The Tale of Benedict IX: A Papacy for Sale

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History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages by Ferdinand Gregorovius
History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages by Ferdinand Gregorovius

POPE BENEDICT IX

Early Life and Rise to Papacy

Pope Benedict IX, born Theophylactus of Tusculum in Rome around 1012, served as the bishop of Rome and the ruler of the Papal States in three distinct periods from October 1032 to July 1048. Remarkably young, he ascended to the papacy at about 20 years old, making him one of history’s youngest popes. Uniquely, he is the only individual to have held the position of Pope multiple times and the sole person accused of selling the papacy.

Controversial Papacy and Family Connections

Benedict, nephew of his predecessor John XIX, became Pope in October 1032 through his father’s use of bribery. His governance, marked by widely criticized behavior, sparked a Roman revolt, leading to his expulsion from Rome. Sylvester III was then elected in his place. However, Benedict, with support, ousted Sylvester III months later. He resigned after that, agreeing to cede his position to his godfather, Gregory VI, for a reimbursement of his expenses.

Conflict and Resolution

Later, Benedict reconsidered his decision, returned to Rome, and sought to remove Gregory VI. This instability prompted several leading clergymen to appeal to Henry III, King of the Romans, for intervention. Henry crossed the Brenner Pass into Italy and convened the Council of Sutri to address the chaos. The council resulted in the deposition of Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI. Subsequently, in December 1046, Henry ensured the election of Clement II as Pope.

Early Life and Family Connections

Benedict IX, born to Count Alberic III of Tusculum, was deeply embedded in the papal lineage. He was the nephew of Pope Benedict VIII and John XIX, the grandnephew of Pope John XII, and the great-grandnephew of John XI. Further extending his ecclesiastical lineage, he was the first cousin twice removed of Benedict VII and possibly had distant ties to Sergius III.

Path to Pontificate

His ascension to the papacy was orchestrated by his father, who secured the papal seat for him through substantial bribes to Roman officials. Historian Horace K. Mann notes that Benedict IX was around twenty years old when he assumed the papal role in October 1032. However, there are conflicting accounts about his age. Some sources suggest he was as young as 11 or 12, based on the unverified accounts of Rupert Glaber, a monk from St. Germanus in Auxerre.

SCANDALS, CONTROVERSIES, AND A RESIGNED PAPACY

First Pontificate (1032–1044): Scandal and Controversy

Benedict IX’s first reign was marred by scandal and ongoing factional strife. Ferdinand Gregorovius described him as a demonic figure in priestly garb, occupying St. Peter’s chair and desecrating sacred religious practices with his insolent behavior. Horace K. Mann labeled him a disgrace to the papacy. Notably, he was the first pope rumored to be predominantly homosexual. Pope Victor III, in his Dialogues, vividly recounts Benedict’s heinous acts, including rapes, murders, and acts of sodomy, describing his papal life as exceedingly vile and repugnant.

Accusations and Political Context

Reginald Lane Poole noted the era’s intense political hostility, where accusations often stemmed from political motives rather than solid proof, particularly against the backdrop of Tusculan dominance. He pointed out that allegations of Benedict’s misdeeds gained traction only after his controversial sale of the papacy, with his reputation worsening over time and distance. Poole acknowledged Benedict as a likely negligent and profligate pope but also recognized the biased context in which these accounts were written, as they originated from a time when Benedict’s adversaries were in power and he lacked any support.

Exile and Return (1036–1044)

In 1036, Benedict IX was briefly ousted from Rome, only to return with Emperor Conrad II’s assistance. During this period, Bishop Benno of Piacenza accused him of committing numerous adulteries and murders. Peter Damian also accused him of engaging in routine sodomy, bestiality, and organizing orgies. In September 1044, public opposition to his dissolute lifestyle forced him out of Rome again, leading to the election of Sylvester III as his replacement.

Second Pontificate (1045): Resignation and Aftermath

Benedict IX regained power in April 1045, ousting Sylvester III. However, doubting his ability to sustain his position and wishing to marry his cousin, he contemplated resignation. He proposed to resign in favor of his godfather, the virtuous priest John Gratian, in exchange for reimbursement of his election expenses. Gratian accepted, paid the sum, and succeeded him as Pope Gregory VI. Peter Damian, relieved by this change, wrote to the new pope, urging him to address the widespread scandals in the Italian church, specifically naming the corrupt bishops of Pesaro, Città di Castello, and Fano.

Third Pontificate (1047–1048)

After his resignation, Benedict IX soon found himself regretting the decision. He returned to Rome, reclaiming the throne and maintaining his position until July 1046. During this period, Gregory VI was still widely acknowledged as the legitimate pope. Sylvester III also reemerged to stake his claim. This chaotic situation led numerous influential clergy and laity to implore Emperor Henry III to intervene. Responding to these calls, Henry crossed the Alps to restore order.

The Council of Sutri and Aftermath (1046)

In December 1046, the Council of Sutri convened, resulting in the deposition of both Benedict IX and Sylvester III. Gregory VI, facing allegations of simony—the act of buying a church office—for his earlier dealings with Benedict, was persuaded to resign. Clement II, a German, was then appointed as Gregory’s successor. Notably, Benedict IX was absent from the council and refused to acknowledge his deposition.

Benedict IX’s Brief Return and Excommunication (1047–1049)

Upon the death of Clement II in October 1047, Benedict IX seized an opportunity to return to power, taking control of the Lateran Palace in November. However, his reign was short-lived, as German troops ousted him in July 1048. To stabilize the papacy, Damasus II, another German, was elected and universally recognized. Benedict IX, now defiant and unyielding, refused to face charges of simony in 1049 and was consequently excommunicated.

Benedict IX’s Final Years and Death (c. 1056)

The ultimate fate of Benedict IX remains somewhat enigmatic. It appears he eventually relinquished his claims to the papacy. There are suggestions that Pope Leo IX may have later lifted the excommunication. Benedict IX passed away around 1056 and was buried at the Abbey of Grottaferrata. According to Saint Bartholomew, the abbot of Grottaferrata, Benedict showed remorse and turned away from his sinful actions as pontiff.

RECOMENDED BOOKS

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Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes by Charles Coulombe
Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes by Charles Coulombe
A Complete History of the Popes of Rome, From Saint Peter, the First Bishop, to Pius the Ninth, the Present Pope by Louis-Marie Lahaye De Cormenin
A Complete History of the Popes of Rome, From Saint Peter, the First Bishop, to Pius the Ninth, the Present Pope by Louis-Marie Lahaye De Cormenin
History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, Volume 3 by Ferdinand Gregorovicus, David S. Chambers, Annie Hamilton
History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, Volume 3 by Ferdinand Gregorovicus, David S. Chambers, Annie Hamilton

DOCUMENTARY

Source: (The Generalist Papers, 2021)

Sources

  • Coulombe, C. A. (2003). Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes, Page 198. Citadel Press

  • Hauck, A. (n.d.). Benedict IX. In The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Vol. II)

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, December 13). Pope Benedict IX. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Benedict_IX

  • The Generalist Papers. (2021). The Man who Became Pope Three Times (Pope Benedict IX) [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WT7bcWArvM

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