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The 5 Most Wicked Popes in History

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.


For centuries the Catholic Church and more specifically the papacy were at the center of power in the Christian world. An example of this was the Holy Roman Empire, the purpose of which was as a promoter, defender and often enforcer of Christianity.

Throughout the Middle Ages and until the dissolution of the empire, the popes and the Holy Roman emperors enjoyed a unique mutually beneficial relationship: The Pope gave the emperor political legitimacy and the emperor advanced the Pope’s religious edicts and commands. Oftentimes this included the acquisition of land and wealth.

Another example of the Church’s excesses in persecution and control was the infamous Inquisition. This powerful institution set up within the Roman Catholic Church affecting parts of Europe and colonies, was established in the 12th century to root out and punish heresy. It accomplished its aim through murder, torture and persecution of Jews, Muslims or anyone viewed as a threat to the religious establishment. Worst impacted by the church’s theocratic obsessions was Spain where the Inquisition conducted more than 32,000 executions and innumerable tortures.

As the church gradually lost political power in the centuries following the Renaissance, it attempted to stay relevant by guiding people’s religious lives. However, as individualism and humanism became popular people increasingly looked toward themselves for answers, rather than to God or religious institutions.

During this time, popes and the clergy attempted to maintain a facade of righteousness however, the Church remained rife with corruption. Members of the priesthood often misbehaved sexually and lived lavishly. This despite their vows of poverty and celibacy. Even today the church has been plagued by sexual abuse and most concerning pedophelia. Crimes which have been protected by the highest levels of the Catholic clergy. Other scandals having to do with the embezzlement of more than $400 million has reached as high as Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, a close ally of Pope Francis.

However, not all popes and clergy are guilty of misdeeds as many have acted honorably. But there have been many that stand out above the others in their level of wickedness. The following are five popes who can be considered worst of all.

The death of Pope John XII: According to legend, an outraged nobleman defenstrated John after he bedded the man’s wife

The death of Pope John XII: According to legend, an outraged nobleman defenstrated John after he bedded the man’s wife

#1 —John XII

Born Octavian and related to the powerful Tusculum family, he became pope at the young age of either eighteen or twenty-five. His true age is unclear since historians are not sure whether his mother was Alda of Vienne or a concubine of his father, Alberic II of Spoleto. His ascension to the papacy became possible as his powerful Roman family had dominated papal politics for over half a century.

Upon the death of his predecessor Pope Agapetus II in November of 955, Octavian ascended to the dual role of Pope and the secular Prince of Rome. He did this by rising from his position as cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Domnica. This occurred on December 16 after being elected by the College of Cardinals.

John XII became infamous for the alleged depravity and worldliness with which he managed his ecclesiastical position. His young age precluded his ability to maturely manage the governance of a powerful position. Consequently, he was accused of running the pope’s residency like a brothel, although this could have just been hyperbole.

On November 6 a synod composed of fifty Italian and German bishops accused the pontiff of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery and incest. The charges presented accused him of fornicating with the widow of Rainier, with Stefania, his father’s concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece. Further accusations said he had blinded his confessor Benedict; killed Cardinal John after castrating him; set houses on fire and ridden around Rome in armour; toasted to the Devil; and while playing dice had asked Jupiter, Venus and other demons for help.

He was consequently excommunicated on December 1, 963, an action which did not last long as his powerful friends in Rome returned him to his previous position. John XII then went on a rampage of revenge against the bishops and other enemies who had previously attempted to depose him. He either had their tongues cut off or their hands and fingers removed. Some had their noses sliced off.

However, his days back in power were numbered as he died on 14 May 964. His cause of death is disputed as some say he died of a stroke. Others say he died of exertion while having sex with a married woman. While a third version claims he died after a beating he received from a woman’s husband after finding John XII in bed with her.

By Jean-Paul Laurens — Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes,

By Jean-Paul Laurens — Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes,

#2 — Pope Stephen VI:

While we know Pope Stephen VI died sometime in August of 897, it is not known when he was born. His father was a Roman priest named John. He rose to the papacy by first being made bishop of Anagni by Pope Formosus, an act believed to have been against his will. It is unclear how he was later elected to Pope, however he was sponsored by the dukes of Spoleto, a powerful Roman family involved in church politics.

Stephen VI became famous for initiating the Cadaver Synod, a grisly spectacle in which the corpse of Pope Formosus was put on trial for blasphemy. The rotting dead body of the ex-pope was exhumed eleven months after his death and put in front of an unwilling group of Roman clergy who made up the synod. Formusus’ real crime had been his allegiance to Arnulf of Carinthia against Lambert of Spoleto in a power struggle over Constantinople, West France, and the Holy Roman Empire.

