The 1527 Sack of Rome | Part 2: Horror & Atrocities

February 13, 2023

The 1527 Sack of Rome | Part 2: Horror & Atrocities
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“The Christians are doing what even the Turks never did!”

“The Christians are doing what even the Turks never did!”


In this episode, we explore the horrific aftermath of the 1527 Sack of Rome, one of the most devastating events in the city's history.


As The Duke of Bourbon’s army fell upon Rome, we follow the perspective of of Pope Clement VII, who was Pope at the time of the Sack.

We explore his role in the defense of the city (or lack thereof), and the impact his decisions.

We also follow the hardships of Isabella d'Este, an Italian noblewoman who had chosen to stay behind and wait-out the siege.


The army, composed mostly of German Landsknechts, committed countless atrocities against the civilian population, including mass murder, rape, and looting.

The soldiers also targeted churches, stealing valuable artwork and destroying the most sacred artefacts in Christendom. 

Through the use of eye-witness accounts, this episode offers rare, first-hand accounts of the chaos and suffering that follow a siege.


Join us as we take a journey through the grizzly aftermath of the 1527 Sack of Rome.





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It's the 18th of April 1527. The people of Rome have put aside the excitement of
the last few months to come together for a Christian holiday, Holy Thursday. The
sticky summer heat had subsided and a pleasant breeze now rolled through the
ancient streets. The courtyard of the half-finished St. Peter's Basilica
swelled with tourists, eager to receive the Pope's blessing on this holy day. For
Pope Clement VII, it was finally a time to relax. He knew the rituals like
the back of his hand and welcomed any opportunity to forget about the looming
disaster that grew close to the walls of his city. One after the next, the men,
women, and children fell to their knees as the pontiff made the sign of the
cross, blessing them. Suddenly, an ear-piercing cry broke the silence.
Thou bastard of Sodom! The Pope turned to see a scruffy-looking hermit climbing up
the statue of Saint Paul. His malnourished body was covered only by an
old leather smock, his hair knotted and his eyes burned with hellfire. As the
Pope's gaze fell on him, he continued, Thou bastard of Sodom! For thy sins Rome
shall be destroyed. Repent and turn thee. If thou will not repent, believe me. In
fourteen days thou shalt see it. Within seconds the pontiff's guard had pried
the hermit off the statue and marched him away. But his raspy voice echoed out
a horrible warning to the pilgrims. Rome, do penance. They shall deal with thee as
God dealt with Sodom. People pointed and whispered a few laughs, but no one gave
the lunatic ramblings much thought. But eighteen days later, the madman's
prophecy would be fulfilled and the ancient city would be destroyed as God
once destroyed the city of Sodom.
Welcome back to Anthology of Heroes, the podcast sharing stories of heroism and
defiance from across the ages. This episode is part two of the story of the
1527 sack of Rome. Part one followed the life of the Duke of Bourbon, a disgraced
French nobleman who had found himself leading a mutinous army to the gates of
Rome. The Duke of Bourbon's life was one unfortunate decision after another and
it's through his eyes that we learn how Rome ended up being in the crosshairs
for the army. We discussed the other major players in the story like Pope
Clement VII, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Francois I
of France. This episode will shift away from the perspective of the Duke
and instead follow Pope Clement VII as the ever indecisive pontiff
prepares, and I put that in air quotes, his city for the cataclysmic assault
that was coming. We left episode one with a cliffhanger. The Duke of Bourbon's
exhausted starving army had just dragged itself up the walls of Rome and began
the assault. A defender had just spied the gleaming silver surcoat of the Duke
and fired through the mist. We're gonna wind the clock back a few weeks now
though to see what Clement had been up to before this moment. I'd recommend
starting with episode one first but I'd say that every episode, don't I? A quick
trigger warning before we start, this episode is much darker than the first
and includes descriptions of some extreme violence including sexual
violence. I'll give you another heads-up later in the episode before we get
really into it. So buckle up, here we go. Massacre at Heaven's Gate, the 1527 sack
of Rome, part 2, horror and atrocities.
As the days dragged by, Pope Clement VII sat in his palace, paralyzed by indecision.
The hesitant pontiff had gone back and forth, back and forth between an alliance
with France and the Holy Roman Empire, the two biggest European powers who had
been at war with each other for a couple of years. All the while the Pope had kept
a toe in each camp trying to make sure he was on the winning side but both
sides had found out about the Vatican's double dealings and now were well and
truly done with Pope Clement VII. The Holy Roman Emperor had threatened to
march to Rome himself and toss a pontiff out with his own hands while one of his
lieutenants had supposedly bragged to his cheering men that he was going to
hang the Pope with a golden rope. With things looking particularly grim,
Clement had appointed a man to command the papal troops should the war reach
them. His name was Renzo de Cerri and his
appointment as the leader of the Vatican army was yet more proof of Clement's
poor judgment. Renzo was part of an Italian mercenary group. He was a good
enough soldier. When someone told him to stand in one place and hold the line
he'd do it but a good soldier doesn't make a good leader and Renzo was a
woeful commander. He lacked the ability to put himself in the shoes of the enemy,
was overconfident in his ability to lead and if something didn't go exactly to
plan he was completely lost. He was in well over his head even if he didn't
think so and the impending disaster was as much his fault as it was Clement's.
