10 of History's Most Scandalous Popes
10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes

Khalid Elhassan - May 18, 2018

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
Pope John XII. Wikimedia

John XII Turned the Papal Palace Into a Whorehouse, and Died While Having Sex

Long before Jude Law played a scandalous pope in the television series The Young Pope, history’s actual youngest Pope ever, John XII (937 – 964), led a papacy that was even more scandalous in real life. He was elevated to the Holy See in 955 at age 18, and unsurprisingly, making a callow teenager pope did not turn out well. His years as Holy Father were as farcical and venal as one could expect from a person thrust into a position of power and influence for which he was clearly unprepared and unqualified.

Scandal attended John XII while he was still in the womb. Born Octavianus, he was the product of an incestuous union between Rome’s most powerful figure, Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto, a self-styled “Prince of Rome”, and his stepsister. In 954, shortly before his death, Alberic extracted an oath from Rome’s aristocracy to appoint his son Octavianus pope the next time the position became vacant. When Pope Agapetus II died in 955, Octavianus was duly elected to succeed him, and chose for himself the regnal name John XII.

This real life Young Pope showed little interest in his spiritual duties and papal obligations. By then his father, Duke Alberic, the only person who might have checked him, had died. The teenaged John XII thus found himself in a position of great power, and with access to great wealth, riches, and resources, without any adult guidance or supervision. He reacted like many teenagers would in similar circumstances, by recklessly diving headfirst into a life of depravity and the pursuit of pleasure. He was particularly devoted to hunting, gambling, wine, and women, and he had a habit of toasting the devil and invoking pagan gods during dice games.

As one historian put it, John XII’s pontificate: “became infamous for the alleged depravity and worldliness with which he conducted it“. Among other things, he started selling church offices and titles to help defray the costs of his lavish spending, and on at least one occasion, he ordained a 10 year old as a bishop. He had so little respect for the dignity of church offices, that he once ordained a deacon in a stable. He was also a violent psychopath, who reportedly castrated a deacon before killing him, and when his own confessor angered him, he blinded him before killing him.

As to licentiousness, contemporaries described him as having turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. It was not just the calumny of political opponents, but a charge for which there is historical support. There is a near unanimous consensus by historians of the period that John XII was a dissolute pope who had many women in his palace, which became notorious for its orgies and drunken parties.

He got a particular kick out of defiling holy sites by having sex in them. He had sex with both women and men in the papal palace, and if visitors refused his advances, he went ahead and raped them anyhow. This pope carried on with one of his deceased father’s mistresses, with his own niece, and reportedly with his two younger sisters as well.

After a tumultuous and riotous nine years on the papal throne, this Holy Father finally died as he lived, doing what he liked most: he met his Maker while having sex. There are two accounts of John XII’s death. One account has him dying after suffering a massive stroke while having sex. Another account has him dying while having an adulterous sexual encounter, when the woman’s cuckolded husband burst in on the couple and killed the pope.

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
Pope Benedict IX. Pintrest

Benedict IX Sold the Papacy Upon His Retirement

Benedict IX (circa 1012 – 1056) was another real life Young Pope, who became the Holy Father in 1032 at the age of 20. He holds the distinction of being the only person to have ever been pope on more than one occasion. He also held the distinction of being the only pope to have ever resigned the papacy, until Benedict XVI resigned and went into retirement in 2013. Unlike his modern successor, however, Benedict IX holds the – still – unique distinction of being the only pope to have ever sold the papacy on his way out.

A nephew of his immediate predecessor, Pope John XIX, Benedict’s father used bribery to secure his election to the papacy in 1032. He was a complete disaster as a pope, who stood out for his moral unfitness even in an era when few popes were paragons of moral virtue. Church leaders accused him of adulteries and murders. Like John XII, he hosted orgies in the Lateran Palace, and as if competing to live down to that predecessor’s reputation, he raped men, women, boys, and girls. He was also a sadist who enjoyed torturing, burning, drowning, and flaying to death those who angered him.

His behavior led to an uprising, and he was forced to flee Rome within a year of his election as pope. He was brought back and reinstated by the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. In 1044, he was again forced out of the city, and a new Pope, Sylvester III, was elected in his place. Benedict returned with an army, captured Rome, forced Sylvester to abdicate, and had himself elected pope for the third time.

