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

Turning 18 is a big milestone in your life. Depending on where you live in the world, you can have sex, watch naughty films, drink, smoke, or drive a car. But despite being able to do grown-up things, you are not necessarily a grown-up, and the new opportunities bring with them some stupid mistakes, lifelong regrets, and some great stories. Those precocious people who run their own successful business by that age or are mature enough not to let the new and exciting pleasures go to their heads are very much the exception that proves the rule.

Pope John XII was sadly not one of those people. Unfortunately for everyone else, he was not only Pope but the Prince of Rome at the age of 18. Far from taking his responsibilities seriously or getting advice from his elders and betters, John decided to use his new power to have a thoroughly brilliant time gambling, whoremongering, drinking, and hunting. He could more or less do anything he wanted, and that’s exactly what he did. So read on to find out why John XII is remembered as simply the worst Pope in nearly 2000 years of the office.

20. He was born Octavian, the son of Alberic II of Spoleto and either his stepsister or one of his concubines

John’s, ahem, unusual childhood really paves the way for his short and outrageous career. Christened Octavian in c.937, he was the son of Alberic II of Spoleto, the self-professed Prince of Rome. Alberic came to power when he defeated a vicious enemy… his own mother, the notorious Marozia, and his stepfather, King Hugh of Italy. Alberic II married his stepsister, Alda, who didn’t seem to mind taking power in Rome at the expense of her poor old dad. The moderately-incestuous couple had at least one son, Gregory I, Count of Tusculum, who went on to an illustrious political career.

Alberic, at least, had one other son: Octavian. Whether this boy was born within their marriage is unclear, but according to Benedict of Soracte, a contemporary chronicler, young Octavian, who became John XII, was actually the son of Alberic and a concubine. Benedict may have been using the Latin concubinam to cast doubt on the sanctity and legitimacy of Alberic and Alda’s marriage, but neither possibility is in Pope John’s favour. Either he was the product of an incestuous marriage, or of his father’s infidelity with a prostitute. An unconventional beginning led to an unconventional life.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
The Papacy is a sacred office, despite John’s election. Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino, Rome, 1481-82. Wikimedia Commons

19. Octavian became Prince of Rome when his father died, and shortly afterwards was elected Pope John XII aged just 18

On his deathbed, Alberic II’s mind turned to the issue of his succession. He named his younger son, Octavian, his heir as Prince of Rome, which must have been exciting enough for the teenager. But Alberic’s brother, John, had been Pope John XI (before Alberic imprisoned him), and this gave the prince an idea: that office would suit Octavian, who had hitherto shown absolutely no interest in religion, just swell! To keep all the city’s power within his family, Alberic forced the leading Roman families and even the current Pope, Agapitus II, to swear they would honour his last wish.

The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, infallible, and answerable only to God. The office is thus carefully protected and couched in traditions. Alberic’s final wish violated the Decree of Symmachus from 499, which forbade agreements about a Pope’s successor in the current incumbent’s lifetime, but Agapitus’s own health was too weak to let him make even a squeak of disgruntlement. Octavian certainly wasn’t going to quibble about his new job, and so he first became Prince of Rome and then Pope a few months later upon Agapitus’s death, changing his name to John for some reason.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Detail from Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Antwerp, 1560. Flickr

18. John once made a 10 year old boy Bishop of Todi

The artist formerly known as Octavian soon got to work on making a pig’s ear of things. He immediately waged wars against some fearsome Italian Dukes occupying former Papal lands, and was soundly defeated. If you think this was because he cared about the Papacy, think again: today’s 18 year old boys have Call of Duty to play with, whereas John had an actual army. He’d shown no interest in spiritual matters before becoming Pope, and he certainly wasn’t about to change his mind now just because he had a silly, pointy hat on his young head.

John’s avowed interests were drinking, fornicating, hunting, and gambling. In fact, his contempt for the Papacy was such that he once named a 10 year old boy Bishop of Todi. Life expectancy was shorter in the Early Middle Ages, but even amongst the peasant class a 10 year old was still a child. So why on earth did he ordain the young tyke? Simple: money! The boy in question was the son of a well-to-do family, who flung a few purses of gold John’s way, and he was happy to oblige. And John was Pope, so no one could argue.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Pope Adrian I meets Charlemagne and his horse, Paris, 1493. Wikimedia Commons

17. He once ordained a deacon… in a stable

According to his former employees in the Lateran Council, John was always accepting cash for offices, which he needed to buy booze, gamble, and hire prostitutes. But an even worse offence than ordaining a 10 year old boy was his decision to ordain a deacon in his stable of horses. As far as we can tell, the Bishop of Todi was made a bishop in a church with all due pomp and ceremony – his proud parents would have demanded nothing less, given how much they had to pay for the office – but a horse’s stable really was the lowest ebb.

