The Papal crimes that reveal medieval Vatican

While they posed as pillars of piety, many medieval popes were depraved criminals.

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

Pope Stephen VI hated his predecessor Formosus so much that he dug him up and put his dead body on trial. (Pope Formosus and Stephen VI by Jean Paul Laurens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Simony has always been common in Rome. It would be a bold historian who asserted that more popes have gained the throne through merit than by bribery. From the fourth century onwards Roman nobles were exchanging their secular robes for clerical ones, or rather their priestly robes of the old religion for new priestly robes of the new Christian one.

The modern Roman Church was essentially a creation of the Roman nobility. For many centuries the papacy was to be a prize, awarded to the currently most powerful Roman noble family, that enabled the winner to extort vast sums from the whole of Western Christendom. The sale of cardinals’ hats and other Church offices has been a bottomless well of treasure. Simony is still commonly known as one of the two papal crimes, the other being nepotism. Many popes had illegitimate children, and the convention was to call them nephews. Numerous popes advanced the careers of their nominal nephews, and their real nephews, giving them cardinals’ hats, and preparing the way for their succession. The word nepotism was coined to describe this scandal. It is derived from the Latin word for a nephew, nepos.

Sergius II, who ascended the papal throne in 844, made his brother a bishop, and the two of them sold bishoprics and other Church offices to the highest bidder. Clement V appointed five close relatives as cardinals and misused the papal treasures to such an extent that his successor instituted legal proceedings against his family to recover some of them. Boniface IX, who ascended the papal throne in 1389, was an outstanding nepotist and simonist — arguably the worst ever. He raised vast amounts of money by auctioning Church offices and marketed indulgences in ways that were considered outrageous even by papal standards.

Pius II created a nephew, the future Pius III, an archbishop and cardinal at the age of 21. The fifteenth century pope Sixtus IV appointed numerous relatives (three sons and six others) as cardinals, one of them the future Julius II. The chief interest of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI seems to have been the promotion of his family’s wealth and influence. Indeed he appears to have aspired to keep the papacy in the family indefinitely. To this end he attempted to crush all potential opposition by murdering members of other leading Roman families and seizing their property. He appointed his own son to several bishoprics at the age of 18 and gave him a cardinal’s hat the following year. This reign is generally recognised as marking the high point of papal greed and corruption.

Paul III gave important parts of the Papal States to his son Pierluigi, and gave cardinals’ hats to two grandsons aged 14 and 16. His main interest seems to have been to establish his family among the great houses of Italy. Urban VIII was so extravagant a nepotist that his successor Innocent X, who ascended the papal throne in 1644, tried to recover some of the illegal gifts distributed to Urban’s relatives. Almost any high Church office could become a sinecure. Such offices were often granted to provide their holders with incomes. Even children could be given them. For example, Pope Leo X, the second son of Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) was appointed a cardinal at the age of 13, before having the papacy purchased for him by his father.

Far from being elected by their flocks, many popes were positively hated by them. Sabinian, for example, had incurred the hatred of Romans by profiteering during a famine. After his death in 606 they tried to seize and dismember his corpse, and his funeral procession was obliged to pass outside the city walls. In 799 Pope Leo III, an extremely unpopular man, was attacked by a mob, which tried to cut off his tongue and tear out his eyes. Pope Paschal I was given to blinding and beheading his opponents. He was so unpopular that when he died in 824 a public uproar prevented his body being buried in St Peter’s. John VIII was poisoned by members of his own entourage in 882, and was then finished off by being clubbed to death. Stephen VI (VII), arguably the most insane of all popes, was deposed by a Roman mob, gaoled, and strangled in 897. The next pope, Romanus, was also deposed after a reign of a few months, and the next one, Theodore II, died of causes unknown after a reign of 20 days. Leo V managed only 30 days as pope before being overthrown by his own clergy in 903 and subsequently murdered.

John XIII, who ascended the papal throne in 965, was widely hated. The citizens of Rome attacked, imprisoned and banished him. They probably regretted that they did not kill him, for he returned with the protection of the Emperor, and punished them with a brutality that was considered remarkable, even by papal standards. Gregory VII was less disliked, but was denounced at the Synod of Brixen in 1080 for having studied magic at Toledo and for having taken up necromancy. Pope Lucius II, in an attempt to assert his authority over the self-governing commune that had been established in Rome, led an armed force on the Capitol in 1145. Unimpressed by His Holiness, the opposition forces stoned him to death. Alexander III was also obliged to leave Rome, but after his death in 1181 his body was returned for burial. The low opinion of him held by the citizens of Rome was reflected by the insulting graffiti lavished on his tomb. Pope Urban III lived in Verona, since popular hostility in Rome prevented him from living there.

