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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Charles II
James II

Louis XIV

Leopold I

Charles II

ONE is apt to smile at the grandiloquent appellation of "Roi Soleil" bestowed by his idolatrous courtiers on the little man in the monstrous peruke who strutted about Versailles on his high red heels; but it is doubtful if since Charlemagne any monarch had exercised such a preponderating influence in Europe; and certainly none had enjoyed such personal prestige.

Louis XIV's desire for cordial relations with the Holy See, apart from his scheme of general ascendancy, was more especially prompted by the hereditary anti-Spanish policy of his house, and Spain, once so mighty and so vast, had now come to such a pass that every well-aimed blow might prove a decisive one. During the XVIIth century the Colossus tottered off its pedestal, crumbling as it fell. Spain lost successively Portugal, many of her provinces in the Netherlands, and those she still held in France. She would have had great difficulty in defending her Italian territories by force of arms and was therefore vitally concerned in securing the election of a friendly pontiff.

Pope Innocent XI
From a print in the British Museum
To France, on the other hand, stirring up trouble for Spain in Italy meant freedom of action elsewhere. Consequently the political tendencies of the pope were of great moment to the two Powers. They were both equally detested in Italy, but at the close of the XVIIth century France alone was feared. Louis XIV's name was certainly one to conjure with in Rome, so much so that when his Ambassador protested with the Dean of the Sacred College against any election being effected before the arrival of the French cardinals, the conclave, which had assembled on August 2nd, meekly acquiesced and no voting took place before the French contingent entered the Vatican on August 29th. Albizzi, who seemed to have recovered his wits with the discarding of his ambitions, exclaimed: "The Holy Ghost used to be a dove, he has now become a cock!"

The attitude immediately adopted by the French cardinals amazed their colleagues. It was customary for the cardinals created since the [p. 194] last conclave to be officially presented by the Dean to the foreign prelates. But d'Estrées, the leader of the French party, informed this official that by order of the King he and his followers were to have no dealings of any sort with Altieri and his creatures, were not to meet or visit them, were in fact to ignore their existence altogether. He then proceeded to call on all his colleagues, ostentatiously omitting the late Cardinal-Nephew and his creatures.

Such a breach of etiquette, unheard of in the history of conclaves, made a very bad impression. Several well-meaning prelates attempted to act as mediators, among others Cardinal Howard, the most straightforward and God-fearing of men, who addressed Cardinal de Bouillon very civilly in Latin. "My Lord Cardinal," replied Bouillon impertinently, "I am a poor Latin scholar at the best of times, but when it is spoken by an Englishman it is quite incomprehensible to me." Without taking offence at his rudeness, Howard then proceeded with his exhortation in French—laying stress on the fact that all the members of the Sacred College were equals, and that none had a right to set himself above his colleagues and treat them as though they had been rebel subjects: "I who live among heretics", added Howard, am well aware to what account they will turn these scandalous dissensions, and I beg of your Eminence to behave as becomes a position of such responsibility as ours." But Bouillon brushed these arguments aside with sarcastic brevity.

He and his compatriots were Frenchmen first, churchmen after. The King's favour was the aim and object of their existence; what was the blame or the approval of the Sacred College likely to mean to them? Louis XIV's instructions were explicit and he would countenance no half measures. He meant to bring the full weight of his royal displeasure to bear on Altieri and crush him like an insect. The delinquent was to be severely ostracised during the conclave, and the election of any candidate whose enmity for him could be relied on to endure was to be supported by the French faction. The King's thirst for revenge against Altieri was such that it completely overshadowed his anti-Spanish policy; if a double victory could be scored so much the better, but if that were not possible then Spain must wait her turn. The haughty and overbearing manner which he drove his subjects to adopt and which had been intended merely to humble Altieri, met with such general disapproval that relations became [p. 195] uncomfortably strained. The atmosphere was tense and acrimonious, and Maidalchini, who adhered to the French faction, so exasperated Colonna by his truculent tartness that the latter seized him by the throat and might have strangled him had he not been dragged away in time. All the courtliness and refinement imported from Versailles in the former conclave had melted in the fierce rays of the Roi Soleil's wrath.

Meanwhile the cause of all this pother felt excessively nervous and flustered. He had never expected such systematically organised retaliation, and being apparently gifted neither with brains nor determination, was completely at a loss how to cope with the situation. He shuffled round aimlessly, offering his services to all factions in turn and even sending an envoy to Versailles to make his peace with the King; but Louis XIV, needless to say, refused to see him. Such lack of proper pride earned for him the contempt of all his colleagues and the resentment of those who, having espoused his cause for the sake of principle, felt particularly bitter at his unworthiness.

