The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church

Papal elections in the Fifteenth Century
The election of Pope Eugenius IV (1431)

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

I. Background I: The Cardinalate in the Fifteenth Century.

Virtually every survey of European history written in the modern age assigns a place of special importance to the papacy and the highest levels of Church administration during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The style of living and the politics of the popes from Martin V to Leo X are viewed as the major force behind the explosion of the Reformation on the one hand and the emergence of the High Renaissance in arts and letters on the other, yet little has been done to show the way in which popes of this sybaritic nature could rise to the highest office in the Latin Church.

To find an explanation for the changes in the nature of the papacy and papal government from the continent-wide vigorous administrations of the great popes of the thirteenth century to the Italy-centered prince-politicians of the fifteenth, it is necessary to examine the constitutional changes which occurred in the College of Cardinals during the fifteenth century. In fact, the College ceased to be a collection of experienced and dedicated ecclesiastical administrators with a strong admixture of learned canonists and became a round table of papal relatives, Italian princes, and secular servants of European kings.

Four major changes occurred in the nature of the College and its membership during the growth of the Renaissance. First, the sudden emergence of the institution of crown cardinals, men who were elevated to the cardinalate solely on the recommendation of the European kings and without, in many cases, having performed any service at all for the advance of the Church. Second, the re-emergence of the great Roman baronial families into a new position of importance at the papal court because of the re-establishment of papal government at Rome after an absence of nearly a century. Third, the growing importance of the northern Italian princely families who, with the decline of Imperial interest in the affairs of the region and the collapse of many of the medieval republics, consolidated their holdings and increased their power. They now expected to have a voice in the control of the most powerful institution on the peninsula, the Church. Fourth, a substantial increase in papal nepotism, engendered by a distrust on the part of successive popes that they would be well served by the men who reached the highest offices in the Church through the other three avenues.

Gradually, during the course of the fifteenth century, the cardinals who were chosen from these four categories began to outnumber those men who had been chosen from older avenues to the cardinalate. By the closing years of the century, they were in complete authority in virtually every Church office and in the making of every aspect of Church policy. The steady advance of the "new cardinals" substantially altered the nature of both cardinalate and papacy and set a new stamp on Church life which continued not only to the time of the Council of Trent but beyond, to the threshold of the French Revolution.

II. Background II: The Cardinals and their Politics in the Fifteenth Century.

The nature of politics during the course of fifteenth century Italy was as varied and complex as the myriad of tiny states in the peninsula. In the north, the greater wealth and organization of the city-states was breaking the traditional power of the small landholding rural aristocracy. At the same time, many of the city-states, once republics, were becoming the nuclei of duchies or counties possessed by families who had risen from a new urban aristocracy of condottieri and merchant-princes, joined by a few families of the old feudal aristocracy who were able to adapt and grow in the new political environment.

In this world, at least from the time of Martin V (1417-1431), the popes worked actively to restore Roman authority over territories which had slipped from papal grasp during the desuetude of the Avignonese period and the confusion of the Great Schism. Within the scope of these papal efforts, the College of Cardinals was the most important special interest group. This quality can be identified clearly by the fact that it had no particular collegiate interest in the maintenance and expansion of papal power in Italy, by the close of the century at least. The cardinals drawn from the Italian aristocracy were concerned primarily with expanding the landholdings and influence of their families or state leaders; while the crown cardinals, who owed their offices to the patronage of trans-Alpine monarchs, wished to advance their masters' causes by promoting the welfare and aggrandizement of allies in the peninsula.

The cardinals from the Roman aristocracy, such as those of the Colonna, Orsini, Savelli, and Conti families, worked vigorously to thwart attempts by the popes to subdue the strongholds of their houses and to reduce the power of their families' partisans in Rome itself. At the same time, the very large membership in the College that was drawn from the families of the popes themselves was most anxious to achieve such a reduction, so that the lands and towns held by the Roman baronage could be regranted to members of their own clans.

Though collegiality was non-existent in terms of papal loyalty, it did exist to maintain the general status quo in Church government, which included strong resistance to ecclesiastical reform. The cardinals collectively possessed benefices and reservations in every part of Italy and Europe and enjoyed a substantial share, through their curial offices, of the fees and remissions paid to Rome. It clearly was in their interest to maintain peace generally on the continent, not because of a great intrinsic love of that state but simply to ensure the continuance of their revenues, free from the interruptions in their cash flow which generally occurred in times of open discord.

