In spite of all the legends which have pictured Torquemada as only waiting for the moment when he could begin to burn jews wholesale, to his heart’s desire, and regale his notrils with the sweet aroma of roasting Protestants, he was not concerned, professionally, with either of those classes; he never persecuted Jews as Jews, and of course there were no Protestants, at least under that name. He whole endeavor was to make all Catholics be loyal Catholics. Nor was he desirous of accepting even this responsibility. It is generally agreed that the man never wanted to be Inquisitor General; had nothing of megalomania about him, and would much rather have gone on, as a simple monk, building Gothic cloisters where other monks after him could study and meditate, and serve God. Other Inquisitors after him became Archbishops and Cardinals, and confidential ministers of Kings; Torquemada resolutely refused every high honor offered him, to the very end. Even Lea admits that his selection “justified the wisdom of the sovereigns”.
What then of the cruelty for which his name has become almost a synonym? Had it lain dormant in him all those years in the monastery until, at the age of 63, he found himself forced into a position of great power that drew out the monster in him?
Before these questions can be fairly considered, we must remember that Torquemada was a man of his time, not ours, and that the best and wisest men in Spain did not consider the Inquisition an instrument of cruel oppression but an instrument of reform, which substituted a judicial punishment of the guilty for indiscriminate mob butchery of guilty and innocent alike…
He began his regime by doing away with all the worst abuses of Morillo and San Martin. Then he planned, and patiently put into execution, an elaborate system of jurisprudence that was far in advance, on the whole, of any in Europe. He improved the prisons, theprison food, the procedure and other conditions, until it became notorious in Spain that men lodged in the civil jails for various crimes would sometimes pretend to be heretics that they might be transferred to the well-lighted and well-ventilated houses in which the prisoners of the Holy Office were usually kept, and be judged by Dominicans rather than civil officers. There were exceptions to this, of course; and as time went on there were instances of cruelty, of persecution, of the intrusion of political animosity and personal vengeance; not because of Torquemada’s rules, however, but in spite of them. It we turn from the texts corrupted by Llorente to authentic ones of Torquemada’s Ordenanzas of 1484, which became the cornerstone of the Spanish Inquisition, it begins to be more clear why they have been called, by serious Spanish scholars (Saldana, for example),”a monument of penal science and humanitarianism”.
William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940)