Category Archives: Royalty Most Cruel

Royalty Most Cruel – Cesare Borgia

I have made several posts about the infamous Borgia family, but I realize I never actually created one for Cesare himself.  Lucrezia got her turn last year I believe, so today, I turn the spotlight to her elder brother.  Many have heard of the man who supposedly murdered both his brother and brother-in-law, the “Prince In All But Name” who is said to have romanced his own sister, but how much truth is there in the slandering?  

The date of Cesare Borgia’s birth is debated upon, but the popular consensus is that he was born on the 13th of September in 1476.  His mother was Vannozza dei Cattanei, one of many mistresses to Cesare’s father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia.  By his father, Cesare was of both Spanish and Italian descent, born in Rome as the first of the couple’s four children – behind him were Giovanni, Lucrezia, and Gioffredo.  However, the children were not openly acknowledged as Rodrigo’s until years later, perhaps because Vannozza was married during her affairs with him, thus he claimed to have been their uncle before his election as Pope in 1492 allowed him to legitimize the brood.  Still, he doted on his children, allowing them all to have a good education, but Cesare was given a special upbringing.  As a boy, Cesare was groomed to have a career in the Catholic Church just like Rodrigo.  He studied law at the Universities of Perugia and Pisa before he was given his status as a Cardinal at the age of just eighteen.

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Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI

But Cesare was restless with a fierce temper.  It soon became clear that the life of a clergyman was not what he desired, especially when his younger brother Giovanni was given the Dukedom of Gandia.  Giovanni even took a royal bride, Maria Enriquez de Luna, the niece of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Sicily and Isabella I of Castile.  Cesare was a handsome man and, like his father, had an insatiable appetite for sex, as is evidenced by the fact that he fathered at least eleven illegitimate children in his lifetime, all of whom he took a great risk in acknowledging while a member of the Church.  There is no question that he felt jealousy for his younger brother, which came from the fact that Giovanni had been given title while he, the elder brother, was given a life he did not want nor enjoy.

Soon, in 1497, Giovanni Borgia’s murdered corpse was pulled from the Tiber River with his gold and silk clothes still in place.  Though the killer was never caught, rumors began to circulate through Rome that Cesare had his brother murdered in cold blood, either by one of the mercenaries he kept by his side or his own hand.  Whatever the case, Giovanni was not yet dead a year when Cesare became the first man in history to resign from the position of Cardinal and became a soldier in the Papal Army.  This would not be the last familial murder he would be accused of either.  In August 1500, rumors began to circulate that Cesare had been responsible for a vicious attack on his brother-in-law Alfonso that took place on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.  A few nights later, while he was still recovering from his wounds, Alfonso was strangled in his bed, leaving Cesare as one of the only suspects in his murder; Cesare’s French marriage was threatened by Alfonso’s presence since the nineteen-year old prince was the son of the King of Naples and both countries were at war.  When questioned, Cesare claimed that Alfonso that threatened him with a crossbow and that any action he may or may not have taken would have been in self defense, yet witnesses claimed that the man who carried out the prince’s murder was Michelotto Corella, captain of a mercenary free company and one of Cesare’s close confidantes.

Cesare had a reputation for his military prowess, especially while fighting with the French.  The King of France gave him the title of Duke of Valentinois just before he gained his military status, when he assisted in granting the king a divorce from his wife.  Cesare even gained a wife out of the deal – Charlotte d’Albret, sister to Jean III of Navarre.  Despite his victories at Naples, Capua, Rimini and Forli, his hold on power depended heavily on the influence of his father.  Author and historian of the time Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that had Cesare succeeded in getting into the papacy’s good graces after Pope Alexander VI died, he would have remained in power, but this was not meant to be.

In the summer of 1503, both Cesare and his father grew deathly ill from what many believed to have been poison.  While Cesare recovered, the Pope died at the age of seventy-two and Cesare’s enemies made their moves to depose him.  The new Pope’s reign barely lasted a month and the next elected pontiff was Giuliano della Rovere, an enemy of the House of Borgia who took the name Julius II.  His lands were retaken and Cesare was forced to leave Italy, but he was later captured and imprisoned in Spain.  When he escaped, he took his place at his brother-in-law’s side as military commander of the Navarran forces.