Initially it seemed like Renzo's appointment was overkill, an overreaction for an
event that would never occur. When France and the Holy Roman Empire signed a
truce his position seemed irrelevant. With the conflict supposedly put to bed
Clement sent a man north to treat with the approaching army. The Pope seemed to
think that one of his envoys would be enough to convince these angry mutinous
men to forget about their months of hardship, starvation and unpaid wages in
exchange for a gold coin or two. The envoy barely escaped with his life as
their bedraggled commander the Duke of Bourbon laid it out for him telling him
that he'd lost control of these men long ago. He said look I'm no general, I'm a
little more than a guide to these men. If the Pope wants to turn this runaway
train back he better come up with five times the amount of gold that you're
offering and he better do it now because these men are marching to Rome and
getting paid one way or the other. The Pope was beside himself when he found
out his offer had been rejected but commander Renzo said hey don't worry
we've got 10,000 troops here and we can raise money to buy more. At this point
the Pope had already dismissed the best mercenaries in Italy because he thought
the war was over and didn't want to keep paying them, big mistake. So with the army
marching ever closer by the day the Pope summons the richest men of Rome for
meeting with him, essentially fundraising the defense of the city. These guys were
the mega rich, the Elon Musk, the Jeff Bezos of Rome kind of guys. All of them
lived in these sprawling mansions, armies of servants and were just ultra wealthy
and the Holy Father literally begs them for money. He says to them please I need
your help to pay for the defense of the city. We're in bad need of soldiers, the
walls are falling apart and if the army makes it inside you're in as much
trouble as I am, please. And there's just silence, crickets, no one moves from their
seat. Eventually one person, the richest man in the entire city comes up and
drops a hundred ducats into the pile, literal pocket change for him. Everyone
else just sat silently looking at the floor. They all seem to believe that this
was a bit of a shakedown, that the Pope didn't actually need their money, he was
just being greedy. After all how could the Vatican be broke? It was the Vatican.
With the rich closing their checkbooks Renzo turns to the poor and summons the
city militia. In extreme events like this the militia was intended to be a show of
force that would hopefully be a deterrence for the enemy or at worst
hold them off till a relief army was sent. About one-quarter of them report
for duty. To fill the gaps Renzo starts conscripting townsfolk. Cooks are given
bludgeons and he decides that painters with their dexterous fingers will make
good gunners. He begs Clement to throw his morals to the wind and sell off
cardinal positions for cash. Pope Clement had always prided himself on not turning
the sacred appointment of holy men into an auction. He wanted to draw a line in
the sand but with his back to the wall he relented. The grasping hands of the
greedy Roman elite snatched up the cardinal hats. Better to snag one now
before old man Clement changes his mind. One of those hands belonged to a woman, a
woman named Isabella de Este. Isabella is the last main character of our story, a
really interesting figure whose role is often overlooked in the story of the
siege. She's often called the first lady of the Renaissance, a woman ahead of her
time really. All the big players in the world of European fine art, all of them
gravitated towards Isabella. Popes wanted to be near her, women wanted to be her,
and kings wanted to romance her. You'd be hard-pressed to find a man or woman in
the upper rungs of European society that hadn't at least heard the name Isabella
de Este. Isabella was one of those women who danced to the beat of her own
drum, literally. She invented new dances that took the courts of Europe by storm.
She pioneered new fashion trends, organized the defense of kingdoms, and if
the party was ever winding down, she could recite classical Greek and Roman
poetry by heart. But that was in her youth. Isabella was in her 50s by this
point, she was starting to slow down. Acquired a life with a few parties here
and there, that's how she wanted to spend her twilight years. So what was she
doing in Rome then? Unlike others, she had the means to escape. With estates and
friends all over Italy, she could have gone anywhere. But Isabella was stubborn,
she wasn't used to being told no. She promised her son she'd get him his own
cardinal hat and she wasn't about to be made to look a liar. But there was
another reason she had no fear. Because Isabella's nephew was the disgraced
general leading the army, Charles the Duke of Bourbon. Isabella had heard
rumors of the advancing army being particularly rowdy, but she was a noble
woman of the highest order, and with her nephew leading the army and one of her
sons as captain, she felt quite secure in her palace. But fate had one more
adventure left for the wealthy dowager, and it would take everything she'd
learned over the course of her action-packed life to survive the
coming weeks. I spent an hour with the Pope. It is difficult to express the
terror he is in. This was how one of the Pope's visitors described the pontiff's
state of mind. For so long it had been easy for Clement to disengage from
reality, but with each day the threat grew more and more real. A hostile army
would be at the gates of Rome very soon. Yet his confidence was raised by his
enthusiastic commander. Renzo de Cerri surveyed his mob, a handful of cooks, a
few artists, a couple of sculptors and a lot of conscripted criminals, and somehow
he decided this rabble were well placed to defend against an army of desperate
starving veteran soldiers. Even Pope Clement's arch-nemesis, the Duke of Urbino,
realized the code-red danger Rome was in. Despite his hatred for the man, he offered
to send him a good chunk of soldiers to help defend the city. But in one of those
you've got to be kidding moments, Renzo turned them away. That's right, he said
we're fine, we don't need them. So the 8,000 strong army shrugged their
collective shoulders and returned north, writing to their commander, quote,
apart from the confidence which our Holy Father opposes in his people, he, meaning
Renzo, has made excellent provisions for defense. There is no need to have any
fear whatsoever, end quote. By Saturday the 4th of May the army was
sighted on the horizon. As the last few merchants fled the city, the ancient
gates of Rome slammed shut. The turncoat Duke gave the Pope one last chance.
