Pope Clement VII, son of Giuliano de’ Medici, was among the most unfortunate occupants of the Vatican. He was tall, slender, and moderately handsome, though wearing a “permanently sour” expression. He was upright and intelligent, but unprepared for the hornet’s nest of the papacy. When faced with hard decisions, he vacillated. The Venetian ambassador wrote, “The pope is 48 years old and is a sensible man but slow in decision, which explains his irresolution in action.”

Clement, finding his treasury bankrupt, was chagrined that no Italian banker trusted him. The citizens of Rome didn’t like him either. And Clement agonized over his failure to stem Luther’s Reformation and to promote reform within his own church. At the same time he was caught between the conflicting aims of the kings of France and Spain. His attempts to steer a middle course invited the sack of Rome in 1527. As Clement watched helplessly from a tower, his city was plundered, raped, butchered, and burned.

He was caught once again between two kings—Henry VIII of England and Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor. King Henry, frustrated he had no male heir wanted an annulment from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement had the prerogative to set aside the marriage. But he was under the thumb of Charles—Catherine’s nephew. To grant the annulment invited disaster, including the alienation of the Holy Roman Empire from Catholicism. To refuse invited the fury of Henry VIII and the probable loss of England.

Clement tried to steer a middle course, hemming and hawing, at his wit’s end, worrying that whatever happened, “the church cannot escape utter ruin.” He made catastrophic errors. King Henry seized his nation’s monasteries, split with the Vatican, and established the Reformation in England by the Act of Supremacy.

On September 25, 1534, having barely survived his previous misfortunes, he met a final one—a miserable death, reportedly from gobbling down a bowl of poisonous mushrooms.

Moaning and groaning are my food and drink, and my worst fears have all come true. I have no peace or rest— only troubles and worries. (Job 3:24-26)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Sept. 25.

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