As though to make amends for its past defection, the Court of Madrid, which had treated Odescalchi so scurvily at the previous conclave, rallied warmly to his support; but the Spanish party was badly led, a prey to division and jealousies, their leaders at loggerheads and their official instructions impossible to comply with, for Madrid wished them both to forward Odescalchi's election and to co-operate with Altieri. Such orders were in hopeless contradiction, as Altieri, who hated and feared Odescalchi, would promote any candidate rather than him, and the last thing Odescalchi himself would wish for was Altieri's patronage as it would inevitably entail exclusion from France. His enmity, on the contrary, proved of the greatest advantage to Odescalchi, for, as his candidature gained in popularity and it became known that Altieri was offering his support to any competitor who would oppose him, the French party began to look upon him with marked favour. They would have preferred Cibo, a prelate entirely devoted to France's interests, but Spain excluded him and Altieri had repeatedly offered to support him.

None of the other candidates was acceptable to Louis XIV. There was Conti, patronised by Queen Christina and the laughing-stock of the Sacred College as his passion for clocks amounted to mania; he [p. 196] had at least a dozen of them in his cubicle, which made him very unpopular with his neighbours, nor could he resist the temptation of pulling the works out of any watch left within his grasp.

Princess Mancini Colonna was concentrating her energies this time on thwarting any designs Barberini might have, as the High Constable, her husband, had had a dispute with Barberini's nephew on a question of precedence. Piccolomini was impossible as he had been turned out of Versailles at the time of the Créqui affair; and Corsini equally so because Louis XIV had refused to accept him as nuncio. Therefore France excluded them both. A few other candidates remained but had various disqualifications which put them out of court.

Odescalchi seemed the only possible choice, and although most of his colleagues stood rather in awe of him, he commanded their respect and grudging admiration. He was the son of a rich banker of Como, an Austrian subject, and had served with valour in the imperial army. Severely wounded at the siege of Nimègue and incapacitated from further military activities, he had turned towards religion for help in his adversity and eventually embraced Holy Orders. The intrepid ardour with which he had fought for his sovereign he now devoted to the service of the Church. He was determined to occupy the Apostolic See so as to reform abuses, exterminate heresy, and restore the primitive ideals of Christianity. To attain his object he used the necessary means to serve his ends. Attributing his past failure to his own curt, unbending manner, he schooled himself to be gracious and pleasant and to conceal the passionate fervour of his devotion. As he was wealthy and generous he recruited many adherents during Clement X's pontificate and had an already important following when he entered the conclave. If he could obtain the goodwill of the French group his election was assured. D'Estrées inclined towards this solution, but Retz, more clear-sighted and more experienced, opposed it. He reminded his party that France had twice excluded Odescalchi, which he was not likely to forget, and that he was a subject of the Emperor's and drew important revenues from Austrian properties; and he managed to impress on d'Estrées the necessity of imposing stringent conditions on his offer of adhesion, the most important being that Cibo should be given the secretaryship of state. When d'Estrées acquainted [p. 197] Odescalchi with the terms upon which he was willing to support him, the latter, unable to repress his natural abruptness, refused even to consider the question, and the French leader, uncertain how to proceed, sent a messenger to Versailles to report matters to the King and ask for further orders.

Meanwhile business was at a standstill in the conclave. The unpopularity of the French faction grew in proportion to the boredom and discouragement of the electors, who naturally made d'Estrées and his followers responsible for all the difficulties of the situation and treated them with the coldest and barest civility. But the return of the courier from Paris on September 20th suddenly placed the French leader in a position of absolute ascendancy. The tidings were momentous. The siege of Maëstricht had been raised, the Spaniards defeated, and the army of the Prince of Orange was in full flight. The shadow of the victorious monarch fell darkly upon the terrified assembly—and if Retz instead of d'Estrées had been in command of the French party he might have imposed any candidate he chose on the dismayed electors; but d'Estrées had no initiative; the despatches contained the King's approval of Odescalchi's elevation subject to Retz's conditions, and he proposed merely to renew the offer Odescalchi had dismissed so curtly. Too timid, however, to risk another rebuff, he sent for the King's Ambassador, his brother the Duc d'Estrées, to undertake the negotiations. The Duke standing at the wicket had an interview with Odescalchi, who now naturally proved more tractable, and undertook to make all concessions required of him, including Cibo's appointment as secretary of state.

As soon as this agreement became known in the conclave Altieri rushed to Rospigliosi in a perfect frenzy begging him to offer his services to the French for the election of Cibo; but Rospigliosi refused to undertake the mission, telling Altieri that Odescalchi's election was now a settled thing and charitably refraining from any allusion to his ignominious self-abasement. The next morning Odescalchi was proclaimed Pope and chose the name of Innocent XI.

