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8 Of History’s Most Controversial Popes

Pope Steven VI, 896-897 C.E.: Dug Up Another Pope’s Corpse

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Pope Steven VI hated his predecessor, Pope Formosus, so much that he dug up his corpse and propped it up to sit trial in the made-up “Cadaver Synod.” Formosus’ body was found guilty (natch) and amputated of three right fingers (the blessing fingers), before being stripped of his papal vestments, dressed in layman’s clothes and tossed into the Tiber.

Pope Alexander VI, 1492-1503: Had Kids With Various Ladies, Liked Orgies

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Pope Alexander VI is one of the Renaissance’s most controversial popes. Bearing the last name Borgia, he took several mistresses and bore at least seven children with them. He also married his daughter Lucrezia off three times for the purpose of forming political alliances. There are rumors he hosted orgies in the papal palace.

Pope Benedict IX, 1012-1045: Sold The Papacy

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Pope Benedict IX is one of the youngest popes and the only pope to ever sell his papacy. Receiving the papacy at 18 with no qualifications other than coming from a socially connected family, Pope Benedict IX is also the first pope said to have been primarily homosexual. One historian called him “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest”; Pope Victor III referred to “his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” In 1045, Benedict IX resigned the papacy in order to marry and sold it to his godfather. He later tried to come back to Rome and claim he was still the pope.

Pope Leo X, 1513-1521: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

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Pope Leo X lived a lavish papacy. One of the de’ Medicis, he renovated the Vatican library and other parts of Rome, draining the treasury in two years. Instead of making budget cuts, however, he borrowed money and started selling off Vatican treasures: cardinals’ hats, jewelry, statues. In addition, he sold indulgences to fund the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica. Several historians have written that Leo X was gay.

Pope Boniface VIII, 1294-1303: Crossed By Dante

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Pope Boniface VIII is best remembered for being placed in Dante’s eighth circle of hell in the Divine Comedy. Constantly meddling in foreign affairs and buzzed on his own papal supremacy, he got into fights with King Phillip IV of France, Emperor Albert I of Hapsburg and other leaders. He was also accused of committing incest and pedophilic acts.

Pope John XII, 955-964: Loved The Ladies

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Born to a fourteen year old mother and sired by a man who was both his father and his grandfather, Pope John XII then followed tradition and took his mother as his lover. He assumed the papacy at eighteen but didn’t give up his fondness for the ladies, and was reported to have so many women traipsing in and out of the Vatican that it looked “like a brothel.” He was also allegedly involved in several murders.

Pope Joan, 1099-?: Was A Lady

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Her existence hasn’t been confirmed, but Pope Joan allegedly ruled for a few years during the Middle Ages. Having disguised herself as a man, her sex was allegedly discovered when she gave birth while riding on a horse, and died shortly after. Some stories report that as a result of Joan’s deception, subsequent popes had to sit on a chair with a hole in the seat and let a cardinal reach up and confirm that he had testicles. Most scholars, however, have dismissed the story of Joan as a legend.

Pope Clement VII, 1523-1534: Grew A Beard

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Pope Clement VII grew a full beard in mourning after Rome got sacked in 1527, which was kind of his fault. (He aligned with the king of France instead of Charles V, the contemporary Holy Roman Emperor.) At the time popes were required to be clean shaven, but Pope Clement VII started a papal facial hair trend, as a bunch of the next popes sported beards.

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