The Pope’s Nephew
Rodrigo Borgia had immaculate support in his career as a churchman; his uncle was Pope Calixtus III[i]. Calixtus became pope a bare two years after the fall of Constantinople, a world changing event. Europe felt the chill of Mehmet the Conqueror’s aims; Rome itself could fall to the infidel. The event overshadowed Calixtus’ papacy and he attempted to make the rulers of Europe aware of the Ottoman menace and sent missionaries abroad to preach crusade.
On the eve of his coronation Calixtus wrote to King Ladislas Posthumus of Bohemia and Hungary, one of those on the frontline of Ottoman ambitions, telling of his dedication to crusade;
‘Even to the shedding of his blood….that those most hideous of the Christian name should be entirely expelled not only from the city of Constantinople…..but also from the confines of Europe.’[ii]
Rodrigo was the son of Joffre Llançol i Escrivà. Joffre was a noble from the town of Xativa[iii], he married his distant cousin Isabella de Borja[iv], daughter of Domingo de Borja. Rodrigo studied law at Bologna, where he graduated ‘the most eminent and judicious jurisprudent’, a Doctor of Law. Upon his uncle’s elevation to the papacy Rodrigo was made a deacon in the church and took his mother’s surname.
|St Nicola in Carcere|
The 25 year old Bishop of Valencia[v] was made a Cardinal-deacon[vi] of St Nicola in Carcere in Rome on 20h February 1456 ten months after Calixtus became pope. His cousin Luis de Mila was similarly honoured. Both nephews had been given important roles within the Curia a mere twenty days of Calixtus’ accession.
‘Cardinal Rodrigo is young, it is true, but his conduct and good sense add years to his age.’[vii]
At the same time Rodrigo’s younger brother Pedro Luis was made Captain-General of the Church, in charge of the Papal army and castellan of Castel Sant’Angelo.
|March of Ancona|
On 31st December 1456 Rodrigo was made Vicar General in the March of Ancona[viii], where he efficiently rid the town of Ascola[ix] of a gang of bandits. To fund his work in Ancona Rodrigo had to mortgage his income for the next three years. This was in despite of the gift from Calixtus; the Bishopric of Girona, an attempt to improve Rodrigo’s finances.
Rodrigo’s next posting was Rome where Calixtus was attempting, through the agency of Pedro Luis, to overthrow the rule of the Orsini family to the north and west of Rome. In 1457 Rodrigo was promoted to the post of Vice Chancellor of the church. In the summer of 1458 Calixtus was planning further promotions for his nephews when he fell ill.
The Romans, especially supporters of the Orsini family, were more than pleased when the 79 year old Borgia pope sickened in early August 1458 and it became exceptionally dangerous to be a Spaniard in Rome. The Spanish were attacked on the streets and a number of houses and warehouses belonging to Spanish merchants were set ablaze.
On 5th August Pedro Luis surrendered the keys to the Castel Sant’Angelo and he and Rodrigo mustered 3,000 mounted troops and 200 infantry. The Romans’ hatred focussed on Pedro Luis who was a marked man. He managed, with his brother’s help, to escape to the papal fortress of Civitavecchia of which Pedro Luis was Captain-General. Rodrigo returned to the Vatican to be with his uncle when he died on 6th August 1458.
In the ensuing enclave it was Rodrigo who cast a block buster vote for Cardinal Piccolomini, helping break a threatened deadlock in the cardinals’ voting. Piccolomini’s main rival was a Frenchman, the Cardinal of Rouen, Guillaume d’Estouteville. Piccolomini had warned Rodrigo against voting for his opponent;
‘If you have no thought for the Church of Rome…..for whom you are preparing yourself such a vicar, at least take thought for yourself, for you will find yourself among the hindmost, if a Frenchman is pope.’[x]
The new pope Pius II made Rodrigo one of his protégé’s and his continuing rise was assured. Pius confirmed Rodrigo as Vice Chancellor. What Rodrigo was unable to do was to save his younger brother. News reached Rodrigo on 26th September that Pedro Luis had died en-route to Civitavecchia of malaria.
The Pius Papacy
Pius followed Calixtus’ example by preaching a crusade against the infidel newly enthroned in Constantinople. He invited Europe’s rulers to send representatives to Mantua in the summer of 1459. Very few representatives arrived at the conference; the Venetians were not prepared to support a crusade.
The French were unhappy because Pius had failed to support the French candidate for the throne of Naples, instead he promoted the cause of Ferrante. Before leaving Mantua Pius declared that, despite the lack of support, there would be a crusade and that it would leave from Ancona in 1464.
Upon his return to Rome Pius was forced to support Ferrante against his enemies. Not only the pope, but Milan and Skanderbeg of Albania sent assistance to Naples. With this help Ferrante’s position stabilised and he was able to increasingly interfere in Italian politics.