In a twisted attempt at necromancy, the corpse was provided with a council who remained silent throughout the proceeding. Meantime, Pope Stephen screamed insults and expletives at the decaying remains of his predecessor. The cadaver was then stripped of its sacred vestments, had three fingers of the right hand removed, was dragged through the street of Rome and finally dumped in the Tiber river.

Stephen, however, did not live long after his charade of papal authority. He was strangled to death by his own enemies the following year.

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Pope Urban VI as a human-headed dragon.

Pope Urban VI as a human-headed dragon.

#3 — Pope Urban VI

Born Bartolomeo Prignano on October 15, 1318, he was the head of the Catholic Church from April 8, 1378 until his death on October 15, 1389. He presided over a major rupture in the Roman Catholic Church in which two separate papacies claimed the throne. His time as pope was marked by immense conflict during a time known as the Western Schism or Vatican Standoff from 1378 to 1417. During this time Clement VII, based in Avignon claimed to be the true pope.

Urban, who was prone to violent outbursts, learned of a conspiracy to depose him and had six cardinals arrested, tortured and later executed. During the time, stories circulated in which he complained to the torturers that the screams coming from the alleged usurpers were not loud enough.

Urban died on October 15, 1389 at the age of 70 or 71. Rumors have it he was poisoned.

By Artaud de Montor (1772–1849)

By Artaud de Montor (1772–1849)

#4 — Pope Benedict IX

Born Theophylactus of Tusculum in 1012; he held the position of Pope on three occasions between October 1032 and July 1048. He first became pontiff at the early age of 20; one of the youngest men to have ever held that position. He is also known for having been the only pope to have sold his title.

Benedict IX was the son of Count Alberic III of Tusculum and the nephew of his predecessor, John XIX. He was also the nephew of Benedict VIII who held the papacy from 980 to 1024. His father had him installed as Pope through bribery.

His debauchery and licentious behavior caused a revolt by Romans who had him driven out of the city. Although Sylvester III was elected to succeed him, Benedict IX and a group of his supporters reinstalled him to the papacy. He then decided to abdicate in favor of his godfather, Gregory VI, provided he was reimbursed for his expenses. It is reported he made this decision as he wanted to marry his cousin.

He later changed his mind and tried to depose Gregory VI, creating upheaval in Rome. This caused King Henry III of Germany to intervene by bringing his troops across the Bremmer Pass into Italy. Upon summoning the Council of Sutri to decide the matter, Benedict, Sylvester and Gregory were all deposed and replaced by Clement II, who was elected in December of 1046.

Eventually, Benedict XI gave up his claim to the papal throne. He died in 1055 or 1056 at the age of 43.


#5 — Pope Alexander VI

Pope Alexander VI ruled the papacy from August 11, 1492 until his death on August 18, 1503. He was born Rodrigo de Borja on January 1, 1431 in the town of Xàtiva under the crown of Aragon, now part of Spain.

He came from the Borgia family (Borja in Aragonese), who became prominent in ecclesiastical and political affairs producing two popes: Alfons de Borja who ruled as Pope Callixtus III from 1455 to 1458, and Alexander VI who held the papacy from 1492 to 1503. During this time, the Borgia family were suspected of many crimes and immoral behavior including simony, adultery, incest, theft, bribery and murder.

Pope Alexander VI became infamous for his debauchery, political intrigue, orgies and nepotism. He was suspected of committing incest with his daughter Lucrezia. He made his illegitimate son and known mercenery leader, Cesare Borgia, a cardinal. Cesare was later accused of murdering his brother Juan due to a power struggle envolving the title of duke of Gandía. Although it was never proven, Cesare’s capability of such act was never in doubt.

Vannozza dei Cattanei

Vannozza dei Cattanei

One of his favorite mistresses, Vannozza (Giovanna) dei Cattanei bore him four children, whom the pope openly acknowledged as his own. Initially pretending his children were nieces and nephews, he legitimized them prior to becoming pope. Throughout his life, he lavished vast sums on them and on Vannozza, who alternatively lived in the Palace of a late Cardinal and a luxurious villa in Rome.

Alexander VI misdeeds have remained well-known throughout the centuries to the point that in 2011 Showtime created the series The Borgias about the pope and his family.

Alexander died at the age of 72. When he died, his body became bloaded and rapidly decomposed, leading some to suspect poisoning.


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