Pope Alexander VI was born around 1431 as Rodrigo Borgia in Jativa, Spain. At a young age, Rodrigo came under the supervision of his uncle, Alonso de Borgia. As the Bishop of Valencia, Alonso oversaw his nephew’s education. When Rodrigo became a teenager, Alonso began to reward his nephew with church offices. As a result, Rodrigo received his first taste of power.
During 1455, Alonso de Borgia was elected Pope of the Catholic Church. As Calixtus III, the pope continued favoring his nephew. On February 22, 1456, Calixtus made Rodrigo a cardinal. To help further his career, the pope also appointed Rodrigo as the church’s vice -chancellor. In turn, the young cardinal gained immense wealth and political power.
Despite his nephew’s rapid rise, Calixtus III only reigned for three years. On August 6, 1458, the old pope died. His successor, Pius II, would not be as generous towards Rodrigo. Recognizing the cardinal’s extravagance, Pius scolded Rodrigo. However, the pope’s words failed to convince the cardinal to change his ways.
Rise to Power
Over the next several decades, Rodrigo maintained a lavish lifestyle. Ignoring his church vows, the cardinal increased his wealth, had mistresses, and fathered multiple children. Out of all his illegitimate children, Rodrigo favored the four by his mistress, Vanozza Catanei. They were Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Jofre. Although the cardinal’s love for Vanozza cooled, it never faltered towards his children.
By the early 1490s, Rodrigo had become a cunning cardinal. Although an adept politician, Rodrigo had gained a reputation for bribery and corruption. Despite this, he still emerged as a serious contender to succeed Pope Innocent VIII. Upon Innocent’s death in July 1492, a papal conclave gathered to appoint a successor. On August 10, the cardinals elected Rodrigo, and he took the name Alexander VI. After his election, the new pope rewarded his supporters by distributing his former church offices.
During the early years of his reign, Alexander VI faced a serious threat to his power. In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy with an army of 30,000 soldiers. The French king sought to claim Naple’s throne as his own. Urged on by the pope’s enemies, Charles also threatened to overthrow Alexander. In December 1495, the French king arrived in Rome to meet with Alexander. Against Charles’ orders, his troops would subsequently loot Rome.
During their meeting, Alexander VI remained elusive of Charles VIII’s claim. Afterward, the pope began scheming against Charles. To counter the king’s aggression, Alexander allied himself with Milan, Venice, and the Holy Roman Empire. As a result, Charles was forced out of Italy by the alliance. Having secured his position, Alexander focused on his children’s futures.
Similar to Calixtus III, Alexander VI sought to provide for his family while building political alliances. During 1493, the pope made his son, Cesare, a cardinal. In Spain, Giovanni became the Duke of Gandia and married King Ferdinand IV of Castile’s cousin, Maria. Next, Lucrezia married Giovanni Sforza. Finally, Jofre married the King of Naples’s grandaughter, Sancia.
In 1497, Alexander VI suffered a personal tragedy. On June 14, Giovanni was murdered. In response to his death, the grieving pope announced a series of church reforms. The following year, Cesare stunned many by leaving the church. It was rumored that Cesare had his older brother killed to take his dukedom. However, this has never been confirmed.
On April 7, 1498, Charles VIII died after striking his head. Since he didn’t leave an heir, his cousin, Louis XII, succeeded him. With a new king in charge, Alexander VI wanted to create a Borgia-French alliance. Louis agreed in exchange for being granted a divorce from his wife, Joan. As a result, the pope arranged a marriage for Cesare to the king’s niece, Charlotte d’Albret. After marrying, Cesare set out to create his own kingdom in northern Italy with French support.
Throughout his reign, Alexander VI mostly maintained a cordial relationship with Spain. The pope initially created an alliance with Spain’s rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella. Due to their support of the church, Alexander granted them the title of “Catholic Monarchs.” At their request, the pope also allowed them to claim all of the New World west of the Verde Islands. However, the relationship between Spain and the papacy later became strained after Alexander allied with France in 1498.
Alexander VI spent his final years supporting Cesare’s military ambitions and the arts. As Cesare prospered, the pope continued providing his son with financial and political support. Alexander also raised funds by creating and selling church positions to the highest bidder. In August 1503, the pope and his son began suffering from Malaria. Although Cesare survived, Alexander succumbed to the disease on August 18.
Pope Alexander VI left behind a legacy of corruption and scandal. Although his behavior was typical of Renaissance-era popes, Alexander became known as the embodiment of sin. The pope willfully ignored his church vows and lived a lavish lifestyle. He also abused his power to improve his children’s futures. Due in part to his corrupt actions, the Protestant Reformation would later take place to reform the church.
Hollingsworth, M. (2014). The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty. London: Quercus Publishing Plc.
Ishak, N. (2020, June 20). From Hosting Orgies In The Vatican To Stealing Riches, This Pope Was The Most Scandalous In History. Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/pope-alexander-vi
Murphy, F. (2020, August 14). Alexander VI. Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-VI