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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry VIII

Francis I


Charles V

THE crowd that gathered about the cardinals as they entered the conclave after Adrian's death voiced its feelings without a shade of reticence. The people would not put up with another foreign pope.

The Romans announced their intention, if the Sacred College proved dilatory, of battering in the Vatican doors and assisting them forcibly to make up their minds. The cardinals bolted into the conclave like frightened rabbits into a warren. The menacing attitude of the mob lent their unattractive cubicles a welcome air of safety, and the electors showed no reluctance whatever at being immured. Thirty-four cardinals entered the conclave on October 1st; on the 3rd, news was brought that the Duke of Ferrara had seized Reggio, a Papal town, and was preparing to occupy Modena. Bankers were hastily summoned, and through the wicket terms were agreed upon for money to be sent at once to the menaced city to prepare it for defence. On October 6th three French cardinals arrived, so anxious to be in time to lend support to their party, that they did not even wait to change their clothes, but rode straight to the Vatican and demanded admittance. These travel-stained, booted and spurred prelates were received with disapproving glances by the custodians, who, however, had no choice but to usher them in. The Cardinal of Lorraine was wearing a crane-coloured velvet suit and a feathered hat which he discarded before entering. The French faction was jubilant at a reinforcement which they had not hoped for so early in the proceedings. Their party now numbered twenty-two, as Soderini had been liberated from S. Angelo to join the ranks of Medici's enemies. He had foolishly allowed himself to be caught red-handed in a plot to deliver Naples to the French, and Adrian VI had, on the advice of Medici, incarcerated him and deprived him of his right to vote at the conclave; but the majority of cardinals had insisted on his release, and so the late Pope's decree had been simply ignored.

Pope Clement VII
From the painting by del Piombo in the National Museum, Naples
The French party was subdivided into groups and lacked cohesion. [p. 64] Most of their Italian adherents had merely joined forces with them through hatred for Medici. Colonna was their leader and was well supported by Soderini. At a meeting in Colonna's cell his followers had bound themselves by a solemn oath not to elect Medici under any circumstances whatsoever. England still believed in the possibility of Wolsey's elevation and was distributing large sums of money among the electors. France was backing Monti or Farnese, and being quite ignorant of all the complexities of the situation, considered that the one or the other of her candidates was certain of success. The Emperor Charles had been as good as his word and was supporting Medici. The Spanish party, though only commanding seventeen votes, was really the strongest of the two, because it was united by a single purpose and could be absolutely trusted to remain staunch. As by October 8th the Sacred College had not even begun to vote seriously, the Romans prepared to put their threats into execution, and clamoured loudly for the enforcement of the regulations concerning the cardinals' meals. By October 25th Monti had collected nineteen votes and the French party was exultant. But Medici damped their spirits by declaring that a pope could not be made without him, and that he and his seventeen followers would sooner die in the Vatican than abandon their aim. In a few hours all Rome was informed how matters stood, and the Banchi were now offering odds on the length of the conclave instead of on the candidates.

The city magistrates again approached the custodians and insisted on the application of all the most rigorous measures obsolete or otherwise. On October 28th a great sensation was caused in the Vatican by the four chief French cardinals appearing at the turnstile and protesting against the excessive severity of their seclusion. They appealed to the officers for freedom to take exercise in the Belvedere gardens for two hours every morning and two hours every afternoon; and indeed their request was not unreasonable, as the conclavists, who considered that money was not free enough at this conclave, neglected their duties disgracefully. Most of the cells were in a repulsive state of filth and the general atmosphere more unbearably fetid than usual. The custodians called a meeting of the ambassadors, clergy, barons and Roman gentry, and the conclave was officially suspended for twenty-four hours, during which a deputation visited the premises. The result of this sanitary inspection was not only a refusal to grant [p. 65] the four hours' outing requested, but a general tightening-up of all restrictions. This of course was disappointing, but if they failed to obtain the fresh air they craved for, the cardinals got something else in exchange. With the deputation news of the greatest moment had penetrated into the conclave. In Northern Italy, where the armies of Charles V and Francis I were fighting, the French appeared to be losing ground and were retreating from Monza. It seemed infinitely preferable to be on the winning side and there were several immediate defections among Monti's half-hearted supporters.

