life.
In 1483, at the nomination and request of Ferdinand and Isabella, Pope Sixtus IV appointed a Dominican friar, Tomás de Torquemada, inquisitorgeneral for all of Spain. He was a sincere and incorruptible fanatic, scorning luxury, working feverishly, rejoicing in his opportunity to serve Christ by hounding heresy. He reproved inquisitors for lenience, reversed many acquittals, and demanded that the rabbis of Toledo, on pain of death, should inform on all Judaizing Conversos. Pope Alexander VI, who had at first praised his devotion to his tasks, became alarmed at his severity, and ordered him (1494) to share his powers with two other “inquisitors general.” Torquemada overrode these colleagues, maintained a resolute leadership, and made the Inquisition an imperium in imperio, rivaling the power of the sovereigns. Under his prodding the Inquisition at Ciudad Real in two years (1483–84) burned fifty-two persons, confiscated the property of 220 fugitives, and punished 183 penitents. Transferring their headquarters to Toledo, the inquisitors within a year arrested 750 baptized Jews, confiscated a fifth of their goods, and sentenced them to march in penitential processions on six Fridays, flogging themselves with hempen cords. Two further autos-da-fé in that year (1486) at Toledo disciplined 1,650 penitents. Like labors were performed in Valladolid, Guadalupe, and other cities of Castile.
Aragon resisted the Inquisition with forlorn courage. At Teruel the magistrates closed the gates in the face of the inquisitors. These laid an interdict upon the city; Ferdinand stopped the municipal salaries, and sent an army to enforce obedience; the environing peasants, always hostile to the city, ran to the support of the Inquisition, which promised them release from all rents and debts due to persons convicted of heresy. Teruel yielded, and Ferdinand authorized the inquisitors to banish anyone whom they suspected of having aided the opposition. In Saragossa many “Old Christians” joined the “New Christians” in protesting against the entry of the Inquisition; when, nevertheless, it set up its tribunal there, some Conversos assassinated an inquisitor (1485). It was a mortal blunder, for the shocked citizens thronged the streets crying “Burn the Conversos!” The archbishop calmed the mob with a promise of speedy justice. Nearly all the conspirators were caught and executed; one leaped to his death from the tower in which he was confined; another broke a glass lamp, swallowed the fragments, and was found dead in his cell. In Valencia the Cortes refused to allow the inquisitors to function; Ferdinand ordered his agents to arrest all obstructors; Valencia gave way. In support of the Inquisition the King violated one after another of the traditional liberties of Aragon; the combination of Church and monarchy, of excommunications and royal armies, proved too strong for any single city or province to resist. In 1488 there were 983 condemnations for heresy in Valencia alone, and a hundred men were burned.
How did the popes view this use of the Inquisition as an instrument of the state? Doubtless resenting such secular control, moved, presumably, by humane sentiment, and not insensitive to the heavy fees paid for dispensations from Inquisition sentences, several popes tried to check its excesses, and gave occasional protection to its victims. In 1482 Sixtus IV issued a bull which, if implemented, would have ended the Inquisition in Aragon. He complained that the inquisitors were showing more lust for gold than zeal for religion; that they had imprisoned, tortured, and burned faithful Christians on the dubious evidence of enemies or slaves. He commanded that in future no inquisitor should act without the presence and concurrence of some representative of the local bishop; that the names and allegations of the accusers should be made known to the accused; that the prisoners of the Inquisition should be lodged only in episcopal jails; that those complaining of injustice should be allowed to appeal to the Holy See, and all further action in the case should be suspended until judgment should be rendered on the appeal; that all persons convicted of heresy should receive absolution if they confessed and repented, and thereafter should be free from prosecution or molestation on that charge. All past proceedings contrary to these provisions were declared null and void, and all future violators of them were to incur excommunication. It was an enlightened decree, and its thoroughness suggests its sincerity. Yet we must note that it was confined to Aragon, whoseConversos had paid for it liberally.32 When Ferdinand defied it, arrested the agent who had procured it, and bade the inquisitors go on as before, Sixtus took no further action in the matter, except that five months later he suspended the operation of the bull.33
