In the years leading up to Pope Alexander’s death, there were many events including war with France, the death of his beloved son, Juan Duke of Gandia; Alexander’s row with Savanarola, the resignation of his son Cesare from the College of Cardinals, Alexander joining with Venice and France against the Sforza family, Cesare taking over the Romagna and Alexander issuing Papal Bulls following Christopher Columbus’ trip to the new world making slavery of the native people legal. It must be noted also that all the while rumours flew of poisoning and murder as a method of furthering his schemes yet there is no solid evidence that this happened. In much the same way that it can never be proven that Cesare Borgia killed his brother, the same can be said of the rumours that Alexander resorted to poison. The only “evidence” came after Alexander’s death when his successor Julius II tortured Alexander’s servants.
As I’m sure you can see from the list above, there is still so much of Alexander’s life to write about. So much so that he really does deserve his own biography. Today however, instead of launching into each of these events, I will be writing of Alexander’s final years and his death.
In 1503, Cesare Borgia was preparing for another military operation in the Romagna. He had already taken the cities of the Romagna and deposed its leaders. During the early part of 1503, Cesare and his father weren’t exactly seeing eye to eye – Cesare wanted his Independence and had begun to make decisions on his own, and Alexander was getting more than a little annoyed with his sons bold moves. Cesare supported the French King Louis XIII, successor to Charles VIII and believed that the French would make better allies than the Spaniards. Plus, Louis supported Cesare’s work in the Romagna. Alexander, as a Spaniard himself, had always veered more towards King Ferdinand (father of Catherine of Aragon) and kept trying to convince Cesare that Ferdinand was the best ally for him. Yet at the same time he still desperately tried to raise money for his sons military endeavours by selling offices, and consequently due to this had another 5 Spanish cardinals created in May 1503.
Yet before Cesare could even start out on his latest venture into the Romagna, events took a turn for the worse. Both he and his father fell incredibly ill.
On the evening of 6th August 1503, Alexander and Cesare attended a dinner party held by Cardinal Adriano Castellesi, one of the cardinals created by Alexander in May of the same year. Castellesi was also bishop of Hereford, bishop of Bath and Wells and had also served as ambassador to the Papal Court for Henry VII.
On 12th August however, Alexander started to feel unwell and spent that night constantly vomiting. The 12th was also the day that Cesare had planned to set out on his military venture, yet he too was taken ill. The following day Castellesi was also taken sick, and it was assumed that due to three people being taken ill of the same thing it was unlikely to have been poison. It is said that the Pope seemed to recover over the next few days, but on 16th Cesare worsened and was given an ice bath to try and reduce his fever. Cesare was reported to be slightly better on 18th, but during that day the Pope worsened. Burchard reports in his diaries that on the morning of 18th that Alexander made his confession to Don Pietro Gamboa, the bishop of Carinola. Don Pietro also celebrated Mass in the Pope’s presence but the Pope suddenly stated that he felt unwell:
“The service was also attended by five cardinals – Serra, Francesco Borgia, Giovanni Castelar, Casanova and de Loris of Constantinople – to whom His Holiness stated that he felt ill. At the hour of Vespers, he was given the Extreme Unction by the Bishop of Carinola, and he expired in the presence of the datary, the bishop and the attendants standing by.”
According to Burchard, Cesare did not visit his father before his death. But this can be attributed to the fact that Cesare was suffering from the same illness that killed his father. Burchard also mentions that even after Alexander’s death, Cesare did not visit his fathers body. It was written also that Alexander did not even mention Cesare or Lucrezia during his illness.
However, upon learning about his fathers death, Cesare sent “Micheletto with a large number of retainers to close all the doors that gave access to the Popes room. One of the men took out a dagger and threatened to cut Cardinal Casanova’s throat…unless he handed over the keys to all the Pope’s treasure”.
Micheletto and his men then entered the rooms and seized all of the silver that they could get their hands on as well as two coffers containing around one hundred thousand ducats. At about four o clock that day, they then opened the doors and announced that Pope Alexander VI had passed away. Valets then gutted the Papal rooms of everything left of value, leaving just the papal chairs and the tapestries that hung on the walls.
The Pope was then prepared by his Master of Ceremonies for his lying in state, where he lay until his funeral which took place on Monday 4th September.
