The Election and Coronation of Pope Leo X

Leo X by Peter Paul Rubens
In 1513, Pope Julius II died. Julius is probably better known as Giuliano della Roverre, the arch nemesis of Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia – yet he really was a rather brilliant Pope and brought us such wonders as St Peter’s Basilica (which we see today) and the beautiful ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As well as this, he was known as The Warrior Pope, wrestling Rome from Borgia influence and bringing the Papal states back into the arms of the Church. During Julius’ reign, murders were less frequent and bodies were found less frequently on the streets than ever before; and he practically stamped out simony in the Roman Catholic church even going so far as to issue a papal bull on his deathbed which made it so any future simoniacal elections were completely invalid. And remembering what had happened in previous elections, he made arrangements so that all of the treasure that he had was locked in the Castel Sant’Angelo to prevent plundering, strict orders being given to make sure that it was only handed over to his successor. Following his death, on March 4th 1513 the Papal conclave began. 
Dejan Cukic as Giuliano della Roverre (Pope Julius II) in Borgia: Faith & Fear
This conclave was virtually unanimous in the fact that they wanted the complete opposite to the reign of Julius. In essence, they wanted things a bit more laid back than the way Julius had run things – he had been the complete opposite to his (almost) predecessor Alexander VI, strict and completely against most vices. Not only that, the college of Cardinals were fed up of the way Julius forced them to march across Italy and the way he bullied them. Life would be much simpler if they elected an easygoing Pope who cared little for such restrictions and a man who would die quickly enough to bring in another Pope. It took the conclave a week to agree on the best candidate – Cardinal Giovanni de Medici.

John Bradley as Giovanni de Medici (Leo X) in Borgia: Faith & Fear
Giovanni de Medici was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, born in 1475 and a contemporary of Cesare Borgia during their time at University. When he was elected as Pope in 1513 he was just just thirty seven years old; despite his wealth and being the son of the ruling family of Florence, his age meant that if he was elected then the older cardinals in the conclave would likely never get a change at becoming Supreme Pontiff. Giovanni’s young age wasn’t really all that much of a problem though as his health was exceptionally poor. To even be able to attend the conclave in 1513 he had to bring his physician in with him thanks to the open ulcer on his leg – and during the conclave the ulcer in question troubled the young man so much that the Cardinal’s realised that his health wouldn’t hold out for long anyway. And so, on March 11th Cardinal Giovanni de Medici became Pope Leo X.
And it seemed from the outset that the Conclave had made the right decision. The reign of Pope Leo would be a reign of pleasure although not the sort of pleasure that defined the reigns of previous Popes. There would be no orgies, no bullfights and he himself would not endorse murders. But rather it would be civilised, and he would enjoy the pleasures of art, scholasticism and the pleasures of the table. He would even get himself a pet elephant! In fact, when Leo was elected as Pope he wrote to his brother, “God has given us the Papacy – let us enjoy it!”
When young Giovanni was made a Cardinal in 1492, his father Lorenzo wrote him a letter detailing how he should behave – that he should avoid the corruption that the rest of the college took part in, and that because of his youth the others would use it to drag him down; that he should spend his money wisely on books, keeping a good array of distinguished servants and by eating at home rather than eating out; that he encircle himself with a select group of learned men and that he take plenty of exercise and look after his health. For the most part Giovanni did exactly as his father told him and even refused to give Rodrigo Borgia his vote in the conclave of 1492. And as Borgia ran his papacy, Giovanni de Medici sat back and absorbed what was going on. And what he learned in his early days as a Cardinal would come full circle to affect his own papacy.
By the time Leo was crowned as Pope, most of Old St Peter’s Basilica was in ruins. The previous Pope, Julius II, had begun the renovations of the old basilica and the beginnings of the basilica that we see today had only recently been started. The coronation therefore was held in a tent erected outside the basilica. And at the coronation in the tent, he was presented with the huge triple layered tiara and approached by the Master of Ceremonies who held a lit torch in front of him speaking the words, “And so passes the glory of the world”. A slave also stood behind the Pope during his triumphal parade repeating the phrase “Remember, thou art but a man” and the Master of Ceremonies then stood in front of the new Pope reminding Leo, “Thou shalt never see the years of Peter!” – a reminder of the first Pope’s long reign. Following the coronation in the tent Leo went in a grand procession to the Lateran palace, which was once an important part of the Roman Catholic church but has long since been taken over by the Vatican. At any rate it was an incredibly important part of the ceremony. And Leo’s procession to the Lateran was magnificent, far surpassing the splendour of previous reigns – Leo X was a Medici after all, and he knew how to throw a party. The route was lined with marble statues recently excavated, and triumphal arches were built for the occasion while the houses that lined the route of the procession hung laurels and banners coloured with the Medici red and gold from their windows. In the procession walked soldiers, and the families of each cardinal, the gonfalons (banner men) of each ancient region, the five gonfalons of the Holy See. They themselves were followed by white mules, the Roman barons, bankers, merchants and soldiers. After all of them was the new Pope, Leo X with a detachment of Swiss Guards walking just ahead of him. These soldiers were brought to Rome by Julius II and were incredibly tough and used to guard the Vatican. The Swiss Guard still Guard Vatican City today although their position is now entirely ceremonial, and the colourful uniforms that they wear have remained largely unchanged.
The Swiss Guard, on duty at the Vatican
Finally came Leo, the new Holy Father. He was a funny looking man with a very large head and a hugely obese body. His legs were apparently so spindly that instead of walking it was like he scuttled about (I always imagine this as something like a bug scuttling about), and his eyes were protubing in his red, chubby face. In the procession he rode upon a beautiful Arabian white stallion, while officials held a cloth of silk to offer the Pope some protection from the intense heat – despite this, accounts of the procession state that he was sweating massively beneath the weight of the Pontifical robes and jewels yet that he showed little sign of minding, riding well despite his ulcer. The ulcer that plagued him must have been very painful, yet according to witnesses he smiled and greeted the cheering crowds with brilliant majesty. And as he rode, his clamberlains carried two huge chests of coins which they would reach into and throw to the waiting crowds.
In total, the procession and first few days of celebration alone cost Leo X over 100,000 ducats. This huge amount amounted to well over a third of the amount that his predecessor had stashed away in the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was really a marker of just how much money Leo would waste away on frivolities over his reign as Supreme Pontiff – and he spent a hell of a lot!
Leo X’s reign would indeed prove to be a “Golden Age”, but not for the good he did. Rather it was called this later as a bit of a joke at the sheer amount of money he would spend. Indeed, Leo X’s reign is far from golden in the history of the Roman Catholic Church – and during his years as Pope, Leo would have to survive the birth of Protestantism, and Martin Luther would prove to be a thorn in his side.
Further Reading

