“I am but a simple priest.”
April 4th, 2013
A cool-looking but totally imaginary portrait of Benedict IX
Our fourth timeline machine installment will examine the Roman Catholic popes — also known as bishops of Rome.
Since these chronologies lack any real precision up until the year 1000 or so, I
won’t graph anything before that. Where records show no birth year, I’ll
approximate a pope’s pre-accession interval by assuming the average age
of an electee (about 64 years) and shade it in green stripes. Again, pretenders
— within this genre known as antipopes — will show
Let’s first zoom in to the very prince of pontifical chaos and mayhem,
Theophylactus. He was a scion of the Tusculuns, the richest and most powerful
family in Rome at the time. Popes Benedict VII and VIII; John XI, XII, and XIX;
and Sergius III were paternal uncles. His father installed him as Pope
Benedict IX in October 1032.
In 1036 an opposing faction drove Benedict out of Rome for the short time
approximated by the green gap. John, Bishop of Sabina, ousted him unequivocally
in a bloody coup in September 1044 and reigned as Sylvester III. But Benedict
was just warming up. He raised an army, and by the following April retook the
papacy. Come May, though, he had second thoughts and sold it — for around
20,000 troy ounces of gold, according to some sources — to his godfather John
Gratian who became Gregory VI.
But Benedict returned later that same year. The record doesn’t say whether or
not Gregory got his money back, but in either case Benedict considered himself
Pope again. (I’m giving him antipope stripes for this period because Gregory
continued to be recognized.) In December 1046 the Council of Sutri ejected both
Benedict and installed Clement II. When Clement died from
lead poisoning a year later, back came Benedict. He enjoyed another eight
months until he was deposed for good, in favor of Damasus II, on 17
The interval highlighted by the thin lilac bar to the left is unique as it saw one
sitting and 16 future pontiffs living simultaneously. You can also see that
among them Celestine IV served only 17 days before he died in
This graph also shows two major vacancies. The first,
between the death of Clement IV on 29 November 1268 and the election of Gregory X on 1 September
1271, remains the longest on record at 1006 days.
Up until this era the cardinals would deliberate intermittently on papal
candidates but otherwise go about their daily lives. But by late 1269 the
French/Italian deadlock had dragged on for almost a year, so officials
of the host city of Viterbo sequestered them. Further along they snatched the
roof from the building to let in the rain and cut the occupants’ menu
choices to bread and water. Two of the cardinals present during this ordeal died
and a third cited health problems and resigned.
The celebrated Western Schism opened in 1378 when the Catholic church split into two factions,
that of Rome and of Avignon, and each recognized its own pope. In
June 1409 Pisa got into the act and three
popes coexisted during the time
shown by the darker highlight. Though the Schism is generally
recognized to have ended with the election of Martin V
toward the end of 1417, Avignon-based Benedict XIII flipped the Council the bird and
kept up his pretense until he died at 95.
Further antipope shuffles continued until almost 1450, which included two
Benedict XIVs in succession. Both were Antipope Benedict
XIII partisans. The first, born Bernard Garnier, operated from a lair and
died sometime in 1430, at which point the four cardinals he had created elected
a successor who awarded himself the same name and Roman numeral. Some
accounts have this Antipope Benedict XIVb captured by [at that point former] Antipope
Clement VIII in 1433 and spending his last days imprisoned in the Château Foix.
Celestine V: Ordered never to retire, but did it anyway
As we’ve learned from recent news stories concerning Benedict XVI, papal retirements
are rare — some 3.5% of the total — and usually involuntary. Excluding antipopes, the timeline machine
reports the following:
Benedict IX’s nemesis Sylvester III (~6534 days),
Benedict IX himself (~2907 days),
Gregory XII (837 days),
Martin I (821 days),
Benedict IX’s godfather Gregory VI (~560 days),
Celestine V (523 days),
Benedict V (376 days),
John XVIII (a few months or less),
Silverius (~3 months), and
Pontian (~2 weeks).
