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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Edward VI

Henry II

and Spain

Charles V

THE conclave which assembled on November 29th 1549 is one of the most complicated on record and needs considerable simplifying to be comprehensible. The reason for this hopeless-looking tangle is that the various candidates brought forward by the different factions were not really the ones they wished elected, so that the ordinary diplomatic intrigues were underlaid by other more secret and contrary ones creating a state of bewildering confusion. The Duke of Florence, for instance, offered to expend 200,000 crowns to secure the elevation of the Cardinal of Burgos, one of the Emperor's candidates, while he really favoured del Monti. The imperial agent in Rome, while also appearing to support his master's candidates, was secretly working against them for one of his own.

Burgos was an arrogant Castillian of noble birth and secure in the good graces of Charles. He was the natural leader of the Spanish party, but the fact of his being himself a candidate robbed him of most of his authority over his followers, so that they were not really to be depended on. The French group was led by the Cardinal de Guise. It only numbered eight cardinals, but its influence was important owing to the personality of their chief. Guise was an accomplished diplomat and man of the world. Exquisitely courteous, with the exact touch of aloofness, authoritative without peremptoriness, he allied an appearance of frivolity with absolute discretion. Who his protégé was no one knew.

The third faction consisted of the creatures of the late Pope under the command of Farnese, his ungrateful grandson. Although still very young, barely thirty years of age, he had shown great qualities of intelligence and statecraft and had the maturity and judgment of an experienced tactician. It soon became apparent that the proceedings would consist in a contest between himself and Guise. He officially supported Reginald Pole, the Emperor's second selection, commonly called the Cardinal of England. It was very unlikely that a foreigner [p. 78] would be elected, but if such a calamity should occur, Farnese felt convinced that Pole, being a man of rigid principles and opposed to nepotism, would leave the government of the State to him. And at the start it looked quite possible that Rome would have an English Pope, as Pole got twenty-five votes at the first scrutiny, which was very near indeed to the necessary majority, forty-five cardinals being present at the conclave. The French tactics consisted in delaying matters till the arrival of several of their compatriots, who would not only reinforce their party but probably bring an order of exclusion against Pole. The Cardinal de Lorraine in his anxiety to prevent the Englishman's election committed the blunder of trying to buy Farnese privately for a large sum of money; an offer which the latter turned down with scorn, his seeming disinterestedness much enhancing his reputation.

Cardinal Pole would have made an ideal Pope at this juncture, as he was upright and honourable, devout without a trace of bigotry, and both religious and tolerant. Broad-minded and liberal, he would have been the one man capable of grappling with the difficulties which beset the Church of Rome. As it was, he proved to be merely a tool used by Farnese to alarm Guise and oblige him to come into the open. But the French continued to play a waiting game. As, however, the risk of the English cardinal's election must be obviated somehow, Chieti, a Francophile Italian, was commissioned to make an impassioned attack on Pole, accusing him so formally of heresy that the number of his adherents fell to eighteen. Farnese and Trento, his chief supporters, then offered to rush his election during the night, counting on the older cardinals' bewilderment and their difficulty in collecting their wits when only half awake; but the Englishman would not hear of it, protesting that he would not enter the Vatican by the window like a burglar, but solemnly by the open door or not at all, and he quietly but firmly withdrew his candidature.

This dignified attitude struck the Florentine envoy as both opportune and amazing. "What can be done to help a man who will not help himself?" he writes, openly rejoicing at the elimination of a dangerous candidate. Charles was seriously displeased at the way in which his wishes had been disregarded in the conclave, and to all enquiries for further guidance obstinately replied: "Pole or Burgos". But Burgos was impossible—the Sacred College would never elect a Spaniard, especially one whose brother-in-law reigned in Naples and [p. 79] who was uncle to the Duke of Alba. So the Imperialists being at a loss how to obey their master decided to temporise. This policy suited the French, who were awaiting reinforcements, and also Farnese, whose object was to give his cousin Ottavio time to capture Parma, and who knew that delay would be all to his advantage, as the pontifical troops, left without money or food, could not hold out much longer. Thus all parties were unanimous in their wish to gain time.

This state of things resulted in the most unlikely names cropping up at the scrutinies. Most of the cardinals attached no importance to this moonshine voting, but one of them, d'Este, took his chances very seriously. His stupidity was proverbial, and Ruggiero, the Duke of Ferrara's agent in Rome who was working in his interests, must also have been a simpleton. Considering how freely communications passed to and from the Conclave, he seems to have run very unnecessary risks when getting into touch with d'Este, as he complains in his reports of the danger he runs of breaking his neck "climbing by a small ladder on to the roof of the Vatican and slipping about among the tiles, perilous expeditions from which he returned more dead than alive". The Sacred College were well aware of the arduous escalades of the devoted Ferrarese and derived much amusement from them. As to d'Este himself, his misfortunes were a standing joke. His beard and hair were falling out at an alarming rate and his colleagues held a meeting to which he was summoned. They enjoined him with mock solemnity to disclose the nature of his disease. The unfortunate prelate in a fever of apprehension assured them, on his honour, that he had been absolutely chaste for over a year and that the cause of his trouble was the excessive heat of the previous summer. His statement caused much merriment and banter, but d'Este's name did not appear at the subsequent scrutinies. Ruggieri, with perhaps a sigh of relief, acquainted the Duke of Ferrara of the collapse of their schemes: "This little indisposition", he wrote, "has come at an awkward moment for his most reverend Highness, as the cardinals say that it is impossible to elect a Pope attacked with the ringworm".

