The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History

Larry Holzwarth - December 17, 2018

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
Clement’s quarrels with the Holy Roman Emperor led to the 1527 Sack of Rome, by the mostly German Imperial troops. WIkimedia

10. Pope Clement VII’s papacy led to the sacking of Rome in 1527

It was Pope Clement VII who opposed the divorce of English King Henry VIII, leading to the creation of the Church of England and Henry assuming the title of Defender of the Faith among his various styles. Clement became pope near the end of the Italian Renaissance in 1523, with a background in foreign affairs and statesmanship. The Church at the time, following the reigns of the spendthrift Leo X and the ineffective Adrian VI (and the 22 day reign of Marcellus II) was bereft of finances, faced with the Lutheranism expanding in the German lands, and under assault by the Ottoman Empire in the east. Clement was a Medici, and one of the goals of his papacy was the unification of Italy, and his diplomatic maneuvering was based on achieving that goal.

Clement’s back and forth diplomacy led to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V taking the city of Rome and the Papal States in 1527, after which the poorly disciplined troops enjoyed an orgy of pillage and destruction. For the remainder of his time as pope Clement feared antagonizing the Holy Roman Emperor and bringing about another sacking of Rome, which was part of his consideration when he denied Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who happened to be the aunt of Charles V. Essentially, the office of the Pope as a strong power in European affairs came to an end under Clement, as he failed to exercise either moral or diplomatic authority, and Henry VIII dissolved the temporal authority of the pope in England.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
Marozia, daughter of the Count of Tusculum and mistress of Sergius III. Wikimedia

11. Pope Sergius III had an illegitimate son who became Pope John XI

Sergius III became pope through the force of arms, following the deposing and arrest of Christopher, who had also forcefully seized the Throne of St. Peter. Sergius became pope in 904. Two prior claimants to the papacy then being in prison, the aforesaid Christopher and Leo V, were murdered early in his papacy, allegedly by the order of Sergius, who was little more than a puppet of the Count of Tusculum. Sergius used his papacy to elevate members of his family and friends to positions of authority within the hierarchy of the church and temporal power. Sergius also issued a decree which annulled the ordination of bishops by his predecessors and required they be re-ordained. Sergius was alleged to have had an affair with the daughter of his benefactor, the Count of Tusculum, which led to the birth of a son.

The affair had been arranged by the Count’s wife and mother of the young woman, named Marozia, and the son eventually became Pope John XI. Though the affair was recorded by some contemporaneous writers, historians since have questioned the truthfulness of the story, with some attributing it to political enemies of Sergius and of John XI. The bulk of the story was recorded by Liutprand of Cremona, and was written two decades after the event, based on the stories he was told by others. Nonetheless, the papacy of Sergius III is considered to have been thoroughly corrupt, with the Pope using his office to advance the interests and finances of relatives rather than those of the church. Sergius used his papal army to destroy his enemies, killing them indiscriminately, and has been described as being a malignant force in Rome in the last century of the first millennium of the Common Era.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
Pope Innocent VIII did not live up to the name he chose when he was elected to the papacy. Wikimedia

12. Innocent VIII traded a cardinalship to the Medicis in exchange for a bride for his son

Innocent VIII was the father of illegitimate children both before and during his papacy, eventually acknowledging eight children by various mistresses. He also used the papacy to enrich himself, selling appointments to high offices of the church and using the money to ingratiate himself with powerful political families, including the Medicis. With the Vatican treasury often depleted due to his maintaining a luxurious and expensive lifestyle for himself, he simply expanded the Vatican bureaucracy by creating new offices, which were then offered to the wealthy to bid upon. Innocent called for a crusade against the Ottomans which was blocked by opposition from King Ferdinand I of Naples. Innocent responded by excommunicating the King. and inviting the French King Charles VIII to occupy the throne of Naples. .

The act led to a war which lasted until after Innocent’s death. Innocent VIII also entered into an arrangement with Lorenzo de Medici in which the pope’s son married into the prestigious family, in return for which he created a cardinal’s office for the thirteen year old Giovanni de Medici, who later reigned as Pope Leo X. It was Innocent VIII who made the notorious Torquemada the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. He also issued papal bulls acknowledging the existence and condemning the practice of witchcraft, supported the Spanish conquests over the Moors, and supported the practice of slavery, distributing more than 100 he received from Ferdinand of Aragon to cardinals from whom he enjoyed support.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
Julius III lived luxuriously at his villa while his papacy was the source of scandal. Wikimedia

13. Julius III had a long term illicit relationship with an adopted nephew

Pope Julius III reigned as pope for just over five years, during which time his papacy racked up an impressive list of scandals. Innocenzo Del Monte was a beggar in his teens when he was hired by the future pope’s brother as a servant. When Julius ascended to the papacy in 1550, his brother adopted Innocenzo, and the new pope adopted him as cardinal-nephew, despite the boy having no education and being for all intents illiterate. Julius provided the boy with income from several abbeys and kept him at his side despite the warnings of several other cardinals. Julius spent most of his time residing in the luxurious Villa Giulia, which he had built for himself, accompanied by Innocenzo.

