As Christianity eventually flourished and spread throughout the Western world, things became complicated. As the faith’s popularity rose, so did the power vested in those who sat in the papal seat. Nowadays we view the Pope as one who guides by example, leading a simple, ethical, and moral life. Yet, over the 2,000 years of the Vatican’s existence, not all Popes have been so highly praised as our current Pope Francis. Some have been greedy, vicious, and downright evil.
Some have been murderers and rapists. With power often comes greed and corruption, and the history of the papacy is splattered with more blood and bodily fluids than an episode of Game of Thrones. Today, we take a closer look at those religious figureheads who remained evil while justifying their actions as the will of the Lord. Welcome to this episode of The Infographics Show, the Top Ten Most Evil Popes in History.
First up, a brief warning. This episode may be deemed offensive to those with strong Christian faith. Also, this episode does involve some adult themes. So if you feel you might be offended, please switch over to one of our other episodes. Okay, with that disclaimer in mind, let’s move on and take a look at the top ten most evil popes in history. We will be looking at the Popes reigning from the dark ages through to the renaissance period for the purposes of this show. So here we go.
Pope Urban II
Pope Urban II ruled from 1088 to 1099 and was a native of France. He is best known for having initiated the first crusade and setting up the Roman Curia – a royal ecclesiastical court. The Pope promised forgiveness to all those who joined the crusade, when he decreed, “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.
This I grant through the power of God with which I am invested.” This clever command gave every murderer, rapist, and thief a shot at entering heaven. It also raised (or lowered, depending on your point of view) the standards in the methods of manipulation one might use to raise an army. For that reason, Pope Urban II is number 10 on our list.
Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of the Florentine Republic. He reigned as Pope from 1513 to 1521, and is probably best remembered for his patronage of the arts. He was loose with the cash and winded up selling a kind of ecclesiastical insurance policy that guaranteed relief from damnation following the death of the donator. He borrowed and spent money without much in the way of circumspection, claiming, “since God has given us Papacy, let us enjoy it.” He has earned his place at number 9 in our gallery of rogues for selling divine privileges for cold hard cash, which if you think about it is seriously immoral, if not totally evil.
Pope Julius III
Pope Julius III began to reign in 1550 until his death in 1555. At first he seemed like a good choice. He had good ideas in modernizing the Church, and pushed through motions to reform the ecclesiastical status quo. But after a brief flurry of official activity, Julius sought out more pleasurable activities. He became fond of a teenage boy he had discovered on the streets of Rome, whom he took into the Vatican as his lover and adopted nephew.
He promoted the youngster named Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte to cardinal while he was still a kid, and, naturally, tongues began to wag within the Vatican. He asked artist Michelangelo to decorate his home with figurines of adolescent boys indulging in various forms of sexual engagement. While not strictly evil, Julius III was certainly a bit creepy and outrageously scandalous for the period. He sits proudly at number 8 on our list.
Pope Stephen VI
Pope Stephen VI was Pope from 896 to his death in 897. Bizarrely, when he rose to power, he had the body of a previous pope, Formosus, dug up and put on trial. The dead body was provided with the necessary legal representation in the form of a deacon who spoke in defense of the departed Formosus. The rotting corpse was found guilty. Following the verdict, the decaying body was then dragged through town, stripped of its sacred vestments, beheaded, buried, dug up for the second time, and just for good measure, thrown in the river Tiber.
Exactly why Pope Stephen VI despised Formosus to the extent he had his dead body put on trial and tortured, seems sadly lost in history. But it seems Stephen VI had a habit of making enemies. Pope Stephen VI lasted no longer than a year. He was strangled to death that summer by one of his foes…this enemy, we assume, was alive. Stephen VI takes the 7th spot on our list, for digging up and putting a corpse on trial. Well done, Stephen, congratulations.
Pope Alexander VI
Pope Alexander VI was born Rodrigo de Borja. This Spaniard was Pope from 1492 until his death in 1503, and was well known for his libertine attitude. His rich merchant family bought Alexander the post. He is certainly the most controversial of the Renaissance Popes, partly owing to the fact that he admitted fathering several children from his various mistresses. Alexander was said to be “gifted with the quality of being a smooth talker and of choice eloquence. Beautiful women were attracted to him and excited by him in a remarkable way, more strongly than how iron is drawn to a magnet.” He hosted the most lavish orgies that the Vatican had ever known.
As many as 50 prostitutes entertained in one session with clergymen hired to act as both participants and voyeurs to the event. He kept count of the number of times his entourage sinned at these soirees. Rumor has it he slept with his daughter before marrying her off to rich merchants. He then declared the marriage void (being Pope he could do such things) and took her back.
