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5 of the Most Scandalous Popes in History

Updated on May 24, 2010

For centuries the papacy was considered the highest office in Christendom; even Kings bowed to the Pope. Unfortunately many popes throughout history have abused their powers committing heinous acts ranging from sexual dalliances to murder.

Stephen VI

Stephen VI is most infamous for the Cadaver Synod of 897. Stephen VI held such a grudge against the former pope Formosus that even nullifying all of his acts could not satify him. After his ninth month in the papacy Stephen VI had Formosus dug up and put his rotting corpse on trial.

Stephen VI interrogated the corpse for hours and found him guilty of every charge. For the deceased pontiff’s punishment three of his fingers were cut off, his body was dragged through the streets of Rome and then thrown into the Tiber river.

Stephen VI was later stripped of his office, imprisoned and strangled.

Sergius III

Sergius III is most famous for being the only pope to order the execution of another pope. Antipope Christoper was strangled to death under his orders, as was Leo V. It is also speculated that Sergius III may have been the father of another Pope, John XI mothered by Marozia the daughter of a powerful count.

Sergius III also honored pope Stephen VI by once again annulling all acts performed by Pope Formosus and forcing all Bishops ordained by Pope Formosus to be reordained.

Sergius III did however restore the LateranPalace which had been destroyed in an Earthquake during the year 896.

John XII

John XII became Pope at the ripe old age of 18, he was the son of the Lady Marozia and possible former pope Sergius III.

John XII was a notorious womanizer who practically turned the Vatican into a brothel.  He had slept with his mother’s concubine, Stephana, with the widow of Rainer, and even his own niece among countless other women.

John XII also allegedly blinded his confessor; a cardinal deacon named Benedict. He is also said to have murdered and castrated a cardinal deacon by the name of John.

It was the German Emperor Otto who called together a synod to removed John XII from the Papacy for sacrilege,simony, perjury, murder, adultery, and incest. John XII refused to acknowledge the synod and had all participants excommunicated. It was of little use though he was found guilty, and his ordination declared invalid.

He is said to have died 8 days after being stricken with paralysis during an act of adultery, however that cannot be proved.

Urban VI

The French were not happy when Urban VI was elected to the office of Pope and many French Cardinals fled Rome out of fear. His papacy was actually the beginning of the Great Western Schism.

While Urban VI’s intention of limiting the lavish lifestyles cardinals had come to enjoy was with good intention his practice of doing so was not. He often had people murdered, tortured, and imprisoned at will.

During the Great Western Schism there was an antipope Clement VII, French, who excommunicated Urban VI and his patroness Joan of Naples had long since abandoned him.

The cause of Urban VI’s death is disputed. Some say it was caused by injuries sustained during a fall, others speculate he may have been poisoned.

Alexander VI

Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia bought his way into the papacy. He was not content with money, Alexander VI wanted power; power beyond power really.

Alexander VI is certainly not remembered for his purity nor his piety. He had four children with his mistress Vannozza Catanei , including a daughter Lucrezia whom he married off three times to increase his political ambitions. Alexander VI also raised members of his own family and of Vannozza’s family to high ranking offices.

When Alexander VI was not practicing nepotism it is said he would be arranging orgies, and the occasional murder. Alexander VI was also however a great patron of the arts commissioning much of Michelangelo’s work for the Vatican.


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    • profile image

      Danilo 2 years ago

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    • profile image

      bert cabardo 5 years ago

      so,it is no wonder that freethinkers, freemasons and defenders of science were most of the time ostracized, condemned for heresy,blasphemy and so many charges---UP UNTIL NOW.

    • spiderlily profile image

      spiderlily 7 years ago

      I'll double check, if there is in fact an error it will be corrected ASAP.

    • profile image

      fersancute 7 years ago

      "John XII became Pope at the ripe old age of 18, he was the son of the Lady Marozia and possible former pope Sergius III."

      it is john xi i think!

    • tom hellert profile image

      tom hellert 7 years ago from home


      great job can ya really trust anyone who wearsa THAT kinda hat?


    • emievil profile image

      emievil 7 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting. These are only 5. I think there would be lots more. Thinking of doing a part II here? :)

      Congrats on your hubnuggets nomination. Good luck.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hey ho, so many scandals! Woh! It was an interesting read. :)

      This is an official announcement: Your Hub is a Hubnugget Wannabe and nominated in the Knowledge and Education Category. This is the Hubnugget Link:

    • Joni Douglas profile image

      Joni Douglas 7 years ago

      Spiderlily, I'm sorry, you will get a notification. Your hub has been chosen for the hubnuggets vote. Check here:

      Great hub. You can learn what that all means here: Under the newsletter section

    • raisingme profile image

      raisingme 7 years ago from Fraser Valley, British Columbia

      Ah...nothing new under the sun! Mankind keeps repeating itself!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Point taken. We are none of us perfect.

    • spiderlily profile image

      spiderlily 7 years ago

      You're welcome stranger ;).

    • sepiaprince profile image

      sepiaprince 7 years ago

      Thanks for this wonderfull article.

    • spiderlily profile image

      spiderlily 7 years ago

      Actually most people can come up with way more than 5 popes who brought discredit to the papacy including Time Magazine who mentioned Alexander VI's patronage of Michelangelo (for the restoration of the Castel Sant'Angelo). I only use reputable sources Encyclopedia Britannica, Catholic Encyclopedia, Time Magazine.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Ok so you manage to dredge up 5 examples of popes who brought discredit on their sacred office, that is 5 out of 265 since St Peter. I think that is quite a good record.

      By the way Alexander VI was patron of Raphael, not Michelangelo. Julius II was the Pope who employed Michelangelo.

    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 7 years ago

      If the popes had orgies today, I think we might be inclined to like them a little more.

      Thanks for the amusing history lesson.