Torquemada. To English ears, the very name sounds tortured and cruel. And Tomás de Torquemada was that. He was a most intolerant man in an age of intolerant men. A Jew, born into a family of converts, he turned most of his fury against his own people.
With energy and connections, it was inevitable that Torquemada should rise to power. After studying theology at the Dominican convent of San Pablo in Valladolid, he became prior of Santa Cruz convent in Segovia. He also became confessor to the royal court. There he whispered in the ears of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that many Jewish converts were secretly practicing Judaic rites while outwardly pretending to be Christians.
He helped the royal couple draft a request for an inquisition into this matter. The request was granted. In 1483, Torquemada was made grand inquisitor.
Torquemada developed an oppressive network of spies and secret police. His courts summoned thousands of individuals. Most of them were completely at a loss as to what they were supposed to have done. One third were tortured. The three most common tortures were to be hung by the arms until they were pulled from their sockets; to be forced to swallow gallons of water; and to be racked.
The inquisition kept records of interrogations, and these show people begging to be told what to admit so they could escape their agony. “I have said that I did all that the witnesses say. Señores, release me, for I do not remember it. . . . for God’s sake have mercy on me,” pleaded one woman. A man undergoing the torture insisted he was a good Catholic. If they wanted him to say he was a heretic, he would because of the torture. “Señor Inquisidor, what does your lordship want me to say?” Another: “I don’t know what to say. . . . Oh God, Oh God there’s no mercy, Oh God help me, help me!”
Worse than the tortures was the fear of immolation. Torquemada burned over 2,000 “guilty” victims. Naturally, with such a record he was loathed. He found it necessary to go about with bodyguards. Even the Pope could not stop his cruel work. When Sixtus IV in a bull absolved all the Conversos of any wrong they might have done, Ferdinand refused to be bound by the bull. Torquemada continued the persecution and Sixtus backed down. Torquemada extended his reach. He had all unconverted Jews expelled from Spain.
Paradoxically and tragically, this brutal business was done in the name of Christ, who never raised a finger to hurt anybody but willingly gave his own life for others. However, death reaches us all. On this date, September 16, 1498, at the stout age of 78, Torquemada died. If Spain hoped with his death for a cessation of brutality, they hoped in vain. His apparatus lived on after him, crushing new victims long after he was gone.
- Ott, Michael. “Tomas de Torquemada.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition. London: White Lion Publishers, 1976.
- Sabatini, Rafael. Torquemada. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.
- Various encyclopedia articles.