Of course, individual cardinals worked within the special interest group to further both local and family ambitions as well as collegial policy. So a cardinal of the Gongaza or Este families would have opposed any attempt by any pope to extend ecclesiastical authority in the communities of Mantua or Ferrara, since such an extension might mean a diminuation of the power of their families in the operation of the local state. At the same time, however, such a cardinal could labor diligently in the papal name on a trans-Alpine diplomatic mission in an effort to compose differences between a king and his restive nobles, which, if successful, would certainly noticeably increase papal prestige in that region.

As a special interest group, the College can be identified from the nature of the pressures the cardinals sought to apply to papal administration. Principal among these were the efforts to prevent the popes from naming new cardinals, or at least to minimize the number of new creations they would be obliged to accept. Any new man added to the College brought about an immediate redivision of the general revenue of the College as well as a reorganization of the greater Roman curial offices together with their emoluments, and this the cardinals were anxious to avoid.

As is true of any ancient and complex bureaucracy, the cardinals who headed the various departments of the Church's administration-the decision makers-jealously strove to increase their own authority and to diminish that of their rivals. In the case of the medieval and Renaissance Church, the chief rival was the pope himself, so there was a constant tension between the popes and the cardinals in conducting administration and in making policy.

There were, of course, several major problems of the age in which popes and cardinals consistently saw eye to eye. First among these was the Turkish threat to the continued independence of the Italian peninsula. Second was the emergence in northern and eastern Europe of new Christian sects who often declined to acknowledge the authority of Rome altogether. But even in these dangers there was seldom a unanimity of opinion on how the difficulties posed by the Church's enemies were to be met.

III. Background III: Innovations in the Cardinalate - 1378-1431.

During the long course of the Great Schism, two fundamental changes occurred in the nature of the College of Cardinals. First, the popes of the period were forced to make extraordinary sacrifices of their prerogatives in order to obtain and keep the favor of the various monarchs who recognized their factions. One which vanished was an unrestricted choice in the creation of new cardinals. Clement VII at Avignon and Urban VI at Rome each came to acknowledge that monarchs could, from time to time, advance the names of faithful retainers in the expectation that they would be named cardinals. Those who received the red hat in that manner came to be known as crown cardinals. This innovation, conceded out of necessity at the close of the fourteenth century, remained vested in the Catholic monarchs of Europe, until World War I swept both them and the custom away. The harm to the Church and the glory of the cardinalate that was accomplished through this royal prerogative can best be noted by recalling that it was through this avenue that men such as Wolsey, Richelieu, Mazarin, and Alberoni, received the cardinalate.

Second, the recognition by Martin V of the validity of the cardinalitial creations of all of his predecessors-Roman, Pisan, and Avignonese-meant that the number of living cardinals became greater than it had been at any time since the opening of the thirteenth century. The Council of Constance, which also admitted the validity of these creations, held the view that the number was excessive and determined that, in the future, the number of cardinals should not be allowed to rise above twenty-four. (1) Martin tacitly accepted this number. Partly in order to exclude outside influence, from both clerical and secular interests, in the creation of new cardinals, Martin initiated the custom of creating cardinals without publishing their names at the time. This innovation was first employed in Martin's first cardinalitial consistory, July 23, 1423. At this time, Martin elevated both Domenico Ram and Domenico Capranica to the College without making public the fact that he had done so. Ram and Capranica were informed of their elevations, but they were enjoined to mention nothing of them to anyone. (2) When Martin next created cardinals, in 1426, the nominations of Ram and Capranica were confirmed but no publication took place. (3) On this occasion, Martin broadly increased the representation of non-French and non-Italians in the College through the elevation of an Englishman, Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester and great-uncle of the infant King Henry VI; a Bohemian, Jan Bucka; a Spaniard, Juan Cervantes; and the prince-royal of Cyprus, Hugues Lancelot de Lusignan, son of Jacques I and brother of Janus, kings of that island. (4) Two others created on the same occasion, the pontiff's nephew, Prospero Colonna, and the elder Giuliano Cesarini, were placed in the same category as Capranica and Ram, cardinals who were created officially yet whose names remained unpublished. Besides the two secret creations made on this occasion, three other Italians were elevated: Antonio Casini, Niccolo Albergati, and Ardicino della Porta, the elder; and three more Frenchmen: Louis Aleman, Jean de Rochetaille, and Raymond Mairose. (5)

