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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




William III
George I

Louis XIV
Louis XV

Leopold I
Joseph I
Charles VI

Philip V

[p. 223]   THE pitiable object known to the world at large as King Charles II of Spain took thirty-six years to die. He was born moribund, not attempting to stand or even to lisp till fully five years old. The most sanguine members of his household had never expected him to survive the crucial years of adolescence; yet he lingered on, and by and by, to the general amazement, grew to a state of semi-manhood. More surprising still, having been married to a healthy, normal young woman, the vivacious Louise d'Orléans, he not only managed to outlive her, but was soon clamouring for another wife, his second consort being Anne of Neuburg, a sister-in-law of the Emperor Leopold.

It was common knowledge that Charles could never expect to become a father, and being the last of his line, the competition to provide him with an heir was naturally very keen. Most of the Continental rulers cast greedy eyes on his vast inheritance, the three most important pretenders to his succession being the Duc d'Anjou, representing the claims of France, the Archduke Charles those of the Empire, and the Duke of Savoy standing for his own.

The interested parties, losing patience at Charles' protracted dallying on the brink of the grave, threw decency to the winds and held several conferences to discuss the apportioning of his possessions. Surreptitiously, of course, each claimant had brought to bear all the influence he could dispose of through bribery or intrigue, to induce the Spanish monarch to make a will in his favour; and now that he was under the influence of a German queen and getting weaker day by day, the imperial candidate's chances seemed the most promising. But just as Innocent XII had made use of the Jesuits' spiritual ascendancy over Louis XIV to attain his ends, so did Louis XIV make use of the Pope's spiritual ascendancy over Charles II to attain his own. The Holy Father's advice to such a devout, childlike being was to him as the voice of conscience itself. It outweighed his natural inclination towards the Habsburgs—his own house—it outweighed [p. 224] his tremulous resentment of Louis' high-handed methods—it outweighed the influence of his wife and his distaste for final decisions. It spurred him to the stupendous effort of proclaiming officially his sovereign will that Louis XIV's grandson should be recognised as his heir.

The triumph of the Bourbons would have been unalloyed had Charles, after making this momentous pronouncement and with a due sense of fitness, turned his face to the wall and expired then and there, instead of outstaying his welcome with such provoking persistence, thus encouraging the frustrated competitors to renewed and frantic efforts to regain lost ground. The death of Innocent XII threw all the actors of this tragi-comedy into a fever of expectation; for if a Francophobe pontiff could be elected before Charles II passed away, there was no reason why he should not prevail on the dying monarch to revoke his former will and appoint another heir. The Empire and Savoy therefore were prepared to strain every nerve to hasten the coming election, while France on the contrary would strive by every means in her power to delay it until Charles was safely out of the way.

As was usual in such moments of international crisis the political tendencies of the future pope were considered intensely important, though the Powers must have known that in any case war was now inevitable. Neither Louis XIV nor Leopold was likely to relinquish his claims because the Pope happened to favour his opponent; nor were the Italian rulers more likely to be influenced by his opinion where the repartition of the Spanish territories in Italy was concerned, if Roman sympathies proved at variance with their own interests. Nevertheless they one and all leapt into the electoral arena with desperate earnestness. The Duke of Savoy, under an appearance of reserve and aloofness, was no less eager and agitated than his neighbours. For years his agent in Rome, Count Graneri, had been at work unearthing the candidate most likely to further his master's interests, and was convinced he had now discovered him. Graneri, who was thoroughly conversant with Roman Court intrigues and in personal touch with all the leading members of the Sacred College, had taken Cardinal Barberini into his confidence and together they had selected Cardinal Albani as the man best adapted to their purpose. Albani was young—only fifty years of age—a Roman born and bred, [p. 225] who, never having left the capital, had not been exposed to any foreign influences and was under no foreign obligations. His father had been a steward of the Barberini and he himself had held important offices under the three last pontificates, his charming, courteous manners making him a general favourite. He was by known his intimate friends to hold strong views on the independence of Italy and seemed the very man Savoy needed, his nationalism according admirably with the Duke's dynastic ambitions.

