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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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ALEXANDER VIII (OTTOBONI)

1689—1691

 

ENGLAND
William and
Mary

FRANCE
Louis XIV

GERMANY
Leopold I

SPAIN
Charles II

HAD the late Pontiff followed his inclinations he would have distributed no more hats than haloes, for none of the would-be cardinals seemed to him really worthy of the dignity. He was, however, compelled by circumstances to create a few, but at the time of his death there were still ten vacancies in the Sacred College—a most valuable legacy for his successor. Many of the most outstanding personalities of the last few conclaves had now disappeared—such as Barberini, who had outlived nearly all his contemporaries; Azzolini, Queen Christina's friend and adviser; and Albizzi, who had known his day of celebrity as a wit and his day of humiliation as a candidate.

As Innocent had conferred no ecclesiastical dignity on his nephew Don Livio, his creatures were without a leader and unlikely to be held together by any sufficiently strong bond to form a party of their own.

A very reduced assembly entered the Vatican on August 23rd, as out of the sixty remaining members of the Sacred College several abstained from attending the conclave, and the French and German prelates had not yet arrived. Medici was in charge of the Spanish—Imperial factions, and d'Estrées, then living in Rome, at the head of the French. There were a few other small independent groups such as Chigi's and Altieri's, and another, calling itself "The Conscience Squadron", composed mainly of prelates belonging to different Italian States.

Medici's instructions from the Powers he represented consisted mostly of a list of exclusions, to which his father the Grand Duke had also added a few names. From the Emperor, Medici received four different sets of directions: one for general circulation, another to be confided secretly to the independent groups, a third to be whispered within earshot of the French conclavists and so mislead their patrons, and the fourth containing the name of the man the Emperor really wished to see elected. [p. 204]

Louis XIV, now thoroughly under the influence of Madame de Maintenon and in a more conciliatory frame of mind, was sending the Duc de Chaulnes as special envoy to the Holy See. The old nobleman still had many friends in Rome and the choice seemed excellent; but as he was not on speaking terms with the Cardinal d'Estrées, he was to be accompanied by the Marquis de Torcy, who would act as intermediary between the two leaders. All the French cardinals—excepting one who was in disgrace with the King—received strict injunctions to attend the conclave and were provided with the necessary funds to cover their expenses. They were commanded to join Chaulnes at Marseilles, from which port a fleet of twenty-six galleys was to convey them and their retinues to Italy.

The journey proved more protracted than had been anticipated, for a gale of exceptional violence drove the convoy to shelter in the harbour of Porto Venere, where they remained storm-bound for several days. Nor were these tempestuous conditions confined to the elements, as the Duc de Chaulnes, the King's Envoy, and the Duc de Noailles, the Commander-in-Chief of his forces, had a serious quarrel which might have afforded the Marquis de Torcy an excellent opportunity of exercising his talents as go-between, had not Chaulnes in this circumstance been only too willing to do the talking himself!

The incident occurred outside Livorno, which should have been the French fleet's first port of call and where great preparations had been made for its reception. It so happened that the storm which had driven the galleys into Porto Venere had also driven some merchant vessels into Livorno—three English and three Dutch escorted by a battleship. The governor of Livorno, much perturbed at their untimely appearance, sent a message to the captains informing them that he was expecting the French fleet to arrive as soon as the weather improved and that they must be prepared to salute the royal standard of France or take their departure. On receipt of this ultimatum the commanders hastily engaged some extra hands to strengthen their crews, and sailed out to meet the French convoy.

Having sighted the enemy they took up their positions, sails set and colours flying, and prepared for action. Noailles immediately gave orders to open fire; but Chaulnes, who was present, no less unhesitatingly forbade these orders being carried out. There ensued an [p. 205] acrimonious argument between the two men, Chaulnes insisting that Noailles' duty consisted in conveying the cardinals safely to Civita Vecchia, and that he had no right to expose their lives to unnecessary risks, however tempting it might be for him to add to his laurels by annihilating a few wretched merchant vessels. Noailles retorted by proposing to tranship the prelates on to one galley which could take cover in the port of Livorno, remaining there in perfect safety while the battle proceeded. He also hinted that it might be advisable for Chaulnes to accompany his charges to protect them from any further perils. The old Duke was indignant at such a suggestion and the dispute between the bellicose field-marshal and the circumspect diplomatist waxed furious. The latter, however, stood his ground so firmly that Noailles had to capitulate, but he only did so on receipt of a written order from Chaulnes commanding him in the King's name to proceed immediately on his journey.

