The words “Spanish Inquisition” are enough to send most Catholics running for the nearest sofa to hide behind. They are the silver bullet and trump-card of anyone who wants to put down the Church.
But, is this attitude justified? Is the Spanish Inquisition really what it is made out to be – blood-thirsty, intolerant priests torturing every non-Catholic in sight, before toasting them slowly at the stake? Recent research, which analyses the actual records of the Spanish Inquisition (many for the first time), says “No”.
The Spanish Inquisition was set up in Spain of the 15th century by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It was different from the other inquisitions in that it was under the control of the Crown and had a political goal. Its purpose was to root out Jews and Muslims who had officially adopted the Catholic religion, but who secretly observed their former religious practices and were supporting their fellow Jews and Muslims in their efforts to undermine the King’s and Queen’s efforts to reunite Spain. In other words, they were really a fifth column in time of war – at the time, Ferdinand and Isabella were involved in the last effort to push out (and keep out) the foreign Islamic invader which had subjected Catholic Spain for more than 700 years. They were not going to let all their efforts, and the efforts of their ancestors, to be brought to nothing by enemies who hid their malice under the cloak of the Catholic religion.
Since these enemies of Spain chose to disguise themselves as Catholics, Catholic theologians were the only people qualified to judge whether they really were what they said they were. Therefore, they were appointed as judges; the State punished with execution, if thought necessary. The Spanish Inquisition was revived during the time of the “Reformation” – King Charles V wanted to avoid the terrible social upheaval and bloodshed which Protestantism had already provoked in his German territories.
There were indeed excesses and cruelties, but these are to be found everywhere there are fallen human beings. Recent research shows that torture was rarely used. Over three centuries, about 4,000 people were executed. During the time of the “Reformation” (16th Century), about 182 were executed, working out at about two per year. But, Sir James Stephens in his History of English Criminal Law, shows that there were about 800 executions per year during the early post-Reformation period in England. But, no-one talks of the “English Inquisition” – precisely because the myths that still surround the Spanish Inquisition originated in the Black Legend disseminated by the anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish propaganda coming from 16th Century England.