The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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LEO XI (MEDICI)
[p. 137] SO many members of the Sacred College were in receipt of pensions from the Spanish Crown that Clement
VIII, in an effort to counterbalance their influence at the conclave which would elect his successor, had
created a large number of cardinals. Only twenty-eight survived him; a sufficient force, however, to hold the
Spanish party in check, and even possibly to have decided the issue of the conclave if Aldobrandini, its
leader, had had the necessary experience of the complicated technique of papal elections.
Sixty-one cardinals were present at the conclave. The Spanish faction numbered twenty-five, with Avila, a
self-opinionated, quarrelsome prelate in command.
Between the two chief opposing forces hovered several smaller groups; such as the five French cardinals
headed by Joyeuse. These would certainly co-operate with the Florentines with whom Montalto had also
thrown in his lot. As soon as the conclave had settled in on March 14th Aldobrandini made his first mistake.
Without testing the temper of the assembly, or giving himself time to increase his following, he officially
declared his candidate and attempted to rush his election. His choice was in itself an open challenge to
Spain, as Baronio, his nominee, had quite lately written a book exposing the abuses of the Spanish rulers in
Sicily both in the secular and the ecclesiastical spheres. Philip III's dependants would naturally oppose the
most strenuous resistance to the elevation to the Holy See of their Sovereign's personal enemy.
Aldobrandini imagined that because the French faction was naturally antagonistic to Spain he could count on
its support. Joyeuse had certainly not been sparing of his protestations of friendship and goodwill, but his
orders were to join the Florentines in furthering the election of Cardinal de Medici, a relation both of the
Grand Duke's and of the Queen-consort of France.
As was to be expected, the mere mention of Baronio's name stung [p. 138] Avila into taking immediate
action. Aldobrandini's candidate, besides being an avowed enemy of Spain, had an alarming reputation for
austerity, and among Clement VIII's creatures many were mere pleasure-loving youths; so to them Avila
appealed, painting a ghastly picture of the life that awaited them under such a pontiff. He frightened them so
successfully that out of the twenty-eight only twenty-three voted for Baronio at the first scrutiny. The
abstention of the French prelates and the defections in the ranks of his own followers was an unexpected
blow to Aldobrandini; but he persevered stubbornly in proposing Baronio at every scrutiny.
For several days the number of votes in his favour fell and rose from twenty-three to fifteen and up again,
like the temperature chart of a feverish patient. Aldobrandini having thus thoroughly advertised the fact that
he had no hold over his own creatures, the other parties were not slow to take advantage of the situation.
France bought fifteen of his followers for cash, and most of the others yielded to various bribes, such as
promises of bishoprics, pensions and women.
Spain and Florence were also showering gold on the suffragists and Cardinal Cosenza unashamedly sold
himself to the highest bidder after a spirited auction, the purchaser being Joyeuse. Besides the money,
precious stones and benefices dispensed on such grand scale, small but delicate attentions had not been
overlooked. The Spanish Ambassador sent 500 crowns' worth of gloves and cosmetics to Cardinal Ginassi,
and Vinta, on behalf of Ferdinand, made a liberal distribution of scent and boxes of sweetmeats to the
prelates, presenting d'Este with "the specifics His Highness wished for!"
Aldobrandini, powerless to stem the tide of defection and now convinced that the Grand Duke and his
French allies were the chief culprits in sapping his authority, gathered round him his few faithful adherents
and offered his services to his opponents. Avila received him courteously enough, and accepted a
compromise on his formal assurance that Baronio's candidature would be withdrawn. In exchange the
Spanish leader agreed to lend his support to one of Aldobrandini's followers; but the choice was restricted
and the selection they made unfortunate. Aldobrandini soon realised how impossible their candidate was,
and did not even attempt to launch him. Avila, thinking he had been tricked, and resenting the cool way in
which Aldobrandini had ignored their agreement, took the first opportunity [p. 139] of challenging him
publicly to explain his behaviour. Aldobrandini was curt and sullen. The Spaniard stormed and
threatened—followers of both parties joined in the argument, which soon degenerated into a mêlée.
Conclavists attracted by the commotion took sides and threw themselves whole-heartedly into the fray.