His bloated corpse led to suspicions that the Pope had been poisoned by his son, Cesare, although other sources claim the Pope’s death was due to malaria, then prevalent in Rome. While this Pope may not be Beelzebub incarnate, he did have a ferocious appetite for the forbidden fruit, and that plants him firmly at number 6.
Pope Paul III
Pope Paul III came to the papal throne following the 1527 sack of Rome. He had allegedly murdered both his mother and his niece as a means to inherit the family’s wealth prior to becoming Pope. He was also known to eliminate antagonists by strangulation- those who crossed him did so carefully. The famed love of his life was his daughter Constanza Farnese, but quite how close their relationship was, we couldn’t say. On the one hand, he was strictly against corruption, but on the other hand, he taxed Rome’s prostitutes. He was a man of many hats and a great patron of the arts.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was produced in the Sistine Chapel during his reign. Paul also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Crucifixion of St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul. So while Paul earns evil points for perhaps killing his family members, having an alleged incestuous relationship with his daughter, and having his enemies strangled, he loses evil points for his patronage to the arts, and sits in the 5th spot of our evil Popes list.
Pope John XII
Pope John XII was the head of the Catholic Church from 955 to his death in 964. He came from a powerful Roman family that had dominated the papacy politically for over 50 years. John XII didn’t have a good reputation. Quite the opposite. He was infamous for his alleged depravity and the wayward manner in which he conducted himself.
He became pope between the age of 18 and 25 and it has been said in numerous reports that he swiftly set about raping and generally engaging in sexually deviant behavior from the moment he rose to power, selling off ecclesiastical lands to fund his immoral lifestyle. Pope John XII was eventually killed by a jealous husband who found the Pope in bed with his wife. This Pope finds himself at number 4 on our list for his sexual deviant behavior and general irresponsibility. Well done, John.
Pope Boniface VIII
Pope Boniface VIII was born Benedetto Caetani and was Pope from 1294 to his death in 1303. He held the first jubilee year in Rome, and declared both spiritual and temporal powers were under the people’s jurisdiction; Kings, he claimed, were beneath the power of the Roman pontiff. Boniface VIII waged wars, sacked cities, and generally collected as much cash as humanly possible. Boniface even appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The author places Boniface in the eighth circle of hell for the crime of selling off ecclesiastical privileges. 16th century French author Francois Rabelais also wrote Boniface into hell in his work “Gargantua and Pantagruel.” He pictures the evil Pope skimming scum from soup bowls. He makes it into our list of evil Popes at the reasonably devilish number 3, with extra points for making it into the pages of two major works of literature.
Pope Urban VI
Pope Urban VI was Pope from 1378 to his death in 1389. He is the last pope to be elected from outside the College of Cardinals, and his reign was marked with tense conflicts between rival factions. Not unknown to have the odd temper tantrum, this pope, in a fit of paranoia, had six cardinals arrested, brutally tortured, and executed. After the ordeal, he complained that the screams of the cardinals were not loud enough.
Whether there was ever a plot against him is unclear. What is clear is that he reigned with an iron fist. This Pope claims the 2nd spot for murdering and torturing six holy men without any remorse. This evil Pope may well have been what we nowadays label a psychopath, belonging in a clinical institution rather than a position of holy power.
Pope Benedict IX
Pope Benedict IX (9) was the youngest of all the Popes, with reports that he was as young as 12 when he took the papal seat, although official records state that Benedict was 20 years old. He was nephew to the previous two Popes, and described in the Catholic Encyclopedia as ‘a disgrace to the chair of Peter.” Pope Victor III said “His life was so vile, so foul, and so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” The young Pope hosted all male orgies and raped men, women, children, and even, some claim – animals.
He eventually sold the papacy to Gregory VI (6) who was to be more of a stable religious figure. Following Gregory VI’s rule, Damasus II was named as the next Pope. This didn’t sit well with Benedict, who had Damasus poisoned, and reclaimed the Papacy for himself. There he remained until his crimes were so immoral and terrible that the Romans could no longer stand the figurehead. They drove him out of Rome. In another strange twist, Benedict was reinstated for a third time despite his horrendous reputation. For these and other sins, Benedict claims the top spot in our evil Pope list.
So, does the behavior of our top ten evil Popes disturb or enlighten you? Should the current pope be included in this list for allegedly covering up sexual abuse at the hands of priests worldwide? Let us know your thoughts in the comments and see more