Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

Three Strikes, You’re Out: The Scandalous Life of Pope Benedict IX

When asked how a controversial Holy Father is linked to a superb brunch menu item, one might be tempted to say Benedict. Pope Francis’ predecessor shocked the world in 2013 when he became the first head of the Roman Catholic Church in more than half a millennium to resign. As it turns out, he was not the most controversial Pope of that name to have chosen to govern the Holy See- being far exceeded by the notorious Pope Benedict IX.

Benedict IX, born to a noble family living on the outskirts of Rome, served three terms as Pope between 1032 and 1048. He was the nephew of two other Popes, one of them also called Benedict (VIII), and rotated through an office which is traditionally a post for life. After resigning once and committing simony, selling off the Papacy, Benedict IX was eventually excommunicated in 1048.

His time as the Bishop of Rome saw spells of Papal debauchery and brought an end to the politicised system which had been controlled by the Counts of Tusculum and other noble families. The scandals of Benedict IX’s papacy contributed strongly to conclave being secured under lock and key, as well as the decision to implement rules which limited the age of cardinals; the pool from which the Pope is traditionally chosen. These changes removed overt family-based factionalism from the heart of the Church and introduced some semblance of stability in leadership for one of the world’s most influential religious bodies.

Sources dispute Benedict IX’s age when he first became the Supreme Pontiff in 1032. Most scholars believe he was somewhere between eleven and twenty years old when his father, an influential Count, secured him the position. Benedict was forced into a brief hiatus during the mid-1030s after he was cast out of Rome by an anti-Pope; someone with an equivalent and legitimate claim to be Pontiff, not once but twice. He eventually returned at the behest of his family militia and the realpolitik of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II in 1036.

A successor to the Chair of St. Peter, Victor III, outlined the reasons for Benedict’s unpopularity and first resignation in 1044 in his Third Book of Dialogues: rape, murder, sodomy, and violence. St. Peter Damian, a contemporary Cardinal, judged Benedict IX as ‘a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest’ not least because he, according to both allies and enemies, hosted orgies at the official Lateran Palace. To make matters worse, these orgies involved other men and animals as well.

However, Benedict IX became Pope once again in 1045 when he was probably in his thirties. He lasted less than two months. Pressure over his conduct built to crescendo, leading Benedict IX to sell the Papacy to Gregory VI. The reasons for this were either to finance his wedding or establish a pension. Gregory alleged he bought the Papacy to save the Church from scandal and sin, but he was later dismissed by Henry III at Sutri following a dispute when Benedict IX changed his mind on marriage after he was unable to get his first choice of bride.

Benedict IX later managed to return to power in 1047 but lasted less than a year before being removed from office for a third and final time. Henry III of Germany assembled a Council at Sutri and deposed Benedict and the other two men who had staked competing claims to the Papacy. He then appointed a fellow Bavarian to the role,who lasted only a little longer than his predecessor.

The historiography has not reached a consensus as to how Benedict lived out the rest of his life. Some accounts say that he moved to Grottaferrata, south-east of Rome, and repented his sins until his death by January 1056. Others suggest that he carried on with the exploits which caused outrage among the Church hierarchy whilst he was Pope. Furthermore, these commentators claim that he never lost hope or ambition in trying to regain the Papacy until his death.

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