The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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PIUS V (GHISLIERE)
AT the time of Pius IV's death, France was in the throes of civil war, and too absorbed with her own
difficulties to take a very active interest in the coming conclave. Philip II, confident of his hold over the
Holy See, no longer attached a very great importance to the personality of the Pontiff; and the Emperor
having no subjects or vassals in the conclave was naturally without influence in the Sacred College. The
different factions somehow seemed less clearly defined, less compact. Caraffa's execution had left his
uncle's creatures leaderless; Farnese was losing his hold; d'Este, growing old and superseded by his young
nephew, was definitely on the shelf and was now known as the Cardinal of Ferrara. The only man of
outstanding personality and influence was undoubtedly Carlo Borromeo, the late Cardinal-Nephew. He was
an honest, virtuous, narrow-minded man of unmistakable sincerity. Official chief of a large group of
followers, his personal prestige was too great to be withstood in such a drifting assembly, and it soon
became clear that no serious opposition would be made to any candidate he selected.
Farnese and Ferrara, the erstwhile foes, exchanged civilities and matrimonial projects for their families,
which were not intended to materialise, but merely expressed mutual goodwill and a cessation of hostilities.
From a print in the British Museum
Borromeo's first nomination was Morone. This appeared a strange choice, as Morone was decidedly in the
bad books of the Inquisition, of which Borromeo was a zealous advocate, but he had been Morone's
subordinate in Milan and had a profound admiration for that prelate's character and learning. Farnese
disapproved of him, however, on the grounds that he had once been Carpi's fortunate rival in some love
affair, and Carpi was Farnese's most intimate friend. Nor was Ferrara any more agreeable to his election as
years before, when legate at Bologna, Morone had sided with that city against Ferrara in some trifling
dispute concerning a water conduit. These two [p. 100] worthies, therefore, put their heads together, and
realising that they were not sufficiently powerful to prevent Morone's election by ordinary means, decided
to resort to others better fitted to the circumstances. They called on Borromeo, and feigning qualms of
conscience appealed to his strictly orthodox convictions against a man suspected of liberal tendencies. The
leader, who had never before experienced the intricacies of electoral intrigues and who was himself too
straightforward to suspect his colleagues' sincerity, at once deferred to their scruples, and discarding
Morone, substituted Alessandrino, whose rigid principles were unimpeachable. This cardinal, whose
patronymic was Ghisliere, was the son of a veterinary surgeon, and in his childhood had been employed as a
scullion in a Dominican convent. His industry and religious fervour had attracted the attention of the monks,
who admitted him to their order at the age of fourteen. His excessive zeal in the cause of the Inquisition had
brought him to the notice of Paul IV, who conferred upon him an important post in the Holy Office and the
cardinal's hat. Although he led a very retired life, the members of the Sacred College were well aware of his
virulent fanaticism. Farnese and Ferrara therefore gasped with horror at the suggestion; but they were hoist
with their own petard. They could not possibly take exception to Ghisliere on religious grounds, and they
knew Borromeo would be moved by no others. They now sorely regretted their objection to Morone, and the
causes of their animosity against him seemed indeed insignificant compared with those that governed their
feelings for Ghisliere. Desperately they sought for an escape from the trap, and Farnese hit on the idea of
begging Borromeo to accept the pontifical dignity himself; but the future St. Charles' ambitions were not of
this world and he firmly declined the honour.
The Sacred College was swept with a wave of apprehension when the name of the new candidate became
known. So fearful were the cardinals of appearing remiss that there was a positive rush towards Ghisliere's
cubicle. Never did hysterical panic so successfully ape enthusiasm as on January 10th, 1566, when the
Cardinal of Alessandrino became Pius V.
Consternation was great in the Papal States at the election of a Pontiff of so forbidding a
reputation—especially among the hordes of mendicant friars who infested Rome and the provinces. They
well [p. 101] knew that the dreaded command to return to their monasteries and conform to the ascetic rules
of their Orders would be the new Pope's first move, and would have to be complied with immediately. As to
the cardinals they would be driven not, alas! to a more virtuous life, but to the semblance of it, thereby being
compelled to add hypocrisy to the long list of their failings. Good times and a care-free existence were
definitely at an end.
Nor were the foreign monarchs any more satisfied. They knew Pius V for an uncompromising upholder of
papal supremacy and ecclesiastical prerogatives.
Trained in the pitiless school of the Inquisition, the new Pontiff was inaccessible to compassion. The sight of
the most terrible tortures, the cries of agonised humanity left him unmoved. Habit had inured him against
sensibility of any sort, and his elevation to the Apostolic See could only mean a renewed impetus to the
activities of the Holy Office. He was devoid of any of those weaknesses of the flesh which might have been
a point of contact with his fellow creatures. He led the life of an anchorite—was incorruptible and sincere.
He was convinced that he had been sent to regenerate mankind and extirpate evil, and was always on the
alert to detect signs of it. He held all humanity in suspicion, always ready to pounce on its real or supposed
frailties.Wearing a hair shirt himself, he considered physical pain the normal means of benefiting the soul.
He has been accused of having taken a sadistic delight in inflicting and witnessing the excruciating torments
practised on his helpless victims, but it is far more likely that they produced no reaction whatever on his
petrified feelings. He was the monomaniac of forcible salvation.
