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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Charles IX

Maximilian II

Philip II

AT the time of Pius IV's death, France was in the throes of civil war, and too absorbed with her own difficulties to take a very active interest in the coming conclave. Philip II, confident of his hold over the Holy See, no longer attached a very great importance to the personality of the Pontiff; and the Emperor having no subjects or vassals in the conclave was naturally without influence in the Sacred College. The different factions somehow seemed less clearly defined, less compact. Caraffa's execution had left his uncle's creatures leaderless; Farnese was losing his hold; d'Este, growing old and superseded by his young nephew, was definitely on the shelf and was now known as the Cardinal of Ferrara. The only man of outstanding personality and influence was undoubtedly Carlo Borromeo, the late Cardinal-Nephew. He was an honest, virtuous, narrow-minded man of unmistakable sincerity. Official chief of a large group of followers, his personal prestige was too great to be withstood in such a drifting assembly, and it soon became clear that no serious opposition would be made to any candidate he selected.

Pope Pius V
From a print in the British Museum
Farnese and Ferrara, the erstwhile foes, exchanged civilities and matrimonial projects for their families, which were not intended to materialise, but merely expressed mutual goodwill and a cessation of hostilities.

Borromeo's first nomination was Morone. This appeared a strange choice, as Morone was decidedly in the bad books of the Inquisition, of which Borromeo was a zealous advocate, but he had been Morone's subordinate in Milan and had a profound admiration for that prelate's character and learning. Farnese disapproved of him, however, on the grounds that he had once been Carpi's fortunate rival in some love affair, and Carpi was Farnese's most intimate friend. Nor was Ferrara any more agreeable to his election as years before, when legate at Bologna, Morone had sided with that city against Ferrara in some trifling dispute concerning a water conduit. These two [p. 100] worthies, therefore, put their heads together, and realising that they were not sufficiently powerful to prevent Morone's election by ordinary means, decided to resort to others better fitted to the circumstances. They called on Borromeo, and feigning qualms of conscience appealed to his strictly orthodox convictions against a man suspected of liberal tendencies. The leader, who had never before experienced the intricacies of electoral intrigues and who was himself too straightforward to suspect his colleagues' sincerity, at once deferred to their scruples, and discarding Morone, substituted Alessandrino, whose rigid principles were unimpeachable. This cardinal, whose patronymic was Ghisliere, was the son of a veterinary surgeon, and in his childhood had been employed as a scullion in a Dominican convent. His industry and religious fervour had attracted the attention of the monks, who admitted him to their order at the age of fourteen. His excessive zeal in the cause of the Inquisition had brought him to the notice of Paul IV, who conferred upon him an important post in the Holy Office and the cardinal's hat. Although he led a very retired life, the members of the Sacred College were well aware of his virulent fanaticism. Farnese and Ferrara therefore gasped with horror at the suggestion; but they were hoist with their own petard. They could not possibly take exception to Ghisliere on religious grounds, and they knew Borromeo would be moved by no others. They now sorely regretted their objection to Morone, and the causes of their animosity against him seemed indeed insignificant compared with those that governed their feelings for Ghisliere. Desperately they sought for an escape from the trap, and Farnese hit on the idea of begging Borromeo to accept the pontifical dignity himself; but the future St. Charles' ambitions were not of this world and he firmly declined the honour.

The Sacred College was swept with a wave of apprehension when the name of the new candidate became known. So fearful were the cardinals of appearing remiss that there was a positive rush towards Ghisliere's cubicle. Never did hysterical panic so successfully ape enthusiasm as on January 10th, 1566, when the Cardinal of Alessandrino became Pius V.

Consternation was great in the Papal States at the election of a Pontiff of so forbidding a reputation—especially among the hordes of mendicant friars who infested Rome and the provinces. They well [p. 101] knew that the dreaded command to return to their monasteries and conform to the ascetic rules of their Orders would be the new Pope's first move, and would have to be complied with immediately. As to the cardinals they would be driven not, alas! to a more virtuous life, but to the semblance of it, thereby being compelled to add hypocrisy to the long list of their failings. Good times and a care-free existence were definitely at an end.

Nor were the foreign monarchs any more satisfied. They knew Pius V for an uncompromising upholder of papal supremacy and ecclesiastical prerogatives.

Trained in the pitiless school of the Inquisition, the new Pontiff was inaccessible to compassion. The sight of the most terrible tortures, the cries of agonised humanity left him unmoved. Habit had inured him against sensibility of any sort, and his elevation to the Apostolic See could only mean a renewed impetus to the activities of the Holy Office. He was devoid of any of those weaknesses of the flesh which might have been a point of contact with his fellow creatures. He led the life of an anchorite—was incorruptible and sincere. He was convinced that he had been sent to regenerate mankind and extirpate evil, and was always on the alert to detect signs of it. He held all humanity in suspicion, always ready to pounce on its real or supposed frailties.Wearing a hair shirt himself, he considered physical pain the normal means of benefiting the soul. He has been accused of having taken a sadistic delight in inflicting and witnessing the excruciating torments practised on his helpless victims, but it is far more likely that they produced no reaction whatever on his petrified feelings. He was the monomaniac of forcible salvation.