300,000 ducats. Pay it and we leave. The Pope's first offer back at the army
camp was 60,000. Bourbon had counted asking for 240,000 and now the offer was
at 300,000. It was a lot of money but it wasn't inconceivable. The pontiff had
gained 240,000 ducats from selling the cardinal hats. Surely he could have
scrounged up the last 60k. But Renzo again told him, don't worry, we got this.
So Bourbon pulled on his silver surcoat and prepared for the final battle. It had
been a little over five years since he sat down with the Emperor's envoys and
agreed to betray his king. Not a single thing had gone in his favor since that
day. What was he now? Nothing. A French brigand leading a bunch of starving
Germans who barely tolerated him, let alone respected him. But he was the type
of man who did everything to the best of his ability. Maybe once he took the city
he could leverage his way back into high society. Perhaps it wasn't too late. As
the troops grew closer to the wall it was obvious that defenses had been
rushed. The majority of the walls constructed had been built by Emperor
Aurelian almost 13 centuries ago. We covered Aurelian's life in season three
of the show but let that sink in. These walls, some of them at least, are nearing
1,300 years old. Not only that but sections of it had just been pulled away
to make way for, wait for it, gardens. One of the Cardinals had decided that the
city walls were a perfect place to grow his cabbages so the troops simply walked
through it. And boom that was one layer of defense passed. As they neared the
battlements one of Bourbon's commanders pulled him aside and said, you know, are
we really gonna do this? Think for a second about what you're doing. If these
men get inside they will utterly destroy this ancient city. Your name will be mud
and so will the Emperor's. But Bourbon was past caring. As ER Chamberlain writes
quote, they, meaning the army, moved in eerie relative silence for the heavy
boots of most had long disintegrated and they shuffled rather than marched in
makeshift sandals. But their swords were honed, their lances and arquebuses oiled.
They could still kill. The bells of the great churches of Rome rang out in alarm
as citizens darted around the city frantically. Holes were hastily dug under
cellars below the roots of an old tree or in the back of gardens and purses
full of coins, trinkets and jewelry were buried. According to one eyewitness in
the chaotic last moments before the storm hit they witnessed a statue of
baby Jesus levitate from the arms of the Virgin Mary before it was violently
thrown into the ground shattering into thousands of pieces. Isabella de Este
received a final desperate warning from her son. Get out. The Duke doesn't command
these men and neither he nor I can protect you. What is coming to Rome will
be apocalyptic. But still she refused. With her nephew
leading the army and her son a captain she thought no matter their warnings she
would be safe. Isabella de Este made up her mind. She dug in and hired a group of
mercenaries to defend her palace. Rumors of her fortified little corner of the
city circulated quickly and scores of wealthy Romans and Cardinals were soon
beating down her door and begging her to let them shelter within. And she was
generous. Soon her palace was packed to the rafters all the richest citizens in
Rome crammed into one building. Because Bourbon's army had no siege weapons their
plan was to attack the portions of the wall that were lowest and obviously
these were the most heavily defended. Bourbon looked upon his exhausted vagabonds
clothes falling to bits starved filthy and hungry these men were on their last
legs and he knew it as he told them quote how lightly you bear the
incredible strains you are undergoing right now here in a place where there is
no more food nor hope of having it immediately from any direction we have
little ammunition and no artillery if we are not surrounded by the enemy that is
only because they lack manliness and courage but also because their leaders
believe that our situation is so hopeless that they will be victorious
without bloodying their swords and quote it was a grim prospect take Rome or die
he tantalized the starving men with stories of piles of gold hoarded in the
ancient city and concluded that those inside deserved what was coming quote
with the greatest justice this punishment has been postponed until this
blessed day and left to the Spanish and German nations by him who gives all
things being and maintains them all in motion end quote with a last cheer for
their turncoat general the men charged forward as cannons mounted atop the
Aurelian walls erupted and raked the front lines the defenders were not
artillery men but it was like shooting fish in a barrel the attackers fell by
the dozen but then like an act of God a white cloud of mist drifted over the
fortifications the defenders now had almost no vision and fired blindly into
the mist eerily the battlefield quietened and the sounds of plants being
uprooted and wood clanking was heard suddenly through the mist a makeshift
ladder sprung up against the wall the attackers were using latchings from
vineyards as ladders a silver circuit caught the eye of one defender a
goldsmith turned soldier and we have his account from this day quote upon the
rampants where we took our station several young men were lying killed by
besiegers the battle raged there desperately and there was the densest
fog imaginable I turned to Alessandro and said let us go home as soon as we
can there is nothing to be done here you can see the enemies are mounting and our
men are in flight Alessandro called in panic would God that we had never come
here and turned in maddest haste to fly I took him up somewhat sharply with
these words since you have bought me here I must perform some action worthy
of a man and directing my arquebus where I saw the thickest and most serried
troop of fighting men I aimed exactly at one who I remarked to be higher than the
rest when we had fired two rounds of peace I crept cautiously up to the wall
and observing among the enemy a most extraordinary confusion I discovered
afterwards that one of our shots had killed the constable of bourbon and from
what I subsequently learned he was a man whom I had first noticed above the heads
of the rest and quote the Duke of bourbon fell from the ladder and hit the
ground with a sickening crunch as blood gushed out of his iconic silver surcoat
he moaned quote not red am I am dead and quote medics rushed the commander to a
field hospital where they found out the bullet had entered his groin and severed
an artery as the Duke bled out in a makeshift hospital outside the city that
he had given everything to take in a state of delirium he repeated over and
over quote to Rome to Rome to Rome
the death of the Duke of bourbon whether it happened as the man above described
it or in some other way halted the army it was as if time stood still and every
man looked at each other wondering what they should do next the defenders
cheered and many even retreated announcing that the siege was over
because bourbon was dead but for the attackers his death changed very little
they were still starving they were still poor and they were still angry like ants
from an anthill more and more men surged up the makeshift ladders with renewed
aggression the defenders had just killed the only man who had the slightest whiff
of control over these men the walls began to look like a forest as one after
another ladders went up against it and the dead generals men scrambled over the
defenders manned the ramparts pouring boiling oil over the sides and kicking
down the ladders and this went on for an hour or so the battle swayed back and
forth with no side willing to give ground but at 10 a.m. a tiny band of
Spaniards found their way through the defenses according to ER Chamberlain
these men found an old basement with a tunnel leading under the walls opened a
trapdoor and just found themselves inside the city others say that the men
had pried out a very weak section of the wall with their bare hands however it
happened all agreed on what happened next
Renzo de cherry the hand-picked leader of the defense force was overcome with
cowardice at seeing the enemy soldiers seeing the Spanish troops he was said to
have screamed quote the enemy are within save yourselves and quote before pushing
past his stunned soldiers and running for his life this small group of
attackers could have easily been dealt with but the defenders on the wall heard
of the cherries flight and they too dropped their weapons and bolted the
enemy now surged up the wall whoever was still left was cut down and this could
have been where things ended because separating this side of Rome to the
other more prosperous side was a large bridge in the days leading to the siege
the Pope had proposed demolishing the bridge as a failsafe but once again the
Cardinals and the city's elite shouted him down the bridge was too beautiful to
be destroyed and besides it would be most inconvenient to ferry supplies
across the water by boat so it still stood Renzo to cherry must have been the
very last citizen to escape the carnage as he shamelessly bolted out of Rome on
the fastest horse he could find as the chance of Spain Spain kill kill echoed
off the cobbled streets the townsfolk ran to escape the carnage to the only
safe place they knew many civilians were trampled to death as I piled against the
door of castle de San Angelo the Pope's specially built fortress atop Emperor
Hadrian's tomb but the Pope himself wasn't inside he was still at his
palace bursting into his private prayer room came his Swiss guard by far the
best troops in the city if not in Europe the pontiff immediately knew something
was very wrong just like every other decision Clement made this one at the
last second as he um denied about whether it was time to leave bourbon's
furious troops breached the courtyard to his palace as the rabble burst through
the doors into the exquisite tapestry line corridors of the palace Clement knew
now he was in grave danger his bodyguards hastily threw off his snow
white cap and cape and rushed him towards the secret escape route by now
189 steely-eyed Swiss Guardsmen had formed up at the bottom of the stairs
they had trained for this exact moment fully prepared to die for the Pope they
awaited the fury of bourbon's blood-drunk men as a pontiff scurried
away to the passageway if they wanted to get the Pope I'd have to get through
them first the Swiss men stood unflinching their gleaming steel pikes
beckoning their exhausted German cousins to try their luck on the stairs of the
palace the clash of German steel rang out against the hallowed halls body
after body fell at the foot of the stairs as the Swiss men skillfully
dispatched one man after the other but the long nests had numbers on their
sides and no amount of Swiss discipline could hold back the tide forever their
wounds mounting in the numbers dwindling they fell back and fell back again but
didn't dare falter until they knew the Pope had escaped the historical metal
band Sabaton immortalized this moment in their song the last stand their lyrics
go like this quote then the 189 in the service of heaven they're protecting the
holy line it was 1527 gave their lives on the steps of heaven thy will be done
for the grace for the might of our Lord for the home of the holy for the faith
for the way of the sword gave their lives so boldly and quote their leader
Kaspar Royce instructed the remaining men to secure the Pope's rear and hold
until he reached the castle Royce soaked in blood having done his duty stumbled
back home to say his goodbyes to his family he knew he was a marked man but
maybe he could have a day or two with his family before they found him but the
mob was hot on his trail and in front of his wife and children they seized him
and bashed him to death 42 of the Swiss guard ran the last means of the
passageway flanking the pontiff to protect him from missiles from below
the Pope would have heard the beginning and the pleading of a population who
knew their death was coming soon the Spaniards and the Germans had now
reached the inner city and the slaughter was beginning with the Pope safely
inside the fortress his guardsmen gave the order to drop the gate the metal
gate fell with deadly force impaling many people who had tried to force
themselves inside by the time the door shut about 3,000 souls had crammed
themselves into the tiny fortress the door locked behind the Pope and it would
not open again for many many months outside the Citadel the land connections
began their butchery the first directive was to ensure the city was properly
taken before they started looting they needed the population cowed and subdued
and indiscriminate killing was the quickest way to do it when they realized
the Spaniard contingent of the army had already begun gathering hostages they
were furious with the imminent threat of death finally having left them
factionalism split the conquering army quickly but the first point of call for
every one of the men was food quote the gaunt figures eight and eight until they
could consume no more months of gruel weak soup and rancid vegetables now
