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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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William and

Louis XIV

Leopold I

Charles II

THE revocation of his concessions to France, made in extremis by Alexander VIII, had struck the Duc de Chaulnes a shattering blow. He had taken all along a most sanguine view of the late Pontiff's political leanings, encouraged thereunto by the nomination of a couple of French cardinals and Alexander's strict observance of his undertakings. The Duke's reports to Louis XIV had therefore been written in a spirit of sustained optimism. He was well aware that his Sovereign showed no leniency towards officials who misinformed him, and that a lifetime of faithful and devoted service would weigh as nothing against this blatant error of judgment, so he bowed his head and awaited the storm. But it suited Louis XIV's plans much better to postpone the old courtier's disgrace till after the new pope's election, for he had no need of an active French agent outside the coming conclave and Chaulnes could still play the part of an imposing figurehead. A new situation had arisen during Alexander's pontificate of which the poor old diplomat had not the faintest inkling, and which was so incredible that none even among the most suspicious members of the Sacred College ever came near to guessing the strange secret.

Altieri, the man that Louis XIV had so vindictively humiliated and persecuted, far from seeking to be revenged upon his ruthless enemy, had made it the aim and object of his life to worm himself into the despot's good graces. Having failed to propitiate any of the members of the French faction in the late conclave, he decided to adopt bolder and more direct methods of approach. Either through the good offices of Louis XIV's confessor or through those of Mme de Maintenon herself, he succeeded in reaching the King's ear. His abject, grovelling apologies for the political errors of his youth were accompanied by protestations of devotion and offers of lifelong and disinterested service. As an earnest of his sincerity he warned the King to put no trust in Alexander's apparent friendliness and prepared him [p. 212] for the recantation which he foretold as a certainty. Louis XIV, realising what a valuable source of reliable information this unexpected ally would prove, and probably flattered in his vanity by such dogged determination to win his favour, entered into a confidential and clandestine correspondence, over the heads of his official representatives, with the man he had openly sworn to crush.

Altieri's disposition must have been akin to that feminine type which adores a brutal lover, whose fidelity is fostered by ill-treatment and which licks the boot that kicks it, for Louis XIV, who exacted the blindest submission from those who served him, never obtained more diligent or more faithful allegiance than from this cringing infatuated devotee. Altieri's voluntary bondage, like the fulfilment of a vocation, acted as a strong tonic on his mental faculties. He developed a clearness of insight and a firmness of purpose for which he had shown no aptitude before. Louis XIV's goodwill, which he had contrived to win at the cost of so much self-abasement and treachery to his colleagues, seems to have satisfied all his aspirations. He asked no more of life now but to bask for ever in the warmth of the Roi Soleil's approbation and to worship at his shrine.

On March 19th the French cardinals entered the conclave which had been assembled since February 12th. They were gratified to find that, conforming to the tacit understanding accepted by their colleagues, no attempt at an election had been made before their arrival. They brought the King's letters for Chaulnes and d'Estrées, those intended for Altieri being enclosed under cover addressed to a lady of the Orsini family. Chaulnes was immensely relieved by the general tone of the missive he received. He had feared an immediate recall, and though his orders were disconcertingly vague they were not markedly curt or frigid. Had he known what was going on behind his back he would have felt less reassured about the King's feelings towards him!

As to d'Estrées, his instructions were purposely so nebulous and involved that he had not the slightest idea what he was being told to do. He sent a message to Chaulnes to come at once to the conclave wicket, and after a long and agitated whispered consultation decided to despatch a courier with all haste to Versailles with a note begging in both their names for more explicit guidance. [p. 213]

