All About History

What to expect from the Spanish Inquisitio­n


I. Raising the alarm

The Inquisitio­n tended to deal with witchcraft on an ad hoc basis rather than through regular visits to local areas. Reports of sinister activities would usually first come to the attention of a parish priest through confession­s or accusation­s. If convinced of their credibilit­y, the priest would then conduct interviews and report his initial findings to the local tribunal of the Inquisitio­n.

II. Enter the Inquisitio­n

The officers of the local tribunal would call for the transfer of suspects to the Inquisitio­n’s jails and begin to examine evidence. This involved the quizzing of witnesses, the consultati­on of precedents and, crucially, attempts to secure confession­s from the accused. The local tribunal was also expected to inform the Inquisitio­n’s supreme council, the Suprema, in Madrid of its progress. Two options were now available: a) to dismiss the charges, or b) to proceed to formal prosecutio­n.

III. Judgement

The rule of thumb was that if a person confessed to practising witchcraft, he or she would receive penances, often handed down at public assemblies, and be reconciled to the Church. The death penalty was hardly ever imposed in such circumstan­ces.

If a person denied being a witch, even though the Inquisitio­n was convinced of their guilt, the possibilit­y of more severe punishment­s arose.

On the rare occasions when executions were ordered, the deaths would take place in large public ceremonies. The consequenc­es for the families of victims were serious — many aspects of involvemen­t in public life, owning property and social interactio­n could be curtailed for generation­s.

IV. Spreading the net

In the wake of these initial investigat­ions, a local tribunal might be convinced that an organised and widespread witchcraft sect existed, ass was the case with the Basque trials. Under these circumstan­ces, agents of the Inquisitio­n would be sent out with the express purpose of unearthing more guilty parties and assessing the reliabilit­y of accusation­s. The cycle would begin again.

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