Suffolk: Turmoil and rivalry, as they met to choose a pope
- Credit: AP
What timing! To bring out a book about the selection of a 16th Century pope two days after Benedict XVI announces his resignation… STEVEN RUSSELL learns how it happened – and hears what has gone on behind closed door
HAVING the builders in to install a new bathroom has proved a bit of a distraction, but Mary Hollingsworth has still found herself glued to the TV. It’s no surprise. The Suffolk historian’s latest book is about the election of a new pontiff, albeit one that happened about 450 years ago, so the making of Pope Francis just couldn’t be missed.
Mary’s book looks at the notorious conclave of 1559 – the conclave being the gathering of cardinals that elects a new pope behind closed doors. It began early in the September of that year and did not finish until Christmas Day. One cardinal died during the conclave and a couple had to leave because of illness.
The papacy was in crisis at the time, under fire for a reluctance to tackle abuses and with the college of cardinals split between moderates and conservatives. It was riven by personal rivalries and national factions. The decision-makers were confined to three or four rooms for 112 days and their deliberations leaked out like water through a sieve.
That wasn’t the half of it. Mary – a university lecturer and an expert on the Italian Renaissance – has mined diaries, reports and letters from the period to highlight the frequently devious jockeying between ambitious men hungry for power.
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There was unimaginable outside interference as foreign rulers tried to fix the voting, bribery and corruption, dodgy dealings, and rows and brawls. The Spanish ambassador, for instance, regularly slipped into the conclave to talk to the Spanish group, via a series of holes knocked in the walls. Many cardinals helped keep these channels open, as they also wanted to communicate with their supporters.
Eventually, Giovanni Angelo Medici was revealed as the new pope. Pius IV – the name he took – was the father of three children…
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The following year, Pope Pius arrested the two nephews of his predecessor, the brutal Paul IV. They were both cardinals and part of the conclave, but had abused their powers and at times proved even more vicious than their eminent uncle. One, Carlo Carafa, was later executed. Procedures at future conclaves were tightened greatly.
The repercussions of the 1559 conclave lent momentum to the counter-Reformation that would usher in spiritual and organisational reform, tackling corruption and indulgence among priests and bishops.
You’d imagine it’s all a far cry from today, but Mary notes that some things haven’t changed. The Vatican might have its own website, and the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI might have used Twitter, but arcane rituals, procedures and protocols remain, flavoured by suggestions of intrigue and scheming.
For the author, the resignation of Benedict was a surprise, and manna from heaven. She’d spent most of 2012 writing her book in the hope it would be published in time for the next papal election, “an event I assumed was still a year or two away”.
The historian had seen Pope Benedict during a Christmas 2011 service at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, not looking terribly well, and last year had the time to write.
Fertile sources were the letters and account books of the luxury-loving Ippolito d’Este, an Italian cardinal but protector of French interests. Cardinals at the 1559 conclave slept in temporary cubicles built within a main hall. d’Este hardly roughed it, though: his space was decorated with yards of purple cloth, and the list of items he lost during those 112 days shows he lived quite well – a silver fork and platter, a gilded serving dish, more than 500 linen napkins (!), linen sheets, woollen blankets, and curtains made from silk. The book wasn’t plain-sailing. “My agent had quite a lot of difficulty ‘selling’ the proposal. When the Pope announced his resignation, my agent” – Andrew Lownie – “had just set up his own in-house publishing venture.” He’d planned to launch it in the spring, but Benedict’s departure, coupled with Mary’s finished work being to hand, presented a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Two days after the Pope’s surprise announcement, Conclave 1559 became Thistle Publishing’s first offering.
“In a sense it is coincidence, but it’s not quite as divine as it looks!”
She’s naturally been fascinated by the events of 2013, too. “It is just like ‘watching history’ – the closest a historian can get to a time machine. The clothes are now all the same, whereas in the old days the rich cardinals wore damask and velvet, and the poor cardinals were in rough wool.”
Mary has been struck by how much more formally-ceremonial the proceedings have been, compared with the 16th Century. “Look at us and the Queen and the jubilee, and the Olympics. I think there is a strong feelgood factor in the Catholic Church whenever a new pope is elected – a sense of renewing your identity.”
Mary herself is not Catholic – in fact, she comes from a long line of “fairly atheist thinkers” – but lived in Italy on and off for 20 years.
Dissecting the conclave of 1559 has allowed the historian to examine issues that continue to resonate more than four centuries on. Such as the question of priests, marriage and celibacy.
“It doesn’t go back to Jesus and the apostles. It’s a comparatively ‘new’ development. In the early middle ages, the monastic orders took a vow of chastity. Priests didn’t.
“What you had in the Holy Roman Empire was a growing band of married priests who passed on their bishoprics to their children. So towns like Cologne and Mainz had hereditary bishops. If you the church want to keep control over your territories, if you want to keep your authority intact, you really do need to have some control over who gets the particular job, and not just have it passed on. So they decided, at that point – it was about 1100 – to make priests take vows of chastity.”
There’s more that will intrigue people not au fait with Roman Catholic history. “In the 16th century, ‘my’ conclave, all the cardinals would have known that there was a chapel in St Peter’s dedicated to St Petronilla, who was the daughter of St Peter. The concept of the vow of celibacy wasn’t so entrenched then as it is now!” The 1559 conclave also ushered in the kind of discretion that still characterises the selection of a new pope. “Within a week of that pope’s election he’d instituted a whole range of new rules and regulations governing the secrecy of the conclave, to stop these scandals in the conclave that elected him. From 1559 we don’t know what goes on, except for rumour.
“My personal theory is that the secrecy is essential to maintain the dignity of the role of the Pope, because if you could see all the backbiting and the kind of naked power struggle going on, it would completely detract from the spiritual authority that the Pope needs.”
A closing of ranks allows the Church to fall in line behind a new Pope and present a united front. “It also allows them to say what they like, inside the conclave, in the safe knowledge that none of it will go beyond the conclave.”
Mary believes that’s sensible. “The one thing I think there is to worry about is the Vatican’s arcane, corrupt system of government – I don’t really know how else to describe it.” The historian cites a couple of things – the recent “Vatileaks” affair centred on internal documents alleging infighting, mismanagement and corruption at the heart of the Vatican – and the chatter that surrounded the death in 1982 of banker Roberto Calvi.
The chairman of Banco Ambrosiano in Milan was dubbed “God’s banker” for his links with the Vatican. His body was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. Five years earlier, a report by the Bank of Italy about Banco Ambrosiano claimed several billion lire had been illegally exported. Ambrosiano would collapse in 1982.
Mary says it’s not just the Catholic Church that is caught up in such intrigue. Corruption is endemic in Italy, she suggests, “and particularly where you have a secretive system where nobody’s in a position to open up, show and shame”.
Back to less complex issues and the academic doesn’t feel media coverage of the 2013 papal saga has been overplayed. “I think it’s salutary to be reminded of this overly-powerful institution. For people in Britain, which is not a Catholic country, we tend to conveniently forget the immense power that the Vatican wields. And I think showing this irregular event is a reminder to everybody quite how important it is.” Mary adds: “One of the great things about the conclave is this business about the two-thirds majority, which means it’s very difficult for somebody to get himself elected who doesn’t have a substantial body of support within the college of cardinals. I think that’s quite an important point. Party leaders” – in Europe and elsewhere – “can be elected with a relatively small amount of support within their party.”
As a historian, Mary’s life is a mix of research, teaching and writing . There’s some TV, too. Before Christmas she appeared in a BBC Four series, Rome: A History of the Eternal City, which examined the role of religion in creating the power of the city. That required a trip to Italy, but most days are spent in front of a computer, researching or writing. Some of the writing can be rather academic in nature, she admits.
Mary’s currently co-editing a “huge volume” for a Dutch academic publisher, “a great big tome filled with 50 or 60 essays by academics on different aspects of some cardinals from 1400 to 1700”. She has to compose an article about being part of a conclave: “the mechanics – the food and how you decorate your cell”.
“Nowadays it’s incredibly boring; they all eat standard meals. In the past, there must have been competition for invitations to some cardinals’ cubicles where you’d get much better food than you would in other places.
“Ippolito d’Este took on a French pastry chef for the conclave! Can you believe it? The man cooked at Ippolito’s palace, where all his meals were prepared and then carried over to the Vatican twice a day.”
There’s an element of the Big Brother house about it, isn’t there?
“There is. There was a tweet about that; I think Matt Frei (Channel 4’s Washington correspondent.) said something like ‘The conclave is the older version of Big Brother’, and it is very much like that. Except without the television cameras and the interviews!”
With 115 men, mostly in their 60s and 70s, not everyone is going to be close friends. “There are going to be some people who detest others; and having to do it for four months” – as in 1559 – “with people you really didn’t like, that must have been quite stressful.
“By the end, there were definitely cardinals who said ‘Look, we’ve got to get out.’ They were desperate. It was coming up to Christmas. There was one day when they had quite a long discussion about whether they would close the conclave for Christmas, so they could all go home.
“New year, the 12 days of Christmas, was party time, just like it is for us, and I suppose they wanted to have a laugh. Some people didn’t, but my cardinal would definitely have wanted to sit down and play cards.
“One of the account books that survived is his gambling book, which tells how much money he’s won off, or lost to, a whole series of people. But there is no evidence he brought his cards into the conclave with him!”
• Conclave 1559, from Thistle Publishing, is available through Amazon: paperback £9.99, ebook £6.51
Loves Italy, but England is home
MARY Hollingsworth is from Yorkshire, but her grandparents had a farm near Bury St Edmunds and she used to spend holidays in Suffolk. Today, the historian lives there and her brother is in charge of the holding.
The county has effectively been home since about 2000, though Mary lived in Italy for almost 20 years, on and off.
She explains how wonderful it was, for instance, to live in Venice from January to March – “complete heaven” – teaching students from the University of East Anglia.
However, much as she adores Italy, there wasn’t really a chance of it becoming a permanent base.
“I think I was always English. The thing about being an ex-pat is you suddenly make a decision that the place you’re in is never going to be ‘home’, and then you must go home.”
Readjusting to life in Britain was odd. “I’d missed the ’90s! I’d never seen Blackadder or Absolutely Fabulous. Thai food was another thing. When I came back, everyone was making and serving Thai food!”
Mary has a BSc in business studies from the University of Manchester and a PhD in art history from UEA. Her thesis looked at the role of the patron in the development of Renaissance art and architecture – a subject she taught at UEA and which formed the basis of two of her books.
She carried out research for her PhD in the Vatican library. “It is one of the most astonishing places I’ve ever been. I think I was the only person in the reading room wearing jeans and all the men were churchmen in skirts!”
Mary’s published works include The Borgias, about the family whose name is a byword for pride, lust, cruelty, greed and scheming.
The Cardinal’s Hat was about Ippolito d’Este, the son of Lucretia Borgia, who became archbishop of Milan at the age of nine and, 20 years or so later, a cardinal.
The historian is on our TV screens on April 1 in an episode of National Geographic Channel’s Bloody Tales.
It investigates the assassination of Juan Borgia, and discusses the identity of his killer – perhaps his own brother…