Clement III, who reigned from 1187 to 1191, was the first pope for decades to establish himself safely in Rome, a feat he achieved by the liberal distribution of bribes. Urban IV (pope 1261-1264) was so unpopular that he was never able to reside in Rome and never even visited the place. Neither did his successor Clement IV, again because of popular hostility towards him. One of his less endearing acts was to engineer the execution of the popular young prince Conradin, a ward of the Holy See, whose rights the papacy had sworn to protect. Martin IV, who became pope in 1281, was another who was so unpopular that he was unable to live in Rome.

Urban VI was clearly insane. Because of the circumstances of his election, most of his cardinals deserted him and purported to depose him. Although he appointed new cardinals, they soon became acquainted with his mental incompetence and paranoia, and so started considering a council of regency. Learning of this he had six leading cardinals tortured. Only one escaped with his life. Despite his mental state, Urban reigned for 11 years, at the end of which he died in suspicious circumstances, possibly the victim of poisoning. Who was responsible is difficult to assess, for he was detested not only by the cardinals who had originally elected him under duress, but also by his own new cardinals (such as survived). He was loathed by the clergy at large, the citizens of Rome, many of the monarchs of Europe, and even his own mercenaries.

Innocent VII was exceptionally unpopular and was able to remain in Rome only because of protection from the King of Naples. As a favour to him, one of his nephews had eleven leading citizens murdered. A violent mob stormed the Vatican, and Innocent was lucky to escape with his life. Eugene IV was also the victim of mob violence, and was obliged to leave Rome in disguise. Paul IV, a man of exceeding brutality, had earned his reputation, like many popes-to-be, as head of the Inquisition before ascending the throne in 1555. He had several claims to fame: he was a spectacularly successful simonist, he burned more books than any other pope, and he created the Jewish ghetto. He was feared and hated throughout his four-year reign, but only after his death did the citizens of Rome dare to express their opinion of him. A mob attacked the Inquisition’s offices, released its victims, and overturned and mutilated His Holiness’s statue on the Capitol.

Pope Sixtus V had already earned a fearful reputation as an inquisitor. As pope he had thousands publicly executed in the Papal States. Loathed by the people of Rome, his statue was torn down from the Capitol by a rioting mob when they learned of his death. Pius IX was yet another extremely unpopular pope. His Prime Minister was murdered, and Pius was obliged to flee Rome in disguise. His reign generated a great deal of anticlerical feeling throughout Europe. When he died in 1878 a Roman mob tried to seize his body and throw it into the Tiber.

It is difficult to find more than a handful of popes who led lives that could be objectively assessed as other than scandalous. Even the most revered seem to have been not quite as they are often portrayed. Pope Gregory I (St Gregory the Great), for example, who is often described as the greatest pope ever, owed his election in 590 to his connections. He belonged to Rome’s richest family, the same one as Popes Felix III and Agapetus I. He devoted much time to writing accounts of monstrous births (which he believed to be omens) and other bizarre phenomena. He urged the sequestration of pagan temples and encouraged the bribery of Jews to assist conversion. He expressed delight at the murder of the Emperor in 602, apparently because the Emperor had failed to accept Gregory’s claim to primacy over the Eastern Church.

