Alfons Borja, the first Borgia Pope from Valencia, Spain.
On April 8th 1455, a brief time after being made a cardinal, Alfons was elected as Pope, largely because he belonged to no major factions and seemed destined for a short reign due to age. He took the name Calixtus III. As a Spaniard, Calixtus had many ready made enemies in Rome, and he began his rule carefully, keen to avoid Rome’s factions, and his first ceremony was interrupted by a riot. He was busy promoting his own family, nepotism was usual in the papacy, it allowed the Popes to create supporters. Rodrigo, his nephew was made a cardinal at 25, and a slightly older brother the same, acts which scandalized Rome because of their youth, and ensuing debauchery. But Rodrigo, sent to a difficult region as a papal legate, was skilled and successful. Pedro was given an army command and the promotions and wealth flowed in.
Rodrigo was the most junior cardinal. He played a key role in electing the new Pope – Pius II – a role that required courage and gambling his career. The move worked, and from a young foreign outside who has lost his patron, Rodrigo found himself a key ally of the new pope and confirmed Vice Chancellor. To be fair, Rodrigo was a man of great ability and was perfectly capable in this role, but he also loved women, wealth and glory. He thus abandoned the example of his uncle Calixtus and set about acquiring benefices and land to secure his position: castles, bisphorics and money flowed in. He had many children, including a son called Cesare and a daughter called Lucrezia, and Rodrigo would give them key positions. In the next conclave, Rodrigo was have powerful enough to influence the election, and was sent as a papal legate to Spain with permission to approve or deny the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and thus the union of Aragon and Castile. On returning to Rome, Rodrigo kept his head down as the new pope became the centre of plotting and intrigue in Italy. His children were given routes to success: his eldest son became a Duke, while daughters were married to secure alliances.
A papal conclave in 1484 demurred from making Rodrigo pope, but the Borgia leader had his eye on the throne, and worked hard to secure allies for what he considered his last chance, and was aided by the current pope causing violence and chaos. In 1492, with the death of the Pope, Rodrigo put all his work together with a huge amount of bribes and was elected Alexander VI. It has been said, not without validity, that he bought the papacy.
While Alexander at first tried to keep his role separate from family, his children soon benefited from his election, and received huge wealth. Alexander was promoting his own children and had a range of mistresses, something that further fuelled a growing and negative reputation. Alexander soon had to navigate a way through the warring states and families which surrounded him, and at first he tried negotiation, including the marriage of a twelve year old Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza. Lucrezia’s husband proved a poor soldier, and he fled in opposition to the pope, who then had him divorced. We don’t know why he fled, but accounts claim he believed rumours of incest between Alexander and Lucrezia that persist to this day.
Alexander and the Borgias have become infamous for corruption, cruelty and murder. Yet what Alexander did as pope was rarely original, he just took things to a new extreme. Cesare was perhaps the supreme intersection of secular power wielded to spiritual power in Europe’s history, and the Borgias were renaissance princes no worse than many of their contemporaries.