There was nothing sacred about the stables John chose for the ceremony. Ordaining a deacon outside of a church undermined the whole point of churches as a sacred space and the house of God Himself. Besides, one of John’s main failings as Pope was his obsession with hunting, and the incident presents his priorities in microcosm. The medieval church fought unsuccessfully against hunting, which it saw as an idle pastime which encouraged sin and wasted time which could have been spent praying. John didn’t care what they thought, and brazenly performed the sacrilegious ceremony in front of high-ranking Catholic priests.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
200 years later, another churchman, Peter Abelard, was also castrated as a punishment, London, 1892. Wikimedia Commons

16. A subdeacon once called him immature, so John had him castrated and then executed to prove him wrong

As you might expect, John’s complete unsuitability for the job of Pope raised a fair few eyebrows. We’ve barely scratched the surface with his misdemeanours, but it should be already unsurprising to learn that a few people took it upon themselves to remind John of the importance of his office and discourage him from pursuing such a wicked life. A subdeacon, also called John, once told him to abandon his boyish pursuits, ask for forgiveness, and concentrate on running the Catholic Church. A subdeacon is many rungs below a Pope in the Catholic hierarchy, but John’s reaction was unprecedented.

To teach the insubordinate little twerp a lesson, John first castrated him and then killed him for good measure. That proved him wrong! As Pope, John also had his own confessor (a rare privilege before Confession became mandatory for all Catholics in 1215). John was expected to admit his sins, beg forgiveness, and accept a penance to atone for them. Having to do so didn’t sit well with a man as keen on flexing his power-muscles as John. One day, he got sick of his confessor nagging him, and blinded him as a punishment. The man died of his injuries.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
A medieval couple, Rome, late 14th-early 15th century. Wikimedia Commons

15. John slept with his own niece and sisters

Taking a leaf out of his father’s (and possibly mother’s) book, John’s sexual appetites were so great he didn’t even stop at his own family. As Pope, remember, he could do whatever he wanted without getting into trouble (at least until God came calling, but he could worry about that later). Thus it was that John grew tired of having any woman he wanted, and decided to sleep with those who were forbidden to him by all conventional standards: his own niece and sisters. Their precise degree of relation to him is lost, not that there can be any mitigation.

But maybe there could be: this particular crime of incest was included in an extensive list of grievances against his misdemeanours compiled by John’s many enemies, and may have been exaggerated or the product of rumour and gossip. Repeating the sins of his own father has a biblical ring to it: ‘I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children’ (Exodus 20:5). The charge, true or not, also provided a handy moral lesson for everyone about the foolishness of nepotism, which gave the church such a rubbish Pope.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Gambling, medieval style, Augsburg, 1472. Fine Art America

14. POPE John would ask for help from pagan gods when gambling and toasted the devil when drinking

One of John’s greatest vices was gambling. To fund this particularly expensive habit, he would not only sell offices (as to the Bishop of Todi), but pinch the money donated by pious Christians or simply raid the Vatican’s massive treasure chest. Gambling is a sinful enough pastime for a man of the cloth, let alone the Pope, especially when funded through theft and corruption. But the cherry on the top of a particularly rotten cake was John’s habit of asking Jupiter and Venus to bring him luck, rather than the Holy Trinity or a saint.

Did the Pope even believe in God? Well, it’s certainly clear he didn’t care about Catholic theology. For he went one better (or worse) than asking pagan gods for help when out drinking, for he would habitually lead others in a toast to none other than the greatest enemy of God, Satan. Whilst most medieval people lived in fear of eternal damnation and Satan’s many-pronged pitchfork, John couldn’t care less. Most embarrassing of all to the church, and especially those who elected him, was his habit of hailing Lucifer in public, setting a terrible example to his flock.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
‘Brothel Scene with Quarreling Prostitutes’, Antwerp, c. 1530. Bojimans

13. Under John’s Papacy, the Vatican Palace was turned into a brothel

The problem with Papal Infallibility, as we have seen, is that the Pope is given licence to do whatever they want. This is not such a problem when a responsible man is elected, or today when the Papacy has, at best, an advisory role in world affairs. But in John’s day, the privilege was open to abuse from unscrupulous Popes, who wielded both spiritual and martial power to silence naysayers. There really was little anyone could do about John’s awful behaviour: he even turned the Vatican Palace into a brothel, and no one could stop him.

Palaces, by nature grand and extremely big, are built to entertain vast numbers of people on important missions. In the hands of rulers like John, however, the many rooms built to house diplomats and world leaders prove just as useful for housing concubines. Rather than walk the streets of Rome to find a becoming prostitute, John instead invited an unstated number to live in his own home. His raucous friends from the gambling dens, hunting parties, and taverns could be entertained simultaneously in what must be history’s grandest whorehouse. At least this kept his activities relatively private.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlands, c.1490-1510. Shopify

12. Under John’s reign, Rome fell into ruins… partly through his own doing

Being so busy with his favourite immoral pastimes meant that John didn’t have all that much time to attend to spiritual matters. The cost of drinking, hiring prostitutes, gambling, and hunting also had a very visible manifestation. For the money John pilfered from the Vatican stores and private donations was supposed to be spent on the upkeep of Rome’s ancient churches and monasteries. With no money forthcoming for essential repairs, these ecclesiastical buildings simply fell into ruin or were abandoned altogether. No doubt John noticed on his pleasure-seeking trips around Rome: he just didn’t care.

