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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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BENEDICT XIII (ORSINI)

1724—1730

 

ENGLAND
George I
1727
George II

FRANCE
Louis XV

GERMANY
Charles VI

SPAIN
Philip V

CONCLAVE fever was endemic in Rome, few residents if any escaping at least a touch of the infection. Walton indeed succumbed to a severe attack. It irked him as a loyal Hanoverian to see the Pretender enjoying a well-nigh royal position in Rome and being received at the Vatican with every mark of deference and cordiality. Though known to foreigners in general as the "Chevalier de St. Georges", he was styled "Majesty" by his partisans, of whom Pope Clement XI had certainly been one. The Regent d'Orléans had got rid of his embarrassing guest as he had got rid of the Jesuits. They were all unwelcome legacies of Louis XIV's régime and out of place at the Regent's court.

If a pope could be found who also realised how anachronistic the Stuart claims now were, it would be a signal triumph for King George's agent in Rome. He therefore applied to headquarters for funds and prepared to take a hand at the game, thus creating a new and refreshing diversion for the electors, from the stale and traditional setting with which they were all too familiar. France's attitude of detachment added considerably to Walton's hope of success, as her Ambassador in Rome was declaring openly that his government took no interest in the personality of the new pontiff, for whatever his disposition might be, France had it in her power to bend him to her will. It was indispensable for Walton to secure a confederate in the Sacred College, and after mature reflection, he settled on Alberoni, the erstwhile Spanish minister, who was a free lance and in urgent need of money. Alberoni's whitewash was still so recent that most of his colleagues feared to come in too close contact with him. He had managed, however, to ingratiate himself with the Zelanti by affecting a pious remorse for his past misdeeds, and Walton considered he could not do better than bribe such a shrewd, resourceful man to act in the Hanoverian interests.

Pope Benedict XIII
BENEDICT XIII
From a print in the British Museum
   
Having made an exhaustive study of the tactics successfully [p. 238] employed in former conclaves, the conspirators laid their plans accordingly. They decided to ignore one another in public and to keep their good understanding a close secret from prying eyes. Furthermore, Alberoni was to ingratiate himself with the Pretender, gain his confidence and publicly pay him the most assiduous court. Their candidate would naturally have to be chosen from among the Zelanti, and Alberoni strongly recommended Imperiali, on whose acquiescence in Walton's conditions he could rely, and who had friends in other parties beside his own.

As the last Pontiff had only appointed two cardinals, Albani remained at the head of an important following, and Alberoni immediately set about obtaining his support—but although not opposed to Imperiali's candidature, Albani was averse to taking any decision before the arrival of his French colleagues, and only gave an evasive reply. As soon as the conclave had assembled Walton, in his inexperience, began to press for an immediate election, and Alberoni, equally eager and over-confident, conceived the scarcely delicate notion of using the Pretender himself as a tool to bring about the election of his enemy's candidate. He actually induced the simple-hearted James to write to the King of Spain begging him to exert all his influence in favour of Imperiali. But by this unscrupulous device Alberoni completely overreached himself, the schemers themselves falling into the trap they had laid for their trusting victim. Their activities had not been nearly so well concealed as they imagined, and when this treacherous manœuvre became known all those, both within and without the conclave, who had nothing to gain by Imperiali's election or were opposed to it, raised a howl of righteous indignation at such unheard-of villainy—and Imperiali's chances vamshed like smoke.

On April 20th, a month after the Sacred College had assembled, Cardinal de Rohan arrived from Versailles, and Albani congratulated himself on having kept aloof from Walton's intrigues; for the French leader had the most pleasing proposal to put before him, being no less than an offer to raise his cousin the Jesuit Olivieri to the papal throne!

Albani was exultant, and hastened to draw up an agreement which was immediately signed by all parties concerned, the election being arranged to take place almost at once. But here again the stealthy, [p. 239] insidious secret service proved itself obnoxiously efficient. Within a few hours a copy of the convention was obtained and circulated among the electors. As it was all too favourable to the interests of France and of the Albanis, the imperialists sounded the alarm and were soon joined by all Albani's personal enemies, the most prominent of whom was Cardinal Spinola. This prelate, as spokesman of the party, openly reproached Albani with selling the Holy See to France. The dispute degenerated from home-truths to insults and threats, and ended in blows. Orsini, brandishing a crucifix, attempted in vain to separate the pugilists, getting a liberal share of bruises for his trouble; but where he had failed, Pamphili with a few jugs of cold water was more successful.

