In the century after 1492, Spain became the most powerful country in the world. Spanish conquistadors captured vast territories in the New World, from Peru to Cuba. Galleons laden with gold and other riches returned to Spanish ports, instantly making the crown wealthy almost beyond comprehension. Spanish armies also controlled other parts of Western Europe, including modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands.
Within Spain’s borders, a domestic campaign for religious purity gained steam. After expelling the Jews in 1492 and ordering Muslims to convert to Christianity, the authorities in Madrid were determined to turn their newly powerful country into a pious Christian kingdom.
Many Spanish churchmen feared that Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity still practiced their old faith in secret, threatening the religious unity of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition aimed to root out heresy and punish the so-called “false converts,” often with a grisly execution. Other countries in Catholic Europe conducted inquisitions, but Spain’s was notorious for its length and severity; the last execution for heresy carried out by the Inquisition—by strangulation—was in 1826.
Today, the Spanish Inquisition is synonymous with the overzealous religious persecutions and bigotry of the medieval period. It particularly targeted Jews, fueling European anti-Semitism. However, Spain was not alone. Religiously inspired violence was a constant feature of the Middle Ages, across the continent. In Britain, thousands were executed as witches, a practice that only ended gradually with the Enlightenment, when progressive thinkers began to reject a literal interpretation of the Bible.
- Jews were not officially allowed to return to Spain until 1858.
- The Roman Inquisition also murdered and imprisoned scientists, like Galileo, whose findings contradicted Church belief