One of my least favorite subjects in high school was history. To me history was something that mainly involved people very different from me, who lived in far-flung places hundreds or thousands of years ago. I used to wonder what possible relevance it could have to me in the here and now, shallow, acne-speckled ratbag that I was. But as I grew older I developed an interest in my genealogy—I’m Irish on my dad’s side and English on my mum’s—which evolved into an obsession with Irish, English, and then ancient history.
Before history became my hobby, I regarded it as something that was pretty much set in stone. While dribs and drabs of it had to be revised occasionally, when new information came to light, it never changed to the point where a major historical event had to undergo a massive rewrite. At least that’s what I thought. But I thought wrong.
Take the Spanish Inquisition. If I were to ask you how many people died in the Spanish Inquisition, what would your answer be? Hundreds of thousands? A million? More than a million? I bet that whatever figure you came up with would be a considerable one.
The Actual Number of Dead
So how many people did die in the Spanish Inquisition?
Try 3000 to 5000.
No, I didn’t leave out a few zeros. The current estimate really is 3000 to 5000 persons.
But how could that be possible? I hear you ask. How could so many historians have grossly overestimated the figures and for so long?
The answer is they had based their conclusions on a legend that over the centuries had grown to immense proportions. That’s not to say that the Spanish Inquisition never happened. It happened, all right, and innocent men and women were tortured to death, but the number of dead and much of what was supposed to have taken place during the 350-year period it covered have been grossly exaggerated.
Toward the end of the 20th century, historians were given access to archival records from the Spanish Inquisition, which revealed that the inquisitors kept exhaustive information on every man and woman who had been executed. To their great surprise, they found that the generally accepted death toll bore no resemblance to reality. Their discoveries were detailed in a 1995 BBC documentary, The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, which is posted directly below.
The traditional view of the Spanish Inquisition is that it was a witch hunt where huge numbers of accused persons were tortured and burned at the stake at the whims of corrupt, fanatical inquisitors. But the truth is, compared to the secular courts of the period, those of the Inquisition were scrupulously just. Each inquisitor had to abide by a series of strict rules. If he broke one, he was dismissed from office. The accused were considered innocent until proven guilty, and if they suspected a judge of bias, they could have their case heard by a different judge. They could also confer with a lawyer and appeal a conviction. Anyone who falsely accused them was punished severely.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people found guilty by an Inquisition court were not sentenced to death. Most received a warning or had to give penance. Some were incarcerated, though incarceration didn’t always involve jail time. Galileo, for example, was placed under house arrest. Such was the Inquisitors’ reputation for fairness and leniency that people preferred to be tried by an Inquisition court than a secular one.
Torture was employed only in a small percentage of cases and for no longer than 15 minutes. Confessions extracted this way were disregarded if the accused didn’t confirm them the next day without the aid of torture. Moreover, the inquisitors tended to doubt the veracity of such confessions.
The Real Torquemada
As for that supposed torture-loving fiend Tomás de Torquemada, anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda caused his legend to grow with that of the Inquisition itself until he became one of history’s most infamous figures.
Prior to his appointment as an inquisitor, Torquemada was the head of a monastery who was known for his humility and devotion to the Church. Upon commencing his new role, he saw to it that the Inquisition’s prisons were clean and properly ventilated, and that each accused person’s legal rights were protected. He further ensured that the children of executed heretics were provided for and received a proper education.
According to fable, Torquemada’s primary motivation for torturing and executing the innocent was the large sums of money he received from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand as a reward for his services to Spain and the Catholic Church. However, there is no documentary evidence to support this theory. In fact, historical records reveal that he gave most if not all of his money to charitable and religious works.
Historical Fact or Historical Fiction?
History is only as accurate and as impartial as the people who document it. Considering all the lies that have been disseminated about the Spanish Inquisition, one can’t help but wonder what other important historical events have been misrepresented by people with a vested interest in doing so.