I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
There have been 266 popes and of these 42 have died before their natural expiry date. Many have been martyred for their faith, some have been bumped off by rival factions within the church, a few have been caught in the wrong bed and suffered the consequences, and one fell off a mule.
The first pope, St. Peter, was executed in Rome in 64 of the Christian Era. He is said to have asked to be crucified upside down because he believed he was not worthy of being killed right side up as Jesus was.
However, the story rests almost entirely on the account of the Roman historian Tacitus that was written at least 50 years after the events he described. As a result, some theologians question the accuracy of the account.
The Romans skipped over a couple of popes after Peter and returned to their killing ways with Clement I (Papacy 88 – 99 CE). Emperor Trajan put him in a quarry to break stone with other miscreants. He is said to have revealed a spring by striking the earth with an ax thereby providing water to the thirsty men. This caused many prisoners to convert to Christianity, something that greatly displeased the Romans. Clement was tied to an anchor and tossed into the Black Sea.
A succession of 14 popes between 106 and 253 are listed as martyrs under Roman jurisdiction. All have subsequently been beatified.
Pope Stephen I was celebrating mass in 257 when Emperor Valerian’s soldiers entered his church and beheaded him. The bloodstained chair on which he sat can still be viewed. A year later, Pope Sixtus II suffered the same fate.
Another eight popes are listed as martyrs after Sixtus. Records of the lives of these early popes are sketchy at best so everything has to be taken with a grain of communion wafer.
Ninth Century Intrigue
The fashion for killing popes for their beliefs faded as the Roman Empire did and, for a while, popes tended to live out their allotted time.
However, by the Middle Ages, being pope carried with it enormous prestige and the opportunity for vast riches, so there was fierce competition for the highly sort-after job. The bodies began to pile up.
Pope John VIII (872-882) reigned during turbulent times. Italy was attacked by Saracen pirates in league with some Italian princes. Political enemies of John plotted against him. Eventually, the pontiff was poisoned, in all likelihood by one of his own priests. But the poison was slow in getting the job done so the attacker bashed in the papal skull with a hammer.
The powerful Spoleto and Formosus families squabbled over who should be pope and, it’s said, over who should get the income from the many brothels in Rome. Stephen VI was the choice of the Spoletos and he got the nod in May 896. He set about visiting gross indignities upon Pope Formosus who had died in April 896.
Stephen had the decomposing body of Formosus dug up and put on trial. The cadaver was plonked onto a throne and called upon to defend himself, via an appointed deacon, of some trumped up charges of perjury and heresy. Formosus was, of course, found guilty, had his robes taken away along with three fingers of his right hand – those used in giving blessings. He was buried, dug up again, and thrown into the River Tiber.
Stephen VI did not survive much longer. A wide body of opinion developed that Stephen had gone too far in persecuting Formosus, he was deposed and thrown in prison. The next pope, Romanus, celebrated by overturning the conviction of Formosus and having Stephen VI strangled.
In the Heat of Passion
The Roman Catholic Church toyed with the idea of priestly celibacy for several hundred years before the Second Lateran Council 1139 gave the no sex order. However, clerics all the way up the pecking order ignored the decree.
Sixtus IV (1471 – 1484) was a busy lad. In addition to commissioning the building of the Sistine Chapel he sired six illegitimate children, one of them incestuously with his sister.
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Pope Alexander VI (1492 - 1503) seems to have been a bit of a party animal, using church funds to pay for masquerades, banquets, and dances. He is also reported to have cavorted with a string of mistresses, boys, and male prostitutes. Not surprisingly, given all his sexual activity, he was syphilitic, the first known pope to contract the disease.
Likewise, Pope Julius II (1503 - 13) had several mistresses and, in 1511, was charged with lewd sexual acts, but he held onto the papacy until his death by natural causes in 1513.
John XII ascended to the papacy at the age of 18 in 955. Although the celibacy edict didn’t come along until after his death his enthusiastic boudoir escapades were still frowned upon. Some church leaders complained that he “turned the papal palace into a whorehouse,” with adulterous liaisons.
His bedroom athleticism came to an end in 964 when he suffered a stroke while in the throes of passion with a woman called Stefanetta. Another version of his death is that Stefanetta’s husband killed John XII by chucking his holiness out of a window.
Pope John XXI’s time in the top job lasted only seven months. He was very interested in medicine and had an extension built onto the papal palace where he could study in peace and quiet. On May 14, 1277, while immersed in his medical texts, the building collapsed on the pope. He died six days later from the injuries he sustained.
During his papacy Urban VI (1378 – 1389) had to contend with another claimant who set up shop in Avignon, France. Urban did not have a winning personality; indeed, he is described as stubborn, arrogant, and remarkably violent.
His behaviour lost him many political allies and he was involved in several military skirmishes (popes had armies in those days). In 1388, Pope Urban VI was riding a mule along with his soldiers when he fell off the animal and sustained injuries that caused his death. Another school of thought is that Urban’s demise was helped along with a dose of poison.
- There are stories that Pope John VIII, referred to above, was in fact Pope Joan. The story goes that while out riding one day he went into labour and delivered a child; a neat trick for a man even if ordained by God. The World Association of International Studies at Stanford University says “According to legend, upon discovering the Pope's true gender, the people of Rome tied her feet together and dragged her behind a horse while stoning her, until she died.” Nobody has been able to conclusively prove or disprove that this yarn is a myth.
- Albino Luciani was elected pope on August 26, 1978 and took the name of John Paul I. Thirty-three days later he was found dead in his bed. His untimely death gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories that he was bumped off because he was a threat to the corruption in the Vatican Bank. The corruption was real and several authors have done well telling and retelling the murder theory. However, the story remains an unproven theory.
- In November 2011, Cardinal Paolo Romeo, the archbishop of Palermo, Sicily, allegedly made a startling prediction. He said Pope Benedict XVI would be dead within a year. Vatican watchers leaped to the conclusion that there was a plot to kill the pope over a vicious power struggle within the Holy See. Early in 2012, Benedict was told about Romeo’s statement and an investigation was ordered. In February 2013, Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign, citing ill health. At the time of writing, February 2019, Benedict is about to celebrate his 92nd birthday. There is no proven connection between Romeo’s alleged warning and Benedict’s resignation.
- “Nero, the Execution of Peter and Paul, and the Biggest Fake News in Early Christian History.” Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, July 23, 2017.
- “Popes Who Died Violently.” ABC News, undated.
- “Better Know A Pope: Stephen VI, The Grave Robber.” Richard Stockton, allthatsinteresting.com, January 31, 2015.
- “10 Grisly Papal Deaths.” Christopher Klein, history.com, March 22, 2017.
- “7 Quite Unholy Pope Scandals.” Remy Melina, LiveScience, September 17, 2010.
- “Orgies, Incest & More: 15 Biggest Vatican Scandals.” Caroline Linton, The Daily Beast, February 11, 2013.
- The Pope Will Die Within a Year: Vatican ‘Assassination Fears’ Revealed.” Nick Squires, The Telegraph, February 10, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on February 27, 2019:
Thanks. I remember ths conspiracy theories around the untimely death of John Paul l. I hadn't heard of the suspicions surrounding Pope Benedict's abdication.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 27, 2019:
I am not a theologian, but I believe the answers to your questions are Yes and Yes.
Here is Matthew 16:18
"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Liz Westwood from UK on February 27, 2019:
Was St. Peter one of the original disciples and the rock of the church?