Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Tomas de Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition

An Act of Faith

An auto da fe, or act of faith, was a public ceremony in which the declared heretic's sins were proclaimed and his sentence was passed. The purpose of the event was not to further humiliate the accused. Rather, it was to educate the public and strike fear into their hearts, seeing the result of a life of heresy. For this reason, autos da fe were held on Sundays and holidays when the largest crowds could attend. The sentence for heresy--burning at the stake--was not formally a part of the ceremony, but it was usually held nearby and conducted by civil, rather than church, authorities. Once condemned by the Inquisition, the heretic was "relaxed" to the jurisdiction of the monarchy who would have already prepared "the scaffold, the wood, the garroting machine, and the civil executioners," according to historian Joseph Perez.
Jews condemmed to burn
Jews condemmed to burn
Even death did not save the accused from execution. If the Inquisition found a deceased person guilty, his or her remains were exhumed and burned. If the accused had fled to escape torture, he or she was burned in effigy. No one escaped the verdict of the Inquisition. Last-minute confessions sometimes earned a reprieve, but Torquemada and his inquisitors generally distrusted them, suspecting that such confessions were not sincere and were only last-ditch attempts to avoid death. For this reason the condemned were often gagged to keep them from confessing, even though inquisitors continued to demand full confessions for the benefit of the crowd. In most cases, even if a condemned person managed to confess during an auto da fe, the execution was still carried out. A confession could, however, earn a degree of mercy from the authorities. According to Beth Randall, if condemned heretics "recanted and kissed the cross, they were mercifully garroted before the fire was set. If they recanted only, they were burned with quick-burning seasoned wood." If they refused to recant entirely, "they were burned with slow-burning green wood." Those condemned to death were forced to wear a special black sambenito "bearing a design of flames or sometimes demons, dragons and snakes, signifying the Hell that awaited them," according to Perez.
Tomas de Torquemada
Tomas de Torquemada
Scholars disagree over the number of people executed by the Spanish Inquisition during Torquemada's reign as Grand Inquisitor (1483-1498). Some believe he was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 Jews. Pulgar, Queen Isabella's secretary, wrote that 2,000 executions took place during her reign which extended beyond the date of Torquemada's death. Author William Thomas Walsh gives Torquemada credit for "perhaps half or more" of that figure, "between 1,000 and 1,500." But there is no minimizing the savagery of Torquemada's administration or the fact that it was motivated by anti-Semitism under the guise of protecting the "one true faith," Roman Catholicism.
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