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh by an unknown artist

On this day in history, 1618; sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded upon the orders of James I. But why was this man, once a great favourite of Elizabeth I, given such a death and executed as a traitor? With this post, I will give a brief overview of his life up until the reign of James I; and then will discuss in more detail the events that lead up to his trial and execution in 1618.

Sir Walter Raleigh was born in 1554 to Walter Raleigh and Catherine Champernowne in Hayes, Devon. Little Walter’s family had links to royalty back to the thirteenth century, and his father had previously been Lord Vice Admiral to Mary I from 1555-58. We know from Raleigh’s later work that he was an incredibly intelligent man, but really very little is known about his childhood years and what sparked that brilliant mind. What we do know though is that from 1569 (from the age of 15 or so) he served as a volunteer in France during their religious wars. He returned to England in 1570. We also know that he spent some years at Oriel College in Oxford, although the exact date that he entered the college has not been recorded. He left Oxford without his degree, which at the time was not unusual and went to the Middle Temple (sort of like a law school) in the February of 1575. Whilst there he began penning poetry, the first of which was published in 1576. Raleigh was in fact related to Katherine Ashley, first gentlewoman of Elizabeth I’s bedchamber, through his mother and it is possible that this link allowed him to meet other great courtiers such as Robert Dudley. In 1578, he teamed up with a man by the name of Humphrey Gilbert and set sail on an adventure to discover remote lands. He returned the following year.

In 1581, following a brief stint as a soldier in Ireland, Raleigh began to attract the attentions of Elizabeth I and spent a good few years as her favourite. That was until he earned her displeasure by entering into a liaison with one of her maids; Elizabeth Throckmorton. Having gotten Elizabeth pregnant, the two married in secret. Raleigh knew how displeased the Queen would be and so made plans to set sail once more, yet when he returned from his voyage in 1592, the Queen was well aware of what had happened. She had the couple separated and both were sent to the Tower of London. It took a while for Elizabeth to even think of forgiving the couple and both were eventually released from the Tower. Their first son disappears from the record, but in 1593 Elizabeth gave birth to another little boy. However, they were both still banished from court and it took Raleigh a while to return to favour. Raleigh was not allowed back to court until 1597 and during those years of disgrace had spent a good many years on his travels searching for the fabled El Dorado and explored the areas of Guyana and Eastern Venezuela. He had managed to get his hands on a description of a City of Gold, yet despite his years of searching never found it.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, Raleigh had not long been back in favour yet had spent a good few years still adventuring and also dabbling in poetry. When news broke of Elizabeth’s death, he hastened to meet the new King James, yet did not exactly receive a warm welcome. Despite being present at the Queens funeral as an official attendant, following this he was rebuffed quite harshly by the new ruler – James I (also James VI of Scotland) stripped him of his monopolies as well as his captaincy of the Guard and was told that he had to leave his current place of residency, Durham Place. In July of 1603 Raleigh was also questioned on two counts of treason and placed under house arrest. Yet what were these treason’s? It had come to James’ ear that Raleigh had been involved in a number of plots, including planning rebellion and a Spanish invasion, as well as plotting the death of the King. It is said that he planned to place Lady Arabella Stuart in James’ place as monarch.

