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Tomás de Torquemada

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Tomás de Torquemada.

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.


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).

Every Spanish Christian over the age of twelve (for girls) and fourteen (for boys) was accountable to the Inquisition. Christians, particularly those who had converted from Judaism or Islam, but who were found to be secretly practicing their old rites; as well as others holding or acting on religious views contradicting Catholicism, were targeted. Anyone who spoke against the Inquisition could fall under suspicion. 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 remained a subversive body. The King and Queen were concerned that Jews had been granted too many "privileges" by previous monarchs and were working to undermine the government. This basic distrust for Jews, converts and otherwise, as well as the dubious sincerity of Moorish converts, was the major factor in the implementation of the Spanish Inquisition.

After early service as a monk and cook at the Dominican monastery in Valladolid, Torquemada eventually became advisor to the rulers— Ferdinand and Isabella. He was especially well regarded by Queen Isabella — whose confessor he had become, 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.

While he and the Spanish Inquisition are generally reviled by history for their use of torture, anonymous denunciation, and handing over of convicted heretics to the government to be burned; auto-da-fe little of this can be described as unusual for those times. But, accusations of excesses 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 by certain elements that the crown provided Torquemada with a bodyguard of 50 mounted guards and 250 armed men when he travelled. 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.

Question of Jewish descent

As did many Spaniards, Torquemada 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

  • 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 Mel Brooks's movie History of the World, Part I, 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)
  • In Stuart Gordon's 1990 film of The Pit and the Pendulum, Lance Henriksen portrays the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada.
  • 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.
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