Elected pope of the Catholic Church in times of religious and political turmoil, the reign of Clement VII (1478-1534) was marked by a brutal attack on Rome and the defection of King Henry VIII of England.
Pope Clement VII began his life as Giulio de' Medici on May 26, 1478, in Florence, Italy. He was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de' Medici, of the famed Medici family of Florence, who was murdered about a month before his birth. Historians disagree on who his mother was, and what her relationship was with Giuliano. No matter what her social status was, after the murder, she gave her infant son to Lorenzo de' Medici (known as Lorenzo the Magnificent), the older brother of Giuliano. She would have no role in her son's life.
Lorenzo de' Medici had been injured in the attack (an attempt to overthrow Medici power in Florence) that had killed his brother. Deeply saddened by his brother's death, he raised young Giulio in his household, treated him as his son, and planned a military career for him. The boy was very close to his cousin, Lorenzo's son Giovanni (who later became Pope Leo X). As noted by E.R. Chamberlin in The Bad Popes, "The positive, articulate Giovanni, naturally earned and enjoyed the hero worship of the withdrawn, rather shy Giulio."
Although his uncle had planned a military career for him, Giulio de' Medici was interested in a life in the clergy. Matthew Bunson, author of The Pope Encyclopedia, wrote that his cousin, now Pope Leo X, ignored the tradition of illegitimate men not being able to be serve as bishops. He named his cousin Archbishop of Florence and a Cardinal in 1513.
The future Clement VII was a well-respected man in Rome. Bunson noted that he served as an advisor to both his cousin, Pope Leo X, and to his successor, Pope Adrian VI. He was a patron of literature, culture, and the arts, and was an admirer of Michelangelo. In 1519, when his uncle, Lorenzo de' Medici died, he was sent to oversee Florence.
In his book Saints and Sinners-A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy noted that the future pope was a well-regarded diplomat. As a cardinal, he was a supporter of Emperor Charles against the French, and took the lead in arranging an alliance between Pope Leo X and Charles. However, in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, J.N.D. Kelly added that he was "narrow in outlook and interests" and "acted mainly as an Italian prince and a Medici."
In the fall of 1523, the unpopular Pope Adrian VI (who was Dutch, and the only non-Italian pope until John Paul II was elected in 1978) died. Chamberlin commented that there was a great deal of political maneuvering to see who would be the next pope. Time dragged on, and the conclave of cardinals failed to elect a successor. The Roman citizens complained and the cardinals grew frustrated.
After almost 50 days, Chamberlin wrote that the cardinals were switched to a diet of just bread and water. This prompted more political maneuvering, which resulted in Giulio de' Medici's election as pope on November 19, 1523. He took Clement as his papal name. Bunson wrote that people expected that he would be a great pope and leader, as he had been a highly regarded advisor to the two previous popes. Unfortunately, as Pope Clement VII, he would prove to be unequal to the task.
In his book, Duffy described Pope Clement VII as a "Renaissance aristocrat … universally respected … immensely hard-working and efficient … pious … and free of sexual scandal." However, the changing climate of Europe challenged Clement. Duffy added that "the nations of Europe increasingly went their own way." These countries were led by "assertive monarchs … powerful rulers such as Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Charles V of Spain." Bunson recalled that although Clement VII was genuinely concerned with the state of his Church, he was easily distracted, and was indecisive. Chamberlin added, "Clement's inability to inspire loyalty was as nothing compared with his main defect: his inability to make up his mind." This indecisiveness would lead to major problems in his reign.
During his reign as pontiff, Clement switched allegiance between King Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V, several times. Duffy wrote that to a point, his indecisiveness was understandable. Even though Charles was a more devout Catholic than Francis, he was also a bigger threat. Duffy called Charles was "the most powerful man in Europe," as he controlled Spain, Naples, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and the Spanish New World. Chamberlin added that ultimately, Clement owed his election as pope to the support of Charles. Clement's cousin, Pope Leo X, had some success at controlling Charles and Francis, usually by threatening one with the other. Chamberlin noted that Clement would proclaim to be neutral, but did not play the game as well as his cousin had.
In the fall of 1524, Chamberlin wrote, two armies were converging on Milan. Francis came from the north, and soldiers loyal to Charles came from the southwest. Francis ended up with control of the city, and Clement made a treaty with him. Chamberlin recounted that the treaty included protection of the Church as well as Medici rule in Florence. In return, Clement recognized Francis as the duke of Milan, and allowed the French army to pass through to attack the Spaniards in Naples.
In the next major battle, however, the French failed. Chamberlin wrote, "The French army was destroyed, the king was taken captive, and the balance of power in Italy-in all Europe-tilted toward the emperor." Rome was vulnerable to an attack, and many blamed Clement for this. However, rather than destroying Rome, Charles proposed a treaty. Chamberlin recounted that Charles believed that "the pope must have learned his lesson." They signed a treaty on April 1, 1525, just three months after Clement had signed the treaty with Francis. Chamberlin noted that Charles was now given control of Milan, agreed to protect the States of the Church, and promised that Florence would remain under Medici control, for a price.
The king of France was a prisoner for a year before Charles offered him a deal for his release. Francis took it, but did not intend to keep his word. Once again switching his allegiance, Chamberlin noted that Clement met with Francis on May 22, 1526, and the Treaty of Cognac was signed. Chamberlin called it "an alliance consisting of the Papacy, Venice, Milan, and France, directed against Emperor Charles." This alliance would prove to be a disaster for Clement. On September 20, 1526, raiders, led by Cardinal Colonna, one of Clement's rivals during the conclave and a supporter of Charles, invaded Rome. The next day, the panic-stricken Clement VII signed yet another treaty with Charles. Chamberlin noted that the pope agreed to pardon Cardinal Colonna for his actions, and to abandon his allies. The raiders withdrew and Rome was relieved. However, peace would not last.
