Portuguese Inquisition

gigatos | May 25, 2022


The Portuguese Inquisition, also known as the Tribunal do Santo Ofício, was an institution of the Catholic Church that persecuted, tried, and punished people accused of committing crimes considered heretical. The heresy most often persecuted by the court was the alleged Judaizing practices of the so-called New-Christians. Its foundation and extinction dates are respectively May 23, 1536, and March 31, 1821.

It was formally instituted in Portugal through a 1515 request in which King Manuel I requested the installation of the Inquisition in order to fulfill a marriage commitment he had sealed with Maria of Aragon. However, it was only after his death in 1536, during the reign of King John III, that Pope Paul III agreed to its foundation. The Portuguese Inquisition covered all the territories of the Portuguese overseas empire.

Initially, the Brazilian colonies served as a refuge for those persecuted by the Inquisition (mainly descendants of Jews). After the division of the territory into hereditary captaincies, in 1534, voluntary immigration intensified.

The action of the Inquisition in Brazil had a late start. Initially it worked through visitations, but later the Inquisition started to rely more and more on local agents, whose complaints were sent to the court in Lisbon, where they were analyzed by the inquisitors and returned with an eventual warrant for arrest. Portugal never created an Inquisition court in Brazil.

In 1478 Pope Sixtus IV issued a papal bull allowing the Inquisition to be set up in Castile, which created a strong wave of immigration of Jews and heretics to Portugal.

On December 5, 1496, as a result of a clause in his marriage contract with Princess Isabel of Spain, Manuel I signed an order forcing all Jews to choose between leaving Portugal or converting. However, the number of voluntary conversions was much lower than expected, and the king decided to close all the ports of Portugal (except Lisbon) to prevent these Jews from escaping.

In April 1497, an order was issued that on Easter Sunday all Jewish sons and daughters under the age of 14 who had chosen to leave Portugal in order to convert were to be forcibly removed. Many of these children were then distributed throughout the cities and towns of the country to be educated according to the Christian faith at the king”s expense, and it is not known how many were able to return to their biological families. In October 1497, those Jews who did not flee were also forcibly dragged to the baptismal font. These measures led to the emergence of the so-called New-Christians, who at the time were considered a social problem.

However, at a time when King Manuel needed the Jews” investments, he was able to prevent them from being officially discriminated against because of their Jewish origin, but was unable to carry out a program to integrate them socially and religiously into the former minority. These events resulted, in 1506, in the Lisbon Massacre, when hundreds of New Christians were killed by the old Christians of Portugal. After the massacre, the king punished those responsible for the massacre, and renewed the rights that the Judaizers had in 1497, which gave the New-Christians the privilege of not being questioned for their so-called “offenses of faith” and allowed them to leave Portugal freely.

At this time, the Spanish Inquisition began to question Manuel”s faith, since he called himself Catholic but supported heretic refugees from the neighboring kingdom, which led the king to adopt a more severe policy against the New-Christians. However, he also managed to take care of the jurisdictional autonomy of his territories and refused the invasive claims of the Castilian inquisitors.

In the late summer of 1515, Dom Manuel wrote to Pope Leo X a request for authorization to found a Court of the Inquisition in Portugal, openly denying the privileges given to the converts in 1497. In any case, the Inquisition was not established in Portugal at that time, probably due to the negative response given by the pope.

After the death of Manuel, João III took over the Portuguese throne in 1521 and, in 1522, renewed the privileges given to the new-Christians in 1497 and also granted, in 1524, their freedom to leave Portugal.

In 1531 there was an earthquake in Lisbon, a major earthquake whose cause was attributed by the Portuguese population to the crypto-Judaism of the New Christians. This led King John III to be convinced by Alonso Manrique de Lara, the general inquisitor, to ask for the Inquisition to be established, overcoming the strong resistance that still existed at court. In the weeks following the earthquake, the king wrote to his emissary in Rome, Dom Bras Neto, to ask the pope to grant him permission to found in Portugal a tribunal of the Holy Office similar to the Spanish one, but the relationship between Portugal and Rome was very fragile, since Portugal had entered into crisis in the late 1520s. In response, the Portuguese court attempted to gain greater control of ecclesiastical property from Rome. The refusal led to a head-on clash between Portugal and the papacy, a moment in which the negotiations for the founding of the Lusitanian Holy Office also took place. In 1531 also occurred the acceleration of the political fall of the Registrar of Purity D. Miguel da Silva, a courtly bishop, against the foundation of the Inquisition, who years later became one of the main allies of the Roman Curia against the pretensions of the Portuguese court and an interested protector of the cause of the New-Christians.

