The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church

Papal elections in the Fifteenth Century
The election of Pope Calixtus III (1455)

By Francis A. Burkle-Young
Author of Passing the Keys

I. Background.

In a reign of slightly more than eight years, Nicholas created only eleven cardinals. Those whom he elevated were, for the most part, politicians drawn from the same mold as the statesmen-cardinals of Eugenius IV. Nicholas's first creation was an exception, however, because Antonio De La Cerda had achieved renown as a theologian and his cardinalate was a personal tribute without regard for political considerations. (1) In the winter of 1448, Nicholas elevated six cardinals to conciliate possible political allies during the final stages of the antipontificate of Felix V. (2) The most notable of these new cardinals was Nicholaus Krebs von Cues, whose merits of life and education outweighed even the tremendous respect in which he was held by the German Church for his untiring efforts at ecclesiastical reform. The others were Filippo Calandrini, the younger uterine half-brother of the pontiff, the only venture into nepotism in a pontificate otherwise governed by the highest ideals; Jean Rolin, created to maintain goodwill with the duke of Burgundy; Alain de Coëtivy, a nominee of Charles VII; Astorge Agnesi, who received the red hat as a reward for years of faithful service as a pontifical civil servant and Latino Orsini, who was made a cardinal to counterbalance the influence in Church affairs of the house of Colonna, which still possessed a considerable residue of power from the time of Martin V. (3)

The end of the last antipapacy came on April 23, 1449, when Felix V stepped down from his papal pretensions and accepted from the hands of Nicholas the office of cardinal-bishop of Sabina. This also marked the last time that any man was elevated directly to the office of cardinal-bishop without first having been a cardinal of a lower order. (4) The creation of three more French cardinals later in the same year completed the healing of the schism insofar as it was reflected in the College of Cardinals. The new cardinals were Jean d'Arces, one of the bishops who had "elected" Felix at Basel; Guillaume d'Estaign, who had earlier refused the red hat from Felix; Louis de La Palud de Varembon, who had been a member of the anticollege of Felix; and Alain de Coëtivy. (5)

Of the eleven creations of Nicholas four did not outlive him-Amadeo di Savoja died January 7, 1451; Louis de La Palud de Varembon died September 21, 1451; Astorge Agnesi died October 10, 1451; and Jean d'Arces died December 12, 1454. (6) Also during his reign eleven other cardinals created by his predecessors died. Thus Nicholas left at the end of his life a College smaller than that which had elected him to the throne, only twenty-two.

Of the five cardinal-bishops, fifteen cardinal-priests, and two cardinal-deacons alive at the moment of the death of Nicholas V, one only survived from among the creations of John XXIII, Pierre de Foix l'Ancien. Two cardinals were living from among those created by Martin V: Prospero Colonna and Domenico Capranica. Twelve were creations of Eugenius IV: Giorgio Fieschi, Isidore of Salonika, Joannes Bessarion, Zbigniew Olesnicki, Petrus de Schaumberg, Dionysius Szechy, Guillaume d'Estouteville, Juan de Torquemada, Ludovico Trevisan, Pietro Barbo, Alonso de Borja, and Juan de Carvajal. The seven surviving creations of Nicholas V were Antonio de La Cerda, Latino Orsini, Alain de Coëtivy, Jean Rolin, Filippo Calandrini, Nicolaus Krebs von Cues, and Guillaume Hugues d'Estaing. Of these cardinals, seven were absent from Rome during the whole period of the sede vacante: Foix, Olesnicki, Schaumberg, Szechy, d'Estouteville, Rolin, and Krebs. Olesnicki died on April 1, 1455, which reduced the number of living cardinals to twenty-one at the moment of the election of Calixtus III. Bessarion was absent from Rome when Nicholas died but hastened to the Eternal City and arrived in time to take part in the election. (7)

