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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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GREGORY XV (LUDOVISI)

1621—1623

 

ENGLAND
James I

FRANCE
Louis XIII

SPAIN
Philip III
1621
Philip IV

GERMANY
Ferdinand II

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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