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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry VII

Louis XII


Ferdinand and

[p. 37]   CESARE BORGIA was prepared for every eventuality which might occur at the time of his father's death, he said, except that of being himself helpless on a bed of sickness. He had also partaken of the poisoned beverage which killed Alexander, but his youth and iron constitution saved him from a similar fate. Living as he did in the Vatican itself, he was the first to hear the tragic news so fatal to all his hopes and ambitions; for Alexander VI was striving to create a hereditary principality for him carved out of his neighbour's lands and a portion of the Romagnas, and it was even rumoured that the Holy See itself might form part of his apanage. Cesare's ambition was overweening. His principality, which should be the most powerful of all Italy, was only to be a stepping-stone to far greater things. He was utterly heartless. He had not hesitated to murder his brother because his father loved him, for Cesare would admit of no sharing of benefits. He had slaughtered Pierotto, a favourite of the Pope's, under His Holiness's very mantle, where the cowering wretch had sought sanctuary; the blood had spurted all over the Pontiff's face. Cesare did not fear his father; he knew how weak his parental fondness made him. He himself suffered from no filial inhibitions. His utter callousness for his father's feelings must have been a terrible and condign punishment for the crimes that his love for Cesare made that Pontiff commit or condone.

The shattering blow which would have prostrated most men in Borgia's enfeebled condition acted on his adamantine nature as a stimulant. He was determined to live and be revenged on others for this cruel trick of fate. He gave orders that all the doors of the palace should be closed at once, before the cardinals could assemble. He sent Michelotto, the captain of his guards and his âme damnée, to secure the person of the Cardinal Treasurer. At the point of the dagger that official was compelled to give up his keys, and 400,000 crowns thus passed into Borgia's possession, with all the valuables which could [p. 38] be collected in so short a time. Then only were the clamouring cardinals admitted. To their great relief they found that a plain-looking case containing the late Pope's rarest gems had been overlooked by Michelotto in the scramble; having shared the contents they then appropriated the furniture and ornaments. Their servants carried off the remnants, and the great empty rooms now stood silent and deserted, strewn with litter and wreckage.

A strong guard was posted at all the approaches to Cesare Borgia's apartments, where the Spanish cardinals, creatures of the late Pope, had fled for protection, and where the sick man lay, near to death, but concentrating all his energies on living. Their prayers for his recovery must indeed have been fervent, for they were unlikely to survive him if he died at this juncture. As the hours passed and nothing happened, they recovered some degree of equanimity. There were no signs of an attack; the only sound audible to their straining ears was the steady tramp of their guards echoing through the great empty palace. They remained unmolested. So great was the terror the Borgia inspired, so cowed were his enemies, that no attempt was made to rush what must have been a very precarious stronghold, wherein the hated tyrant lay helpless at their mercy. They probably hoped he would die; but things were not to be made so easy for them as that—such creatures are notoriously hard to kill. Borgia struggled back to life, and the sixteen trembling cardinals who had barricaded themselves in the Convent of the Minerva heard with consternation that the ogre was about once more.

By rights, the Sacred College, representing the Government, should have been in possession of the Vatican, so Borgia had to be asked on what terms he would be willing to evacuate the palace. He brutally refused even to discuss the matter. The non-plussed electors then decided to hold the conclave in the castle of S. Angelo, but the governor, who was friendly with Borgia, refused to give up the keys, saying that what he held from the Pope he would only surrender to the Pope. The Sacred College were in a nice quandary. Orsini and his bandits were hovering on the outskirts of Rome; Colonna had joined forces with Borgia and a civil war seemed far more imminent than a conclave. Furthermore, the leaders of the French army, marching southwards to Naples, had thought the moment opportune to come out of their way as far as Isola to see [p. 39] how things were progressing in the Holy City. The Sacred College in desperation appealed to the foreign ambassadors for help, and their intervention resulted in an offer from Borgia to leave the Vatican on condition that S. Angelo was handed over to him and his troops. This proposal was mere mockery, as the castle was in the immediate vicinity of the Vatican, which it commanded. Negotiations were therefore at a standstill, when unexpectedly Borgia himself offered to renew them. He sent hostages to the Sacred College to prove his good faith and asked for Cardinal Sanseverino to be empowered to treat with him. The upshot of this interview was that Borgia left Rome at the head of his men, and the safety of the Spanish cardinals was guaranteed by the Sacred College. This sudden move on Borgia's part was due to French influence. France was most anxious that the Cardinal d'Amboise should be made Pope and had struck a bargain with Cesare to that effect, paying him 20,000 ducats down and 20,000 when he was outside the city.

The Vatican was now open to the cardinals, but it seemed a terribly inauspicious moment for them to immure themselves in conclave. The French army was encamped under the walls of Rome, Borgia only just out of sight, their own unruly and discontented mercenaries causing perpetual brawls and bloodshed in the town; in fact the poor cardinals had every cause to be uneasy. So encompassed by dangers did they feel both within and without the conclave that several of them extorted a promise from the custodians to throw open the doors at a given signal and so enable them to escape if necessary. The first consideration under such critical circumstances was undoubtedly celerity, but as usual every candidate seemed to be cursed with some insuperable drawback—Della Rovere was too much of a firebrand, Colonna too unbending an aristocrat; this one was too mean, and that one too healthy. As to the French candidate d'Amboise, although he was blissfully unaware of the fact, his nationality alone made his election impossible. His career, so far, had been one of easy success. Bishop at fourteen, Archbishop of Rouen a few years later, he had been created cardinal and Papal Legate to France by Alexander VI. Louis XII had appointed him prime minister on his accession, and now encouraged him in his ambition to occupy the Holy See. D'Amboise considered his election a foregone conclusion. Had not France bought for him from Borgia [p. 40] the voices of the eleven Spanish Cardinals? In addition to these and to his French supporters, he counted also on the Venetians, which would make his majority more than secure. Borgia's instructions to the Spanish electors, of which the French Ambassador held a copy, were refreshingly clear and pithy. "I order you", he wrote, "to vote for the Cardinal d'Amboise. In case of disobedience you will be cut to pieces as others have been before you." This document had, as we have seen, cost Louis XII 40,000 ducats, and the Frenchmen never doubted its efficacy. So certain were they of victory, that d'Amboise, rather prematurely, announced his elevation to the King. His amazement and disappointment were therefore boundless when at the first scrutiny he only got an insignificant number of votes.

For twenty-four hours he strove with all the energy of despair to avert a defeat which would be such a bitter humiliation, and cover him with ridicule; but all his efforts proved fruitless. From those who had accepted his bribes he met with nothing but polite apathy. Whatever their inner dissentions might be, the Italian cardinals all joined issue when it came to fooling a Frenchman. It now became evident that Borgia also had played him false and that the Spanish element had been less impressed by those drastic and expensive orders than the French Ambassador and his party. The Cardinal d'Amboise met his first defeat gallantly. With commendable philosophy he resigned himself to the inevitable and bore up bravely under his mortifying failure.

Meanwhile Sforza, the erstwhile rival of Alexander VI whose experience of human nature was rich and varied, and who could appraise to a nicety all the moods and tempers of a conclave, took the situation in hand. He considered that the circumstances called for a postponement of personal authority, in fact for a disguised interregnum. As luck would have it, the very man to fulfil his purpose lay to hand in the next cubicle to his own. A gentle and timid soul, bedridden, decrepit, childish and practically moribund, Cardinal Piccolomini had all the qualities required by Sforza, if not by the Holy Ghost, to make the perfect candidate. Cautiously, after dark, Sforza crept round to his neighbour and, dismissing the weary conclavist who acted as his nurse, offered to sit with the invalid for a while. As soon as they were alone, in feverish whispers, he conveyed to the palsied prelate what was expected of him. The result of his [p. 41] words was surprising. The old man was instantly galvanised into a semblance of vigour. The clouded brain cleared, his response to the call was immediate. Probably well concealed, but tenacious as it is in the hearts of most cardinals, had lain dormant for years the ambition which was to be fulfilled at last, on the brink of the grave.

Sforza was too astute to have any illusions as to his own chances. He had known many vicissitudes since that night eleven years before when Rodrigo Borgia had laid such riches at his feet. His brother had now lost Milan, his family was banished and ruined, he himself had been incarcerated. He was without money or influence, except that of his own personality. He was quick to see the opportunity fate had given him to retrieve something of his fallen fortunes and was not likely to let it slip through his fingers. He had prepared a contract the nature of which made his candidate's election a certainty, and he read it to Piccolomini, who appended his shaky signature to it without a murmur. Sforza, in possession of the precious document, immediately sent messages to his most influential colleagues convening them to a secret meeting. The news leaked out as perhaps it was intended to do. The whole Sacred College, demoralised and irresolute, was thrown into a flutter of expectation. What had that wily Sforza got up his sleeve? When the appointed hour struck, a seething mass of cardinals, d'Amboise among them, were pushing, pressing, panting in their efforts to squeeze into Sforza's cell, all eagerness to know what was afoot. It took Sforza but a few moments to enlighten them. Having made the difficulties of the situation clear, he calmly proposed Piccolomini as "temporary Pope". This was indeed a bombshell. A few cardinals demurred, uncertain of what benefit the arrangement would be to them—but when Sforza exhibited his impressive document duly signed and sealed there was a hush of suspense.

It was indeed a gratifying contract. Not only were they all richly provided for, but their spiritual as well as their temporal welfare had been generously dealt with. By a special clause, marking a welcome innovation, they were all to receive a plenary absolution, without need of confession, for all crimes of any nature whatsoever which they might have committed up to date. A murmur of delighted approbation soon grew into a pæan of jubilation; not only was the devil cheated, which was a shrewd and pleasing stroke of ecclesiastical [p. 42] diplomacy, but the recipients of this favour were also whitewashed in the eyes of the law, a consideration which certainly had its merits. As a compensation for the scurvy way in which the Cardinal d'Amboise had been treated, the hat was bestowed on his nephew; let us hope he thought it an adequate return for his expenditure. The success of the transaction was so overwhelming that Sforza had the greatest difficulty in preventing the Sacred College from electing Piccolomini then and there by "adoration". Only the danger, which he pointed out, of the frail old man dying of excitement on the spot, could restrain their eagerness. The scrutiny took place the next morning and Piccolomini was given every voice but his own. The cardinals rushed to his cell to adore him. He kissed them all on the mouth and chose the name of Pius III. He was carried to St. Peter's and propped against the altar, as he could neither kneel nor stand. When the cortège entered the papal apartments at the Vatican not a bed could be found to lay him on and he had to buy back from the conclavists the furniture of the cell he had just vacated.

The fatigue of the coronation ceremonies proved too great for the aged Pontiff, and he slowly sank and died after a pontificate of twenty-five days.

 Pius III  Julius II  Leo X  Adrian VI  Clement VII  Paul III  Julius III  Marcellus II  Paul IV  Pius IV  Pius V  Gregory XIII  Sixtus V  Urban VII  Gregory XIV  Innocent IX  Clement VIII

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