The leaders of the French party then proposed Farnese, but without much success, and the middle of November still found the situation of the two parties apparently unchanged. The mob had several times made hostile demonstrations outside the Vatican, but the Medici partisans, who were well organised in Rome, had held the rioters in check. Meanwhile Colonna, who hated Farnese, was manoeuvring to bring forward a third candidate who he hoped would be acceptable to both parties, Cardinal Jacobacci. The French faction feigned acquiescence to his proposal, and he then decided to get into touch with Medici. He argued that an election of sorts must be made and that an outsider was the only solution. Medici, seemingly convinced, made no objection, only laying down one condition. He would give Jacobacci the votes he needed, if Colonna would guarantee that in the event of Jacobacci's failure his party would support Medici's. Colonna gave a written promise to that effect and the enemies parted on the best of terms. Medici had every reason to be satisfied, as he knew, by one of the French cardinals' conclavists who was in his pay, that the Cardinal de Lorraine though appearing to approve of Jacobacci had secretly given orders to his subordinates to vote against him; and so now the old fox Colonna was trapped at last!

When at the next scrutiny Jacobacci's name failed to reach the necessary majority Colonna's fury knew no bounds. He turned on the French cardinals in a paroxysm of rage, reproaching them for treachery and deceit, and became so violent that he was with difficulty restrained from assaulting them. Medici looked on quietly with a smile of satisfaction. Certainly Colonna's situation was unenviable. He had incited his party to take a solemn oath not to vote for Medici under any circumstances on the one hand, and he had signed an undertaking to support his election on the other. [p. 66]

For three whole days Colonna debated and deliberated, wondering which of the two pledges to break; then on the evening of November 18th news reached the conclave that the Imperialists had inflicted a crushing defeat on the French, which produced an immediate reaction in Medici's favour. Colonna and his followers hesitated no longer: they repaired to the chapel and released one another from their vow by mutual absolution. The next day, after a conclave lasting seven weeks, Medici was elected Pope and adopted the name of Clement VII. Each cardinal received one thousand ducats; Colonna was given the vice-chancellorship and the Riario palace, and Soderini was restored to all his possessions.

By rights Clement VII should never have received the hat, as he was of illegitimate birth, which made him non-eligible; but Leo X considered that half a Medici was any man's equal. Documents had been forthcoming which somehow or other satisfied the Sacred College, and this minor accident had not been allowed to stand in his nephew's way. The Roman people were jubilant over Clement's election; they hailed with acclamations the restorer of familiar pageants and festivities, little knowing the horrors and desolation which were awaiting them under this promising pontificate.

It was soon apparent that if the new Pope had ever deserved the reputation for wisdom and political sagacity which he had earned during the reign of Leo X, he had lost all claim to these qualities on becoming his own master. His policy consisted merely in being evasive and sitting on the fence between the French and the Imperialists, and when he found he could do so no longer he chose the alliance with Francis I because he feared above all things the council which the Emperor wished to assemble and he dared not face. He had not sufficient gratitude to remain loyal to the Emperor to whom he owed his elevation, nor enough foresight to grasp where his advantage lay. Charles V was naturally indignant when he saw what line of conduct the Pope had chosen, openly accusing him of poltroonery; and he even came surprisingly near to wishing Luther good luck. At the battle of Pavia in 1525 the French were completely routed and Francis I made a prisoner. Charles V was now master of all Northern Italy and Clement at his mercy. But the Pope had other enemies besides the Emperor. He had so mismanaged his old foe Colonna that their feud brought about the looting of the Vatican [p. 67] and of several papal churches by the Colonnesi in 1526.

It is no wonder that Clement VII's name is held in greater execration by Italians than that of any other Pontiff, for he himself was directly responsible for the sack of Rome, the appalling and devastating catastrophe which left its mark on the beautiful city for all time, and the horrors of which can never be forgotten. And yet Clement, judged by ordinary standards, was a far better man than most of his contemporaries. Quiet, unassuming, learned, it was not surprising that great hopes had been placed on him—but his qualities were all negative. He was timid, vacillating and small-minded. Drawn by the force of circumstances into the vortex of European politics, he proved himself an incapable ruler, and when he had wrecked the splendid ship he piloted and it was foundering in deep waters, he overlooked the sheet anchors and clutched at straws with childish tenacity. He was indeed only half a Medici. He had none of the magnificence and self-assurance of those princes. He was mean and diffident. The only object he pursued with any continuity of purpose was the establishment of his illegitimate children, but even there he was blundering and futile. Experience taught him nothing. Although he had had to take refuge in S. Angelo when Colonna had raided the Vatican, he still clung to a puerile belief in his inviolability and, having taken no steps whatever for the defence of the city, was waiting quietly in the palace, hoping for the best, while the imperial troops led by Bourbon were actually scaling the walls of Rome. He was rushed through the private passage to the fortress only just in time to escape capture—while the equally optimistic but now panic-stricken cardinals, who had delayed till the last moment to seek shelter, were fighting and scrambling to gain admittance at the gates. When the guards were ordered to drop the portcullis many of the prelates were left struggling outside. Cardinal Pucci, who had been knocked down and injured, was pushed in through a window by his attendants and Armellino was hoisted in a basket on to the battlements. The remainder were left to their fate, and an unenviable one it was.