In December 1531, Pope Clement VII finally published the bull founding the Holy Office in Portugal, which only arrived in the country in 1532, and provoked “an exhausting confrontation” over the publication of the bull between the supporters of the Inquisition, favored by D. Catarina and Infante D. Luís, but also openly supported by Charles V, and the members of the court more linked to the New-Christians, probably due to economic interests. As a result, the bull was suspended by the Pope in October. A negotiation phase with the pontifical curia then took place, which was finalized on October 12, 1535, by Pope Paul III. The pontiff granted a general pardon to the Portuguese New-Christians and the conditions for this pardon were agreed upon with the Lusitanian court.

The Inquisition was established on May 23, 1536, by order of Pope Paul III by the bull named “Cum ad nihil magis”, and censorship of printed publications was established, starting with the prohibition of the Bible in languages other than Latin. The first act of faith in the history of the Lusitanian Holy Office took place in Lisbon, September 26, 1540.

After some more diplomatic difficulties with Rome and also the temporary suspension of the execution of sentences from 1544 on, the key year for the functioning of the Holy Office was 1548.

Agents of the Inquisition

In 1542, after signing an agreement with Rome on the recognition of its powers, the Kingdom of Portugal started a project that aimed to expand its doctrine of faith beyond the European continent. The Inquisition was constituted, above all, of a coercive, moralizing and politically dominating ideal. This extension project had the participation of cardinals and princes in its creation, namely: the Dominican Jéronimo de Azambuja, the canonists Ambrósio Campelo and Jorge Gonçalves Ribeiro, and the infante Cardinal D. Henrique, brother of D. João III. The way the Holy Office maintained its functioning was through the delegation of inquisitorial power to ecclesiastical representatives. The Jesuit missionaries played a major role in this process. Their objective, under the service of the inquisitors, was to make the inspection and observance of faith and good customs. Their visits were made in Brazil, India and some African colonies. If during their visits they found any misconduct worthy of punishment, these inquisitors reported the convicts to the council and they were tried. The inquisitors were the main officials and accumulated the functions of investigator and judge in the courts of the Holy Office. In addition, the courts had a whole apparatus of bureaucratic officials and their own prisons where the accused were imprisoned. Finally, the so-called familiars of the Holy Office were Inquisition officials who were not part of the clergy – they were usually members of the nobility – and were spread throughout the Portuguese territory, being able among other things to carry out prisons.


In a first phase, six tribunals were organized in Portugal in 1541: Evora, Lisbon, Tomar, Coimbra, Lamego and Porto. These locations, combined with the appointment of local bishops and vicars as inquisitors, used the pre-existing ecclesiastical mesh to deploy the institution quickly. However, from 1548 onwards these tribunals were centralized in Lisbon and Evora, partly due to problems arising from the fact that the Holy Office had a widely scattered structure and was still an institution in the process of formation. It was only after the 1560s, with the re-establishment of the court of Coimbra and the foundation of the court of Goa, that the courts stabilized and took on a more defined form. Such forms continued without major changes until the decline of the Inquisition, at the end of the 18th century.

The Court of the Holy Office accepted denunciations of all kinds, including rumors, hunches, and presumptions, made by anyone, regardless of the reputation or position of the denouncer. Anonymous accusations were also accepted, if the inquisitors thought it appropriate “for the service of God and the good of the Faith,” and accusations obtained under torture were accepted. The regiment stipulated, however, that prisoners should not appear in the autos-de-fé “showing signs of torture.

A lawyer appointed by the Holy Office was only a prop; he did not accompany defendants in interrogations and his role was often more to the defendant”s disadvantage than anything else.

Methods of punishment

There was a severe policy on the part of the authorities to maintain religious order by correcting offenders. The main forms of punishment were physical punishment – galleys, forced labor, flogging, for example -, spiritual punishments, deportations, confiscations, and, as a last resort, the death penalty by fire or withers. The banishment consisted in excluding the individual from his social environment until his character was “corrected” and could then provide “balance” for the nation. Under the pretext of the salvation of the soul and the following of divine law, detention was nothing more than the removal of undesirables by the state, being part of the judicial machinery of monarchical power.

The most common accusations in the lists of the acts of faith concerning the penalty of banishment were mostly of a moral and religious nature, and they were, in order of frequency: crypto-Judaism, delinquency against Catholic morals, sodomy, witchcraft, blasphemy, and bigamy.