Louis XIV's communication to Altieri, on the other hand, was as clear and direct as could be desired. Convinced of his ex-bugbear's utter reliability, the monarch actually proposed to raise him to the Holy See! If Altieri accepted the suggestion, orders to support him would be sent at once to the leaders of the French faction. Altieri all but swooned with bliss—not at the prospect of wearing the triple crown, but at such an overwhelming proof of his idol's confidence. He knew of course that the project was impracticable; Louis XIV had overlooked the effect that such an astounding move would produce on the Sacred College. Except for those cardinals under the direct subjection of France, every one of Altieri's colleagues would have turned and reviled him, and the French party alone could not carry his election. So he wrote to the King and Mme de Maintenon, expatiating on his overwhelming gratitude and alluding in ambiguous terms to the insuperable obstacles standing in the way of his own elevation to the Apostolic See. He was ready, however, with the name of a substitute upon whose loyalty the King could rely as firmly as upon his own. So the most trustworthy of messengers who set out on the fleetest of horses from the ambassadorial stables bearing the bewildered leaders' letters to Versailles was followed a few hours later by another, less conspicuous but no less efficient, bound on the identical errand for another master.

The cardinals had agreed to await their French colleagues before proceeding to elect the pope; but they could scarcely be expected to postpone the scrutinies indefinitely; so on April 4th Chigi suddenly proposed the candidature of Barbarigo, and attempted to carry off his election by surprise. D'Estrées, who was by now a more experienced conclavist, far from opposing the Venetian prelate, appeared to be most favourably inclined towards him, and merely asked for time to obtain the King's consent to his elevation. The majority of Barbarigo's partisans were disinclined to grant this delay and had just resolved to call upon the French faction for their decision when news reached the conclave that Mons had fallen and that Nice Castle had been stormed by the French. This double victory of Louis XIV's army placed d'Estrées in too strong a position to be gainsaid. "The Cardinals Nice and Mons have just arrived", wrote Negri to the Duke of Savoy; "if only a few more of their kind follow the conclave will not last much longer!" Barbarigo was not and [p. 214] never could be acceptable to France. He was austere, rigid, intolerant; and the last man to forgo any ecclesiastical privileges or pander to the autocrat of Versailles.

During the interlude which had now been courteously pressed on the French faction to enable them to obtain their Sovereign's consent to Barbarigo's election, the enforced idleness of the cardinals led to a scandalous relaxation of all regulations. The boarding was taken down, the windows thrown open, and the inmates of the Vatican brazenly exchanged greetings with their friends gathered on the Piazza below. Musicians were engaged to serenade the recluses, and their lady friends, "discreetly veiled", says Gubernatis, "made signs with their fingers in the Spanish fashion!"

The evenings were spent at the gaming tables, many prelates gambling far into the night—this unedifying pastime being the cause of an accident which might have led to the most tragic consequences. A light accidentally knocked over by one of the players set fire to the cubicle, and spread in a few moments with alarming rapidity. This is how Cardinal d'Este describes the incident in a letter to his brother the Duke of Modena:

Last night the conclave caught fire, and the conflagration lasted till the early hours of the morning. I cannot tell you the panic it caused among us. The danger was great no doubt, but the burlesque was greater still. I could have held my sides at the sight afforded by my dear colleagues in raiment and attitudes that Jacob under his ladder would never have dreamed of. This one in a camisole, that one in pants, another in a dressing gown, a fourth wrapped up in wadding, others in vests, or shirts, or strange indescribable garments—but all irresistibly comical. Cardinal Marescotti, who had been laid up for four days unable to move with lumbago—miraculously cured by fright—was rushing about half naked, as hairy as a devil, and repeating incessantly: What next, good heavens, what next? Aguirre, who usually needs the support of four attendants, was gambading along the passages like a frolicsome hare. Maidalchini, who is afflicted with a hernia, flew past holding it up in both hands. Bouillon, scratching himself unrestrainedly, was screaming to his servants to save his periwigs. Forbin, under pretext of salving valuable documents, was searching the cells for compromising papers of which he held large rolls under his arms. Colloredo and S. Susanna marched solenmly round holding a crucifix and chanting: Libera nos Domine. Ottoboni, [p. 215] in spotless white night attire, his face fresly painted, was cutting capers, joking and laughing like a lunatic.

The incentive of personal danger drove the conclavists to exert so much energy that the fire was subdued. The victims were accommodated in tenantless cells and the whole assembly retired to sleep and rest. Having recovered from their emotion and fatigue, the cardinals resumed the various occupations with which they strove to while away the interminable hours of leisure.