When the news reached Paris it was hailed as a French victory; but the Papal Nuncio shook his head and marvelled at the blindness of the French who thought that their tardy support and the mortifying concessions it had entailed could constitute a title to Innocent's gratitude. [p. 198]

Louis XIV also ignored the facts that Retz had wisely laid stress upon, and deluded himself into believing that his patronage, however reluctantly bestowed, would obliterate all past disfavour and outweigh any claims Spain might have on the Pontiff's allegiance. His illusions, however, were to be rudely dispelled.

The elevation of Innocent XI to the pontifical throne in no way affected his character or resolutions. He remained what his first training had made him; a man of regular habits, just and inflexible, who would admit of no breach of discipline and was scrupulously respectful of it himself. He not only professed to be, but was, opposed to nepotism, for devoted as he was to his nephew Don Livio, he conferred no office upon him, and as he considered his relations sufficiently wealthy to maintain their position without State subsidies, he gave them none. He even wished to publish a bull suppressing nepotism altogether, but deferred to the wishes of the College of Cardinals, who considered the measure inopportune.

He fulfilled his promise to the French faction by appointing Cardinal Cibo Secretary of State, but does not appear to have been much influenced by that prelate's Francophile tendencies. He refunded the money expended by the holders of certain offices on the purchase of their appointments and took measures to prevent the sale of such posts in the future. He insisted on the cardinals altering their mode of life and conforming to their religious duties while reducing their ostentatious expenditure. He entered into every detail concerning ecclesiastical discipline, such as prohibiting the use of snuff for the clergy. In every way he himself practised what he preached, setting an example of rigid self-denial and rectitude. These reforms were not likely to endear him to his subordinates, but when he carried his activities further afield, forbidding ladies to employ male music-masters or to wear masks in public and even legislating on the cut of their bodices, then he really became for the Roman world of leisure one of the most unpopular popes it had ever known.

He was no less exacting where the dead were concerned than he was when dealing with the living, and he could never bring himself to shoulder the responsibility of adding a new saint to the celestial phalanx. He was more at his ease where censure was concerned, condemning without hesitation any writings that did not conform [p. 199] narrowly with his views on orthodoxy. Politically his sympathies were naturally with Spain and the Empire, though his attitude towards France was in no way aggressive till the vexed question of the régale brought matters to a crisis between himself and Louis XIV. Both rulers were convinced of the merits of their claim and both determined to fight the quarrel out to the bitter end. The droit de régale consisted in an old-established custom by which the French sovereigns received the revenues of bishoprics so long as they were vacant and appointed holders to the dependent livings. This right had always been contested by Rome, but had been exercised on and off for a couple of centuries, and Louis XIV was certainly not the man to relinquish a royal prerogative of any nature whatsoever. He made this perfectly clear to the Pontiff in peremptory terms—but Innocent was equally unyielding and not to be intimidated. He issued a bull solemnly condemning the practice, but which the French Parliament, acting under the King's instructions, declared inoperative. Furthermore Louis XIV called a general meeting of the French clergy to confer on the subject of the dispute.

The result of these deliberations was a foregone conclusion, as the blind submission of the French ecclesiastical body to their Sovereign was such a well-known thing that Condé said that if the King thought fit to go over to the Protestant Church the clergy would be the first to follow him. Their findings therefore were entirely in accordance with the monarch's wishes, and from the declarations drawn up by this assembly sprang the famous Église Gallicane. Innocent of course banned the articles drawn up by these nationalist churchmen, the French Parliament no less inevitably approved them, and the struggle between Rome and Versailles began in real earnest.

So far Louis XIV seemed to have the stronger position, but if the temporary appropriation of ecclesiastical revenues was a matter of minor consequence, the régale spirituelle, or nomination by the King to sacerdotal offices and dignities while the Pope withheld canonical institution, was a very different affair, likely to result in immediate chaos and future schism. Europe watched the conflict with interest. The Powers were all in league against France and would willingly have expressed themselves openly in favour of the Pontiff had he given them a chance to do so; but intent only on his mission of reform, he chose that very moment to abolish the privilege of [p. 200] sanctuary claimed by all ambassadors in Rome. This privilege certainly had degenerated into an intolerable abuse, as it had spread from the precincts of the Embassies themselves to all the adjoining streets. Ever since the pontificate of Julius II the exercise of this prerogative had been a source of trouble and disputes, some popes allowing and others denying it, while it had been the primary cause of the Créqui affray. Now Innocent declared that he would receive no ambassadors who had not formally renounced this privilege. Venice immediately recalled her envoy, Spain refrained from sending one, and the Duc d'Estrées having just died, was not given a successor.

