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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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François II
Charles IX

Ferdinand I

Philip II

ON September 5th, 1559, fifty-one cardinals entered the conclave, several of them in a much chastened spirit. Philip II's orders to his countrymen were peremptory and accompanied by a schedule of penalties to be incurred in case of disobedience; ranging from heavy fines to degradation. The Spanish cardinals were to vote for Carpi and no other. Indeed there was no likelihood of insubordination in their ranks for the present; they had found out to their cost what it entailed to elect an enemy of their nation to the Holy See. The French party had received instructions from Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother, to support d'Este, who obstinately refused to admit the hopelessness of his candidature. Farnese was still at the head of an important group of followers, and by joining forces with Caraffa would wield great power in the conclave. Caraffa's position was a strange one. Although never reinstated in his uncle's favour, he was officially the leader of the late Pope's creatures, amongst whom was his cousin the Cardinal of Naples. Being Caraffas their name was inseparably linked with that of Paul IV, and they not only would have to account to his successor for their own crimes and spoliations; but would also be made scapegoats by all those who had suffered at their uncle's hands. The choice of the new Pontiff was literally a matter of life and death to them, and their line of conduct would therefore be to steer above all for personal safety. The cardinals, who like Morone were held in suspicion by the Holy Office, would strain every nerve to secure a pope antagonistic to the Inquisition; and the Powers would oppose any political or scheming one.

As usual there was a large percentage of cardinals, twenty-two at least, secretly hoping to be themselves elected, which weakened the various parties to which they belonged. The influence of Cosimo de Medici, the Duke of Florence, had also to be reckoned with; his interests were in the hands of an exceedingly able conclavist called Lottino, who by the gradual elimination of other candidates and his own [p. 94] discretion and astuteness was eventually to secure the prize for the Duke's protégé. This candidate, Angelo de Medici, was no blood relation to the powerful Florentine family whose name he bore, but a man of the meanest extraction. His brother had been a stable hand in the service of the Moroni, and being an unscrupulous ruffian had, for a substantial consideration, murdered one of the Visconti against whom his employers had a grudge. The Moroni then attempted to lure Medici into a trap and do away with him, but he was too clever for them, and managed to capture the stronghold in which he should have met his doom. The Duke of Milan subsequently conferred on him the fortress and Marquisate of Marignano in exchange for his original conquest. Angelo's fortunes had risen with those of his brother, but through more peaceful channels. He studied law with success, and his scholarly tastes led him to associate with clerics and men of learning. From being secretary to Farnese, he was soon promoted to become his boon companion; and when Marignano married a relation of his patron's, Angelo was made a cardinal. It is reported that once at a banquet given by Farnese a youth who had entertained the company with songs and improvisations was handed a garland of flowers by the host, and told to present it to whoever among the guests would be Pope some day. The young bard had turned unhesitatingly towards Angelo and deposited the wreath at his feet; then striking the chords of his lyre had sung of his future greatness. The Sacred College unfortunately acted with less decision and promptitude, and the conclave was to drag on for several months before the minstrel's prophecy came true.

During the first weeks it was a struggle between d'Este, backed by the French, and Carpi supported by the Spaniards. Farnese through his animosity against the Ferrarese had gone over to the Spanish faction. He even tried one of his nocturnal surprise stunts in favour of Carpi, but the warier cardinals sent out their conclavists with lanterns to see what was afoot and the movement failed. Then there was the La Queva incident. This cardinal was a general favourite, always ready with an amusing anecdote or a witty sally. He was full of good-natured fun—the "jolly good fellow" of the conclave, and the younger cardinals especially were always flocking to his cell. He considered, perhaps pardonably, that he might as well turn his popularity to some account, and sent his conclavist round [p. 95] to all his friends asking as though on his own initiative for just that one vote, the voto di onore, which would give his genial master so much satisfaction. The conclavist accomplished his mission with so much discretion and cleverness that but for a mere accident La Queva would probably have been elected Pope. It happened that a rather inquisitive old cardinal, finding himself among a group of juniors outside the chapel, enquired who they intended to vote for that morning. Most of them returned no answer, but somehow La Queva's name was whispered and amid general hilarity the plot was exposed. Although the more serious members of the Sacred College were indignant at the trick which had been practised on them, La Queva's cronies treated the deception as another of his little jokes and bore him no ill-will.

On September 13th the Cardinal de Guise arrived, and having carefully taken stock of the situation concluded that Caraffa held the key to its solution. He therefore offered him without further ado the sum of 30,000 ducats, the Marquisate of Salerna and a confirmation of all his Italian possessions if he would throw in his lot with the French party. Important as the bribe doubtless was, Caraffa wanted more, and although Guise increased the amount of cash several times Caraffa still hesitated and exhausted the French prelate's forbearance; he broke off negotiations and haughtily refused to have any further intercourse with Caraffa. Time passed. Discipline had never been so lax in any conclave before. Several boards were taken down from the windows, and the cardinals could be seen from outside making signs to their friends and "gesticulating like puppets". A large hole was knocked in the masonry and free intercourse thus contrived with the outer world. As to the Banchi, business was so slack that they had to put up their shutters. November slowly went by without the Sacred College showing any symptoms of awakening from its torpor. Twice a day the regulation scrutiny took place, but most of the voting papers bore the negative "nemini". The Paraclete gave no sign.

There were many cases of illness among the cardinals; two of them died and another left the conclave in a serious condition. The days dragged on. The Sacred College looked like settling down to hibernate, when suddenly there was a stir. A letter had arrived from Philip II for Cardinal Colonna informing him that the imperial fief [p. 96] of Palliano was to be restored to his family. It will be remembered that Paul IV had brutally despoiled the Colonna of their castles to give them to his nephews. When he banished these from Rome, the Pontiff had wished to punish them personally for their misdemeanours, but he had no intention of lessening the power of his house. He had therefore allowed them to retain all their ill-gotten riches and possessions. It was very foolish of Vargas, the Spanish envoy, to have made the news public, as Caraffa on hearing of it was naturally enraged and greatly alarmed, breaking definitely with the Spanish faction. He now much regretted having antagonised Guise and tried to propitiate him by advancing a French candidate, the Cardinal of Rheims. He worked so actively that by mid-December he had rallied Farnese to his cause and the other parties began to show signs of anxiety. Vargas was continually appearing at the breach in the wall, sending for the Spanish cardinals and metaphorically shaking the King's fist at them. To the lethargy of the preceding weeks had succeeded a state of frenzied activity. So feverish were the discussions and so violent the disputes that several cardinals, among them Farnese, actually came to blows in the chapel itself. Guise took no part in all this pother. He was not going to have his candidate chosen for him by an outsider, and completely ignored Caraffa's advances. Without the support of his own party Rheims sank as he was bound to do.

There was another tumultuous scene when a Spaniard, Pacheco, was proposed, the Italian prelates crying out that they would not accept a foreign pope, and the Frenchmen leaping on to their stalls and protesting with Gallic vehemence. The pandemonium was such that the scrutiny could not take place, many of the cardinals leaving the chapel as a protest.

It was now Christmas eve, and Cosimo de Medici, kept well informed by Lottino of all the happenings within the conclave, decided that the time had come to start his offensive. He wrote both to Guise and Caraffa recommending his namesake Angelo de Medici to their notice.

He timed his despatch carefully so that its arrival should coincide with that of the Queen Mother's new instructions to Guise. Catherine enjoined him to abandon d'Este and support Medici, and she also sent him a large consignment of gold which proved very useful [p. 97] buying up a few stray votes.

To Caraffa the Duke gave a solemn pledge, in his own name and Medici's, that he should be secure against all reprisals and that a full pardon should be granted to him and his family. This was what Caraffa wanted above all, and his acceptance disposed of the last obstacle between the Florentine and the Holy See. Angelo de Medici was elected Pope without further parley and took the name of Pius IV.

The new Pontiff was in all respects the opposite of his predecessor. He had none of his arrogance and haughtiness, was on the contrary of an affable, easy-going disposition. His illegitimate children he kept decently in the background, bestowing all his favour on his nephews, the Borromeo, one of whom, Carlo, the Cardinal-Nephew, was a pattern of virtue and was subsequently canonised.

The Pope's gratitude to the Duke of Florence made him very subservient to all Cosimo's wishes. Pius IV was sixty-two years old, of medium height, medium build and medium colouring. He had a pleasant sympathetic countenance, bright eyes and a sprightly manner. He was a tremendous walker and went for long rambles morning and evening. He had remarkable physical energy, was always up and doing. He liked strong wine and coarse food and plenty of both, though the great amount of exercise he took kept him lean. He was straightforward in business and prompt of decision though not always stable. His attitude towards the European princes was also the exact reverse of Paul IV's. He was the first to admit that the Holy See needed their support and was most gracious and amenable in his dealings with them. He was always accessible to their ambassadors whether in his apartments or the Vatican gardens, pacing to and fro with them till they dropped with fatigue. He rose at dawn, and except for his afternoon siesta, never rested. He was not extravagant in his mode of life, rather parsimonious even, his horses being cheap, sorry beasts. But his great hobby—building—swallowed up enormous sums. He was no theologian and not favourably inclined towards the Inquisition; yet he took no steps to suppress the Holy Office or restrain its activities. He himself was safe and happy. He led a life of physical exertion and sensual satisfaction selfishly indifferent to all other concerns. The government of the State he left to his nephews. His foreign policy was one of conciliation; he [p. 98] hated strife and quarrels, and his feeling of obligation towards Cosimo de Medici paled before the risk of displeasing the King of Spain. Philip, in his desire to be revenged on the Caraffa for their uncle's enmity, requested the Pope to bring them all to book for their crimes and depredations. This Pius agreed to do in spite of the solemn promise of immunity he had given them at the conclave. Cosimo de Medici was intensely indignant at such a breach of faith. He upbraided the Pope, reminding him that without Caraffa's support he could not have been elected. He also expostulated with Philip, appealing to him as a fellow sovereign not to bring dishonour on his word, especially as the King in the early days of the conclave had himself promised Caraffa immunity. But Philip was not interested in the Duke's scruples, and Pius wrote with the utmost unction that nothing could ever be allowed to interfere with God's justice.

The Caraffa were therefore committed for trial, and the severity of their sentences must have satisfied even their bitterest enemies. The Duke of Palliano and two of his brothers were condemned to decapitation, and Cardinal Carlo Caraffa to strangulation. All their possessions of course were confiscated. The executions took place on the spot. The Cardinal of Naples seemed at first glance to have been treated more mercifully as he got off with a large fine and a term of imprisonment. But this leniency was only a blind. The Cardinal with cautious foresight had deposited a vast sum of money in the safe keeping of some foreign bankers who would never have handed it over to the Holy See without the owner's consent. He had to live therefore till the money could be transferred to Rome, after which he died in prison. Pius IV's vigorous constitution was gradually undermined by his excesses. He is reported to have drunk as much as twelve pitchers of wine at a single meal, and to have indulged in other exhausting dissipations. He died very suddenly, probably of an apoplectic fit, in 1565.

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