Spinola's ardour might be damped but it continued to smoulder, and he would not let matters rest, insisting on an enquiry being made, the result of which proved conclusively that the Jesuits in Vienna, Madrid and Paris had been busily at work to secure their brother-members' election. Notes were discovered signed by Olivieri whereby he made the most questionable promises to France, to Albani and to the General of the Society of Jesus. As most of the electors were inimical to at least one member of this unpopular trio, Spinola had no difficulty in disposing with complete finality of the Jesuit candidates' aspirations.

Such discord now reigned in the conclave, there were such perpetual rows and altercation, that Rohan, who had a gentle disposition and hated scenes, applied for a few days' leave to get a change of air, hoping that by the time he returned the effervescence would have subsided. Being himself only mildly interested in the election, he longed to get away from his fussy and irascible colleagues and mix with ordinary courteous human beings once more. But to his dismay he found the state of affairs in Roman society an exact replica of that in the Sacred College. The lay world was a prey to the same excitement, and seething with the same intrigues—there seemed no escape from the tiresome business, so Rohan determined to bring it to a conclusion as soon as possible, and to that end secured a private interview with Prince Albani, the Cardinal's brother, who had a plan to submit to him.

There happened to be among the conclavists a man called Coscia, who had obtained a tremendous ascendancy over his patron the [p. 240] ardent and mystic Orsini. Coscia was the son of a modest painter of Benevento, a small health resort where Orsini had once been to take a cure. He had lodged with the Coscia family, who had lavished attentions on him, and to make some return for their kindness and solicitude he had taken their son into his service. Now the gossips had it, it was Orsini who was in Coscia's service. To the long list of his self-inflicted penances he had, so they said, added that of waiting on his conclavist hand and foot! It seemed a certainty that, if Orsini became Pope, Coscia would reign, and Coscia had made friends with the Albani. The Dominicans having always been the bitterest enemies of the Jesuits, Orsini as a member of their Order might expect to gather round him all Olivieri's antagonists; and added to Albani's creatures his following should certainly secure for him the necessary majority of votes.

Rohan raised no objection, and Prince Albani having given him a signed assurance that French interests would not be overlooked the prelate returned to the Vatican much relieved at the prospect of an immediate election.

Scarcely had a settlement been reached between himself, Albani, and Coscia than an unrehearsed incident brought matters to a head and saved the French leader any further exertions.

Cienfugos, the Jesuit Cardinal Patron of the imperialists, had not abandoned all hope of leading his party to victory. He planned to carry off the election of his candidate Piazzi by a bold nocturnal attack, and to this purpose had convened all his followers to a secret midnight meeting. The place of assignation he had chosen was the cell of Cardinal Tanari, who had just died and whose body had only been removed that morning. Unfortunately for Cienfugos, one of the late cardinal's servants, worn out with fatigue, had curled himself up behind a heap of packages and fallen asleep. The movements of the conspirators woke him—he listened attentively, heard every word they said; and as soon as they had dispersed to carry out their leader's orders, he rushed to Albani's cell with the story. Albani leapt out of bed, roused his adherents and there ensued one of those mêlées in the semi-darkness of the conclave of which we have already witnessed many examples. Insults, blows, imprecations, prayers and comic by-play, the scene conformed to type; but Orsini, who attempted as he had done before to thrust himself and his crucifix between the belligerents, found to his amazement that he was being surrounded, swept off his feet, whisked away to the chapel and elected Pope before he had had time to say as much as an Ave Maria.

Accepting the crown as he would have accepted any other act of God and still clasping his crucifix, he received the homage of the Sacred College, adopting the name of Benedict. As he regarded Peter de Luna as canonical Pope he styled himself at first Benedict XIV, but was prevailed upon to alter the numeral to XIII to avoid profitless discussions.

Benedict's attitude of self-abasement was naturally ascribed to hypocrisy by those who were inconvenienced by its manifestations. He certainly caused considerable embarrassment to the officials in charge of the ceremonies connected with his enthronement by introducing personal touches into the ritual. For instance, he prostrated himself at the door of St. Peter's, to kiss the stone floor, an innovation which completely upset the routine of the ceremonial; the cortège of cardinals having no idea whether they should do likewise or stand about till Benedict rose. The crowd behind, who thought the Pontiff had collapsed, pushed and pressed to get a better view of the incident, causing many accidents and much confusion. Then again, he refused to be carried in the sedia gestatoria but insisted on walking through the basilica. The bearers of the empty palanquin, completely nonplussed as to the position they should take up in the procession, started a lively squabble, some being determined to go forward and others insisting on going back, the consequence being a most unedifying and unseemly hubbub. There seems no reason whatever to doubt the sincerity of Benedict XIII's religious fervour. His conduct as Pontiff bears it out in every way. He knew nothing of worldly matters and, as Coscia had expected, left the management of such affairs entirely to him and to the State officials. When consulted on any but ecclesiastical subjects he invariably replied, "Do as you think best—I know nothing about it—I will pray God to guide you".

