The trouble about writing a history of the popes is that there are so many of them. Usually elderly when elected, most of them have only lasted a few years. The longest reign was that of the mid-19th-century pope, Pius IX, Pio Nono, who clung on for 31 years. In our own times, Pius XII did 19 years, Paul VI 15 and John Paul II 18. But all were unusual. Closer to the average was poor John Paul I, who lasted 34 days. As a result there have been 264 popes. About some we know nothing and one or two may have been fictitious. ‘Pope Joan’ certainly was.
So taking on the task of a comprehensive survey requires courage. Lord Norwich is a battle-hardened veteran of many popular histories. The Hon. Gerard Noel is a Catholic former editor who has already produced a rollicking history of the Renaissance popes. Each has served up a useful volume. I salute them both: they are, equally, light spring reading for the serious-minded.
About three-quarters of the popes are of little interest to the modern reader. The most fascinating ones are a puzzling mixture of vice and virtue. The Borgia pope Alexander VI, usually presented as the worst of the lot, was, says Noel, ‘one of the most capable of pontiffs, a consummate statesman’. But Norwich quotes the diary of Johannes Burchard, the Papal Master of Ceremonies, showing him on 30 October 1501, at a dinner given by his son Cesare at which 50 naked prostitutes crawled on the floor to pick up chestnuts, afterwards joining in a general orgy. Such a bunga-bunga occasion was by no means unique, and suggests that Signor Berlusconi, himself a curious mixture of skill and depravity, has ample precedents for his activities.
Equally Pius II, the learned and gifted Renaissance pope, who played an important role in building up the papal collections, wrote scurrilous romances and is described by Noel as ‘the pornography pope’. Julius II, the patron of Raphael and Michelangelo, led his troops in battle, wearing full armour, at the age of 68. When annoyed by unwelcome news, he hurled his cap on the ground, says Norwich, and ‘blasphemed St Peter’. He also had a habit of dealing persons who criticised him a tremendous whack on the head with his staff. It was this pope who forced the Venetian envoys to crawl on the ground and kiss his foot. Was this the origin of the practice of saluting the pope by kissing his big toe? The last person to attempt this embrace, the late Earl of Longford, had to be forcibly restrained from doing so.
It is curious that even the most sinful of the popes never put their seal to heretical doctrines. Boniface VIII, a vainglorious and foolish man, nevertheless invented the Holy Year, and according to Norwich, was the first to introduce a one-way traffic system, across the Ponte Sant’Angelo. On the other hand, some of the grandest of popes were humiliated after their death. Innocent III, under whom the medieval papacy reached the apogee of its power, had his body stolen the night after he died. It was discovered, stripped naked, decomposing in the heat, and his bones were later found in a box along with those of two other popes. Norwich describes the disastrous embalming of Pius XII, a rather imposing pontiff in his day: ‘appalling eructations were heard coming from the coffin’ and ‘during the lying-in-state the smell was such that one of the attendant Swiss guards fainted’. This was in 1958 and is quite true: I was there and described it at the time.
Some of the information in Norwich’s book was new to me. Archdeacon Hildebrand, or Gregory VII as he became, the most adventurous of popes, who forced the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, to perform penance at Canossa, had a remarkable connection with Napoleon Bonaparte. Both came from Lombard stock. The name of Hildebrand’s father, Bonizo, is an abbreviation of Bonipart, which later appears as Buonaparte. Napoleon was proud of the connection, regarding Gregory VII as an ancestor and frequently invoking his intercession.
Of the modern popes one of the most likeable was Giuseppe Sarto, Pius X, from a peasant family in the Veneto. His father was the village postman and his mother a seamstress. He was a big, humble man, essentially a parish priest, and was one of the few popes, even in modern times, who did nothing to promote the interests of his family. His brother remained a postal clerk. His nephew was a simple parish priest. His three sisters died poor. Norwich says he gave catechism classes every Sunday afternoon, and I believe you could confess to him if you knew which box he was in on a Thursday evening (a tradition continued once a year on Maundy Thursday). He was a holy man and was quite rightly canonised.
Some popes met curious ends. John XXI was killed in Viterbo in 1277 when the ceiling of his study collapsed. Lucius II was mortally wounded in a civil war. A number were deposed, some being banished to a cave monastery. In the 10th century, no fewer than four popes were murdered, one killed in battle and another died in prison. Benedict VI was strangled in 934. John XVI was blinded, then murdered. There were rumours that John-Paul I was murdered in 1978 but Noel says he died of a heart attack. Norwich refuses to give his opinion but tells readers to consult two books, one in favour of the murder theory, the other against it. In my view, if there was any truth in the murder story, it would have emerged by now, for Rome never keeps its secrets long.
The papacy is the most enduring of all human institutions, and is in remarkably good shape at present. For we have had two outstanding popes in a row, and happily very different ones. Pope John Paul II was a great pastoralist, while Benedict XVI is a formidable administrator and ruler. I see no reason why the papacy should not last another 2,000 years. Both these books tell a tale, on the whole, of continuity and success.