The scandalous nature of their relationship was an open secret in Rome and in the capitals of Europe, hampering Julius’s ability to enact reform, and damaging the restoration of Catholicism in England under Queen Mary. After Julius died in 1555, the church took steps to hide Innocenzo and thus quell the wagging tongues. After the young man was insulted by two men he killed them both, leading to his banishment from the Vatican. Innocenzo tried to use his cardinal’s hat as the means to being restored to good favor, but was denied. As cardinal-nephew, Innocenzo had been responsible for affairs of state in the Vatican, and his inability to perform his duties had led to the creation of the office of Papal Secretary of State, which eventually became the most important Vatican official.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
A depiction of Rome as a widow following the Papal Court’s move to Avignon. Wikimedia

14. Clement VI brought nepotism and benefices to a new level from Avignon

Cardinal Pierre Roger was elected to the Throne of St. Peter in 1342 and immediately began a campaign to enrich himself and his family through the incomes and benefices of church properties including abbeys, prelatures, and monasteries. He created ten new cardinals, all of them French, including his three nephews. He declared void the previous elections and appointments in monasteries, reserving them to his own appointees and promised rewards to all clerics who appeared before him in Avignon during the first two months of his reign. When it was pointed out that such a path had never been followed by a predecessor he proclaimed, “Our predecessors did not know how to be pope.” His dedication to France was further demonstrated when cardinals died, and he replaced them with French clerics.

Clement ignored pleas of the citizens of Rome and the College of Cardinals to restore the papacy to the Vatican. He viewed the papacy as a monarchy, to which other monarch’s owed their loyalty, and he expanded the papal enclave in Avignon creating luxurious rooms, decorated with lavish tapestries, paintings, and statuary. More than forty statues of relatives which he had appointed to offices in the church hierarchy were commissioned to surround his sarcophagus after his death; they were destroyed during the Huguenot uprising in 1562. Like others before and succeeding him, Clement VI used the papacy to amass personal wealth and power for himself and his family, and tightened the ties between the church and the French throne, which would remain strong for more than two centuries.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
Pope Sixtus IV in a portrait by Titian. Wikimedia

15. Sixtus IV had several illegitimate children while taxing priests who had mistresses

During his thirteen year reign (1471-1484) Sixtus IV developed a reputation for nepotism and involvement in conspiracies. One was the Pazzi Conspiracy, an attempt by members of the Pazzi family to murder Giuliano and Lorenzo de Medici. Pope Sixtus was a leading instigator of the conspiracy, which led to the death of Giuliano and Lorenzo being severely wounded, though he survived. The failure of the Pazzi conspiracy led to the Pazzi family’s banishment from Florence, and to Lorenzo’s increased enmity towards the pope. Sixtus responded by placing Florence under interdiction, forbidding the saying of Mass and the sacraments from being given.

Despite being a party to an attempted double murder, Sixtus’s papacy continued until his death in 1484, having only succeeding in strengthening the power and influence of the Medicis in the Italy, and gaining them the sympathy of the Neapolitans. Sixtus strengthened his papacy by ensuring his relatives and friends held positions of authority which were also capable of creating wealth by extracting it from other Catholics. Priests were banned from having mistresses unless they paid a tax to his office. The tax did not extend to the many mistresses he maintained during his reign. Primarily though, his interests were of a temporal nature, and he fortified the Papal States against attacks from his enemies.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
Pope Paul IV ordered Michelangelo to cover the nudes in the Sistine Chapel and suggested whitewashing the ceiling. Wikimedia

16. Paul IV wanted to paint over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Pope Paul IV brought his personal prejudices with him to the office of the pope, which he used to inflict them upon his flock. He banned translations of the bible other than the Latin Bible from the Papal States, stopped the pension of Michelangelo for the sin of including nudes in the depiction of the Last Judgement, and discussed using whitewash to cover the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He required Jews in Rome to wear distinctive clothing to identify them. He forbade begging, even to the point of ending collecting alms for the poor by clerics. Under his stewardship, the Church forbade the ownership of any book written by a Protestant with the threat of excommunication for those who violated the edict.

