12th March 1507 – The Death Of Cesare Borgia

Today in 1507, Cesare Borgia died outside the walls of Viana in Spain. Here’s a post I wrote a while ago, and am now reposting, about his downfall and death.

It was 1503 when Cesare started to lose his grip. And the reason for this was very simple: the death of his father, as he would not longer have Papal patronage which is what got him his power in the first place. On Saturday 12th August 1503, after eating, Pope Alexander VI fell gravely unwell being seized with a fever and vomiting that lasted throughout the night and beyond. On the same day, Cesare fell ill with the same symptoms.Johann Buchard, Alexander’s master of ceremonies, records the sickness in detail:

On Saturday morning, August 12th, the pope felt unwell and at about three o’clock in the afternoon he became feverish. Fourteen ounces of blood were taken from him three days later and tertiary fever set in. Early on August 17th, he was given some medicine, but he worsened and at about six o’clock on the following morning, he made confession to Don Pietro Gamboa, the bishop of Carinola, who then celebrated Mass in His Holiness’s presence. After he had made his own communion, he gave the pope the Host as he sat in his bed and then completed the Mass…At the hour of Vespers he was given Extreme Unction by the Bishop of Carinola, and he expired in the presence of the datary, the bishop and the attendants standing by. Don Cesare, who was also unwell at the time, sent Michelotto with a large number of retainers to close all the doors that gave access to the pope’s room…At four o’clock in the afternoon they opened the doors and proclaimed that the pope was dead…Throughout the whole of the pope’s illness, Don Cesare never visited his father, nor again after his death, whilst His Holiness for his part never once made the slightest reference to Cesare or Lucrezia (Buchard, J, 1963, 220-221)

Alexander VI by Pinturiccio

Cesare had the same sickness, but was treated much more dramatically than his father. On 15th August they submerged Cesare in a big oil jar filled with ice cold water, which made the skin peel from his body with the shock. The next day it was reported that Cesare was in danger of losing his life, probably as a result of the ice bath. It was reported by Guistinian that Cesare suffered from strange fits and delusions. But despite being so unwell, Cesare still sent reassuring words to his domain in the Romagna. By the time Alexander had died on 18th August, Cesare was well on his way to recovery. He was weak and exhausted but recovered just in time to save himself from ruin. As mentioned by Buchard, he sent Micheletto to close off his fathers rooms and removed over 200,000 ducats worth of items. Did Cesare mourn his father? Almost certainly, they had worked together for so long and were indispensable to each other. In fact they had been working hard in the 5 years since Cesare first took up the sword to secure Cesare’s position before Alexander should die. And when he spoke to Machiavelli, just two months after his fathers death, Cesare made the point that he had thought about everything that could happen when his father died. Except for just one thing, the possibility that when the pope did die, he would also be at deaths door. Twenty four hours after his fathers death, he had a massive relapse and rumours spread that he was dying, and his enemies were waiting with baited breath for the news that he had passed away. But despite the relapse, he had a good handle on the situation and was still the strong man in Rome. He had troops and money whereas the Cardinals had neither, and he also held the Castel Sant Angelo. The college of Cardinal’s however, said they did not feel safe enough to vote on the new Pope if Cesare and his troops were still in Rome. Cesare played for time, and on 30th August agreement was reached, he would leave Rome on the condition that the College would reconfirm him as Gonfalonier, his safety was guaranteed, Venice would not molest his states and that they would write to his cities in the Romagna urging that they stay allied to him.

