As Christianity eventually flourished and spread throughout the Western world, things became complicated. As the faith’s popularity rose, so did the power vested in those who sat in the Papal seat. Nowadays, we view the pope as one who guides by example – leading a simple, ethical, and moral life. Yet over the two thousand years of the Vatican’s existence, not all popes have been so highly praised as our current Pope Francis. Some have been greedy, vicious, and downright evil. Some have even been murderers and rapists. With power often comes greed and corruption, and the history of the papacy is splattered with more blood and bodily fluids than an episode of Game of Thrones. In this post, we take a closer look at those religious figureheads who remain evil while justifying their actions as the will of the Lord. We will be looking at the Pope’s reigning from the Dark Ages through to the Renaissance Period.
Pope Urban II ruled from 1088 to 1099 and was a native of France.
He is best known for having initiated the First Crusade and setting up the Roman Curia – a royal ecclesiastical court. The pope promised forgiveness to all those who joined the crusade when he decreed all who die by the way, whether by land or by sea or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. “This I grant through the power of God with which I am invested”. This clever command gave every murderer, rapist, and thief a shot at entering Heaven. It also raised (or lowered – depending on your point of view) the standards and the methods of manipulation one might use to raise an army.
Pope Leo the 10th was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of the Florentine Republic. He reigned as pope from 1513 to 1521 and is probably best remembered for his patronage of the arts. He was loose with the cash and winded up selling a sort of “ecclesiastical insurance policy” that guaranteed relief from damnation following the death of the donator. He borrowed and spent money without much in the way of circumspection, claiming “since God has given us Papacy, let us enjoy it”.
Pope Julius the Third began to reign in 1550 until his death in 1555. At first, he seemed like a good choice. He had good ideas in modernizing the church and pushed through motions to reform the ecclesiastical status quo. But after a brief flurry of official activity, Julius sought out more pleasurable activities. He became fond of a teenage boy he had discovered on the streets of Rome whom he took into the Vatican as his lover and adopted nephew. He promoted the youngster named Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte to Cardinal while he was still a kid, and naturally, rumours started to spread within the Vatican. He asked artist Michelangelo to decorate his home with figurines of adolescent boys indulging in various forms of sexual engagement. While not strictly evil, Julius the Third was certainly a bit creepy and outrageously scandalous for the period.
Pope Stephen the Sixth was Pope from 896 to his death in 897. Bizarrely, when he rose to power, he had the body of a previous pope Formosus, dug up and put on trial. The dead body was provided with the necessary legal representation in the form of a deacon who spoke in defense of the departed Formosus, the rotting corpse was found guilty. Following the verdict, the decaying body was then dragged through the town, stripped of its sacred vestments, beheaded, buried, dug up for the second time, and just for good measure – thrown in the River Tiber. Exactly why Pope Stephen VI despised Formosus to the extent he had his dead body put on trial and tortured seems sadly, lost in history.
It seems Stephen the Sixth had a habit of making enemies. Pope Stephen the Sixth lasted no longer than a year. He was strangled to death that summer by one of his foes. This enemy, we assume, was alive.
Pope Alexander the sixth was born Rodrigo de Borja. This Spaniard was Pope from 1492 to his death in 1503 and was well known for his Libertine attitude. His rich merchant family bought Alexander the Papal seat. He is certainly the most controversial of the Renaissance popes – partly owing to the fact that he admitted fathering several children from his various mistresses. Alexander was said to be gifted with the quality of being a smooth talker and of choice eloquence. Beautiful women were attracted to him and excited by him in a remarkable way – more strongly than how iron is drawn to a magnet.
He hosted the most lavish orgies that the Vatican had ever known. As many as 50 prostitutes entertained in one session with clergymen hired to act as both participants and voyeurs to the event. He kept count of the number of times his entourage sinned at these soirees. Rumor has it, he slept with his daughter before marrying her off to rich merchants. He then declared the marriage void. Being Pope, he could do such things and took her back. His bloated corpse led to suspicions that the pope had been poisoned by his son, Caesar. Although other sources claim the pope’s death was due to malaria – then prevalent in Rome. While this pope may not be Beelzebub incarnate, he did have a ferocious appetite for the forbidden fruit.
Pope Paul the Third came to the Papal throne following the 1527 Sack of Rome. He had allegedly murdered both his mother and his niece as a means to inherit the family’s wealth prior to becoming Pope. He was also known to eliminate antagonists by strangulation – those who crossed him did so carefully. The famed love of his life was his daughter Constanza Farnese, but quite how close their relationship was, we couldn’t say. On the one hand, he was strictly against corruption, but on the other hand he taxed Rome’s prostitutes. He was a man of many hats and a great patron of the arts. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was produced in the Sistine Chapel during his reign. Paul also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the crucifixion of St. Peter and the conversion of St. Paul. So while Paul earns evil points for perhaps killing his family members having an alleged incestuous relationship with his daughter and having his enemies strangled he loses evil points for his patronage to the arts and sits in the fifth spot of our evil popes list.
Pope John the 12th was the head of the Catholic Church from 955 until his death in 964. He came from a powerful Roman family that had dominated the papacy politically for over 50 years. John the 12th didn’t have a good reputation. Quite the opposite, he was infamous for his alleged depravity and the wayward manner in which he conducted himself. He became pope between the age of 18 and 25 and it has been said in numerous reports that he swiftly set about raping and generally engaging in sexually deviant behavior from the moment he rose to power – selling off ecclesiastical lands to fund his immoral lifestyle. Pope John the 12th was eventually killed by a jealous husband who found the pope in bed with his wife.
Pope Boniface the Eighth was born Benedetto Caetani and was Pope from 1294 to his death and 1303. He held the first Jubilee year in Rome and declared both spiritual and temporal powers were under the People’s jurisdiction. Kings he claimed, were beneath the power of the Roman pontiff. Boniface the Eighth waged wars, sacked cities, and generally collected as much cash as humanly possible. Boniface even appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The author places Boniface in the Eighth Circle of Hell for the crime of selling off ecclesiastical privileges. Sixteenth century French author Francois Rabelais also wrote Boniface into hell. In his work Gargantua and Pantagruel, he pictures the evil Pope skimming scum from soup bowls.
Pope Urban the Sixth was pope from 1378 to his death and 1389. He is the last pope to be elected from outside the College of Cardinals and his reign was marked with tense conflicts between rival factions. Not unknown to have random temper tantrums, this pope in a fit of paranoia had six Cardinals arrested, brutally tortured, and executed. After the ordeal, he complained that the screams of the cardinals were not loud enough whether there was ever a plot against him is unclear. What is clear is that he reigned with an iron fist.
This pope claims the second spot for murdering and torturing six holy men without any remorse. This evil Pope may well have been what we nowadays label a “psychopath” – belonging in a clinical institution rather than a position of holy power.
Pope Benedict the Ninth was the youngest of all the popes, with reports that he was as young as twelve when he took the papal seat. Although official records state that Benedict was 20 years old. He was nephew to the previous two popes and described in the Catholic Encyclopedia as “a disgrace to the chair of Peter”. Pope Victor the Third said “his life was so vile, so foul, and so execrable that I shudder to think of it”.
The young pope hosted all-male orgies and raped men, women, children, and even some claim, animals. He eventually sold the Papacy to Gregory the Sixth, who was to be more of a stable religious figure. Following Gregory the Sixth’s rule, Damascus the Second was named as the next pope. This didn’t sit well with Benedict – who had Damascus poisoned and reclaimed the papacy for himself. There he remained until his crimes were so immoral and terrible that the Romans could no longer stand the figurehead. They drove him out of Rome. In another strange twist Benedict was reinstated for a third time, despite his horrendous reputation for these and other sins, Benedict claims the top spot in our evil Pope list.