They made me... Tsar! (Yeah, that’s it.)
March 26th, 2013
Where would Russian art, literature, and opera be without the Time of
England’s Henry VIII had nothing on Ivan the Terrible, whose own family
values ran, as far as his wives were concerned, as follows.
Anastasia: Believed poisoned by Boyars
Maria #1: Believed poisoned by Ivan
Marfa: Accidentally poisoned by her mother
Anna #1: Infertile, and so banished to the nunnery
Anna #2: Banished to the nunnery, later tortured to death
Vasilisa: Forced to watch her paramour impaled, then off to the cloisters
Maria #2: Drowned by Ivan
Maria #3: Survived (but wound up in a nunnery anyway)
Three of those valiant souls produced eight children, but out of that
brood only Feodor and Dmitri survived their dad. The elder Feodor acceded, but
though adored by his subjects he was incapacitated in vaguely documented
ways and entirely ineffectual.
His brother-in-law Boris Godunov graciously filled that power vacuum
and, upon Feodor’s death at 40, seized the throne officially.
Ivan IV’s younger son Dmitri most likely met his end through Godunov’s
henchmen in May 1591, but once Godunov himself was out of the picture three
Dmitri Ivanovich impostors emerged in rapid succession to exploit that
ambiguity. Among them False Dmitri I was by all accounts the most convincing,
but ten months into his pretense a mob shot him, cremated him,
then combined his ashes with gunpowder and fired him out of a cannon.
For the record, Russia also saw its largest royal crowd-sourcing
during this era with ten simultaneously living emperors and
emperors-to-be between 12 July 1596 and 7 January 1598. (I’m generously
including Irina Godunova, Feodor I’s widow, who in principle served as
empress for about a week before checking in — by her own volition, in
this case — to another nunnery.)
Here’s a chart extending from 1755 to the present, showing the last six
Russian emperors and arguably a few more. Again, pretenders — more
fairly referred to in this case as claimants, since all carry
authentic pedigrees — are indicated by stripes on
their styled reigns.
In a parallel universe, Russia had a democratically elected Emperor: Michael II
Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich Romanov, who would have been Michael II, was
the youngest son of Alexander III. When Nicholas II abdicated on 15
March 1917 at the Pskov railway station he signed the throne over to his
son Alexei. The next morning he had second thoughts in light of Alexei’s
hemophilia, though, and shifted that onus to brother Michael. The latter
immediately made it known he would only accede on the condition
that the Russian people agree “by universal, direct, equal and secret
Divine Right royalist to the bitter end, Nicholas called that hogwash.
In any event Michael found himself under several variations of house
arrest and imprisonment over the next few months. Finally, despite his
wife Natalia Brasova’s repeated personal appeals to Lenin, Trotsky, and
other Bolshevik officials, four secret police agents rousted him from
his hotel room and shot him on 12 June 1918. Natalia lived, first in
London and then Paris, until 1952.
Next: The Vatican
Too many Carolingians
March 17th, 2013
I couldn’t resist the temptation to run my graphic timeline machine
(which you’ll recognize from the previous
) on chronological listings of autocrats in past centuries
to see what kinds of patterns pop out.
US presidents past, present, and prospective can play hardball but
unless they’ve had a very bad day tend to draw the line at intramural
murder and kidnapping. Royalty and nobility haven’t always been quite so
circumspect — or until the last century have have stood such a
fighting chance against serious injury or disease — so let the fun begin. For educational
purposes only, of course.
Let’s start with France.
Carolingian France shows a logjam of seven simultaneously living kings and future
kings between 867 and approximately 882. For reference, you’re seeing
the last half of Charlemagne’s 46-year tenure at the top.
From 867 through most of 877 there was Charles II and kings-to-be Louis
II and III, Carloman II, Charles the Fat, Odo, and Robert I. By 882
Charles II and Louis II were gone but Charles III the Simple and
(possibly — his birth year is a wild guess) Rudolph had come aboard.