The couriers seemed an unconscionable time returning from Versailles and Chigi was losing patience, testily pressing d'Estrées for a decision concerning Barbarigo. The whole assembly was getting restive and d'Estrées was at his wit's end how to keep the situation in hand. The French leader had not the slightest suspicion of his Sovereign's secret understanding with Altieri nor, for the matter of that, had any of the other members of the Sacred College. Altieri, who knew that Louis XIV's instructions to his party were being held up until matters had been definitely settled between the French court and his protégé Pignatelli, now considered it advisable to step into the breach himself.

He set out to undermine the enemy's forces by detaching the various factions from their allegiance to Barbarigo. His first recruit was Ottoboni, the late Cardinal-Nephew, who had built a beautiful theatre in his palace and feared above all things to see it closed. It was easy enough to persuade him that Barbarigo would never tolerate such a hobby in a cardinal and that some other candidate could be found who would be more indulgent. Altieri then turned his attentions to the Spanish-Imperial party and, being on friendly terms with their leader, Medina-Coeli, he aroused no suspicion by strolling out of ear-shot with him at the first opportunity. He then proceeded to sound him tactfully on his feelings regarding the Venetian candidate and found the Spaniard quite willing to show his hand. The Cardinal Duke of Medina-Coeli was thoroughly worldly; he loved all the good things of life which rank and wealth had put within his reach. Like Bouillon and so many other exalted prelates he ranked his ecclesiastical dignity far below his secular standing, and when Altieri suggested that the austere and bigoted Barbarigo would impose on the cardinals a life of rigorous discipline, he felt alarmed [p. 216] and outraged, and declared himself willing to connive at any scheme to prevent such an objectionable zealot's election. Medina-Coeli had great influence both in Madrid and Vienna, and was in a position to assume the responsibility of deciding on the merits and demerits of any candidate. He therefore wrote immediately to the Emperor to inform him that he had just discovered that Barbarigo was secretly in league with the French, that he was a dangerous enemy of the Empire and should be given the exclusion. Leopold, who had been inundated with the most contradictory reports and denunciations from Rome, was thoroughly disgusted with the whole business, and more than willing to leave the responsibility of selecting a candidate to the Spanish leader, who would presumably have Hispano-German interests at heart. He therefore sent the exclusion against Barbarigo to Medina-Coeli and trusted to his good judgment.

Meanwhile the Sacred College had the mild excitement of a new candidature—that of yet another Venetian called Delfino, who had worked perseveringly to collect adherents, but who was defeated by the "Zelanti" party, whose leader, Negroni, the soul of puritanical fanaticism, did not hesitate to make public the knowledge he possessed of Delfino's exceptionally unedifying past—and so nipped his chances in the bud.

On July 4th the messengers both from Versailles and Vienna reached Rome simultaneously. The Emperor's letter to Medina-Coeli was exactly such as he had expected and all he could wish for, but Louis XIV's orders to Chaulnes and d'Estrées caused their recipients utter stupefaction. They were to refer to Altieri for instructions and follow his lead unquestioningly; which amounted to putting them in a subordinate position to the man they had so far been forbidden even to speak to and against whom the King had declared a lifelong feud. This thunderbolt, hurled straight out of the blue by Louis at his devoted servants without even a premonitory rumbling, must have all but stunned them—but they were both courtiers by birth and training and instinctively composed themselves to conceal even the faintest trace of surprise or resentment. A secret meeting with Altieri was immediately contrived by d'Estrées, who dutifully subscribed to his new chief's plan of campaign.

Medina-Coehi had of course apprised Altieri of the Emperor's answer, so he knew Barbarigo was doomed, but more supporters [p. 217] were needed for his own candidate Pignatelli, and this work Altieri alone could undertake. Louis XIV was putting large sums of money at his disposal, and Pignatelli having no nephews, the most lucrative State appointments could also be offered as baits. The candidate, an apparently weak-minded and rather stupid old man, had accepted all the French Monarch's stipulations concerning the régale and other minor points in dispute and seemed as devoted to the King's interests as Altieri himself.

