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Tomás de Torquemada

[tawr-kuh-mah-duh; Sp. tawr-ke-mah-thah]

Tomás de Torquemada (1420 – September 16, 1498) was a fifteenth century Spanish Dominican, first Inquisitor General of Spain, and confessor to Isabella of Spain. He was famously described by the Spanish chronicler Sebastián de Olmedo as "The hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order". He is known for his zealous campaign against the crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims of Spain. He was one of the chief supporters of the Alhambra Decree, which expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. The number of auto-de-fe's during Torquemada's tenure as Inquisitor General have been hotly debated over the years, but the number is now generally put at about 2,200; with roughly half of these beings proxy burnings of straw figures.


Tomás de Torquemada was born in Torquemada, near Valladolid, Castile-Leon, Spain. He was the Grand Inquisitor of Spain for many years, leaving to posterity an extraordinary, albeit incorrect, picture of fanaticism and implacability. In the fifteen years of his direction the Spanish Inquisition grew from the single tribunal at Seville to a network of two dozen 'Holy Offices'" (Longhurst).

After early service as a monk and cook at the Dominican monastery in Valladolid, Torquemada eventually became advisor to the monarchs—Ferdinand and Isabella. He was especially well regarded by Queen Isabella, whose confessor he had been, and who had him appointed Inquisitor General in 1483. In 1492 he was one of the chief supporters of the Alhambra decree, which resulted in the mass expulsion of non-Catholic Jews from Spain.

Every Spanish Christian over the age of twelve (for girls) and fourteen (for boys) was accountable to the Inquisition. Those who had converted from Judaism or Islam but who were suspected of secretly practicing their old rites; as well as others holding or acting on religious views contrary to Catholicism were targeted. Anyone who spoke against the Inquisition could fall under suspicion - as did saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. To stem the spread of heresy and anti-Catholicism, Torquemada promoted the burning of non-Catholic literature; especially the Talmud and, after the final defeat of the Moors at Granada in 1492, Arabic books as well.

Many Spaniards, looking back on the history of the reconquista believed that the Jews of 15th century Spain were a subversive body. The King and Queen had decided on Catholicism as being the unifying feature of their reign. They were concerned that Jews had been granted too many "privileges" by previous monarchs and were working to undermine their government; as well as stirring up trouble among the conversos. This basic distrust for Jews, converts and otherwise, as well as the dubious sincerity of Moorish converts, was a driving factor in the implementation of the Spanish Inquisition. Although the Inquisition is often viewed as being directed against Jews, in fact it had no jurisdiction or authority over unconverted Jews, or Muslims. Only baptised Christians faced investigation; and of those called to appear before the Holy Office, most were released after their first hearing without further incident.

While the Spanish Inquisition is generally denounced by historians for its use of torture, anonymous denunciation, and handing over convicted heretics to the government (auto-da-fe) for punishment, little of this can be described as unusual for the times. But, accusations of excess can be supported by reference to Pope Sixtus IV's observation, early in 1482 (before Torquemada's appointment as Grand Inquisitor) that the Inquisitional Office at Seville, "without observing juridical prescriptions, have detained many persons in violation of justice, punishing them by severe tortures and imputing to them, without foundation, the crime of heresy, and despoiling of their wealth those sentenced to death, in such form that a great number of them have come to the Apostolic See, fleeing from such excessive rigor and protesting their orthodoxy."

So hated did he become that at one point Torquemada travelled with a bodyguard of 50 mounted guards and 250 armed men. After 15 years as Spain's Grand Inquisitor, he died in 1498 in Ávila. For his role in the Spanish Inquisition, Torquemada's name has become a byword for fanaticism in the service of the Catholic religion.

Torquemada was a complex man: a ferocious zealot, he was also, ironically, the main reformer of the Spanish Inquisition - working to eliminate judicial corruption, bribery, false accusation and perjury. e.g., anyone found bearing false witness against another incurred the penalty due the one falsely accused. No respecter of rank, nobles, bishops and even a prince were called to appear before his Inquisition. He strongly supported the use of torture, but at the same time limited its practice. An early example of a penal reformer, Torquemada cleaned up the Inquisition's jails and saw to it that the prisoners were properly fed and clothed. A telling measure of his efforts can be seen wherein the numbers of common criminals petitioning to get their cases transferred to ecclesiastical courts became an administrative problem.

While generally inflexible and severe in his dealings with those he viewed as the enemies of Catholicism, especially relapsed heretics, Torquemada's main interest was in peaceably reconciling errant Catholics to the Church. His personal life was ascetic and he was regarded by even his enemies as incorruptible.

In 1832 Torquemada's tomb was ransacked, and his bones stolen and burned.

Question of Jewish descent

Like many Spaniards, Torquemada appears to have had Jewish ancestry: the contemporary historian Hernando del Pulgar, writing of Torquemada's uncle Juan de Torquemada, said that his ancestor Alvar Fernández de Torquemada had married a first-generation Jewish converso (convert). Del Pulgar was a converso himself. Also, according to biographer Thomas Hope's book, Torquemada, Torquemada's grandmother was a converso.

Torquemada in fiction

  • The main villain in the 2000 AD Strip Nemesis the Warlock was inspired by, and named after Torquemada
  • Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, features a famous parable involving Christ coming back to Seville in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, and being confronted by the Grand Inquisitor.
  • Torquemada, a play by Victor Hugo.
  • Torquemada, The Theologian's Tale from Part One of Tales of a Wayside Inn, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
  • In Stuart Gordon's 1990 film of The Pit and the Pendulum, Lance Henriksen portrays the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada.
  • Marlon Brando portrayed Torquemada in the film Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992).
  • In the Frank Herbert novel God Emperor of Dune, Leto II lectures his majordomo Moneo on religious despotism. He names Torquemada as the epitome of the violent fanaticism which shadows the phenomenon, stating that the Jesuits (who in fact did not yet exist in the time of Torquemada) were the best at maintaining a religious power base. He refers to Torquemada as one who "made living torches out of those who disagreed with him". Leto II had him expunged from written history because he was "an obscenity". In Leto II's reign as God Emperor, memory of Torquemada lies only in Leto's inner lives.
  • Tomás de Torquemada is one of the main protagonists of Jerzy Andrzejewski's novel And Darkness Covered the Earth (also translated as The Inquisitors).
  • In the miniature wargame, Warhammer 40,000 there is an Inquisitor of the Ordo Malleus named Torquemada Coteaz.
  • Tomás de Torquemada is one of the main characters of Gilbert Sinoué's novel Le livre de saphir.
  • Mel Brooks portrayed Torquemada in the musical number "The Inquisition" in the 1981 comedy movie History of the World, Part 1. During the scene about the Spanish Inquisition, the chief inquisitor introduces Torquemada by saying, "Torquemada - do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada - do not beg him for forgiveness. Torquemada - do not ask him for mercy. Let's face it, you can't Torquemada anything!" (talk him out of anything)


Cliff Pickover

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