Pius V had thoroughly disapproved of his predecessor, and showed his contempt for his memory by reversing the findings of the Caraffa's trial, declaring them to have been innocent, and pursuing their accusers and judges with relentless vindictiveness. Considering what unscrupulous villains all the Caraffa were, it is difficult to understand what can have aroused the austere Pontiff's sympathy for them. He was doubly illogical: firstly in vindicating such notorious malefactors, and secondly in invalidating the judgment of Pius IV, who approved of their execution; thus denying his predecessor the universal infallibility he so confidently claimed for himself. He shared Paul IV's arrogant self-assurance to the full, and was very [p. 102] apt to interfere in lay matters that were no concern whatever of his. Even Philip II, who had gained his esteem and approval by the zeal with which he encouraged the burning of his subjects suspected of heresy and the slaughter of Jews and Mussulmans in his dominions, had to remind the Pope pretty sharply that he was quite capable of managing his own affairs.

With Maximilian he was on frankly bad terms. There had been a dispute between the Dukes of Florence and Ferrara about some question of precedence which had been submitted to the arbitration of the Emperor. Without waiting for the monarch's decision, Pius issued a bull deciding the matter in favour of the Medici and concluding with this surprising argument:

In virtue of the supreme authority with which we are invested and which gives us the right to distribute titles to princes, in the same way as our first father Adam received from God the power to name the animals!

His subjects, naturally, came in for an overwhelming amount of spiritual solicitude. He forbade doctors to attend patients who had not confessed within three days. Blasphemy was punished by heavy fines for the wealthy and flogging for the poor. The Papal States were overrun with spies and informers, even the mentally deficient being subjected to examinations on their orthodoxy and condemned to the rack for their drivellings. Christian love and charity were sadly at a discount in all pontifical procedures. The commander of the small force which Pius sent to assist the French Catholics was instructed by him to take no Huguenot prisoners but to slay them all on the spot.

In his hatred for England, Pius urged Philip II to take command of an expedition against that heretical country, which would, he said, be the most glorious of all crusades. He offered practical assistance by authorising the King to make use of all the revenues due to the Holy See in the Spanish realm, and if the sum was still insufficient the gold chalices were to be melted down and all treasures taken from the churches. But Philip had no men to spare just then even for so admirable a purpose. His armies were fighting in the Netherlands, and the Moors, having risen as a result of the incessant vexations they were subjected to, were giving a good deal of trouble in Southern [p. 103] Spain. England would therefore have to wait her turn of chastisement.

The Pope was more fortunate in his attempts to form a league with Venice to fight the Turks who had attacked Cyprus. He sent several caravels to join the Spanish and Venetian fleets combined under the command of Don Juan of Austria. They made an imposing array of over 250 vessels, without counting the convoys. Most of the Italian princes had provided men and the force was well armed and disciplined. The Turks had a superior number of galleys but their weapons consisted mainly of bows and arrows, inefficient against armour. The fighting was terrific. The galley slaves begged for their liberty to join in the fray and fought like demons. They liberated their Christian fellow-sufferers in the Turkish vessels, who turned on their captors and considerably hastened the victorious issue of the battle. The sea, says the chronicler, was dyed with blood for leagues around, but the Cross was definitely triumphant over the Crescent, and Don Juan became the most popular hero in Christendom. This signal victory naturally gave Pius V intense satisfaction; all the bells in Rome were rung in jubilation and commands issued for public rejoicings.

The persistent anxiety shown by the great majority of popes during the XVth and XVIth centuries to organise crusades against the Turks was not always the result of unadulterated religious zeal. Venice had long been at war with the Ottoman Empire, who stood in the way of her expansion in the East, and the various Italian States, secretly jealous of her wealth and power, had complacently watched the struggle without ever lifting a finger to help her. When in 1479, the Republic having exhausted her supplies signed peace with Mahomet II, it left the Sultan at liberty to turn his attention to the Peninsula. His fleet besieged and captured Otranto, which his troops occupied for over a year. When news reached the Vatican that Mahomet had sworn "by the only God, to forsake sleep, to abstain from the taste of delicate food or the touch of beautiful things" till he had trodden underfoot the idol of the Christians (the Pope) and stamped out Christian iniquity, then anxiety gave way to panic at the Pontifical Court. The Sultan's sudden death a couple of years later relieved the situation of its most immediate terrors, but the alarm had been a sharp one and danger still lurked in the background. The complete routing of the dreaded foe was therefore a cause of [p. 104] very special jubilation to Italy; but nothing could dispel the gloom which brooded over the Papal States, where every man, woman and child lived in constant fear. The Turkish menace seemed very remote compared to that of the Inquisition.

For a few months more this blight endured, then the Pope fell seriously ill. The despot who had made the sacraments compulsory for the sick had to forgo this ultimate viaticum himself, as the narcotics administered to him for the purpose of allaying his sufferings rendered him unconscious: a more merciful end than that meted out to the unfortunate victims of his fanaticism.

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