The description attributed to the men and women convicts was accompanied by nicknames related to their sins, besides the general denomination of “modest”, characterizing them as peasants and artisans. The nobility, however, were not exempt from accusations or penalties such as banishment. Despite attempts to use their titles to lessen the penalty – which ranged from five to ten years – they could not completely escape conviction.

This type of punishment was part of a broad criminal process and was widespread in Portugal since the Middle Ages. For the Inquisition, this punishment had a double function: the first functioned as a defense mechanism of the religious order, while the second one referred to the purification of the sins committed. For the exploration of the Brazilian lands, the convicts were important elements, since they were in a larger proportion than the voluntary immigrants. The strong presence of convicts happened between 1500 and 1531 during the expeditions, in the hereditary captaincies (1534-1549) and in the first decades of the general government.

In the general framework of the penalties applied, confiscation was one of the most feared weapons in the fight against heresy (or more particularly against Judaism). Its processing took place under a double jurisdiction: that of the Justices of the Treasury, who promoted the seizures and executed the sentences, and that of the Inquisitors, who ordered the arrests and judged the cases. The arrest of the accused was preceded by the seizure of his assets, which, once inventoried, were placed in storage by the tax authorities, who then managed them and could even sell them. This process was called sequestration. After the process, if the defendant was acquitted, his assets would be returned; if convicted, they were definitively seized and their public sale was promoted. This second moment was called confiscation and the forfeiture of assets. In practice, however, once the goods were preventively seized, they were practically lost for both the guilty and the innocent, so painful was their recovery; everything had been sold.

Thus, with the arrest, punishment began and was almost always followed by conviction. As this punishment was necessarily linked to sequestration, it could, according to Sónia Siqueira, “generate the impression that it was the interest in property that induced the conviction” of the accused when, in fact, only the nearly convicted were arrested and, therefore, reached by sequestration. In relation to the confiscations, there was a presumption of family guilt and solidarity, which caused entire families to be deprived and to have to live on charity, suffering hunger and hardship. For the historian Hermano Saraiva, the confiscation of the fortunes of the New-Christians was the object of “much interest”, a possible opportune source of income. New-Christians were, for the most part, a middle class of capitalists and merchants, and were not well accepted by either the Old-Christian petty bourgeoisie or the nobility.

The money collected from the confiscations paid for the expenses of the Inquisition and its cumbersome mechanism, but some was also provided to the Crown. Although they served to support the courts of the Holy Office, the confiscations subsidized much more, including fleet equipment and war expenses of the State. However, historian António José Saraiva came to the conclusion that, although the confiscated patrimony legally belonged to the king, it was in fact administered and enjoyed by the inquisitors; after deducting the Inquisition”s expenses – salaries, visits, travels, autos-de-fé, among others – what was left, little or nothing, would be handed over to the Royal Treasury. Still according to the conclusions of A.J. Saraiva, it is easy to understand why the Inquisition”s coffers were always chronically empty. The Inquisition was a vehicle to distribute money and goods to its numerous members – a form of plunder, like war, but more bureaucratized.


The visits of inquisitorial agents did not take place only in the great centers, but reached even the most peripheral regions of Portugal. The visits were frequent between the 16th and early 17th centuries and were responsible for expanding the area of action of the Holy Office. The inquisitors were installed in the main religious buildings in the country, where they received denunciations and confessions. This fact demonstrates the great prestige of the agents and the influence they had during the Inquisition in the Portuguese society.

However, the number of visitations decreased in the 17th century and the last recorded visitation in Portugal took place in 1637. They were replaced by a network of commissioners (mostly Dominicans and Jesuits), who became responsible for the supervision of faith and customs in the territories farthest from the courts.

Infringements Pursued

Notices were published with the intention of imbuing the population with a better understanding of the inquisitorial jurisdiction and to incite betrayals. There were various types of edicts and they were read on various occasions, such as during autos-de-fé and visitations. The edicts of grace, for example, provided for lighter punishments for those who confessed their crimes during a predefined period in the publication. The so-called Edicts of Faith, on the other hand, were usually published on the first Sunday of Lent or after the arrival of the visitator. They were usually read from the pulpit on a Sunday and then posted on church doors. Its content was a list of all the crimes – sins that were liable to condemnation by the Inquisition. Besides cases of Judaism, the Inquisition also prosecuted Protestantism, Islam, blasphemy, witchcraft, sodomy, bigamy, and others. On the other hand, it was not the function of the Holy Office to judge cases of murder and theft, for example, since these crimes were the responsibility of secular justice. The Holy Office was only in charge of crimes considered heretical. The edicts also served to enjoin citizens to make confessions and to denounce heretical practices that they knew of. Those who omitted information could be excommunicated if discovered. In addition, if a complaint was made and a witness was recognized, that person could be summoned by the inquisitors and charged as a “promoter of heresy.

