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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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SUCH a costly and sterile victory considerably damped the ardour both of France and of Tuscany. They had not yet had time to meet the heavy obligations incurred in the last conclave before they found themselves confronted with another. There was a general tightening of purse-strings even on the part of Spain, who only distributed a few paltry gifts such as bottles of sweet wine, and seemed scarcely interested in the proceedings. Through Vinta, Ferdinand received offers of service from Cardinal Serafino, valued by that prelate at "the sum of 1000 crowns down and the complete equipment of the palace he was then building". But the bargain failed to tempt the Grand Duke.

Fifty-nine cardinals answered the Dean's summons on May 8th, three less than at the former conclave, one prelate having died meanwhile and two others being too ill to attend. Aldobrandini himself was in such bad health that he could scarcely drag himself out of bed. He was suffering from an affection of the lungs and throat and could only speak in a hoarse whisper; but he had heard that there was an intrigue afoot to elect Sauli, and to him it was of vital importance to prevent such an occurrence. Sauli was a man of good reputation and had many friends in the Sacred College, but he had been Clement VIII's personal enemy and had openly resented the immense power with which that Pontiff had invested the Cardinal-Nephew. Sauli was quite capable, as Pope, of calling Aldobrandini to account for his stewardship of the State, as Pius IV had done to the nephews of Paul IV; and although he had certainly not committed the same crimes and atrocities as the Caraffa, yet his conscience was probably not quite as clear as it might have been. There was for instance a bagatelle of 3 million crowns which had been consigned to the Emperor and paid out of the papal treasury, but had never left the Vatican and could not be accounted for. The house of Aldobrandini was of too recent a growth to have very deep roots, and ran the [p. 144] risk of total ruin at Sauli's hands.

Goaded by the peril into making a supreme effort, Aldobrandini had managed to rally round him twenty-four followers in whom he could put sufficient trust. The number was adequate to guarantee Sauli's exclusion if Aldobrandini could himself remain on the breach and prevent any backsliding among his creatures.

Pope Paul V
From a print in the British Museum

Montalto, during the novemdiale, had been busy forming a union known as the "Knights' League" consisting of members all bearing names notable in papal circles, such as Farnese, Sforza, d'Este, etc. Each one of them disposed of a few votes, so that added to Montalto's creatures their total number about balanced their opponents'. Sauli might quite possibly have been elected by adoration on the first morning, had not Aldobrandini remained up all night, not allowing a single one of his followers to leave his presence—and so, to his immense relief, the attempt failed. It was his turn now to take the offensive, and he proposed Bellarmini, one of his own creatures, who was as obnoxious to Montalto as Sauli had been to himself. These two skirmishes having come to nothing, various names were put forward but only tentatively, till on May 16th Aldobrandini, fearing his strength would fail him, suddenly decided to launch his real candidate—Tosco. What had induced the leader to select such a man among so many others is a mystery. He was both morally and physically the coarsest creature imaginable. His language and manners were those of a vulgar ruffian. Not only was he the most profane of prelates, but he had no more respect for his fellow creatures' feelings than he had reverence for the Church. Yet the candidature of this foul-mouthed, brutal being brought about an agreement between the two contending parties. Montalto and Aldobrandini met in Monti's cell, and the former, having no personal nominee and having noted some symptoms of discord among his "Knights", yielded, though regretfully, to Aldobrandini's persuasions.

In the evening they mobilised their united forces to proceed to the chapel for the scrutiny which was to confer the papal crown on Tosco. From the independent factions such as the French and the Spanish rose cries of protestation and even cat-calls and hisses. The excited conclavists had pushed Tosco out of his cubicle to loot it more conveniently, and as he was ill and could not remain standing for long, he had taken refuge in Dietrichstein's cell, where he [p. 145] remained in the company of his host to await events.

Aldobrandini counting his followers missed Baronio and sent someone to fetch him; but he refused to obey the summons, and as in such circumstances delay is always dangerous the leader decided to proceed without him, and a move was made towards the chapel.

In the audience-chamber the procession came upon the recalcitrant prelate, who faced his colleagues boldly. Not only was he one of Clement's creatures, but in the last conclave, as will be remembered, Aldobrandini had made every effort to bring about his election. There was no amity, however, in the look he gave his former champion. To Aldobrandini's injunctions to fulfil his party obligations, followed by an appeal to their old friendship, he replied with rage and scorn that he would never vote for any man unworthy of occupying the Apostolic See. An unmistakable movement of vacillation followed this bombshell, and Montalto, acting on a sudden impulse, exclaimed "Let us elect Baronio!" Aldobrandini, white with shock and exhaustion, managed to raise the cry of "Tosco, Tosco!" among his followers. It was immediately answered by that of "Baronio, Baronio!" from Montalto's party, who endeavoured to push their way through to the chapel with Baronio in their midst. The young and lusty contingent of Aldobrandini's creatures set upon them with gusto; the conclavists joined in and a moment later the fight was raging furiously.

When at last Baronio's supporters managed to find shelter in the Pauline chapel several disabled combatants remained prone on the battlefield. The Dean, Cardinal San Giorgio, mounted on a stool, hastened to pronounce a general absolution, for old Cardinal Visconti, lying in a dead faint with several broken bones, seemed in a very serious condition and might not recover. Aldobrandini, his rochet hanging about him in shreds, collected his adherents in the Sixtine, and in both chapels conclavists were soon at work disposing beds and making all preparations as for a siege. The French party, who preferred the anti-Spanish Baronio to his brutish rival, had joined Montalto in the Pauline, while the Spaniards siding with Aldobrandini again brought the numbers about level.

