Pope Clement VII (1523-34)

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Who was Pope Clement VII?

Pope Clement VII was born 1478; died 25 September, 1534. Giulio de' Medici was born a few months after the death of his father, Giuliano, who was slain at Florence in the disturbances which followed the Pazzi conspiracy. Although his parents had not been properly married, they had, it was alleged, been betrothed per sponsalia de presenti, and Giulio, in virtue of a well-known principle of canon law, was subsequently declared legitimate.

The youth was educated by his uncle, Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was made a Knight of Rhodes and Grand Prior of Capua, and, upon the election of his cousin Giovanni de' Medici to the papacy as Leo X, he at once became a person of great consequence. On 28 September, 1513, he was made cardinal, and he had the credit of being the prime mover of the papal policy during the whole of Leo's pontificate. He was one of the most favoured candidates in the protracted conclave which resulted in the election of Adrian VI; neither did the Cardinal de' Medici, in spite of his close connection with the luxurious regime of Leo X, altogether lose influence under his austere successor.

Giulio, in the words of a modern historian, was "learned, clever, respectable and industrious, though he had little enterprise and less decision" (Armstrong, Charles V, I, 166). After Adrian's death (14 September, 1523) the Cardinal de' Medici was eventually chosen pope, 18 November, 1523, and his election was hailed at Rome with enthusiastic rejoicing. But the temper of the Roman people was only one element in the complex problem which Clement VII had to face. The whole political and religious situation was one of extreme delicacy, and it may be doubted if there was one man in ten thousand who would have succeeded by natural tact and human prudence in guiding the Bark of Peter through such tempestuous waters.

Clement was certainly not such a man. He had unfortunately been brought up in all the bad traditions of Italian diplomacy, and over and above this a certain fatal irresolution of character seemed to impel him, when any decision had been arrived at, to hark back upon the course agreed on and to try to make terms with the other side.

The early years of his pontificate were occupied with the negotiations which culminated in the League of Cognac. When Clement was crowned, Francis I and the Emperor Charles V were at war. Charles had supported Clement's candidature and hoped much from his friendship with the Medici, but barely a year had elapsed after his election before the new pope concluded a secret treaty with France. The pitched battle which was fought between Francis and the imperial commanders at Pavia in February, 1525, ending in the defeat and captivity of the French king, put into Charles' hands the means of avenging himself. Still he used his victory with moderation. The terms of the Treaty of Madrid (14 January, 1526) were not really extravagant, but Francis seems to have signed with the deliberate intention of breaking his promises, though confirmed by the most solemn of oaths.

That Clement, instead of accepting Charles' overtures, should have made himself a party to the French king's perfidy and should have organized a league with France, Venice, and Florence, signed at Cognac, 22 May, 1526, must certainly have been regarded by the emperor as almost unpardonable provocation. No doubt Clement was moved by genuine patriotism in his distrust of imperial influence in Italy and especially by anxiety for his native Florence. Moreover, he chafed under dictation which seemed to him to threaten the freedom of the Church. But though he probably feared that the bonds might be drawn tighter, it is hard to see that he had at that time any serious ground of complaint. We cannot be much surprised at what followed. Charles' envoys, obtaining no satisfaction from the pope, allied themselves with the disaffected Colonna who had been raiding the papal territory.

These last pretended reconciliation until the papal commanders were lulled into a sense of security. Then the Colonna made a sudden attack upon Rome and shut up Clement in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo while their followers plundered the Vatican (20 September, 1526). Charles disavowed the action of the Colonna but took advantage of the situation created by their success. A period of vacillation followed. At one time Clement concluded a truce with the emperor, at another he turned again despairingly to the League, at another, under the encouragement of a slight success, he broke off negotiations with the imperial representatives and resumed active hostilities, and then again, still later, he signed a truce with Charles for eight months, promising the immediate payment of an indemnity of 60,000 ducats.

In the mean time the German mercenaries in the north of Italy were fast being reduced to the last extremities for lack of provisions and pay. On hearing of the indemnity of 60,000 ducats they threatened mutiny, and the imperial commissioners extracted from the pope the payment of 100,000 ducats instead of the sum first agreed upon. But the sacrifice was ineffectual. It seems probable that the Landsknechte, a very large proportion of whom were Lutherans, had really got completely out of hand, and that they practically forced the Constable Bourbon, now in supreme command, to lead them against Rome. On the 5th of May they reached the walls, which, owing to the pope's confidence in the truce he had concluded, were almost undefended.

Clement had barely time to take refuge in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, and for eight days the "Sack of Rome" continued amid horrors almost unexampled in the history of war. "The Lutherans", says an impartial authority, "rejoiced to burn and to defile what all the world had adored. Churches were desecrated, women, even the religious, violated, ambassadors pillaged, cardinals put to ransom, ecclesiastical dignitaries and ceremonies made a mockery, and the soldiers fought among themselves for the spoil" (Leathes in "Camb. Mod. History", II, 55). It seems probable that Charles V was really not implicated in the horrors which then took place. Still he had no objection against the pope bearing the full consequences of his shifty diplomacy, and he allowed him to remain a virtual prisoner in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo for more than seven months.

Clement's pliability had already given offence to the other members of the League, and his appeals were not responded to very warmly. Besides this, he was sorely in need of the imperial support both to make head against the Lutherans in Germany and to reinstate the Medici in the government of Florence from which they had been driven out. The combined effect of these various considerations and of the failure of the French attempts upon Naples was to throw Clement into the emperor's arms. After a sojourn in Orvieto and Viterbo, Clement returned to Rome, and there, before the end of July, 1529, terms favourable to the Holy See were definitely arranged with Charles. The seal was set upon the compact by the meeting of the emperor and the pope at Bologna, where, on 24 February, 1530, Charles was solemnly crowned. By whatever motives the pontiff was swayed, this settlement certainly had the effect of restoring to Italy a much-needed peace.


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia