The Black Legend

[The Black Legend: How Lies, Jealousy, and Hatred of Spain Have Influenced World Opinion for More Than Five Hundred Years]

In order to begin to understand this complex topic, we must first settle on a working definition of the meaning of the term “Black Legend.” Let us then start with the man who coined the phrase, the Spaniard Julian Juderias, in his book, La Leyenda Negra (The Black Legend), of 1914: “(It is) The environment created by the fantastic stories about our homeland that have seen the light of publicity in all countries, the grotesque descriptions that have been made of the character of Spaniards as individuals and collectively, the denial or at least the systematic ignorance of all that is favorable and beautiful in the various manifestations of culture and art, the accusations that in every era have been flung at Spain.”

Here is a more recent definition by a Protestant American historian, Philip Wayne Powell, from his book Tree of Hate: “An image of Spain circulated through late sixteenth century Europe borne by means of political and religious propaganda that blackened the characters of Spaniards and their ruler to such an extent that Spain became the symbol of all forces of repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance and intellectual and artistic backwardness for the next four centuries. Spaniards have termed this process and the image that resulted from it as ‘The Black Legend.’ ”

Powell strongly makes the case for what he calls the “Nordic superiority complex,” giving many examples from textbooks and other writings, especially in English-speaking countries, of how these writers believe that Spaniards have shown themselves, historically, to be “uniquely cruel, bigoted, tyrannical, obscurantist, lazy, fanatical, greedy and treacherous; that they differ so much from other peoples in these traits that Spaniards and Spanish history must be viewed and understood in terms not ordinarily used in describing and interpreting other peoples.”

The Beginnings of the Black Legend

The Black Legend seems to have two basic sources: one in Europe, beginning in twelfth century Italy; the other, much later, in the writings of the Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, the Dominican Fray Bartolome de las Casas who had accompanied the Conquistadores to that country shortly after the discovery of the New World. At some point the two converge because the perpetrators of the lies in Europe struck gold when they discovered his book Brevisima Relacion de la Destruccion de Las Indias (Very Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies). We shall return to Fray Bartolome’s book later. Let us first begin with the European scene, keeping in mind that, at the time we speak of, the various European nations as we know them today did not exist.

French-Spanish Rivalry

Because of their common border, the French-Spanish rivalry antedates that of all the other European countries. They had been fighting border skirmishes for more than one thousand years. During the Middle Ages, the two countries were the great Imperial rivals of Europe. It was not until Spain’s conquest by the North African Berbers and Moors beginning in 711 that Spain was virtually closed to the rest of Europe. It took the Muslims a couple of centuries to achieve their northernmost conquest, never occupying the extreme north from Galicia on the west to Catalonia on the east, although they did achieve an incursion into southern France where they were defeated by Charles Martel in 732. The Reconquista began almost immediately in the region of Asturias (for the Christians would never give up fighting for their homeland.) France always tended to look down on her southern neighbor as a kind of an extension of North Africa, which she actually was for almost eight hundred years. We shall see that this resentment reared its ugly head in colonial times, not just with France, but with the northern countries of the Netherlands and England, over Spain’s vast territories in the New World.


During the late twelfth century, Spanish imperialism led her into the Mediterranean where she incorporated Sicily, Sardinia and Naples into her budding Empire. Spain and her immediate neighbor across the Pyrenees both had designs on conquering the Italian Peninsula. Under King Ferdinand in the 1490’s Spain demolished French ambitions in that area and upper class Spaniards began to move into Italy. Native Italians naturally resented their presence, considering themselves to be racially superior to the newcomers – after all, they were the heirs of the Roman Empire! It was a well-accepted belief that Spaniards were racially impure; they had the blood of centuries of occupation by North Africans; and Jews were known to move freely about on the Iberian peninsula during and after the Moorish occupation. They were also suspected of having “other Oriental elements” in their bloodline. Italians also hated the immoral and sensuous Borgia Pope of the time, Alexander VI, who was a Spaniard. The dawn of the sixteenth century was a time when the various European countries began to nurture nationalism, with imperialism simply a given.

