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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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George II
George III

Louis XV


Joseph II

Ferdinand VI
Charles III

THE Society of Jesus was in dire peril. Times had changed since the days when Ignatius Loyola and his faithful followers had leapt valiantly on to the crumbling walls of the Roman Church to defend its Pontiff. Religious warfare had long since subsided and successive generations of Jesuits had learned to associate the original standards of their Order with an obsolete condition of things; it was therefore inevitable that they should apply their remarkable energies to conquests in other fields. Their statutes had been drawn up on military lines; they took the most binding vows of obedience, the rank and file conforming, as soldiers do, to the orders of their superior officers without question and without incurring any personal responsibility. Many popes had been disinclined to avail themselves of the Society's services, others had frankly disapproved of it—while several had employed them as secret service agents. Such an able and powerful body of men could scarcely be content with the spasmodic and paltry activities altered circumstances had reduced them to; nor could they insist on living up to their founder's ideals, as such Quixotism would have proved most embarrassing for the Holy See. It was necessary, therefore, to find another outlet for their energies, and the obvious one was the aggrandisement of their own Order. This they accomplished through the influence they exerted over the governing classes which they educated, and through the expansion of their commercial enterprises.

Pope Clement XIII
From the statue by Canova in St. Peter's, Rome
They had founded houses all over the world, but the headquarters of the Society remained in Rome, where the General resided. Their organisation was faultless. No sign of talent or ability in a novice was ever overlooked, for talent and ability carefully fostered and developed would prove of the greatest advantage to the community. Unlike those officials in countries where conscription is in force who seem guided by a perverted sense of humour in the distribution of tasks to their newly joined victims, the Jesuits turned to account any [p. 260] qualifications their recruits may have possessed.

They specialised in directing the consciences of the mighty, training picked men for the purpose. Every Catholic monarch had a Jesuit confessor and no lady of fashion would have dreamed of having any other. Consequently they developed through the agency of their penitents an insidious influence which had far-reaching effects. There was no court intrigue or scandal that they were not the first apprised of, and they had a finger in every political pie. The governments of the various Catholic Powers found themselves constantly impeded in their designs by these interfering spiritual advisers, and we have seen how Pombal had appealed to Benedict XIV for an enquiry to be instituted into their educational and commercial methods in Portugal. England had been closed to the Jesuits for well over a century; Russia had ejected them in 1717 and China had done likewise in 1753, forcibly closing down their missions, which had become mere counting-houses.

The chivalrous ideals of Ignatius Loyola had been converted by his later disciples into mere sordid ambitions, thus descending from a plane where few rivals were to be feared into an arena seething with competitors. Things had now come to such a pass that Choiseul in France, Kaunitz in Austria, Pombal in Portugal and the rising Florida Blanca in Spain all agreed that the Society of Jesus was an international menace and must be suppressed. The Jesuits themselves were far too well informed of the trend of events to have any doubt as to what was in store for them at the hands of their enemies and the election of a pontiff well disposed towards their Order had now become for them a matter of life and death. Even if he could not stem the rising tide of execration which threatened the Society, he could at least shelter its members during the storm and give them the moral support which might enable them to weather it.

A new General, Father Ricci, had just been appointed, not perhaps the man best suited to the task at this juncture, but an energetic fighter with an iron determination concealed under a suave and noncommittal manner. The hopes of the entire Jesuit community were centred on him, mainly because many of the older cardinals were his penitents and there was reason therefore to believe that his influence in the conclave which was just assembling would be considerable.

The doors were sealed on June 4th, and it immediately became apparent that the issue upon which the election would be fought was first and foremost the Jesuit question. The Sacred College was split into two parties—those who upheld the Society of Jesus and those who were determined on its suppression. The only group which seemed open to compromise was the Spanish one, whose leader, Portocarrero, though under orders to oppose any Jesuit candidate, gave unmistakable signs of vacillation and untrustworthiness. Ricci opened the gambit by instructing his adherents to propose Cavalchini forthwith. Seeing that Portocarrero was wavering in his allegiance to the league of the Powers, the French and Portuguese cardinals took it in turns to stand guard over him to prevent an immediate defection. They alternately threatened him with the anger and vengeance of their respective Sovereigns, or cajoled him with promises of rich rewards, thus managing to gain sufficient time for Luynes, the French leader, to obtain Louis XV's veto against the Jesuit candidate. The precious document, issued under the specious pretext that Cavalchini, being a Sardinian subject, must therefore be inimical to France, arrived in the nick of time and was officially presented to the Dean on the very morning which would in all likelihood have seen Cavalchini's election to the Holy See.

The checkmated candidate took his defeat with great dignity, thanking those who had supported him and causing Luynes much embarrassment by cordially shaking him by the hand.

While Father Ricci was studying his next move, the Sacred College was kept mildly occupied and amused by a couple of ephemeral candidatures. One was Borghese's, his name being put forward by his creditors, who saw in his election their only chance of recovering their money; but in spite of all the efforts made by his interested supporters, Borghese's colleagues refused to take him seriously. The other bubble, Archinto, was longer afloat, being the ladies' nominee. He was a Milanese, therefore an Austrian subject, and had lately been legate in Florence where the feminine element had found him quite irresistible. He was remarkably handsome, wore exquisite clothes, always said the right thing, and his unctuous gestures released whiffs of voluptuous fragrance emanating from his expensive, scented gloves. The Princess Trivulzi, the Infanta Duchess of Parma, the Roman Donna Maria Cenci, in fact all the most aristocratic and fashionable ladies in Italy, were anxious to see their favourite raised [p. 262] to the papal throne. They could of course boast of a number of willing slaves in the Sacred College, and Portocarrero, who was particularly susceptible to feminine influence, now seemed far more eager to please the ladies than to serve either the Jesuits or the Powers. Father Ricci, however, was not the man to be thwarted by a perfumed jackanapes. He had his adherents well in hand, and an intensive campaign was started through the gratings of the Roman confessionals, which promptly resulted in Archinto retiring from the fray.

Meanwhile Ricci had selected a new candidate, the Venetian Rezzonico, who had been educated by the Jesuits and had remained in close touch with them all his life. Warned by his first failure, the General was careful not to show his hand this time; he had also thought it advisable to secure a few more votes, and as the Society disposed of great wealth he bought Borghese's and Malvezzi's suffrage by paying their debts, so Borghese's creditors were satisfied after all. As to Malvezzi, he cared about nothing but horses, and was so used to living with stable lads and felt so bored and out of his element in the Vatican that he had actually brought one of his jockeys as a conclavist so as to have at least one congenial companion in his unaccustomed surroundings. To Portocarrero, Ricci promised the secretaryship of state, and to the Cardinal of York, who was attending his first conclave, practical support for the Stuart cause. All this was done with the utmost promptitude and discretion, for it was most necessary that Rezzonico should be elected as soon as his name had been proposed, so as to obviate the possibility of a veto being obtained against him as it had been against Cavalchini. Therefore the moment the requisite number of votes was safely assured the General issued his commands, and before his antagonists could recover from the shock and surprise Rezzonico had been elected, chosen the name of Clement XIII and been clothed in his white robes of state!

The new Pontiff was not popular. His own compatriots looked upon him as an upstart, his name having only lately been inscribed in the Republic's "Golden Book", an honour he owed exclusively to his wealth. As to the Romans, they were greatly disappointed at being given a Pope who was reputed to be bigoted, ignorant and stupid. He was certainly devoid of any knowledge of statecraft and [p. 263] obstinate and inflexible in his opinions; but these very limitations exactly suited the requirements of his black-robed mentors, giving them a sense of security and a foretaste of power. Physically Clement XIII was undersized and slightly deformed, having one shoulder higher than the other. His manner was quiet and pleasant; he was neither too young nor too old and appeared to have a healthy, sound constitution.

His first official act was to revoke Benedict XIV's bull approving the enquiry into the Jesuits' misdemeanours in Portugal, which had already been acted upon. All through his pontificate he proved a staunch champion of the Society of Jesus and was entirely governed by its General. The Powers ignored both the white and the black Popes and pursued their relentless course. The Jesuits were banished from Portugal in 1759. In France a financial scandal sealed their doom in 1767, owing to the bankruptcy of one of their Martinique counting-houses of which the Père Lavalette was director. It had resulted in the closing down of an important bank in Marseilles and in the consequent ruin of a large number of private investors, giving Choiseul an excellent excuse to turn all Jesuits out of the kingdom. The same year Charles III, convinced that they were hatching a plot to depose him, ordered their immediate expulsion from Spain. They were arrested simultaneously all over the country and marched off to various seaports. They were then put on board a fleet of ships whose captains had orders to disembark them in the Papal States. But thousands of Jesuits had already been deported to Italy and the Pope's subjects not only protested violently against a further influx of refugees but took their own measures to prevent it. France was still driving the exiles across the Alps; from the Two Sicilies they were being despatched northwards and from Parma hustled south. Clement issued bull upon bull excommunicating all those responsible for the exodus, but that helped in no way to solve the problem of how to feed, house and occupy these hordes of clerics.

As fast as they were pushed over the border into the Papal States as fast did the exasperated inhabitants push them out again. As to Charles III's ships they cruised about the Mediterranean finding it impossible to land their human freight. All ports were closed against them as though they had flown the sinister plague flag. It was in vain that the Spanish officers implored the authorities for leave to [p. 264] disembark at least the sick and dying; nowhere could they get a hearing, and so with their 6000 unfortunate passengers crowded to suffocation in the sweltering summer heat, perishing with hunger, thirst, exhaustion and misery, they continued to roam the seas for weeks during which time many of their charges died and others lost their reason. The frenzied captains, not daring to return to Spain with their cargo still aboard, would probably have been driven to unload it on to some deserted spot of the African coast had not the Corsicans taken pity on the surviving wayfarers and allowed them free access to the island.

The "Family Pact" signed by the Bourbons in 1761, though chiefly prompted by their common enmity towards England, came first into operation over the Jesuit dispute. The Bourbons now reigned in France, Spain, Parma and Sicily and bound themselves by this blood alliance to concerted policy and action. This Family Pact inaugurated a system which was later adopted by certain Jews in another sphere of business with perhaps more substantial and certainly more lasting results. But to return to the Bourbons; as excommunications seemed to leave them unmoved, Clement decided to give them a more tangible proof of his apostolic wrath. The Duke of Parma being the least formidable and the most vulnerable member of the coalition, the Pontiff suddenly revived the old claim of the Holy See to his territories and sent his troops to invade the duchy.

Immediately, France, Spain and Naples were up in arms. Louis XV seized Avignon, Ferdinand IV invested Benevento and Charles III manned his fleet. The terror-stricken Pope, not knowing where to turn for help, appealed to the pious Maria Theresa; but all he obtained from her was a quotation from a message, sent in like circumstances by Urban VIII to the Emperor Ferdinand, to the effect that affairs of State and affairs of religion were two different things. This blighting proof of the Empress' erudition so discouraged the Pope that he recalled his army and made peace overtures to his opponents. The Bourbons now pressed their advantage, insisting on the dissolution of the Society of Jesus, which at first Clement stubbornly refused to consider. He even issued a bull praising the Jesuits for their zeal and efficiency, an inconsiderate move which brought matters to a crisis. The Bourbons immediately adopted a menacing attitude, while Clement, confronted with the consequences [p. 265] of his foolhardiness and overwhelmed with the responsibilities he was too weak to shoulder, sought desperately for a loophole. He decided at last to call a consistory to examine the question. There is little doubt that this assembly, carefully selected, would have been in complete sympathy with Clement's views; but it was destined never to meet, as the day before that fixed for the opening of the consistory—February 4th, 1769—the overwrought Pontiff died suddenly.

The news caused the greatest sensation, as he had shown no signs whatever of failing health—and on the night of his death had eaten an excellent supper and, though worried and harassed, appeared perfectly fit. However, as he sat on his bed while his servant drew off his stockings he suddenly clutched his side with a cry of pain, reeled over and was dead within a few minutes.

Rezzonico, the Cardinal-Nephew, who was also Camerlingo, though having been informed at once of the catastrophe, allowed three hours to elapse before coming to his uncle's bedside. No one meanwhile had presumed to interfere with the dead Pope's body, so when Rezzonico made his tardy appearance he found Clement still lying much as he had fallen; his white satin coatee half on and half off, and the tumbled bedclothes, soaked with the blood he had vomited, not even having been removed. Groups of cardinals conversed in agitated whispers while others, restless with excitement, flitted this way and that. The great room was in darkness save for the feeble light of the lanterns carried by the prelates, which cast dancing, fantastic shadows on the ceiling and walls of the death chamber. As they clustered round the Camerlingo and watched him remove the fisherman's ring from the late Pope's finger, few among them doubted that its destruction would symbolise the ruin of the Jesuit cause.

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

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