The principle of the Inquisition was murderous ... The
popes were not only murderers in the great style, but they also
made murder a legal basis of the Christian Church and a condition
Lord Acton (1834-1902)
The name Inquisition is somewhat misleading in that over the
centuries there have been a number of Inquisitions. They have
been directed against all of the groups we have looked at - pagans
and supposed witches, dissenting sects, Cathars, Moslems, Jews
and members of other religions. They have also been directed against
freethinkers, apostates, atheists, and blasphemers.
In 1184 Pope Lucius III and the Emperor Frederick formulated
a programme for the repression of heretics. This document, Ad
abolendum, is sometimes known as the charter of the Inquisition,
because it set the tone for future developments. The Fourth Lateran
Council in 1215 ordered all bishops to hold an annual inquisition,
if there was a suspicion of heresy in their See. But these Episcopal
Inquisitions were found to be inadequate to the task.
The Medieval Inquisition. A roving papal Inquisition was set
up in 1231 by Pope Gregory IX. He extended existing legislation
against heretics and introduced the death penalty for them - indeed
for anyone who dissented from his views. This Inquisition was
initially intended to be temporary, and was used to extirpate
surviving Cathars in the Languedoc. Anyone accused or "defamed"
was treated as guilty, and no one once defamed got off without
some punishment. After 1227 inquisitorial commissions were granted
only to the friars, usually to the Dominicans. The Inquisition
was now the "Dominican Inquisition". Dominic Guzmán's
threats of slavery and death for the citizens of the Languedoc
were fulfilled for a second time. First the massacres, now the
Inquisition. The bishop of Toulouse marked the canonisation of
St Dominic on his first Saint's Day (4th August 1234), by burning
a woman for her Cathar beliefs. She had confessed to him as she
lay sick in bed with a fever. She was carried to a field, still
on her sickbed, and consigned to the flames .
All of the legal apparatus of the Inquisition was developed
during this period. Elsewhere, courts followed at least the basic
rules of justice: the accused knew their accusers, they were allowed
legal representation, in some places judgement was delivered by
a jury composed of peers of the accused. The old bishops' Inquisitions
had been public hearings, but these papal inquisitions were different:
now secret hearings took place before clerical judges and prosecutors.
Guilt was assumed from the start. There were no juries, no legal
representation for the accused . No habeas corpus. No disclosure
of any evidence against the accused. No appeal. Inquisitors were
allowed to excuse each other for breaches of the rules - which
meant that in effect there were no rules . There were secret depositions
and anonymous accusations, torture and unlimited detention in
appalling conditions for those who failed to confess. People were
immured, walled up, chained, with no light and given only bread
and water. Dead people were tried along with the living. When
found guilty their children were disinherited. At least half the
estate generally went to the Church - so that the Church had an
direct material interest in a guilty verdict. Children and grandchildren
of those found guilty were all debarred from any secular office.
Gregory's immediate successor died before assuming the reins
of office, but the next Pope, Innocent IV, made the Inquisition
into a permanent institution. In 1252 he issued a bull Ad extirpanda
which explicitly authorised the use of torture, seizure of goods
and execution, all on minimal evidence. Torture was to be administered
by the secular authority, but when this proved impractical the
inquisitors were allowed to administer it themselves (and to absolve
each other for doing so). Thereafter it was an exceptional man,
woman or child who could not quickly be convinced of his or her
In theory torture could be applied only once, and could not
be such as to draw blood, to cause permanent mutilation or to
kill. Boys under the age of fourteen and girls under twelve were
excused. In practice there was no-one to enforce any of these
safeguards, and they were all ignored. The accused were imprisoned,
often for many months, before being examined. They were often
kept in solitary confinement, in insanitary conditions, in a dark
dungeon, and without adequate heating, food or water. This was
deliberate, and designed to ensure that most of the accused would
already have broken by the time of the first examination. Only
the strongest characters were able to face a tribunal of hooded
figures who claimed to have heard witnesses and seen incriminating
evidence. Most were prepared to admit anything, even though they
did not know what the accusations were. Those who failed to admit
their crimes were taken to torture chamber and shown the instruments
of torture. This too was designed to terrify and break them -
the dark chamber, the horrifying instruments, the torturer-executioner
dressed and hooded in black. If they still failed to admit their
guilt they were then subjected to torture: men, women and children
alike. Some people were tortured for years before confessing.
Only the most exceptional could resist. Every day they risked
being tortured to death .