they had their choice of anything and quote once it was clear that the Swiss
guards were gone the Pope's lavish palace was sacked townsfolk who hidden
churches were usually spared butchery post siege but not here the polished
floors of the city churches were soon slick with blood and the pews piled high
with corpses people from all statuses from laborers to bankers for the nuns
and the priests death was preferable to falling into the hands of the Lutheran
Protestants because to the Protestants they were chief instruments in promoting
this corrupted filthy version of their faith nuns were raped en masse and
priests were tortured hideously the Catholic faith was openly mocked as
German soldiers forced priests to perform the sacrament ritual on a mule
they dressed up in Cardinals clothing when the man refused he was killed on
the spot another source speaks of Germans holding a type of macabre parade
the Cardinal was forced into a coffin that the soldiers nailed shut and while
they sung a funeral song for him the coffin was paraded through the streets
to the drunken jeering soldiers who blamed every crime imaginable on the
entombed man other Cardinals well into the 80s were forced to escort the
entourage through the streets a source describes the soldiers with gigantic
pearls weaved into their beards draped in velvet cloaks with fingers bulging
with rings meant for smaller women's hands Francesco Giacardini secondary
source tells us how these holy men were treated quote many of these men wore
torn and disgraceful habits meaning clothes others were without shoes some
in ripped and bloody shirts had cuts and bruises all over their bodies from the
indiscriminate whippings and beatings they'd received some had thick and
greasy beards some had their faces branded and were missing teeth others
were without noses or ears some were castrated in quote the tombs of even the
most venerated Saints were talking st. Peter himself were pried open their
bones were retched from their sockets and smashed in search of jewels hidden
behind them once any valuables were extracted the heads of st. Peter and
st. Paul two of Jesus's apostles the last scene being kicked around in the
street for sport in the midst of the blood and filth an old nun managed to
tuck away the head of John the Baptist one of the holiest figures in
Christianity man who baptized Jesus Christ the enormous 1200 year old Golden
Cross of Constantine the Great the man who converted the Roman Empire to
Christianity was smashed into pieces and pulled apart for jewels the Veronica
cloth a linen garment said to bear the face of Christ himself was used to mop
up beer in a local tavern nails that pierced Christ's flesh as he died on the
cross innumerable hands fingers and clothing belonging to Saints these
relics had no monetary value they were destroyed purely on principle the inner
sanctum of churches the holiest places were turned into brothels as blood-drunk
soldiers passed the time between murdering and looting monks and priests
wept not for their own fate but for that of Rome one Cardinal remarked with great
pity quote Christians are doing what even the Turks never did and quote and
just when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse
Cardinal Colonna the Pope's old rival arrived with the city already fallen his
men wasted no time in joining in on looting although at first he was eager
to twist the knife into his rival it seemed like once he realized just how
horrific this sack was he tried to pull back but it was too late he'd already
poured gasoline on the fire an additional 8,000 men now rampaged
through the Queen of cities as a smog and screams wafted into the richer part
of Rome Isabella destined looked nervously from the palace that she
sheltered in the woman had got herself in and out of some very hairy situation
throughout her life but even she would admit she was in over her head this time
as the dying light of the day in the fires throughout the city illuminated
the collapsing buildings she knew it was nightfall when the city was most
dangerous suddenly the yell of her Guardsmen bought her back to reality her
heart leapt as the shadows of figures came to view snaking through the
alleyways towards the palace her Guardsmen instinctively raised their
rifles but as the first men came into view she screamed at them to stand down
she recognized the figure leading them it was her son Ferrante Isabella had not
seen Ferrante for many years and after a tearful embrace he explained to his
mother that the Duke of Bourbon was dead and that the Pope had fled to castle de
San Angelo he told his mother that one of the Duke's final orders was for him
and his men to defend the palace that she sheltered in but Isabella's relief
was short-lived as he continued by warning her that he had little control
over any of the men apart from the small group that he bought with him
factionalism had split the army into many different groups there were
Spanish Italians and both Catholic and Lutheran Germans prowling around and his
word would only go so far he prepared his mother saying that he
could ensure her protection but no one else had sheltered with her if those
inside could not pay a ransom they would be on their own the only safe place in
the entire city was now castle de San Angelo from the battlements atop the
castle Pope Clement the seventh saw in vivid color the catastrophe that he was
responsible for since the time historians first began to write annals
of the city they have never been accounts of a sack so brutal even the
gothic boogeyman guys Rick and Alaric neither of them had wounded the city so
severely the Pope stared helpless as one of his soldiers broke down crying unable
to open fire on a house where his wife and children lived a group of drunken
soldiers were on the cusp of breaking through the front door and though the
soldier knew what would happen once they got in he couldn't bring himself to fire
as a mob broke down the door another bombardier pushed the distraught man
aside and fired the cannon destroying the house and killing all those inside
at the barred gate desperate civilians still gathered begging to be allowed
inside and Clement watched as a half-dead Cardinal was hauled up the
side of the walls in a woven basket for a man as pious as Clement the horrific
blend of laughter and tortured screams must have conjured thoughts of judgment
day the end of the world a witness reports that over a skyline of smoke and
red the Pope raised his hands to the heavens and cried out quote clare de
vulva edu exist in me and quote why did you bring me into this world as the
days dragged on the easy plunder began to dry up there were only so many big
