The 7 Most Infamous Popes | History Hit

The 7 Most Infamous Popes

Pope Alexander VI, born Alexander Borgia. Image credit: Public Domain.

Pope Francis is the latest in a long line of over 250 holders of the Papacy. While some popes were devout and honest men, others treated the holiest office in Christendom with less respect.

The corruption and ambition of one pope led to a cameo appearance in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, the ‘Inferno’; the opulent lifestyle of another helped bring about the Protestant Reformation.

Here are the seven of history’s most infamous popes.

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1. Stephen VI

Pope Stephen VI began his reign on 22 May 896 and held the papacy for only a year. During his short rule he conducted one of the most bizarre trials in history: the Cadaver Synod.

In January 897 Stephen exhumed and placed on trial the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus. He propped the body up on a throne and launched accusations at the cadaver, even appointing a deacon to speak for Formosus.

Stephen was motivated by a desire to please Formosus’ former enemies, the House of Spoleto. Unsurprisingly, the rotting corpse was found guilty of both coveting the papacy and violating church canons.

cadaver synod pope stephen vi

A later illustration of the Cadaver Synod. Image credit: Public Domain.

Stephen ordered that three fingers on Formosus’ decaying hand (his blessing fingers) be chopped off as punishment. He had Formosus’ papal vestments stripped off, annulled his actions as pope, then flung his body in the Tiber.

The incident caused public outcry; Stephen was imprisoned and later strangled for organising the trial.

2. Sergius III

Sergius III was Pope from 904 to 911, and was a great admirer of Stephen VI. He had participated in the Cadaver Synod and wrote an epitaph on Stephen’s tombstone celebrating the trial.

Sergius was not content with just murdering the previous incumbent, Antipope Christopher (an antipope was a false claimant to the papacy), but also Christopher’s predecessor, Leo V.

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Sergius also conducted a long affair with his 15-year-old mistress, a Roman girl called Marozia, and their romance resulted in an illegitimate son. The boy later became Pope John XI, despite contemporary disdain for children born out of wedlock.

Sergius was thus the only pope whose illegitimate child followed him to the Chair of St Peter. The reign of Sergius III was part of a period known to historians as the ‘Rule of the Harlots’ or the ‘Pornocracy’, in reference to the control which Marozia and her mother held over the papacy.

3. John XII

John XII’s father was Alberic II of Spoleto. His maternal origins are less certain: he was either the child of Alberic’s stepsister, or his concubine. John was pope from 955 to 964, and during his scandalous reign he managed his political and personal affairs disastrously.

Early in his tenure, John was forced to appoint King Otto I of Germany as Holy Roman Emperor to protect his throne against the Italian nobility. Otto defended John, but warned him to give up his ‘vanity and adultery’.

John quickly came to fear Otto’s power and conspired with his former enemies, the Italians and Byzantines, to depose him. This prompted war between Otto, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope.

otto i germany holy roman emperor

A drawing of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor’s victory over Berengar, winning Italy from the Chronicle of Otto von Freising. Image credit: Public Domain. 

When Otto’s army besieged Rome, John left the city with the papal treasury and went on a hunting trip in Campania. John died soon after, killed by the husband of one of his many lovers.

John’s disreputable character was legendary among his contemporaries. In his reign the Lateran Palace, the papal residence, was described as a ‘brothel’. John was even accused of having an affair with his own niece. His behaviour in church affairs was no better: he accepted bribes in exchange for bishoprics and even castrated a subdeacon who displeased him.

One critic summed up John XII, saying “There cannot be a doubt that John XII was anything but what a Pope, the chief pastor of Christendom, should have been”.

4. Benedict IX

Benedict IX holds the dubious honour of being the only man ever to have sold the papacy. He also retains the title for the most papal appointments, becoming pope on three different occasions during the period between 1032 and 1045.

Pope Victor III, who lived only a few decades later, wrote of Benedict’s ‘rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy’. He is thought to have been the first homosexual pope, even though he briefly abdicated the papacy to marry his own cousin.

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Benedict’s adulterous reputation first led to him being deposed and driven out of Rome. Benedict soon returned to power only to auction off his papacy to Gregory VI. Once more, Benedict regretted his decision and seized the papal office again. Eventually, King Henry of the Germans was summoned to Italy to oust him.

5. Boniface VIII

During his time as pope from 1294 to 1303, Boniface VIII clashed with the King of Germany, the King of France and even the famous Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Rumoured to be a sodomite, Boniface claimed papal supremacy in all earthly matters. He interfered in wars across the whole of Europe, from Sicily to Scotland.

During one of his many diplomatic quarrels Boniface was resisted by the Italian town of Palestrina. He promised the townsfolk mercy if they surrendered; they believed the holy word of the pope and did so. Once the gates were open, Boniface ordered Palestrina to be sacked and its earth salted.

pope boniface viii papacy rome middle ages

Pope Boniface VIII. Image credit: Public Domain.

Boniface’s manoeuvrings eventually caused Dante to be exiled from Florence. Consequently, the poet reserved a spot for Boniface in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his epic work, the ‘Divine Comedy’.

Boniface was posthumously trialled for his crimes after his death, and was only acquitted when two knights offered to defend his innocence through trial by combat…

6. Alexander VI

Alexander VI was an ambitious and ruthless politician, and is commonly considered one of the most controversial popes in history.

When he came to power his contemporary Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici stated, “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen”.

Alexander’s nepotism was so famous that his surname, Borgia, became a byword for corruption. He made his son, Cesare Borgia, the Archbishop of Valencia when he was only 17.

Alexander had many mistresses, and sustained a lengthy relationship out of wedlock with a wealthy Italian called Vannozza dei Cattanei. She bore him four children, all of whom Alexander used his papal authority to legitimise. He even gave Vannozza a Cardinal’s Palace to use as her home.

Alexander had at least five other illegitimate children, and his sexual profligacy made him an relative to many of the royal houses of Europe!

7. Pope Leo X

Leo X’s reign lasted from 1513 to 1521, and while he was pope he built a terrible reputation for granting indulgences in exchange for financial donations.

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The Catholic Church promised that purchasing an indulgence would reduce one’s time in purgatory. They claimed that aiding the church financially could hasten people’s journeys to the afterlife.

An indulgence couldn’t help if you had committed a ‘mortal sin’ such as murder, but for less serious offences they were advertised as a short-cut to salvation.

In order to raise money for the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica and other artistic endeavours, Leo granted countless indulgences.

In 1517 this practice was exposed and questioned by Martin Luther in his 95 Theses. Leo’s decision to ignore Luther’s demands helped lead to the Protestant Reformation.

Leo also loved hunting and even owned a pet elephant called Hanno. When his lavish spending drove the papacy into serious debt, Leo simply quipped:

“Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”.

Sarah Roller