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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry VIII

Francis I


Charles V

NEVER had the Sacred College been faced with a situation of such utter penury. The Vatican furniture was pawned and a few thousand ducats borrowed from the banker Chigi to pay the soldiery, as Medici, the nephew of the late Pope, was in residence at the Vatican with a bodyguard 500 strong and the cardinals scarcely considered that force a protection to themselves. No money whatever was available for the expenses of Leo X's obsequies and so none was spent. The candles, even, were the remnants of those used at Cardinal S. Giorgio's funeral, which had taken place the previous day. Had that prelate survived a few weeks longer he would certainly have worn the crown which Leo X had wrested from him. He was immensely wealthy and far too cunning to have allowed himself to be caught in the Medicean nets as so many of his colleagues had been. He never left his palace without an armed escort of 400 men and several less powerful cardinals lived entirely under his protection. His influence at the conclave would naturally have been preponderating and he was an irreparable loss to the older party.

A reasonable delay had to be allowed for those cardinals who were abroad to reach Rome, so that the conclave assembled a few days later than it should have done. It was anything but a friendly gathering. "There cannot be so much hatred and so many devils in hell as among these cardinals", the imperial envoy informed his master, and indeed the enmity of the factions seemed unusually bitter. Although the finances of the Holy See were in such a parlous state, candidates for the Papacy were not lacking. Out of the thirty-nine cardinals who entered the conclave on December 28th fifteen were partisans of Medici and twenty-three opposed him. But amongst the latter, eighteen coveted the papal crown themselves, a state of things which would probably lead to a protracted conclave the result of which was hard to foretell. At first Medici's chances seemed to increase, but he lacked the necessary funds to rally a sufficient number [p. 56] of adherents and he had also to reckon with Soderini. During his exile Leo X's victim had had ample time to brood over his wrongs, and he had returned with such a store of hatred and such a thirst for revenge, that nothing could be more delectable to him than to thwart a Medici. His influence was great on the opposing faction and soon destroyed any chance Medici might have had of rallying any supporters from among their ranks. England had great hopes that Cardinal Wolsey's candidature would be successful. Cardinal Campeggio, who was in charge of his interests at the conclave, wrote him the most encouraging and optimistic letters, while in reality he was furthering no cause but his own, and knew perfectly well that a foreigner of Wolsey's overbearing disposition would never be even considered as "papabile" by the Sacred College. Much against his will Leo X had given him the hat. It had been a duel of wits between the two men and Wolsey had won, but Cardinal Bainbridge had made the English very unpopular in Rome and Wolsey's reputation was not calculated to improve matters.

The Emperor Charles favoured Adrian Florent, his former tutor; he was not attending the conclave and the cardinals knew nothing about him except that he was Flemish by birth and Charles' viceroy and Grand Inquisitor in Spain. Among the numerous names put forward tentatively were: Grimani, a typical Venetian of the old school—a profound politician, a scientist, a man of unblemished reputation, but too stern and unbending; Flisco, archbishop of Ravenna, whose greatest ambition in life was to coin money bearing his own effigy; Farnese, a convicted forger, known as "the petticoat cardinal", who had been liberated from prison and given the hat by Alexander VI on the instance of his beautiful sister Julia Farnese, with whom the Pope was infatuated; the Cardinal of Mantova, the most obese member of the Sacred College, whose passion in life was food in general and oysters in particular; Colonna, a regular condottiere who divided his time between fighting and love-making and who was later to sack the Vatican and occupy by force of arms the palace he had wished to reign over as Pontiff; Egidio, a rigid disciplinarian whose idée fixe was a crusade against the Turks. There were other competitors also, too numerous and uninteresting to be worth mentioning; but all, whether important or insignificant, were inacceptable to the majority—many of them also had large families to [p. 57] provide for, which was always a handicap, though the encumbrance was so general that it was almost looked upon as an inevitable evil.

The voting was so scattered at the first scrutinies that Medici soon realised the hopelessness of his own cause and declared himself openly for Farnese. The opposition appeared undecided and their votes fluctuated wildly. Grimani sought and obtained a permit to leave the conclave on the grounds of ill-health. Many thought this move a silent protest against the probable election of the infamous "petticoat cardinal". Several days went by without any headway being made and the provisions of wood and candles had to be renewed. It was bitterly cold in the Vatican and the faint grey daylight failed to penetrate the gloom of the great apartments, so small were the apertures allowed above the boarded window-panes, and the immured crowd of cardinals and conclavists lived in perpetual darkness.

