There are few darker chapters in history than the torture of good and honest disciples of Christ by the Roman Catholic Church.

In Daniel 7 we read: “I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them” (v21). The “war” which the little horn made with the “saints” is no better illustrated than in the case of the Inquisition. It was a papal-authorised judicial institution which sought to identify and punish those whom the Catholic Church regarded as heretics. The emphasis was on ‘inquiring’ into a person’s beliefs and actions rather than a formal prosecution. An ‘inquisition’ might be initiated on little more than hearsay or vague suspicion. There were three main, overlapping, phases; the Medieval, Spanish and Roman Inquisition. Each had their own characteristics, but all displayed the terror and cruelty which the Catholic Church and the Papacy wrought against those whom it deemed as heretics.

In Revelation 13 verse 15 it is written: “that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed”. This image represents the papacy. The Inquisition was a key fulfilment of this prophecy with many thousands being killed for refusing to worship the Papacy.

The two witnesses

Revelation 11:3 states: “And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.” The “witnesses” represent those who opposed Catholicism. Catholics regarded them as heretics. Some “witnesses” had the Truth but most did not and some resorted to violence. The time period starts at 312 ad when Constantine came to power and ended 1260 years later in 1572 when the St Bartholomew Massacre effectively finished overt religious opposition. The Inquisition was one of the main arenas where this witnessing occurred.


By the thirteenth century there were two main movements regarded by the Roman Church as heretical. The Cathari had their origins in gnosticism and the teaching of the ancient Iranian prophet, Zoroaster. They became concentrated in southwest France, including the area of Albi where a significant Cathar movement, the Albigensians, developed. The second main group was variously known as the Waldensians, the Vaudois and the ‘Poor Men of Lyons’. Their origins are unclear but they had, as Brother Eyre states, “an essentially pious yet commonsense approach to the Bible”. [1]

Medieval inquisition

In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries there were several precursors to the Inquisition. These included Papal Bulls, or charters, concerning heresy. Another precursor was a violent ‘crusade’ against the Albigensians. Requested by Innocent III, it led to thousands of deaths.

The Inquisition proper began in the pontificate of Gregory IX. In 1224, Gregory placed in his register of approved documents (the Papal Regesta) the constitution of Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. This constitution endorsed burning at the stake for heretics. Then, in 1231, he issued the Bull Excommunicamus. This is essentially the foundation document of the Inquisition. It stipulated convicted heretics could be handed to secular authorities for punishment, which, although not specified, often meant death at the stake. Furthermore, all Cathari and Waldensians were excommunicated together with their followers or friends. Impenitent heretics could be imprisoned for life and heretics could not appeal. The bodies of people who had died, but were deemed to be heretics, could be exhumed and burnt. Finally, the homes of convicted heretics were to be demolished. Gregory eventually assigned its implementation to the Orders of Dominic and Francis. An early Inquisitor was Conrad of Marburg. He employed Dominicans and Franciscans as assistants and such were the numbers of heretics burnt at the stake in the Rhineland that even kings and bishops in the area were afraid for their lives.

Ad Extirpanda

In 1252 Pope Innocent IV issued the Bull Ad Extirpanda. Of all the Papal Bulls relating to the Inquisition issued before and after, Ad Extirpanda was the most dreadful. It made explicit that death by burning at the stake was to be carried out. But even more terrifying was the allowing of torture. This supposedly applied only to Italy, but torture would be used throughout Europe. The Bull also set up a police force which could be used by the Inquisition in Italy. Later, Innocent formally divided up Europe for the work of the Inquisition by allocating different countries to either the Franciscans or Dominicans, spreading the terror far and wide.

If your village was suspected of harbouring large numbers of heretics the Inquisitor would visit and make a public sermon called the sermo generalis (the auto-da-fé in the later Spanish Inquisition). If you were male and over fourteen years old or female aged over twelve and you thought you might be a heretic then you had to attend. After the sermon there would be opportunity for you to confess. By voluntarily confessing, your punishment would be lessened. Punishments included wearing a cross of infamy, a pilgrimage or lifelong imprisonment. If you confessed, but refused to recant, you could be burnt at the stake although this was not common in the early Inquisition.

When you did confess you must name others who are heretics. If you refused then your confession was not seen as valid and you were deemed not to have converted. So those who chose not to attend the sermo generalis knew they would probably be named anyway.

If suspected as a heretic, especially if you had not confessed, you would be interrogated by the inquisitors with church representatives and a scribe present. You would not be allowed a defence lawyer nor told the names of informants.