On 2nd September Cesare left Rome accompanied by his family, all his baggage and a lot of women. As he was still weak he rode in a litter. And as he left, after having made a secret agreement with the French in which the French would protect him and his family, safeguard his states and help him get back what he had lost in return for Cesare serving the King of France against any power and place all of his forces at the King’s disposal; he knew that everything was hanging on the upcoming papal election. But Cesare’s Spanish Cardinal’s would prove exceptionally useful, and Alexander’s nephew Piccolomini was elected as Pius III. The news wasn’t too bad for Cesare who had been waiting at Nepi for the news, but it wasn’t good either. Pius was a decrepit old man and everyone knew he wouldn’t last long. Yet Pius didn’t entirely trust Cesare, and whilst he did issue some briefs in his favour, he told Giustinian that he would give him no more help, saying that he knew Cesare would come to a bad end. And at the same time Cesare didn’t fully trust Pius, and he wasn’t fooled by Pius’ outward show of goodwill and he knew, thanks to his insiders at the Roman court, that Pius seemed to secretly desire Cesare’s downfall. And so Cesare resolved to return to Rome, arriving back on 3rd October. It was widely believed that he was dying and many were disappointed when he returned as confidant and active as he had ever been. And on 8th October, he was granted the title of Gonfalonier, despite the fact that Della Rovere had raged at Pius for allowing Cesare to return.

Yet people did not want Cesare there and as Pius grew unwell it was clear that Cesare was surrounded by enemies. There was one incident in October in which the Orsini broke into his home at the Borgo and he was forced to flee to the Vatican for his own safety. Just two days later on 17th October, Pius died. His reign had been just twenty three days long. This was timely for Cesare who, in the Vatican, had a clutch of cardinals at his disposal. But despite him tying to play as pope maker, in reality there was no question of a Spanish or French pope, everyone agreed it should be an Italian. And the elected ended up being Giuliano Della Rovere. This proved a problem for Cesare as news of his flight into the Vatican had filtered out, weakening the resolve of his allies. And so his states in the Romagna began to fall. This forced him to face up to reality and he signed an agreement with Della Rovere in which Cesare agreed to support him and have his cardinals vote for him in conclave. In return Cesare would retain his title of Gonfalonier. And on 1st November, Della Rovere became Pope Julius II. Did Cesare do right in this? There really wasn’t much else that he could do, he knew Della Rovere was the most likely man to be elected and thought it sensible to get promises out of him before elected. Cesare was now a guest in a home where he had once ruled, the rest of his family were far away; he was alone. And Julius would be the man who would play a huge part in Cesare’s downfall.

Pope Julius II by unknown

Cesare made plans to go to the Romagna again, it had become a near obsession as his states began to revolt. He wanted them back, and Julius encouraged him in this. Cesare’s problem was that he had lost his confidence, he was no longer so certain of himself and he had become prone to fits of hysterical anger. It was almost as if he knew he was losing his grip on what was his. On the 14th November, Cesare received news that Florence had refused his troops safe conduct through their lands, and he realised that actually the Pope was working against him. On 19th November he left Rome for Ostia, blindly following the path that he had originally intended when he really should have waited. It seems as though he didn’t really know what else to do. And on 20th, news reached Rome of the surrender of Faenza – a messenger was sent to Cesare on 21st ordering him not to leave. Cesare refused, throwing Julius into a huge fit of rage and another messenger was sent ordering Cesare’s arrest. Cesare was back in Rome by 29th and kept under guard in his old apartments. And on 1st December he received news that Michelotto had been captured near Arezzo. This was the blow that shattered Cesare’s will to resist. He was later moved to the Torre Borgia, and imprisoned in the same room that Alfonso of Aragon had been strangled on his orders. Yet it was in that room that he regained some of his mental balance, and his ability to stay calm impressed his enemies. Two days after he was placed in the Torre, his Spanish cardinals went to the pope to try and obtain his release, but Julius refused until an agreement was reached on 18th January 1504 that Cesare would order the cessation of his castles and security of his goods. His cardinals also received permission from the Pope to allow Cesare to travel to Ostia in the company of Bernardino Carvajal. Once in Ostia though he was confined even more rigorously. But Carvajal released Cesare without permission from Julius, arranging a ship to take him to Naples. However on 24thn May as he prepared to leave Naples, he was arrested again and found himself back behind bars where he kept on refusing to surrender his last castle at Forli. But the castle was surrendered on 11th August, and a few days later Cesare found himself on a ship bound for Spain. When he arrived, he was locked in the fortress of Chinchilla, high in the Valencian mountains from where he attempted to escape. One account says that he attacked one of his guards whilst being shown local landmarks from the walls, whilst another says that he used the age old method of knotting bedsheets together and trying to climb from the window. This is probably the true story, and it is said that his sheets broke and he fell, fracturing his shoulder. After this he was kept a much closer eye on.

