The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
INNOCENT XIII (CONTI)
For the first time since the dark ages, French and Spanish interests would not clash at the coming conclave and the two factions would stand side by side as allies, instead of face to face as foes. Although Clement XI had not ventured to raise his nephew to the official position and unlimited power bestowed by his nepotic predecessors on their relations, he had done as much as he dared for his family and given the hat to a young Albani, who in the capacity of Cardinal-Nephew would lead his uncle's creatures into the conclave. As during Clement's long pontificate the Sacred College had been practically renewed, the question resolved itself into the acquisition of Albani's support. Count Kinsky, the Emperor's Envoy, who was evidently not acquainted with the methods of unblushing simony practised in Rome, presented Albani with a ring worth 25,000 forms, but entrusted the large sum of money which should have accompanied the gift to a German prelate called Althan, with instructions to convey it secretly and tactfully to the Cardinal-Nephew. This Althan apparently failed to do, and Albani, disgusted with what he considered the meanness of the Austrians, readily agreed to the proposals made to him by the French party, whose methods were more direct. Their offers [p. 234] consisted of annuities and rich benefices, a particularly tempting item being the convent of the "Ladies of Paradise", a most opulent abbey in the South of France of which the abbess was always chosen from among the most aristocratic families of the country. The candidate selected by the French faction was Conti, a comatose old prelate who had sleepily accepted the Regent's conditions, which were as follows: the hat was to be conferred immediately on Dubois, his Prime Minister; certain Francophile prelates were to be appointed to State offices, and a promise given by Conti to restrain the political activities of the Jesuit order. Albani's adhesion having made a certainty of the election, Conti was proclaimed Pope on May 7th, 1721, under the name of Innocent XIII.
The Emperor was very disappointed at the victory of his antagonists, as he set great store by the new Pope's political sympathies, thinking that the peace of Italy depended on them; but Prince Eugene shrugged his shoulders and is reported to have said that whoever the new Pontiff might be there was no reason to consider him of more importance than any other prince who could only put 8000 or 10,000 men in the field—a force of no significance and which need not trouble the Emperor.
Innocent's disease must have been a very trying one. He hibernated through a pontificate of three years, being occasionally roused from his slumbers to attend to urgent matters of State. He fulfilled all his obligations to France and also instituted an enquiry into Alberoni's misdemeanours, as Clement XI had started proceedings to strip him of his ecclesiastical dignities. This investigation resulted in the unscrupulous ex-statesman being completely whitewashed, a finding which can scarcely have met with Philip V's approval. The Jesuits were treated with less indulgence, or rather they would have been, had the Pontiff not died just as he was about to enforce severe measures against their order, their indiscretions in the East having been fully exposed by the legate Mezzabarba, who had been sent out to investigate the truth of the scandalous reports which had reached Europe from China and elsewhere. In a letter to Lord Carteret dated March 1724,Walton, England's secret agent in Rome, whose mission consisted in keeping an eye on the Pretender, writes:
Innocent XIII might have lived a few years longer had he been more temperate in eating and drinking, and had his doctors been [p. 235] less ignorant. He was an equitable, honest ruler, always kept his word, in fact was inclined to do more than he had promised. He proved grateful to those who had befriended him, a rare quality indeed. He gave few audiences and compared to Clement XI showed little interest in the Pretender. I will have reliable correspondents in the coming conclave who will warn me in good time if any intrigues are afoot which might prejudice the King's interests by favouring the Pretender's.
Innocent XIII died on March 17th, 1724, not as one might imagine, unconsciously exchanging habitual for eternal sleep, but less mercifully after an agony of intense suffering.