Tosco meanwhile, waiting in the German's cell and hearing the distant clamour, sent a conclavist to enquire what was happening; but the messenger did not return. Dietrichstein then sallied out but [p. 146] must have found himself involved in the proceedings, for he also failed to report. Unable to stand the suspense any longer, Tosco, supported by a couple of servants, dragged himself towards the scene of operations, arriving just as the turmoil had subsided.

Aldobrandini came forward to meet him with every mark of the utmost deference and led him into the chapel where a couch was immediately made ready for him. There he lay, surrounded by attentive satellites, enjoying his few hours of pseudo-sovereignty.

Practically all the members of the Sacred College spent the night in their respective strongholds; and excitement having given way to weariness the rank and file in either camp showed signs of discontent with the chiefs who had led them into such an impasse. The French prelates acting as mediators went to and fro from one chapel to the other and a meeting was at last contrived between the two leaders. They agreed to give up their respective candidates, and after carefully considering the qualifications of several others, finally settled on Borghese, one of Clement VIII's creatures, who seemed the most acceptable, having no enemies and being on friendly terms with Montalto. The confederates then sought out Joyeuse, who, having no objection to Borghese, promised his party's votes. The announcement made by the two leaders to their partisans caused surprise, but roused no opposition; both Baronio and Tosco behaving with creditable self-possession and being among the very first to express their approval—and pay homage to the Pope-elect. The belligerents, now the best of friends, swarmed round the new Pontiff, who took the name of Paul V.

Borghese's forebears were of Siennese origin, but had, like the Aldobrandinis, abandoned their native Tuscany to escape from the tyranny of the Medici, eventually settling in Rome. They were not rich or powerful, and Paul had started life in a lawyer's office before embracing the more promising ecclesiastical career. He was a tall, heavily built, handsome man, with a healthy complexion, shiny red gold hair, and his arms and hands were covered with a thick growth of down. The older cardinals gazed with consternation on this Hercules, who was only fifty-nine years of age and might well be expected to see them all into their graves. The Great Powers, who knew nothing of him, reserved their opinion until better informed of the new Pope's character and political views, and only tendered [p. 147] formal and conventional congratulations. As to Paul himself, he loudly proclaimed his conviction that the Holy Ghost had singled him out to fulfil his high office and had miraculously imposed him on the suffragists.

The metamorphosis from a pleasant, popular prelate into an autocratic merciless Pontiff was more marked in Paul V perhaps than in any of his predecessors except in Sixtus V. He demanded undiluted servility from those around him and would not accept even the shadow of a criticism in the consistories. His decisions were purely arbitrary and he refused ever to discuss them, either with the Sacred College in relation to ecclesiastical questions, or with the diplomatic envoys in matters of foreign policy. The strictest of disciplinarians where others were concerned, he insisted on the cardinals who held distant bishoprics leaving Rome to reside in them; the alternative being the loss of their benefices. The dutiful observance of regulations which he exacted from his subordinates would have been more impressive had he himself respected those concerning the abuses of nepotism, but this most self-righteous of pontiffs loaded his family with honours and riches just as blatantly as any of his less sanctimonious predecessors had done.

The Italian States were soon enlightened as to the attitude the new Pontiff meant to adopt, for immediately after his enthronement he started to pick quarrels with them all, interfering in their internal jurisdiction under pretext of ecclesiastical privilege. He took action with such rapidity that, not having had time to organise a concerted line of defence, Genoa, Florence and Ferrara thought it safer to submit for the time being to his outrageous encroachments on their independence. When it came to brow-beating Venice, however, it was quite another matter. The Republic had been used to fighting her own battles and emphatically refused to comply with the Pope's tyrannical orders. She simply ignored his excommunications and her clergy sided with their government. The Jesuits were the only ones to obey the summons from Rome by leaving Venetian territory, which delighted the Council of Ten, who had long wanted to get rid of them and now had an excellent excuse to forbid their return. Had Paul dared to do so he would have declared war on Venice—as it was, he eventually had to come to terms with the Republic through the mediation of the Powers. [p. 148]

Nor was the Duke of Ossuna, Spanish governor of Sicily, in the least intimidated by the Pope's anathemas. He wasted no time on remonstrating with him, but had a scaffold erected opposite the Archbishop's palace, the gallows being moved slightly nearer to it every day. The effect of this device, admirable in its simplicity, was most satisfactory, as in the shortest possible delay an order to lift the ban arrived from Rome, without a single word or note having been exchanged by the parties on the subject of the dispute.

No Pope showed more lack of political sense than Paul V. He found fault with all the reigning monarchs in turn till he had not a friend or an ally left in Europe. Even had he been willing to listen to advice there was no one near the Throne with enough experience or sagacity to help him, as he had dismissed all the previous holders of government posts and offices to appoint his brothers and nephews in their place. Ranke says that:

as he had employed no arts or intrigues to attain the papal dignity he attributed his elevation entirely to divine inspiration and therefore considered himself God's real vice-regent on earth.

That Paul, a Roman born and bred, should genuinely have developed such a simple-hearted belief in supernatural mass-suggestion after attending a couple of conclaves, is difficult to believe. Is it not more likely that the sudden shock of such unexpected and overwhelming good fortune affected his mental balance? He certainly showed unmistakable symptoms of that peculiar form of aberration which a French writer has called "Cesaritis".

Paul V died of an apoplectic stroke on January 28th, 1621.

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