The papacy is an ancient institution that’s charged with leading and guiding the worldwide Christian population in their spiritual lives. Today, we view the pope as a figurehead whose power comes from his ability to influence the direction of Christianity, and therefore the direction and viewpoints of large swaths of the 2.2 billion Christians on earth. The pope – currently the Argentinian-born Pope Francis – wields power through symbolism and the historical importance of the papacy. However, things weren’t always this way.
Following the spread of Christianity throughout the western world after the death of Christ, the papacy became increasingly powerful. Once the various rulers and monarchs of Europe and the Middle-East began to convert to Christianity, the pope enjoyed a sort of de facto control over the numerous newly-converted Christian kingdoms. The east-west schism that began in 1053 effectively split Christianity in two, with the Pope becoming the figurehead of the newly created catholic sect of Christianity based in western Europe and those in the east who formed the orthodox Christian religion turning their back on the papacy.
Throughout most of the next 1,000 years, it was the catholic pope who controlled and influenced much of the secular and political activities of western Europe, which was quickly establishing itself as the most powerful group of states on Earth. As the pope had so much influence throughout the region, whoever found himself to be pope at the time was for all intents and purposes the most powerful man on the planet.
Naturally, power attracts corruption, and the popes of old weren’t all mercy and humility. Some of history’s many popes gained their power through political manipulation, corruption, or outright murder. As much as the catholic church of today would rather we forget, the history of the papal seat is riddled with war and blood – a far cry from the relatively benign presence of today’s pope. Frankly, the popes of history are far more entertaining than the ones of today, and these ones were the darkest, most malicious popes to hold the throne.
#8 Pope Sergius III
Not a whole lot is known about Sergius III as his papacy was right in the middle of the Dark Ages. He ascended to the throne in 904 and ruled for 7 years until 911, but he did enough to develop a pretty bad reputation in the meantime. He allegedly orchestrated the murder of his predecessor Leo V from prison and had a child with a mistress that would grow up to be Pope John IX. He also participated as a co-judge in the Cadaver Synod – which we’ll get into shortly – a posthumous trial of the late pope Formosus that is easily the most insane moment in the history of the papacy. He came from a family of Roman nobility and exercised his power to strengthen the Roman noble class. His main concerns during his reign were his power and sex life, with other papal responsibilities set by the wayside.
#7 Pope Julius III
The papacy of Pope Julius III began in 1550 and would be a relatively brief affair, coming to an end upon his death in 1555. At the beginning of his brief reign, Julius seemed determined to push through church reforms that he felt were important, but he quickly grew tired of papal affairs and spent the bulk of his time relaxing and pursuing simple pleasures – like picking up a teenage boy off the street and making him his lover. Julius III was so smitten with this boy, Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, that he ended up making him his adopted nephew and promoted him to cardinal while he was still an adolescent, bringing the concept of the ‘creepy uncle’ to an entirely new level that has yet to be equaled in history. The Innocenzo scandal outraged the other cardinals so much that in time it has become the defining feature of his entire papal reign. It’s not like this was entirely out of left field either – the guy asked Michelangelo to decorate his home with sculptures of young boys having sex with each other. Discretion wasn’t his forte.
#6 Pope Paul III
Paul III was actually Julius III’s immediate predecessor and his reign had significantly less child rape, but what he lacked in creepiness he made up for in general ruthlessness and corruption. Paul III allegedly murdered his mother and his niece to inherit the family fortune prior to becoming Pope and was quick to execute anyone who annoyed him by strangulation and then immolation – you know, just in case. On one hand he did come out strong against enslavement of native Americans in the New World, but on the other hand, his most famous lover was his daughter Constanza Farnese. He was also totally anti-corruption, bringing about ruthless penalties for church members who were caught lining their pockets – but he also took a cut of the profits of Rome’s 45,000 prostitutes. He was a complicated man, to say the least.