In short, Benedict IX was greatly disliked by contemporaries, and he finally tired of the cycles of getting ousted, then fighting his way back to the papal throne. So in 1045, not long after his third election as pope, he decided to retire. To fund his retirement, he sold the papacy on his way out to a priest, who became Pope Gregory VI. He was charged by the church for that and other misdeeds, and excommunicated. Saint Peter Damian described him as “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest“. Pope Victor III referred to Benedict IX having a “life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it“.

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
Pope Paul II. Daniel Faeron

Paul II Died While Having Sex With a Male Page

Paul II (1417 – 1471) was Holy Father from 1464 until his death in 1471. His papacy was marked repression, autocratic rule over the College of Cardinals, and few accomplishments. Because of that and his devotion to fluff such as festivities and games, Church scholars and historians view him as one of the worst Renaissance popes. He is more remembered for the scandalous manner of his death, than for whatever he achieved in life.

He was born Pietro Barbo into a wealthy family in Venice, and like many Venetians of his class, it was anticipated that he would pursue a career in business. However, those plans changed when his uncle was elected as Pope Eugenius IV in 1431, and Pietro switched from a merchant career to a spiritual one. In quick succession, His pope uncle made him an archdeacon, then a bishop, and in 1440, at age 23, the pope made his nephew a cardinal.

He continued his ascent through the Church hierarchy after his uncle’s death, and in 1464, he got himself elected pope by promising reformers in the College of Cardinals that he would implement an 18-point reform program. No sooner did he get elected than he reneged on the promise, however, and declared that the listed reforms were only advisory, not binding. He then drew up an alternate reform program, and forced the cardinals to sign it under the threat of excommunication.

An intellectual lightweight, Paul II was mentally incapable of grasping the deep issues of the day, and so devoted his energies to games and festivities. Focusing his interests on the ceremonials and outward trappings of his position, he transformed the papal court into one whose splendor rivaled that of Europe’s monarchs. Insecure and threatened by those who enjoyed high brow pursuits beyond his ken, he disliked the Classics, and prohibited the teaching of pagan writers to children. Thin skinned, he had critics of his fluff papacy imprisoned and tortured.

He really enjoyed dressing up in elaborate vestments, and while there had been quite a few homosexual or bisexual popes before Paul II and after, his sartorial choices and behavior earned him a reputation for effeminacy that damaged his prestige. Death finally claimed him in 1471, reportedly while he was being sodomized by a young male page.

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
Pope Alexander VI. Pintrest

Alexander VI Took Papal Corruption to its Pinnacle

Rodrigo Borgia (1431 – 1503) was pope from 1492 until his death. He was perhaps history’s most brazenly corrupt Holy Father, and did not bother with even the pretense of a fig leaf to cover his venality. He openly sold church offices, as well as indulgences to the wealthy. Unconcerned about his vows of celibacy, he openly acknowledged having fathered nine illegitimate children, including four with his live-in mistress. He also reportedly had an incestuous affair with his own daughter – when she was not busy having incest with her brother.

He was born near Valencia, Spain, into the Borgia family, a powerful ecclesiastical dynasty. Nepotism was the norm in those days, so when Rodrigo Borgia’s uncle became Pope Callixtus III in 1455, he ordained his nephew a deacon, then made him a lay cardinal. Soon thereafter, he was made vice chancellor of the Catholic Church, at age twenty five. Nepotism got Rodrigo a leg up, but he was a capable man in his own right, and continued rising through the Church hierarchy after his pope uncle’s death.

By the 1490s, he had served under five popes, and amassed considerable administrative experience, wealth, and influential connections. When the papal throne became vacant in 1492, he put those assets to good use, and bribed a majority of the College of Cardinal into electing him pope. Taking the name Alexander VI, he transformed the papacy into a nepotistic kleptocracy for the benefit of his family.

This pope was highly unpopular with the devout, because he made no pretense of being religious. He threw lavish parties that often degenerated into drunken orgies. One of them, which went down in history as the “Banquet of Chestnuts”, involved the hiring of fifty prostitutes, who danced with the guests naked. Chestnuts were then strewn around, and the naked hookers crawled on hands and knees to pick them up. Then a competition was announced to see which guest could have the most sex with the prostitutes, with servants keeping score of each man’s orgasms.