Meanwhile however, rumours of poison began to spread and it was widely believed in Ferrara where Louis XII advised Duke Ercole II to have Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso D’Este annulled – the prospect of paying back her huge dowry daunted the French king. And as preparations were begun for Alexander’s funeral, the following was written by a man named Bartolomeo Masi in his work Ricordanze:
“As pleases Almighty God, on 18th August Pope Alexander VI died; he was Spanish and been pope for eleven years. They say he was poisoned and also that Duke Cesare, his son, was the cause of his death. The said duke had held a great feast to which he invited several cardinals he wished to poison and he ordered two flasks of a special wine, which he secretly poisoned, telling no one, and gave them to a trusted servant telling him not to serve them to anyone…because he wanted them for himself. When the pope arrived he asked for the best wine…and the servant brought one of the flasks which the pope tasted”.
As can be gathered from Masi’s writing, he is basing his theory completely on hearsay. In fact we know that Cesare and Alexander attended a party at the house of Adriano Castellesi, and so not put on by Cesare. The rumours have come down to us today, so much so that Tour Guides of the Vatican tell their tours that Cesare Borgia poisoned his own father. We have no evidence for this other than snippets of writing written by third parties and written many years after the actual event.
Alexander VI’s funeral was held on Monday 4th September. The corpse having been dressed, it was carried in procession from the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica of St Peters with an escort of cardinals, clerics and canons. Members of Alexander’s household carried the 140 wax tapers that accompanied the procession. The pope’s bier was carried by paupers who acted with much more respect to the dead Pope than what was being exhibited by the clerics who acted with much disorder. And when inside the basilica, the guards attacked the procession and seized the wax tapers. This led to the members of the clergy running from the basilica in fright, thus abandoning the body of Alexander. It was Burchard, with the help of three others, that moved the Pope’s bier into position behind the high altar. But even here it was realised that the body would not be safe, and so to protect it from those who wished to get revenge on the Borgia Pope, the body was moved behind the iron grille of the chapel. Burchard then left, and that the chapel to take care of some business and when he returned noticed the change in the Pope’s body. His face had changed:
“To the colour of the blackest cloth, and covered in blue-black spots; the nose was swollen, the mouth distended, the tongue bent back double, the lips seemed to fill everything and the appearance of the face was more horrifying than anything ever seen.”
When it came to the Pope’s burial, the coffin had been made too small and the Porters made gruesome jokes as they struggled to squash the swollen body inside. Burchard again describes what happened:
“Six labourers or porters, making blasphemous jokes about the Pope or in contempt of his corpse, together with two master carpenters, performed this task. The carpenters had made the coffin too narrow and short, and so they placed the pope’s mitre at his side, rolled his body in an old carpet, and pummelled and pushed it into the coffin with their fists. No wax tapers or lights were used, and no priests or any other persons attended to his body.”
What a horrible thing to happen to a man who had been the most powerful man in Christendom. Of course, the day after the burial, rumours spread around the city of Rome like wildfire:
- He had been heard talking to Satan
- He brought the Papacy by selling his soul to Satan
- He had struck a deal with Satan that he would wear the Papal crown for eleven years. He had done that, with just seven days added on top.
- As he died, water boiled in his mouth and filled the room with steam
- When Rigor Mortis set in, his penis was erect.
Not long after his burial in St Peter’s, his body was moved to the Church of Santa Maria in Monseratto delgi Spagnoli, the Spanish national church in Rome. There he was given a new tomb, which survives to this day.
Pope Alexander VI really did lead a remarkable life. Despite buying his way into the seat of St Peter’s and the rumours of corruption, poisoning and murder; he was incredibly close to his sons and daughters and loved them deeply. Even though he loved his women, he was loyal to each of them in his own way, particularly towards Vanozza (whom he stayed friends with even after they stopped being in a relationship with each other) and La Bella Farnese. He also was an avid patron of the arts and had works commissioned by Pintruccio, who painted the fresco in the Borgia apartments. He also commissioned works from Michelangelo and Raphael. He was also an avid supporter of education and issued a papal bull in 1495 allowing the founding of Kings College in Aberdeen! As well as this, despite the huge dislike of the Jews at the time, he allowed Jews exiled from Spain to live in Rome and let them live free from the persecution of Christians. All in all then, not a bad bloke and he was certainly little different to the pope’s who came before and after him. I for one admire Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, for his remarkable life, for continuing on despite the rumours that plagued his reign, for the love and loyalty he showed his children and to his mistresses. He has to be one of my favourite historical pope’s and I certainly don’t believe the rumours that many still believe today (I’m looking at you Vatican Tour Guide!)
Burchard, J, 1963 (translated from original), At the Court of the Borgia, The Folio Society: London
Bradford, S,1976, Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times, Weidenfeld and Nicholson: London
Bradford, S, 2004, Lucrezia Borgia, Penguin: London
De Roos, 1924, Material for a history of Pope Alexander VI:
Hibbert, C, 2009, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner Books: Boston
Hollingsworth, M, 2011, The Borgias: Histories Most Notorious Dynasty, Quercus: London