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The Spanish Inquisition

January 1970 | by Matthew Hill

The Spanish Inquisition


In 1478 the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, bolstered political and religious unity within their ‘Christian’ country by establishing the Holy Office, or Spanish Inquisition.


In the first instance this was directed against Jews and Muslims, but as the Reformation took hold of Europe, it was used against Protestants. One of the first to suffer was Francisco de San Román. In 1542 he was handed over to the Inquisition in Valladolid.

     At his trial, he asserted the doctrine of justification by faith and declared the pope was the Antichrist. He was condemned to be burnt to death. His last recorded utterance, refusing to recant, was, ‘Do you envy me my happiness?’

     Valladolid became the site of one of the most vigorous Protestant churches in Spain. This met secretly in the home of a wealthy widow and grew in numbers and influence. Many of the upper classes were affected.


Justification by faith


The doctrines preached were assurance of salvation through the merits of Christ, justification by faith alone, good works as an essential fruit of salvation, the authority of Scripture, the denial of purgatory and the futility of auricular confession.

     Another centre of Re-formation influence was Seville. Here the truth was preached boldly by Rodrigo de Valer. Another Spanish reformer, Cipriano de Valera, records: ‘He had every day … disputes and debates with the clergy and friars. He told them to their faces that they were the cause of all the corruption’.

     The Inquisition was slow to act against Rodrigo, perhaps because of his audacity. Several were converted before he was arrested. He refused to be intimidated and spoke out against the corruptions of the Roman Church, defining the marks of a true church. The inquisitors judged him demented, confiscated his possessions and commanded him not to preach.

     But he continued to expound God’s Word. This led to a further trial, in which he was sentenced to life-imprisonment. In hope of curing his ‘madness’ they allowed him out of prison each Sunday to hear mass in one of the city churches. De Valera says, ‘Being there seated … being a prisoner, he frequently rose up in the presence of all the people, when he conceived the doctrine to be false, and contradicted the preacher to his face’. Embarrassed by such a troublesome ‘penitent’, the inquisitors shut him up in a monastery until his death.




Another Spaniard, called Julianillo, trained as a printer in Germany. Here he heard the gospel and turned to God in repentance and faith. His enthusiasm for the cause of Christ led him to smuggle Christian books into Spain, which were hidden in wine casks in the monastery at San Isidro.

     He itinerated with the truth in a variety of disguises. Eventually the inquisitors got their hands on him, and he spent three years in prison, under horrific torture to reveal his fellow-workers’ identity. This he refused to do; and whenever his torn body was carried from the torture-chamber past other cells, he would sing, ‘The friars are all defeated; the wolves are put to flight’.

     But the authorities did have successes. In Valladolid, they found an ally in the wife of a Protestant silversmith. Her curiosity, and perhaps jealousy, was aroused by her husband’s frequent night absences from home. One night she followed him and discovered the Protestant meetings. She betrayed him and gave priceless information to the inquisitors.

     In Seville, one Protestant in a bout of mental derangement revealed the identity of hundreds of believers and sympathisers. The inquisitors swooped on them in an event that became the Spanish equivalent of Black Bartholomew’s Day and a devastating blow to the Reformation in Spain.

     Those captured were among the cream of the nation – highly placed nobility, gifted intellectuals, and deeply spiritual men, women and children. The emperor Charles V said of one of them, Constantino Ponce de la Fuente, of the Valladolid church, ‘You could not have condemned a greater man … if Constantino is a heretic, he’s a great one’.




Constantino was tortured to death. In his agony he cried out, ‘Oh my God! Were there no Scythians or cannibals or even more savage pagans that thou hast permitted me to fall into the hands of these baptised devils?’

     The Inquisition seemed unmoved by the personal plight of its prisoners or the high rank of its victims. Its malevolence climaxed on 21 May 1559, the date of the first great auto-de-fé.

     A huge scaffold had been erected for the 30 condemned heretics. Valladolid was full for the occasion and there was an air of carnival. It was witnessed by the heir to the throne of Spain, the Queen Regent, a crowd of aristocrats and a throng of ordinary people.

     It was certain that there would be burnings, because the pope had urged none should be allowed to escape the death sentence by repenting of their ‘heresy’. Those who recanted were to be strangled before being committed to the flames.

     The proceedings began with a sermon from a priest on Matthew 7:15. A historian comments: ‘The unhappy prisoners who heard those words doubtless discovered a better and more exact exegesis of the text’.

     After the sermon, Archbishop Valdés called on the assembled crowd to protect the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, persecute heretics and give all necessary aid to the Holy Office. The unanimous response was, ‘We so promise’.

     Then the sentences were read and the condemned handed to the secular authorities to be executed. Fourteen people were burned, with twelve being strangled first. Sixteen others, because they had already confessed their errors, were allowed various penances; and most of these were imprisoned for life.


Royal spectators


The inquisitors were anxious to follow up their success as quickly as possible, so they arranged for another burning in October 1559, again in Valladolid. This time there were to be even more important personages in attendance – no less than King Philip II and members of his court.

     Among those who then went to their death were some sentenced in May. Their executions had been postponed so the king could witness the burnings. Along with the royal family were hundreds of ambassadors, nobles, archbishops, bishops and other church officers. The crowd was estimated at 20,000 people.

     During these proceedings, twelve believers were burned to death and fourteen more punished in other ways. For the onlookers a highlight was the death of Carlos de Seso. When the friars urged de Seso to repentance, he replied, ‘If I had time I would show you that in not following my example you condemn yourselves. Light the fire as soon as possible that I may perish in it!’

     The two great autos-de-fé in Seville were remarkable for the large numbers of victims. The numbers cited by contemporary accounts vary, but it is certain there were over 100.

     There were at least four women among them. Isabel de Baena had allowed her house to be used for the meetings. María de Bohorques, a lady of refinement, resisted all efforts to make her recant, in spite of the fact that her sister had died from torture only a week after giving birth to a child.




The second set of burnings was on 22 December 1560. One of the victims was Julianillo, the singer in prison. He loudly encouraged his fellow-prisoners to act as brave soldiers of Christ and rejoice in what lay before them. He was gagged to prevent his words reaching them or the crowd. Not all the accused stood so firm.

     The case of Elvira Nuñez provides a graphic example of the chilling cruelty. On 17 August 1559 her arrest was requested. On 29 August, she, her mother, aunt and a cousin, were committed to prison. Elvira was two months pregnant.

     On 2 September they appeared before the inquisitors, who committed them to trial by torture. As was the custom, they were informed that if any of their joints were dislocated or bones broken, or they died as a result of the torture, they alone were to blame. 

     In January 1560 they were transferred to solitary confinement. On 8 March, Elvira gave birth to a daughter while in the prison. The child was handed over to a wet-nurse. On 22 December their possessions were confiscated and publicly burned, and then they were burnt to death.

     There were other autos-de-fé in Córdoba, Granada, Murcia, Toledo, Zaragoza, Logroño, Valencia and elsewhere. The Holy Office had effectively extinguished gospel light in Spain for the next 250 years.

     It easy to romanticise persecution, but do we realise sufficiently its power? In some circumstances God uses the devil’s weapon to enhance the church’s testimony and prosper the gospel, but persecution has also often stifled that testimony and thwarted the work of the gospel. In Spain it caused unmentionable suffering.

     Spain still awaits a Reformation. But the sufferings of its martyrs will one day be vindicated. Among those in heaven, from every nation, there will surely be many thousands of Spaniards raising their voices in praise of the Saviour, who loved them and set them free from their sins by his blood.

Matthew Hill

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