Growth of the Black Legend Begins in Germany

Resentment of the Spanish Imperial Army under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the German states is of a later date and has a distinctly religious character. The Schmalkaldic War of 1546 and 1547 had Charles’ Catholic forces entering Protestant parts of Germany in an attempt to stop the spread of Luther’s heresy.  Although Charles’ forces were victorious in defeating the League of Protestant forces, the new beliefs continued to spread in this northern part of Europe.  It was due to the heroism of Charles’ son, the great Philip II, King of Spain for much of the latter part of the sixteenth century, that southern Germany remained Catholic.

The myth of “Nordic superiority” had already spread to the German states. It was accepted belief that the Spanish were a “race set apart” because of their smaller stature, darker skin, and “impure” blood. Luther exhibited violent anti-Jewish feelings; therefore, Protestant Germans were taught that Spanish blood was tainted with the blood of the Jews (and the Moors) who had lived among them for centuries. Catholic Germans were considered traitors to the Fatherland, with the ridiculous rumor being spread that Spain was planning an alliance with the Turks to attempt to subjugate the German people. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, since it was actually Spain at the forefront of European defense against the Turks. Oddly, the Frankfurt/Main area was a hotbed of propaganda production against Spain due to the great number of Jews who fled Spain and settled there after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled them from their country in 1492.

The Unique Situation of the Jews in Spain

Jews had been a part of life in Spain for many centuries. Indeed, even today, Spanish or Sephardic Jews, claiming to be descendants of King David. consider themselves purer and of higher class than the Ashkenazi Jews. The Sephardic Jews hold a tradition that their ancestors arrived in the Spanish Peninsula soon after the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C, where they founded the original capital city of Spain, Toledo. There they prospered as part of the Roman Empire in enterprises such as the slave trade, crafts, and finance. It is a fact of history that they aided the Moorish and Berber tribes from North Africa in their entrance into Spain and they flourished under the Muslim rule, some achieving high positions in the government. They began to suffer when the Arab kingdom disintegrated into many squabbling fiefs, and later, when the Christian reconquest was achieved, they began to be suspect for disloyalty to the united Catholic kingdom that Spain had become under Ferdinand and Isabella. Much of the basis for the Black Legend derives from the supposed mistreatment of Jews and Moorish peoples under the rule of Spain’s Catholic Kings.

But — What About the Inquisition?

How many times have we Catholics heard that question raised as proof of Spanish and Catholic hatred of Jews, Muslims, and heretics in general? . . . of Spanish cruelty, backwardness, and superstition? The Inquisition (or Inquisitions, as properly stated) is so misunderstood and maligned that even Catholics think they have to apologize for it. Pernicious lies about this institution are probably responsible for the greatest part of the Black Legend. There really is no excuse for this ignorance, and we need to be ready to answer this charge.

Here are a few pertinent facts about the Inquisition in general and in Spain in particular: First of all, the Inquisition (meaning simply “inquiry”) was not a Spanish invention. It actually began in France at the promulgation of the Papacy in the thirteenth century in response to the Albigensian heresy raging there. In Spain, it was begun only reluctantly by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1480. Complaints were received by the Vatican from southern Spain protesting the many heresies and immoralities introduced into Catholic doctrine by false converts from Islam (moriscos) and Judaism (marranos). In 1478, the Bishop of Osma requested Pope Sixtus IV to establish there a court of the Inquisition. Isabella at first requested the Cardinal to prepare a catechism so that the people could be more thoroughly catechized; she was loath to have the tribunal brought into the country. It was two years later, when that measure failed, that the Papal decree was promulgated.

Secondly — an important point that most people are unaware of — the Inquisition had jurisdiction only over those who claimed to be Christians. It had none over the unbaptized. The accused had a period of grace in which to repent and confess their false teaching or gross misconduct on their own accord. If this was done, only a mild penance was imposed, never a severe punishment. The object was to correct the Christian’s error so that he would return to correct doctrine and practice. The accused, if he went to court, would write out a list of all his enemies. NONE of these people were allowed to testify against him. He was given trained lawyers and had the right to disallow any judge he thought would be prejudiced against him. (Is this ever done in modern American courts?) False accusations were punished severely, and many witnesses were called to testify.