At the Banchi, Farnese was favourite, and considering the state of bewilderment and irresolution of the Sacred College his election might very well have been carried by some bold stroke; but his partisans had not sufficient tactical experience to rush the defences, and his exceptionally shady past added to their difficulties. He gained ground very slowly therefore, but sufficiently to incite Cardinal Cesarini to send a message to the Banchi with an order to back Farnese for 1000 ducats. The news soon spread and a few more electors rallied to his support. Seeing that the situation was really perilous, Egidio then stepped forward and openly harangued the Sacred College on the outrage it would be to Christendom if they elected a man of Farnese's antecedents to occupy the Apostolic See. He reminded them of his shameful and felonious past, and to the list of his crimes, with which they were already acquainted, he added other and more secret ones of which they had been ignorant. He asked them what trust they could put in a forger to fulfill his engagements, and this argument had probably far greater weight with them than the knowledge of his villainy. As Egidio was highly respected and had been Farnese's confessor at one time, they never doubted the truth of his assertions and the wisdom of his advice. Farnese's supporters dwindled immediately to an insignificant minority, and the voting became as erratic and aimless as it had been at first.

The old cardinals were determined not to be duped by the younger ones this time and steadily opposed whatever candidate they brought [p. 58] forward. The situation seemed to have reached a deadlock. The aged prelates suffered terribly from the cold; the younger ones, many of whom were attending their first conclave, were driven desperate by the gloom and uncleanliness. This was the auspicious moment chosen by Cardinal S. Sisto to come forward with a letter from the Emperor expressing his wishes for the election of Adrian Florent. Amongst all the names, likely and unlikely, read out at the scrutinies his had never once been heard. He was quite unknown in Rome, therefore he had at least no enemies. The older cardinals were all anxious to be in Charles' good graces, and much impressed with what S. Sisto had to tell them of Adrian's virtues and ability. S. Sisto being an influential member of their own party they readily accepted his advice, slyly rejoicing at the idea of giving the younger cardinals a Pope they would probably detest. To win over Medici and his followers was a harder task, but S. Sisto accomplished it by hinting that the new reign would in all probability be a short one, and by informing Medici that he was empowered by the Emperor to offer him a pension of 10,000 ducats and a promise of his support at the next conclave. Without enthusiasm, but seeing no better solution, Medici accepted the bargain and Adrian Florent was proclaimed Pope.

The people received this surprising announcement with hoots and hisses. The cardinals themselves seemed troubled and perplexed by what they had done, and slunk home escorted by the curses of the mob. Placards were hung on the Vatican bearing the words "Palace to let", and Rome was flooded with indecent caricatures and lampoons directed against the Sacred College. Three delegates were sent to notify Adrian of his elevation, and in due course letters arrived from Spain informing the cardinals that His Holiness had chosen to keep his own name, which was a breach of papal etiquette and met with general disapproval.

During the interregnum three cardinals ruled the State in rotation for the period of a month, so they found some compensation for the odium they had incurred, and no doubt made full use of their opportunities. It was not till the end of August 1522 that Adrian VI, escorted by a fleet of fourteen galleys supplied by the Emperor, sailed into the port of Civita Vecchia. He was accompanied by a thousand Spanish and Flemish attendants, besides the cardinals who had joined him at Livorno a couple of days before. The plague then raging in [p. 59] Rome had seemed an excellent excuse to the Sacred College for omitting all the usual costly reception festivities, and Adrian VI entered the Vatican with as little pomp and ostentation as he could well have wished. His unobtrusive modesty did not extend, however, to his dealings with the cardinals, as he allowed them to kiss his feet three times while wearing their hats and stoles at his first reception, and to repeat the same performance in St. Peter's. It was customary for the Pontiff to raise the prelates after the first osculation and offer his hand and cheek in succession. This Adrian did not do and his unbending attitude was much resented.