If you still refused to confess and convert, you would be tortured. There were six main methods of torture. The ordeal of water involved being forced to swallow large amounts of water. In your mouth was placed either a funnel or a continually soaked and dripping cloth. The ordeal of fire involved being bound and your feet being covered in cooking fat. Your feet were then placed by a fire and fried. In the strappado your hands were tied behind your back with another rope attached to your wrists and you would be raised by a pulley several feet above the ground. Also, weights may be attached to your feet, the rope suspending you may be occasionally released to drop you to a few inches above the ground and you may also be whipped. The wheel involved you being tied to a cartwheel and then beaten with clubs or hammers. The rack would stretch you, literally, to breaking point. Finally there was the stivaletto in which two boards would be roped to either side of your leg as splints. Wedges would then be driven between the board and your leg, causing the ropes to cut into your flesh.

Following many complaints, in 1306 Pope Clement V instigated an inquiry into the use of torture. Eventually, in 1317 Pope John XXII legislated that for torture to take place it should be approved by both a bishop and the inquisitor. But this made little difference; the terror of torture was a permanent feature of the Inquisition.

Spanish Inquisition 1478

As the Medieval Inquisition began to decline a new Inquisition began in Spain continuing the tradition of torture but with increased sophistication and terror. It was not uncommon for survivors of the Inquisition to have suffered mutilation, the loss of fingers or toes, or to have had bones broken. Of the so-called grand inquisitors none was more feared than the Dominican Fray Tomás de Torquemada, who burnt at least 2000 at the stake. A distinctive feature of the Spanish Inquisition was the drama of the auto-da-fé. It became a grand public spectacle, preceded by an elaborate procession. This was true both in Spain and in its colonies in the New World.

The Spanish Inquisition had a strong political element. In the 1470s husband and wife Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded on the Spanish thrones of Aragón and Castile respectively. They sought to unify these kingdoms, partly by ensuring all subjects truly followed the Catholic religion. They were very suspicious of both Jewish conversos, recently converted to Catholicism and also converted Moors. The Spanish Inquisition was started to establish the authenticity of these conversions, although it was not limited to Moors and Jews. Ferdinand and Isabella obtained authority for the Inquisition from Pope Sixtus IV in 1478. The historian Edward Burman states that Sixtus “created the circumstances that placed the new Inquisition outside papal jurisdiction. This was the most characteristic difference between the Spanish and other Inquisitions”. [2]Nevertheless, it was Catholic motivated and sanctioned by the Papacy.

The tribunals consisted of two inquisitors and a large number of staff. Their roles included arresting suspects, assessing evidence, prosecuting and a range of mundane administrative jobs. Underlying this work was the Inquisition’s influence, spread tendrillike through society, with many denunciations being made by acquaintances and neighbours. The fear of knowing but not informing the priest was very great.

Memoranda were kept of everything said and done during a trial. Their clinical and straightforward style heighten the horror and terror of what happened. Here is one extract of a trial of a woman accused of being Jewish because she didn’t eat pork and had changed her linen on a Saturday: “She was tied on the potro [rack] with the cords, she was admonished to tell the truth, and the garrottes were ordered to be tightened. She said, ‘Señores, do you not see how these people are killing me? I did it … let me go’”.[3]

The Spanish Inquisition ended in the early nineteenth century, an end hastened by the French Revolution. It is difficult to provide exact figures as to how many had suffered during the Spanish Inquisition, but thousands died and it had a profound effect on the culture and economy of Spain.

Roman Inquisition 1542–

The Roman Inquisition began in 1542 with Paul III’s Papal Bull Licet ab initio. It established the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or Holy Office. He had been persuaded to begin an Inquisition by Cardinal Giovanni Pietro Carafa. Carafa eventually became Pope, as Paul IV, and it was then that this Inquisition really gained impetus. Paul IV’s violent and ruthless zeal against heretics led to him being alienated even from nonheretics. The Roman Inquisition continued with succeeding popes, but as the threat of Protestantism in Italy receded the organisation became a more benign institution. The organisation, however, still exists and it is currently known as The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The present Pope, Benedict 16th, presided over this office before his elevation.


Many millions suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, a terrifying institution sanctioned by the papal “man of sin”. May that time soon come when the sure prophecy of Daniel concerning the beast, with its Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will be fulfilled: “But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end” (7:26).

“And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth”(Rev 18:24).

[1] Eyre, A. The Protestors. Birmingham: The Christadelphian,

1975, p. 19.

[2] Burman, E. The Inquisition: the hammer of heresy. Stroud:

Sutton Publishing. page 138. This is a good introduction to

the Inquisition and is the main source for this article.

[3] Ibid. page148