Monday, March 28, 2022

Renaissance Popes IV: Callixtus III

 Birth Name: Alfons de Borja (often Alfonso de Borgia)

Lived: 1378-1458

Regnal Name: Callixtus III

Regnal Life: 1455-1458

Alfonso de Borgia was born in the Kingdom of Valencia in the Crown of Aragon; he attended the University of Lleida, where he studied law and at which he eventually became a law professor. According to a common story, at one point he attended a sermon by St. Vincent Ferrer, who in comments afterward told him that he was destined to be an ornament to his house and country, and that he therefore must take care to keep on the path of virtue. He was an active supporter of the Avignon papacy, but about the time of the Council of Constance, in which Aragon did not participate, he began arguing strongly for the importance of church unity, and he was eventually a major player in working out the reunion between Clement VIII of Avignon and Martin V of Rome. In reward, Pope Martin made him bishop of Valencia; Pope Eugene later elevated him to the cardinalate when he helped heal a breach between the pope and the king of Aragon.

As it became clear to people that Pope Nicholas was dying, there was a great deal of worry about the future. There were no particularly obvious candidates to replace him and with international tensions being as high as they were, there was a worry that if any major faction did not get its way, there would be another schism. We know from comments made by those who were participating that the College of Cardinals quickly settled into what looked like a stagnant stalemate as different factions absolutely refused to vote for each other's candidates. An agreement was therefore made to pick none of the favored candidates but instead a man who could be expected to be at least tolerable to each faction and who was also elderly so that he would die soon. Thus Alfonso de Borgia was, in effect, selected as a compromise candidate to be provisional pope, with everyone hoping that he would die in a few years. An inauspicious beginning, and it only got worse when, on his coronation day, a stray comment he made led to a riot between Christians and Jews and then he had to stop, completely independently, yet another fight over trivial matters that threatened to break out into an actual battle. The halcyon days of Pope Nicholas were gone. But the new pope, who took the name Callixtus III, went to work very quickly, and not long afterward canonized St. Vincent Ferrer.

Almost all of the money that under Nicholas had been flowing to artists and authors, to books and buildings, began to dry up immediately, to the endless complaints of those who had benefited. Callixtus was not particularly interested in such subjects. A law professor to his very marrow, he always said very little in conversations unless they turned to some technicality in canon law or civil law, at which he would suddenly become very animated. And he was a man of very practical priorities. Tied to this practicality, however, there was one thing he carried over from his predecessor. After the Fall of Constantinople, Pope Nicholas had attempted to stir up a crusade against the Ottoman Empire, and Callixtus was, if anything, even more sure that this had to be done, particularly as the Ottomans were advancing, winning victory after victory. Pope Nicholas's attempts had repeatedly failed. Pope Callixtus was more singleminded. The buildings on which he did spend were fortifications; most of the papal revenue that had gone to humanist concerns now went to try to pull together armies to fight the Ottomans. Large numbers of papal nuncios were sent out to try to call the nations of Europe to war. Every delegation that visited him began to get an earful about the importance of meeting Turkish invasion.

It is a clear and evident proof that the Age of Crusade  was over that Callixtus, devoting so much of his resources to a crusade against the Turks, barely managed to scrape anything together. The nations of Europe were more interested in bickering with each other than sending an army to help the Hungarians. And in 1456, Mehmed the Conqueror came up to the walls of Belgrade and laid siege. Hunyadi Janos, the major Hungarian military figure, had pulled together what he could to defend the city, but it was not much. A significant part of his forces, raised by St. John Capistrano preaching crusade for the pope, were peasants armed with farm equipment. Hunyadi was able to use a flotilla to break the Ottoman naval blockade, but by this point Ottoman cannons had breached the walls, so Mehmed pushed forward rather than retreating. Hunyadi got the defenders to use tarred wood, of which they had a great deal, to seal the breaches in the walls with fire. The fire cut off those Janissaries that had already entered, and they were slaughtered; meanwhile it kept the main Ottoman forces out for one more day. What happened next is unclear. Hunyadi had ordered his troops not to venture out, but a significant portion of the recruited peasants did, presumably in the hope of finding loot. The result was that both armies found themselves suddenly involved in a full-scale battle for which they had not fully planned, in part because both armies would have regarded it as suicidal for the Hungarians to try to engage in direct assault on the fortified Ottoman encampment. But a large group of peasants being led by John Capistrano found themselves right in the middle of Ottoman cannon placements as the Ottomans in the confusion began to flee the vanguard (as they thought) of the host that had suddenly descended upon them. In vain Mehmed and his generals tried to restore order. In the confusion, Sultan Mehmed himself was wounded. And the result was that the Ottoman army, with every advantage over its opponents, led by perhaps the greatest military minds of the day, retreated in panic and confusion from a battle they could certainly have won.

Pope Callixtus, hearing of this, ordered every church in Europe to ring its bell at noon to celebrate the victory, a custom that still exists in many parts of Europe, and also raised the status of the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, the day on which he heard of the news.

While Callixtus may have been primarily focused on the crusade, other things did happen, as it were by the byway. One very fateful thing that happened was that he created a number of cardinals in order to have a reliable base of support; several of the cardinals were family members, thus beginning the role of the Borgia family in the Renaissance papacy. He also confirmed some of the compromises and concessions that his predecessor had made with the Portuguese and ordered a re-trial of Joan of Arc, who had been condemned as a witch by a trial under the English, both as part of his diplomatic efforts. But he was an elderly man, and in 1458 he died, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

The man who would succeed him would be very different.