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.
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.