The Prince of Monaco had succeeded Chaulnes as French Ambassador to the Holy See, the poor old Duke having been recalled immediately after Innocent XII's enthronement; but d'Estrées would still be head of the French faction at the coming conclave where Mme de Maintenon was to have her own private representative—Cardinal de Noailles, whose conclavists and attendants had all been selected by the lady herself. The other prelates forming the French faction were Coislin, Le Camus, Rodolevitch, and Arquien, father of the Queen of Poland. As to Bouillon, he was in deep disgrace with the King for having had the audacity to claim the title of "Prince Dauphin". Louis had dismissed him from his office of Grand Almoner, requested him to return the insignia of the order of the Holy Ghost, and banished him from the kingdom. The French cardinals had strict orders to abstain from all intercourse with him; in fact he was to be treated as he himself had treated Altieri in the days of that prelate's disfavour.

Venice seemed disposed to side with France, but was suspected of playing an underhand game to suit her own purpose, under pretext of leaving her subjects free to follow the dictates of their conscience. Leopold, who had had good cause to regret the confidence he had placed in Medina-Coeli's judgment at the last conclave, had now entrusted Medici with his interests thinking that as an Italian he would be better able to discern the real character and political tendencies of his compatriots than could a foreigner. Such reasoning was no doubt sound; but unfortunately for the Emperor Medici was in no mood to trouble himself with anybody's concerns but his own. He was now the last surviving member of his house, and intended, as soon as the conclave was over, to relinquish his ecclesiastical dignities and make a suitable marriage to perpetuate his line. It could not be long before he was called upon to succeed his father Cosimo III as [p. 226] Grand Duke of Tuscany, and he had his own political aims to foster. Medici had willingly accepted the appointment of Cardinal Padrone of the Imperialists which carried with it important emoluments and an influential position, but it was not on Leopold's account but entirely on his own that such influence would be exerted. Medici like Savoy wanted a nationalistic pontiff who would see eye to eye with the Italian rulers among whom he himself would so soon be called to occupy a prominent position. Leopold had mentioned no names in his instructions to the leader of his party. As Medici could not fail to realise the importance of securing the elevation of a thoroughly Francophobe pontiff, the Emperor had merely written that he would be satisfied, if no better candidate could be found, with a docile, unassuming individual, so long as there was no question of his having had any previous understanding with the French.

Such on broad lines was the situation of the various factions when the conclave assembled on October 10th, 1700, only thirty-eight prelates answering the first roll-call. The French cardinals dribbled in singly at several days' interval, disclaiming any knowledge of the King's wishes, his instructions being entrusted to Cardinal de Noailles, who would be the last, they said, to reach the Vatican. Candidates and exclusions were equally numerous, and d'Estrées raised no objection to a few preliminary ballots taking place to clear the ground for more serious action. Leopold had made some advances to Bouillon who was presumably smarting under the treatment meted out to him by his Sovereign; but whatever his inward feelings may have been the would-be "Prince Dauphin" clung staunchly to his compatriots and always voted with them.

Altieri was the same secret and invaluable ally that he had proved to be at the last conclave. Besides defeating all the efforts of the dogmatic and inflexible Zelante to hasten on an election, he also managed to persuade Medici that as all the chances seemed in favour of a Bourbon reigning in Spain it would be advisable to delay matters till Noailles arrived on the scene with the latest information from Versailles. Rumours were rife that Charles was now dead, in which case it would indeed be rash for the future ruler of Tuscany to make an enemy of Louis XIV. Altieri's advice proved sound enough, for when at last Noailles made his tardy appearance he officially confirmed the news of the Spanish monarch's demise and announced the [p. 227] departure of Philip V for Madrid where he had probably arrived by then. He was also the bearer of a proposal from the French King to the Duke of Savoy offering to exchange Savoy for the kingdom of Sicily, Louis XIV wishing no doubt to wipe the Alps off the map as he had the Pyrenees.

From Medici's letters to the Grand Duke it is quite evident that the Cardinal Patron of the Imperialists was calmly negotiating with the French, utterly regardless of Leopold's interests, nor was he in the least subservient to the wishes of his priest—ridden father, who would have liked a fanatical pontiff to be raised to the Holy See. Medici's views were not likely to coincide with Cosimo's in that respect; the candidates' connections or influence with rich heiresses being of much more interest to him than their religious fervour. Proceeding by elimination Medici and d'Estrées found that only two names now remained on their list—Albani and Acciaioli, the last a great favourite with Mme de Maintenon and also protected by Venice, which made him less acceptable to the Florentine. As to the Spanish party they were like a flock of lost sheep, their shepherd, the Ambassador Duke d'Uzeda, being a timid, irresolute diplomat, incapable of coping with the anomalous situation in which he found himself. He had been appointed by a Habsburg monarch and had not been notified of the change of dynasty. During the reign of Charles II the standing orders of the Spanish faction had been to follow the lead of the imperialists; so much so that we have seen Medina-Coeli apply to the Emperor for orders and exclusions. Uzeda demurred at breaking on his own authority with established custom and tradition, and yet if Spain was now ruled by Louis XIV's grandson he could scarcely throw in his lot with the Emperor!

The prelates were all anxiety to get the election over, and the house of Medici, which would never again have a representative in the Sacred College, made a brilliant exit from the history of conclaves in which it had played such an important part; for now the future Grand Duke took matters entirely in his own hands. Albani seemed the most promising candidate from his point of view, so he set out to persuade d'Estrées to adopt him definitely to the exclusion of Acciaioli. It took Medici the best part of the night to attain his object, but when he separated from the French leader he had his promise of support. Arriving at dawn exhausted, but exultant, in his own cell, [p. 228] he found there his Spanish, Neapolitan and Milanese colleagues waiting to offer him their allegiance. Under his wing they felt secure from the displeasure both of Leopold, who had entrusted Medici with the leadership of the imperialists, and from Louis, whose party were supporting Medici's nominee.

The whole assembly was now in a state of feverish excitement, but Medici needed rest and insisted on having it, postponing the actual election to the morrow. He acted wisely, for his labours and anxieties were not yet over. The prodigies of tact and diplomacy he had expended on inducing the French leader to accept Albani as Pope, he now had to renew so as to induce Albani to accept the supreme dignity. Albani's most noted partisans—Barberini, Ottoboni, and Altieri—gathered round Medici to make a concerted attack: they then took it in turns to try their gifts of persuasion singly on the recalcitrant Pope-elect. Between them they reduced him to a state of collapse, and the officious conclavists having plied him with too generous an amount of restoratives, the overwrought patient showed such alarming symptoms of hysteria that the dispensary had to be ransacked for the most potent sedatives. The majority of Albani's colleagues were convinced that he was acting a part to disarm the suspicions of the French faction; but Graneri in a letter to the Duke of Savoy gives another explanation of his strange behaviour. He says that Albani, having solemnly sworn to renounce nepotism and seeing no loophole of escape from the consequences of his oath, became panic-stricken at the idea of the quarrels and recriminations awaiting him in his family circle. He was burdened with several ambitious nephews and a sister-in-law who dominated him as Donna Olympia had dominated Innocent X. Being a determined and spirited woman, she was likely to make a vigorous attempt to induce him to break his pledge, and he shrank from the encounter.

The entire Sacred College had mustered for the scrutiny, but Medici would not allow the bell to be rung until the doctor, who was in permanent attendance on Albani, had sent him word that his patient was in a more amenable frame of mind. Reports being still unsatisfactory, he requested the cardinals to disperse till further summonses were issued. On September 21st Albani was said to be calmer but still obdurate.

On the 22nd he received a few visitors, his appearance being [p. 229] cadaverous but his manner more normal.

On the 23rd he asked for a conference of theologians to be called who would discuss the subject and determine where his duty lay.

