The INSIDER Summary
• The youngest pope ever was Benedict IX.
• He likely became pope when he was 12.
• The church was marked with political instability — he became pope three separate times.
HBO’s new show “The Young Pope” takes place in a world where we get a new pope.
As you may have surmised from the title, he’s a sprightly one — just 47 years old. That’s pretty young for a pope, who are, on average, elected in their 60s.
The character, Lenny Balardo, is played played by Jude Law, 44, who takes the title of Pope Pius XIII.
The youngest pope in history, however, is less than half that age. That would be Pope Benedict IX, born Theophylactus of Tusculum, who was picked as pope on three separate occasions in his lifetime, ruling during a tumultuous period in the church with seven different papacies over a short period of time. The date of his birth is uncertain, but his first papacy, in 1032, was given to him somewhere between the age of 11 and 20.
Wait, was he really that young?
The question of his age is a tricky one.
According to “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” a series of volumes published in the early 1900s, Benedict was around 20 years old when he became pontiff. Bertrand Russell in “A History of Western Philosophy,” though, noted that “he was said to be twelve years old at the time.”
The closest source to the pope himself was Rodulfus Glaber, a monk and historian who lived from 985 to 1047. He was a critic of Benedict — and some of his other historical writings have been viewed as less-than-reliable — but nonetheless he’s one of the few sources we have. According to him, the pope was 12 in 1032, the time of his accession.
Glaber’s account is pretty much accepted by F. Donald Logan, a medieval studies scholar, who wrote about Benedict IX in his magisterial book “A History of the Church in the Middle Ages” (I read from the second edition).
The age we can most confidently attribute to Theophylactus of Tusculum when he became Benedict IX is 12 years old.
Some historians contend that Pope John XII was actually the youngest pope ever. His date of birth is also uncertain, and he’s said to have started his papacy somewhere between the age of 18 and 25 in 955. Though John XII had an eventful life, we’ll focus on Benedict IX for the sake of this article because he was likely even younger.
How did he become pope?
Nepotism! Young Theophylactus was the nephew of two previous popes: John XIX and Benedict VIII (who he apparently liked more). According to “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” his father “placed” him in the papacy. Benedict was in the Counts of Tusculum, in the Colonna family, arguably the most powerful family in Italy during the period. The family’s patriarch, Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum, enabled his family to control the papacy for a century after his death.
Well, was he at least a good pope?
No. Even “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” which was marketed to Catholic audiences, was not afraid to call him “a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.” (In Catholic theology, the papacy exists in the tradition of Peter the apostle. There is also a literal Chair of Saint Peter in Rome, though Benedict IX never sat in it.)
There isn’t much reliable documentation about his actual policies, but historians have been uncharitable, to say the least. Logan said the end of his reign also marked the end of “the worst days in the long history of the papacy.” Historian Ferdinand Gregorovius called him “a demon from hell.”
How did he become pope three times?
The first major sign of trouble came in 1036, when political opponents tried to murder Benedict in St. Peter’s Basilica. He fled into exile.
Conrad II, the German emperor, restored him to power before long, and Benedict IX stayed in Rome until 1045. In those years, contemporary sources say he “stole, murdered and committed other, unspeakable deeds,” according to Logan.
Fed up with his misdeeds, the people of Rome drove him out of the city in 1045 (though other sources say he was simply toppled by a rival political faction, and some sources say it was in 1044).
In January of that year, a bishop of Sabina became Pope Sylvester III. But it took just two months for Benedict IX to depose Sylvester and return to power, beginning his second stint as pope in March of that year. Sylvester III, meanwhile, went back to being a bishop.
Benedict IX enjoyed his second papacy for about two months, and then abdicated. The generally accepted reason is that the archpriest John Gratian — who was also his godfather — gave him a ton of money. Other sources say, additionally, Benedict IX was tormented about the responsibility of being pope and just took the papacy in the first place because his parents made him do it. I’m sure we can all relate. And according to Logan, Benedict IX wanted to marry his cousin, which he couldn’t do as a priest.
So in May of 1045, Gratian paid Benedict IX off and become the pope himself, adopting the name of Pope Gregory VI. His papacy lasted about as long as Sylvester’s, but it would take a little longer for Benedict IX to return to power.
So, how did he come to power a third time?
Henry III, the king of Germany and of Burgundy (a region that roughly corresponds to southeastern France today), intervened in this entire affair. He met with Pope Gregory, Benedict, and the former Pope Sylvester at the town of Sutri, right outside of Rome. By this time, all three had their own followers within the Church, and Henry wanted to resolve it so that a legitimately agreed-upon pope could crown him as the Holy Roman Emperor. That would give him control over the powerful Holy Roman Empire. The Empire had been without a ruler for six years by then, after the death of Conrad II in 1039.
Instead of picking one for the papacy, Henry III had the Council of Sutri dismiss all of them.
Henry’s first pick for the pope declined, so he had a guy named Sugier, his personal confessor and the bishop of Bamberg, become Pope Clement II on Christmas day in 1046. Clement quickly named Henry III the Holy Roman Emperor, who was such a poor ruler that the Holy Roman Empire remained disintegrated for 30 years after his death.
Clement II didn’t last long either. He died in November of 1047. Seizing the moment, Benedict IX held returned to Rome and seized the throne. The cousin he wanted to marry turned him down, according to Logan, so he could still remain a member of the priesthood.
That lasted for about eight months until Henry III’s troops drove him away and installed Pope Damasus II.
Damasus II died after a mere 21 days, one of the shortest papacies in history. But Benedict IX didn’t go for a fourth stint as pope. Henry III schlepped himself to Rome again and made Leo IX pope. He ruled for six years and brought stability to the papacy.
Little is known about the last days of the life of Benedict IX. According to Logan, he “possibly finished his days as a pertinent in a monastery of Grottaferrata in his ancestral Alban Hills … perhaps ill-served by the reformers who wrote his story.” He died in 1056, in his mid-20s, having led a life that changed the Catholic Church forever.
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