Tortures varied from time to time and place to place, but the
following represent the more popular options. Victims were stripped
and bound. The cords were tied around the body and limbs in such
a way that they could be tightened, by a windlass if necessary,
until they acted like multiple tourniquets. By attaching the cords
to a pulley the victim could be hoisted off the ground for hours,
then dropped. Whether the victim was pulled up short before the
weight touched the floor, or allowed to fall to the floor the
pain was acute (this was the torture of the pulley, also known
as squassation. It was also called the strappado, by which name
we have already encountered it at Bamberg). John Howard found
this still in use in Rome in the second half of the eighteenth
century . The rack was a favourite for dislocating limbs. Again,
the victim could be flogged, bathed in scalding water with lime,
and have their eyes removed with purpose designed eye-gougers.
Fingernails were pulled out. Grésillons (thumbscrews) were
applied to thumbs and big-toes until the bones were crushed. The
victim was forced to sit on a spiked iron chair which could be
heated by a fire underneath until it glowed red-hot. Branding
irons and red hot pincers were also used. The victim's feet could
be placed in a wooden frame called a boot. Wedges were then hammered
in until the bones shattered, and the "blood and marrow spouted
forth in great abundance". Alternatively the feet could be
held over an open fire, and literally roasted until the bones
fell out; or they could be placed in huge leather boots into which
boiling water was poured, or in metal boots into which molten
lead was poured. Since the holy proceedings were conducted for
the greater glory of God the instruments of torture were sprinkled
with holy water.
Whole families were accused. Family members would often be induced
to incriminate each other in order to minimise the suffering of
their loved ones. Minor heretics who confessed might escape with
light sentences, whereas denial invited trouble. The Inquisitor
Conrad of Marburg burned every victim who claimed to be innocent.
Hearings of the Inquisition denied every aspect of natural justice,
and became ever more prejudiced as time went on. They were held
in secret, generally conducted by men whose identities were concealed.
In the Papal States and elsewhere Dominicans acted as both Judge
and Prosecutor. By papal command they were forbidden to show mercy.
There was no appeal. The evidence of embittered husbands and wives,
children, servants and persons heretical, excommunicated, perjured
and criminal could be used, secretly and without their having
to face the accused, their charges being communicated to him only
in summary form.
No genuine defence could be sustained. For example, if a husband
provided an alibi, saying that his wife had been asleep in his
arms when she was alleged to have been attending a witches' sabbat,
it would be explained to him that a demon had adopted the form
of his wife while she was away. The husband had been duped. There
was no way for him to prove otherwise. Spies were employed with
the incentive of payment by results. Perjury was pardoned if it
was the outcome of "zeal for the faith" - i.e. supporting
the prosecution. Loyalties were over-ridden so that obedience
to a superior was forbidden if it hindered the inquiry, and those
who helped the inquisitors were granted the same indulgences as
pilgrims to the Holy Land. Any advocate acting for and any witness
giving evidence on behalf of a suspect laid themselves open to
charges of abetting heresy. No one was ever acquitted, a released
person always being liable to re-arrest and a condemned person
liable to a revised sentence with no retrial, at the discretion
of the inquisitor. In theory torture could be inflicted only once,
but in practice it was repeated as often as necessary on the pretext
that it was a single occurrence, with intervals between the sessions.
Confessions were virtually guaranteed unless the victim died under
torture. Then came the sentence, and execution of the sentence:
...The obdurate and relapsed were taken outside the church
and handed to the magistrates with a recommendation to mercy
and instruction that no blood be shed. The supreme hypocrisy
of this was that if the magistrate did not burn the victims
on the following day, he was himself liable to be charged with
abetting heresy. .
Almost everyone fell within their jurisdiction. People were
executed for failing to fast during Lent, for homosexuality, fornication,
explaining scientific discoveries, and even for professional acting.
In order that blood not be shed the favoured methods of execution
did not involve the cutting of flesh. So it was that burning was
popular, the stake having been inherited from Roman Law. The estates
of those found guilty were forfeit, after the deduction of expenses.
Expenses included the costs of the investigation, torture, trial,
imprisonment and execution. The accused bore it all, including
wine for the guards, meals for the judges, and travel expenses
for the torturer. Victims were even charged for the ropes to bind
them and the tar and wood to burn them. Generally, after paying
these expenses, half of the balance of the estate went to the
inquisitors and half to the Pope, or a temporal lord. This proved
such an efficient way of raising money that it became popular
to try the dead as well as the living. Bones were dug up and burned,
even after many years in the grave. As in trials of the living,
there were no acquittals, and the heretic's property was forfeit.
In practice this meant that the heirs of the deceased were dispossessed
of their inheritances.
