What Was the Auto-da-fé?
The auto-da-fé (act of faith) was the name of the public ceremony which followed the secret trials of the Spanish Inquisition established in 1478 during the reign of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. These two Christian monarchs, having united most of Spain by their marriage, were about to complete the age-old battle to free the country from “the infidels” by the conquest of Granada from the Moors. The time was ripe for them to seek to encourage national unity and strengthen the authority both of themselves and of the Church.
So it was a mixture of motives that led Ferdinand and Isabella to persuade Pope Sixtus IV to set up the Spanish Inquisition, with the declared purpose of disciplining the flourishing and influential Jewish community, whose wealth aroused envy and whose presence seemed to offer the greater obstacle to unity. Soon the powers of the Inquisition (from the Latin inquiro, to inquire into) were directed not only against Jews but also against Moors, Christian Protestants and even Catholics whose behavior was deemed to threaten the solidarity of the Church on which the royal authority also rested.
After secret interrogations, sometimes aided by torture, the auto-da-fé was celebrated. First came a procession of priests, officials and accused persons who had confessed their guilt and declared themselves penitent. This was followed by a solemn mass, an oath of obedience to the Inquisition and the reading of sentences whether of punishment or acquittal.
In popular usage, the term auto-da-fé, the act of public penance, came to mean the burning at the stake. Those condemned to death were handed over to the civil power to emphasize the fact that the Church did not itself shed blood. But the severity of the first Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498) is thought to have led to 2,000 burnings at the stake and unsuccessful attempts at mediation by the Pope.
After the reigns of Ferdinand’s successors, Charles I (1516-56) and Philip II (1556-98), the Inquisition gradually dwindled in influence and was finally suppressed in 1834. The first Iberian auto-da-fé took place in Seville in 1481; six of the men and women who participated in this first religious ritual were later executed. Later, Franciscan missionaries brought the Inquisition to the New World.
The exact number of people executed by the Inquisition is not known. Juan Antonio Llorente, the ex-secretary of the Holy Office, gave the following numbers for the Inquisition excluding the American colonies, Sicily and Sardinia: 31,912 burnt, 17,696 burned in effigy, and 291,450 reconciled de vehementi (required to perform an act of penance). Later in the nineteenth century, José Amador de los Ríos gave even higher numbers, stating that only between the years 1484 and 1525, 28,540 were burned in person, 16,520 burned in effigy and 303,847 penanced. However, after extensive examinations of archival records, modern scholars provide lower estimates, indicating that fewer than 10,000 were actually executed during the whole history of the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps around 3,000.
The Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536 and lasted officially until 1821. Its influence was much weakened by the late 18th century under the government of the Marquês de Pombal. They were also held in the Portuguese colony of Goa following the establishment of the Inquisition there in 1562–1563.
Autos-da-fé also took place in New Spain, the State of Brazil, and the Viceroyalty of Peru. Contemporary historians of the Conquistadors, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recorded them. Although records are incomplete, one historian estimates that about 50 people were executed by the Mexican Inquisition.