Better Know A Pope: Benedict IX

Published February 20, 2015
Updated January 27, 2015

Good News: Germany Invades

For a few months, that is. Just shy of a year later, Benedict decided to get married and sell the papacy to the highest bidder. The “winner” turned out to be his own godfather, himself a church official, who drained the church’s own treasury to buy it and become Gregory VI.

It was around this point that Sylvester unhelpfully decided to assert his claim to the throne, setting the stage for a power struggle that threatened civil war and eventually attracted the attention of the German King Henry III, who promptly invaded and threw Sylvester in prison. Gregory was allowed to abdicate, and Henry installed one of his pet bishops as Clement II. Benedict fled this episode of Game of Thrones and arranged to poison Clement, after which he reclaimed the papacy.

Benedict IX Dead Pope

WW—oh, forget it.
Source: Sentry Medical Group

Enough was enough, even for Rome. By this point, Henry was firmly embedded in the politics of the papacy, and when he heard about the shenanigans he sent a new pope, Damasus II, with an army to back him up. Unfortunately for Henry, Damasus died of malaria after 24 days. Fortunately for Henry, Germany still had plenty of bishops to toss at Italy, so Leo IX—who was evidently immune to malaria, poison, and mysterious falls down flights of stairs—finally took charge and dispatched Benedict to a monastery, where he conveniently repented of his ways and died of totally natural causes at the age of 35.

As it happens, Leo IX would later be canonized as a saint, though it may be argued that anybody would qualify for sainthood after the disaster area that was Benedict’s reign(s). Surprisingly, the Catholic Church currently recognizes Benedict as the legitimate pope of his age, as popes can’t officially be deposed or impeached. So that means that all of the other claimants, including the one who paid good money for the gig, were illegitimate antipopes. Officially, Leo IX was legit, since Benedict IX “resigned” prior to his murder. That reasoning sounds a bit thin, but you get the impression everybody is happy to just let that sleeping dog lie.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.