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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Clement XI  Innocent XIII  Benedict XIII  Clement XII  Benedict XIV  Clement XIII  Clement XIV  Pius VI




George II

Louis XV

Charles VII
Francis I
and Maria

Philip V
Ferdinand VI

NERI CORSINI was well aware that his only chance of winning the coming battle lay in his pursuing the strategy which had proved so successful in the last election. But it necessitated freedom of action and access to his friends which he would lose as soon as he entered the Vatican. He therefore set to work some time before his uncle's death, and in a letter written by him to the Court of Versailles we find a lucid account of the situation. He explains that much as he would like to see one of his own creatures raised to the Holy See, the thing is quite impossible. They are all modern in their outlook; Spain and Austria will certainly exclude them, and their youth will rouse the old cardinals to violent opposition. The new pope therefore must be chosen from among the seniors and yet his sympathies must be with his juniors.

Although these two conditions appeared well-nigh incompatible, Corsini had been fortunate enough to discover the man who fulfilled them both. This paragon was Cardinal Lambertini, whom he describes as a clever, broad-minded, amiable prelate, sixty-five years of age and therefore acceptable both to the young and to the old parties. As soon as he received from Versailles authority to do so, Corsini would treat with Lambertini, whose goodwill towards France he could answer for personally; but he impresses on his correspondent the vital importance of discretion, as only through apparent hostility can the plan succeed.

Pope Benedict XIV
From a print in the British Museum
The Sacred College had now its full complement of members, and Neri was leader of the thirty-two cardinals created by Clement XII; but several of these would not attend the conclave, the young Infante of Spain being among the absentees.

Albani's following consisted of sixteen prelates, an inferior number to Corsini's, it is true, but a more stable and dependable force. Albani had also in his favour the accumulated experience of four conclaves, besides much natural cunning and entire freedom from [p. 252] scruples in the choice of weapons wherewith to defeat his opponents. The struggle promised to be grim and protracted. Corsini had no illusions on that score and quite realised that, face to face with Albani and isolated from his ordinary surroundings, he would be at a serious disadvantage. He was a subtle diplomat, but more familiar with the atmosphere of courts and the salons of fair ladies than with that of the ecclesiastical arena of the Vatican. He resolved therefore to enter the conclave with the election of his nominee already assured, and yet to keep the fact so absolutely secret that he should appear to have his own choice forced upon him against his will.

The Court of Versailles had not only given unqualified approval to the Cardinal-Nephew's selection but entered so conscientiously into his scheme of deceit that immediately after Clement's death Louis XV's Foreign Minister wrote to his colleague in Vienna with a proposal of co-operation in the coming conclave. He suggested several candidates, from among which, needless to say, Lambertini's name was omitted. Corsini meanwhile had secured the support of the King of Sardinia and strengthened his position with his own faction, so that when the conclave assembled on February 18th he felt confident of an ultimate victory.

Serious as his misgivings had been regarding his encounter with the veteran conclavist, Corsini soon discovered that he had underrated the difficulties of the enterprise. For six interminable months the contest dragged on, the duellists each in turn advancing, retreating, thrusting and parrying and having recourse to every known trick, feint and artifice of the swordsman. The task of contriving a defeat which under the appearance of discomfiture would in reality be a crowning victory did not, however, prove beyond Corsini's competence, although he had to contend not only with the pitfalls prepared for him by his antagonists, but also with those innocently dug for him by his friends.

Infatuated though he was with the Duchess Salviati, Corsini had wisely refrained from letting her into the secret of his plans, and she, all eagerness to serve him, contrived with the assistance of Tencin, a French prelate who knew nothing of the Lambertini conspiracy, to forward the candidature of d'Elci, a faithful follower of Corsini's. This skirmish of course came to nothing, but it created a most awkward situation for the leader, who must have felt anything but [p. 253] grateful for this ill-timed manifestation of the lady's attachment.

It was consonant with Corsini's policy occasionally to propose a candidate, but he was careful to select those among his creatures who would be more particularly unacceptable to the older faction or to the Emperor. Their downfall alternated with that of Albani's own candidates who were chosen with a view to gaining time, while their leader's spies endeavoured to discover what Corsini's game really was. They failed however to pick up the trail and the situation remained unchanged. But the supply of candidates was not inexhaustible, and gradually through death and elimination only two papabili remained standing in the older party: Aldobrandini and Lambertini. It was a well-known fact that Albani detested the former, so Corsini prompted Cardinal de Polignac to propose him, which the Frenchman did at once.