crosses to break apart and was at this point that the remains of Bourbons
Council tried to restore some order to the attackers usually when a siege takes
place the standard time allotted to the sacking is three days three days is
usually considered enough time to let the soldiers fury excitement and last
run its course the new commander tried his best to re-establish authority but
was more or less told exactly where to shove that order the army had fragmented
so much now that securing the loyalty of a commander or two wasn't enough the
structure was just not there and the occupation of the city had turned into
thousands of little squads of men who barely tolerated the others let alone
accepted orders from them richer citizens usually had the option to pay a
ransom but that ransom only gave them protection from that specific creed of
soldiers if you paid your fortune to a Spanish group the next day the Germans
could come along saying I don't care what your agreement was with them you
pay us now or else women of all statuses were raped repeatedly many times their
mothers were forced to not only watch but join in otherwise they'd both be
killed on the spot I won't go into more detail but the assaults were just
horrific really cruel sick stuff brothers that tried to intervene were
murdered fathers were made to watch the defilement of their family members the
richest man in Rome the guy who gave a hundred ducats to the Pope for the
defense of the city was forced to watch the gang rape of his wife and daughters
while soldiers burnt down their palace as the mobs made their way up the
streets there are instances of fathers just murdering their daughters and wives
rather than letting them fall into the hands of the attackers a hospital was
broken into and all inside many of them infants were killed with some just being
thrown from windows into the streets occasionally there are instances of
women getting their revenge when a group of soldiers chased down some local men
into an alley their wives up in the second story poured boiling water down
on them before rushing them with meat cleavers and cudgels as the weeks dragged
on so did the atrocities most of the richest citizens had been reduced to
ruin or flat-out murdered so now the target shifted to the lower class
sailors fishermen and laborers were tortured to reveal where they buried
what little wealth they had for those that had none to speak of they needed to
think on their feet
one man told his captors that all his wealth was buried out near the sea so
with his boat full of soldiers he rode them out into the Tiber River and where
the current was strongest he dived off and swam to safety leaving the Germans
to drown in the river another story comes to us of a woman who convinced one
of her rapists to have sex on a rickety table above a cesspit before pushing him
into it midway through but as a wealth of the Eternal City began to dry up
soldiers whispered of a source of untapped wealth the rumor went that at
the Colonna Palace there was a fabulously wealthy noblewoman hiding
with her hundreds of the richest citizens in all of Rome the woman of
course was Isabella de Este in the day since a visit from her son her position
had become more difficult despite her armed guard and relation to both the
dead commander and the current captain of the army she had been forced to hand
over many of the wealthier townsfolk sheltering with her crammed inside the
palace there were somewhere around 1,200 women and 1,000 men totaling a whopping
two million ducats of net worth two other captains who were actually friends
with her son awkwardly told him hey I'm sorry I know she's your mom but she and
everyone else in there is a spoiler of war we can do this the easy way or the
hard way for inter picked the former and his armed guard supervised the payment
ceremony to ensure order was maintained these men had committed atrocities every
hour every day for weeks if he had not been there the fate of Isabella's guests
could have been very different slowly each noble was accounted for and a price
was decided based on their status Isabella paid out of pocket for a couple
of her close friends that were unable to find the funds but others were on their
own they could try the hand of bargaining but usually got them nowhere
so outside the ornate palace blood-stained hands snatched greedily at
the fat coin purses before the captive was shoved back inside or shoot into the
streets in the very first round of ransoms one third of what bourbon had
originally requested for the entire city was collected let that sink in just how
much pain could have been spared if a few of these people dug deep other
little safe houses throughout the city were not as lucky though it was
Ferenta's status in the army that ensured order and without this safety
net it was the Wild West cardinals and noblemen alike tried to assert
themselves but discovered quickly that their position meant less than nothing
in the fallen city if the captive was too difficult or even if they believed
he was lying they were tortured or murdered on the spot and those with a
family knew what would happen to their wife and kids after the death one man
who didn't have enough cash on hand wrote this desperate letter to his
brother begging him to get the money quote I am a prisoner of the Spaniards
they have fixed my ransom at 1,000 ducats on the pretext that I am an
official they have besides tortured me twice and finished by lighting a fire
under the soles of my feet for six days I had only a little bread and water dear
brother do not let me perish thus miserably get the ransom money by
begging for God's sake do not abandon me if I do not pay the ransom now
amounting to 140 ducats in 26 days they will hack me to pieces for the love of
God and of the Blessed Virgin help me all the Romans are prisoners and if a
man does not pay his ransom he is killed the sack of Genoa and of Rhodes was
Charles play to this help me dear Antonio help me for God's sake and that
as quickly as possible end quote with each day things in the city got worse
and worse a good portion of the wealth had now left through the front gates
those who had got the good stuff early on got out whoever was still around was
now desperate to pick the corpse of the city clean Ferrante grew concerned that
the ransom his mother paid would soon be a distant memory so late one night he
smuggled her out dressed as a commoner Isabella de Estir followed her son
soldier through the back streets of Rome heading towards the small dinghy docked
by the Tiber River the city would have been barely recognizable almost no