While it is true that the procedure followed by Martin in the cases of the four secret cardinals was not precisely the same as the present method of creating a cardinal in pectore (in petto), because in Martin's time the newly created were informed of their new rank while modern cardinals in pectore remain in ignorance of their change of station, it is also true that the innovation of Martin opened the door to future papal experimentation with secret creations of cardinals, which, in turn led to the modern custom. Earlier in his pontificate, Martin V similarly had created two other cardinals, Stefano Mucciarelli, seventeenth general of the Servites, and Leonardo Dati, general of the Dominicans. Both of these secret creations died before their names were published. Dati, elevated in March, 1425, died within a few days and public knowledge of his creation as cardinal came when pontifical ablegates appeared at his funeral in Florence and placed the cardinalitial insignia on his coffin. (6)

In at least the cases of Ram and Capranica, Martin made provisions for them to be accepted as members of the College at the time of his death if their names had not yet been published, as demonstrated by the consistorial decree of their nomination. (7) In his last cardinalitial consistory, however, November 8, 1430, the pope did publish all four of the names of the secret cardinals. At the same time, he employed the device once again in the cases of two new cardinals whose names were not released, Juan de Casanova and Guillaume Raguenel de Montfort. (8)

The restraint which Martin had displayed in the creation of new cardinals left the total membership of the College at the time of his death at twenty-two-neither of the two creations of November, 1430, had been published, and thus they had no rights in the electoral assembly, while a third, Domenico Capranica, had not yet received the red hat, and was likewise debarred from taking part in the conclave. Of the remaining nineteen, all the most senior cardinals were survivors from the Schism-one creation of Innocent VII, two of Gregory XII, one of Benedict XIII, and four of John XXIII. All the remainder were creations of Martin V. Six cardinals were unable to reach Rome in time for the election.

IV. Conclave and Election:

The circumstances under which the conclave of 1431 met were fraught with concern for every member of the College. Though Martin had respected the will of the Council of Constance in the matter of the number of cardinals, he did not yield to the opinion which held that the cardinals should occupy a position in the government of the Church nearly equal to that of the pope. On the contrary, he had maintained the primacy of Peter with determination and skill. A visitor to Martin's court recorded that the pope had "so crushed all the cardinals that they say nothing in his presence except as he desires, and they turn red and pale when they speak in his hearing." (9) Consequently, the cardinals wished to avoid electing a pope who would carry on relations with the College in the same manner as Martin. Another consideration was of even greater importance. Martin, in the closing months of his life, had finally set in motion the machinery for the next general council, which was to meet in Basel in the following summer. The climate of reform was still active enough to cause the cardinals to fear actions against them by a strong, reformist assembly. The balloting for the new pontiff took but one day. On March 3, 1431, Gabriele Condulmer became Eugenius IV. If the cardinals thought he would prove to be a milder sort than Martin V had been, they soon lost their illusion.


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

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"Essai de Liste General des Cardinaux," Annuaire Pontifical Catholique. Annually serialized 1925-1939. Paris: Maison du Bonne Press. 1898-1939, 1946-48.

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(1) Pastor, 1:260.

(2) Pastor, 1:261 and Eubel, 1:34. Pastor, 1:265, states that had Martin V created no other cardinal save Capranica, the highest praise would be due to him.

(3) "Essai" (1932):145-46.

(4) To the compromise offered by Beaufort at the Council of Constance, Martin indirectly owed his election. For additional details see "Essai" (1932):127; Eubel, Hierarchia, 1:34; Folkestone Williams, Lives of the English Cardinals, including historical notices of the Papal Court from Nicholas Breakspear (Pope Adrian IV) to Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Legate, 2 vols. (London: Wm. H. Allen & Co., 1868), 2:70-109; and E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485, The Oxford History of England, vol. 6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) 200-263. Additional details on Bucka's career, see Eubel, Hierarchia, 1:34; For Cervantes, see Eubel, 1:34 and Pastor, 1:352. For Lusignan and his relatives, see Stokvis, 1:38. Cf. "Essai" (1932):129-30; Eubel, Hierarchia, 1:34.

(5) Eubel, 1:34.

(6) Eubel, 1:34.

(7) For a text of this document, as well as a fuller history of the custom of secret creation, see Michael Catalanus [Michele Catalani], De Vita et Scriptis Dominici Capranicæ, Cardinalis Antistitis Firmani Commentarius, Accedit appendix Monumentorum et Corollarium de Cardinalibus Creatis nec Promulgatis (Fermo: J.A. Paccaronius excudit, 1793), 167-68, cited by Pastor, 1:261.

(8) Eubel, 1:34.

(9) Anonymous speaker cited in Pastor, 1:263.

Nicholas V (1447) Calixtus III (1455) Pius II (1458) Paul II (1461) Sixtus IV (1472) Innocent VIII (1484) Alexander VI (1492)
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