In Our Time: The Borgias

The Borgias have a bit of a reputation – poisoning, murder, incest & all sorts of bad behaviour. And particularly shocking in a family that includes two Popes! The experts who discussed this on In Our Time were Evelyn Welch (Queen Mary, University of London), Catherine Fletcher (University of Sheffield) and Christine Shaw (Swansea University).

The programme started with a brief run-down of the salacious details of the “Black Legend” (much as I did just now, but they did it with a quote). Then they moved on to set the Borgia family in context with a description of Italy in the fifteenth century – unlike today it wasn’t a single unified state, instead there were several different states on the peninsula. Some were city states ruled by aristocracy, some were republican city states, other areas were kingdoms (like the Kingdom of Naples), and there were also the papacy. The political interactions of all these various states, and of the families that ruled them were complex and sometimes the rivalries were so bitter that states would rather invite in foreigners than be ruled by a neighbouring state. The papacy had only relatively recently returned to Italy & to Rome, and so was in the process of establishing itself (in temporal terms) in the network of relationships. The Pope held a lot of lands within Italy, including the Kingdom of Naples.

The Borgias enter the story with Alphonso Borgia who came with the King of Aragon when he conquered Naples, as a secretary & lawyer. He was then made a Cardinal, and became Pope as a compromise candidate when there was stalemate between the two leading candidates. Once he became Pope he did the traditional papal thing of making a nephew or two into Cardinals. They were saying on the programme that this nepotism (the word is derived from the Italian for nephew) was fairly standard – that there were really two sorts of Cardinals, those that were respected theologians or churchmen, and those that were there to be part of the government for the Pope’s temporal domains. And promoting your own family to these positions would give you some men on whose loyalty you could count.

So Rodrigo Borgia is one of these new Cardinals and he stayed a Cardinal under several popes for thirty-something years, gaining experience and power as he did so. The experts were saying that he was a very politically savvy man. He was elected as Pope in 1492 and took the name Pope Alexander VI – he’s the (in)famous Borgia Pope. Here’s where in the programme we had the first debunking of a popular legend – he is generally said to have bribed his way to the papacy, but the experts were keen to point out that bribery isn’t quite the right way to describe it. Yes, his various bishoprics were handed out to various Cardinals etc after he became Pope but this was the standard way that things were done. And obviously people who were on good terms with him would be more likely to get given these, but it wasn’t that he systematically went out to gain votes by promising people rewards. Any of the candidates for the papacy would’ve given out their bishoprics to allies after they got the office.

Rodrigo had several children, eight I think they said, and particularly doted on the eldest four (who all had the same mother). These included Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia who are the other main subjects of the salacious legends. They said on the programme that it wasn’t particularly shocking that a Pope had children – but he did raise eyebrows by actually having children whilst he was Pope and by legitimising his children.

They talked about how the generally politically astute Rodrigo had a blindspot when it came to his children. He was trying to ensure the survival of his dynasty after his death and granted Cesare a lot of lands that had belonged to the Pope, which unsurprisingly didn’t particularly go down well. Rodrigo was effectively trying to sweep aside all of the delicate alliances & networks of relationships that existed in Italy and to install his son in a fiefdom of his own. He also once left Lucrezia to handle the papal correspondence whilst he was away from Rome – shocking because women weren’t even supposed to be in the Vatican, let alone be in a position of responsibility. This helped fuel rumours of indecent relations between father & daughter.

When they came to discuss the rumours and legends they were fairly unanimous that most of it was made up by enemies of the Borgias either at the time or after one of Rodrigo’s main rivals had succeeded him as Pope. There probably was one orgy, but there is no evidence of poisoning or of incest. The incest rumours in particular are probably due to someone who would have a distinct bias against the Borgias – Lucrezia’s first husband. At the time the rumours start Rodrigo is trying engineer his daughter’s divorce (because he wants an alliance with someone more useful), and is trying to get the chap to sign off on an annulment on the grounds that he was incapable of consumating the marriage. Which the soon-to-be-ex-husband isn’t particularly happy about, so he’s spreading rumours about how rather than him being impotent it’s more that Rodrigo wants Lucrezia for himself.

However it is likely that the talk of murders was true – some of them at least. But this is not confined to the Borgia family, and it’s worth remembering that not only were the politics of the time fairly cut-throat in general but also the whole period is a time of war. The King of France is marching his armies through Italy (at, I think, the request of some states that are hoping he’ll back them against other states – that whole thing where the internal rivalries are stronger than the external). There’s definitely evidence that Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered on the orders of the Borgia. And perhaps one of the Borgia sons was murdered by Cesare – but there are several other candidates for his murderer. However, Shaw made the point that the Borgias seem to’ve been particularly feared as a family that you shouldn’t cross, and even Rodrigo seems to’ve thought that Cesare overreacted when he felt he’d been insulted. So they certainly weren’t a nice family.

They talked a bit about the later lives of Cesare & Lucrezia – Cesare basically declined from power & ended up dying in some minor conflict in Navarre. Lucrezia died in childbirth at the age of 39, and at that point had a reputation for piety & good business sense – not what you’d think if you believed the stories told about her now.

So the take home message was that the Black Legend of all the evil doings of the Borgias was pretty much propaganda. They weren’t nice people by any means, but they weren’t unusual for a ruling family of the time.