building was left unscathed from the grandest church to the humblest home the
mob had turned it upside down looking for buried treasure the stench was
absolutely nauseating the sickening smell of putrefying bodies mixed with
mounds of feces bodies had been strung up in the streets with their arms tied
behind the back and men's testicles were found scattered throughout the streets
victims of torture which grew more extreme and bizarre by the day an eye
witness writes of the horrors he witnessed so imagine Isabella a woman of
the highest birth darting through the back streets to the scene quote in Rome
the chief city of Christendom no bells ring no churches are open no masses are
said Sundays and feast days have ceased the rich shops of the merchants are
turned into stables the most splendid palaces are stripped bare many houses
are burnt to the ground in others the doors and windows are broken and carried
away the streets are changed into dung hills the stench of bodies is terrible
men and beasts have a common grave and in churches I've seen corpses that dogs
have Nord in the public places tables are set close together at which piles of
ducats are gambled for the air rings with blasphemies fit to make good men if
such there would be wish they were deaf I know nothing wherewith I can compare
it except it be the destruction of Jerusalem I do not believe that if I
lived for another 200 years I should see the like again end quote Isabella
reached the bank of the Tiber safely the woman had lived a fantastical life but
as she boarded the creaking lifeboat and pushed off into the blackness it's safe
to say the things she had seen heard and smelt would be forever burned into her
mind she arrived safely at the port of Ostia where she met her other son though
few possessions made it out of the Dead City one did and as she emerged from the
boat she presented her son with the cardinal hat she had promised him
Isabella was nothing if not a woman of her word after nearly a month of
ceaseless plundering the party was finally starting to wind down for the
soldiers the food situation was growing dire and the mountains of corpse left
unburied in the streets attracted rats and the plague the German lunch nests
began to drift home and why wouldn't they many of them would never have to
work again with some of the poorest men amongst them gaining upwards of 3,000
ducats but the Spaniards stayed behind despite the squalor they lived and they
knew that was one spot in Rome that was still full of treasure
castle de San Angelo for almost a month the Pope had sat helplessly in his tower
hoping that someone anyone would come to his aid if Clement had indeed himself to
anyone either King Francois or Emperor Charles one of them may have made an
effort to help him instead they both sat idly by hoping that the army would just
run out of steam or that the Pope would die whatever came sooner on the 6th of
June 1527 exactly one month since the siege began Pope Clement the seventh
opened up negotiations for surrender the olive-skinned youthful pontiff who
entered the tower was gone in his place was a drawn and somber man aged well
beyond his years his strong jawline now obscured by a heavy gray beard that he
had grown in mourning for the city the first man he met was his nemesis
Cardinal Colonna the man who had organized the earlier raid and had
bought more troops once the siege was finished despite the decades of scheming
and personal animosity between them both men were reduced to tears as they
lamented the horrific state that their beautiful city had been reduced to and
weep they should both men in their own way contributed greatly to what had
occurred the spokesman for the mutinous army was a minor prince of southern
Spain and his demands were quite literally impossible he wanted the Pope
to surrender a stack of papal territory and hand over 400,000 ducats remember by
this point pretty much everything he owned had been stolen the Pope owned
literally what he was wearing and that was it when the pontiff protested that
he didn't have the money the spokesman cut him off mid-sentence jeering he
actually grabbed the wrist of the Holy Father and shook it motioning towards
the large ring that the Pope still had on his finger in the end the Pope agreed
to his terms with no clue how he was gonna get the money so they locked him
in a cell until he could figure it out weeks turned into months and Pope
Clement VII the vicar of Christ sat alone with plenty of time to reflect on
upon his failures as his beard grew and grew he looked more and more like the
crazed hermit who gave him that ominous warning before this mess started his
jailers mocked him and apart from bread and water he had nothing in the end it
was his old nemesis Cardinal Colonna that arranged to help the downtrodden
Pope bonded perhaps by a shared guilt Colonna hatched a plan to free him a
feast was arranged for his guards and once so well and truly drunk a few men
broke in and rescued the pontiff from the prison he'd spent eight months in
dressed as a servant in a rough spun hood the Pope carried out an empty
basket with a sack over his shoulder and walked out the front door with the Pope
now gone the last of the Spaniards who had been hanging out for one final
payout realized their time was up as they departed the corpse of the city
after almost an entire year of inhuman savagery a tiny morsel of justice was
finally meted out many of the terrorized citizens who had lost everything had
taken to living in the undercity ancient crypts tunnels and storehouses used by
their ancestors and from there these men and women emerged filthy and desperate
murdering any stragglers who lagged behind as the Sun rose in March 1528 the
city of Romulus was finally free discounting the loss of irreplaceable
artifacts of buildings and ancient texts the human cost of the siege was enormous
er Chamberlain estimates that more than two-thirds of the population had been
killed or enslaved something to the effect of 30,000 people a couple of
months later on the 6th of October 1528 the townsfolk of Rome gathered at the
battered walls to a site on the horizon Rome was different now subdued humble
whatever word you pick although still there had seen things lived through
things that humans should never have to experience there were a few street
vendors now some churches were open and the nauseating stench of rotting
corpses was reserved only to certain districts as the site on the horizon
grew closer a shaggy looking man a long white cloak came into view few would
have recognized him until he passed them it was Clement the seventh his face now
engulfed by a long dark beard which he would refuse to cut for the rest of his