The trial of the Templars demonstrates how unjust the Inquisition
could be. The charges of heresy against them were almost certainly
fabricated. No real evidence was ever produced to support the
accusations. The best that could be managed was hearsay evidence
such as that of a priest (William de la Forde) who had heard from
another priest (Patrick de Ripon), that a Templar had once told
him, under the inviolable seal of confession, about some rather
improbable goings on . The most damning evidence was obtained
by Inquisitors through the use of torture. In countries where
torture was not permitted the Templars denied the charges, however
badly they were otherwise treated and however long they were imprisoned.
As soon as torture was applied the required confessions materialised
. Inquisitors refused to attach their seals to depositions unless
they included confessions , so that only one side of case appeared
in official records. In France, where torture was applied freely
there were many confessions, and also many deaths under torture.
Anyone who retracted their confession faced death at the stake
as a relapsed heretic.
Under torture, the Grand Master himself confessed - though it
is likely that his confession was fabricated or at least added
to, since he was dumfounded when it was read out to him in public.
When he tried to mount a defence on behalf of the Order he was
told that "in cases of heresy and the faith it was necessary
to proceed simply, summarily, and without the noise of advocates
and the form of judges" . Since all of the Order's assets
had been seized there was in any case no way for him to mount
an effective defence. By asking to do so he invited death at the
stake, as a number of churchmen pointed out at the time.
When no English Templars could be induced to confess, the Pope
insisted that torture be applied. When the Archbishop of Mainz
delivered a verdict favourable to the Templars at a provincial
council, the Pope simply annulled it . When it looked as though
the Templars in Cypress might be acquitted the Pope ordered a
new trial backed by torture . When the fate of the Templars was
considered at the Council of Vienne late in 1311 the Cardinals
had "a long dispute" as to weather a defence should
be heard at all . In the event no defence was heard and the Pope
enforced the King's demand that the Order be suppressed.
Templar assets were divided up between Church and State, and
interest in the fates of individual Templars immediately subsided.
Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master, retracted his confession knowing
what the consequences would be, and was roasted alive, slowly,
over a smokeless fire on 18th March 1314. .
The activities of the Inquisition were so terrible that the
memory of them has survived throughout Europe to the present day.
Some Christians acknowledge that this body was one of the most
sinister that the world has ever known, and now attribute its
work to satanic forces. On the other hand there are many others
prepared to defend its record.
The Spanish Inquisition. The Medieval Inquisition was
established in Barcelona in 1233. Five years later its authority
was extended to Castille, Leon, and Navarre. This was essentially
an extension of the Inquisition established to extirpate the remnants
of Catharism. Over two hundred years later another inquisition
was to appear: the Spanish Inquisition. It was established by
their Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabela, in 1479, with
the explicit sanction of Pope Sixtus IV who in 1483 also confirmed
the Dominican friar Thomas de Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor for
Aragon and Castile. The Inquisition was initially directed against
Jewish and Moslem converts who were suspected of returning to
their own religion, and thus being guilty of apostasy. (Many had
converted to Christianity only under threat of death).
The process was much the same as that of the medieval Inquisition,
and indeed was deliberately modeled on it. It too was manned mainly
by Dominicans. They copied the methods of dilation, arrest, trial,
punishment, staffing, and procedure, even down to the blessing
of the instruments of torture.
There were a few differences from the Medieval Inquisition,
for example there were cases were people were able to mount a
defence and were acquitted. Better records were kept. Some Inquisitors
seem to have been relatively enlightened and were suspicious of
accusations motivated by the self interest of accusers. Prisons
seem to have been better than most eccliastical prisons - there
are cases of people committing minor heresies in order to get
themselves transferred from eccliastical prisons to those of the
Inquisition. On the other hand, this may say more about eccliastical
prisons than Inquisition prisons, for even in the latter many
died before their cases were heard. In the early days the accused
were able to appoint their own defense councel, but by the mid
sixteenth century this had changed. If advocates were permitted
they had to be abogados de los presos, officials of the Inquisition,
dependant upon the Inquisitors for their jobs. It is fair to assume,
as their clients did, that these court officials were aware of
their employers' expectations and of the dangers of doing their
jobs too well.
It was widely accepted that the Inquisition existed only to
rob people, as they openly affirmed . Both rich and poor knew
that it was the rich who were most at risk. The fact that the
Inquisition funded itself from the property it confiscated meant
that in effect it burned beople on commission. Individual Inquisitors
also funded themselves, acquiring great wealth during their careers.
