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Torquemada's Spanish Inquisition: From Suspicion to Death

Brief History:

Queen Isabella of Castile, an overly-devout Catholic, issued an edict to her people: Jews and Muslims must convert to Catholicism or be expelled from Spain.

Under the urgings of Tomas de Torquemada, Queen Isabella's most-trusted advisor, the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478*. Though investigating several areas of crime—bigamy, sodomy, witchcraft, blasphemy, etc.—the primary focus of the Spanish Inquisitiion was Jewish and Muslim converts; every convert was suspected as secretly practicing their former religion.

The first execution was in 1481. Six people were burned at the stake.

Torquemada was appointed to the Panel of Inquisitors in 1482. In 1483, he was appointed as the first Grand Master Inquisitor.

The Spanish Inquisition was abolished in 1834. There is no accurate number of total executions due to lost or destroyed records. Some scholars speculate that as many as 150,000 deaths occurred during imprisonment from both illness and injuries resulting from torture.

Hernando del Pulgar, a royal historian during part of Isabella's reign, recorded 2,000 executions. It is important to note that Pulgar wasn't appointed to historian until 1482—four years after the inquisitions were established. Also, Pulgar died in 1492, six years before Torquemada’s death and ten years before Queen Isabella’s death. Some scholars and historians believe that more than 8,000 people were burned at the stake during Torquemada’s tenure as Grand Master Inquisitor.

*Queen Isabella and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon successfully lobbied the Vatican in 1478 to begin inquisitions, but it wasn’t until several years later that a panel of inquisitors was appointed. Some historians and scholars date the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition at 1480.

Torquemada's chambers

Torquemada's chambers

Suspicion and Accusation:

Torquemada encouraged people to spy on their neighbors and to report converts that were secretly practicing their original faith. Torquemada released a list to help people identify these converts:

People that wore clean clothes on Saturday; a household that cleaned their home on Friday; facing a wall while praying; beginning their meals with lettuce and celery, and eating unleavened bread during Holy Week.

After an accusation, an Edict of Grace was read. In order to persuade people to testify against the accused at secret meetings, the Edict of Grace was read at the accused heretic’s parish. If five people came forward and testified against the accused, the suspect was imprisoned. Imprisonment could sometimes last for two years. If there were no witnesses, the bishop could choose to order imprisonment.

The Edict of Grace also gave the suspect a grace period, approximately 40 days, to come forward and confess. Additionally, they were required to name all of their accomplices.

Hearings, Investigations, Trials:

A series of hearings were conducted where a suspect was given the opportunity to confess. His accuser’s remained anonymous.  If the suspect did not confess by the end of the hearings, an investigation was ordered.

Once an investigation was completed, the trial began. Again, the names of witnesses were not revealed; however, the accused was allowed to name his enemies in an attempt to discredit accusations. The accused heretic was also allowed to call character witnesses to testify on his behalf.



At any time during an investigation or trial, a suspect could be tortured in order to obtain a confession. Torture was used solely as a way to obtain a confession and was not considered punishment. Men, women, and children of all ages were tortured in the same ways.

Under Torquemada’s torture guidelines, blood and death was forbidden. Torquemada mandated that a physician be present in the chambers during torture, ensuring the victim wasn't close to death and that they remained coherent—only a coherent person could confess.

A confession during torture was considered to be given out of free will.


Water Cure or Toca (waterboarding):

This method of torture simulated drowning. The victim was placed on a table. Their bodies were bound with rope to prevent movement and struggle. The victim’s nose was plugged and iron prongs held open their jaw. The ladder was tipped so that the head was lower than the feet.  A cloth was inserted into the mouth, preventing the victim from spitting out the water that was poured over their mouth, one liter at a time.

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The Rack or Potro:

The victim was laid on a table; ankles and wrists bound with rope. In slow increments, the rope was pulled from each length, stretching the body. This method of torture caused excruciating pain and often resulted in dislocations.




Under this method, a rope was used to tie the victims’ hands behind their back. An additional rope was attached to their wrists that led to the ceiling. The rope was pulled lifting the victim from the floor, resulting in excruciating pain and dislocations. Sometimes weights were attached to their feet.

A variation to this method utilized a scaffold.  Shoved from the ledge, the victim would suddenly stop and dangle in mid-air. 

Guilt and Execution:

When torture failed to produce a confession, the suspect was found guilty of heresy at trial.  An Act of Faith was read, and like the Edict of Grace, it was read in a public location as a warning to others.  Usually read on Sundays or holidays, the Edict of Grace outlined the crimes of the heretic and the punishment—execution.

Oftentimes, the convicted heretic would confess their guilt once the Act of Faith was read. The confession rarely resulted in a pardon, as the last acceptable opportunity to confess was during torture, before a trial was completed.

If, however, the heretic confessed along with an act of apology—kissing a cross—they were sometimes granted a mercy killing by strangulation. Their body would still be burned at the stake.

A confession without an act of apology resulted in dry wood being used at the stake, in order to speed up the process.

Lastly, a convicted heretic who maintained his innocence was burned at the stake with slow-burning or ‘green’ wood.


Torquemada's Hypocrisy:

Torquemada died in 1498, at the age of 78 due to natural causes.  He became a paranoid man, fearing that he would be assassinated.  He often carried with him an object for protection, a unicorn’s horn.


Donna Lichtenfels from California, USA on October 19, 2010:

Wonder if Cheney got the idea for waterboarding from Torquemada? It might be interesting to find out if they are related!

Jenifer L (author) from california on October 18, 2010:

I suppose it could be viewed like that--yes--neighbors turning in neighbors, friends turning in friends. I wonder if the inquisitors had book clubs infiltrated?

Donna Lichtenfels from California, USA on October 18, 2010:

Sounds like the Spanish had their own version of The Patriot Act!

ooh on October 12, 2010:


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