Thirdly, in the entire sixteenth century, Inquisitorial courts in Spain handed only forty to fifty persons over for execution. Compare that to the blood-lust in post-Reformation England or Revolutionary France where in a single day fifty heads fell via the guillotine!

Was torture a part of the process? Yes, but only to a minor degree. A person could be tortured for fifteen minutes and only on two occasions. Compare this, again, to the horrific tortures used in Elizabethan England against Catholics who refused to apostatize, not to mention the horrible deaths these brave Catholics suffered. Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher, Saint Oliver Plunkett and many others endured beheading, fire, hanging, disemboweling, drawing and quartering and having their corpses dragged through London and their heads displayed on pikes. Why Elizabeth had her own Catholic sister, Mary Tudor, beheaded because she was afraid of her stronger claim to the throne (She was Henry’s legitimate child, unlike Elizabeth.) Yet, she has come down in history as “good Queen Bess” and poor, mistreated Mary as “Bloody Mary.” It was even worse in poor Ireland, where Catholics were hunted down like animals.

Parenthetically, it must be said that many criminals in state courts purposely committed blasphemy so that they could be tried in the more lenient and fairer courts of the Inquisition!

Lastly, the use of the courts of Inquisition in Spain actually prevented the terrible religious wars that France and Germany endured where thousands of Catholics and Protestants died, the land was laid waste, and Christianity was split asunder. To be Spanish was to be Catholic, and the Inquisition there was the instrument by which this was accomplished.

The Power of the Printed Word

How were these lies of the Black Legend proliferated so thoroughly? The printing press. When Ferdinand and Isabella decided in 1492 that it was necessary to expel Spain’s Jews in order to keep the Faith pure, many of them eventually made their way to countries where the new heresies were taking hold. Some of them went into the printing business, and being discontented with their expulsion from Spain, made good use of the press to spread lies about Spain.

Enter Fray Bartolome de las Casas. At this same time, Spain’s explorers and conquistadores were founding and settling new lands on the other side of the globe. To the islands of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America were sent soldiers and conquerors, yes, but with each military expedition there were numerous priests and brothers. Isabella was a fervent Catholic, and when she was told about the savages in the new lands, her first thought was for the salvation of their souls. For this to happen, they must be taught the Faith and then baptized into it. Dominicans, Franciscans and later, Jesuits willingly gave of themselves – and in many cases, of their lives – to convert the Indians to Catholicism. (See my review of the book Black Robes in Paraguay for the heroic story of the Jesuit missionaries in South America.)

Fray Bartolome was to become the bishop of Chiapas, Mexico. It was the law of the crown not to enslave the natives, but many merciless and greedy overseers, an ocean away away from the homeland, mistreated the Indians and enslaved them. Fray Bartolome took up the cause of their physical freedom and freedom from forced conversions. It was his belief that the Indians were pure and noble in their natural state. Yes, when it came to the Indians, there was a tendency toward Pelagianism with Las Casas. With zeal for his cause, he wrote a book, Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies, and had it printed in Sevilla in 1552. account he gave, however, was an exaggerated and distorted image of the extent of the abusive treatment of the Indians with no consideration of the complete picture. Needless to say, the enemies of Spain in northern Europe took full advantage in printing and disseminating this unfortunate picture. In the words of Bishop David Arias in his book Spanish Roots of America, “the Brief Relation has been used to engender the so-called ‘Black Legend’ by anti-Catholic writers and anti-Spanish political forces from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries when Spain was still a world power. The nobility of the goal pursued in the book does not justify the use of improper means.”

Later, ridiculous pictures of so-called Indians being horribly tortured and killed were added to his book by printers who had never seen American Indians and portrayed them as plump northern Europeans! No matter, the damage of the Black Legend was added to, increasing the hatred of things Spanish and Catholic.