Some inquisitors were known to have fabricated evidence in order
to extort money from their victims, but even when discovered they
received no punishment . Similarly their staff of helpers, called
familiars, were free to commit crimes without fear of punishment
by the secular courts . After 1518 this was formalised. Familiars
enjoyed immunity from prosecution similar to benefit of clergy
or modern diplomatic immunity. This provided another cause of
popular scandal, along with their exemption from taxation.
The activities of the inquisitors were resented by all sections
of society, and the papacy was obliged to interfer from time to
time though the Inquisitors were powerful enough to ignore it
on many occasions. Pope Sixtus IV issued a bull on 18th April
1482 protesting that
in Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca and Catalonia the Inquisition
has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the
salvation of souls, but by lust for wealth, and that many true
and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals,
slaves and other lower and even less proper persons, have without
any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured
and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and
property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to
the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing
disgust to many
When someone was arrested all of their property was seized.
This was then sold off as required to pay for the upkeep of the
person arrested. This might go on for years until the property
was all sold off. Their families were not supported, so that they
also suffered hardships. In some cases the children of rich parents
starved in the streets . Others survived by begging. The King,
Ferdinand, intervened from time to time, and later, in 1561, provision
was made to support dependents - though the effect was to use
up the sequestered assets that much faster.
The accused were invited to confess their crimes but not told
what these crimes were. Sometimes it was difficult to guess: changing
bedding on a Friday, not eating pork, dressing in certain ways,
wearing earrings, speaking in foreign languages, owning foreign
books, casual swearing, critisising a priest, failing to show
due reverence to the Inquisition, all these could be serious crimes.
Three methods of torture were popular, the garrucha, the toca
and the potro. The garrucha was the strapedo under yet another
name. The toca was a water torture. A linen strip was forced down
the throat of the accused and water poured down it until the stomach
was distended. The potro was a form of rack combined with torniques.
Surviving records of these torture sessions make harrowing reading
. As the torture progressed the victims were soon ready to admit
to anything. They would admit to having done whatever they were
accussed of. But since they did not know the specifics of the
accusation they could not admit to them item by item. Not good
enough. More torture was applied. They admitted to whatever their
accusers had said, but again they could not be specific because
they did not know what their accusers had said. Still not good
enough. More torture was applied. They begged for clues. They
begged for mercy. They were told to confess. They confessed to
crimes, real or invented, apparently whatever they could think
of. They would admit to anything if only the torture would stop.
Sometimes it was what the Inquisitors wanted, sometimes it was
not. If it was not more torture was applied. They asked what it
was the Inquisitors wanted and offered to confess to it whatever
it was. Still not good enough. More torture was applied. And so
it went on, sometimes until they went mad. Sometimes they died
under tortured. Many died in prison. Others committed suicide.
Of the survivers some were disabled for life.
The lucky ones got off with penances, whipping or banishment.
Others were condemned to slow deaths in prison or in the galleys.
Of all the punishments which the Inquisition inflicted in the
name of God, for sheer long-continued cruelty, nothing ever rivalled
the treatment of the galley-slaves, who were flogged very nearly
every day during the period they laboured at the oars
was a fate worse than death. For, as everyone knew, it meant a
life of the most terrible hardship man could possibly endure and
yet continue to live; it almost inevitably entailed death long
before the sentence was completed. It meant, in the majority of
instances, that the victim was gradually whipped to death.
Others were condemned to public execution. But this was rarely
a simple matter of dispatching the victim. Even those who confessed
immediately were tortured. Execution was not the sentence - it
was an additional sentence. At the end of the trial a public ceremony
was held called an Auto-da-fé (Portuguese for Act of Faith).
The victim was dressed in a penitential tunic (san benito) painted
with a design. An impenitent wore one painted with a picture of
its wearer burning in Hell with devils fanning the flames. On
their heads they wore a three foot long pointed pasteboard cap
(coroza), also painted. Around their neck they wore a noose, and
in their hands they carried a candle. Anyone judged likely to
speak out against the Inquisition was gagged. After a procession
came a Mass and Sermon, in which the Inquisition was praised and
heresy condemned. The sentences were read aloud and then carried
out. As usual the secular authorities were obliged to burn victims
on the Church's behalf on the grounds that ecclesia non novit
sanguinem - the Church does not shed blood. Burning generally
took place on Sundays or festivals in order to attract the largest
possible audience. Participation was a meritorious act - so for
example anyone who helped collect firewood would remission of
A slow roasting was considered preferable to quick incineration.
