The joke involves three insane Spanish cardinals who appear whenever someone says: "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition."
Accompanied by a jarring chord, the cardinals burst in, led by Cardinal Ximinez, who says, "NOBODY Expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
This results in many outrageous attempts to arrest people for being disloyal to the church. However, Cardinal Ximinez is held back by his inability to say what their weapons are, and his partners' sheer stupidity. All three seem to not have the ability to talk correctly. They appeared in three sketches:
"Trouble at the Mill"
It is Jarrow 1911 and a mill worker, Reg (Graham Chapman), walks into a posh parlour and tells Lady Mountback (Carol Cleveland), the lady sitting there, that there's trouble at the mill. When Reg states "I didn't expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition", the three cardinals (accompanied by a dramatic musical chord) burst into the room. They proceed to attempt to explain their weapons (fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, fanatical devotion to the pope and nice red uniforms) to the two surprised people but are unable to list them off properly. Ximinez (Michael Palin) tries at first then passes it off to Cardinal Biggles (Terry Jones) (a direct reference to James Bigglesworth, nicknamed "Biggles", a fictional pilot and adventurer, the title character and main hero of the Biggles series of youth-oriented adventure books written by W. E. Johns (1893–1968).) who has no better luck but is stopped by Ximinez part of the way through. Ximinez then tells Cardinal Fang (Terry Gilliam) to read the charges to the woman. She proclaims her innocence and they and decide to put her on the rack (which turns out to be a dish drying rack). At that point, the doorbell rings and we follow as Reg is led to another sketch by a BBC employee (John Cleese).
An old woman (Marjorie Wilde) is showing pictures to a younger lady (Cleveland) of "Uncle Ted" at various location around the house, which the younger lady proceeds to tear in half. Finally she gets to a photo containing the Spanish Inquisition and the three cardinals burst in again. There is a short segment with a narrator (Cleese) explaining about the Inquisition ending with "That makes a really smashing film". The old woman is hauled down to a dungeon and told to confess her sins. She refuses so they proceed to poke her with soft cushions. This has no effect, so they place her in the comfy chair (each "torture" proceeded by the same dramatic chord as before). Cardinal Biggles screams "I confess!!" which leads to an animation by Terry Gilliam.
In their final appearance, a judge sentences another judge to be burnt at the stake. When he says "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition", the entire courtroom looks to the witness door, obviously expecting the Spanish Inquisition. The end credits then roll as the three Cardinals rush to the courtroom from their house, arriving just in time to say, "Nobody expects the--" before "THE END" flashes across the screen, which Ximinez responds, "Oh bugger."
In a later episode, "The Buzz Aldrin Show", Ximinez appears, listing his favourite aftershave lotions. In the same episode, a chemist, after being threatened by Police Constable Pan-Am with arrest for heresy, comments, "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition," though the cardinals do not appear at this point.
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