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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Pius VII  Leo XII  Pius VIII  Gregory XVI  Pius IX




George IV

Charles X

Francis I

Ferdinand VII

CONSALVI had died very shortly after Leo XII's accession, and his party, now called the "Progressists", was even weaker and less united than it had been in his lifetime. The Zelanti on the contrary were a compact solid phalanx knowing exactly what they wanted and why they wanted it. To guard against the remotest danger of backsliding, their leaders had exacted a solemn oath from the members of the faction never to leave their cells so long as the conclave lasted except to go to the chapel. They were to receive no visitors but those who could give the secret password, and a large white cross was to mark their doors.

For various reasons the Catholic Powers mistrusted these Knights of the White Cross, Austria because she feared that a fanatical pope would attempt to shake off her thraldom, and France because, in spite of her reactionary King, the country was tending more and more towards liberalism and the country's wishes could no longer be disregarded. Metternich attempted to form a League of the Powers to oppose the Zelanti, but the interests of the various countries were too much at variance to make it efficacious. Moreover, the diplomatic corps, except for Châteaubriand, was as incompetent as ever. Count Lützow, the Austrian Ambassador, was pleasant and civil, but his chief claim to distinction seems to have been based on his wife's fine soprano voice, though Châteaubriand complained that she always sang the same tune. Baron de Bunsen, the Prussian Minister, was absorbed in scientific research, an occupation far more congenial to him than dabbling in electoral intrigues. Prince Gagarin, the Russian representative, lived entirely on memories of his prowesses in the field of gallantry, no other subject being of the slightest interest to him. The Marquis de Labrador, the Spanish Ambassador, was a taciturn, solemn diplomat, who shunned society, went for long solitary walks, and his French colleague confessed to having failed to discover whether his thoughts were too deep to be expressed in [p. 312] words or whether his mind was a complete blank. Fuscaldo, the Sicilian Minister, "represented Naples as winter would represent the spring", for he was sombre and suspicious, for ever obsessed by his terror of the carbonari, the Sicilian brotherhood of death which had threatened his life. Funchal, the Portuguese Minister, described as being as ugly as a monkey, had an overwhelming passion for music and would have given all the conclaves which had ever been held for an aria of Mozart's.

Among these men who, whatever their specialised talents may have been, could scarcely lay claim to being distinguished diplomatists, Châteaubriand naturally stood out as the most prominent personality. He made up in supreme self-confidence for whatever he may have lacked in electoral experience and always remained convinced that he had personally managed the conclave, and had done so with remarkable skill. It was customary for the ambassadors of the great Catholic Powers to address a few words to the Sacred College before leaving the precincts of the conclave; but Châteaubriand, as the greatest French writer of his day, considered himself entitled to more than a short speech. He was not disposed to let such an opportunity escape him of displaying his gifts of eloquence, to which his perfect elocution did full justice. So for over an hour he flooded the unfortunate prelates, most of whom could scarcely understand a word of French, with torrents of the most admirable rhetoric and faultless classical periods. His sublime flights of imagination soared ever higher in the spheres of hyperbole, reaching at last a climax irreproachable, both in its logical sequence and perfection of language, but completely wasted on the bored and sleepy or exasperated cardinals who had but the vaguest glimmering of what it was all about!

The conclave set to work as soon as the preliminary ceremonies were over, and by the middle of March the French faction proposed Gregorio, whose candidature appeared promising enough. He was eighty years old and belonged to the moderate Zelanti party, not to that of the grim wearers of the white cross. He was clever, still very active and his morality was above suspicion; but he was known to be hostile to the Jesuits, and the Society would strenuously oppose his elevation to power. Albani also would be anxious to defeat any French candidate, as Châteaubriand had been so ill-advised as to let [p. 313] it be known that he held the veto against him. Unable to take a personal revenge on the Ambassador, the prelate was determined to work it off on his nominee and did not hesitate to spread a rumour that Gregorio, who was a Sicilian, had at one time been affiliated to the carbonari. Nothing could have been more absurd than such an accusation, yet it took effect on several of the most credulous suffragists and resulted in a distinct dwindling in the number of Gregorio's followers. The libel was all the more ridiculous as Gregorio was known to be a son of Charles IV of Spain, was proud of his royal parentage and held all revolutionary ideas in abhorrence. He had approached the Catholic ambassadors with a plea for support on the grounds that, being of Bourbon blood, he hoped their respective Sovereigns would favour his elevation to the Apostolic See. His exalted relatives, however, were less impressed by his claims to kinship than by his avowed enmity towards the Society of Jesus, and Charles X, behind the back of his Ambassador in Rome, was actively working to defeat him.