The Pope showed no signs of dismay at his isolation, never wavering in his line of conduct and proceeding with the task he had set himself without any apparent misgivings as to its final results. Such serene confidence in the righteousness of his course had a salutary effect on most of the European monarchs, who could not, on mature reflection, fail to admit the justice of the Pontiff's claim and agreed to comply with his demands. The Empire, Spain and England sent ambassadors prepared to concede the point in question, France alone refusing her obedience. The Nuncio in Paris, having exhorted Louis XIV to follow the example given by the other great Powers, was told by that haughty autocrat that he was used to setting examples himself, not to following that of others. He therefore sent off the Marquis de Lavardin as Ambassador to Rome with instructions to claim the privilege all his colleagues had renounced. Innocent immediately gave orders to his officials to ignore Lavardin's arrival and to withhold all the tokens of honour and deference to which foreign envoys were entitled. He also forbade the cardinals to hold any communications whatever with the French Ambassador or his household.

On Sunday, November 16th, 1687, the Romans, thronging the Corso and the Piazza del Popolo, were treated to an unexpected and amazing sight, for Louis XIV's Envoy made his entry into the papal capital not as an ordinary ambassador but as a conqueror investing a fallen city. His escort numbered 200 officers, 300 soldiers, 100 gentlemen and over 100 lackeys. The gilt coach in which sat Lavardin and two French cardinals was drawn by six splendid horses, and followed by another scarcely less resplendent containing the Marquise and her ladies. Forty sumpter mules with blue velvet trappings emblazoned [p. 201] with the royal lilies of France brought up the rear.

As the soldiery reached the approaches of the Farnese Palace they lined the street with drawn swords, sheathing them only when the last of the cortège had disappeared within the portals of the Embassy. Lavardin then issued a proclamation to the effect that if he or his wife encountered in the streets of Rome any cardinals or State officials who failed to show them the customary marks of respect, his escort would deal with them on the spot. The effect of this pronouncement was magical. All means of conveyance used by the Roman aristocracy disappeared from the main thoroughfares during the hours likely to be chosen by the Lavardins for their airing. Day after day the French Ambassador, his wife and their gorgeous suite drove in solitary grandeur through a city whose population seemed to be composed of beggars and shopkeepers. But as soon as the gates of the Farnese Palace had closed on them, word went round that the coast was clear and Rome resumed its normal aspect. This incredible situation actually lasted for nine whole months!

Meanwhile the Pope lying low in the Vatican was made responsible by his disgruntled subjects for the inconvenience they suffered and was accused of cowardice and incompetence. They compared him unfavourably with any of his predecessors, who would have resorted to energetic and violent means of dealing with such an abnormal state of things. But Innocent, though probably aware of these comments, was in no way disturbed by them. He would have found it easy enough to muster his troops, arm the Roman citizens and meet force with force—as a soldier such a course would have been the more congenial to him no doubt—but as the Vicar of Christ, which he now was, such methods seemed to him unsuitable. So he shut himself up in the Vatican and put his trust in Providence.

The Powers who had at first criticised his inaction gradually grew to admire such faith and equanimity, and the imperturbability of his passive resistance so unnerved Louis XIV that he was really at a loss how to proceed. Composedly and methodically Innocent had continued to enact business with all the friendly Powers—and just as composedly and methodically had he continued to oppose Louis XIV. He had excommunicated the French Ambassador and the priests who said Mass for him, and the King had retorted by incarcerating the Nuncio and investing Avignon. The Pope made no further move, and [p. 202] it was evident that he could not be provoked into a single gesture incompatible with his apostolic character. Realising the futility of further bravado Louis XIV decided to recall his Envoy. So early one August morning the gates of the Farnese Palace were thrown open and the Ambassador and his wife, escorted by the officers, soldiers and gentlemen of their suite, and followed by their servants and sumpter mules, clattered through the silent Corso and out of the Porta del Popolo, thus ending an episode probably unique in diplomatic history.

Innocent did not approve of tortures and executions, preferring more persuasive methods of saving sinners from damnation, though his zeal for the suppression of heresy was as great as that of any Inquisitor. More especially did he abhor philosophical sophistry, and he treated Molinos the theologian with exceptional severity. The Pontiff had no liking for the Jesuits, and it is said that when later, Benedict XIV wished to canonise his virtuous predecessor, it was the influence of the Jesuits, exerted through Louis XV, that prevented one of the most worthy and remarkable of pontiffs from becoming St. Innocent XI.

His last illness was a long-drawn-out martyrdom which he bore with admirable resignation and fortitude. He died on August 11th, 1689, and his nephew Don Livio, on whom he had bestowed no honours or riches, gave him a funeral of regal splendour. More exceptional still was the fact that not a single lampoon or pasquinade concerning the dead Pontiff is known to have been circulated in his capital.

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