Meanwhile the gallant little fleet's surprise at the evident hesitation of the French to accept their challenge was changed to stupefaction when it observed Louis XIV's twenty-six fine galleys veer round and put out to sea without having fired a single shot, and no doubt the governor and the inhabitants of Livorno were equally puzzled and disappointed at the non-appearance of the guests they had prepared to honour.

At Civita Vecchia the travellers found d'Estrée's coaches awaiting them, and they made a spectacular entry a few hours later into Rome. The French prelates were all grands seigneurs, but the most resplendent of them was undoubtedly the Cardinal de Bouillon. There was a regulation prohibiting cardinals from wearing wigs, and most of the Italian prelates conformed to it; but this injunction was disregarded across the Alps, and a contemporaneous portrait of Bouillon depicts him adorned with a voluminous peruke, his mitre resting on a cluster of curls, while a rabat of beautiful lace escapes frothily from between his robes and his plump round chin. It is reported of this hierophantic dandy that he was so obsessed with his exalted rank and ancestry that when he took the Communion, he would only make use of wafers stamped with his coat of arms! In the importance attached by all these aristocratic prelates to their titles and worldly prerogatives must be found the reason for the disappearance of the old custom of giving to the members of the Sacred College the appellations of [p. 206] their sees or of the Roman churches from which they derived their dignities.

There was a general display of magnificence at this conclave, the Italian cardinals belonging to princely houses striving not only to vie with the luxury of the foreign prelates, but more especially to eclipse each other, as evidenced by this letter of Panzuioli, the Duke of Modena's agent in Rome, describing to his Sovereign the ceremonial attending the transference of the Cardinal d'Este's meals from the kitchens which had been assigned to him to the door of the conclave.

I accompanied this morning the dishes of His Highness which were being carried to the Vatican, as do all the courtiers of their Eminences. Two grooms bearing staffs embossed with the Cardinal's arms led the way. Then came the mace-bearer with the Court officials; then the grooms carrying the food in great baskets. Behind them walked His Highness' pages escorting the bread boxes—then the lackeys bearing the wooden support on which are placed the cauldrons to keep the dishes warm. The kitchens which fate has allotted to His Eminence are about a mile away from the Vatican, but they are roomy and convenient, and have been so richly and tastefully decked out with gold and silver plate that there is a constant stream of distinguished visitors to inspect them. Our Cardinal's service is the most sumptuous in Rome not excepting the Medici's. Our liveries also, though they are only the ones used in the country during the winter, outshine all others. By their cut and their striking combination of colours they are far superior to those of the Florentine Cardinal.

The arrival of the French contingent at the Vatican did not immediately tend to speed up the main business of the assembly, for they created a diversion and a hubbub by claiming in their Sovereign's name the privilege of docking his galleys in the port of Civita Vecchia. This pretension gave rise to the most stormy debates—Aguirre, the spokesman of the Spanish party, declaring that Louis XIV, being still under a ban of excommunication, ought not to be accorded deferential treatment by the governing body of the Church. He even proposed that the Sacred College should refuse to recognise Chaulnes' diplomatic standing until such time as the King should have restored Avignon to the Holy See. The more cautious among his colleagues thought Aguirre had gone too far—Louis XIV might [p. 207] be a wayward and rebellious son of the Church but he was still a powerful and victorious monarch who had cowed and humiliated Alexander VII and whom none but a fanatical idealist such as Innocent XI could be daring enough to defy openly. So it was decided that the question would be settled by a ballot, which resulted in forty-two votes out of fifty in favour of acceding to Louis XIV's demands and receiving Chaulnes as his Ambassador.

