Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages

Stephanie Schoppert - March 26, 2017

The position of Pope is considered to be the holiest in the Catholic faith. Few positions are held to higher standard of morality and strict behavior. However, the position of the Pope has not always been filled with those who longed to live a holy lifestyle. Popes are just as susceptible to corruption as any other world leader and they are also susceptible to their more primal urges. During the Middle Ages there were a number of papal scandals that kept the papacy from always being viewed as the holy office that it was supposed to be.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Painting of Pope Alexander VI by Cristofano dell’Altissimo.. Wikipedia.org

Pope Alexander VI

Pope Alexander came into the holiest of occupations in 1492 after his uncle, Pope Callixtus III, paved the way for him. He was made a Cardinal-Deacon of San Nicola in Carcere when he was just 25. The next year he was made vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church. In 1471, he was appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. With how much help he got from his uncle to rise through the church, it was not really surprising when Pope Alexander VI continued with the nepotism trend.

He lived his life as a renaissance prince with lavish parties and plenty of women, and he flaunted his wealth at the church. He was not one for modesty and discretion and had no problem continuing his renaissance lifestyle even after being elected Pope. He was also a member of the Borgia family who were known for a gruesome bloodlust and were believed to kill for pleasure. There were so many scandals of his papacy that his nepotism of placing those close to him in numerous positions of power in the church was largely overlooked.

Pope Alexander VI is not the only Pope who is believed to have fathered illegitimate children, but he went a step further and admitted that he had actually done it. One of the biggest scandals of his papacy was the rumor that he had been depraved enough to enter into a sexual relationship with his own daughter.

Illegitimate children and incestuous relationships were not all when it came to this Pope. His lavish parties sometimes included orgies, which continued happening while he was the Pope and so did the bloodlust that the Borgia family was known for. He was rumored to have committed his first murder at the age of 12. As Pope, it was his brother that did most of the killing while he watched. When he died in 1503 some believe that it was due to poison which makes it possible that he died after drinking from the cup that was meant for his dinner guest Cardinal Adriano.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Illustration of Pope Benedict IX from The Lives and Times of the Popes in 1911. Wikimedia.org

Pope Benedict IX

Pope Benedict IX took the papacy in 1032 when he was in his 20s and got the position only because of his father’s substantial bribes. He was born Theophylactus of Tusculum and had absolutely no qualifications to be Pope. His lifestyle was one that was not at all suited to the papacy or the church. Historian Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote that Pope Benedict IX was “a demon from hell, in the disguise of a priest.”

Pope Benedict IX got his reputation due to his penchant for illicit relationships and sponsoring orgies. Some even said that he was homosexual and practiced bestiality. Pope Victor II wrote that Pope Benedict IX was “so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” Pope Benedict IX not only feasted on food and flesh throughout his time as Pope but he used the church coffers to do it.

In 1036 the people had enough of him and expelled him from Rome. Emperor Conrad II helped Pope Benedict return to Rome after expelling some of his opponents from their sees. Bishop Benno of Piacenza had accused the Pope of “many vile adulteries and murders.” Pope Benedict IX stayed in power until his lifestyle of sodomy, murder, and depravity caused him to be ousted again in 1044. Pope Sylvester II was put in place but Pope Benedict IX returned with his forces and expelled Pope Sylvester II.

The struggles with keeping the papacy made Pope Benedict IX wonder if it was worth it. He decided to offer the papacy to his godfather John Gratian if he would pay his election expenses. John Gratian agreed hoping to finally remove Pope Benedict IX for good. However, in July 1046, after successfully selling the papacy, Benedict changed his mind and returned to Rome. Emperor Henry III denounced Pope Benedict IX and his godfather and Pope Clement II was crowned. After Pope Clement II died in 1047, Benedict once again seized power until he was driven away in 1048. He refused to face charges of simony in 1049 and was excommunicated from the church.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Pope John XII. All-that-is-interesting.com

Pope John XII

Pope John XII took the Papacy in 955 when he was just 18. He was known to have sex with both men and women who ventured into the papal residence and anyone who refused his attentions ended up raped anyway. He was also said to engaged in incestuous relationships with his niece and his sisters.

Even beyond committing adultery and turning the papal palace into little more than a brothel was his bloodlust. Pope John XII was known to be brutal to those that opposed him. In Patrologia Latina he was accused of castrating and murdering a cardinal and also of blinding and murdering his accuser. Pope John XII was fond of political intrigue and granted Otto I of Germany the title of emperor in the hopes of protecting himself from a growing list of political enemies.