The only excuse Albani could possibly give for refusing to support a member of his own party was that he had already decided on another—and that other could be none but Lambertini! The net was being drawn in, victory was in sight; but the battle was not yet won, for Aldobrandini had many partisans and Corsini had to appear in sympathy with them. Such an unscrupulous enemy as Albani, however, could be relied on to wreck Aldobrandini's chances, and he soon showed what methods he intended to resort to, by forging, or causing to be forged, a letter purporting to be written to him by Aldobrandini, accusing his rival Lambertini of the vilest crimes. Copies of this letter were circulated among the electors, and the most gullible cardinals, without pausing to consider how unlikely it was that a respectable prelate such as Aldobrandini should have been capable of this stupid piece of villainy, immediately called an indignation meeting which resulted in their going over in a body to Lambertini's side.

On hearing the news, Corsini managed to compose his features to an expression of sullen despair so marvellously realistic that it almost defeated his object, as most of his creatures, naïvely believing in his grievous disappointment, declared their intention of organising Lambertini's exclusion at any cost. It took the gifted comedian most of the night to convince his followers of the advisability of bowing to the inevitable, and his relief must have been intense when at last, with bent head and resigned bearing, he led his party to Albani's cell [p. 254] to offer its support to his candidate.

The entire assembly then marched off to Lambertini's cubicle to bear him in triumph to the chapel, but to the surprise of the anxious leaders they found the cubicle empty. The suffragists immediately dispersed to search for the lost sheep so soon to become the shepherd, and he was eventually discovered sound asleep stretched out on a couple of chairs at the remotest end of one of the large halls. On being awakened and asked to explain this strange whim, Lambertini answered very simply that he had wanted to put as great a distance as he could between himself and the vermin which infested his cubicle, and rolling over, begged their Eminences to allow him to resume his slumbers. But there was no more sleep for him that morning; he was hustled off to the chapel, and by nine o'clock had become Pope Benedict XIV.

The part Corsini had so cleverly played in this election soon came to light, for the agreement made with France gave ample proof of it. Besides the office of Secretary of State he was to be given the leadership of the French party with a yearly income of 30,000 crowns. Whatever feelings of resentment those he had so successfully hoodwinked may have harboured against him, his colleagues one and all agreed that a campaign conducted with such consummate ability, discretion and tenacity deserved its reward and few grudged him the fruits of his victory. As to the world at large it soon realised that Corsini had given the Church of Rome the most admirable and popular Pontiff it had ever known.

Benedict XIV was sixty-seven years of age at the time of his elevation to the Holy See. He was a native of Bologna and had made a great reputation as Legal Adviser to the Consistory. He was an expert on canonical jurisprudence and had written many books on the subject. He was also passionately interested in science, art and historical research. He had the most engaging manners, his unfailing cheerfulness was infectious and his charm irresistible. He prepared to govern the Papal States as he had governed his archbishopric—by being a father to his people, protecting the weak and showing tolerance to all. His plan was to restore Papacy to its former glory by rejuvenating the spirit of the institution and bringing it into line with contemporary progress. His accession to the supreme dignity left him unaltered in every way; his whimsicality, his friendliness, his [p. 255] rectitude, his broad-minded piety withstood the test of power, and he remained until Leo XIII's advent the only witty Pontiff on record.

Benedict XIV was situated exactly as his predecessors had been, he had no means at his disposal which they had lacked; and yet he rose immediately to a position of the greatest import, owing entirely to personal prestige. He was the first Pope to acknowledge and accept the inevitable changes time had wrought in Europe, and to adapt himself to the new order of things. He had grasped the fact that among the great nations who ruled the destinies of the world England, Prussia and Russia had come to the very forefront, and that their influence rivalled if it did not outweigh that of the Catholic Powers. He recognised that the practical good sense and the maritime and industrial genius of England had displaced the decadent might of Spain; that Prussian energy and Prussian military organisation would be fatal to Austrian incompetence and that Orthodox Russia was bound to subdue Catholic Poland.