Though he was pope for just four years, 1555 – 1559, he managed to alienate the Spanish Habsburg dynasty and Jews throughout Christendom through his bulls and pronouncements. Under Paul IV, no more than one Jewish synagogue was allowed in any city, and so-called excess places of worship were ordered destroyed (leading to seven razed in Rome alone). A Jewish ghetto was created in Rome, walled off from the rest of the city, with access through a single gate. At his death there was rioting in the streets. Paul left behind a legacy of anti-Semitism which endured for three centuries, with the ghetto he created remaining in place until the dissolution of the Papal States in 1870, with the walls torn down nearly two decades later.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
After purchasing election outright, Eugene IV persecuted those who opposed him, through torture and execution. Wikimedia

17. Eugene IV bought his election on a grand style in 1431

Pope Gregory XII appointed his nephew as Bishop of Siena, an act which the local populace opposed since the nephew, Gabriele Condulmer, was from Venice, and only 24 years of age. Instead, Gabriele accepted an appointment as Cardinal Priest of the Basilica of San Clemente. When Pope Martin V died Gabriele offered the cardinals a contract which promised to deliver to their control one half of the money acquired by the church during his papacy in exchange for his election. Gabriele assumed the name Eugene IV, and immediately took steps to weaken the power and influence of the Colonna family, of which his immediate predecessor had been a member.

His papacy was marked by power struggles with the Councils of the Church, which the pope moved to dissolve and which resisted dissolution, gaining the support of the Holy Roman Empire. The Council of Constance declared the pope subservient to the council, and open warfare between the Papal States and their enemies plagued his reign. Eugene had his enemies which fell into his hands tortured and executed, frequently by burning. When Portuguese Prince Henry asked Eugene to designate the slave raids along the African coast a Holy Crusade, Eugene replied in a Papal Bull which offered remissions of sins for those taking part in the raids, declaring slave raids part of the extension of Christianity no different from the crusades against Islam.

The Most Corrupt and Scandalous Papacies in History
After attaining the papal throne by force, Honorius II used force to keep it from his enemies. Wikimedia

18. Pope Honorius II took the Throne of St. Peter by force

Lamberto Scannabecchi was consecrated a cardinal in 1117, and was an adviser to several of the popes who preceded him. In the 1120s succeeding popes sought to strengthen the Italian contingent within the College of Cardinals, to resist French influence. While this was successful, it also exacerbated the frictions between the powerful Italian families. Lamberto, who was of the Frangipani family, was opposed by the Pierleone family, who supported the cardinals from around Rome and southern Italy. Frangipani support favored the northern regions. During the papal conclave of 1124, the Frangipani faction supported the election of Lamberto as pope. On December 16, 1124, the cardinals elected a patron of the Pierleone’s, who accepted and selected the name Celestine II. After Celestine donned his red cape armed Lamberto supporters attacked, and the newly elected pope was wounded in the melee.

Lamberto was appointed as pope during the ensuing confusion, aided by the wounded Celestine’s offer to resign, since he had not yet been consecrated. Lamberto took the name Honorius II and spent the early days of his papacy quashing the rioting which erupted on the streets of Rome between the two families and their supporters. Eventually Honorius II consolidated his position through force and bribery, and served as pope for just over five years, until his death in 1130. After his position on the throne was secure he resigned as pope and was immediately re-elected to the office by the conclave, under the watchful eyes of his supporters.


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

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“Holier than thou? Benedict IX”. Laura Fitzpatrick, TIME Magazine. April 14, 2010

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“Recapping Dante: Canto 19, or Popes Under Fire”. Alexander Aciman, The Paris Review. March 3, 2014

“Better Know a Pope: Clement V”. Richard Stockton, All that is interesting. July 2, 2015. Online

“The History of the Popes: From the close of the Middle Ages”. Ludwig Pastor. 2012.

“The Borgias”. Clemente Fusero. 1966

“BORGIA, Behind the Myth: A New History of the Notorious Papal Family”. Danny Chaplin. 2018

“The Medici Popes”. Herbert M. Vaughan. 1908

“Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy”. Roger Collins. 2009

“The Popes: A History”. John Julius Norwich. 2011

“Notorious Cardinals: A Rogue’s Gallery of Powerful Prelates”. Ishaan Tharoor, TIME Magazine. March 12, 2013

“Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes”. Eamon Duffy. 1997

“A Distant Mirror”. Barbara Tuchman. 1978

“Echoes From the Roman Ghetto”. David Laskin, The New York Times. July 12, 2013

“A Necessary Bondage? When the Church Endorsed Slavery”. David Culp, Catholic Culture. September, 2005

“The Lives of the Popes in the Middle Ages. Horace K. Mann. 1925