The desperate Conversos poured money into Rome, appealing for dispensations and absolutions from the summons or sentences of the Inquisition. The money was accepted, the dispensations were given, the Spanish inquisitors, protected by Ferdinand, ignored them; and the popes, needing the friendship of Ferdinand and the annates of Spain, did not insist. Pardons were paid for, issued, and then revoked. Occasionally the popes asserted their authority, citing inquisitors to Rome to answer charges of misconduct. Alexander VI tried to moderate the severity of the tribunal. Julius II ordered the trial of the inquisitor Lucero for malfeasance, and excommunicated the inquisitors of Toledo. The gentle and scholarly Leo, however, denounced as a reprehensible heresy the notion that a heretic should not be burned.34
How did the people of Spain react to the Inquisition? The upper classes and the educated minority faintly opposed it; the Christian populace usually approved it.35 The crowds that gathered at the autos-da-fé showed little sympathy, often active hostility, to the victims; in some places they tried to kill them lest confession should let them escape the pyre. Christians flocked to buy at auction the confiscated goods of the condemned.
How numerous were the victims? Llorente* estimated them, from 1480 to 1488, at 8,800 burned, 96,494 punished; from 1480 to 1808, at 31,912 burned, 291,450 heavily penanced. These figures were mostly guesses, and are now generally rejected by Protestant historians as extreme exaggerations.36 A Catholic historian reckons 2,000 burnings between 1480 and 1504, and 2,000 more to 1758.37 Isabella’s secretary, Hernando de Pulgar, calculated the burnings at 2,000 before 1490. Zurita, a secretary of the Inquisition,boasted that it had burned 4,000 in Seville alone. There were victims, of course, in most Spanish cities, even in Spanish dependencies like the Baleares, Sardinia, Sicily, the Netherlands, America. The rate of burnings diminished after 1500. But no statistics can convey the terror in which the Spanish mind lived in those days and nights. Aden and women, even in the secrecy of their families, had to watch every word they uttered, lest some stray criticism should lead them to an Inquisition jail. It was a mental oppression unparalleled in history.
Did the Inquisition succeed? Yes, in attaining its declared purpose—to rid Spain of open heresy. The idea that the persecution of beliefs is always ineffective is a delusion; it crushed the Albigensians and Huguenots in France, the Catholics in Elizabethan England, the Christians in Japan. It stamped out in the sixteenth century the small groups that favored Protestantism in Spain. On the other hand, it probably strengthened Protestantism in Germany, Scandinavia, and England by arousing in their peoples a vivid fear of what might happen to them if Catholicism were restored.
It is difficult to say what share the Inquisition had in ending the brilliant period of Spanish history from Columbus to Velásquez (1492–1660). The peak of that epoch came with Cervantes (1547–1616) and Lope de Vega (1562–1635), after the Inquisition had flourished in Spain for a hundred years. The Inquisition was an effect, as well as a cause, of the intense and exclusive Catholicism of the Spanish people; and that religious mood had grown during centuries of struggle against “infidel” Moors. The exhaustion of Spain by the wars of Charles V and Philip II, and the weakening of the Spanish economy by the victories of Britain on the sea and the mercantile policies of the Spanish government, may have had more to do with the decline of Spain than the terrors of the Inquisition. The executions for witchcraft, in northern Europe and New England, showed in Protestant peoples a spirit akin to that of the Spanish Inquisition—which, strange to say, sensibly treated witchcraft as a delusion to be pitied and cured rather than punished. Both the Inquisition and the witch-burning were expressions of an age afflicted with homicidal certainty in theology, as the patriotic massacres of our era may be due in part to homicidal certainty in ethnic or political theory. We must try to understand such movements in terms of their time, but they seem to us now the most unforgivable of historic crimes. A supreme and unchallengeable faith is a deadly enemy to the human mind.