Sometimes, when I’m searching for a subject, I have to write about someone on the day of their death. Usually it’s because no one knows when their birthday was. But occasionally, just occasionally it feels more appropriate to mark the day that they left us. Today’s post is not about someone brilliant. It’s about someone completely awful. But his story is too outrageous to ignore. The other day I wrote about Pope Sylvester II and how people thought he was in league with the Devil. I said I thought that his reputation might have been ill deserved and that there were other Popes who were far worse. Well, today, I give you Pope John XII…
I’ll start with a bit of family background. His grandmother, named Marozia, had once been mistress to Pope Sergius III and together they gave birth to another Pope, Pope John XI, but that is a separate issue. Marozia later married Alberic I, who was a duke and they had a son, who became Alberic II. Alberic number one died and Marozia married his half brother, Hugh, who became King of Italy. Alberic number two was, for various reasons pretty upset and tried to overthrow Hugh at the wedding ceremony. Hugh escaped but Marozia was imprisoned for the rest of her life. Alberic number two became the self-styled prince of Rome. He was the father of John XII.
Alberic II made the Roman nobles swear that his son, then named Octavianus, would be made Pope the next time the situation became vacant. Then Alberic died in 954 and his son became the next prince of Rome. The following year, the Pope died and Octavianus was, as promised, made Pope as well. Being both a prince and a pope, and also rather young, somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, he got a bit above himself. Actually that’s putting it mildly. He did what ever he wanted.
He had a lot of trouble hanging onto his lands and called in the help of a German king, Otto I. He had Otto crowned Holy Roman Emperor. But later, he went back on all his promises of loyalty to the new emperor. If you’re a prince, hanging onto your lands is pretty important, as I think I mentioned when I wrote about Machiavelli the other day. As a pope though, John XII was absolutely terrible. Among his many mistresses were one of his father’s concubines and his own niece. He had sexual relationships with both women and men. No one was safe. He was such an awful sex pest that female pilgrims were put off visiting the tomb of Saint Peter in case they were attacked by the Pope. He turned the Papal Palace into a brothel. And that’s not all…
Pope John XII was a drinker and a gambler. He drank toasts to the Devil. He invoked the names of Jupiter and Venus whilst playing dice. When he lost, he used money from the papal treasury to pay off his debts. He once ordained a ten-year-old boy as a bishop and ordained a deacon in a stable. While we’re talking about stables, he is said to have kept 2,000 horses which he fed on figs and almonds soaked in wine. Anyone who tried to criticise him was severely punished. He had a cardinal castrated, put out the eyes of his confessor and had an archive-keeper’s nose cut off.
Eventually, Otto called a council and asked John to defend himself against a number of charges. John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone who threatened to depose him, then he ran away. Whilst he was gone, another Pope was elected, Leo VIII. But then, John returned, evicted Leo, maimed many of his supporters and beheaded sixty-three bishops and noblemen. Fortunately just as he was about to try and make things up with Otto, he died. Want to know how? A man caught him in bed with his wife and hit him on the head with a hammer.
Oddly, the Catholic Church later made his cousin a pope. And two of his nephews. And his great nephew, Benedict IX, who was also spectacularly awful. I can mention him as well today, as no one seems to know when he died. Which is unusual for a pope. Benedict also had a string of lovers, both men and women, but he also added a few animals into the mix. He was forced out twice, then abdicated after selling the papacy to his godfather for fifteen hundred pounds of gold. But then he tried to seize power again and was excommunicated. He was eventually replaced by Pope Damasus II, who’s reign lasted less than a month. It’s a pity Popes don’t often rule under their own name, because his given name was Poppo. Pope Poppo would have been a fantastic name.