Autos de fede

The first Portuguese auto de fé occurred on September 26, 1540. The autos were considered the maximum ceremony of representation of the Inquisitorial power. Held in the districts-seat of the tribunals, they were attended by illustrious figures from the nobility, including the royal family. Some people, for reasons that varied from the crime committed to the context of each conviction, were sentenced privately, without having to attend the public ceremony. The condemned could be divided into the reconciled, that is, those who would undergo penance and be reconciled with the church, and the so-called “relaxed”, who were handed over to secular justice for execution. However, there were usually more reconciled than relaxed, so as to reiterate the triumph of faith over heresy. All the condemned were required to wear a “penitential habit,” also known as a sambenito. This garment contained images of flames of fire whose position varied, being upward for the reconciled and downward for the relaxed. The condemned walked in procession to the square where the Auto would take place and then waited their turn to climb the scaffold to hear the sentence that would be handed down to them and also to proclaim their repentance and abjure from heretical customs.

According to Henry Charles Lea, between 1540 and 1794, the courts of Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Évora burned 1,175 people alive, and burned the effigy of another 633 and imposed punishment on 29,590 people. However, the documentation of 15 of the 689 autos de fé has disappeared, so these numbers may slightly underestimate the reality. It is also unknown how many victims died in Inquisition prisons as a result of disease, poor conditions, and mistreatment; imprisonments could last for months or even years pending confirmation of “crimes.


It is possible to know the procedures of the Inquisition through its Regiments, that is, through the institution”s codes and procedural rules. There are four versions of the Regiments, until the last one, the “reformed” one of 1774, sponsored by the Marquis of Pombal, which also provides for the legitimate use of torture and the carrying out of acts of faith. The Regiment of 1640 determined that each tribunal of the Holy Office should possess a Bible, a compendium of canon and civil law, the Directorium Inquisitorum by the inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich, and the De Catholicis institutionibus by Diego de Simancas.

The trials of the Inquisition were secret and the possibility of appealing the decisions was null. The procedure consisted of interrogating the accused and constantly pressuring him to confess the “crimes” attributed to him. The Inquisitors kept the accusations made and the evidence they had secret in order to get a confession without announcing the accusation. Possible witnesses were also interrogated, and the Holy Office sometimes used torture – the strappado (or polé) and the colt – as a method to obtain the necessary confessions. Sentences were decided by a majority vote of the Inquisition”s board, usually made up of three Inquisitors and a varying number of other officials who could be summoned to vote when decisions needed to be made. For decisions to be made, at least five votes were required. Each court had its own staff (lawyers, prosecutors, notaries, etc.) and its own prison. The guards who served the Inquisition could also testify against the accused: if while in prison a defendant refused to eat, for example, this action could be considered a fast, a Jewish custom.

In several cases it was common for false accusations to be made to the New-Christians and it was difficult to prove the innocence of the accused. Therefore, it was more convenient for many to give a false confession to the inquisitors, including a list of imaginary accomplices, in the hope of not receiving extreme penalties such as the death penalty, but only the confiscation of property or minor penalties.


To better understand the action of the Inquisition in Brazil, one must consider that it did not occur in the same way as in Portugal. At first, the colony served as a refuge for the new Christians who managed to escape punishment in the metropolis. For a long time, it also served as a place of detention – the place where those convicted of heresy, witchcraft, blasphemy, and other charges were sent. It is believed that this population was an important contingent for the settlement of Brazil because it made up the largest portion of the population. However, after the division of the territory into hereditary captaincies (1534), voluntary immigration intensified and the delegation of captains donatários was initiated. Thus, the population issue was no longer restricted to these two groups, which strengthened the inquisitorial activity in the territory in the same proportion.