Rome fell into a state of dilapidation through John’s negligence. But his responsibility for the run-down look of the city he was meant to protect as Pope and Prince of Rome didn’t end there, for many later swore that John was a pyromaniac who delighted in burning buildings to the ground. There’s no mention of churches being burned – perhaps even John wasn’t that carefree – but the smoke and flames from the edifices he did burn certainly wouldn’t have helped nearby damaged places of worship. But, no matter: John was having a great time, even if no one else was!

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian, Venice, c.1571. Wikimedia Commons

11. John would rape women who came to pray at St. Peters, explaining that ‘only God knows’ why he did so

When entering a church, the last thing on most people’s minds is sex or violence. After all, sacred places had been places of sanctuary even for hardened criminals since Ancient Greece. But for a while in 10th century Rome, worshippers had to be careful when entering St. Peter’s, for lurking behind the pillars was the Pope himself, ready to pounce on anyone who took his fancy and take them by force if necessary. Unsurprisingly, people learned to be wary of entering St. Peter’s under John’s rule, and this proved not merely a moral but an economic outrage.

For quite apart from the indisputable immorality of rape, as far as the Lateran Council were concerned, John’s behaviour began putting people off praying and leaving donations. Most alarmingly, the lucrative trade in pilgrims from the rest of Europe began to tail off. Only the wealthiest people could afford to go on pilgrimage to Rome, and would give generously to the church as well as availing themselves of the services and accommodation on offer in the city. John scared off these would-be donors and potentially-important political allies, explaining ‘only God knows’ why he behaved as he did.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Michelangelo’s famous male nude, David, sculpted between 1501 and 1504, Florence. Daily Beast

10. The pope was also fond of men, and sometimes ordered them to be procured for him

It wasn’t just women who were in danger around John. The issue of homosexuality remains a hot-potato for the modern Catholic Church, and despite a recent softening under Pope Francis many Catholics still see it as an abomination. So you can only imagine how anti-gay the 10th century church was, and how shocked it would have been to learn that Pope John XII, its head, was partial to young men ‘hung like a mule’. Indeed, he also housed male concubines in the Vatican Palace to cater for all of his desires, and was accused of hosting homosexual orgies.

When he decided that he needed a new lover, or his stock of male concubines had got sick of him and sneaked off, John would send his servants out to track down men meeting his aforesaid criteria. As with most of the accusations levelled at John, it’s hard to determine how much of the story about his activities with other men are true. After all, being accused of homosexuality was one of the worst insults you could receive in his day. Historians have suggested, alternatively, that John modelled himself on Roman Emperors, many of whom were known to be bisexual.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
The Wife of Bath, a medieval widow, depicted in the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, England, c.1400-10. English Share

9. John once seduced a widow by giving her control of several Italian cities

Although John was content, and able, to throw his weight around with all and sundry, he seems to have met his match with one particular conquest. For although he could take his pick of most of the men and women of Rome, and was able to rape churchgoers with impunity, some people were just too powerful and conspicuous to be subjected to his wanton desires. He is known to have slept with two widows, at least according to the charges read against him, but one of these women was only seduced at a great cost.

Noting his astonishing sexual appetite and megalomania, one of the widows managed to turn John’s persistent advances to her advantage. As the widow of a powerful aristocrat, the woman was much in-demand and held considerable influence and power of her own, and hence the Pope’s usual tactics wouldn’t work. Thus she was able to reject John until he gave her control of several Italian cities (without asking their permission), and the drooling Pope was happy to oblige in order to get in her pants. This particular charge rings true with the countless other accusations of simony and paying for sex.

20 Reasons Why Pope John XII was the Worst Pope in History
Berengar II bows to King Otto the Great, Germany, c.1200. Wikimedia Commons

8. Smelling weakness and dissent, King Berengar II of Italy invaded the papal states in 960 AD

Events in the Holy City didn’t go unnoticed. News of John’s unpopularity and proven military incompetence soon reached the ears of King Berengar II of Italy, who was soon meditating an invasion. After all, Rome had been under the rule of one of Berengar’s predecessors as King of Italy, Hugh (stepfather to Alberic II), not all that long ago. Berengar had actually stolen the Italian crown from Hugh, but no matter: this just proved his experience in toppling unpopular leaders. He began his campaign by attacking the poorly-garrisoned Papal States, and letting John’s many enemies know of his plans.

Berengar was a terrifying prospect for John, who would have been about 23 at the time of the invasion in 960. Having toppled Hugh as King of Italy, Berengar had bullied his son and successor, Lothair, until the latter died (mysteriously) of poisoning. He then kidnapped Lothair’s aristocratic widow, Adelaide, and tried to force her to marry him. She was only saved by a timely invasion from Otto the Great, King of Germany, who married the lady himself. Berengar had made a powerful enemy, and it was thus to Otto that John went pleading for help.

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.