Tomás de Torquemada (d. 1498)
It was on this date, September 16, 1498, that the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, Tomás de Torquemada, died in Ávila. Born on a date uncertain in 1420 in what is now Valladolid, Torquemada was a Dominican monk – one of the famed "hounds of the Lord" (domini canes) – in the monastery at Valladolid, and later became prior of the Monastery of Santa Cruz at Segovia, serving for 22 years.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, which has trouble with candor about the fatal consequences of not converting to Christianity in medieval Spain, much less doing so honestly, sounds this apologetic note:
At that time the purity of the Catholic Faith in Spain was in great danger from the numerous Marranos and Moriscos, who, for material considerations, became sham converts from Judaism and Mohammedanism to Christianity.*
Torquemada became confessor to future Queen Isabella, but declined higher office when she rose to the throne. Instead, as Pope Sixtus IV had established the Inquisition in Spain in 1478, in 1483 Torquemada accepted appointment as Grand Inquisitor of Castile and Aragon. With the Pope's blessing, Torquemada was completely in charge of the Spanish Inquisition until his death in 1498.
Never has a man so enjoyed his work! Torquemada developed and employed an elaborate network of spies and secret police to root out heresy. His favorite methods for extracting confessions, nevermind the truth, were to hang the accused by the arms so that the arms were pulled from their joints, to force the swallowing of gallons of water, and to have the joints dislocated on the rack. His methods made him generally unpopular – he had to travel with bodyguards – but no one dared oppose him. Even the Pope could not reign him in: when Sixtus issued a bull absolving conversos of any wrong they might have done, Ferdinand, under Torquemada's influence, refused to enforce it.
The least of his crimes was his twisting of jurisprudence: In 1490 Torquemada oversaw the LaGuardia trial, in which eight Jews and conversos were accused of crucifying a Christian child. No victim was identified, no body ever discovered, but all eight were convicted nevertheless on the strength of confessions obtained by torture. And all were burned at the stake.
In sum, Torquemada had over 2,000 heretics, Jews and Muslims burned by auto-da-fé, and perhaps 9,000 punished in other ways. The Catholic Encyclopedia tries to mitigate Torquemada's cruelty, saying:
Whether Torquemada's ways of ferreting out and punishing heretics were justifiable is a matter that has to be decided not only by comparison with the penal standard of the fifteenth century, but also, and chiefly, by an inquiry into their necessity for the preservation of Christian Spain.*
In other words, this cruel torture and punishment was allowable, in God's name, because the eternal and Almighty was too shy to oppose the savagery of the age!
Rather than convert to Christianity, the Spanish Jews offered a tribute of 30,000 ducats if the King would leave them in peace. Ferdinand was considering it, but Torquemada, held aloft a crucifix and declaimed "Judas Iscariot sold Christ for 30 pieces of silver; Your Highness is about to sell him for 30,000 ducats. Here He is; take Him and sell Him." Torquemada thus single-handedly persuaded the King to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492.
The contemporary Spanish chronicler, Sebastian de Olmedo called Torquemada "the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order."** Confident that he had served Christ and his Church, Torquemada died on this date at age 78, but the Inquisition carried on.
* Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909, article "Torquemada."
** Sebastian de Olmedo, Chronicon magistrorum generalium Ordinis Prædicatorum, fol. 80-81, quoted in ibid.
Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Like John Ruskin and Tennyson, he was a Rationalist, but he did not go out of his way to criticize religion.