At some point in 1505 Cesare was transferred to La Mota, at the Medina Del Campo in Castille. And on 25th October, Cesare escaped. Three men waited beneath the keep and a rope was let down from Cesare’s window. Cesare’s servant left first, but fell and severely hurt himself. By the time Cesare began to descend, the alarm had been sounded and the rope cut from above. Cesare fell a long way and after he landed was unable to stand, so he was carried to a waiting horse. There was no time to save the servant however, who was found by guards and executed on the spot. At this point Cesare was unconscious and had to be supported by his companions. They went to Villalon where Cesare recovered for a month  and at the end of November Cesare rode for Navarre. When he arrived, he joined up with King Jean of Navarre where he would play his part in bringing the infant Charles V to be recognised ruler of Castille.

In February of 1507, Cesare once more took to the field of battle where he besieged the castle of Larriaga. In the first week of March Cesare joined up with Jean at Viana. The weather made a turn for the worse and Cesare did not believe an attack would happen, so he withdrew his sentinels to the town. This was the opportunity the enemy had been waiting for. As the alarm was raised in the town and confusion reigned, Cesare dressed quickly in light armour. And as Cesare rode ahead of his soldiers, now aware of the attack, he outdistanced them and did not realise he was alone. Three men ambushed Cesare as he rode forward, and as Cesare rose his arm to attack, one of the men (named Ximenes Garcia) speared him with a lance under his arm, where his armour did not protect him. He was mortally wounded, but fought desperately until he was overcome by the men stabbing him from all sides. The men then stripped him of his armour, leaving him naked and bleeding. In a small gesture, one of the men covered his genitals with a stone. It was the twelfth of March, and Cesare Borgia, Il Valentino, was dead at the age of just thirty one.

The men had no idea that the man they had killed was Cesare Borgia, and it was not discovered until Cesare’s squire Juanito was shown his armour. The boy burst into tears.

Cesare was buried in the small chapel of Santa Maria in Viana, with a simple inscription on his elaborate marble tomb: “Here, in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared”. However in 1537 the Bishop of Calahorra ordered the tomb be destroyed and the remains placed in unconsecrated ground. But in 2007, the archbishop of Pamplona allowed his remains to be moved back inside the church.

Cesare Borgia really was a remarkable man. He has been vilified for centuries, been made out to be inherently evil but in reality he had a massive sense of purpose, an iron will to achieve and the ability to sacrifice what he had to to get what he needed. He had a lust for power, that much is true and was ruthless and often amoral but he was a brilliant man, and an exceptional commander. In my opinion Cesare wasn’t evil, he just knew what he wanted and how to get it done. Even if getting things done meant that amoral decisions had to be made, he would do it anyway. He had a fantastic mind, and is a man that I look up to hugely. Whilst it is true that he did commit murder, i.e. of his sisters second husband, I don’t for a minute believe he is responsible for all the deaths that people said he was. Nor do I believe that he was involved incestuously with his sister. In the end, like so many brilliant people in history, he has been vilified and made out to be evil but we cannot place our twenty first century morals on a man who lived over 500 years ago. I doubt very much that Cesare will ever be thought of as a good guy, and as long as misconceptions about him are considered to be truth then people will keep believing them. And I don’t think that will ever go away.

Further reading
Bradford, S, 1976, Cesare Borgia: His Life & Times, Butler & Tanner: London
Bradford, S, 2005, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, Penguin: London
Hibbert, C, 2008, The Borgias & Their Enemies, Mariner: New York (originally published 1924)
Strathern, P, 2010, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior, Vintage: London