Cesare’s death as depicted in the Netflix series Borgia: Faith and Fear (2014)

He was fighting in Navarra when on 7 March 1507, he was killed by knights who did not realize who he was.  Stripped of all valuables and armor, Cesare’s body was left to rot with no less than twenty-five stab wounds in it.  When the identity of the man they had killed was discovered, the knights’ employer, Luis de Beaumonte – a man loyal to Jean III’s enemy Ferdinand II and held the town of Viana on the latter’s behalf – erupted into a rage at having lost the high bounty on Cesare.  He was only 31 when he died.

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The entrance to the Church of Santa Maria in Viana.  You can see the simple plaque commemorating Cesare’s burial on the walkway.

Cesare’s body recovered by Jean III and buried in the Church of Santa Maria, the epitaph reading “Here lies in a little earth he whom everyone feared, he who held peace and war in his hand.”  The marble tomb was later demolished by a bishop who did not want a murderer buried in the church and he was reinterred under the street there so everyone who walked by would step on “that degenerate”.  In 2007, on the 500th anniversary of his death, Cesare’s remains were brought back inside the church and reburied.

Since his death, Cesare has been the subject of much scorn, portrayed as an incestuous killer with a lust for power and blood.  Whatever he may have been, his story continues to fascinate.  He has been the subject of many books – including, most famously Machiavelli’s The Prince – television shows, and even video games.  Whatever crimes he may or may not have committed, he has earned his place among Royalty Most Cruel.


Posted by on September 26, 2016 in Italian Renaissance, Royalty Most Cruel


Royalty Most Cruel – Mary I of England

Said to have been one of the most dreaded queens in European history, the woman known as Bloody Mary ruled England for five years from 1553 until her death in 1558, after which the crown passed to her younger half-sister Elizabeth I.  Her story is one of great tragedy, something that seemed to follow the Tudor family everywhere until  Elizabeth brought the Golden Age to England.  Today, let’s explore Mary’s life and see for ourselves what caused a devout religious princess to become an infamous executioner.  

Mary I was born in London’s Greenwich Palace on 18 February 1516, the only living child of King Henry VIII by his first wife, the Spanish-born Catherine of Aragon.  Catherine had a long history of pregnancies that did not end well during her twenty-four years of marriage to the English king.  Of the six we know of, two were stillborn and three others died quickly with the longest survivor living for only 52 days.  Mary was the only child to survive the odds and her parents doted on her.  She was a very pretty girl with blue eyes and the red-gold hair of the Tudor line, and as England’s heir, in a common practice of the time, she was soon betrothed; first to the eldest son of Francis I of France and later to her cousin Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  None of the betrothals lasted however, and soon, relations between Mary’s parents grew even more strained.

Henry VIII in his thirties is depicted here with the first two of his six wives, Catherine of Aragon below and Anne Boleyn above.  

By this time, it became clear to Henry that his wife was not going to produce the male heir he so longed for, as Catherine was past the point where it was believed possible for a woman to bear children.  The king’s eye then caught sight of Anne Boleyn, effectively changing the course of English history forever.  Henry fell desperately in love with Anne, who refused to become just another of his many mistresses.  She declared straightforward that she would not accept his love unless she were to become his wife, and Henry immediately asked the Pope for a divorce from Catherine.  When his request was refused, the king broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the new Church of England.  Soon, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine annulled and he and Anne were wed on 25 January 1533.  Mary was declared illegitimate by grounds that Catherine had “not truly been the king’s wife in the eyes of God” because she had previously been married to his brother Arthur, the late Prince of Wales.  Catherine swore that she had entered her marriage with Henry chaste, as she and Arthur had never consummated their union, but the damage was done.  She was banished from court and sent to live at Kimbolton Castle, where she died of heart disease in 1536.  Mary was forbidden to attend her mother’s funeral.  Father and daughter did not speak to each other for three years.

