The papacy is an ancient institution that’s charged with leading and guiding the worldwide Christian population in their spiritual lives. Today, we view the pope as a figurehead whose power comes from his ability to influence the direction of Christianity, and therefore the direction and viewpoints of large swaths of the 2.2 billion Christians on earth. The pope – currently the Argentinian-born Pope Francis – wields power through symbolism and the historical importance of the papacy. However, things weren’t always this way.
Following the spread of Christianity throughout the western world after the death of Christ, the papacy became increasingly powerful. Once the various rulers and monarchs of Europe and the Middle-East began to convert to Christianity, the pope enjoyed a sort of de facto control over the numerous newly-converted Christian kingdoms. The east-west schism that began in 1053 effectively split Christianity in two, with the Pope becoming the figurehead of the newly created catholic sect of Christianity based in western Europe and those in the east who formed the orthodox Christian religion turning their back on the papacy.
Throughout most of the next 1,000 years, it was the catholic pope who controlled and influenced much of the secular and political activities of western Europe, which was quickly establishing itself as the most powerful group of states on Earth. As the pope had so much influence throughout the region, whoever found himself to be pope at the time was for all intents and purposes the most powerful man on the planet.
Naturally, power attracts corruption, and the popes of old weren’t all mercy and humility. Some of history’s many popes gained their power through political manipulation, corruption, or outright murder. As much as the catholic church of today would rather we forget, the history of the papal seat is riddled with war and blood – a far cry from the relatively benign presence of today’s pope. Frankly, the popes of history are far more entertaining than the ones of today, and these ones were the darkest, most malicious popes to hold the throne.
#1. Pope Sergius III
Not a whole lot is known about Sergius III as his papacy was right in the middle of the Dark Ages. He ascended to the throne in 904 and ruled for 7 years until 911, but he did enough to develop a pretty bad reputation in the meantime. He allegedly orchestrated the murder of his predecessor Leo V from prison and had a child with a mistress that would grow up to be Pope John IX. He also participated as a co-judge in the Cadaver Synod – which we’ll get into shortly – a posthumous trial of the late pope Formosus that is easily the most insane moment in the history of the papacy. He came from a family of Roman nobility and exercised his power to strengthen the Roman noble class. His main concerns during his reign were his power and sex life, with other papal responsibilities set by the wayside.