5 thoughts on “12th March 1507 – The Death Of Cesare Borgia

  1. Thank you for the beautiful summary of the last years of Cesare’s life.
    I also believe Cesare and his family were so much more than the demonized family contemporaries, historians and fiction authors created out of them over the past centuries. He was, as Machiavelli wrote, the ultimate warlord, and a strategic and revolutionary mind Italy needed so badly in those days of chaos. If he and his father the Pope had succeeded in their plans, Italy would have been a force in Europe equal to that of France and Spain, if not more powerful. Who knows what would have happened to the balance of the European powers?
    As a Renaissance novice with particular interests in the period between 1475 and 1520, I love to read everything that I can get my hands on about the colorful people that lived in those days. I ‘scavenge’ reading lists and reference lists to find out more about this most interesting period in history (at least to me :-))
    What strikes me again and again, however, is that when regarding the Borgia family, the vile gossip that was once sent into the world by a severely offended and therefore revenge seeking Giovanni Sforza, still survives and is gullibly believed even by the world today. Surely people today must be able to see the obvious reason for why this rumor of incest was sent into the world. Regrettably no…
    The same goes for the rumor that Cesare killed his brother Juan when he truly had no apparent reason to do so. Chronicle writers and historians claim he killed Juan because of jealousy and his drive to live in the secular world. However, according to Sarah Bradford, Cesare was not even that keen on entering the secular world and his insecurity to leave the safety of the church and its consequent gigantic yearly income is illustrated by Cesare signing letters with ‘Cardinalus Valentinus’ long after he had already left the church. Only when the king of France gave him the duchy of Valence and the hand of Charlotte d’Albret, he felt confident enough to leave his previous life in the church behind. Cesare was not the type of man to kill his own family. He had no apparent reason to kill him, whereas numerous nobles in Rome had all reason to kill the vain and cowardice Juan Borgia.
    Finally, history turned Cesare Borgia into a bloodthirsty monster with an insatiable hunger for power. That is true, but how is this different from all his contemporaries who strived for power in an equal way, only less intelligent. The Orsinis, Colonnas and especially Julius II, il Papa Terribile or the War Pope, were equally blood thirsty, only they were Italian, and therefore their bloodthirstiness was justified. Cesare and his father were of Spanish origin, more shrewd and intelligent in their approach, more successful too (until death put an end to their story) and as a consequence they were considered as intruders.
    In my opinion, Julius II (and the Catholic Church afterwards) is mainly responsible for the image of the incestuous, bloodthirsty and poison-happy Borgias. He was responsible for the downfall of Cesare by betraying him, he was the one who locked the Borgia apartments so no-one could enter the rooms of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ (even though he unwillingly saved the rooms that way for future generations), he was the one who built statues and porticos wherever he could to overshadow the tangible memory of the Borgias. No doubt he was also responsible for Borgia related documents that mysteriously disappeared in the Vatican …
    When you walk around in Rome today, the Borgia traces are few, but for each historical Borgia memory, there’s always a Julius II artefact, building or monument that tries to overshadow, by being bigger, higher, larger or more impressive that that of the Borgias. To me, it seems pretty clear that Julius II was consumed by jealousy and hatred for this family, so he tried to, like the ancient Egyptians sometimes did with previous pharaohs, make them disappear from history.
    Thank God, he did not succeed.

    • Hi Sophie. Thanks so much for commenting. I actually did a piece on the death of Juan a while back, in which I look at the various arguments as to who killed him. There’s little evidence other than rumour that it was Cesare and was more likely to be the Orsini family (https://theborgiabull.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/cesare-borgia-part-2-from-cardinal-to-soldier/). Cesare didn’t even benefit from Juan’s death until well over a year later, and from what I can recall the rumour that it was Cesare actually started in Venice a while after he died. And Venice weren’t exactly big fans of Cesare.

  2. I enjoy so much
    Borgias serie, each of them, cesare , Lucrezia and Alexander , the content of the history presented a mix of all the facts, reality.Good job trying to show this .

  3. I teally think what you do with ” the borgia bull” it is awesome and fully deserve it by Cesare as first.
    It is just the human nature as interest being jealous to a great man as Cesar was.
    It was the first that tryed to pull Italy togheter.Not many,even less the historians,tend to asmit,the fact,that Cesar,was going to build his kingdome,ruling far better then most of his contemporaryes.
    Apart that he was Splendid in all he did,courageous and a righteous lord & leader for his own.
    I personally studyes much Cesar Borgia and i would be glad to help if you might need it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s