Episode 39 – The House of Medici

After the death of Pope Adrian IV, the young kings of Spain, France and England seemed to be less interested in manipulating the election of the next pope. Perhaps because they realized that they could not predict the behavior of a pope. 

The disinterest of the kings allowed the cardinals to maneuver amongst themselves for the position of pope, leaving Leo X cousin, Giulio de Medici with a distinct advantage. 


The papal elections are a really good window into 16th century politics. 

When Leo X died in December 1521, the logical replacement was his cousin, Giulio. Giulio was Leo’s Vice-Chancellor (2nd in command of the church) since March, 1517, just a few months before Luther posted his 95 theses. Effectively, Giulio was Leo’s right-hand-man from the beginning of his pontificate in 1513. But he couldn’t be officially Leo’s Vice-Chancellor. He was the illegitimate son of Leo’s uncle, Giuliano de’ Medici. Since he was illegitimate, he was not allowed to hold high ranking positions within the church. Leo’s first acts as pope was to declare that his cousin’s birth was legitimate because his parents were “wed according to the word of the those present.”

Nobody knows if this was true, but it opened the door for Giulio to become a Cardinal. He was immediately recognized as an unusually skilled statesman. In January, 1514, Henry VIII named him the Cardinal protector of England. Cardinal protector was responsible for representing England in the Roman Curia, or as Henry VIII said, “for the defense of us and our realm in all matters of the Curia.”

Francis I of France also recognized Giulio’s unusual skills and appointed him to the Cardinal protector of France in 1516. Amazing since Henry and Francis hated each other. Having Giulio as the French Cardinal Protector didn’t work out well for Francis, though. When the personal rivalry between Francis and Emperor Charles V broke into war in northern Italy, Giulio Medici sided with Charles.

Giulio distrusted Francis because he was selecting French bishops who were more loyal to the king than to the church. Francis gained the ability to name bishops when he defeated the pope in the battle of Merignano in 1515. The agreement between Francis and the church was called the concordant of Bologna. 

Giulio’s betrayal of France left Francis furious. When Leo died in 1521, Francis made it clear that he would leave the church if Giulio was elected pope, leading to the election of Adrian. After Adrian died in Sept 1523, the Roman people were excited to have a new pope named. They were tired of Adrian and wanted to have a new leader who would better understand them. 

The conclave opened on Oct 1. 

When the Roman leadership started to complain shortly after the conclave opened, the cardinals played for time, telling the Roman leadership that the entire French party had not yet arrived. 

The French party finally settled on Cardinal Gianmaria del Monte. Cardinal Medici promised that he would give up 3 votes if Cardinal Monte could get 18 votes, which would have given Cardinal Monte 21 votes. It also would have given a green light to the Medici party to vote for Monte in the next round (scrutiny). 

Monte originally got 16 votes, but when the members of the French party saw that he was gaining traction, three of them changed their vote to get him to 19. Medici said that Monte would have had to have gotten 18 votes the first time around, so his offer was rescinded. This further infuriated the French party, so no progress was made for a few days. 

 To try to get things moving again, Medici suggested that the French party agree on one name. (Assume it was implied that he would support who ever they agreed on, if they could all agree.)

 The French party was broken up into two groups. 

 ◦ The juniors, who were willing to work together.

 ◦ The seniors, who were all trying to get themselves elected. 

Medici’s proposal caused even more internal strife between the junior members of the French party and the senior members. 

Beer break

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Time for the election to be over

There were two main groups battling for the papacy.

  • The imperialists, who had about 16 votes and were supporters of Giulio Medici.
  • The French, who had about 19 votes, and were only committed to having somebody other than Medici. 

Up until now, we’ve been highlighting the problems with the French as being between the juniors, who were willing to work together, and the seniors, who were trying to get themselves elected. This is a very simplified view of the French politics. It’s a little difficult to figure out what exactly was happening in the French party, but we’re going to have to give it a try to untangle what happens next. 

First, Alberto Pio, an ambassador of the king of France, showed up in late October. He was a friend of Medici. He tried to convince the French party that Medici would be as good for France as anybody. Although he wasn’t immediately successful, he softened them up a little. 

On November 11, the Roman magistrates threatened to reduce the food for the cardinals to just bread and water.  At this point, Cardinal Farnese, made his move. He approached the Duke of Sessa, to make a deal. The Duke of Sessa was a Spanish noble who was closely aligned with the emperor. 

Cardinal Farnese offered to give the Duke substantial amount of money and a cardinalate for the duke’s brother if the duke would support giving the imperial votes to Farnese. This seems like it worked, because shortly afterward, one of the leaders of the French party, Cardinal Colonna, proposed Farnese as the next pope.

We are starting to see the French block breaking up. Several cardinals objected to Farnese on moral grounds. He was well known to have mistresses and children. Sort of a throwback to the pre-reformation popes. 

There were a couple of versions of what happened next in the literature. Both have to do with Colonna, one of the leaders of the French party. 

  •  One version says that Colonna, claimed he was frustrated that the French had turned against his candidate Farnese, so gave his support to Medici. 
  •  Another source says that when the Farnese proposal fell apart, the majority of the French said they supported Cardinal Orsini. 

 The Colonna and Orsini families hated each other. So Colonna, who only controlled 4 votes, realized that he would be more appreciated in the Medici camp. He threw his four votes over to Medici. After the election, Colonna received a palace and the position of second in command (Vice-Chancellor) of the Vatican in return. 

We have a pope

Either way – on November 19, 1523, Giulio de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII

Clement inherited a mess from his cousin, Leo X, and things didn’t get any better under Adrian VI. 

Now we’re caught up with the popes.

For our next episode, we’ll get back to Luther. 

Sign off

Thanks to our listeners.

Thanks to Josh

Recognition of source materials


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