Mad Monk Burns 2,000 At The Stake

Torture was the authorised method of extracting confessions during the Spanish Inquisition
Torture was the authorised method of extracting confessions during the Spanish Inquisition

by Ray Setterfield

September 16, 1498 — A frail, 78-year-old Dominican monk offered his final prayers to God on this day, turned his face to his pillow, then died. And thousands rejoiced.

For this was Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, a man responsible for widespread torture and terror and an estimated 2,000 burnings at the stake.

Born in 1420, the nephew of a noted Dominican cardinal and theologian, Torquemada joined a monastery while not much more than a boy and devoted himself to education and piety. Impressing his elders, it was not long before he himself was appointed prior of a monastery at Segovia.

There, the ambitious monk was to meet and befriend Princess Isabella I, soon serving not just as her confessor, but as her closest advisor. After Isabella became Queen in 1474, Torquemada was there helping to push her into the arms of Ferdinand of Aragon, thus consolidating their realms.

Around this time, thousands of Jews and Muslims in Spain were converting to Catholicism rather than face persecution for their faith. But King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella saw these questionable converts as a threat to Spain's social and religious life.

So the monarchs turned to Pope Sixtus IV, requesting permission to establish an inquisition. His Holiness thought it was a good idea and in 1482 he appointed a number of inquisitors, including the favoured Torquemada.

Intent on ridding the country of all heresy, the monk went about his task with such relish that a year later he was appointed Grand Inquisitor of Spain.

In 1484 he promulgated 28 articles for the guidance of his team of inquisitors empowering them to investigate not only crimes of heresy and apostasy but also sorcery, sodomy, polygamy, blasphemy, usury, and other offences. If confessions were not forthcoming, Torquemada authorised torture to obtain evidence.

His main target were the Marranos – Jews who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who secretly still followed the Jewish faith.

The fanatical monk used a network of spies and travelled to and fro with 50 armed knights and 200 soldiers.

He insisted that the condemned must wear a sanbenito, a penitential sackcloth marking them out as heretics, and in 1492 Torquemada was the guiding hand behind a decree that led to about 40,000 Jews being expelled from Spain with only their personal possessions.

At least 2,000 people were burned at the stake but another 25,000 were convicted and subjected to a lesser punishment.

It all became too much for the Pope who could not have imagined the measure of demented zeal that his appointee would apply to his task. So in 1494 the Pope appointed four new inquisitors to restrain Torquemada.

Four years later the Grand Inquisitor who, ironically, came originally from a family of conversos – converts from Judaism – died peacefully in the monastery of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ávila, where he was buried. His tomb was ransacked two years before the inquisition was finally disbanded and it is said that his bones were stolen and ritually incinerated.

Published: September 12, 2018

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