The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

DISCOVER: Spying and torture inside the Stasi

This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.

The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!

Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.

Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!

Cassian takes a while to die

Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!

Wilhelm Borremans, Saint Apollonia, 1717

There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.

Saint Lawrence and his grid

FIND OUT MORE: Why were bodies de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…

Saint Justina – possibly!

And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.

Bartholomew and his skin

The Green Children of Wulpet

Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.

The strange green children of Wulpet

This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box.  It’s a strange tale.  We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.

It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation.  Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife.  And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150.  He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.

Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet

Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’.  While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground.  A boy and a girl.  Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance.  William of Newburgh explains:

“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”

Their skin was completely green!  Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit.  The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods.  And they gobbled them down.

Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!

Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade.  With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl.  This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died.  The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”.  She even got married.

All of which begs the question – who were these children?  This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:

‘…we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields, where you were reaping’.

Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’

They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated.  Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.

‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’

So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’.  But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.

DISCOVER: Secrets of the Lost Gospels of Jesus

There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc.  It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.

One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor.  In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.

Sounds like something from X Men!