The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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GREGORY XV (LUDOVISI)
AS the older cardinals had only too accurately surmised, Paul V outlived a large proportion of his former
colleagues, but not, strange to say, the consumptive Aldobrandini, who, however, was by now at death's
door. The conclave which met on February 8th, 1621, was to be a very short one. Borghese, the late
Cardinal-Nephew, had such an imposing cohort of followers that he considered his choice of a candidate as
good as an election. He had settled on Campori, one of his uncle's creatures who was young enough to
occupy the Holy See until he himself was sufficiently mature to step into his shoes. Borghese was well
aware that Aldobrandini's days were numbered, and hoped that the hardships of a long journey in the bitter
cold weather would either deter him from attending the conclave or put an end to his sufferings.
Montalto was now an ageing and broken man, and although he still disposed of a few stray votes, was not a
very formidable opponent. Campori, in his anxiety to gain supporters before entering the Vatican, had made
promises and offers of future benefices to several cardinals, so that his candidature was an open secret. This
gave his enemies sufficient leisure to prepare their plans for his defeat. His two principal antagonists were
the Venetian Republic and Orsini. Venice objected to him on political grounds and the Council of Ten
forbade their subjects to vote for him, threatening that in case of disobedience "they and their families would
be treated as rebels". Orsini's enmity was of a private nature. Both he and Campori had paid their addresses
to a lady of the Borghese family and she had favoured Campori.
Borghese of course was well acquainted with these facts, but his twenty-nine votes gave him complete
confidence. He only needed two or three more to reach the required majority, and as the procession of
cardinals moved towards the Vatican to enter into conclave he noted with satisfaction that Aldobrandini was
not among them, [p. 150] which meant that his few remaining followers would be leaderless and therefore
open to parley. He felt himself in a position to defy both Orsini and the Republic and strode forward with
great assurance followed by Campori who made no attempt to conceal his elation. They were both badly
shaken, therefore, when on reaching the Pauline chapel they caught sight of Aldobrandini, looking ghostly
enough certainly but unmistakably present in the flesh and closely surrounded by his five creatures.
Orsini was in command of the opposing faction. He needed two more supporters to make certain of
checkmating Borghese, and two cardinals, who had been exiled by Paul V and on whose adhesion he could
therefore rely, were due to arrive in the early hours of the morning. If he could prevent Campori's election
being carried by adoration during the night, the exclusion of his hated rival (in other fields) was a certainty.
France had no desire to see one of Paul V's creatures succeed him, so Orsini persuaded the French
Ambassador to spend the night within the precincts of the conclave, which would invalidate any election that
might take place.
When Cardinal Varese, whose duty it was to clear the premises of outsiders and close the doors, respectfully
pointed out to the French Ambassador that all his colleagues had left and that it was time he did likewise, the
diplomat replied haughtily that he would go when he pleased and not a moment sooner. On reiterated
attempts being made by Varese, he dared the prelate to interfere with His Most Christian Majesty's envoy;
so that against all regulations the doors remained open through the night. In the early hours of the morning
the two cardinals whom Orsini was expecting arrived, but before he had had time to exchange a word with
them Borghese's creatures rushed forward and attempted to drag them aside. The bewildered travellers, who
had had a long and tiring journey and knew nothing of the current events, were tugged this way and that,
being unable in the pandemonium to grasp the situation. Sforza, however, managed to enlighten them in a
few words and they declared themselves emphatically opposed to Borghese's candidate. The French
Ambassador then took his departure, and Campori, acknowledging his defeat, withdrew his candidature.
Through the good offices of Medici, a compromise was reached between all the leaders, who agreed upon
the elevation of Ludovisi [p. 151] to the Holy See. He was an aged, feeble old man and his pontificate was
not expected to last more than a few months.
The procession which moved towards the chapel to elect him must have resembled those seen at miraculous
shrines, for among the cardinals several were too ill to walk and had to be supported or carried on stretchers.
Such was the case of Ludovisi himself. Every precaution had been taken while dressing him to prevent his
swooning, for his weakness was alarming. Some others, however, were in an even more parlous condition.
Aguino, for instance, had to be hurriedly brought back to his cell where he died almost at once, while
Aldobrandini, though he managed to live through the electoral sitting, only survived it a few hours.
Ludovisi, who became Gregory XV, reigned for two and a half years and his short pontificate is one of the
most important in the history of the Church of Rome. Both the Pope and the Cardinal-Nephew had been
brought up by the Jesuits and remained devoted to their interests. Ludovico Ludovisi was a young man of
twenty-five when his uncle's accession raised him to the customary position conferring so much power and
entailing so much responsibility on its holder. He was extremely handsome, with a commanding presence,
and certainly possessed an outstanding personality added to a remarkable aptitude for statesmanship.
