The Inquisition had long been a tool used by the Catholic Church to hunt down heretics. In both France and Spain, this shadowy organisation collected information from informers and carried out torture in dark, hidden places. Although inquisitors appeared in public for the ritual executions of Protestants, Cathars, Jews and Muslims, most of the time they were a secretive organisation that hid their methods and dossiers from the public gaze. Many of the Inquisition's personnel wore masks when on duty. They removed them while mixing with the community, making sure the public never knew who was watching them and never knew who the spies were in their midst.
The French Inquisition pioneered secretive methods of infiltrating subversive Cathar organisations during the Albigensia Crusades (1209 - 1229). But it was when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain established the Spanish Inquisition (1478) under Tomás de Torquemada (1420 - 1498) that the Inquisitions became a secret society which established a reputation for terror that echoes down the centuries. Indeed, many of the secretive techniques developed by Tomás are still used by repressive regimes today.
There were more than 140,000 Jews throughout Spain and many more conversos, entire communities of Christians who had converted from Judaism centuries earlier. The conversos were mistrusted by many Spanish, who believes they still carried out Jewish rituals in secret. It was the Spanish Inquisitions task to root them out.
The name 'Torquemada' struck fear into hundreds of thousands of innocent minds. Torque is from the Latin verb for 'to twist' and quemada means 'burned' in Spanish, thus evoking what had been the preferred method of destroying heretics for hundreds of years, making it the perfect nom de guerre for the Grand Inquisitor. According to those ancient practices, a garrotte would twist the life out of those who confessed, but those who did not renounce heresy would due by being burned at the stake. Torquemada would continue this tradition.
Once appointed to the conveted role, Tomás set about creating a secretive police state. At the heart of the institution were his 'Instructions'. They confided exactly what was required of a good inquisitor, and armed with their strictures, his ruthless subordinates spread throughout the Spanish Empire, torturing and burning their way through the population.
First, a good inquisitor had to keep perfect records. A suspect's family, his connections and his history we are recorded in minute detail. Most importantly, the inquisitor had to list all of the assets the subject possessed. If found guilty of heresy, all of these were transferred to the crown.
When an inquisitor moved into a new town to 'cleanse' it of heresy, he brought a fearsome retinue of alguacils - the inquisitorial police. These notorious torturers often wore hoods to conceal their identity, adding to the feeling of terror experience by the community.
The chief aim of the inquisitor was to track down conversos who had slipped back into their old Jewish ways. Torquemada's Instructions gave advice on how to indentify these heretics. Neighbour was encourage to inform upon neighbour, and even the smallest Jewish observance would result in arrest. Thousands found themselves locked away in terrifying Inquisition dungeons. Their only contact with the world beyond their cell was when the hooded and masked alguacils hauled them up for interrogation.
Article 15 of Torquemada's Instructions allowed for torture to be administered if heresy was 'half-proven'. This catch-all statement allows even the smallest suspicion to be elevated to the status of proof. This allowed 'the question' to be put to all who fell into the Inquisition's clutches. The priest was forbidden to touch the victim or shed blood. That way his soul remained pure.
The tortured was divided into five stages. First, the suspect was threatened with torture. If that did not have the desired effect, he was dragged and pulled from his cell and show the instruments of torture - stage two. In the next two stages he was stripped and then strapped onto a rack.
These diabolical machines were common in all torture chambers throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe. Some where horizontal with a windlass at one end. Others were vertical and allowed the victim to be hung by the hands or feet , with weight being attached as the procedure continued. Many of these racks had rotating studded bars places so that the lower back was contorted backwards, adding to the agony.
Once the supposed heretic had been strapped on the rack, the inquisitor asked again for a confession. If this was not forthcoming, he ordered his assistants to begin the final stage, otherwise know as 'the question in the first degree'.
The suspect was 'prolonged', as the process of torture was euphemistically referred to. Pain began the extremities as he was stretched. Soon limb bones would crack and be pulled out of their sockets. Ligaments and muscles were torn as the pressure slowly intensified. Massive internal damage could be done but as long as no wound was inflicted, no blood would be shed. There were some constraints to the suffering that could be inflicted on the subject; when the victim was to be burned alive, he had to be able to walk to his doom in a public forum. The most skilled torturers could inflict maximum pain but cause little permanent damage.
If the rack did not elicit the confession, a sophisticated form of waterboarding was used. The prisoner was tied to an angled ladder so that the head was lower than the feed. The cranium was held in place by a metal band and all of his limbs and his chest were tightly bound to the ladder. The nostrils were punched and the mouth was forced open when a metal oval was placed inside. A loose cloth was placed over this. A flagon of water was then poured into the suspects mouth. This created a swallowing reaction as both water and cloth were sucked into the poor person's throat, causing them to gasp for breath and nearly asphyxiate. The cloth was then drawn out and the whole process repeated.
Centuries earlier, the Church had outlawed repeated torture; as suspected heretic could only be put the question once. But the new Inquisition got around this with a neat legal nicety. This inquisitor, who had to record every procedure and utterance, could choose to 'suspend' operations and then resume the procedure again as often and for as long as they desired.
Once a confession had been obtained there were a range of punishments. Some where paraded naked and humiliated; others were fined or exiled. But for those who had converted to Christianity and then relapsed into heresy, or for those who had refused to confess, there was one penalty: death. Once the inquisitors had done their job, they handed their prey over to the civil authorities, who were charged with carrying out the required punishments, as the clergy were required to keep their hands clean.
Torquemada's Instructions demanded that these carnivals of death could only be held on the Sabbath or holy holidays. That way a good crowd was sure to turn out. The auto-da-fé began with the accused being lined up in a column outside the dungeons. Those had confessed and been given the milder punishments such as fines or exile, were placed at the head of the column. Behind them came the heretics, who were condemned to death. They were dressed in a cap that was a cross between a modern-day dunce's cap and a bishop's mitre. Around their neck was a rope noose and cover their body was a rough yellow sackcloth. On this were painted scenes of bodies burning in hell while being tormented by devils and demons. If the flamers were pointing downwards it demonstrated that the prisoner had repented and would be strangled before the flames took hold. If they faced upwards it showed they were persistent prisoners who had refused to recant - they would only die when consumed by fire.
The condemned were led to the quemadero - the place of the burning. Those lapsed Christians who had confessed were tied to their stake and mercifully garrotted before the faggots were placed around their feet and set alight. Those who hadn't confessed would die in the flames. Before they were set alight the men were given one more humiliation. A brand was used to light their beards. This was called 'shaving the new Christians', and while suffering first-degree burns the heretics got a taste of the burning hell they would soon endure - both on the stake and in Lucifer's domain.
Torquemada's secret society of inquisitors made it their mission to expose the 'heretic' conversos, with gruesome success. Indeed, towards the end of his tenure, the Grand Inquisitor had overseen the greatest 'cleansing' of the lot, when all the Jews of Spain were expelled from the country, using the Alhambra Decree signed by Ferdinand II (1452 - 1516) and Isabella I (1451 - 1504) on the 31st of March 1492. He remained in post until a couple of years before his death on the 16th of September 1498.
During his reign at least 9,000 heretics had died under his 'Instructions'. At least 100,000 more had paid fines or been exiled on their path to true Christianity. The Jews had been expelled or converted, and for the next several hundred years the secretive Inquisition hunted down heretics until it was closed down for good during the Napoleonic Wars.