Jude Law will don the ceremonial papal gown this Sunday (January 15) and take up his new position as The Young Pope in HBO’s new drama, which imagines an American bishop leading The Vatican as Pope Pius XIII. His will be a controversial investiture, but it pales to nothing compared to some of the true masters of papal bad behavior, whose exploits are still revolting, even with the benefit of more than 1,000 years of hindsight.
Naturally, we have examples to back up such a damning claim, but it’s worth noting that with a constantly fomenting struggle for power in Rome, accusations of immorality were often made by a pontiff’s rivals to justify their own actions to secure the throne, and as such, are difficult to verify.
That said, there are clearly some Popes whose actions were less than holy, being far closer to the Roman emperors of the pre-Christian era than the moral leaders one might expect today.
Here are six of the most infamously, least morally-impressive Popes history has recorded:
Boniface VIII (1294–1303)
The papal office, in medieval times, was treated much like that of a king — the pontiff could even lead armies into battle. Boniface was a particularly enthusiastic warrior. He decreed that “every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff,” and set out to sack the cities of any leader who disagreed, such as Palastrina, whose 6,000 citizens died in the attack. When not waging war, Boniface liked to sell off privileges and land belonging to the church, taking the money for himself. This crime, called simony, saw him placed in the eighth circle of hell, according to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Alexander VI (1492–1503)
Alexander (born Rodrigo Borgia) was the first member of the infamous Spanish Borgia family — a surname closely associated with political scandal and libertine behavior — to take up the papacy. As such, he took a surprisingly liberal view to the vows of his office. He’d throw huge Bacchanalian parties of the sort you’d normally associate with 1970s rock stars. And he had many affairs with many mistresses, one of whom gave him a son, Cesare, whose battle for political power was a direct model for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Alexander may also have fathered another child with his own daughter, Lucrezia, and was entirely comfortable throwing rich members of his congregation in jail (under false charges), or murdering them in order to seize their assets.
Urban VI (1378–1389)
This Pope was less concerned with the pleasures of his own flesh and more into the displeasures of other people’s. While acknowledged for his frugality and simple tastes, Urban was a vengeful, angry man who — having arrested a gang of plotting cardinals and had them tortured — complained that he could not hear enough screaming. Ludwig Pastor said of him: “He lacked Christian gentleness and charity. He was naturally arbitrary and extremely violent and imprudent, and when he came to deal with the burning ecclesiastical question of the day — that of reform — the consequences were disastrous.”
Stephen VI (896-897)
Even death wouldn’t be the end if a particular Pope wanted to properly humiliate a rival. Stephen had the corpse of Formosus — his immediate predecessor — exhumed and put on trial. Having been found guilty, the dead body was stripped of all papal finery, the three fingers used to make blessings were cut from its right hand, and the remains were dressed in normal clothes and buried. Then re-exhumed and thrown in the river Tiber. Not that it did Stephen any good. He was later seized and imprisoned, and his successor, Romanus, ordered his death by strangulation.
Benedict IX (1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048)
As the dates above show, Benedict is the only Pope whose investiture was interrupted twice, and his reasons for coming and going weren’t always the purest. During a turf war for supremacy, he was driven from his throne by rivals — Bishop Benno of Piacenza accused him of “many vile adulteries and murders” — who elected the antipope Sylvester III in his stead. Having regained control the following year with the help of Emperor Conrad II, he was then bribed to resign, naming Gregory VI as his successor. But almost immediately, Benedict began a campaign to regain his old job. In all the chaos, a special council declared Clement II Pope in 1047, but when Clement died a year later (possibly poisoned by lead sugar), this gave Benedict the chance stake a third claim. Driven back by German forces in 1048, he was later excommunicated.
Pope John XII (955-964)
John was an unpleasant character even by the standards of some of the other men in this list. A council lead by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in 963 accused John of drinking toasts to the devil, raping female pilgrims in St Peter’s, converting the Lateran Palace into a brothel, castrating and murdering a subdeacon, stealing church offerings and calling on pagan gods while gambling. He was deposed, but soon returned for a grisly final year, maiming and torturing anyone he suspected of having taken part in his downfall. John’s death was oddly fitting: he was attacked by a man with the dubious distinction of being one of the only people in history who could say he had just caught the Pope in bed with his wife.
I guess we’ll see how HBO’s fictional pontiff compares these real life scoundrels.
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