War torn Romagna was being brought under the sway of Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini. Control of the Papal States was slowly being drained away by local lords determined on independence from the church. But Pius’ ambitions were focussed abroad on his crusade; he emptied the Vatican treasury to build galleys and hire crews. He told his cardinals;
‘The call ‘Go!’ has been unheeded; perhaps the call ‘Come!’ will evoke a heartier response….We do not intend to fight. We shall imitate Moses who prayed on the mountain while Israel fought Amalek. On the ship’s prow or on the mountain top we shall entreat our Lord Jesus Christ victory for our soldiers in battle.’[xi]
Pius died on 14th August 1464 in Ancona; whence he’d travelled to launch his crusade, but the crusade died with him.
The Popes’ Servant
|Pope Paul II|
The new pope was the Venetian Pietro Barbo who became Pope Paul II on 30th August. Paul was an eccentric who slept during the day and gave audiences only at night. Like his predecessors Paul showed great confidence in Rodrigo’s abilities, expanding his responsibilities and authority. The number of Curial offices that Rodrigo was responsible for was increased and several Spanish benefices were showered on him. In 1468 Rodrigo was ordained to the priesthood and three years later was consecrated bishop and was made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano.
Paul was determined to increase the Papal holdings in Italy and chose Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, as his military champion. Montefeltro brought Rimini back into the fold and Malatesta under control. Further gains by Montefeltro were quickly taken by the Orsini. Paul’s greedy eyes then fell on Bologna but his luck was out.
Like his predecessors Paul was determined on a crusade against the Turk and wrote to his fellow monarchs;
‘Beloved Sons, there must be no delay, because our enemy, who seems to desire nothing more than the bloody extermination of all Christendom, [is] already at our throats, grows stronger every day……..is strengthened in his resolve.’[xii]
Paul was able to energise the states of Italy into forming a defensive alliance against the Turk on 22nd December 1470. Paul died suddenly on 26th July 1471 and his replacement Francesco della Rovere took the name Sixtus IV.
Travels in Spain
Expanding on Paul’s initiative Sixtus called for a crusade against the infidel and sent Rodrigo out as one of his envoys. Rodrigo was sent to Spain as Papal Legate and envoy for a crusade against the Turk.
|King Henry IV|
While Rodrigo was in Spain he persuaded the Catalans to enter peace talks with king Juan of Aragon. Barcelona accepted Aragon rule and Juan accepted Rodrigo’s proposal that the city’s defenders be given a general pardon and that Juan should uphold the Catalan constitution. As a way of consolidating the peace Rodrigo awarded the dispensation that validated the marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile[xiii] that had taken place three years earlier.
Rodrigo then travelled to the court of Castile where King Henry IV[xiv] was warring with those claiming Isabella as heir to the throne and those supporting Henry’s daughter Juana.. Rodrigo persuaded Henry to repudiate his daughter who was claimed to be the child of Beltran de la Cueva, the Duke of Albuquerque. In return Henry’s favourite bishop was to e promoted to the College of Cardinals.
Rodrigo met with the Bishops of Léon and Burgos in Segovia; launching a reform of the church in Spain, setting up some of Europe’s first diocesan seminaries, thus ensuring in future that priests would be ordained with a knowledge of Latin and theology.
By the summer of 1473 Rodrigo had been in Spain over a year and his enemies had not been slow to take advantage of his absence. Cardinal Jacopo Ammanati-Piccolomini[xv] wrote to Rodrigo suggesting that an early return was needed to counter the influence of the pope’s nephews. At the same time Ammanati was writing to other correspondents blackening Rodrigo’s name complaining of his behaviour as;
‘Vain, luxurious, ambitious, [and] greedy’[xvi] and he claimed that while in Portugal Rodrigo spent ‘most of his time with the ladies.’[xvii]
Italian Dynasties – Edward Burman, Equation 1989
Lucrezia Borgia – Rachel Erlanger, Michael Joseph 1979
The Grand Turk – John Freely, IB Tauris & Co Ltd 2012
Florence and the Medici – JR Hale, Phoenix Press 2001
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – Christopher Hibbert, Folio Society 2001
The Borgias – Mary Hollingsworth, Quercus Editions 2014
The Borgias – GJ Meyer, Bantam 2013
A History of Venice – John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books 1982
Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011
A Renaissance Tapestry – Kate Simon, Harrap 1988
The March of Folly – Barbara Tuchman, Cardinal 1990
[i] A compromise candidate, selected due to his extreme age (77), it was believed that he would soon die and the throne up for grabs again
[ii] The Grand Turk - Freely
[iv] The Spanish spelling of the name
[v] Rodrigo inherited the bishopric upon his uncle’s accession to the throne of St Peter
[vii] The Borgias - Meyer
[ix] Now Ascoli Piceno
[x] The Borgias - Meyer
[xi] A History of Venice - Norfolk
[xii] The Grand Turk - Freely
[xiii] Both cousins many times over
[xiv] Known as the Impotent
[xv] Adopted into the late Pius II’s family
[xvi] The Borgias – Meyer