Pope Alexander VI and the French

[This is part of Catholic Analysis’ special series on Pope Alexander VI. This part, the sixth, grapples with Alexander’s interesting relations with the French. Read the fifth part.]

With a devout personality, encouraged by his friend, St. Francis of Paola, King Charles VIII was just the man to bring about needed reforms. He was quirky, but responsible, and he was a little naive, but full of ideas. There was only one snag to him: Charles had been taught to covet Naples, and he saw it as a gateway to further expansion. He wanted Alexander to give it to him, but the pope, wanting to carve it out as a distinctly Italian state, refused. [1]

To advance his goals, he built up one of the greatest fighting forces that the world has ever seen. His military was “provisioned by a large quantity of artillery of a type never before seen in Italy”: he had his special, signature cannonry. [2]

On his way to the Middle East, the king was determined to depose or forcefully reform Alexander, whom he had been led to believe was immoral. In this, the king was encouraged by Ascanio and Giuliano, the two most influential cardinals. The former was an opportunist, and the latter retained jealousy. The Orsini, in their typical level of bravery, quickly surrendered to the king use of their nearby fortress, known today as the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi (in Bracciano). [3] Other cardinals proved similarly helpful. For their treachery, Alexander would have been well within his rights to later demand their execution, but he pardoned them instead. The Ferrarese ambassador, Beltrando Costabili, recorded what the pope said of this: “I could easily have had the Vice-Chancellor and Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere killed; but I did not wish to harm any one, and I pardoned fourteen of the nobles.” [4]

Luckily, Alexander managed to maneuver himself into a position of safety. As turmoil brewed, he sought assistance from the Germans, but was denied. He fled to the Castel Sant’Angelo, deciding to defend it himself, prepared to “stand on its walls in full canonicals, carrying the Blessed Sacrament”. [5]

Meanwhile, the king was reluctant to actually lay siege to the holy city, in contrast to the bloodlust of much of his army. His army, frustrated, ransacked and confiscated houses for their own quartering. They also targeted our rabbinical brethren, for whom Alexander, in response to abuses in the Spanish Inquisition, had made safer living arrangements. [6]

At their first meeting, Charles rushed to genuflect before Alexander; the pope, in turn, reacted informally, stopping the king (as St. Peter did for St. Cornelius, in Acts 10), charming him with humility. These attitudes continued until, finally, the pope granted Charles passage through his States and Charles swore obedience in return. [7]

“..[T]he most heroic of the popes could not have sustained the stability of the Holy See at this crucial moment with greater firmness. From the crumbling ramparts of St. Angelo, the defen[s]es of which were still incomplete, he looked calmly into the mouth of the French cannon; with equal intrepidity he faced the cabal of della Rovere’s cardinals, clamorous for his deposition. At the end of a fortnight it was Charles who capitulated.” [8]

Alexander and Charles, on 15 January 1495, reached a formal agreement, the first clause of which read, “Our Holy Father shall remain the king’s good father, and the king shall remain a good and devoted son of Our Holy Father.” [9] Rome was bruised, but saved, and the king wanted to “smother [Alexander’s] feet with kisses”. [10]

While Charles went on to cause trouble elsewhere (especially in Naples), he did so with good intentions and a clear conscience. It can be argued that this heir to St. Louis’ throne took to heart Savonarola’s cautionary words: “If wickedness should by your means be increased, know that the power given to you from on high will be shattered.” [11]

Nevertheless, Alexander had to respond. Later that year, he asked the newly-formed “Holy League” to reclaim papal territories taken by Charles, after efforts for diplomacy had failed. They did so.

Charles died a somewhat broken man, and in an “embarrassing” way: he struck his head on the top of a door and died soon after. He was interesting, even in death. Most unfortunately, he never fulfilled his (and Alexander’s) dream of reclaiming Jerusalem for Christendom.

Then, there was King Louis XII. Of strong will, and of equally strong physicality, his reign was a mixed bag. His relationship with Joan of Valois was annulled – she went on to found a monastic order (confirmed by Alexander) and was eventually canonized. He warmly welcomed Cesare, the papal representative, agreeing to help the young man find a wife, give him a position in the French army, and bestow on him entry into the Order of St. Michael. [12] Also, Charles began and Louis constructed a beautiful Roman church, the Trinità dei Monti, to the pope’s delighted approval, and, to this day, it remains under the patronage of the French government. Finally, by helping Alexander occupy key territories, he – maybe inadvertently – greatly increased the temporal power of the Church, even over and above his own. (Machiavelli greatly criticized him for that!) [13] It is truly a shame that this monarch was a Gallican; that, regrettably, must preclude any fervent support.

Ascanio, tellingly, publicly protested the new king’s closeness to the Borgias, no doubt out of fear that Louis, with a better claim to Milan, would oust the Sforzas (which he did). Alexander “shouted in reply that it had been Ascanio’s brother who had first brought the French into Italy” and, in the heat of the argument, threatened to throw him into the Tiber River. That shut the belligerent cardinal up. [14]

As for Alexander: “..[S]urely no pontificate could more strongly illustrate the importance of territorial independence of the Papacy.” [15] This was one of his main goals all along, actually, and this is further evidenced by the fact that he wisely started fortifying defenses, including those of his Castel, early on. [16]


1. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 56-57

2. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 61

3. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 63

4. Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages, Vol. 6, p. 113

5. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 64-65

6. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 68-70

7. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 70-73

8. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907), Pope Alexander VI

9. Ivan Cloulas (translated by Gilda Roberts), The Borgias, p. 108

10. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 75

11. Michael de la Bedoyere, The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope, p. 125

12. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 137

13. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 3

14. Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies, p. 134

15. The Dublin Review, Vol. XLV, September-December 1858, p. 343

16. Ivan Cloulas (translated by Gilda Roberts), The Borgias, p. 101


King Charles VIII of France


Matthew Olson is a student in the Diocese of Little Rock.

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Posted in Historical
2 comments on “Pope Alexander VI and the French
  1. […] [This is part of Catholic Analysis' special series on Pope Alexander VI. This part, the seventh, touches on his closeness with his native country. Read the sixth part.] […]

  2. […] Pope Alexander VI and the French grapples with Alexander’s interesting relations with the French. […]

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