Roderic Borgia

CODEX Entry 5300: Roderic Borgia


In 797, Constantine VI, Roman Emperor in Constantinople, was blinded, deposed, imprisoned and replaced by his mother Irene. This coincided with a unification of western Europe by King Charlemagne of the Franks. Charlemagne had ousted the Lombards from the papal lands earning the church of Rome’s gratitude. When an attempt was made by the previous pope’s family on Pope Leo III’s life, Charlemagne’s agents protected him. In thanks, and to cement his protection, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800, as successor to the usurped Constantine VI in Constantinople. This act shrewdly traded the coronation with meaningful local military protection, and established the precedent that no man would be emperor without being crowned by a pope. The Pope could also excommunicate a king, declare his office void, or withhold his blessing to a royal marriage contract. Until 1059, the Pope was therefore nominated by the Western Roman Emperor, or would be elected by Rome’s nobles who, in turn, sent their written obeisance to the Emperor with the announcement of their choice. But on the death of Roman Emperor Henry III, the Salian monarchy lost control of the papal office. With the failure of either the Western or Eastern Emperors to support Rome against Norman invaders, the Church in Rome established the conclave of cardinals as the organisation which, from now on, would choose the Pope.

However the peddling of influence was simply inflamed rather than snuffed out. These cardinals’ votes could be bought by Kings. Pope’s would often replace dead cardinals with their relatives or sell the position to the highest bidder. When Pope’s wanted to raise cash they even created entirely new cardinal positions. The abuses of this practise had seen the Popedom split first into two, with a pope based in Avignon, supported by the french and spanish kings; and a Roman pope backed by the Italian’s and the English (a vote purchased by the Medicis); and then with a third pope in Pisa backed by the German princes. With the principle of the single Pope as St Peter’s heir laid bare by this latest schism, the church began to lose control of the narrative. John Wycliffe had translated the Latin Bible into english, and criticized the wealth of clerics. Dissent was wrife amongst the clerics and congregations across Europe. In 1418, and in the face of declining revenues, the Church leaders gathered at the Council of Constance, agreeing a single new candidate, Martin V, and proclaiming followers of the late Wycliffe heretics, burning Hus and Jerome, his most famous proponents, at the stake. Martin V was replaced by Eugene IV.

Rodrigo de Borja (Italianized to Borgia), had adopted his mother’s family name of Borja in 1455 at the age of 24, to leverage the election of his maternal uncle Alonso de Borja who replaced Eugene IV as Pope Calixtus III. His uncle had spent 36 years in the employment of Alfonso V, the spanish King of Aragon. Calixtus’ election reflected the loss of the Kingdom of Naples by Pope Eugene IV to Alfonso V in 1443. The Kingdom of Naples included the whole of Southern Italy, now sharing borders with the weakened Papal States. The election of the first spanish Pope reflected this shift in Italian power politics, with half the country now in Spanish possession. The concession of the papal role appeared a small price for the Roman nobles to avoid outright invasion.

Giving up his legal profession Rodrigo de Borja became a deacon and, within months, was promoted to Cardinal-Deacon of San Nicola in Carcere, a lucrative diocese. The next year he was fast tracked to vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, the most financially advantageous position of all. After the death of his uncle, Roderic studiously navigated the politics and business of the Church, holding on to the vice-chancellorship.

By the time of Rodrigo’s election, on his third attempt, at the age of 61, of the twenty-seven voting cardinals, there were ten cardinal-nephews, eight crown nominees, and four Roman nobles. One cardinalship had been traded for a debt to the Medici’s, who had placed the 16 year old Giovanni de’ Medici in the role. This left just four cardinal positions in the hands of career churchmen. For a sense of the costs of the campaign, in upfront bribes, excluding horse trading of lucrative diocese, the candidate who came third, Rovere, was bankrolled by the Kings of France and the Genoa, having lost territory to the Spanish, with the equivalent of US$60 million in today’s money. These financial manoeuvres were the norm.

After the first round of voting, Borgia received just six of the twenty seven votes. Borgia was accused of being a whore with a supporting letter confirming his attendance of an orgy, and Rodrigo’s support dropped to five in the next round. Further screaming arguments on the letter saw his vote drop to four. Where money was not enough, Borgia offered his precious position of Vice-Chancellor as well. As the voting extended into the third day the overweight, high-living cardinals struggled with the one meal a day offered in the conclave. Borgia smuggled in a great feast. He promised church lands, churches, and business revenues to a range of cardinals. He even promised to banish his children so that they would not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medicis. Borgia promises him that, if he became pope, he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increased to ten. One of the losing cardinals sent a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that force would persuade the cardinals in his favor. As a battle got underway outside, the cardinals negotiated in earnest. The cardinal who summoned the army apologized for his mistake, and asked his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent. He accused Borgia of not being a Catholic, but a converted Spanish Jew. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally had increased to 12 and his French backed opponent to 13. The one who reached 14 votes would win. In Borgia’s case, in the dangerous environment, he knew he would have to flee to Spain. In the final act, he negotiated directly with his competitor. As bribery and flattery failed, Borgia produced a document which alleged that the opponent’s family had Muslim blood. His opponent finally agreed to accept the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal was closed. It is worth noting that the political maneuvering during the election of the pope has not gone away. As late as the 1903 papal election, the candidate Mariano Ravallo, with the most votes, was vetoed by Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph I.

Rodrigo had been very late in entering the priesthood, and continued to have many lovers. Described as handsome, cheerful, and eloquent, women were attracted to him like ‘iron is drawn to a magnet’. He also had many children, four of which he had with the married Giovanna dei Cattanei, and which he openly recognised. His eldest son, Cesare was made Archbishop of Valencia, the richest bishopric in Spain, at the absurd age of 17. And, just a year later, one of the twelve new cardinals, along with another to the brother of one of his mistresses. For his second son, Giovanni, he traded papal lands for marriage to the daughter of the Duke of Gandia, on the Valencia coast. For his third, Gioffre, he made peace with Naples in return for a marriage to a granddaughter of Ferdinand I. Rodrigo took every opportunity to horse trade financial benefits for his family between the two sides in the war over the Kingdom of Naples.

It is believed that Rodrigo was poisoned, dying suddenly in pain after a meal from which his son Cesares also suffered severe illness. Leo X took great pains to dismantle the Borgia network of wealth and power on being elected Pope shortly afterwards.