The uproar reached such proportions that the guardians outside the closed doors thought that the Pope had
been elected by acclamation and started to break the seals. Fortunately Dietrichstein, an imperial prelate who
had held himself aloof from all factions, managed to dominate the tumult. Being a good linguist and
evidently a diplomat as well, he persuaded the belligerents that a mere misunderstanding was at the root of
the quarrel; that Avila and Aldobrandini had interpreted certain words one in the Spanish and the other in the
Italian sense, and that no one was to blame. The excitement died down and a reconciliation took place
between the two antagonists, but only a half-hearted one probably, as they never resumed their alliance.
Meanwhile the younger element of the Sacred College, and very young indeed some of its members were,
was perpetually getting into mischief in an attempt to relieve the tedium of the proceedings. They had of
course established external communications with their friends through holes in the wall; and no sooner was
one discovered and blocked up than they contrived another. Their meeting-place was in Cardinal Du
Perron's cubicle. The witty Frenchman kept them amused with spicy anecdotes and occasional frolics, and
thus obtained a great influence over them. The old Italian prelates were disapproving and censorious and
complained to Joyeuse of this unseemly merriment. To pay them out for their interference the youngsters
organised a series of pseudo adorations. Masquerading cleverly as their elders, coughing, wheezing, bent
double and assuming tremulous falsetto voices, they would break in on the slumbers of one of their aged
colleagues, dreaming perhaps of the coveted tiara, and prostrating themselves on the floor of his cell hail
him as Pontiff. When the deception had taken effect they would burst into peals of laughter, scuttle away
and disperse before their victim could recover from his emotion or identify the culprits. Another of their
pranks consisted in purloining the sticks and crutches of the cripples under cover of darkness in the chapel,
so that [p. 140] the worshippers remained marooned till their conclavists, surprised at such protracted
devotions, became suspicious and rescued their masters quivering with impotent rage. Then the young
scamps, now completely unmanageable, took to voting for one another, so that four of them, all under
twenty years of age, got several voices which sent the old cardinals, who had never had any themselves, into
paroxysms of indignation.
By March 31st Aldobrandini had so hopelessly lost control of his party that Joyeuse and Montalto
considered the moment opportune to bring Medici cautiously forward. Aldobrandini tried to warn Avila of
the impending danger, but the Spaniard would not listen to him, saying that the leaders had assured him
there was no foundation to the rumour, and that albeit they were cardinals they were also gentlemen and he
trusted them not to break their word. Although the Medicean conspirators were assured of the necessary
majority, they decided to play for safety by having recourse to a nocturnal surprise attack. They therefore
went the round of the cubicles with a lantern, declaring to the cardinals that Medici was Pope and that they
must hurry if they wished to join in the adoration. They met with little opposition until they reached Avila's
cell, which they had prudently left to the last. The fiery Spaniard abused them virulently for their duplicity
and dashed out after them half-clothed, and flourishing his stick, protested furiously in the name of His
Catholic Majesty against Medici's surreptitious election. Screaming and cursing he pursued the crowd of
cardinals, running hither and thither like a sheep-dog harrying a flock, his shrill voice actually rising above
the hubbub; till a couple of young cardinals having started to mimic him he fell back breathless but still
defiant. He entered the chapel last but one. Behind him, solitary and dejected, walked Aldobrandini. As day
broke on April 1st, 1605, Cardinal de Medici became Leo XI.
His accession was hailed with the greatest enthusiasm in Florence and Paris, and was celebrated all over
France with the utmost pomp and universal rejoicings. But the bells had scarcely ceased pealing when news
was received of the Pontiff's death. His enthronement had been a splendid and costly pageant, for Leo had
all his family's predilection for luxury and grandeur. He appeared to have an amiable and peaceful
disposition and, though rather colourless, had many friends. His death came as a great blow to Ferdinand and
to the [p. 141] French party, who had all founded great hopes on his pontificate. It was too sudden and
unexpected to be natural, his contemporaries thought, and the Grand Duke wrote to Vinta: "Move heaven
and earth to discover the cook who served Clement VIII and who remained on in Leo's employ, and who has
now disappeared". An ominous message, the sequel to which is unknown.
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