#5 Pope Urban II
Pope Urban II took no children as lovers and was relatively light on the corruption compared to some of his contemporaries, but he one-upped most of them thanks to his burning desire to initiate the First Crusade, the first of many conflicts between Christianity and Islam whose ramifications still echo today. Urban II decreed that: “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 them through the power of God with which I am invested.” By giving every murderer, rapist and thief a last ditch chance at entering the kingdom of God, he guaranteed a sizeable army that would be ready and willing to invade the holy land. Urban II apparently had some serious oratory skills, since he managed to convince the entire Council of Clermont to sign off on the First Crusade in 1095 with a speech that ended with the entire room on their feet screaming “God wills it!”
#4 Pope Benedict IX
In 1032 Benedict IX became the youngest pope to ever take the papal seat, with some accounts stating he was only 11 or 12 years old at the time of his promotion to the papacy, although official records state he was closer to 20. Instead of opting for the role of merciful child-ruler, Benedict IX modelled himself more after Game of Thrones’ Joffrey Baratheon – in other words, he was a kind of a dick. Later Popes such as Victor III described his reign so: “His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” Considering his competition, that says quite a bit. He was said to have hosted all-male orgies in the Lateran palace and freely raped men, women, children and animals. Benedict IX also holds the distinction of being the only man to sell the papacy, which he later regretted and took back by force. He later abdicated the papacy and was excommunicated, dying as a normal – but unreasonably rich – man.
#3 Pope Stephen VI
Stephen VI wasn’t set on living a life of debauchery like his contemporaries, but the guy definitely knew how to hold a grudge. When he rose to power he had the remains of his predecessor Formosus exhumed so that the corpse could stand trial. Yes, you read that correctly. The whole ordeal became known as the Cadaver Synod, and it was easily the strangest episode in papal history. Stephen VI made Formosus’s corpse stand trial and answer for his ‘crimes’, which were mostly just decrees and actions that Stephen VI had disagreed with while Formosus was alive. The corpse was placed on a throne and dressed in the garments of a corpse, and when the guilty verdict was reached the body was beheaded and cast into the Tiber river. Stephen VI also made all of Formosus’s decrees effectively null and void, making it as if he had never ruled. The Cadaver Synod raised such an uproar that Stephen VI himself was strangled to death a month after its completion – but at least he showed Formosus who the boss was.
#2 Pope John XII
Lots of popes got their freak on in the Vatican – which is insane considering that officially they were all celibate – but John XII may have embraced his libido more than any of his contemporaries. He became pope at only 18 years old, and immediately developed a reputation for rape and deviant sexual activity. He allegedly raped his two sisters regularly, ordained a 10-year-old as bishop (because why not?), refused to make the sign of the cross and invoked pagan gods when gambling. He also took particular enjoyment in having sex around the Vatican’s most holy sites, such as the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. When not getting his freak on, he enjoyed arbitrarily torturing and castrating cardinals. His 9-year reign began in 955 and ended in 964 after he was murdered by a jealous husband who caught the pope in bed with his wife, which, to be honest, is probably how he wanted to go out.
#1 Pope Alexander VI
Alexander VI was so un-Christ-like that there’s an entire modern television drama dedicated to the antics of him and his family. You may know him by his family name – Rodrigo Borgia. The Borgia’s were a wealthy merchant family that effectively bought their way into Rodrigo becoming pope in 1492. Once installed as pope, the good times began to roll for the Borgia family. Alexander VI hosted the most elaborate orgies the Vatican had ever seen; 50 prostitutes crammed into a single hall where the pope and members of his clergy ran wild on them. He assigned some clergymen to abstain from the celebratory orgy, but to instead watch over the debauchery and keep track of the amount of orgasms each clergyman achieved, as he believed virility was a sign of strength and he wanted to keep statistics on his entourage. He would marry off his daughter Lucrezia to rich merchants, then declare the marriage null and void – he was the pope after all – and absorb all of their money. Alexander VI and his family effectively pillaged the upper class of Rome, stealing their fortunes and killing their opposition at will. His 11-year papacy came to an end in 1503, when one of the many assassins hired to kill him finally succeeded in their attempts. He was poisoned and died slowly over the next few days at the age of 72.