Alexander VI openly carried on with his mistresses before and after becoming pope, and acknowledged the resulting illegitimate children. He arranged dynastic marriages for his offspring, dipping into Church coffers to splurge on lavish weddings for his bastards. The pope also used his daughter Lucrezia, with whom had an incestuous affair, to snare wealthy and powerful notables. He had her seduce those whom he deemed useful, married her off to them, and when Lucrezia’s husband was of no further use, the pope arranged the dissolution of the marriage. The apples did not fall from the tree when it came to this pope’s children, and they too were notoriously corrupt and venal.

He openly sold church positions to the highest bidders, and when his lavish lifestyle and reckless spending drained Church coffers, he turned to the selling of indulgences – like Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, but for hell instead of prison. He made the name “Borgia” a byword for corruption, nepotism, and libertinism, which were the hallmarks of his pontificate. Alexander VI’s brazen corruption was not just gossip fodder: it had a huge historical impact, and set in motion a backlash that would culminate in the Protestant Reformation.

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
‘Portrait of Leo X’ by Raphael, depicting the pope with two of his cousins. Google Arts Project

Leo X’s Corruption Was so Brazen and Cynical, it Kicked Off the Protestant Reformation

Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521) was Holy Father from 1513 until his death. A true Renaissance pope and prince, he helped transform Rome into a center of culture and the arts. However, his lavish spending on those pursuits bankrupted the Church, so he turned to the wholesale selling of indulgences to raise funds for his projects – a controversial practice that lowered his and the Church’s prestige. He was also brazen in his homosexual relationships, openly fawning upon and advancing the careers of his handsome male lovers. Between those trespasses and ignoring the backlash building against his and the Church’s corruption, Leo X contributed to the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation and the resulting dissolution of the western Church.

Born Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, this pope was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the greatest of Florence’s Medici rulers, and one of Renaissance Italy’s most powerful figures. His influential Medici connections paved the way for his rise in the Church hierarchy. He was made a lay cardinal in 1488, at age 13, and joined the College of Cardinals at age 17. Although he devoted most of time and energies to the affairs of the Medici family, whose head became after the deaths of his father and elder brother, he retained his influence in the Church. When the papal throne became vacant in 1513, he won the election and became Pope Leo X.

Lorenzo the Magnificent had been a huge patron of culture and the arts, and having grown up in his father’s court, the new pontiff was also passionate about the arts and culture. He spent lavishly as he went on a buying spree for the papal library, patronized the arts, kicked off a huge building project to beautify the Vatican, and accelerated the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, the splurging caused him to run out of money while he was in the middle of his greatest project, Saint Peter’s Basilica. To raise money, he turned to the selling of indulgences.

Indulgences were basically documents asserting that the pope would use his holy powers to get a dead person out of purgatory, or at least shorten his or her stay in that waiting room between heaven and hell. Previous popes had sold indulgences, but they had been more discreet about it, and sold them only to a select (and wealthy) few. Leo X went the Walmart route, and relying on volume to more than make up for the lowering of prices, sold indulgences at bargain basement rates that put them within the reach of the masses.

Soon, indulgence sellers were crisscrossing Christendom, hawking indulgences to all. One of the most notorious indulgence sellers was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who gained infamy for an oft-repeated phrase from his sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs“. One of those upset by such cynicism was a professor of theology named Martin Luther, who wrote the Ninety Five Theses to address indulgences and other corrupt Church practices. Leo X however failed to take such criticisms seriously, thus contributing to the rise of Protestantism and the dissolution of the western church.

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
‘Pope Paul III and His Grandsons’, by Titian, 1546. Wikimedia

Paul III Had an Incestuous Relationship With His Own Daughter

Paul III (1468 – 1549), Holy Father from 1534 until his death, was the last of the Renaissance popes, and the first pope of the Counter Reformation. He became pope when the papacy and Catholicism were at a nadir and facing existential threats, and encouraged a reform process that would greatly influence the church down the road. On the downside, Paul was notoriously corrupt, murderous, and not just sexually promiscuous, but an all around pervert.

He was born Alesandro Farnese in Latium, into a prosperous Italian noble family that had produced a pope a couple of centuries earlier, Boniface VIII. They would become far more prosperous once Alesandro became pope, and shamelessly put the papacy at the disposal of the Farnese family, leading to a great increase in their wealth and power.

He studied at the University of Pisa, and joined the Medici court in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent. There, he became a protege of Giovanni de Medici, the future pope Leo X. He ended up in Rome, where he pimped out his sister Giulia to become the mistress of the corrupt cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, the future pope Alexander VI. As a result, he was mocked as “Borgia’s brother in law”, and when Borgia made him a cardinal, he was widely known as “Cardinal Fregnese” (translated as Cardinal Cunt). His sister was mocked as “the Bride of Christ”.