It is true that Gregory stands out as exceptionally competent, but that is only because of the comparisons available. The following selection is not untypical. St Callistus was an embezzler and a bankrupt who had fled his creditors. He became Bishop of Rome in 217. John XII, a “dissolute boy”, became Pope at the age of 16 in 955. The citizens of Rome said that he slept with his mother, that he had turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel, and that he toasted the Devil at the High Altar. His behaviour was so bad that a synod was convoked. A bishop recorded the charges, all confirmed under oath: he was a simonist, he had had sex with numerous women including a relative, he had blinded one cleric and castrated another (a cardinal who had died as a result). Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, felt obliged to write to him saying that everyone accused him of homicide, perjury, sacrilege, incest with his relatives, including two of his sisters, and with having invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. John refused to answer the charges, so Otto deposed him and a new pope, Leo VIII, was installed. John went into exile until Otto left Rome, then he returned to torture, maim and murder those he felt had not been sufficiently understanding with regard to his behaviour. Leo fled to the imperial court, and in his absence John deposed and excommunicated him. When Otto returned to sort matters out, John fled once again. Soon afterwards, in 964 John was suddenly incapacitated as he lay in bed with a married woman and died a week later. Some said that he had suffered a stroke. Since he was only 24 at the time, the more likely account was that his stroke had been assisted by a hammer blow to the back of the head, delivered by the man whose wife His Holiness had been ministering to at the time.

Stephen VI (VII) was one of the more colourful popes. In 897 he had the body of Formosus, an earlier pope, exhumed. He then had it dressed in pontifical vestments and placed on the papal throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. He presided over a trial of the dead pope, found him guilty, hacked a few fingers off the corpse, and had it thrown into the Tiber. This event is generally known as the Cadaver Synodor (or in Latin, the Synodus horrenda). Stephen was himself deposed by a Roman mob and strangled. What was left of Formosus’s rotting body was recovered and allowed to rest peacefully for a few years, until another pope, Sergius III (who had been present at the Cadaver Synod) had it exhumed and condemned again. This time it was beheaded, and a few more fingers were hacked off. Once more it was cast into the Tiber, and once again it was recovered.

Pius II had been a well-known libertine before he ascended the papal throne in 1458. The father of a number of illegitimate children, he was also the author of celebrated erotic works such as Lucretia and Euryalus and the comedy Chrysis. Julius III (pope 1550-1555) was a well-known paedophile. He created a scandal by picking up from the streets a boy called Innocenzo. Unaffected by public opinion he made Innocenzo a cardinal.

The idea that priests have always been expected to be chaste, or even celibate, is severely compromised by the record of the papacy. St Peter (whether one counts him as a pope or not) had been a married man before he became an apostle. Hadrian II had been married before he became Pope in 867. So had Clement IV before his election in 1265. He is known to have had two daughters. Many popes were the sons of priests and bishops, and many were married and had children themselves. For example, Felix III (pope 483-492) was the son of a priest and had at least two children of his own. The sixth century pope, St Agapetus, was also the son of a priest. The next pope, St Silverius, was the son of St Hormisdas (pope 514-523). Theodore I (pope 642-649) was the son of a bishop, as was Boniface VI. The only English pope, Nicholas Breakspear, who became Hadrian IV in 1154, was the son of a monk at St Albans. Other popes were renowned libertines and had impressive broods of illegitimate children. For example, the late fifteenth century pope Alexander VI had a large but unknown number. The sixteenth century pope Paul III kept a mistress by whom he is known to have fathered at least four children. Innocent X (pope 1644-1655) was unusually dependent upon his sister-in-law and was so close to her that their mutual interests were widely believed to extend well beyond Church matters.

Popes were also murderers in great style. Often they murdered each other. In 366 Damasus had himself proclaimed Bishop of Rome, having hired a gang of thugs to expel Ursicinus, who had just been elected. Damasus’s mob climbed onto the roof of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his opponent’s supporters were gathered, stripped off the lead tiles, and hurled them down on the congregation below, killing over a hundred. Damasus was later charged with murder but escaped through the intervention of powerful friends. He is now revered as pope and saint. In 537 Pope Silverius was murdered by Pope Vigilius, who in turn was later murdered by Pelagius I. In 653 Martin I was accused of treason, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He was publicly flogged and his sentence commuted to banishment. Abandoned by his Church and its new pope, he soon died under the harsh conditions to which he was subjected. Both Leo V and the anti-pope Christopher were murdered by Sergius III in 904. Pope Benedict VI was charged with unknown crimes, imprisoned, and strangled on the orders of his successor (Boniface VII), who also had John XIV murdered. John XVIII and Sergius IV were both murdered by Benedict VIII in 1012. Clement II was reputedly poisoned by Benedict IX in 1047. The Borgia Pope Alexander VI enjoys the distinction of being the only pope to have murdered himself. He seems to have intended to poison a cardinal one day in 1503, but somehow the poison was mistakenly given to Alexander and his son instead.

More detail, with references and photos at

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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