The inquisitorial action in Brazil took place initially through visitations. As the name implies, a visitador appointed by the Holy Office traveled to the colony with the power to arrest and judge cases that he could consider crimes. His aim was to correspond to the lack of a permanent court in the region (despite numerous attempts to create one) and to control the freedom with which that population lived prior to his arrival. The first of these expeditions took place between 1595 and 1598 passing through Paraíba, Pernambuco and Bahia. However, this system did not show many results when compared to the investments, and also gave rise to excesses committed by the visitors. Thus, the last visitation took place in 1760, passing through Pará and Maranhão.

In view of the difficulties presented, the Inquisition”s action started to rely more and more on local agents, that is, on the clergy members present there, commissioners and family members. This system was done by sending the complaints to the court in Lisbon that, after being analyzed by the inquisitors, were returned with the respective warrant of arrest to each local correspondent, who could then arrest the defendants and send them to Portugal. This is how most of the arrests in Brazil were made. The main charges were Judaism and soon after heresy and bigamy, but the number of arrests or any kind of occurrence registered in Brazil was much lower than in Portugal, as in Pernambuco, for instance, where there were 200 arrests for 700 charges.


The Goa court in India was founded in 1560. It was the only inquisitorial court located overseas and with jurisdiction over the entire Portuguese territories in the East, i.e. from East Africa to Timor. Due to the instability of the region in the 16th century, the inquisitors in Goa tried to avoid death sentences for converts who returned to their old practices. Thus, the court used to deal more with Portuguese, both those who were new Christians and those who were attracted to the local cults. This was because they feared that possible public punishments to the newly converted natives could fuel a feeling of revolt against the colonizers who were outnumbered in the region. In the 17th century, however, the Goan court had its greatest persecutory intensity, and from the 1590s onward, gentilities, such as offerings to local deities and native practices that were perceived as witchcraft, became the central focus of the Holy Office in the East.

More than a century later, in 1774, the Marquis of Pombal eventually abolished the Inquisition in Goa and all prisoners were released. However, after Pombal”s resignation in 1777, the Inquisition was restored and operated until it was definitively extinguished in 1812. During this period, D. João VI, the then prince regent, was in Brazil and ordered the friar Tomás de Noronha to select some documents worth preserving. About 2,000 documents were chosen and the rest were burned. These documents are stored in the National Library in Rio de Janeiro and some others that arrived in Lisbon at other times during the operation of the Inquisition are also accessible, but most of the documentation, including the records of the trials, complete or incomplete, have been lost.

Father Antonio Vieira (1608-1697), himself a Jesuit, philosopher, writer and orator, was one of the most important opponents of the Inquisition. He was arrested by the Inquisition for “heretical, reckless, ill-sounding and scandalous propositions” in October 1665, imprisoned until December 1667, after his release he went to Rome. By the inquisitorial sentence, he was forbidden to teach, write or preach. Only perhaps Vieira”s prestige, intelligence, and support among members of the royal family saved him from greater consequences.

He is thought to have been the author of the famous anonymous writing “Notícias Recônditas do Modo de Proceder a Inquisição de Portugal com os seus Presos” (Hidden Notices on the Inquisition”s Way of Proceeding with its Prisoners), which reveals great knowledge of the inner workings of the inquisitorial mechanism, and which he would have delivered to Pope Clement in favor of the persecuted Inquisition. It is certain that the Inquisition was suspended by papal order from 1674 to 1681.

Father Vieira in Rome, where he spent six years, was leading an anti-inquisition movement; meanwhile, in 1673, the Inquisitors were persecuting his relatives in Portugal. Besides the humanitarian objections, other objections had A. Vieira noted that a mercantile middle class was being attacked, which would be greatly needed for the economic development of the country.

Although officially extinguished in 1821, the Portuguese Inquisition lost its strength during the second half of the 18th century under the influence of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782), who said he was clearly opposed to inquisitorial methods, classifying them as acts “against humanity and Christian principles. Although he himself used the Inquisition for his own purposes, as when he found it necessary to eliminate Father Gabriel Malagrida, and used clear inhumanity against the Távoras. Paulo de Carvalho e Mendonça, brother of the Marquis of Pombal, headed the Inquisition from 1760 until 1770.

In the view of some historians, the pombaline achievements, added to the process of secularization of society in the Enlightenment, were fundamental for the extirpation of the inquisition practices in Portuguese lands. After the extinction of the Inquisition, comments A.  Saraiva, the only trace of 238 years of this obsession are the endless inquisitorial archives (more than 35,000 files), deposited in the Torre do Tombo after its abolition in 1821. The alleged “legions” of Judaizers disappeared overnight.


  1. Inquisição portuguesa
  2. Portuguese Inquisition
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