Jude Law’s Lenny Belardo from HBO’s The Young Pope may be an unbelievable pope: He’s young, he’s hot, he’s American. He’s also, it turns out, a total menace prone to scheming, megalomania, and wearing the perfect headpiece. And while Lenny Belardo may seem cut from the libidinal cloth of your fantasies, you’ll be wise to remember that the papacy itself is a long-standing institution that stretches all the way back to Saint Peter around 30 A.D. and has had its share of scandals, and yes, young popes.
So who was actually the youngest pope in history? Well, put on your chastity belts, and get ready to meet Pope Benedict IX, an enfant terrible who ruled from 1032 basically to 1048 (it’s complicated) at the end of an era known as the Pornocracy. Vulture spoke to Charles Coulombe, historian and author of several books including Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes, to get to know the truly young pope who was once called “a demon from hell.”
How young was this young pope, exactly?
There are varying accounts of this. “Some say 12, some say 20 and any age in between,” said Coulombe. But regardless of whether he hit the papacy before puberty, he holds the distinction as the youngest pope ever.
So how did such a bad pope get elected in the first place?
Basically, it was a nepotistic appointment so that his father, Alberic III, could maintain control over Rome. Something you have to understand about the pope at that time was that he was both the spiritual ruler of Christendom, but also the temporal one of Rome. “Up until the 1870, the papacy was responsible for the city of Rome and its environs,” said Coulombe. “In addition to his religious duties, he also had responsibility for the welfare of the Romans.” Pope Benedict IX was a descendant of the former ruler of Rome, Theophylact I (he was born Theophylactus of Tusculum), and his appointment was a way for the family to maintain power. “His father was the lord of the city, and he basically bribed the Romans to elect his son. If you vote for him I’ll pay you, if you don’t, I’ll kill you. Your choice. Which would you prefer?” said Coulombe. “You maintain control over Rome by maintaining control over the pope.”
Okay. What was his rule like?
“He was very dissolute,” said Coulombe. “He was a rapist. He was a murderer. Even after the Pornocracy, he really set a new low. He also neglected his religious duties, but when you’re busy raping and murdering, you often don’t have time for everything.” There aren’t a lot of specific accounts, but as Pope Victor III wrote in his Dialogues, Benedict IX’s sins include “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy.” “His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable,” PVIII wrote, “that I shudder to think of it.”
I’ve heard that he was the first gay pope. Is that true?
Well, not quite. In part, this is an ontological question: “Gay” is a relatively modern identity and certainly didn’t exist in the minds of popes and peasants in the 11th century. But, if you’re asking if Pope Benedict IX had sex with men, he did!
Was he hot?
Make your own call.
Did he ever get deposed?
A couple of times, in fact. The first time was in 1032 — when Benedict’s father lost power, he was also kicked out. But Benedict IX managed to get back to power through Conrad II, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. See, Benedict IX’s dethronement presented a conundrum: It meant there was no pope in office at the time, while Conrad II needed to be crowned by the pope to officially be made the Holy Roman Emperor. Why? As we mentioned before, the papacy both had religious — arguably, divine — importance as well as real-world, political value. “The coronation was an ultra, ultra important rite, and the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, who’s above all the other kings — this had to be done by the pope, because it was the highest temporal position in the universe,” explained Coulombe. So Benedict IX, great schemer that he is, said he would crown Conrad II king if the latter installed him back as the pope. It was a mutual back-scratch.
What happened after that?
There would be more fights. He would get pushed out by his opposition, and then they would elect another pope named Sylvester III. Benedict IX had troops and friends and eventually take back the papacy. But he’s a fickle one, our Benny, and he later decided that he wanted to give up the papacy on his own accord and get married. “He had a godfather, who was a very, very holy man by the name of John Gratian,” said Coulombe. “The godfather really wanted to get him out because he was such a terrible pope. So he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll leave if you pay me my expenses — the money it cost my dad to get me elected in the first place.’ So he did. And so John Gratian was elected pope as Gregory VI.”
Well, that doesn’t sound ethical!
Indeed. In fact, you might even call it simony, a grave sin in the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Gregory VI would agree with this assessment, too, and he resigned. After more attempts by Benedict to come back into power, Damascus II would get elected, who then excommunicated Benedict IX in 1049.
What was the end of his life like?
Apparently evil men can have pretty peaceful ends. “He died very peacefully, and you might say penitently, in the abbey in Grottaferrata,” said Coulombe. “When he died, the people who knew him were quite pleased with him, including the abbot of the place.”
Wow. This all sounds like it could be a TV show!