However, pimping out his sister did wonders for advancing Alesandro Farnese’s career. Cardinal Borgia took his mistress’ brother under his wing and made him a bishop. When Borgia became pope Alexander VI, he appointed Farnese treasurer of the Catholic Church, then made him a cardinal. After his patron’s death, Alesandro Farnese continued his rise, and became dean of the College of Cardinals. Upon the death of pope Clement VII in 1534, Farnese was elected pope, and took the name Paul III.

Paul inherited a mess when he was elected to the papacy. The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther had taken root, and was growing and gathering strength as it challenged Roman Catholicism. Italy had been ravaged by rampaging armies. Rome itself had been recently sacked. The Holy See was under the thumb of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Paul did not restore the papacy to its former glory and influence – the world had changed too much for any pope to manage such a feat. However, to his credit, he did take concrete steps towards stabilizing the situation, and preventing the papacy from imploding altogether.

On the negative side of the ledger, Paul was just an all around horrible human being. Notoriously corrupt, he openly sold offices to the highest bidders. He also took charge of Rome’s tens of thousands of prostitutes, and took a cut of their earnings, becoming a de facto pimp pope. He was also sexually promiscuous, with the added twist that his most notorious lover was his own daughter, Costanza Farnese.

10 of History’s Most Scandalous Popes
Pope Julius III. Skepticism

Julius III Was a Pedophile Who Flaunted His Pedophilia

Julius III (1487 – 1555), was a career diplomat who became pope and head of the Papal States from 1550 until his death five years later. As pope, he took some half hearted stabs at reforming what had become a notoriously corrupt Catholic Church, but he much preferred to spend his time in the pursuit of pleasure. In his case, pleasure meant devoting himself to pedophilia with adolescent boys, and his notorious pedophilic pursuits tarnished his reputation and that of the Church.

Born Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, he was a nephew of an influential archbishop and cardinal, who helped him ascend the church hierarchy. He became a cardinal in 1536, and a papal legate who undertook various diplomatic missions on behalf of the Holy Father. In 1550, he was elected pope as a compromise candidate, after the College of Cardinals deadlocked between rival French and German candidates. He assumed the name Julius III.

Once on the papal throne, Julius exhibited little interest in papal affairs. Instead, he looted the Church treasury to renovate his mansion in Rome, splurging on the best, including Michelangelo, to transform his residence into a magnificent palace. However, that was not the most scandalous thing about his pontificate. That distinction goes to his love of young boys and proclivity for sex with kids, which was abundantly clear to all who set foot in the papal residence. Julius’ mansion was full of statues and frescos of boys having sex with each other, as the pope flaunted his passion for molesting children.

The greatest of Julius’ controversies was the “Innocenzo Scandal”, named after a handsome 13 year old beggar with whom Julius fell passionately in love. He had the street urchin adopted into his family, then made the uncouth and barely literate Innocenzo a cardinal and showered him with church offices and benefices. The boy shared the pope’s bed, and on the rare occasions when he was absent from Rome, Julius fretted until he returned with the impatience of a lover pining for a mistress. The besotted pope also openly boasted of Innocenzo’s prowess in bed, and ignored all advice that his unseemly passion for the teenager opened him to ridicule as an old pervert.

However handsome Innocenzo was not the first teenage lover made cardinal by this pope. That distinction went to another of his boy lovers, a 16 year old whom Julius III made a cardinal as a reward for his bravery, because he did not cry after he was bitten by one of the pope’s pet monkeys. The pope’s contemporaries wrote that it was his “costume … to promote none to ecclesiastical livings, save only his buggerers“.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

All That is Interesting – Better Know a Pope: Benedict IX

AV Club – The Young Pope John XII Died as He Lived: Fornicating

Catholic Encyclopedia – Pope John X

Catholic Encyclopedia – Pope Stephen VI (VII)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Paul III

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pope Sergius III

Enyclopedia.Com – Paul II

History Matters – Leo X: the ‘Unfortunate’ Pope 500 Years On

NNDB – Pope Leo X

Ranker – 11 Popes Who Didn’t Take Celibacy Very Seriously

Something Awful – The 6 Most Awful Popes

Study.Com – Pope Alexander VI: Biography & Corruption

Time Magazine, April 14th, 2010 – Top 10 Controversial Popes

Wikipedia – Pope Julius III