Benedict IX has to be one of history’s strangest popes. He was one of the youngest popes ever appointed, he was the pope on three non-consecutive occasions, and he’ll go down in history as the only pope to ever sell the papacy.
The Roman Catholic papacy went through a bit of a rough patch around the turn of the first millennium. There’s Adrian III, whose wife and daughter were murdered by the Vatican librarian’s son; John X, who died in a dungeon after losing a political power struggle; and John XII, allegedly killed by a jealous husband when he was caught in flagrante delicto. But amongst this sordid lot, Benedict IX has perhaps the worst reputation.
Benedict’s story begins in 1032, when his father bribed his son’s way to the papal throne. He was probably about 20 years old at the time, which makes him one of the youngest popes in history. Contemporary sources paint him as a dangerous lecher: an adulterer, murderer, and rapist. (But you always have to take these accounts with a grain of salt, particularly because they were written by his political enemies.)
For whatever reason, the residents of Rome drove him out in 1036, and again in 1044. During this second exile, he was replaced by Pope Sylvester III. Poor Sylvester lasted less than two months – Benedict returned to the city and took up the mantle of pope for the second time.
But this second round didn’t last for long. Benedict wanted to get married, so he gave the papacy to his godfather – who became Pope Gregory VI. Well, he didn’t exactly give the title away. Bribed elections are expensive, so he asked his godfather to compensate him. In other words, Benedict sold the papacy. History is silent on just how much it cost.
Gregory VI didn’t last long either. Benedict changed his mind and pressed his claim to the papacy once more. And Sylvester (still around!) popped up and claimed the papacy too. Three popes at once! The Holy Roman Emperor had to come down from Germany to sort things out. He proclaimed that all three popes were now invalid. A German – one of the emperor’s expedition – was elected pope instead.
That pope, Clement II, lasted less than a year. He died by lead poisoning, although we have no idea if that was deliberate or accidental. And who replaced him? Yes, you guessed it, Benedict IX. He stormed the palace and installed himself as pope once more. This third papacy was short-lived; the emperor’s troops drove him out again less than a year later. His replacement, another German pope, died after 23 days in office, but Benedict never retook the papal throne and died in obscurity a few years later.