The occupation of Rome by the barbarian hordes lasted seven months. What, one wonders, can have been the feelings of Clement VII when he caught a glimpse from the fortress of the devastation and sufferings his incapacity had brought upon the city? [p. 68] When Colonna, Bourbon's ally, entered Rome with his followers he was so awestruck at the sight which met his gaze that, forgetting all past differences and remembering only that he was a Roman, he sent a message to the Pope offering to clear out the intruders and to restore the city to the Holy See. But Clement refused his proffered aid. He preferred to see Rome in the clutches of the Imperialists sooner than to owe its release to Colonna. Meanwhile events were happening in Florence the news of which touched the Pontiff on the raw. The Florentines had overthrown the Medici and proclaimed a republic. Carducci, their gonfalonier, had proposed the election of Jesus Christ as perpetual sovereign of the city. The ensuing ballot had been favourable to the divine candidate, against whom, however, twenty votes had been recorded. The following proclamation was then issued: "Jesus Christ, King of the Florentines, elected by a decree of the people and senate".

The usurpation of his family's prerogatives by this unexpected competitor caused the Pope the most painful surprise. It would appear that he felt this celestial coup d'etat far more deeply than the sack of Rome or the length and hardships of his captivity, for when it came to discussing terms with the Emperor, he showed much more anxiety to recover Florence for his house than to regain the papal estates for the Holy See. He absolved the imperial troops of all the crimes and atrocities committed by them in Rome and sent them to wreak his vengeance on the Florentines, whose envoys he excommunicated and refused to receive. Florence put up a heroic resistance and held her own for almost a year, but reduced by famine and pestilence, with no allies to give her a helping hand, her downfall was inevitable. She surrendered against a promise of general amnesty from Clement. The Florentines must have known what value to set on it, but they had no choice. The Medici Pope's vengeance was ruthless, and he continued to vent his rancour on the unfortunate citizens during the remaining years of his pontificate, setting far greater store by his family fortunes than by the important issues then at stake in Christendom. Peter's barque was indeed on the rocks and ominously near disruption.

Most of Germany had thrown off the papal yoke, and England had followed her example. It had now become impossible for Clement, who was completely at the Emperor's mercy, to grant Henry VIII the divorce he sought. Charles V, Katherine of Aragon's [p. 69] nephew, could no longer be defied. So Henry broke with Rome, and Clement's excommunication left him unscathed and indifferent. The Church of Rome was now incalculably lowered in authority and prestige, but the Pope did not seem unduly troubled. Up to the last his interests centred in the Medici, and the marriage of his niece Catherine to the son of Francis I filled him with joy and pride; he died with the calm satisfaction of one who has achieved success.

The Romans adopted a primitive method of expressing their contempt and execration for the man who had thrown them to the wolves. If it had not been for the late Pontiff's nephew, Cardinal Medici, whose power was still to be reckoned with, it is likely that Clement's body would have been subjected to every indignity and his monument destroyed. As it was, his tomb had to be cleansed every morning of the pollutions with which it was defaced every night, and a painter kept perpetually at work renewing the inscription. Finally the lettering was cut into the marble; an unnecessary precaution against oblivion, for the name of Clement VII, the Pope responsible for the sack of Rome, is indelibly printed across one of most ghastly pages of history.

 Pius III  Julius II  Leo X  Adrian VI  Clement VII  Paul III  Julius III  Marcellus II  Paul IV  Pius IV  Pius V  Gregory XIII  Sixtus V  Urban VII  Gregory XIV  Innocent IX  Clement VIII

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