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Historia Ecclesiastica

A Good Word For Alexander VI

On the (unfairly?) maligned pontiff.


In the whole of recorded history, has there ever been a more infamous figure than Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, the most extravagantly wicked of all the wicked Borgias, indeed surely the ultimate champion of depravity?

This should not have the appearance of an extravagant question. Open any standard history or book of reference, including those written by Catholics, and you will find the same generally accepted picture, summarized as well as anyone else by one of his countless biographers, Orestes Ferrara, who tells us on the first page of his great work:

For public life, the word Borgia calls up a vision of poison and dagger, of malevolent cunning, incest, fratricide, perfidy unlimited; and for the Church, simony, nepotism, utter want of belief, something very close to atheism. In common opinion, the comparatively short period in which Pope Alexander occupied the throne of Peter was a time of abomination so immeasurable that other ages, no matter how notorious their infamy, can only approach and never equal it.

Alexander, we are told by Ferrara and countless others, led a life of constant debauchery. Using his great wealth, he bought the office of pope; he murdered many of the cardinals who were his former colleagues, killed others besides—even stabbing a boy aged twelve years old to death—and seized the money of all his victims. He practiced nepotism on a huge scale, kept a harem, flaunted his many concubines, entertaining some twenty five women in the Vatican every evening, and on one notable occasion assaulted a married woman. He and his scarcely less wicked son, César Borgia, committed incest with the same woman, his daughter and César’s sister, the unspeakable Lucretia Borgia. He destroyed the peace of Europe, invited the conquest of Italy by barbarians, robbed princes of their towns, castles, and houses, and stole money and other goods from the Church. He died after committing suicide by poison. Thus was the life of the two-hundred fourteenth occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter, the Vicar of Christ possessing the God-given authority to teach and to govern the Catholic faithful. No wonder he is the frequent subject of films and television spectaculars.

Between ourselves, good readers (I am hoping the editor will blink when he comes to this sentence and let it through!)—historical writers, like journalists, are sometimes prone to exaggeration. But the breadth and variety of his crimes and vices make exaggeration in the case of a villain of world-historic proportions such as Alexander VI impossible even before we measure his life against his solemn responsibility, inherent in the Petrine Office, of giving the best possible example of the virtues relevant to princes.

What, however, if the picture of this pontiff given to us by most historians is not all of it true? What, more to the point, if it is entirely false? It is a more serious question than you might think. Even historians are not unanimous on the question. I must now give you some more of Orestes Ferrara, who, unusually among those who have written about this pope, made extensive first-hand research. Here is the passage that immediately follows the one I have just quoted:

It is quite certain that the palpitating story that now occupies the general mind is a sheer invention. What passes for the history of the Borgias is a legend, in part invented by contemporaries and in part added by later authors. . . . To make it plausible it has been necessary little by little to add imaginary acts to real acts, then to alter proportions, to turn guesses into realities, and finally, with the aid of distance, to transform the whole thing into a piece of drama. The history of Alexander VI as it has reached us is a tissue of inaccuracies, extraordinarily easy to disprove the moment recourse is had to contemporary documents in a spirit of sane criticism.

Accusation after accusation collapses, not only for want of proof, but still more because it was evidently impossible for him to have committed the crime in question!

Despite his words—“extraordinarily easy to disprove” and “evidently impossible for him to have committed the crime in question”—in relation to many of the accusations, Ferrara was far from uncritical of Alexander VI. Another writer whom any conscientious investigator should consult is the American, Monsignor Peter De Roo, acclaimed in his day as an important historian.

Having noticed anomalies in the accepted view of Alexander VI, De Roo devoted years of painstaking labor to consulting authentic contemporary documents, not failing to note, amongst other indisputable evidence, when eyewitnesses to his supposed crimes could not have failed to mention others of his crimes if they had really happened, and yet did not do so. (This, of course, might only mean that one falsifier was not aware of what was being alleged, or to be alleged, by other falsifiers.) From these researches—more than two-thousand five-hundred pages’ worth in total—came his Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives and His Time, published in New York in 1924.

