• Weird History

The Violent, 20-Year-Old Maniac Who Became Pope Three Separate Times

Popes are supposed to serve for life, but, historically speaking, it hasn't always worked out that way. In the case of the 11th-century Pope Benedict IX, for example, he was pope three times. He was also a poisoner, held orgies at the Lateran Palace, and may have actually been a “demon from hell.”

On top of that, Benedict IX was the pope who sold the papacy when he got tired of his job – and then STILL managed to come back and reclaim the title. It took imperial troops descending on Rome to finally get rid of Benedict IX.

Benedict IX has the dishonor of being high on the list of history’s most corrupt popes. His name ranks next to Alexander VI (AKA Rodrigo Borgia, the pope who hosted the unbelievably naughty Banquet of the Chestnuts and fathered as many as 10 children) as a controversial pope. But, to Alexander VI's credit, at least the Borgia pope didn't sell the papacy!

  • Benedict IX Was Under 20 When He Became Pope – And Maybe As Young As 12

    Photo: Canal plus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Benedict IX’s original name was Theophylact. He was born into a powerful and wealthy Italian family, the Counts of Tusculum. And he was the nephew of two previous popes, Benedict VIII and John XIX. 

    According to one scholar, Benedict's father, Alberic III, wanted his son to be pope, so he made papal clothes to fit the boy and had him consecrated in 1032, when Benedict was only 12 years old. As for how to get a 12 year old elected pope: "wholesale bribery."

    Imagine “The Young Pope” as “The Tween Pope,” and you’ve got a good idea of Benedict IX’s pontificate. 

  • Benedict IX Acted Exactly Like You’d Expect A Tween Pope To Act, If You Expect Them To Have Orgies With Animals

    Benedict IX was not qualified at all. But he’d been raised in a rich, aristocratic family that had controlled the papacy for decades, so he knew how to use his office to enjoy himself. 

    Benedict spent money on prostitutes and played with magic books. He invited other men and animals to his orgies. His enemies swore that they had witnessed the young pope consorting with demons at night. And the 11th-century monk (and now saint) Peter Damian declared, “That wretch, from the beginning of his pontificate to the end of his life, feasted on immorality.”

    It’s no surprise that Romans began plotting to assassinate Benedict IX in the first year he was pope.

  • Assassins Nearly Strangled Benedict IX, But An Eclipse Saved His Life

    Photo: Maarten van Heemskerck / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Benedict IX's enemies hated him from the beginning. He was young, unqualified, and the son of a wealthy family – not exactly pope material if you care at all about the hallowed solemnity the position is supposed to represent. So, they decided to murder him. On a feast day, the would-be assassins snuck into St. Peter’s Basilica, each carrying a length of rope – swords would have been too obvious.

    But a sudden eclipse ruined the plan. “About the sixth hour of the day there occurred an eclipse of the sun which lasted until the eighth hour. All faces were as pale as death.”

    The eclipse startled the assassins, giving Benedict IX time to flee the Basilica.

  • An Army Of Romans Forced Benedict IX From Rome In 1045, But He Marched Right Back In

    Photo: Artaud de Montor / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Benedict IX’s bad reputation continued to grow. Pope Victor III later wrote that Benedict IX had “a life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

    Finally, in 1045, a mob of Romans attacked Benedict IX, forcing him to flee from Rome. With Benedict IX on the run, a new pope appeared on the scene, supported by Benedict IX’s enemies: Sylvester III.

    But Benedict IX refused to give up the papacy. After seven weeks of chaos, he marched into the city, kicking out Sylvester III to reclaim his title.