life the Pope was coming home considering what had happened and his
previous lack of popularity with the citizens the Pope had ordered that no
celebration was to take place for his return but as his entourage marched
silently through the charred lanes of the city a few people began to clap it
was a slow solemn clap but it caught on for all he was for all the mistakes he'd
made this man was one of them bound by a shared trauma the clapping got louder as
Pope Clement the seventh looked down the drawn faces of the wounded population he
was deeply touched by the applause and holding out his hands to the crowd he
began to weep he had finally earned their acceptance
the 1527 sack of Rome has been called the 16th centuries 911 an event that
changed everything and changed nothing when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the
fifth heard about his mutinous troops destroying the city it was busy
celebrating the birth of his first male heir kind of just shrugged it off like
yeah well that's the Duke of bourbon's fault and while it was easy to criticize
the now dead universally hated Duke was Charles's late pay that pushed the men
in his army to mutiny in the first place likewise it was King Francois
deliberate disrespect of bourbon that pushed him into the arms of his enemy
the Duke of bourbon's betrayal would be the last of its kind in French history
with his death the senior branch of the bourbon family went extinct and the
family lands were slowly integrated into the kingdom of France as for Charles the
fifth thanks to the heavy treaty that his mutinous soldiers had forced on the
Pope he could have in theory annexed Rome into his domain as well as many
other territories but how would that look the rest of the Christian world he
took a bit of land and a bit of money but left it at that with the return of
the Pope the city would rebuild but it would not be the same Rome that emerged
from the rubble most of the Vatican library had survived you were being used
as headquarters for the soldiers Colonna Palace where Isabella de Ester had
sheltered remained relatively unscathed and most surprising of all the
incomplete Sistine Chapel was left untouched used as a makeshift tomb for
the Duke of bourbon the generals body kept out most of the looters apart from
that almost no building was left unscathed artisans poets goldsmith
painters sculptors many esteemed Renaissance men were gone a couple had
managed to escape but many were missing assumed dead soon the aged Michelangelo
would be coaxed back in to finish his work on the Sistine Chapel prior to the
sacking he had painted the roof with colorful bright scenes from the Bible
the most famous of these is the center panel where God reaches out with an
outstretched hand to Adam the first man imbuing mankind with his knowledge an
almost arrogant subject matter you could say but when he returned after the
sacking he began to work on the famous last judgment though equally famous it's
darker both in context and color depicting God's judgment with the
ascension to heaven for the pious and the descent into hell for the damned
this perhaps shows the shifting taste in both the Pope and the people of Rome
Pope Clement VII would live for another few years before passing away at the
relatively young age of 56 and what what can we say about the man well you know
his story now so it's up to you he undoubtedly had many weaknesses in his
character and while his inability to make a decision made little problems
into much larger ones did he actually cause them historian James grubbs says
quote indeed at a certain point it is difficult to see how he might have fared
much better given the obstacles he faced end quote the Catholic world was ripping
itself apart could any Pope have managed to halt the Reformation he ruled over
one of the most tumultuous times in the church's history and although he
exercised poor judgment he showed up and took responsibilities of his role to
heart even his last letter which he penned as he lay dying was to the Holy
Roman Emperor Charles V begging him to remain steadfast to the church this
was sent just after King Henry VIII officially left the Catholic faith
quote I implore you by the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ in this my last hour
that your majesty will maintain the same disposition towards the Holy Church and
the welfare of the whole of Christendom end quote the Rome of today is a very
different city to the one that the Duke of Bourbon laid his hungry eyes upon in
1527 one of my favorite things about traveling is knowing the history behind
the places I visit and Rome like Beijing Istanbul Baghdad or Delhi is a nexus for
big bang historical events like this and today the Colonna Palace where Isabella
de Ester held out with the richest magnates of Rome is open for private
booking the castle de San Angelo sometimes called Hadrian's tomb is open
to the public as crowded as it is it's eerie to think that you're standing in
the same spot as Pope Clement the seventh as he watched helplessly as his
whole city was destroyed to get there you'll cross the pristine alien bridge
the very bridge that Renzo de Cerri wanted destroyed as a precaution in case
the Duke's army bridged the walls and from the top of the castle you'll be
able to see the Passetto di Borgo the raised walkway which the Pope escaped
across as the land connections broke into his palace as far as I know the
Passetto was off limits to the public thankfully for the Pope the escape route
was never needed since 1527 if you follow the Passatto all the way back
you'll be in Vatican City at just over one kilometer or 1,150 yards long it's
the smallest country in the world and all that remains of the papal lands at
once spanned most of central Italy at its Nexus is st. Peter's Basilica built
on the very spot where st. Peter was crucified upside down by Emperor Nero
it's here where every Pope up to the current one lives and if you buy the
full visitor package you'll also see the Templar Cemetery and stand on the very
spot where Caspar Royst and his 189 guards held back the land connections
and to this day almost 500 years later if you're lucky enough to catch sight of
the Pope you'll notice his flamboyantly dressed guards decked out in baggy cloth
trousers with long gleaming pikes they look like something from another era
because they are while the days of renegade French generals and Holy Roman
emperors are long gone the only men now trusted to guard the Pope at the Swiss


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Angus Seth Alex Malcolm Tom and Claudia thanks for tuning in