However, not even Otto I could look away from the sins of Pope XII for long. He wrote to the Pope asking him to stop his sensual lifestyle and accused the Pope of “living his whole life in vanity and adultery.” Pope John XII feared that Otto I was gaining too much power and sent envoys to watch the emperor. They were quickly caught and the relationship between the Pope and the Emperor soured. In 963, the city of Rome was also divided between those that supported John and those that wanted him removed.

Otto I summoned a counsel in 963 and ordered John to present himself and answer to a number of charges. John responded by threatening to excommunicate his enemies. The council deposed John and put Pope Leo VIII in his place. When Otto I left Rome, John and his supporters retook power and deposed Leo VIII. Pope John XII mutilated those that stood against him and tried to make amends with Otto I. Before anything could move forward Pope John XII died, either through apoplexy while committing adultery, or at the hands of the furious husband.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Portrait of Pope Julius III. Papalartifacts.com

Pope Julius III

Pope Julius III was elected with nowhere near the scandal, murder, or bribes of many of his predecessors. He came to power in 1550 and was elected as a compromise candidate between three competing factions within the conclave. Pope Julius III came to power by supporters who wished to reconvene the Council of Trent and reform the church. Pope Julius did make some feeble attempts to do what his supporters wanted but most of his time was taken up by other interests.

Pope Julius III had two main interests, renovating his home by looting the papal treasury and passions of the flesh. Villa Giula was his personal mansion, and with the money from the coffers he was able to hire the very best, including Michelangelo to turn his home into an unparalleled masterpiece. He had little interest in actually performing any of the duties of the Pope but he still was able to ruin the standing of the papacy with his exploits.

He liked to have sex and lots of it and with those were looked like or actually were young kids. It was rumored that he had Michelangelo decorate his home with sculptures of what many might consider today to be child pornography. It was no secret to the people of Rome what Pope Julius III was up to. Giovanni Della Casa even wrote a poem about the Pope’s practice of sodomizing young boys.

Things got even worse when Julius started granting young men the position of Cardinal. It got even worse when his family adopted a young beggar boy, that Julius became obsessed with. Julius showered him with riches and positions within the church, including the powerful position of Cardinal-Nephew. Julius was even known to brag about how good the boy was in bed. Despite several attempts to distance the Pope from the church through temporary banishment (after he killed two men and then again after he raped two women), it was not until his death in 1555 that the Church was free of him.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Pope Sergius III. Gettyimages.com

Pope Sergius III

Pope Sergius III was elected to the papacy in 898 but rival candidate Pope John IX was also elected and excommunicated Sergius and his followers. From 903 to 904, Antipope Christopher seized the chair by force and magister militum Theopahylact led a revolt against Christopher. He asked that Sergius come to Rome and become the Pope. Sergius agreed and was consecrated Pope Sergius III on January 29, 904.

Pope Sergius III goes down in history for a different type of scandal than many others on this list. He is reputed to be the only Pope to order the murder of another Pope. Soon after taking power he ordered that both Antipope Christopher and Pope Leo V be strangled in their prison cells. It is debated whether both men were murdered, some sources claim that Antipope Christopher was allowed to retire at a monastery.

There is some debate about whether or not the murders were actually the will of Pope Sergius III or if they were really the desire of Theophylact. Many accounts suggest that Theophylact was the real person in power and made Sergius follow his agenda. To be sure, Sergius did use his time as Pope to place many of his family members and members of his aristocratic party to high positions within the Church.

Along with those scandals, Pope Sergius III did engage in the usual sort of scandal, namely that of a sexual nature. He was said to be in a relationship with Marozia, the teenage daughter of Theophylact. Some accounts claim that he fathered a child by her who later became Pope John XI. There is debate on who John’s father was because he was born after Marozia was married to Alberic I of Spoleto. But there are some who claim the child was the son of Sergius and that Alberic I knew his eldest son was illegitimate.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Portrait of Pope Leo X by Raphael in 1518. Wikimedia.org

Pope Leo X

Pope Leo X succeeded Pope Julius II in 1513. He was a Pope that liked to patron the arts and spend money. He moved forward on the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica and had Raphael redesign the rooms of the papal palace. Upon becoming Pope he put the papal coffers to work at creating a very lavish lifestyle for himself while being a generous patron of arts and literature.