Meanwhile Cosimo de Medici had been working patiently underground to further del Monti's interests. He attempted to obtain the Emperor's patronage for him, seeing that both Pole and Burgos were out of the question; but the stubborn autocrat refused it with scorn, not thinking the obscure del Monti even worthy of the exclusion. [p. 80] The French faction had been trying, without success, to gather adherents to the cause of Cardinal de Lorraine, and, failing him, were really at a loss whom to propose. Del Monti cleverly chose this moment to ingratiate himself with Guise, who having no better candidate to hand offered him his support. Several days were then spent in bribing and bargaining, during which Farnese, having agreed to the Frenchman's conditions, unaccountably played him false. Guise indignantly turned on him, and in the presence of the entire assembly called him a liar and a traitor. Had not the Cardinal-Dean hurriedly suspended the sitting there is no knowing to what lengths the quarrel might have gone. As it was, the open break between the two leaders completely engrossed the cardinals' attention to the exclusion of the main business. They noted every phase of the dissension with avid curiosity, commenting excitedly on Guise's refusal to receive Farnese's peace emissaries, and on the various forms of retaliation his resentment was likely to assume.

The Roman citizens, however, cared not one jot about these internal disputes. They wanted a pope and the conclave had been assembled for well over two months without electing one. The city magistrates made the usual expostulations to the guardians, insisting on the Sacred College being put on bread and water rations; but this excessive penalty was permuted to the one-course meal. This measure was an absolute farce, as there was no limit fixed as to the number of dishes this one course, which was the roast, could comprise. The privation therefore was not great and in no way hastened a solution. Days passed, nothing more happened; the Sacred College was still marking time, when it was suddenly roused from its lethargy by the news that Guise had sent for Farnese's peace envoys. Immediately there was a flutter of expectation and events moved rapidly enough. The French leader agreed to meet the Italian on friendly terms; no reference was to be made to their differences. The interview between them took place openly in the long gallery, Guise giving his word and that of the King of France that Parma would be secured to the Farnese. So great was the French cardinal's prestige that Farnese dared not ask him for a written undertaking, but meekly begged him to specify his choice. Guise feigned uncertainty, bringing forward the names of several cardinals before that of del Monti dropped carelessly from his lips. [p. 81]

Farnese fastened on to it as he was intended to do, and the bargain was concluded. Their peering colleagues saw the two former antagonists shake hands, and they knew the Pope was made. Even then del Monti insisted on the greatest circumspection and secrecy, fearing some counter intrigue on the part of the imperialists. But all went well and the next morning he was duly elected and took the name of Julius III.

The new Pontiff had once said jokingly to his colleagues: "If you make me Pope I warn you that the very next day I give you the Prevostino for brother member", and he was as good or, rather, as bad as his word. This Prevostino was a lad then aged seventeen who was in future to be known as Cardinal del Monte. He was of obscure parentage and his favour had been due to a strange incident. Some years previously, when the Pope was legate at Parma, he happened to have a large monkey as a pet. One day as he was watching its antics from a window he saw it seize on a small boy, and for a few moments it looked as though the animal would kill him. The child, however, managed to free himself, then turning furiously on the monkey attacked it in his turn. The prelate was so delighted with the boy's pluck that he adopted him on the spot, at first giving him the monkey as a playfellow, later making him his own constant companion. Charles V was disgusted with the new Pope, his minion and his monkey; but the Farnese were satisfied, as Ottavio got Parma and Piacenza. As to the French they felt they could have done worse, knowing there was nothing to fear politically from a man whose only ambition was a life of luxury and indolence.

Julius III was a Tuscan, which explained Cosimo de Medici's anxiety to secure his election. He was choleric but had a good-natured and forgiving disposition. The ideal he set himself to realise was an existence of animal gratification untrammelled by any unpleasant duties. He lived mostly in a beautiful villa just outside the Porta del Popolo. As he suffered from the gout and could not resist the temptation of rich and succulent fare, he attempted to counteract the ill effects of these excesses by giving the strictest orders to his attendants never to bring him any disagreeable news of any nature whatsoever, as vexations, he thought, affected the gastric juices and turned them sour.

The five years of his pontificate were spent in hedonistic inaction. [p. 82] He left the government of the State entirely in the hands of subalterns and spent fabulous sums on feasting and high living. Petruccelli calls him the Heliogabalus of the Church. His language was foul beyond belief. His favourite oath would have seemed coarse enough in the mouth of the lowest ruffian; from the lips of the Vicar of Christ it was so startling a blasphemy that even the loosest-living cardinals were shocked. Their disapprobation did not trouble Julius in the least, he merely made fun of their squeamishness; and indeed the younger ones soon discovered that they had worse things to put up with from him than his oaths. He doted on the Prevostino, the Cardinal del Monte. This young scoundrel was so crassly stupid, so debauched, and committed such atrocious crimes that the cardinals were moved to remonstrate with the Pope for having given them such a colleague; but he would not listen to them, flying into a violent passion and telling them that his favourite was worth more than the whole of the Sacred College put together.

Although the Emperor hated and despised Julius, that Pontiff had the proud and rare distinction of having moved the grim monarch to actual hilarity by proposing to make Aretino a cardinal. He refrained, however, from perpetrating such a preposterous piece of buffoonery, but being determined to bestow some especial mark of appreciation on the poet, he kissed him publicly on the lips. Julius enriched and exalted his family in true papal style. Their position was such that the Emperor's illegitimate daughter, the Duchess of Parma, had the greatest difficulty in obtaining an audience from the wife of the Pope's nephew. However carefully he protected his gastric juices against acid reactions, the gout pursued its relentless course, and the Pontiff's sufferings were such that he had perforce to renounce one by one all the exquisite delicacies he so much enjoyed. He gradually became emaciated and painfully feeble and, by an irony of fate, this gormandising epicure practically died of starvation.

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