On September 17, 1485, Father Pedro Arbues, the chief inquisitor of the kingdom of Aragon, died, two days after having been stabbed at the steps to the altar at the cathedral of Zaragoza during prayers.
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Arbues was born circa 1441 in the region of Zaragoza, and became a priest in 1474. A short time later, Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of the newly united kingdom of Aragon and Castile, got permission from the pope to establish an inquisition, to root out heresy in their domain. Among the prime targets of the Inquisition, of course, were Conversos, newly baptized Jews, who were secretly continuing to practice their ancestral religion.
Tomas de Torquemada, the grand inquisitor for Castile, appointed Arbues to be the provincial inquisitor for Aragon in 1484. The Inquisition in general was not warmly received in Aragon, and Arbues, its chief symbol, was especially hated. Contributing to that sentiment was the fact that he conducted two autos-da-fe, public ceremonies of penance and punishment for heretics, during his first months in office. As such, Father Arbues did not travel in public without bodyguards, and the night he was attacked, he was said to have been wearing chain mail and a helmet.
One historian, John Edward Longhurst, quoting a contemporary source, describes with obvious relish the moment when Arbues, kneeling in prayer was confronted: “… a professional assassin by the name of Durango stepped up behind him and struck him in the neck with a sword, ‘splitting him open from his cervix to his beard’… Arbues lurched about briefly while two other assassins stabbed him repeatedly through the body until he was dead.” (Actually, Arbues took another two days to expire.)
“Retribution was even more terrible than the deed,” reports Longhurst. And, indeed, the arrests that followed the killing zeroed in on a number of prominent Converso families in Zaragoza. Yet if the attack on the inquisitor aimed to discourage the actions of his office, it had the opposite effect. The Inquisition in Aragon actually became energized by the murder.
Members of the Sanchez, Montesa, Paternoy and Santangel families were implicated in the plot. Gabriel Sanchez, whose father had been the first to convert to Christianity, was the treasurer of the kingdom of Aragon, and three of his brothers were accused of involvement in the plot to kill Arbues. One was convicted and executed, a second escaped into Navarre, and a third was allowed to repent for his crime. The father-in-law of Garbriel Sanchez, one Luis de Santangel was also convicted for involvement in the conspiracy and drawn and quartered before being burned. Jaime de Montesa was the deputy chief justice of the Zaragoza municipality; he was arrested as the mastermind of the plot and executed in 1487.
Longhurst recounts in gruesome detail some of the executions of those convicted in the assassination of Father Arbues. Durango, for example, the man he says was the chief attacker, “was hauled out to the great square; his hands were cut off and nailed to the door of the House of Deputies, while he was allowed to bleed to death. His body was then carted off to the market place where the head was detached, the trunk pulled apart by horses, and the pieces hung in the streets.”
According to one account, 13 were eventually burned at the stake for involvement in the plot, while another two suspects killed themselves before they could be put to death.
As for Pedro Arbues, he was canonized as a saint in 1867 by Pope Pius IX. In the document accompanying the sanctification, the pope explained that, ''The divine wisdom has arranged that in these sad days, when Jews help the enemies of the church with their books and money, this decree of sanctity has been brought to fulfillment.''