II. Conclave and Election.

The fifteen cardinals then in Rome entered the Vatican for the opening of the conclave on the morning of April 4, 1455. The two parties which had developed during the closing days of the life of Nicholas were headed by Prospero Colonna and Latino Orsini respectively. At the outset it appeared that Colonna had the greater strength. Indeed, it was said that had Nicholas died at the commencement of his illness instead of at the end of a long one Colonna himself would have become pope-this, at least, was the opinion of Nicodemo da Pontremoli and Bartolommeo Visconti, bishop of Novara, in a letter to Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, dated April 1, 1455.(8) But the time thus allowed gave Orsini the opportunity to rally opposition to the archdeacon. The number of cardinals thought to be papabile (electable to the papacy) in this conclave was exceptionally great. It was thought that Barbo, Trevisan, Capranica, Orsini, or Bessarion might reach the throne. During the first three scrutinies and accompanying accessi the votes of the cardinals were widely scattered, with Capranica receiving the plurality. But Capranica's candidature was eventually ruined by Orsini and the French because of his lifelong friendship with Colonna. By Easter Sunday, April 6, the cardinals knew that neither party could carry off the prize for one of their own, and both parties began to search for a neutral candidate acceptable to both. Their solution seemed to be Bessarion, who owed nothing of his eminence to either the Colonna or the Orsini. On Monday morning, the results of the balloting gave the Greek cardinal eight votes. He seemed so sure of election that favors began to be solicited from him as if his elevation were an accomplished fact. However, Alain de Coëtivy now addressed the cardinals, reminding them that Bessarion was a recent schismatic who still retained many of the mannerisms of the Greek Church, including a full beard. Was it appropriate, he said, to elevate such a man to the papal throne? The veracity of this speech has been discounted, but as it was reported by an eye-witness there is little doubt that it occurred. (9) Following this outburst, the candidature of Bessarion foundered. He expended no effort to counter the sally of the French cardinal; he did not wish to be pope. It is probable that the cardinals were less afraid of his Greek training and temperament than they were of his known austerity and passion for reform. With Bessarion's exit, confusion once more returned to the electoral assembly. At least one non-cardinal, Antonio de Montefalcone, received votes on Monday afternoon. During the course of Monday night, several cardinals, led by Alain de Coëtivy and Ludovico Trevisan, worked furiously to achieve the election of Alonso de Borja. On Tuesday morning, April 8, 1455, at the accessus, they carried the day for their man. It is difficult to determine which of the cardinals favored the election of Calixtus III, the name Borja chose, but we may be sure of at least Trevisan, de Coëtivy, Barbo, Orsini, d'Estaing, de Carvajal, de La Cerda, Rolin, and Torquemada-that is to say all the Franco-Spanish cardinals and the Venetians who were with them. The remaining vote necessary for his elevation may have been that of Isidore of Salonika or Calandrini; indeed both may have adhered to him. Borja's known austerity, scruple, and devotion to the purity of canon law all make it unlikely that he voted for himself, as his nephew was later to do, and the support of Trevisan, Orsini, and de Coëtivy surely meant that he did not get the votes of Colonna, Capranica and Bessarion. As Berardi had been the grand elector in 1447, so was de Coëtivy that of 1455, triumphing over objections to a non-Italian pontiff that had worked so successfully against Bessarion.

The election of Calixtus gives a striking example of the political and personal bases used by the cardinals in conclave to select a new pope. Religious issues were seldom raised, except to muster support for some other question viewed as being of greater importance.


Archivi d'Italia e Rasega iternazionale degli archivi. Periodico della Bibliotheque des Annales institutorum

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(1) "Essai" (1932):146; Eubel, Hierarchia, 2:10.

(2) Eubel, 2:10-11.

(3) Eubel, 2:11, and H. Bett, Nicholas of Cusa (London, 1932).

(4) Eubel, 2:11.

(5) Eubel, 2:11.

(6) Eubel, 2:1-19.

(7) Eubel, 2:1-19.

(8) Pastor, 2:533-34.

(9) Pastor, 2:323-24.

Eugenius IV (1431) Nicholas V (1447) Pius II (1458) Paul II (1461) Sixtus IV (1472) Innocent VIII (1484) Alexander VI (1492)
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