This Day in Jewish History

1536: The Inquisition Is Formally Introduced Into Portugal

The Church’s anti-heresy force was formed after thousands of Jews forced into exile in Spain moved westward to Portugal.

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May 23, 1536, marks the day that the Inquisition was formally introduced into Portugal. This happened when the pope, Paul II, issued a bill establishing the tribunal in the kingdom, and abrogating a number of extant measures that had been meant to mitigate earlier actions taken against suspected Judaizers.

The institution of the Inquisition had been established in Rome at the turn of the 13th century, and was intended to root out heresy within the Church. It was not by definition directed specifically at Jews, but in countries where Jews had converted to Christianity in large numbers, it did largely focus on those who were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Most of those interrogated by the Inquisition were not executed. That was reserved for those who refused to confess and/or repent. Others were subjected to lesser punishments, in addition to the torture they may have undergone in order to extract a confession from them.

Establishment of the Inquisition in Iberia first in Spain, then in Portugal followed earlier tribunals in Rome itself and also in France (against the Christian sect the Cathars). In Spain, the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 can be seen as an admission of the failure of the Inquisition, encouragement of conversion, and other measures to eliminate the Jewish presence and influence in society.

Thousands of the Jews forced into exile in Spain moved westward in the peninsula to Portugal.

As a condition for marrying the Infanta Isabella of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Portugal’s King Manuel I had to promise to expel the Jews from his kingdom too. He carried out the order halfheartedly, however, making all deportees sail from Lisbon, where measures were taken to convince them to convert rather than leave. (One of those measures was to confiscate their children from them if they did not undergo baptism, for adoption by Christian families.)

By 1521, King Joao III, Manuel’s successor, had requested permission from the pope for the establishment of a Portuguese Inquisition. But the pope was reluctant, and the Jews were willing to pay the crown handsomely to have such a move deferred.

Finally, on May 23, 1536, Pope Paul gave the green light for the Inquisition. And in Portugal, it was an Inquisition that focused all its attention on New Christians (converts) and crypto-Jews. Although the authorization came from the Holy See, the Grand Inquisitor was chosen by the king, and always came from the royal family.

The fact that anyone arrested by the Inquisition was subject to having his property confiscated insured that the campaign was carried out with alacrity. Tribunals were set up in a number of towns in Portugal, but also in the kingdom’s overseas possessions, namely Brazil, Goa and Port Verde.

According to historian Antonio Jose Saraiva, 40,000 individuals were charged by the Portuguese Inquisition. Of them, in the mainland venues alone, 1,175 were burned at the stake, and an additional 633 burned in effigy.

The last public auto-da-fe in Portugal took place in 1765, but the Inquisition itself was only abolished in 1821, when the country went through a constitutionalist insurrection.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen