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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry IV

Rudolph II

Philip II

THE ease with which the Grand Duke of Tuscany had secured the election of his candidate in the last conclave now led him to abandon all customary intrigues and precautions. He concluded that it was quite unnecessary for him to expend large sums of money when he need only dictate his orders. His attitude towards the cardinals, which so far had always been one of courteous tactfulness, became overbearing and arrogant. To Vinta, his Ambassador in Rome, he writes on October 11th, that is, two days after the new conclave had assembled:

In case the cardinals are not docile, you will find in the coffer some small phials full of toxins. Put six ounces into each bottle—there are twenty-four phials, a sufficient quantity for fifty bottles:

and when later on Vinta is preparing to return to Florence, Ferdinand instructs him "to bring back the poison—or what remains of it". This substitution of toxicology for Machiavellism, fascinating as the pursuit may have been in itself, was a bad blunder in this case, as the consequences clearly proved.

Philip II, more eager than ever to lay his hands on the hoard in S. Angelo, had frightened the Spanish party into serious activity. He had sent them a list of seven candidates one of which was to be elected. If they failed, the cardinals would be made to feel the full weight of his displeasure. Their leader, Maddruzzo, finding his own name on the list, was spurred on thereby to even greater efforts.

Montalto, head of the most numerous faction in the conclave, had arrived in a very truculent mood. His aunts had reproved him severely for "taking his orders from Florence", and he had been teased and taunted by the ladies for allowing himself to be treated like a child when he could easily have imposed his own wishes on the Sacred College. They lost sight of the fact that his main object had not been Colonna's election, about which he had always been [p. 122] half-hearted, but the gratification of his own personal desires. Money he still needed and made no mystery of the fact. It was also to the advantage of his fair advisers that he should be well supplied with it; so they suggested to him a scheme by which he could replenish his exchequer and be assured of future benefits by securing the election of a pope who would befriend him. While apparently supporting various candidates, he would back another one in secret, both at the Banchi and by private bets through the agency of confederates. As to the man himself the very one they needed was providentially to be found in their midst.

Two ladies, at whose feet Montalto was languishing just then, had an uncle, Sfrondato, Cardinal of Cremona, whom nobody certainly would suspect of any ambition to occupy the Holy See. His perpetual smile was child-like and disarming, and he was reported in the conclave to busy himself exclusively "with dressing the altar and sweeping out his cell". Approached on the subject he showed himself more than willing to play the part assigned to him and everything was arranged to his own satisfaction, also to that of Montalto and the charming ladies who had so much to gain by their uncle's election, and so little to lose by paying the price for it.

Maddruzzo, endeavouring to obtain Montalto's support, showed him the list of Philip's candidates. The young man was careful not to commit himself. He had seen a note, below the seven names selected by the King, to the effect that Cremona being a Spanish subject would be acceptable to His Catholic Majesty if all the others failed. The great thing therefore would be to keep in with the Spanish party while destroying the seven candidates' chances. Montalto spoke of his obligations to his own faction, but was as conciliating and friendly as caution would allow.

With the Florentine party, Montalto refused to have any dealings whatever, and in truth Monti, the Grand Duke's agent in the conclave, had little enough to offer him. Ferdinand's crude plan of campaign did not appeal to Monti. He was a clever intriguer, frankly corrupt; an adept at handling bribes, a fair portion of which always stuck to his fingers, but poison was not in his line—it was a dangerous, unhealthy weapon. As a sinister murderer Monti was grossly miscast, and knowing it, he wisely ignored Vinta's instructions and his handy little phials. His efforts to advance the affairs of Santa Severina, [p. 123] Ferdinand's nominee, were casual and perfunctory. He busied himself with intriguing against every competitor put forward either by the Spanish faction or by Montalto's. For an occasional bit of fun he would create a diversion; as when he re-launched Colonna, shrewdly surmising that he would thereby be causing Montalto much annoyance and embarrassment. Being the former candidate of his own party, Montalto was bound to support him, and the situation gave rise to the most ludicrous incidents. Young Ascanio Colonna was most enthusiastic at the idea of becoming Cardinal-Nephew, and canvassed with so much ardour and success that his uncle's election appeared practically certain. Montalto, confronted with the unusual drawback of having too many followers, could think of no better way of disposing of the surplus than by ordering half a dozen cardinals to conceal themselves as best they could when the bell rang for the scrutiny. This they did by hiding under the beds of any empty cubicles they could find, while young Colonna frenziedly searched the premises for them. He actually discovered one of the deserters and dragged him out by the feet, but as he could obtain nothing more satisfactory from him than groans and grunts he realised that he was faced with a conspiracy to prevent his uncle's election, and abandoned the struggle.

Candidates fell right and left like ninepins. This comedy lasted two months, by which time Cremona alone was left standing. There was no hostility against him within the conclave, but the Grand Duke hated him and abused him openly, calling him an ignorant fool and making sarcastic comments on his broom and his inane grin. The outer world had no inkling of the impending dénouement; so well had the secret been kept that twenty-four hours before his elevation, the odds against Cremona at the Banchi were still 10 to 1.

Gregory XIV's election was therefore an excellent speculation for Montalto and his fair friends, but Philip was to reap the greatest benefits of all. The Pope's propitiating smirk had not been assumed for a purpose; he was naturally servile, and the high dignity to which he had attained did not alter the feelings of awe and respect with which Philip, his sovereign, had always inspired him. During the ten months of his reign, the Pontiff contributed two millions out of Sixtus V's precious treasure towards the expenses of the Spanish wars, and obeyed all Philip's behests with exemplary docility. At his [p. 124] instigation he subsidised the League in France and sent a riff-raff army of convicts and mercenaries to assist it under the command of his nephew, whom he had created Duke of Montemarciano. He excommunicated Henry IV and ordered all his Catholic subjects either to take up arms against him or leave the country. He had no personal animosity against Henry IV, but he was told these measures should be taken and he took them.

Against the Grand Duke of Tuscany, however, he needed no urging to show vindictiveness. He encouraged an army of bandits to ravage Tuscany, and cried with vexation when Ferdinand's troops captured Piccolomini, their chief, and hanged him. Neither in the field of diplomacy was he a match for the crafty Florentine. A plot by which the town of Ferrara should eventually have fallen into the possession of Gregory's family was discovered by Ferdinand, who acquainted the cardinals with it, so that when the Pope mentioned Ferrara in the consistory there was such a hubbub that he hastily withdrew his brief. He was completely dominated by his relations and they all reaped a harvest of gold; his nieces even appropriating the revenues of bishoprics and other ecclesiastical benefices. He was considered sound and healthy, and his death in October 1591 caused some surprise. There were many who said that Ferdinand's enmity seemed to undermine the strongest constitution. Ferdinand himself piously ascribed the Pontiff's death to the wrath of God, being a punishment for his wicked plot concerning Ferrara.

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