He confined himself entirely to the settling of clerical problems and issued numerous edicts regarding the regulation of ecclesiastical functions, the vestments to be worn at the different ceremonies and disciplinary measures affecting the clergy. If any objection was raised to these seemingly unnecessary innovations he would refuse ever to discuss them, invariably threatening to abdicate.

His health was bad, he slept but little, ate even less and wore himself out with fasting and maceration of the flesh. He had wished to remain in the Vatican, having no personal fears of malaria, but seeing the consternation of his entourage and probably urged to do so by Coscia, he consented to take up his abode in the Quirinal. To Walton's despair he made much of the Pretender, on whom he bestowed a yearly allowance of 18,000 crowns; but the Hanoverian agent countered this irritating set-back by purchasing the services of a cardinal under whose political guidance the Stuart prince had placed himself unreservedly. Walton also made a suitable present to Coscia, who was now all-powerful, and whose first move had been to fit himself with a cardinal's hat. As to Alberoni he was distinctly out of favour with Benedict, who was so scandalised at his wearing a wig that he refused to renew the pecuniary grants made to the exile by his predecessor. Benedict treated the Jesuits as a Dominican naturally would, his hostility being only slightly tempered by Christian charity. Considering the reactionary bent of his disposition, the concordat which he drew up with the King of Sardinia was surprisingly liberal, and he also abolished the tribunal of the Inquisition, an unexpected step for a member of his order to have taken. So strongly did the Pontiff disapprove of games of chance that, having forbidden all betting, he ordered any gambler caught red-handed to be packed off at once to the galleys. He took no notice whatever of his relatives, but unfortunately Coscia's depredations and abuse of power equalled anything ever perpetrated under the régime of nepotism. He took full advantage of the Pope's confidence and simple-mindedness to oppress and despoil his subjects, and richly deserved the hatred and execration which he reaped.

Weak and old as he was, Benedict insisted on officiating at the funeral of Cardinal Ansidei on a cold, wet day of February 1730, and there caught the chill from which he died a few days later, his last hours being in keeping with his edifying life. His restricted outlook and lack of intelligence prevented him from grasping the fact that his duties as Pontiff were concerned with the temporal as well as with the spiritual section of his office and that he was guilty of criminal negligence by allowing Coscia to act as virtual ruler of the Papal States. He noticed nothing himself and no complaints were [p. 243] ever allowed to reach him, as they only emanated from the people; the upper classes, as Giacottazzi says, "being always tolerant of those abuses which they have practised themselves, or hope to practise some day".

As the Pontiff died on a Shrove Tuesday, his death was only made public the next day, so as not to disturb the festivities and also perhaps so as to give Coscia a chance to escape the vengeance of the populace. But this miscreant was laid up at the time with an acute attack of gout and unable to avail himself of the respite, with the result that when he attempted to leave the Quirinal the mob had assembled and surrounded the building, determined to intercept his flight and give him no quarter.

He managed somehow to bribe his servants to carry him away in a pauper's coffin, the crowd uncovering respectfully as what they took to be the remains of a papal scullion passed safely through their ranks. The pseudo-corpse had just been successfully smuggled into the palace of one of Coscia's friends when the people, having scented the ruse, rushed to attack the building. Again the hunted man made a hair's-breadth escape, disguised as an old woman and supported by a couple of retainers dressed in rags. He was suffering so acutely from gout that he screamed with pain at every step he took, arousing the compassion of his pursuers, who never suspected this pitiful old female of being their longed-for quarry. The fugitive thus managed to reach a place of safety, and so as to protect his belongings from pillage and destruction, his friends had them officially confiscated and removed to S. Angelo.

A strange discovery made subsequently in the Quirinal throws a revealing light on the incredible relations existing between Benedict XIII and his confidential adviser and trusted major-domo. A bell was found fastened under the Pontiff's monastical bed, connected to Coscia's room by a rope which hung conveniently to hand from his damask tester. Benedict evidently made a pathetic attempt to put into practice the papal formula "Vicar of Christ and servant of the servants of God".

It is a matter for regret that this well-meaning and self-sacrificing visionary should have been so totally bereft of discrimination.

 Clement XI  Innocent XIII  Benedict XIII  Clement XII  Benedict XIV  Clement XIII  Clement XIV  Pius VI

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