King Philip II of Spain

If any one person could be said to be the object of the Black Legend it was Philip II. Born in 1527, the terrible year of the sack of Rome by the troops of his father, Emperor Charles V – many of them, by the way, Protestant German mercenaries – Philip ruled Spain from the time he was made Regent at the age of sixteen until his death in the penultimate year of the century, 1598. Philip’s life was so filled with personal sorrows, terrible defeats, and amazing victories that it almost seems impossible that one person could endure a lifetime filled with such heavy responsibilities, tragedy, and triumph.

Spain was at the height of her power during the sixteenth century, with her far-flung colonial Empire stretching from the New World all the way across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands (named after him). He made every attempt to adhere to his great-grandparents’ wishes in converting the natives to the true Faith, and for the most part, succeeded. Not only was he king of Spain, but also of the Low Countries to which he had a claim through his father who was born in Flanders, and later in life, of Portugal, to which he had a claim through both his mother and his first wife, Maria.

By the time he was fifty years old, he had lost nine of his loved ones — his mother, father, first wife, Maria, their son Don Carlos, his second wife Mary Tudor (whom he married hoping to keep England Catholic), his third wife, Isabel, his sons Laurencio and Fernando, and his bastard brother Don Juan of Austria, the hero of the Battle of Lepanto. To make matters worse, in several of those cases, Philip was accused by enemies of taking a hand in their deaths. Don Carlos, his first child, was a deformed boy whose intelligence level was low. In addition, he was prone to fits of temper and melancholy, dangerous to himself and others. While the King did have him under a sort of house arrest for his own and others’ safety, he did not poison him, as was whispered about in some courts of Europe. Don Carlos died a very holy death in his confinement, gazing at the Crucifix and seemingly happy to be departing from the misery of his earthly life.

As far as his brother Don Juan, Philip genuinely loved him. When he was assigned by the King to keep the peace in the Low Countries, long after his zenith as the hero of Lepanto, he languished, hating the climate and feeling out of his element. He eventually caught a fever and died at the young age of thirty-three. He, too, died in the bosom of the Church.

All these rumors, this hatred and jealousy of this magnificent king, whose main desire was to rule his kingdom in justice and keep all parts of it Catholic during terrible times, were calumnies hurled by those who hated the true Faith and who were trying their best to make Spain and Philip look backward, superstitious, and primitive.

When in his later years, he began to work on the monumental Escorial, the palace/monastery/mausoleum whose design was based on the descriptions of Solomon’s Temple, where he would spend his later years and eventually find his final rest, he was roundly criticized all over Europe for building such a dark and foreboding complex — obviously reflecting the darkness of his personality and his state of mind. One of his American anti-Catholic historian critics, Francis Parkman, had this to say: “In the middle of the sixteenth century, Spain was a tyranny of monks and inquisitors, with their swarms of spies and informers, their racks, their dungeons and their fagots crushing all freedom of thought and speech; and, while the Dominican held his reign of terror and the deeper Jesuit guided the mind from infancy into those narrow depths of bigotry from which it was never to escape … the mistress of the Indies Spain swarmed with beggars. Yet, verging on decay, she had an ominous and appalling strength. The mysterious King Phillip II in his den in the Escorial, dreary and silent, and bent like a scribe over his papers was the type and the champion of arbitrary power. More than the Pope himself, he was the head of Catholicity. In doctrine and in deed, the inexorable bigotry of Madrid was ever in advance of Rome.

“The monk, the inquisitor, and the Jesuit were lords of Spain – sovereigns of her sovereign, for they had formed the dark and narrow mind of that tyrannical recluse.” He goes on to call Spain a “citadel of darkness” unlike France where the “leaven of the Reform was working.” Just who is the bigot here? And Parkman was only one of many such writers who painted Spain and Philip in such an ominous manner. In truth, Philip was a fun-loving, generous, and doting husband and father who loved the, but abhorred the ostentation of the northern courts of Europe. Except on ceremonial occasions, he always wore a severe black suit. Philip thanked God for his crosses and sorrows, even after the defeat of the Invincible Armada by England in 1588. His attitude was that God was in control and worked in His own way, even when the Catholic cause suffered.

