Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, held a controversial status in life and in death. Even today, people still wonder, "How did Pope Alexander VI die, given the mysterious circumstances of the days before his death?" His final illness, rumors surrounding his demise, and the aftermath of his death highlight the excess and intrigue of the Borgia family. Pope Alexander VI's death, while a source of intrigue and mystery, also gave the people of Rome much to celebrate, because hated the corrupt leader and his ties to the notorious Borgia clan.
Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia emerged as two of the most feared and hated figures in Italy during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, leading some to believe Pope Alexander VI's cause of death was assassination. The Borgias had a reputation for debauchery, wickedness, and general excess, characteristics resented by churchmen and laity alike. No stranger to eliminating one's enemies, Alexander VI possibly fell victim of his own machinations or maybe karma finally caught up with him.
When Alexander VI fell ill in August 1503, at least he had some company. His illegitimate son, Cesare, got sick, too, along with the Cardinal who hosted the dinner party preceding their illnesses. Much speculation arose that someone poisoned his Holiness; there were several theories about why someone would do that, but two of the most popular were the fact that he had many enemies and the fact that he, the head of the church, also poisoned many people.
Perhaps someone poisoned him out of retribution, or he accidentally imbibed poison he intended for someone else. But Alexander VI's symptoms aligned with ones seen in malaria too, which spread through much of Rome at the time.
Alexander VI and his son, Cesare, dined with Cardinal Adrian Cornetto the night before they became ill. The Cardinal, the wealthiest member of the College of Cardinals, was rumored to be wanted dead by the Pope and his son. Alexander and Cesare allegedly spiked the wine with cantarella, a poison akin to arsenic and the go-to choice of the Borgias. The Cardinal was supposed to be the only one who drank from the poisoned bottle, after which he would experience abdominal discomfort, confusion, and weakness.
Whether or not Alexander and Cesare drank the poison remains unknown but they both sported fevers shortly after the meal. Cardinal Cornetto got sick, too, which fueled rumors of a poisoning gone wrong.
Trying to rid Alexander VI of his illness and re-balance his humours, the doctors let his blood. According to sources, the doctors marveled at how much blood flowed freely from the Pope's body, up to 13 ounces.
The ebbs and flows in his fever caused his doctors to diagnose him with "tertian ague," or malaria, with symptoms reappearing every 48 hours. Depending on the severity of this type of malaria, the Pope could have experienced convulsions, difficulty breathing, and blackwater fever - if he suffered from malaria at all.
By the fourth day of his illness, the Pope had already tried various medicines with little improvement. He continued to vomit and excrete green substances, growing weaker and weaker. On the fifth day, August 18, Alexander VI confessed, heard mass from his bed, took the Eucharist, and then lost consciousness.
By late evening, he received his last rites and died shortly thereafter. At the time of the Pope's death, five Cardinals were present, along with bishops, grooms, and members of his papal curia.