Several things led up to the sack of Rome. Duffy noted that Cardinal Colonna wanted to overthrow Clement and become pope. There was also a rebellion in Florence. In Rome, families were taking sides and fighting each other. Protestantism was also growing across Europe. As noted by Duffy, the renegade French duke, Charles of Bourbon was pushing his army south, hoping to gain control of central Italy. He planned to attack Florence, but because of the rebellion, the Florentines were angry and prepared to do battle with anyone. Bourbon decided to bypass Florence and pushed his army, made up of angry German, Spanish, and even Italian soldiers, towards Rome.
Early on the morning of May 6, 1527, the soldiers attacked Rome. Their leader, Bourbon, was killed early in the battle. Chaos and destruction followed. As Bunson noted, Clement barely survived the attack. The Swiss Guard gave their lives to save him. He made it to the safety of the Castel Sant' Angelo. As noted on the New Advent website, from the Castel, Clement "had to listen to the agonized screams of his poor flock" and watch as "the glory of Renaissance Rome was extinguished in blood." He would remain a prisoner there until December.
As noted by Duffy, Rome was being desecrated and destroyed. Horses were stabled in St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The soldiers got drunk and paraded around Rome in cardinal and papal robes. They also stood under the Castel Sant' Angelo and threatened to eat Clement. Chamberlin added that priests were tortured to death, and nuns were raped and killed. "The German taste inclined toward drunkenness rather than cruelty," but they also "excelled at religious desecration." He noted that the Spaniards and some of the Italians would take everything from a victim, before sending him to a cruel death. Summer came. With thousands of bodies all over the city, the stench was awful and a plague started. Chamberlin noted that in June, Clement signed a treaty that put him at the mercy of Charles. He remained a prisoner in Castel Sant' Angelo.
The people of Europe were shocked by the events in Rome. Chamberlin noted that Charles was also horrified by the destruction in Rome, and was debating what to do with Clement and the papacy. Clement, for his part, lived away from Rome over the next two years. Eventually, he made an uneasy peace with Charles, and crowned him as Holy Roman Emperor in 1530. It was the last papal coronation of an emperor. Duffy added that in return, papal states were returned to the Pope, Florence was returned to Medici rule, and Clement finally returned to Rome.
Rome lay in destruction. Duffy noted that it would take years for the city to recover. The population had dwindled, the artists had fled, and building and growth had stopped. There was also a spiritual change in the air. The Reformation was no longer a rumor from Germany. Protestant teachings now spread west to the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Italy.
While Clement and Rome were being attacked, England was firmly on the side of the Catholic Church. England's king, Henry VIII, wrote an attack on Luther's teachings. That support disappeared when Henry wanted to be rid of his first wife. He intended to marry another woman, in the hopes of having a son and heir to the throne. Thus began, as Antonia Fraser noted in The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, the "king's great matter."
The marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon had been an attempt to unite Spain and England. His wife was the widow of his elder brother, which was prohibited by Church law. Duffy noted that Henry had gotten papal dispensation from Pope Julius II so that they could marry. Citing conflicting biblical text (and the lack of a son), Henry asked for an annulment of this "sinful" union.
In the past, Duffy noted, men with less to stand on had such rulings go in their favor. However, there was a major complication: Catherine of Aragon was the aunt of Emperor Charles. As Fraser wrote, the sack of Rome in 1527 "made Pope Clement VII a puppet of Charles V, who would never consent to his aunt being cast aside." Clement resisted making a decision for quite a while, and finally refused to grant the king's request. Henry then broke away from the Catholic Church, and started the Church of England.
Clement was blamed for the defection of England. However, as the Catholic Community Forum website, stated that "later canon lawyers maintain that, whether he was influenced by Charles V or not, Clement followed the only course possible on legal grounds." In the meantime, Bunson noted, Protestantism was sweeping across Europe, and Clement failed to reform the Church, which was what his fellow Catholic leaders wanted.
Later in life, Clement did have two small triumphs. Emperor Charles agreed to allow Clement's ward and great niece, Catherine de' Medici, to marry the son of the king of France. Clement traveled to France and performed the wedding in October of 1533. She would eventually become queen of France. Charles also agreed to allow his daughter to marry Clement's nephew (some say his son). A few months after his niece's marriage, Clement became ill and never recovered. He died on September 25, 1534, hated by the people of Rome, who never forgave him for the destruction of 1527. Three weeks after his death, his rival, Alessandro Farnese, became Pope Paul III.
In general, historians have not been kind to Pope Clement VII. He is remembered because of the historical events that happened during his papal reign, not because of his accomplishments. Duffy simply called him "a disastrous pope." Chamberlin however, did give him some minimal credit, writing "where Medici interests were at stake, Clement proved himself a statesman of the first rank."
Bunson, Matthew, The Pope Encyclopedia, Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1995.
Chamberlin, E.R., The Bad Popes, Dorset Press, 1986.
Duffy, Eamon, Saints and Sinners-A History of the Popes, Yale University Press in association with S4C, 1997.
Kelly, J.N.D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press, 1991.
The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Edited by Antonia Fraser, University of California Press, 1995.
Walsh, Michael, An Illustrated History of The Popes-Saint Peter to John Paul II, St. Martin's Press, 1980.
"Patron Saints Index: Pope Clement VII," Catholic Community Forum website, http://www.catholic-forum.com(November 18, 2000).
"Popes Through the Ages: Pope Clement VII," New Advent website, http://www.newadvent.org/Popes/ppc107.htm(November 18, 2000). □
Learn more about Clement VII