That matter disposed of, the cardinals were now at liberty to attend to the pope's election. Among the new candidates was Altieri, but with no following but his own creatures and of course excluded by France. This last Power, in alliance with Savoy, was patronising Visconti; but merely to gain time, only Visconti himself taking his chances seriously. The Odescalchi group was scattering in various directions as their private sympathies prompted. The Venetians, who had for so long been kept at arm's length in papal circles, had been busily intriguing for the last few years to obtain a firm and powerful backing for a candidate of their own nationality. There was a strong prejudice, fostered by the autocratic Italian rulers and shared by the monarchical European Powers, against the elevation to the Holy See of a subject of any republican State. Genoese and Venetian candidates had therefore always encountered a stubborn opposition from most of their colleagues. This prevention Venice had set herself to overcome through the agency of her envoys to the various Courts in Europe. Their chief recruit was the Emperor, to whom they had made substantial offers of subsidies to assist him in his campaign against the Turks, and it was the name of their candidate—Ottoboni—which was mentioned in Leopold's fourth and final instructions to Medici. Spain had also been won over to his cause, and Ottoboni's great age would be likely to recommend him to the majority of his colleagues, so his candidature seemed a very promising one.

But before risking his name at the scrutiny, Medici considered it advisable to test the temper of the assembly by proposing another Venetian—Barbarigo—as a ballon d'essai. The twenty-nine votes obtained in his favour were considered a sufficiently encouraging result to allow of Ottoboni's name being whispered discreetly within hearing of a few conclavists.

D'Estrées, who distrusted the Venetian, on hearing the rumour of his growing popularity, immediately offered to support him, [p. 208] calculating thereby to draw Spain's exclusion on him. This transparent manœuvre caused considerable amusement to his more wily opponents, as can be imagined. On realising the failure of the plan he had thought so Machiavellian, d'Estrées, caught in his own trap, saw no means of escape but to swallow his pride and appeal to Chaulnes for help. But the Duke was an old friend of Ottoboni's and had already written to the King about him in a favourable spirit, and Louis XIV seemed disposed to patronise him as he had patronised Odescalchi, that is, as a makeshift and subject to the acceptance of certain conditions. There was evidently no way out for d'Estrées, so he bowed to the inevitable, only asking the Ambassador to undertake the negotiations with Ottoboni himself. The terms of the agreement consisted in the Pope's recognition of the droit de régale in exchange for which the King would surrender Avignon and his Ambassador would renounce the right of asylum. On this understanding, accepted by Ottoboni, the French party gave him its support and he was proclaimed Pope on October 6th—to be known as Alexander VIII.

The new Pontiff was eighty years old, but of a strong and healthy constitution, and was reputed to be an able and resourceful politician. He only reigned for eighteen months, but during that short space of time he managed to destroy most of his predecessor's good work. All the money saved by Innocent XI was squandered on enriching the Ottobonis. To a cardinal who ventured a word of remonstrance Alexander replied: "I have no time to lose; for me the day is almost done!" And so nepotism flourished once more.

The Pope gave great satisfaction to the clergy and the Roman ladies by revoking all the measures imposed on them by Innocent XI which they considered so vexatious—but he antagonised the Emperor and the King of Spain by filling the vacancies in the Sacred College with subjects of all countries but their own. Nor did France have it all her own way, for Chaulnes, who seemed in no hurry to fulfil his share of their agreement, was informed that he would receive no invitation to the Pope's enthronement unless he made the official renunciation to the right of asylum without delay. The Duke waited till the very last moment but had to comply in the end. Alexander adhered to his own part of the treaty with France, but proved on his deathbed that his conciliatory attitude had been dictated by political caution only; for, seeing himself about to pass beyond the reach of [p. 209] retribution, he issued a manifesto declaring, as Innocent XI had done, that the doctrines and actions of the Gallican clergy were subversive of the supremacy of the Church of Rome and their findings and those of the French Parliament therefore null and void. He furthermore retracted his recognition of the droit de régale, and having thus eased his conscience and bequeathed a hornets' nest to his successor, passed peacefully away on February 1st, 1691.

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