Philip’s greatest mistake was trusting Elizabeth of England. This sick woman allowed herself to be controlled by William Cecil and his cohorts, including the evil William of Orange who was Cecil’s partner in crime in the Low Countries — as William Thomas Walsh writes in his monumental work, Philip II: “These men were not interested so much in bringing the Protestant Reform to England. They were representatives of a deeper, darker worldwide conspiracy. The end of Catholicism in England via the Revolt was simply a means to an end.” For a wonderfully complete picture of Europe at this time and of Philip and Spain in particular, every Catholic should take on this long but most enjoyable and educational book.

The Black Legend in America

The above-mention “historian” is certainly not the only English-speaking writer who has perpetuated the Black Legend. The Protestant American historian, Philip Wayne Powell, in his book Tree of Hate mentions a number of English writers who have followed the same line. These authors have polluted the minds of generations of English-speaking students. Here are a few illustrations: It is common in American textbooks to extol the nobility of purpose of English colonists while Spaniards who came to the New World are contemptuously called cruel, greedy seekers after gold. Englishmen are “homebuilders” and “settlers” who were willing to make the new land their home, while the Spanish are described as “seeking their fortunes” while enslaving and murdering the natives. The truth is actually quite the opposite. It was the English who saw the native Americans as enemies and tried to exterminate them. (Indeed, their policies were carried on by the American government when they expelled the Indians from their ancestral lands and resettled them on “reservations.” This problem is, sadly, still with us today.)

The Spanish conquistadores brought first priests, then their women, to their settlements in the New World. Their primary aim was to bring the Faith to the savage natives — many of whom engaged in horrific practices toward their fellow men, such as human sacrifice, mutilation, enslavement, and cannibalism. In North America they founded hundreds of settlements in California, across the Southwest, Texas and the Southeast. Many Spanish soldiers intermarried with the Indian women, thus creating a new race – that of the mestizos (meaning “mixed”), who populate much of Latin America and Mexico today. What happened to these peaceful and prospering villages on our continent where the natives were not only taught the Faith, but skills and trades by which they could earn a living and live in peace with one another? The vast part of them was destroyed by the English, the natives killed and their priests murdered in brutal ways. It was not only the Iroquois who were interested in killing Catholic missionaries!

A glance at a typical American history elementary or high school textbook begins with the discovery of America by Columbus (a good Catholic, by the way), in the name of the Spanish crown, and covers the conquest of Mexico and Peru. Is anything ever said about the peaceful Spanish settlements in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, for example? No, the Spanish seem to drop off the face of North America and English American colonial history suddenly takes over.

A Word About Francisco Franco

While the scope of this article does not include the history of modern Spain, mention should be made of General Franco, who in the modern mind is almost universally maligned as a “fascist” dictator. That, too, is a victory for the lie of the Black Legend. While Franco was certainly what we would call a “right-winger,” he had no use for real fascists like Hitler or Mussolini. In fact, Hitler hated him because he was so difficult to deal with. Franco’s aim was to keep both Communism and fascism and the oncoming conflict between them out of Spain. The Spanish Civil War was not a war of the “good” Republicans versus the “bad” fascists. It was a war for the Catholic soul of Spain, which Franco succeeded in keeping after the victory, though at a terrible cost to the Spanish people. Unfortunately, today Spain has chosen the socialist path.

Yes, the Black Legend lives on. During her Golden Age under Philip II and beyond, Spain produced some of the greatest art and literature the world has known. Her Empire was the first of which it could be said “the sun never sets on the Spanish Empire.” She Catholicized two entire continents during that time and helped to keep much of northern Europe from going into heresy. Her legacy is one of achievement and nobility, and that is a fact that should be better known.