More trouble came for Mary when Anne gave birth to Princess Elizabeth.  With Anne now considered Henry’s only lawful wife, Mary was from the the point of their wedding on considered a bastard child, stripped of her title as Princess and simply called Lady Mary Tudor.  When Elizabeth was born in September 1533, the baby became heir presumptive while Mary was left in the cold.  She was sent to Hatfield, where she was to care for her infant sister as more or less just another member of the new princess’ household.  Mary became ill with fits of deep depression that would plague her for the remainder of her life as a result.

However, in 1536, Anne was executed and Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, who died soon after giving birth to a son, Prince Edward.  Edward was placed first in the line of succession ahead of his older sisters.  While alive, Queen Jane attempted to mend the relationship between Henry and Mary.  The king agreed, but with a catch – Mary had to recognise her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England and throw away her steadfast Catholic beliefs.  She was forced to sign a document in which she recognized not only the country’s new religion, but her own illegitimacy.  After reluctantly signing the papers, she was brought back to court, eventually regaining a household of her own and after many years, being reinstated into the line of succession as heir to the crown should her younger brother die childless.

Edward VI

On 28 January 1547, Henry VIII died at the age of fifty-five.  Prince Edward, then nine years old, was crowned King of England ahead of his elder sisters.  Six years later, Edward VI was dead of an ailment of the lungs, most likely tuberculosis.  However, Mary’s succession was still not secure.  In his will, Edward had named his cousin, the teenaged Lady Jane Grey, as his successor.  Jane, granddaughter to Henry VIII’s sister the late Duchess of Suffolk, was a Protestant like Edward while Mary was still a steadfast Catholic.  Edward wanted a Protestant on the throne after him, and in his final hours, declared Jane the next Queen of England.  When the king died in 1553 at the age of just fifteen, Jane was shocked to discover that she had become ruler of England.  However, Jane was never crowned, and Mary at last became Queen of England at the age of thirty-seven.  Jane, who is sometimes called the Nine Days Queen for the short length of her “reign”, was sent to the Tower of London by a reluctant Mary and the man who orchestrated her ascension, the Duke of Northumberland, was executed.  Soon, Jane would follow along with her husband Guildford Dudley, Northumberland’s son.

Now as Queen, Mary’s life still did not go smoothly.  She was thirty-seven years old and still unmarried with no children of her own.  She had to find a husband quickly.  It did not take long for her to choose – Philip II, acting King of Spain and son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, seemed the perfect match.  Two days after they met in person, the two were married, and it was decided that Philip would only carry the title of King of England, but hold no authority over political matters, nor would England be required to participate in any of Spain’s military affairs.  Still, the marriage allied England with one of the most powerful nations in Europe at the time, and Mary, who still securely held the reigns of power, committed herself to the next tasks at hand; providing an heir and reinstating Catholicism as the true religion of her country.

Mary with her husband and cousin Philip II of Spain.  Philip was young and fashionable, and his engagement to Mary made her council and her countrymen uneasy, as they feared they would be subjected to foreign rule once the couple were married.  

Now we come to the reason why history refers to this queen as Bloody Mary.  Soon after taking the throne, Mary had the documents annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon torn up and Edward VI’s laws making the country Protestant abolished.  By the end of her reign, over 280 Protestants were burned at the stake as heretics, including Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was responsible for organizing Henry VIII’s “divorce” from the queen’s mother.  Her sister Elizabeth, also a Protestant, was held prisoner in the Tower of London, kept alive to serve as a Plan B should Mary fail to conceive, which she did.

Mary ruled over England for five years.  During that time, she hoped desperately for a child, though none came.  Twice she thought she was pregnant, but both times, she was proven wrong.  As King of Spain as well as Naples, her husband was away from her a lot, which also led to worsening of her lifelong battle with depression.  She also suffered from menstruation irregularities and stomach pains thought to have been ovarian cysts or even cancer, which could also explain her false pregnancies.  With her health failing, by May 1558, she was forced to resign herself to having her half-sister Elizabeth be her heir.  On 17 November, she died a victim of an influenza epidemic that swept across the city of London, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in December.  Her tomb, pictured below, is one she shares with Elizabeth.