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Riots, revenge, and royal rigging: A history of controversial conclaves

Pope Benedict XV was not happy when a Spanish cardinal suggested he might have broken the rules and voted for himself.
Pope Benedict XV was not happy when a Spanish cardinal suggested he might have broken the rules and voted for himself.Hulton Archive via Getty Images, file
Cardinals are preparing for the conclave that will select Pope Benedict XVI's successor. Hopefully it will go smoother than some other conclaves from centuries past.Guido Montani / EPA, file

Vatican watchers say the conclave about to be held in Rome could be one of the most contentious in years — but that's by modern standards.

Dust off the history books and go back a few hundred years and there are papal conclaves rife with international intrigue, royal rigging, even riots.

The election that started in 1268 lasted nearly three years, ending only when the townspeople of Viterbo locked up the cardinals, tore the roof off their palace, fed them nothing but bread and water and threatened to do worse.

The pope they finally elected decided a repeat would be unwise and instituted what are now known as conclaves, with the electors kept behind closed doors until they make a decision.

That cut down on the length of the elections, but they could still be quite colorful. Here are some of the more memorable conclaves from centuries past:

Off with their hats!

For much of the 14th century, the papacy resided in France, until Pope Gregory XI decided to relocate to Rome. When he died in 1378, the mostly French cardinals repaired to the Lateran Palace to choose his replacement.

"Rioting broke out in the city," said John O'Malley, author of "A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present." "The Romans were afraid they might elect another French pope. They broke into the conclave."

The mob made it clear they meant business, said Frederic Baumgartner, author of "Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections." One of their slogans? "Give us a Roman pope or your heads will be as red as your hats!"

The cardinals met them halfway, picking a non-Roman but Italian archbishop whom they hoped would meekly return with them to Avignon.

Pope Urban VI "turned out to be a disaster," Baumgartner said. "He had a very violent temper."

His behavior was so strange that "the cardinals began to wonder if they had elected a sane person," O'Malley said. They hightailed it out of Rome, declared they had been bullied into picking the wrong guy, and elected a Frenchman, Clement VII.

Small problem: Urban didn't go quietly. He created a whole new set of cardinals and thus was born the Great Schism, which divided the church until the Council of Pisa in 1409. That's when the French and Roman cardinals elected a third pope to run the show.

Naturally, the other two didn't step down, so there was more than one pope for more than a decade, until one finally agreed to resign and another died.

Popes, politics and poison?

When Pope Paul III died in 1549, the rules of the conclave went out the window as King Henry II of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sought to control the outcome.

Pope Julius III was elected in 1550 after a conclave that featured bribery and rumors of poisoning.Hulton Archive via Getty Images, file

"There was a great deal of skulduggery going on," Baumgartner said.

And not a lot of secrecy. Charles V boasted in a letter that he "will know when they urinate in this conclave," Baumgartner said.

Bribes were paid and there was even some insider trading: The cardinals' attendants supposedly cut deals with Roman bankers taking bets on who would be the next pope.

After a cardinal considered a top candidate fell deathly ill and withdrew, rumors that he had been poisoned spread. One witness reported the other cardinals were "terrified" and insisted only their own aides deliver meals, according to one account.

As the weeks dragged on, the situation got so out of control —and the conclave halls so smelly — that a reform committee was convened. A set of new rules ejected many outsiders, banned clandestine meetings and confined the cardinals to their cells at night.

Finally, after 72 days and 61 ballots, Pope Julius III was elected as a compromise candidate.

All in the family

The drama of the 1559 conclave began before the cardinals were sequestered. Pope Paul IV was a despised figure — he had driven all the prostitutes out of Rome — and when he died, all hell broke loose.

"Rioters in Rome attacked the palace of the Inquisition ... and toppled the statue of the pope that stood on the Capitol," Michael Walsh wrote in "The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History of Papal Elections."

Pope Pius IV was elected after a four-month conclave in 1559 to replace Paul IV, who was so disliked that Rome rioters tore down his statue.Hulton Archive via Getty Images, file

The conclave dragged on for four months. Among the stumbling blocks: One of the cardinals refused to vote for a strong candidate on the grounds that he had a son, Baumgartner said.

With no one running the papal state, chaos threatened to break out and "an immense amount of money was spent trying to keep order in the city, and the funds began to be exhausted," O'Malley said.

Finally, the cardinals coalesced around a compromise candidate, Pope Pius IV. He had fathered at least a couple of kids, but the cardinal who had objected to the previous candidate claimed not to know it, Baumgartner said.

"That's the last pope I know of who actually had children," he said.

Battle over the ballots

When the conclave of 1914 began, Europe was embroiled in World War I, but that wasn't the source of the tension that accompanied the election of Pope Benedict XV.

Pope Benedict XV was not happy when a Spanish cardinal suggested he might have broken the rules and voted for himself.Hulton Archive via Getty Images, file

After four days, Benedict was chosen by the smallest possible margin, a precise two-thirds vote. The rules decreed that a cardinal could not vote for himself.

Spain's Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, who was secretary of state under the just-deceased Pius X, was apparently a stickler for the rules and he demanded the ballots be checked to make sure Benedict had not cast one for himself.

"Benedict was deeply offended," Baumgartner said.

But as the recount showed, he was the duly elected pontiff.

According to NBC News Vatican expert George Weigel, Benedict archly told Merry del Val: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," quoting Psalm 118.

"Then Benedict washed him right out of the Curia," Baumgartner said.


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