The Longest Papal Election in History

Jun 26, 2019 0 comments

The main attraction in the ancient city of Viterbo, in central Italy, is a 13th century palace built to serve as the country residence for the pope. The Palazzo dei Papi, or the Papal Palace, also provided popes with a place to escape to whenever things turned violent in Rome, as it often did because of rivalry between the two dueling factions—the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, supporting the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively.

One of the grand halls in the palace, known as the Conclave Hall, was the seat of the longest papal election in history. The election lasted for two years nine months, from November in 1268 to September 1, 1271, because the twenty voting cardinals were so divided by personal interests and family feuds, that they could not reach an agreement.

Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo

Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo. Photo credit: s74 /

When Pope Clement IV died on 29 November 1268, the College of Cardinals, consisting of the Church's most senior officials, met at Viterbo to choose Pope Clement IV’s successor, because tradition dictated that the election should take place in the city where the previous pope died. The cardinals began the election by meeting and voting once a day in the Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo, before returning to their respective residences. The College of Cardinals at that time was equally divided between the French and Italian cardinals, who each wanted a pope from their own country. The election dragged on for months. Three of the original twenty cardinals actually died of old age.

After nearly a year of indecision, frustrated by the delay, the citizens of Viterbo, under the instruction of the town captain, Ranieri Gatti, locked up the cardinals inside the palace and ordered them to come up with a name. They also removed the roof of the building leaving the cardinals under the mercy of the elements, and reduced their food supplies to mere bread and water. According to some sources, the roof was reassembled back after the cardinals threatened to put the entire city of Viterbo under interdict.

The drastic actions did absolutely nothing to break the deadlock, which dragged on for another year. Finally, in August 1271, the Cardinals decided to appoint a committee of six to negotiate a settlement. When the six could not agree on the choice of one of the cardinals, they decided to look outside their ranks. The name of Teobaldo Visconti, the Archdeacon of Li├Ęge, who at that time was raging war in Palestine, was suggested and everybody agreed. Teobaldo Visconti became Pope Gregory X on 1 September 1271.

Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo

The Conclave Hall. Photo credit: Sailko/Wikimedia

To avoid further lengthy elections, Pope Gregory X introduced stringent rules—cardinals were to be secluded in a closed area and not accorded individual rooms; no cardinal was allowed, unless ill, to be attended by more than two servants; food was supplied through a window to avoid outside contact. After three days of the conclave, the cardinals were to receive only one dish a day; after another five days, they were to receive just bread and water. During the conclave, no cardinal was to receive any revenue from the Church.

Unfortunately, Gregory X’s successor, Pope Adrian V, found the regulations too strict and had them abolished. But when there was another 2-year deadlock following the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, the next pope, Celestine V, restored these regulations.

Today, the papal election takes place in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican. Once the conclave has begun, the cardinals eat, vote and sleep within closed-off areas until a new pope has been chosen. They are not allowed to contact with the outside world, except for medical emergencies. A candidate has to secure a majority of two-thirds to be elected pope. If no result is obtained after three vote days of voting, the process is suspended for a maximum of one day for prayer and an address by the senior cardinal in the Order of Deacons. After seven further ballots, the process may again be similarly suspended, with the address now being delivered by the senior Cardinal Priest. If, after another seven ballots, no result is achieved, voting is suspended once more, the address being delivered by the senior Cardinal Bishop. After a further seven ballots, there shall be a day of prayer, reflection and dialogue. In the following ballots, only the two names who received the most votes in the last ballot shall be eligible in a runoff election where a two-third majority is still required.

Twice a day during the conclave, smoke emerges from the Sistine Chapel indicating whether the ballot resulted in an election. If the smoke is black, kit indicates failure. If the smoke is white, it means a new pope has been chosen.

Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo

Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo. Photo credit: Fabianodp/


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