17th Century Papal elections: Charles II’s unorthodox role

After this week’s excitement from the Vatican, Dr Robin Eagles shares a story of 17th Century papal elections that the Stuarts really were not supposed to have been involved in…

Charles II has frequently been suspected of Catholic sympathies. It was a topic of general concern throughout his reign and of the five rival members of the “CABAL ministry”, three had some Catholic associations. Thomas Lord Clifford was a Catholic; Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington was thought to be a crypto-Catholic; and George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, may, like the king, have converted in his last moments. Charles was criticised for favouring Catholic mistresses such as Louise de Keroualle and at the height of the Popish Plot even his queen fell under suspicion for having been involved in the conspiracy.

While all this is well known, an attempt to persuade Charles and his queen to become involved in a papal election is perhaps less so. On 22 July 1676 Pope Clement X died. The front runner to replace him was a man who had only narrowly missed out on being elected the time before, Benedetto Odeschalchi. He came from a family of minor Italian nobles and bankers. Odeschalchi’s nomination was opposed by Louis XIV and it may have been in an effort to thwart him again that Louis’s ambassador in England, Honore Courtin, wrote to Charles requesting him to use his interest with the English cardinal, Philip Thomas Howard (a relative of both the king and the duke of Norfolk) to ensure that Howard voted with the French cardinals. Reporting back to his master, Courtin suggested that Charles and Queen Catharine were making efforts ‘to assist as discretely as possible, not wanting any public knowledge of the fact they are remotely involved in anything to do with the Pope’. [TNA, PRO 31/3/133 ff.55-56]

For all this, Louis was disappointed in his efforts. He was forced to concede that Odeschalchi’s candidacy was unstoppable and instructed the French cardinals not to block the election.

The new Pope Innocent XI (1676-89) proved a thorn in the side of both Louis and Charles II’s successor on the throne, James II. Louis’ revocation of the Edict of Nantes did not meet with the Pope’s approval. Even though James came to the throne as the first Catholic monarch since Mary I, the Pope disliked the manner in which James attempted to reintroduce Catholicism in the kingdom. It has even been suggested that the family bank helped fund William of Orange’s invasion in 1688.


For more on religion and politics during the later Stuart period, see this article on our website.

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