Let me guess. You haven’t read it? You are not alone. It has never been available in English bookshops, and, when I first consulted the British Library copy, its pages were still uncut.

What a pity. For in these unread volumes De Roo concluded that Alexander worked effectively in his capacity as head of the Church, that he made strenuous efforts to carry out such reforms of the clergy as were needed at the time, that he labored constantly to save Europe from destructive attacks by the Turks, and made great personal sacrifices in doing so. He demonstrates that in his dealings with princes and subjects of the Papal States, the pope, who had the gravest reasons to act firmly against the kings of France and Naples, he was both generous and merciful, acting always in accordance with justice and duty. Moreover, he was all his life a man of excellent moral character in every way, and a truly great pope.

Of course, De Roo does not have to be right. But he does not have to be wrong either. Even in our present democratic age, facts that are definite facts are not decided by majority vote, nor even by virtually unanimous vote. Indeed, if anything, a lone voice is more likely to be right than wrong in such a matter, no matter how many and eminent are the historians opposed to him, provided that he has adequate qualifications for his task and there is no need to suspect his motives.

I bring to your attention a famous detective novel about the murder of a businessman, Whose Body, by Dorothy Sayers. At the inquest Sir Julian Freke, a senior and well-known surgeon, says that the deceased was killed recently by a blow to the head; with the utmost reluctance, Dr. Grimbold, a less eminent physician, insists that the man must have died several days after receiving the blow. Naturally Grimbold would only disagree with a respected surgeon when the truth was so elementary and obvious. We ultimately discover that the surgeon is himself the murderer.

By analogy, De Roo is unlikely to have devoted so many years to research and writing absent the well-judged conviction that he was right. He was never going to profit financially from publication (nor did he). And the credibility of the Church was not at stake either way—it has never been a claim of the Church that popes cannot disgrace their office.

Not that this proves that De Roo is right. But was he, especially in his contention about Alexander’s excellent moral character? I maintain that, on the basis of the evidence accumulated in his five volumes, his conclusion is completely inescapable, beyond any possibility of doubt.

To pass on to you the contents of six volumes is not the easiest of tasks. But I can say that according to the actual historical evidence compiled by Monsignor De Roo, Pope Alexander VI was loved by all who knew him: by the popes whom he served before becoming pope himself, by cardinals, by officials of the Roman court, and by the common people of his city. He was very generous and charitable towards the poor and the sick. He was responsible for a massive promotion of learning, including the rebuilding of the Roman University and the establishment and favoring of several other universities. He restored several churches, improved the Vatican Palace, and rebuilt the castle of Sant’Angelo. He improved the streets and aqueducts of Rome and repaired all the city walls, gates, and several bridges. He also restored the fountains of Rome.

What about the famous Line of Demarcation by which, as every schoolchild knows (or used to know), he arbitrarily gave half of South America to Spain and the other half to Portugal? This story is based upon a misunderstanding of one the basic functions of papal bulls. All Alexander did was to confirm existing arrangements, which Spain and Portugal would not have regarded as binding unless confirmed by the pope. That was the custom in those days: a bull used for such a purpose was rather like a modern patent protecting the inventor. And the most important result of the line—peace between the two halves of South America ever since—can hardly be said to have been a misfortune in itself.

On the subject of robbery and murder, it is surely sufficient to say that not a single contemporary writer who is considered reliable attributed to him any unbecoming deed whatever, whether as a young man, as a cardinal, or as pope. This includes simony. We are accustomed to hear that Alexander VI bought and sold offices and influence in the Church, indeed, the papacy itself. It is often impossible to prove a negative, but it is easy enough in this case. His election as pope was, rather unusually, unanimous. Twenty-three cardinals voted, twenty-two of them for Cardinal Borgia. The only dissenting voter was Borgia himself. These exceptional circumstances were known and remarked upon throughout Christendom, as even his later enemies acknowledge.