Medina-Coeli's defection had so hopelessly wrecked Barbarigo's chances that when his name was proposed at the scrutiny of July 9th he could only muster five votes—those of the five most fanatical "Zelanti". Altieri, still successfully concealing his alliance with the French party, had no difficulty in rallying the Spanish leader to Pignatelli's cause and now felt confident of victory. But so fearful was he of some last-moment set-back that not until the scrutiny was actually taking place would he permit d'Estrées to disclose his faction's readiness to support Pignatelli. Altieri's masterly strategy met with complete success, and on July 12th Pignatelli was proclaimed Pope under the name of Innocent XII, the group of the five Zelanti alone refusing to give him their suffrage.

The new Pontiff was seventy-six years old and a Neapolitan by birth—therefore a subject of the King of Spain—and it speaks volumes for the confidence evinced by Louis XIV in Altieri's judgment and good faith that he should have agreed to support such an unpromising candidature. Innocent XII's elevation to the Holy See proved to have the same beneficent and quickening effect on his mental faculties as the bestowing of Louis XIV's favour had had on Altieri's! Attainment of the supreme dignity seemed to infuse new life into him—he shook off the torpor and irresolution which had characterised him so far, and to the general amazement gave every evidence of intelligence and good sense. He took up his residence in the Quirinal and started at once to assert his authority. Ottoboni was ordered to disband his troop of comedians and demolish his cherished play-house. Arrests were made in the neighbourhood of the Embassies, and the Pope's relations were officially notified that they were not to enter the Papal States; according to Gubernatis His Holiness would not even employ Neapolitan servants. He rose early, took long walks and devoted himself entirely to his religious and official duties. [p. 218] Innocent published a bull abolishing nepotism finally and irrevocably—laying down that every member of the Sacred College should take a solemn oath in conclave to conform to the edict if he was raised to the Holy See.

The Pontiff naturally made many enemies, but none could deny his rectitude, piety and disinterestedness. He fulfilled his obligations to France by bestowing certain State offices according to the agreement he had accepted, and never failed to prove his gratitude to Louis XIV when occasion arose. The advice which he pressed on Charles II to nominate the Duc d'Anjou as his successor to the throne of Spain, certainly weighed heavily in the balance when the dying monarch finally gave his decision in favour of the house of Bourbon. But in exchange for this service he managed, with the help of Mme de Maintenon and the Père ha Chaise, Louis' confessor, to bring that proud autocrat to renounce of his own accord his pretensions to the régale and to make a full and unqualified submission to Rome in the name of the Gallican Church.

True, the Roi Soleil had passed his zenith, he was no longer the effulgent demigod of former years—an austere odour of sanctity now pervaded the conjugal apartments where more voluptuous perfumes had been wont to linger. Mme de Maintenon and her cohort of spiritual directors played on the King's religious sensibilities, incessantly stressing with ominous premonitions the approach of the day of reckoning. More experienced than Innocent XI and less hampered by scruples, Innocent XII was too wise to antagonise the Jesuits. He made use of them instead, and it was entirely through the influence that they exerted over the wife of the ageing Louis that such a triumph was achieved.

The Pontiff's relations with the Emperor were less friendly. He annulled an edict issued by Leopold claiming sovereignty over all fiefs constituted in Italy without his sanction, and confident of the support of France and Spain, made spirited remonstrances to the Court of Vienna. Leopold, realising that he had incurred universal odium by promulgating such an anachronistic and preposterous pretension, withdrew his claim and no more was heard of it.

Innocent XII added his quota to the Roman monuments by building several palaces and aqueducts. He abolished many scandalous abuses, but he had to abandon the plan of reforming the religious [p. 219] orders, finding it impracticable to take disciplinary measures against rival congregations while showing leniency towards the Jesuits, whose services he could not dispense with.

Innocent XII died on September 28th, 1700, leaving, besides a reputation for sagacity and virtue, a well-filled treasury and the dignity and influence of the Holy See considerably enhanced.

 Leo XI  Paul V  Gregory XV  Urban VIII  Innocent X  Alexander VII  Clement IX  Clement X  Innocent XI  Alexander VIII  Innocent XII

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