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Pope Announces Push to Scale Back Monarchs’ Power in Spanish Inquisition

Ferdinand and Isabella rebuff intervention, threaten to reform the church.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On January 29, 1482, Pope Sixtus IV issued a brief to the monarchs of Spain expressing his disappointment with the way the Inquisition was being administered in Castile, and suggesting that he intended to restore to his own hands powers he had earlier granted to Ferdinand and Isabella.

The pope’s letter was meant to supersede his bull of November 1, 1478, in which he had authorized the royal couple to appoint their own teams of church officials and laymen to carry out investigations of suspected heretics in Seville. Three years later, he had given them additional authority to set up an Inquisition in Aragon. Now, the pope was expressing his unhappiness with the way the Inquisition was going about its business.

Sixtus, who served as pope from 1471 to 1484, had received a number of complaints, both from churchmen and also from figures close to Ferdinand and Isabella, that the Inquisition was acting with inappropriate alacrity, and denying suspected heretics the opportunity to admit their mistakes and repent. Instead, he wrote, the officers of the Inquisition were operating “with no regard to law, have imprisoned many unjustly, have subjected them to dire torments and have unjustly declared heretics and despoiled them, once dead, of their goods” (translation from “Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen,” by Nancy Rubin).

The pope didn’t stop there. On April 18, 1482, he issued a similar condemnation of the Inquisition in Aragon, and accused it of being “moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls, but by lust and wealth.” The crown, of course, was permitted to take possession of the often substantial property belonging to individuals convicted of heresy, and the pope was charging that greed was clouding the integrity of prosecutions.

Together with that, the April 18 bull announced a wide series of reforms, which would have subjected the legal proceedings of ecclesiastical courts to the same principles as secular tribunals: Those accused would be informed of the identity of their accusers, appeals were now to be heard by the pope, not the monarchy, and heretics needed to be given an opportunity to confess and to receive absolution.

Had Sixtus followed through with his plans, the history of Spanish Jewry might have ended differently. As it was, however, both Ferdinand and Isabella responded aggressively to the pontiff’s complaints, and made it clear they had no intention of backing down.

The king, for example, wrote back to the pope warning him not to “let the matter go further,” but instead to leave matters in his and Isabella’s hands. Ferdinand even threatened to convene a conference of the cardinals to discuss the reform of the church if Sixtus persisted with his threats.

Sixtus almost immediately began to sing a different tune. He rescinded his own request to take control of the Sevillian Inquisition, and wrote an unctuous letter to Isabella praising her for her “piety and singular devotion to God.” He also denied have any suspicion that the queen’s behavior was motivated out of “greed for temporal goods rather than zeal for the faith.” At the same time, he backed down on the demand to make his office the venue for appeals to Inquisition rulings.

In January 1483 – more than nine years before the general order of expulsion from Spain - Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of all the Jews of Seville and Cordoba, an act to which Sextus acceded. And in October, he approved the appointment of Tomas de Torquemada as grand inquisitor for Castile, and then for Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia.

Ferdinand and Isabella, commissioning Christopher Columbus.Credit: Dreamstime.



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