Historians disagree as to the respective shares taken by the uncle and the nephew in the conduct of affairs,
some ascribing all the initiative to Gregory, while others assert that he was a mere cypher, leaving the entire
burden of government to Ludovisi. However that may be, the effects of the policy adopted by the Holy See
were far-reaching. An extraordinary impetus was given to the promulgation of the Roman Catholic faith all
over the world. The Jesuits had already established important settlements in Central America and followed
everywhere in the wake of Catholic explorers. But now they themselves acted as pioneers, penetrating
boldly into the remotest and most dangerous countries such as China and unexplored parts of Asia. In Japan
they founded twenty houses; and a Jesuit at the head of a handful of soldiers practically conquered Abyssinia
though his victory bore little fruit. Of the immense number of conversions the Jesuits effected, often by
strange and questionable methods, in those distant savage lands, few had a lasting effect on the native
populations; but at the moment it [p. 152] looked as though the Pope's authority would soon encircle the
globe. Gregory showed his appreciation of the Jesuits' services by canonising Ignatius Loyola, their founder,
and Francis Xavier, who had Christianised Goa and the Portuguese Indies.
But there was also important work to be done nearer home, and as the Jesuits were not sufficiently numerous
to undertake it unaided, other orders such as the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Augustines were
enrolled as members of "The Society for the Propagation of the Faith". Hordes of them under the leadership
of Carlo Caraffa overran Germany, Austria, Hungary and even the Low Countries. Several princes and
noblemen, finding that Protestant beliefs tended to the development of socialistic principles, joined the
Church of Rome and lent all their support to the proselytisers. A tidal wave of conversions seemed to sweep
Europe, and in districts where the populations evinced reluctance to follow the movement pastors were
dismissed and their places filled by Catholic missionaries.
An important subsidy was granted by the Pope to the Emperor, and, added to the arbitrary confiscation of
much Protestant property, enabled the Crown to support the Catholic propaganda and establish it firmly in
the large areas it had reclaimed. The result of this successful coalition between the two Sovereigns was to
bring Austria to the forefront both as a European Power and as a bulwark of the Roman Church.
Whatever his share in the foreign policy of the Holy See, Gregory's bulls regarding the observance of
regulations laid down for the conclaves must have been entirely of his own devising. Although he probably
owed his elevation to the French Ambassador's disregard of those rules, he strove by his edicts to prevent a
recurrence of such flagrant abuses, going into the minutest details concerning the ceremonial to be observed,
regulations which have been adhered to ever since.
The Ludovisi attitude towards the Great Powers was one of conciliation and courtesy. James I obtained,
without conditions, the dispensation he sought for the marriage of the Prince of Wales with a Catholic
princess, a favour Paul V had refused even to consider; the result of this concession being that the Catholics
in England were treated with much more leniency and toleration. The papal envoys to the court of Madrid
were instructed to moderate the royal zeal [p. 153] and discourage religious excesses. In France, where the
Jesuits were allowed full scope for their activities, the Huguenots were reduced to a powerless and
insignificant party, and Richelieu was rewarded with the hat which he coveted so ardently.
As was natural, the interests of the house of Ludovisi were not overlooked. The family sprang from an
ancient and noble stock and Ludovico had all the pride of race of the Neapolitan aristocracy to which he
belonged. He certainly added considerably to the fortunes of his house, but he acted with tact and
circumspection, always guided by the worldly wisdom he seems to have possessed to an extent surprising in
one so young. For instance when the Catholic Valteline, which had broken away from the Protestant
Grisons, offered their allegiance to the Pontiff, either as subjects of the Holy See or to form an appanage for
his family, the proposal would have proved irresistibly tempting to most ambitious cardinal-nephews, and
ambitious Ludovico certainly was. But he had the sense to foresee the inevitable political complications such
a measure would entail, and refused the offer both for the Holy See and the Ludovisi. Considering the
corrupt times in which he lived, if he did find means of compensating his family for possessions and honours
he had forgone, can he really be blamed? Especially as owing to the Pope's precarious hold on life he knew
that his tenure of office was bound to be a short one.
More was accomplished during the two and a half years of Gregory's pontificate to restore the power and
prestige of the Apostolic See than had been done by any of his predecessors for the past 150 years; but
although the papal government had striven consistently to preserve peace among the Powers, when Gregory
XV died in July 1623 Europe was on the brink of war, and the policy and disposition of the new Pope would
have such an important influence on the trend of events that the result of the coming election could not but
be of the greatest interest to all parties concerned.
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