With his Italian neighbours Benedict kept on the best of terms. He ratified the concordat Benedict XIII had signed with the King of Sardinia and which Clement XII had annulled. He conceded to the new King of Sicily, son of Philip V, several privileges he had so far claimed in vain. Only in matters connected with his spiritual realm did he show any symptoms of censoriousness, making new and stringent rules concerning canonisation. He also took energetic measures to prevent the exploiting of the credulous faithful through the agency of pseudo-miracles and pseudo-saints.

A succession of royal visitors appeared at the Quirinal bent on paying their respects to the Sovereign Pontiff. Besides the Kings of Sicily and Sardinia, the Margravine of Bayreuth travelled to Rome bearing messages of deference and amity from her brother Frederick II of Prussia. All the European monarchs vied with one another to obtain his good graces and felt honoured by his friendship. The Empress Elizabeth of Russia always referred to him as "Benedict the Wise", and even Sultan Mohammed sent his Ambassadors to lay sumptuous gifts at the Pontiff's feet. Nothing that a great and liberal ruler could devise to encourage science, art, letters and commerce did Benedict neglect. He was generous and unaffected; he laid aside half his revenues to pay off the debts of the Apostolic Chamber; he kept his relations at a distance, but enriched Bologna, his native city, [p. 256] by building and endowing public institutions.

The whole of Europe sang his praises; even Voltaire the atheist, Voltaire, the relentless foe of the Church of Rome, dedicated a play and several odes to His Holiness! For a time the Pope lost the popularity he had acquired in England, as he was suspected of having assisted the Young Pretender in his disastrous expedition of 1745. If such was the case he would surely have made some attempt to intercede for the Catholic clergy who suffered so severely in the Stuart cause; it is unthinkable that he should calmly have left to their fate subordinates who had merely followed his lead. It is much more likely that the Jesuits used his name to further their own ends. George II, who should have been well informed on the subject, never showed the slightest distrust of the Pope or any animosity towards him. On the contrary, he allowed the bulls which Benedict issued concerning ecclesiastical discipline to be openly published in all the Catholic districts of the kingdom; a thing unheard of since the days of Charles I.

Horace Walpole professed the deepest admiration for the Pontiff and procured a statue of him from Italy on the pedestal of which he caused the inscription to be engraved:






A copy of this inscription was forwarded to Rome and, modest though he was, this "incense" from such an unexpected quarter cannot have failed, one imagines, to gratify the "Bishop of Rome". He read it with a smile, shaking his head in deprecation of so flattering a tribute, and exclaimed: "Alas! I am like the statues of the Piazza S. Pietro—admirable at a distance but monstrous when seen at close quarters!"

Benedict XIV would not have been so lovable had he not been human, and he had his failings as even the best of mortals will have; he could not resist the fascination of cards, and was addicted to profane language, or as one of his early biographers terms it, "unfortunate phraseology". The godly Pontiff never managed to cure himself of this bad habit although he made every effort to do so. As the sight of a crucifix had a restraining effect on his fluency, he had one placed in every room; but even this pious device was not always adequate. There is a story to the effect that, playing cards one day with a hopelessly blundering partner, he found the strain of controlling himself so unbearable that, signing to an attendant to remove the hallowed impediment, he exploded with such a volley of oaths that his terrified partner hid his face in his hands while the other players kept exclaiming: "Holy Father! For God's sake, Holy Father!" in an attempt to drown his voice. Having obtained the necessary relief Benedict recovered his equanimity, the crucifix was brought back and the game resumed. Bridge players, no doubt, will readily condone such an excusable lapse from grace!

The Pontiff always mistrusted the Jesuits and by his last official decree granted to Pombal, the Prime Minister of Portugal, authority to reform the abuses introduced by the Society in the educational and commercial enterprises which were under its control. Benedict [p. 258] never lost his gaiety, good sense and lucidity. To the last his bright blue eyes sparkled with humour and cordiality. He died after a very short and merciful illness, at the age of eighty-three, on May 10th, 1758, after eighteen years of the wisest and most beneficent of pontificates.

 Clement XI  Innocent XIII  Benedict XIII  Clement XII  Benedict XIV  Clement XIII  Clement XIV  Pius VI

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