Having weathered this entire period, Robert would finally get his chance
but reign a scant 352 days before being killed by the forces of his
predecessor Charles III. Charles himself lost that battle, though, and spent the
rest of his days in a dungeon.
Jumping forward eight and a half centuries, here are the last hundred
years of the French autocracy. Its other two periods of seven-stacking
occurred at that time: 1785-1793 (Louis XVI, the theoretical Louis XVII,
Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis XIX, Louis-Philippe) and
1811-1821 (losing Louis XVI and XVII and gaining Napoleons II
Louis XVI and his family made a break for the Austrian border in June
1791 (Marie Antoinette was a sister of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II) but he was
recognized from his portrait on all the coins and hauled back to Paris. He remained king, at least
officially, until 21 September 1792; so his “retirement” from that point
until his date with the guillotine lasted 122 days.
Royalists recognized his sole surviving son as Louis XVII. The boy
succumbed in captivity to tuberculosis on 8 June, 1795 and chief surgeon
Philippe-Jean Pelletan preserved his heart the following day; but for
the next couple of generations dozens of claimants came forward as Le
Some of them spun some pretty good yarns. Over the holiday season of 1999-2000
mitochondrial DNA from Marie Antoinette’s hair and from that heart was
compared by two independent laboratories and the samples matched as
closely as one would expect between mother and child.
In the second lavender area you can spot the musical chairs between
Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Napoleon II (“King of Rome”). It’s
interesting to note that Napoleon’s cumulative exile (2487 days) ran
fully two thirds the length of his career as emperor (3709 days). The
second Napoleon, twice emperor but both times probably
unaware of it, spent the balance of his life in Austria and died
at 21 of tuberculosis.
Duke of Bordeaux
Count of Chambord
The gray ellipse indicates the singular moment during the July
Revolution of 1830 when, with the encouragement of angry mobs, Charles X
abdicated and Louis-Philippe and his supporters took to the throne. Some
recognized Charles’s son Louis Antoine as Charles’s successor Louis XIX.
In any event the son abdicated some twenty minutes into his own supposed reign in favor of his nephew
the Duke of Bordeaux who, until his death in 1883, stood by as
pretender Henry V.
Next: The Russian Empire
So many presidents, so little time
March 6th, 2013
Unlikely as it might seem, there have been four separate moments in history during which
no fewer than eighteen U.S. presidents — future, sitting, and former —
were all living. The first nine presidents of the longest (1479 days) of those streaks are pictured above; the remaining
nine, at the bottom of this entry.
Here’s a chart I generated starting on the left side with the 1732 birth of George
Washington and extending to 2016 when President Omama’s second term
finishes and assuming all four of his current living predecessors stay that way.
Green indicates lifespan; blue, terms of office. (Note the two
separate blue blocks in Grover “Big Steve” Cleveland’s timeline where he
bookended one-termer Benjamin Harrison.)
The lilac bar highlights that 1479-day period.
It extended from Grover Cleveland’s birth on March 18, 1837 to William Henry
Harrison’s death on April 4, 1841. The following were alive at that time:
John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William
Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard
Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James “Old Buck” Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln,
Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester
Alan Arthur, Cleveland himself, and Benjamin Harrison. A touch
wider and it would have taken in Madison and McKinley.
The chart yields some other intriguing perspectives. One thing you can see in
there, for example, is that when Abraham Lincoln was born (1809) all his
future predecessors except George Washington were still alive. Warren G.
Harding would be the first U.S. president after Lincoln not
to have had a
living memory of him.
On a related subject, the following presidential siblings or
half-siblings aside from those of Barack Obama and George W. Bush are
still with us as I write: Bill Clinton’s half-sister Sharon Lee
Pettijohn (born 1941) and brother Roger (1956), George H.W. Bush’s
sister Nancy Walker Bush Ellis (1926) and brothers Jonathan James Bush
(1931) and William Henry Trotter “Bucky” Bush (1938), Richard Addison
Ford (1924), Edward Nixon (1930), and Jean Kennedy Smith (1928).