20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History

Tim Flight - April 29, 2019

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Otto is crowned Holy Roman Emperor by John, Germany, c.1450. Wikimedia Commons

7. John had to ask for help from Otto, who defeated Berengar in exchange for being named Holy Roman Emperor

Otto the Great had already proved himself a formidable warrior long before Berengar made an unwelcome incursion into his life in the 950s. He successfully conquered Bohemia, beat France in battle, and generally expanded his mighty kingdom. Rescuing Adelaide and marrying her made Berengar his vassal, which the latter greatly resented. Thus John’s appeal for help from Otto was tantamount to telling a teacher on a naughty boy. But Otto wasn’t going to waste time he could be spending on conquering other nations on the snotty young Pope for nothing: he first demanded to be made Holy Roman Emperor.

John had no choice but to agree. On February 2 962, Otto became the first Holy Roman Emperor in over 25 years, and made John sign a treaty limiting his Papal power. Many of John’s subjects, resentful about Germany’s part in ending the original Roman Empire in the 5th century, were unhappy to see yet another German become Holy Roman Emperor, but John didn’t care. Otto fulfilled his side of the bargain by soundly defeating Berengar in battle, many of whose troops abandoned their king in fear of the German giant they remembered from the 950s.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Otto, kneeling, presents Magdeburg Cathedral to Christ, Germany, c.968. Wikimedia Commons

6. As soon as Otto left Rome, John responded by forming an alliance against the new Holy Roman Emperor

John immediately regretted relinquishing power to Otto in 962. He’d been after an ally, not a master, and felt that Otto had abused his power in exacting the title and treaty. Worst of all for John, Otto was exactly the sort of person he hated: pious, honourable, and moreover not scared of him. Otto in turn disliked the iniquitous John, but was willing to give him a chance. At a Synod in 962, Otto demanded that John change his ways, and then proceeded to treat him like a Pope and discussed boring issued about the church in Germany.

Thus the enraged John set about plotting Otto’s downfall as soon as he left Rome to fight Berengar. He sent letters and envoys to Otto’s sworn enemies, the Magyars, and even his own son, Adalbert, contriving to get rid of the troublesome (though currently useful) king. This proved a big mistake. Unfortunately for John, his beleaguered religious staff had finally found someone brave enough to stand up to their dreadful boss, and duly sent messengers to tell Otto what the man against whose enemies he was currently risking his life had done. Uh-oh…

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Medieval hunting from a French manuscript of Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de Chasse, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons

5. Otto was unsurprisingly livid, and John took the Papal treasure and went to hunt in Tivoli rather than face the German army

To say Otto was displeased would be history’s greatest understatement. Poor Otto had given the useless and sinful head of the church to which he was so devoted a second chance, against all conventional wisdom, and had been burned. He was also risking his own life to defeat John’s sworn enemy on the battlefield, and frankly had better things to do. As soon as he’d dealt with Berengar and a few other troubling domestic issues, Otto returned to Rome with his great army in November 963, licking his lips at the thought of bringing this treacherous young oik to justice.

When you’re marching with thousands of soldiers and horses across a foreign country, it’s hard to remain inconspicuous. Thus word soon reached Rome that Otto was on the warpath once more, and John took the hint, legging it from the Vatican to Tivoli. He may have been hiding in fear of his life, but John wasn’t about to let that ruin his fun. Instead, he took his mind off things by spending a long time hunting, having made off with the entire Papal treasure to pay for all his many holiday expenses. He was safe… for the time-being.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
An anti-clerical illustration showing Reynard the Fox hypocritically preaching to some foolish birds, France, c.1300-40. Wikimedia Commons

4. John’s Lateran Council were delighted when Otto demanded they find a new pope, since he never celebrated mass properly and was an all-round bad egg

Though his quarry had eluded him, Otto wouldn’t head home empty handed. He called an unofficial Synod as soon as he arrived, in which the many crimes of John would finally be examined. John was summoned three times, but refused to cut short his hunting expedition. In his absence Otto presided over the meeting, which is why it’s still seen by some church historians as an unofficial Synod. But if John had been there, we might never have found out the details of his colourful life, for the witnesses certainly didn’t hold back in their testimony.