Arabella Stuart by Lowres

Raleigh was taken to the Tower on 20th July 1603. There he wrote a farewell letter to his wife, and on 27th July tried to take his own life by stabbing himself in the heart with a table knife. The attempt failed, and after a while he realised that the only evidence of any substance held against him was a statement made by a man who thought Raleigh had betrayed him. It seems that the gentleman who made the accusations withdrew them almost immediately although Raleigh did not know this until he was brought to trial on 17th November. At any rate, Raleigh was found guilty – despite the fact that Cobham had withdrawn his accusations, he was still found guilty of a more sweeping treason thanks to various letters from Cobham making out that Raleigh had passed on information on the King’s military endeavours and trying to get money out of others for military intelligence. Raleigh was taken back to the Tower, and there held until 1612. After his trial, he despaired of mercy from King James and wrote another letter to his wife. However in December 1503, King James agreed that Raleigh could keep his life.

During his years in the Tower, Raleigh dabbled in chemistry. There he created various medicines, but when he fell sick in 1615 it was put down to his dabbling in chemicals. Whilst locked away he also wrote his famous History of the World. There is a copy of this still on show in the Tower of London. He began the work in around 1607, and it was intended to be widely published as the first part of his history of the world. The entire work works out as around 5 volumes, and the first two volumes make up the biblical history of how the world came into being and the final three volumes deal with the histories of the Greek and Roman Empires.

Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. Photo by me
Reconstruction of Raleigh’s rooms in the Tower. Photo by me

Raleigh was released from the Tower in 1616 and then began his final voyage. The aim of this expedition was to search once more for the fabled El Dorado. He set sail on 19th August 1617 and did not land until November. The journey had been arduous, Raleigh himself succumbing to a nasty fever. On 2nd January 1618, the party arrived at the Spanish settlement of San Thome. The group stormed the settlement, in direct violation of the original agreement. They were there to search for gold, they were there to help relations between England and Spain. They weren’t there to attack a Spanish outpost and pillage. Following this, they searched further and further inland for the fabled mines but found nothing. San Thome had been burnt to the ground and on 13th February 1618 Raleigh was told that his son had been killed during the storming of the outpost. Raleigh would accept no apologies for his sons death and began planning another expedition of San Thome, saying that they had missed the mine. His men refused to follow, and in March deserted him completely. Raleigh was left with a tiny force, and returned to Plymouth utterly defeated.

when he returned to England, the Spanish ambassador had already been to King James with reports of the violence that had happened at San Thome. The ambassador demanded Raleigh’s arrest and not long after he landed, he was arrested and taken to London. On 10th August 1618, Raleigh found himself back in the Tower. This time, there would be no escape for Sir Walter Raleigh.

On 22nd October, Raleigh was brought before the Privy Council. There he was accused of being ungrateful to the King who had forgiven him his previous treason’s, accused of planning to start a war between England and Spain, and moreover was accused of deserting his men. On 28th October, a verdict was passed. Sir Walter Raleigh was guilty. Yet Raleigh threw himself on the Kings mercy, pleading for clemency. It didn’t work, and Raleigh was sentenced to execution. He spent his last night in the Gatehouse at Westminster and on the morning of 29th October 1618 was beheaded at Westminster. His execution speech was long and he welcomed the fact that he was going to die. His final speech lasted for almost forty five minutes and in it he insisted that his expeditions had no ulterior motive, that he had never sought to plot with France and start a war between England and Spain.

Just before he knelt he spoke a few more words, admitting that he had been a man of vanity and joked with the executioner that the axe would be his “sharp medicine”. And once the fatal blow was struck, his head was placed in a red bag and taken away by his wife who kept it until her own death. It is said that she liked to bring out his head when she had visitors. Once she died, his head was returned to the rest of his remains at St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey.

Raleigh’s memorial plaque inside St Margaret’s Church
St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Photo by me.

Further Reading

Mark Nicholls, Penry Williams, ‘Ralegh, Sir Walter (1554–1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 29 Oct 2012]
Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life & Legend – Penry Williams & Mark Nicholls
The Favourite – Mathew Lyons