2013 March Papal Conclaves

Papal Conclaves

On 22 May 1667 Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi) died and the cardinals met to elect a new pope. Just as Chigi’s own election in 1655 had inspired accounts of the papal conclave, so too did the conclave of 1667 encourage writers to explain the fascinating theatre of the conclave. Edward Worth evidently had a keen interest in papal conclaves for he collected two works by Gregorio Leti: Conclave nel quale fù eletto Fabio Chiggi :detto Alessandro VII(Amsterdam? 1664) and this book, a 1671 English translation of part 5 of Leti’s Ceremoniale historico e politico, which had been translated in English by John Davies of Kidwelly.


Leti (1630-1701) an Italian convert from Roman Catholicism, was best known for his biographies of Elizabeth I and Pope Sixtus V. His varied career led him to the courts of Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England, before finally becoming city historiographer at Amsterdam, where he died in 1701. The fact that all of his publications were placed on the Index gives some indication of the Vatican’s views of his works – clearly they were not entertained by his lively account of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, who had played such a vital role in the pontificate of Pope Innocent X. Worth’s book, The Ceremonies of the Vacant See.Or a True Relation of what passes at Rome upon the Pope’s Death. With the Proceedings in the Conclave for the Election of a New Pope; According to the Constitutions and Ceremonials. As also The Coronation and Cavalcade (London, 1671) is rather more subdued than some of Leti’s biographies and reads more as an instruction manual than a deliberate satire. Perhaps for this reason it was translated by John Davies of Kidwelly (1625-1693), a conscientious translator responsible for translations of disparate material such as the Poems of Homer and Virgil and The History of Henry IV.


In the main, Leti concentrates on explaining the mechanics of a papal conclave: who, what, where, how and when. The ‘who’ is neatly summarised at the end of the text by a listing of all the cardinals in attendance, visible in the above illustration. The ‘what’ was evident to all, for, as the title says, a conclave was ‘for the Election of a New Pope’. The text concentrated therefore on the ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘when’: and Leti concentrates on a factual account. We are told that:

‘The Conclave consists ordinarily of three Galleries, and twenty-five or thirty withdrawing-rooms or Chambers, all of a floor, from the Vatican-Palace of equal height with the Gallerie which is over the Portal of St Peter’s, which is the ordinary place of the Benediction given by the Pope to the people after his Coronation, and upon the great Festivals of the year: Which Gallery makes also part of the Conclave. In all which Galleries, rooms and chambers, they make partitions of boards for so many Cells as there are Cardinals. Every Cardinal hath a Cell assign’d him about five paces in length, and about four in bredth; with a little wardrobe proportionable thereto. The Cells are taken by lot, and every Cardinal is to take that number whereof he finds in his lot…’

Leti explains that this process was necessary to ensure that there was no contact with the outside world, so that the conclave should not be unduly influenced by the secular powers who throughout the seventeenth century staged vigorous campaigns for their chosen candidates. According to Pirie (1935), the role played by the Count de Lyonne (Louis XIV’s emissary) in the papal election of Clement IX (Giulio Rospigliosi) in 1667 was a testament to what a cunning political operator might achieve prior to the beginning of a conclave. Following the anti-French pontificate of Alexander VII, Louis XIV was keen to have a pro-French pope succeed the Chigi pope. The Count de Lyonne was well aware of the anti-French feeling among the Spanish and Austrian factions and therefore cleverly hatched a plan with the chosen candidate of the French crown, Rospigliosi, to act as if there had been a major breach. So successful were the pair that even pro-French cardinals were afraid to vote for him lest they aroused the anger of Louis XIV. Success was assured when Rospigliosi managed to win over the Spaniards (he had spent time in Madrid as papal nuncio).


Leti tells us that once the conclave had commenced, the cardinals followed strict rules, laid down since the Council of Lyons in 1274, which outlined three methods of proceeding: ‘by way of Inspiration, or by Compromise; or lastly, by Scrutiny and Access’. He explains each method:

‘The first means or method of choosing the Pope, which they call the way of Inspiration; or as it is exprest by the Sacred Canons, As-it-were-by-Inspiration, is, when all the Cardinals in general, and every one in particular, with a common voice, as being inspir’d by the Holy Ghost, are unanimously agreed, without any one contracting it, and without any precedent particular treaty, and do freely concur to the acknowledgment and proclaiming of such a person Pope… The second manner of proceeding in the Election of the Pope, is the way of Compromise, which is, when the Cardinals, either immediately after their entrance into the Conclave, or wearied out with its long continuance, refer themselves to one or more among them, whom they empower to make provision, in the name of all, of a common Father to the Catholick Church…. These two of Inspiration and Compromise are not now much in use; but the way of Scrutiny, or of Scrutiny and Access joyned together, is the most ordinarily practis’d, wherein there are many Ceremonies to be observed.’

For the Election of a Pope by this last way, it is requisite, according to the Constitution of Alexander the Third, in the Year of our Lord MCLXXX made at the Council of Lateran, that there should be two thirds of the voices of the Cardinals; which hath been confirm’d by subsequent Bulls, and in our Age by those of Gregory XV and Urban VIII. And it is further requisite, that in the two thirds of the Voices, that of the Cardinal chosen be not included, inasmuch as there is a prohibition upon pain of nullity of Election for any one to chuse himself, or give himself his own voice.

They are oblig’d twice every day to take the Scrutiny and the Access; in the morning, after Mass; and in the Evening, after the Hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, and the Prayer of the Holy Ghost, which are said in the Chapel Paulina, at which the Cardinals are oblig’d to be present, if not detain’d by indisposition, immediately after the third ringing of the Bell.

There is great secrecy to be observ’d in the Scrutiny and Access, and the manner of proceeding therein may be reduc’d to three principal actions. The first is the previous or Fore-Scrutiny; the second, that of Scrutiny and Access; and the third, that of the Post-Scrutiny, or what follows the Scrutiny and Access as soon as they are compleated.


Worth’s interest in papal conclaves is evidenced not only by his purchase of Leti’s works but also by the inclusion of a bookmark scrap at p. 50 of the text which bears the date 15 August 1721. Undoubtedly his interest in the text was due to the 1721 conclave which witnessed the election of Michelangelo Conti as Pope Innocent XIII in May of that year. No doubt the appeal of papal conclaves was not only their secrecy but also their unpredictable nature. Leti gives us good advice for the March 2013 papal conclave when he states that:

‘Those persons who pretend to make assured judgments of Elections, are many times mistaken in their Conjectures, not only upon account of the diversity and clashing of interests, but also by reason of the ordinary alterations hapning in the Colledge of Cardinals, by frequent promotions, which strangely invert the course of all proceedings in the Conclave, and destroys all the former measure which might have been taken of an Election.’



Pirie, Valérie (1935), The Triple Crown. An Account of the Papal Conclaves from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times (London)

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian, The Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

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