Pope John XII was born Ottaviano around 937 in Rome, Italy. The only son of the cunning duke, Alberic II of Spoleto, Ottaviano lived a luxurious life. During this time, Alberic ruled Rome as its de facto leader. Having overthrown his mother in his seizure of power, Alberic sought to use his son to further his ambitions. Seeking to expand his family’s power, Alberic used his connections to have Ottaviano elected as the next pope on December 16, 955.
Taking the pontifical name Pope John XII, the 18-year-old quickly proved to be a terrible spiritual leader. Instead of providing religious leadership, John chose to abuse his position in the worst possible ways. Depraved and sadistic, the pope lived a debauched lifestyle, including having sex with multiple partners, drinking heavily, and defiling holy sites. His most heinous acts included raping his female family members and murdering those who accused him of debauchery. Being the exact opposite of what a pope was supposed to be, John’s behavior remained unchecked for years until he met King Otto I.
Beginning of the End
As Pope John XII scandalized the Catholic Church in Italy, Otto I was making a name for himself in Germany. Unlike the inept John, Otto had proven himself to be a capable leader, earning the moniker of “the wise.” In 961, the desperate pope reached out to Otto for his aid against Berengar of Ivrea. Berengar threatened to depose John after beginning to claim some of his lands. After promising to crown Otto as Holy Roman Emperor, the German king agreed to subdue Berengar.
By early 962, Otto I and his men had successfully defeated Berengar and imprisoned him. With the threat gone, Pope John XII made good on his promise and crowned Otto emperor on February 2nd. Before departing Rome, the new emperor and the pope signed a treaty called the Privilegium Ottonianium, which subjugated the church to the empire. Aware of John’s deplorable behavior, Otto warned his new ally against continuing his wicked ways. However, the emperor’s words fell on deaf ears.
Growing resentful of Otto I’s influence, John XII made a fatal error. In his arrogance and sense of entitlement, the pope began to conspire against his one-time ally. Changing course, John chose to ally himself with Berengar’s son, Adalbert. Less than a year after crowning Otto, the pope promised to crown Adalbert in exchange for his aid. Catching wind of the plot to overthrow him, the emperor marched back to Rome, this time as John’s enemy.
Removal From Power
Upon returning to Rome, the imperial army easily crushed the rebels. Fearing for his life, Pope John XII fled Rome and went into hiding. During his absence, Otto I called a synod of bishops to try John for his many crimes. Ready to be rid of the hated pope, the bishops readily found John guilty and deposed him. Electing Leo VIII as his successor, a satisfied Otto returned to Germany. However, the peace that the emperor established would be short-lived.
With Otto I gone, a wrathful John XII emerged from hiding, and exacted his revenge. After the capture and torture of the bishops, Leo VIII fled to Germany for Otto I’s help. Enraged, Otto decided to end John’s threat once and for all. However, the pope wouldn’t die at the emperor’s hands. Instead, it would be by adultery in 964.
On May 14, an angry husband of one of John XII’s mistresses caught up to the pope. Catching John in bed with his wife, the husband stabbed the pope to death. With John gone, one of the worst pontifical reigns in Catholic church history ended. Many believed that the devil had finally collected the soul of one of his most faithful servants. Few, if any, people mourned the depraved pope’s passing.
Pope John XII had one of the worst reigns in the Catholic church’s history. The exact opposite of what a pope should be, John was completely unqualified to be a spiritual leader. His depraved lifestyle and willingness to murder scandalized the church and left a stain on its history. The pope’s lack of tact brought about his downfall and eventual death, ending his terrible reign. Incredibly, John managed to hold onto power for 9 years, despite his sinful behavior.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). John XII. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-XII
The Holy Roman Empire: A Captivating Guide to the Union of Smaller Kingdoms that Started During the Early Middle Ages and Dissolved During the Napleonic Wars. (2019).