Châteaubriand was in despair; he could not understand why his candidate was losing ground and came to the conclusion that it must be a question of money. His despatches to Portalis bear repeated reference to the subject; a few millions, he keeps writing, would make success a certainty. But where were these few millions to come from? French finances were at a distressingly low ebb, and the Ambassador was finding it increasingly difficult to obtain occasional drafts on what was due to him personally by the Treasury. However ardent his zeal in Gregorio's cause might be, as time wore on, Châteaubriand, with an eye on the ever-increasing sum of his arrears of pay, ceased referring to the subject of electoral subsidies, while his candidate's name gradually faded away from the scrutinies.

Albani's ambition was not, as Châteaubriand imagined, to become Pope, but to secure for himself the office of Secretary of State, a far safer and more remunerative one at this juncture than the pontificate itself. While he was still searching among his colleagues for the man most likely to answer his purpose, various names, to none of which any importance was attached, appeared on the ballot papers, one of them giving rise to a somewhat unedifying incident in the chapel itself. A certain Cardinal Vidoni, who had led the most shockingly immoral life and fully realised his own unworthiness, was amazed one [p. 314] day to hear his name read out by the scrutator: "Is the Holy Ghost drunk?" he bluntly exclaimed! Then addressing his colleagues, he requested in most unparliamentary terms to be told "who the — might be who was trying to make a fool of him"! His expression of puzzled irritation was so comical, and the word he had used so incongruous in such surroundings, that practically the whole assembly burst out laughing, only a few of the wearers of the white cross managing to compose their features to an expression of disgusted reprobation.

The only papabile Albani could find who was likely to suit his requirements was Castiglione, who had come so near to being elected in the last conclave and indeed would have been had he consented openly to disavow Consalvi's patronage. He was old and such a physical wreck that he would certainly be incapable of taking any active part in the government of his realm, and be only too relieved to hand the reins over to Albani. The undoubted influence Albani exerted over the Sacred College was due partly to his great wealth and position, and partly to his own strange forceful personality. He was not a lovable person; miserly, cynical and so dirty and ill-kempt that he was commonly known as "the pig". But this unflattering nickname, of which he was well aware, troubled him so little that he often used it when referring to himself.

Having selected his candidate and being assured of the necessary majority of votes, he now drew up an agreement by which he secured the appointment of Secretary of State, which had all along been his objective, and in addition inserted a clause by which he would have the monopoly of advancing money to the Holy See, a financial transaction which was certain to prove most advantageous to himself. Castiglione signed the treaty without demur and on March 31st became Pope Pius VIII.

Châteaubriand, under pretext that he had patronised Castiglione at the last election, claimed his share of kudos in Albani's victory and wrote to Paris in most optimistic vein, especially as he took Gregorio's nomination to the office of Grand Penitentiary as a personal act of courtesy to himself! Belatedly Pius VII's prophecy had come true; but very belatedly indeed, for the new Pontiff had only a few months to live and was not in a condition to enjoy the advantages of his high dignity. He had an excellent record: as Bishop of Cesena in [p. 315] 1808, acting under the Pope's orders, he had refused to take the oath of allegiance to Napoleon as King of Italy—the result being his incarceration in the Castle of Mantua, from which prison he was later transferred to another in the South of France. Freed in 1816, he had taken up his residence in Rome at the time when Pius himself had just returned from Genoa, and the similarity of their tribulations had laid the foundations of a genuine friendship between the two Napoleonic victims. The Pontiff bestowed the hat on Castiglione, and always treated him with affectionate familiarity.

As a cardinal, Castiglione had continued to live modestly, made no enemies, and although his own private life had always been irreproachable, he had shown no signs of censoriousness where others were concerned. He suffered from a very painful and distressing complaint, having perpetually suppurating sores on his neck and body, and was far too ill and feeble to do more than sign the documents presented to him by Albani, who ruled the Papal States as autocratically as though he had himself worn the triple crown. Albani allowed the reactionary impetus given to the internal policy of the Government under Leo XII to run its course, but his foreign policy was frankly pro-Austrian. He was generally feared and distrusted, and there was a violent and mutual antipathy between him and Châteaubriand. When the French Ambassador paid him his first official visit after Pius's enthronement, Albani, having pointedly and at length surveyed his caller's elegant attire and impeccable appearance, remarked: "Well, well . . . and so you have come to see the pig!" To which unconventional words of welcome the punctilious diplomat could find no adequate rejoinder!

The July revolution of 1830 in Paris, which cost Charles X his throne, reverberated all over Europe. Numerous risings occurred in the Papal States, but the insurrectionary movement was badly organised, the leaders differing as to their aims and the means of attaining them. Some wanted one prince, some another, while a third party insisted on a Republic; but they all rallied to the battle-cry of "Down with ecclesiastical tyranny!" Albani turned to Austria for assistance to subdue the Pope's rebellious subjects, and in the midst of all the turmoil, on November 30th, Pius VIII died and Albani ceased to reign.

 Pius VII  Leo XII  Pius VIII  Gregory XVI  Pius IX

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