Holy smoke, antipopes and power struggles: a guide to popes and the papacy

There have been 266 popes so far – but how are they chosen? And has the pope always lived in Rome? Kev Lochun examines the papal past for BBC History Revealed

Illustation of a pope

The pope – the supreme pontiff, the Bishop of Rome, God’s representative on Earth – is the head of the Catholic Church worldwide, the leader of a faith with 1.2 billion adherents today.

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Modern popes tend their well-spread flock from the Vatican, a tiny, sovereign enclave within the Italian capital, Rome. But it wasn’t always this way: in centuries past popes, and the papacy in general (that’s the ‘office’ of the pope), held vast lands. Nor did they only exert spiritual power. Some have wielded such might that they rivalled the most dominant medieval kings. Popes have issued laws, ruled on disputes (much to the ire of Henry VIII) and held the threat of excommunication over men like a Damoclean sword.

The incumbent Holy Father is the 266th pope, a role that has come to stand as both religious leader and champion of interfaith dialogue. But as with any fêted office, its past has seen some colourful moments. Find out more with our infographic guide to popes and the papacy (click to enlarge), or read on below…

Popes graphic

What’s the most popular papal name?

Leading the field is John, with a moniker adopted by 21 pontiffs – though confusingly, there has already been a John XXIII.  That’s no mistake. Firstly, the 10th-century pope John XVI is considered an antipope (more on that later), so he was skipped and John XVII became the 16th pope to take that name. Also, there was never a Pope John XX, as Peter Juliani – the 19th to take the name John – decided to skip to John XXI. This was due to a mistaken 11th-century belief that there had been a pope named John between the antipope Boniface VII and John XV.

Pope names

Filling out the rest of the top ten are Gregory (16 popes), Benedict (15), Clement (14), Innocent and Leo (13 each), Pius (12), Stephen (9), and Boniface and Urban (8 each).

What’s the average age of a pope?

On election, the average age of a pope is 67 years old. Two spritely pontiffs are tied for the youngest: both John XI (AD 931-35) and ­­Benedict IX (first term AD 1032-44) became pope at 20. It’s tie at the elder end of the scale too, with both Clement X (1670-76) and Alexander VIII (1689-91) taking up residence in the Vatican at the age of 79.

How long are popes in office?

Traditionally the pope is in office for life, though that’s not always the case – most recently with Benedict XVI, who resigned from the Holy See in 2013. The average papal tenure is seven years, with the longest held by St Peter (AD 30-64), who was pope for 34 years. The shortest incumbent was Urban VII, who was pope for 12 days – from 15-27 September 1590 – before succumbing to malaria.

How are popes chosen?

Popes are elected by the college of cardinals at a meeting called the conclave. Sealed in a suite of rooms, the cardinals are not allowed to connect with the outside world except through the burning of their ballot papers twice a day – white smoke means a new pope, black that the debate rages on. Voting is not always swift: following the death of Clement IV in 1268, it took three years to elect his successor.

Did a pope call the First Crusade?

Urban II (1035-99) issued the call to arms that led to the First Crusade. At the 1095 Council of Clermont, he urged Frankish Christians to aid the kingdom of God – which, it is said, was met with a cry of “Deus vult”: “God wills it”.

What were the Papal States?

From AD 756 until 1870, the pope was the sovereign of a swathe of territory which, at its greatest extent in the 18th century, accounted for much of central Italy. The popes of this era ruled these ‘Papal States’ like kings, were active in the local politics and even went to war with their neighbours. Its death knell was the Italian reunification, after which the papacy was granted a smaller base in Rome – the Vatican.

Has the pope always lived in Rome?

Not at all. For 67 years, the papacy resided in Avignon in France. Clement V (1305-14) moved the papal court to this French city in 1309, beginning what has been described as the ‘Babylonian captivity of the papacy’. Clement and six popes to follow him were all Frenchmen, and most were considered to be under the sway of the French crown.

What was the Western Schism – and has there ever been more than one pope?

From 1378-1417, there was a split in the Catholic Church, now known as the Western Schism. During this period there were often two popes – in 1410, there were three. Gregory XI (1329-78) returned the papacy to Rome in 1377, but died the following year, and Urban VI (1378-89) was elected in his stead. Within five months, the cardinals were so disillusioned with Urban that they returned to Avignon and elected a rival claimant, the ‘antipope’ Clement VII. The Catholic world fractured in support of rival popes, who frequently excommunicated each other.

Who was the first antipope?

You might think that the idea of an antipope was a result of the Western Schism, but that wasn’t the case. The first was Hippolytus of Rome, who died in AD 235.

Can anyone become pope?

Not anyone but – as is popularly imagined – you don’t need to be a cardinal to be voted pope, though most are. Any baptised man is eligible for the papacy.

Have all popes been good?

Not always – these five popes all unleashed holy moly

Alexander VI

Alexander VI (1492-1503) is synonymous with iniquity: he was one of the few popes to acknowledge his illegitimate children, was flagrant about promoting his own family’s interests and was surrounded by rumours of murder, poisoning and incest.

Benedict IX

Three-time pope Benedict IX is the only pontiff to have sold the papacy (which he did to end his first term in 1044). The price is not recorded.

Boniface VIII

Power-hungry Boniface VIII (1294-1303) issued a bull declaring that “every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff”, including kings. He also annoyed the poet Dante so much that the pope can be found in the eighth circle of hell in Inferno.

Urban VI

Urban VI (1378-89) moaned that the cardinals he was having tortured on suspicion of plotting against him were not screaming loud enough.

Stephen VI

Stephen VI (AD 896-97) really didn’t like his predecessor but one, Formosus. He dug up Formosus’s corpse, redressed it in papal finery and sat it on a throne, then subjected it to a trial. The inevitably guilty corpse was found to have acceded to the papacy illegally. Stephen cut off Formosus’s blessing fingers, reburied him as a layman, then exhumed him a second time and tossed him into the River Tiber.

Kev Lochun is BBC History Revealed’s production editor.

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This content first appeared in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed