Pope Calixtus III
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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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CALIXTUS III (ALFONSO BORGIA)
AT the conclave which assembled in 1455 to elect a successor to Nicholas V only fifteen cardinals were present, six of whom were lay
cardinals and anything but serious-minded or God-fearing. The Sacred College was divided into two camps. One headed by Colonna
favoured Florence; the other under the leadership of Orsini stood for the interests of the League formed by Milan, Venice and Naples. The
Colonna and Orsini were hereditary foes, whom we shall find invariably opposing one another. Out of these fifteen cardinals, nine were set
on being themselves elected and therefore would not vote consistently. To add to the complexity of the situation, the lay cardinals formed
an independent faction voting against any candidate irrespective of parties who showed signs of being a disciplinarian. Thus they defeated
Bessarion, who was gaining ground on both sides, as they could not risk having a Pope who had only recently been converted from the
Greek schismatic Church, and was therefore zealous as all neophytes are. Besides he wore a long flowing beard which the worldly prelates
considered an outrage. Matters seemed at a standstill, and the lay cardinals were growing desperate. The claustration, the barbarous
discomforts were making them restive, and only the scented notes which their fair friends smuggled into the conclave relieved the tedium
of their existence.
At last from one of them came a welcome inspiration! Instead of merely defeating any candidate behind whom they saw looming the
shadow of a monastery or a prison, why not adopt one of their own who would ensure a continuance of the life they were used to leading?
Cardinal Alfonso Borgia seemed the very man. A Spaniard: pleasantly cynical and making no mystery of his licentiousness or of his
illegitimate children, in fact a pope after their own hearts. The success of this suggestion was immediate. The enthusiastic prelates would
brook no delay. They selected a spokesman who dashed off hot-foot to request an interview with [p. 18] Orsini. To that startled dignitary
he declared without any circumlocutions that the lay cardinals were determined to break the seals and abandon the conclave unless Borgia
became Pope. His manner must have carried conviction for the horrified leader called a hasty meeting of his followers, who agreed that
anything must be done to avert such an unheard-of scandal. Calixtus III was therefore elected, and the Borgias descended upon the Church
of Rome, across whose history they were to leave such a sinister trail of blood-stained magnificence.
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