Pius V had thoroughly disapproved of his predecessor, and showed his contempt for his memory by
reversing the findings of the Caraffa's trial, declaring them to have been innocent, and pursuing their
accusers and judges with relentless vindictiveness. Considering what unscrupulous villains all the Caraffa
were, it is difficult to understand what can have aroused the austere Pontiff's sympathy for them. He was
doubly illogical: firstly in vindicating such notorious malefactors, and secondly in invalidating the judgment
of Pius IV, who approved of their execution; thus denying his predecessor the universal infallibility he so
confidently claimed for himself. He shared Paul IV's arrogant self-assurance to the full, and was very [p.
102] apt to interfere in lay matters that were no concern whatever of his. Even Philip II, who had gained his
esteem and approval by the zeal with which he encouraged the burning of his subjects suspected of heresy
and the slaughter of Jews and Mussulmans in his dominions, had to remind the Pope pretty sharply that he
was quite capable of managing his own affairs.
With Maximilian he was on frankly bad terms. There had been a dispute between the Dukes of Florence and
Ferrara about some question of precedence which had been submitted to the arbitration of the Emperor.
Without waiting for the monarch's decision, Pius issued a bull deciding the matter in favour of the Medici
and concluding with this surprising argument:
In virtue of the supreme authority with which we are invested and which gives us the right to
distribute titles to princes, in the same way as our first father Adam received from God the power to
name the animals!
His subjects, naturally, came in for an overwhelming amount of spiritual solicitude. He forbade doctors to
attend patients who had not confessed within three days. Blasphemy was punished by heavy fines for the
wealthy and flogging for the poor. The Papal States were overrun with spies and informers, even the
mentally deficient being subjected to examinations on their orthodoxy and condemned to the rack for their
drivellings. Christian love and charity were sadly at a discount in all pontifical procedures. The commander
of the small force which Pius sent to assist the French Catholics was instructed by him to take no Huguenot
prisoners but to slay them all on the spot.
In his hatred for England, Pius urged Philip II to take command of an expedition against that heretical
country, which would, he said, be the most glorious of all crusades. He offered practical assistance by
authorising the King to make use of all the revenues due to the Holy See in the Spanish realm, and if the sum
was still insufficient the gold chalices were to be melted down and all treasures taken from the churches. But
Philip had no men to spare just then even for so admirable a purpose. His armies were fighting in the
Netherlands, and the Moors, having risen as a result of the incessant vexations they were subjected to, were
giving a good deal of trouble in Southern [p. 103] Spain. England would therefore have to wait her turn of
The Pope was more fortunate in his attempts to form a league with Venice to fight the Turks who had
attacked Cyprus. He sent several caravels to join the Spanish and Venetian fleets combined under the
command of Don Juan of Austria. They made an imposing array of over 250 vessels, without counting the
convoys. Most of the Italian princes had provided men and the force was well armed and disciplined. The
Turks had a superior number of galleys but their weapons consisted mainly of bows and arrows, inefficient
against armour. The fighting was terrific. The galley slaves begged for their liberty to join in the fray and
fought like demons. They liberated their Christian fellow-sufferers in the Turkish vessels, who turned on
their captors and considerably hastened the victorious issue of the battle. The sea, says the chronicler, was
dyed with blood for leagues around, but the Cross was definitely triumphant over the Crescent, and Don
Juan became the most popular hero in Christendom. This signal victory naturally gave Pius V intense
satisfaction; all the bells in Rome were rung in jubilation and commands issued for public rejoicings.
The persistent anxiety shown by the great majority of popes during the XVth and XVIth centuries to
organise crusades against the Turks was not always the result of unadulterated religious zeal. Venice had
long been at war with the Ottoman Empire, who stood in the way of her expansion in the East, and the
various Italian States, secretly jealous of her wealth and power, had complacently watched the struggle
without ever lifting a finger to help her. When in 1479, the Republic having exhausted her supplies signed
peace with Mahomet II, it left the Sultan at liberty to turn his attention to the Peninsula. His fleet besieged
and captured Otranto, which his troops occupied for over a year. When news reached the Vatican that
Mahomet had sworn "by the only God, to forsake sleep, to abstain from the taste of delicate food or the
touch of beautiful things" till he had trodden underfoot the idol of the Christians (the Pope) and stamped out
Christian iniquity, then anxiety gave way to panic at the Pontifical Court. The Sultan's sudden death a
couple of years later relieved the situation of its most immediate terrors, but the alarm had been a sharp one
and danger still lurked in the background. The complete routing of the dreaded foe was therefore a cause of
[p. 104] very special jubilation to Italy; but nothing could dispel the gloom which brooded over the Papal
States, where every man, woman and child lived in constant fear. The Turkish menace seemed very remote
compared to that of the Inquisition.
For a few months more this blight endured, then the Pope fell seriously ill. The despot who had made the
sacraments compulsory for the sick had to forgo this ultimate viaticum himself, as the narcotics administered
to him for the purpose of allaying his sufferings rendered him unconscious: a more merciful end than that
meted out to the unfortunate victims of his fanaticism.
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