During the conference Albani refused to see anybody, being deep in meditation and no doubt nerving himself to face the verdict. The learned men's decision was that it was incumbent on Albani to accept the papal crown, but that he would not sin in refusing it. When informed of the conclusion arrived at by the casuists, the future Pope is said to have wept copiously, whether from relief or sorrow no one can tell, but as he wept no less copiously at various other moments of his career it was perhaps his habitual manner of expressing emotion. Immediately after his proclamation as Pope Clement XI, however, he dried his tears for the time being and faced his new obligations to the best of his ability. He had little self-reliance, and admitted himself that although he had been considered a good adviser by three Popes he felt unequal to guiding himself. His pontificate was a long and disastrous one. Buffeted this way and that by force of circumstance, he found himself, after having officially congratulated Philip V on his accession, constrained by the victorious Emperor to recognise the Habsburg pretender as the rightful sovereign of Spain. In losing the friendship of the Bourbons he did not manage to gain that of the Habsburgs; he disappointed the Italian States, who had hoped so much of his patriotism, by demurring to join the league they wished to form for the defence of Italian neutrality. He fluctuated perpetually between contradictory policies, always striving to keep in the foreground by officiously offering his mediation where it was not wanted. He soon found himself isolated and ignored by all parties. The Emperor disposed of Parma and other papal fiefs, coolly disregarding Clement's expostulations, and by the Peace of Utrecht Sicily and Sardinia changed hands without any more ceremony. The Pontiff evinced no gratitude towards the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus, who was now King of Sicily. On the contrary he opposed his early patron at every turn, thus laying the seeds of the enmity between the Holy See and the house of Savoy, which endured for over two hundred years.

Even the elements seemed to conspire to add their quota of calamities to this unfortunate pontificate. In 1703 the Tiber overflowed its banks and spread over the Campagna, completely destroying [p. 230] the crops and reducing the peasants to ruin and starvation Scarcely had the waters receded when a violent earthquake of fifteen minutes' duration shook Rome to its very foundations, the more populous districts of the city suffering the most serious damage. Entire streets disappeared under the crumbling houses and the number of victims was enormous. These cataclysms were followed by an epidemic of "pestilential fevers" which further decimated the population, and the distress and misery were such that the wretched survivors subsisted entirely on grass or on stray animals, as starved as themselves, that they devoured raw. The women were ready to prostitute themselves to any man for a crust of bread, and the more fortunate Romans under pretext of benevolence treated themselves to well-stocked harems.

Clement did his best to remedy this appalling state of things, remitting all taxes to the victims both of the flood and of the earthquake. He also appointed matrons to reclaim and shelter the women who haunted the streets or had found too intimate a hospitality in many ecclesiastical households. But as His Holiness had no reserves of wheat wherewith to make bread and no money wherewith to purchase any food for these erring and ravenous females, the matrons must indeed have been eloquent if they persuaded any of them of the advantages of chastity and an aching void over frailty and repletion. Through the influence of the Jesuits Clement obtained some subsidies from Louis XIV; but France was at war and had little money to spare for philanthropy.

Having joined the league of the Italian States, fighting against Austria, which was completely routed by Prince Eugene, the Pope had perforce to submit to the humiliating terms imposed on him by the conqueror. Louis XIV made no allowances for the difficulties of the situation and, outraged at Clement's recognition of the Archduke as King of Spain, recalled his Ambassador from Rome.

Peace once signed, the imperial troops evacuated the Pontifical States and the Pope immediately set about regaining Louis XIV's good graces. The Bourbon Queen of Spain having just given birth to a son, His Holiness publicly blessed some swaddling-clothes and sent them to Madrid by a special Nuncio with orders to attend the ceremony of the oath of allegiance to the Prince of the Asturias to be taken by the members of the Cortes. [p. 231]

The poor Pontiff was beset with enemies and failed to make any friends. When the Turks threatened to invade Italy, he implored assistance from Venice, Spain, France, Austria and even Russia, but all Europe turned a deaf ear to his entreaties. His last allies in France, the Jesuits who surrounded the King, failed him when Louis died, for the Regent d'Orléans who now governed France was a frank atheist and made a clean sweep of all Mme de Maintenon's ecclesiastical sycophants. The last years of Clement's life were embittered by his disputes with Alberoni, the Spanish Prime Minister and Philip V's favourite, who obtained the hat by a bold and unscrupulous trick and openly defied the Holy See. Before the Pope died, however, Alberoni was an exiled fugitive, ruined and flying for his life, pursued by his ex-master's vindictiveness more spitefully even than by the Pope's.

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

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