One of the many misunderstandings De Roo clears up is that Alexander was at no point in his life a rich man. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that he had been one: can we really imagine that the entire College of Cardinals viewed the conclave as an open marketplace, that corruption was so widespread that the vote of every single member was for sale? Believe that if you will. But even among Alexander’s severest critics, you will find no historian who suggests that such a thing ever took place, or could have. Moreover, as is also widely admitted, his election was welcomed with unprecedented enthusiasm, with sumptuous feasts and rejoicings everywhere. This is, unsurprisingly, what we should expect if by reputation, on the basis of his achievements until that point, he was commonly regarded as very much the right man for the Chair.

What about sins of the flesh? De Roo’s exhaustive research uncovers no mention of any such crimes or scandals in contemporary dispatches. The best that can be said for the two women who are commonly named as his concubines, the so-called Spanish and Roman Vanozzas, is that at least the Spanish one actually existed. She was the wife of his nephew, William Raymond Borgia. Nowhere in the writings of any of the contemporaries of Alexander VI, or in the writings of later historians of his family, is there any mention of any actual occasion of his being seen in her company, or of his having spoken to her, met her, or even looked at her.

As for his openly acknowledged children, among whom the monstrous César and Lucretia are much the best known, none of them was heard of in Italy until 1488. They were all born in Spain, at dates that make it impossible for Roderigo Borgia to have fathered them. In reality, they appear to have been the children of his nephew, William Raymond. The only evidence that Pope Alexander was their real father is that he often used expressions such as “my sons” and “my daughters” in correspondence with them. On occasion, he would address Lucretia in letters as “Our dearest daughter in Christ”. He used a similar expression—“Our beloved daughter”—when he addressed Queen Elizabeth of Spain, and far as I am aware no family relationship has been alleged to have existed between the pope, and the latter. Likewise, while he certainly called César and Giovanni, another nephew, his “favorite sons,” he employed identical words in his correspondence with the Emperor Maximilian, and indeed with all Christians with whom he had any correspondence. As for Lucretia and César themselves, they seem to have been persons, as De Roo shows us, of widely acknowledged and admired virtue. Finally, it is worth noting that so far from having possibly committed suicide, the particular circumstances of Alexander’s final illness and exemplary death are very well established. The pope died naturally of fever on August 18, 1503.

I shall pass over countless other charges (save that of nepotism, which I have reason to consider below), other than to say that De Roo gives completely satisfactory answers to all of them. A more interesting question is: why? Why has Alexander been libeled to such an extraordinary degree, surely without precedent in the whole of history?

One factor is almost certainly that Rodrigo Borgia was not Italian, but a Spaniard. Spaniards were consistently hated by the Italian nobility, and his contemporaries among the Italian nobility must have hated him all the more when those Italians on whom he had bestowed important offices in the Church (but who turned out to have had their own non-spiritual agendas) consistently betrayed him, to which he responded by giving those offices to fellow-Spaniards, including members of his own family, since these were the only people whom he could trust. A much more important reason for the character assassination of him, though, is that he consistently followed, without compromise, his conscience as a statesman; he did this irrespective of the strength of the local vested interests, which the interests of the Church required him to trample upon. How he did so—consistently, with his duties to Christ and the poor constantly before his eyes—is shown very clearly and ably in De Roo’s six volumes, which I wish I could say were available in your local library. Perhaps some enterprising Catholic publisher could make them available again. Until then, one can only regret the calumnies visited upon poor Alexander VI.

Do I mean poor? Only up to a point, I suggest. My readers may recall those words of the eighth and final Beatitude, recorded in the fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Blessed are you when they shall revile you and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, for My sake. Be glad and rejoice; for your reward is very great in Heaven.”

N.M. Gwynne is the author of Gwynne’s Latin and Gwynne’s Grammar.

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