Victims were tied high up on their stakes, partly to give the
crowds of faithful a good view, partly to prolong the agony. Sometimes
there was further torture before the fire was lit. For example
Protestants who refused to recant had burning furzes thrust into
their faces until they were burned black. The whole event was
popular festival for the devout, who enjoyed the spectacle and
ridiculed the victims in their death agonies. The events were
closely linked to royal spectacles. The king was obliged by his
coronation oath to attend these mass burnings. Such burnings were
even held to help celebrate royal marriages.
Children and grandchildren of the condemned were prohibitted
from becoming priests, judges or magistrates, lawyers, notaries,
accountants, physicians, surgeons, or even shop keepers. They
could not become mayors or hold other public offices. Some penalties
passed from generation to generation without limit. Under statutes
of limpieza de sangre, the descendants of heretics, like those
of Jews and Moors, suffered civil disabilities because of their
"tainted blood". San benitos worn by heretics were hung
up in local churches as an eternal badge of shame so that no-one
should forget their heretical ancesters. When old san benitos
wore out over the centuries they were replaced by new ones with
the written details copied onto it from the original.
The Spanish Inquisition continued its work for centuries, and
exported its practices to the New World. The Portuguese exported
similar practices to their colonies, not only to the New World
but also East to countries like Goa. The fact that very few New
World Indians could be induced to convert should have meant that
there was little recidivism, and therefore little heresy. In fact
many hundreds of heresy trials were conducted in South America.
The Spanish Inquisition continued to execute its victims into
the nineteenth century. When the French army invaded Spain in
1808 the Dominicans in Madrid denied that they had torture chambers
in their building. The soldiers searched and found that they did.
The chambers were full of naked prisoners, many of them insane.
Similar discoveries were made throughout the country.
As for other Inquisitions, the total number of men, women and
children tortured or burned to death is unknown because so many
records have been lost. So to for the famies dispossed, children
orphaned, communities destroyed. All we can say with certainty
is that the pain and suffering caused is incalculable. It is also
fair to say that, while it existed it, the Spanish Inquisition
was regarded with horror, even by Catholics from other countries
who witnessed its activities. It was abolished by Joseph Bonaparte
in 1808, but it was reintroduced by Ferdinand VII in 1814, and
finally ended by government decree on 15th July 1834.
The Roman Inquisition. The Roman Inquisition, more correctly
the Congregation of the Inquisition was set up in 1542 by Pope
Paul III to help eradicate Protestantism from Italy. It was composed
of Cardinals, one of whom had proposed its establishment in the
first place. He later became Pope himself, taking the name Paul
IV. A keen opponent of the free exchange of ideas, he enjoys the
distinction of having put even his own writings on the Index.
Procedures of the Roman Inquisition were no more just than those
of earlier Inquisitions, and executions became more common than
in Spain. Freethinkers and scientists were added to the existing
categories of victim for torture and execution. It was this Inquisition
that was responsible for burning the foremost philosopher of the
Italian renaissance, Giordano Bruno, in 1600; and for inducing
the foremost scientist, Galileo, to recant under the threat of
Book burning was as popular as elsewhere, but political repression
added a new dimension. This persecution too continued for centuries,
until the Papacy became too far out of step with the western world.
Eventually the Church decided to change its ways, or at least
give the appearance of changing them. Pope Pius VII purported
to forbid the use of torture in 1816, though in practice it continued
to be used for decades to come. Public burnings became something
of an embarrassment too. The answer was not to abandon executions
but to carry them out more discretely. Pius IX, in an edict of
1856, sanctioned 'secret execution'. In the Papal States things
had changed little since the Middle Ages - it was for example
still a crime to eat meat on a feast day. Political trials were
conducted by priests, whose power was absolute. Again, the accused
were not permitted legal representation, nor were they allowed
to face their accusers. All this came to an end only in 1870,
when the Papal States were seized. The last prisoners of the Inquisition
were released, and the Pope became a self confined prisoner in
his own palace.
In 1908 the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Inquisition changed
its name to the Holy Office. In 1967 it changed it again, this
time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It still
functions from a large building near the sacristy of St Peter's
in Rome. Since 1870 its dungeons have been converted into offices.
Despite the name change, there is no apparent embarrassment about
its history. On the contrary it still conducts heresy trials according
to rules that breach what are elsewhere regarded as elementary
rules of natural justice.
Because so many records have been lost no one knows how many
people were sentenced to death by Inquisitors. Even sources sympathetic
to the Roman Church accept estimates in excess of nine million.
One irony is that the Medieval, Spanish and Roman Inquisitions
would all have burned Jesus as a persistent heretic if he had
appeared before them. They might each have done so on different
grounds: for example for advocating absolute poverty, for practising
Judaism, and for criticising St Peter.