This lifestyle was one that quickly emptied the treasury and exhausted the savings left by Pope Julius II in just two years. The lack of funds did very little to stop the lavish lifestyle of Pope Leo X. He created a financial crisis that he was never able to recover from despite being willing to go to extreme lengths to do so.

To refill the coffers Leo X put the Church up for sale. Just about anything could be gained for the right price. Cardinal hats were up for sale and so was membership in the “Knights of Peter.” He took loans from anyone that would offer them knowing that he could just continue selling off the Church to pay them off. He started selling forgiveness for sins, just about any sin could be forgiven for the right price. This allowed wealthy nobles to feel better about their misdeeds and know that they could continue doing them as long as they paid their dues to the church.

When even that was not enough to keep up with his spending, Pope Leo X moved on to selling what he could out of the papal palace. Anything was up for grabs; jewels, statues of the apostles, furniture, and flatware. No matter how much money he made, it disappeared almost immediately and just increased the need to continue extracting fees, selling church positions, and encouraging the populace to buy indulgences. When he died in 1521, many of his creditors ended up in financial ruin.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Portrait of Pope Sixtus IV. Flickriver.com

Pope Sixtus IV

Pope Sixtus IV came into the Holy position of the Pope in 1414. From the moment he took the position he started using his position to grant favors upon those loyal to him. He made two of his nephews Cardinals right away and then distanced himself from the vow of poverty he had taken as part of the Franciscan order. The coronation tiara he commissioned for himself cost 100,000 ducats which was one third of the annual income of the papacy.

The lavish lifestyle that he adopted once he became Pope was hard to maintain and as such he decided to increase taxes, especially one on priests who took mistresses. He even sold “privileges” to rich men which gave them permission to give “solace” to women when their husbands were absent. Scandals abounded during his papacy when people realized that much of his nepotism focused on handsome young boys. It became the belief that some of the positions were given as rewards for sexual favors.

Another scandal that arose was the Pazzi conspiracy. This was a plot that was hatched to kill Lorenzo and Guiliano de Medici. Historians are unsure of how much Pope Sixtus III knew and how involved he was in the plot. It was known that he wanted to overthrow the Medici and it was inconceivable that this could happen without the deaths of Lorenzo and Giuliano. The assassination attempt was successful on Giuliano but Lorenzo managed to escape.

In 1478, the worst of Pope Sixtus III’s legacy began when he issued an order that sanctioned the Spanish Inquisition. Over the next 300 years the Inquisition maintained a reign of terror that imprisoned and tortured hundreds of thousands of people. Torture chambers and devices were built just to extract confessions of heresy and even children were imprisoned as part of the Inquisition. It was not until 1813 that the Inquisition was finally suppressed.

Popes Behaving Badly: 8 Dreadful Papal Scandals From the Middle Ages
Portrait of Pope Paul III. Wikimedia.org

Pope Paul III

Pope Paul III took the papacy in 1534 and on the one hand he did the best he could during a very turbulent time. He made edicts against slavery and he tried to fight the corruption within the church. He fought against Protestantism and tried to combat the efforts of Martin Luther. However, Pope Paul III was far from a nice guy.

He was brutal to his enemies and those who he thought were against the church. He was said to have poisoned his own mother and niece so that he could inherit the family fortune. It was with the help of that fortune and his family’s influence that he was able to get himself into the papacy. He was ruthless as Pope and would order men to be strangled and then burned. He had no tolerance or patience. During a theological dispute between two cardinals and a Polish bishop, Pope Paul III settled the issue by having all three men hacked to death with swords.

Even though Pope Paul III took a stance against corruption in the church, he was very much corrupt and in favor of nepotism. He made two of his grandsons Cardinals even though they were only 14 and 16 at the time. He also forcibly took the dukedom of Camerino so that he could bestow that on yet another of his grandsons. He also put hefty taxes on the people so as to fund the papacy.

There is another part of Pope Paul III’s papacy that continues to stand out centuries later. It was said that even though Rome only had a population of 100,000, there were 45,000 prostitutes that paid a monthly tribute to Pope Paul III. Despite this he was remembered as being good hearted, obliging and intelligent and the money from the taxes he levied helped to pay for his grandiose tome that he was laid to rest in in 1549.