Snarling with rage, Otto heard the charges against John elaborated in excruciating detail. John’s own cardinals explained how he never took communion before celebrating mass (incredibly sacrilegious), didn’t observe canonical hours, and had committed the offences we’ve already seen above. In sum, reliable witnesses swore that young John was a murderer, gambler, whoremongerer, idolater, adulterer, and arsonist also guilty of incest. In his absence, he was deposed on December 4 963, and the Lateran Council consecrated one of its own members, the much better-qualified Leo, Pope on the same day. But John wasn’t finished yet…

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
John caused a bloody riot not unlike the later St Bartholomew’s Day Riot depicted by Francois Dubois, Switzerland, c.1572-84. Wikimedia Commons

3. John responded to being summoned by threatening to excommunicate everyone at the Synod, and started a riot by offering a bounty for Otto’s head

John’s reaction to the summons was typically measured and proportionate. He wrote back to his Lateran Council to inform them he would not be attending, thundering that the Synod was illegal and threatening to excommunicate everyone present. And then he put down his quill (we know it was his quill as the letter’s Latin grammar is absolutely terrible), jumped on his horse, and went off hunting again. But he also found time to have a bit of a think about the future, and decided to offer a huge sum of money in exchange for Otto’s head on a plate.

Otto, as a German, was very unpopular in Rome, and people were so desperate to collect the bounty on his head that a riot was soon underway. Otto quashed the rebellion with brute strength, making him even more unpopular. Poor old Leo was also widely-despised just because Otto had backed him as Pope, and was left on very shaky ground in the aftermath. It says something of John’s ridiculous character that he didn’t simply do a bolter with the Vatican wealth and settle in a neutral land, but instead decided to fight the older, wiser, and much more powerful Otto.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Pope Leo VIII, Nuremberg, 1493. Wikimedia Commons

2. As soon as Otto left, John returned to Rome, mutilating his opponents and ousting his replacement, Pope Leo VIII

Instead of taking the more sensible course, John made preparations to return to Rome. Otto left the city shortly after the riot on January 4 964, leaving Pope Leo cowering in the Vatican Palace (presumably now free of prostitutes). John was back in Rome by mid-January, and incredibly, despite his terrible reign as Pope up to that date, the locals decided they liked him better than Otto and Leo. With tumultuous Romans hot on his tail, Leo fled to Otto’s court. John now took vengeance on those who denounced him the previous December, torturing and hacking them to death.

Otto’s reactions hitherto are uncertain, but he can’t have been happy. But what really made his blood boil was a Synod held on February 26 964. Here John excommunicated Pope Leo and, most foolishly, overruled the acts of the Synod that Otto had presided over when he was given the sack and deemed it illegal. Unable to tolerate this fresh attack on his authority by the troublesome priest, Otto marched with his army on Rome, this time no doubt dreaming of having John flayed alive. John took the hint, and went to hide out in Campagna that April.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
The death of John XII by Franco Cesat, Rome, 1861. Wikimedia Commons

1. Thankfully, only a few months later he was fatally injured by another man after being caught in bed with his wife

As well as keeping a low-profile, John tried one last gamble: he sent Otgar, Bishop of Speyer, a member of Otto’s beloved German church, to broker an agreement with the king. But before Otgar managed to catch up with the Holy Roman Emperor, John was dead anyway. All sources agree that he was in bed with a married woman when his 9 years of stupidity and incompetence ended. Death came either in the form of a blow from the woman’s irate husband or simply a stroke: either the hand of a man or the Hand of God, in other words.

One can only imagine what would have happened to John if Otto had got his massive hands on him. Given his strong Catholic faith, it’s unlikely Otto would have had the Pope executed, for he was content to sack John rather than arrested and slain after the Synod of 963. Nonetheless, medieval prisons were notoriously unhygienic, and so perhaps Otto would have chucked him in one and let him contract dysentery. But it’s here our story ends: Pope John went out doing what he loved best, and has proved a headache for defenders of Papal Infallibility ever since.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Dynes, Wayne R., ed. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. London: St. James, 1990.

Herbermann, Charles George, ed. The Catholic Encyclopedia. London: Caxton, 1907-1922.

Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Forgotten Books, 1910.

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. San Francisco: Harper, 2000.

Wickham, Chris. Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society, 400-1000. London: Macmillan, 1981.