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Pius II: Humanist and Crusader

John B. Morrall describes how worldly learning and a reverence for Christian tradition were combined in the character of “one of the best of the Renaissance Popes.”

The conclave which assembled in the Roman August of 1458 to elect a new Pope suffered from tensions not wholly due to the weather. It was nine years since the collapse (which no one could be sure was final) of the movement to supersede Papal government of the Church by that of a General Council. It was five years since Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks. The two issues of reform of the Church and the protection of Christendom from the infidel were clearly crying for a solution.

The electing Cardinals were determined not to be left out of any future Papal decisions on these two huge subjects. Before the Conclave commenced each of them swore that if he were made Pope he would observe certain “Capitulations,” the effect of which would be to temper Papal monarchy with the oligarchical counter-balance of the Sacred College.

The unknown future Pope had to pledge that he would not prosecute a Crusade or reform the Church without the advice of the Cardinals. Other provisos gave the Cardinals a virtual stranglehold over the administrative government of the Church and also of the Papal States in Central Italy. It remained to be seen whether the future Pope would be willing or able to observe his promises. Attempts to enforce similar “Capitulations” on former Pontiffs had not met with great success.

The secular Catholic Powers watched the election keenly. France, stronger after its victory in the Hundred Years War than it had been for half a century, had a candidate, the able Cardinal d’Estouteville of Rouen. The Italian Powers, especially Milan and Naples (both acutely aware of French dynastic claims to their territories), were alarmed at the spectre of renewed French domination of the Papacy and were looking round for a likely Italian candidate.

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