A régime was now inaugurated in the Vatican the like of which had not been seen or even dreamed of since the earliest days of the Papacy. Adrian was the son of a Flemish ship's-carpenter and had risen to eminence entirely through his own merit and learning. He had been chosen for his great qualities and blameless life to be tutor to Charles V, who had always held him in great veneration and later entrusted him with an office of the highest responsibility in Spain. The Pontiff had always led the rigid life of a devout monk and saw no reason to alter his habits. He rose at dawn to say his Mass after only a few hours of sleep, broken by attendance at Matins. He was as temperate and frugal as an anchorite, and had imported an old Flemish housekeeper who cooked his simple meals, cleaned out his room, and did his washing; while two Spanish page-boys waited on him at table. Every evening the Pope carefully extracted one crown from his purse which he handed to the disgusted major-domo for the next day's catering, and under no pretext was he permitted to exceed this allowance. While the papal laundry was spread out to dry in the august apartments of the Vatican, the Pope himself was ensconced in a small bare study where no one dared disturb him. Although he seemed to set great store by Cardinal Medici's opinions, he never admitted him to any sort of intimacy, and all the other cardinals were kept distinctly at arm's-length.

Adrian VI was of a silent, retiring disposition, fond of study and solitude. He was slow in his movements and still slower in his speech. He invariably spoke Latin, but with such a "barbarous" pronunciation that it was practically unintelligible to Italians. His own familiars were all Flemish and his advisers quite unused to secular business and out of touch with their new surroundings. He himself was completely lacking [p. 60] in worldly wisdom and sympathy. His hard, morose countenance, his taciturnity, repelled and alarmed the Romans. He was stiff without being dignified. There was too much of the Grand Inquisitor and too little of the Sovereign about him. He was no statesman—besides, prayer and study left him little leisure to attend to affairs of the State. He lacked confidence in his own judgment and his invariable answer to all questions was "We will see". His circumspection was such that any decision seemed to him fraught with danger and all matters were allowed to drift.

One would imagine that such an upright, virtuous Pope would have restored dignity to the Holy See, and by suppressing abuses and scandal have gained universal admiration and respect. Yet it was not so. The simple mode of life adopted by Adrian VI was utterly out of keeping with his environment and called forth nothing but derision and abuse. He was intensely shocked by the profanity of Renaissance art, and threatened to whitewash the Sixtine Chapel and throw the Laocoon into the Tiber. All the superfluous officials, with whose services he had dispensed, added to the ever-increasing throng of his dissatisfied and recriminating subjects. As to dealing with the corruption in the Sacred College he simply did not know where to begin. He could not in justice prevent the cardinals from reaping the benefits of their position without refunding them the money they had spent on the purchase of their hats, which he was far too poor to do—nor could he drastically renounce the revenues from the sale of indulgences without making it impossible for the Holy See to face its obligations, On every side he was beset with difficulties he was quite unable to cope with. He fell back on details, ordering the young cardinals to shave their beards and lead a better life; but all his efforts at raising the moral standard of the Sacred College met with a concerted resistance, a power of hostile inertia which completely defeated him. His own example carried no weight whatever. He was considered a miser in Rome and a meddlesome fool abroad.

He knew nothing of European politics. His mission, he thought, consisted in preaching peace to the Christian princes, and he antagonised all the Sovereigns, even his patron Charles V, by his perpetual efforts to induce them to kiss and be friends and run off together and fight the Turks; quite oblivious of the fact that they were fully occupied wrestling with their private difficulties and [p. 61] national rivalries, and wanted help, not advice.

He never grasped the Italian mentality nor the intricacies of internal politics. He longed for a state of things that would allow him to indulge his theological pursuits in the quiet retreat of his study; but the cold, contemptuous tone adopted by his former pupil at last made him understand that such a dream was impossible, and he reluctantly allowed himself to be dragged into the league against France. Adrian VI is a pathetic figure floundering helplessly in an entanglement of misunderstandings. He was not even given credit for his austerity. Creighton tells us that when the Pope was dying the cardinals hastened to his deathbed, not to receive his last blessing, but to demand where he had hidden his treasure. They were convinced that the simplicity of Adrian's habits was due to avarice, and urged him to reveal where he had hidden his hoard. Vainly did he assure them that his entire possessions consisted of one thousand ducats; with growing anger they returned to their cross-questioning, and treated the Pope as though he were a criminal on the rack. The Duke of Sessa had to interfere to put an end to this hideous scene, and the cardinals at last withdrew, defeated but still incredulous. When a few hours later the Pontiff passed away, the news was greeted with a universal sigh of relief. The most disappointing and disappointed of popes was mourned by no one but his Flemish attendants, and a statue was erected in due course to his doctor, Maserata, inscribed with the words "Liberatori Patriae!"

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