On this date in 984, the deposed Pope John XIV* was killed in prison.
Pietro Canepanova was his name by birth, and Bishop of Pavia was his rank when elected.
The papacy’s political axis in these prostrated times was the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. The Saxon emperor Otto II had given years of exertion to projecting imperial power over Rome and the Holy See, which although much weaker than the empire lay spatially at the fringes of effective imperial influence. The upshot was a fractious curial snakepit directed at any given moment by Otto’s degree of proximity and attention.**
John’s death, whose circumstances aren’t known with certainty,† was a sort of tragic middle act for the empire’s Roman project.
A decade before, the imperial-backed pontiff Benedict VI had been overthrown and murdered by a rival, known to history as Antipope Boniface VII. Boniface was backed by a Roman patrician family known as the Crescentii — rivals to Otto in our story.
The Boniface/Crescentii usurpation required Otto’s Italian hand to seize the city, and Boniface legged it for Constantinople with as much of the Vatican treasury as he could stuff into his chasuble. Behind, in his cloud of dust, the Germans installed a new guy, Benedict VII.
When Benedict died in 983, Otto was personally knocking about Italy,‡ so he popped into Rome to guarantee John XIV’s succession. But the pestilential atmosphere was not merely figurative in these parts, and a malaria outbreak killed Otto within days. His unexpected death left the succession to a three-year-old son, Otto III … which meant a period of ebbing imperial muscle as felt by remote marches like Italy. John XIV had lost his protection.
Still hanging around all this while, Antipope Boniface VII jumped at the opportunity to mount St. Peter’s throne once more and invaded Rome with the support of Byzantium and of the Crescentii, sending Pope John to the dungeons of Sant’Angelo where he was quietly offed.
Boniface’s own reign is largely obscure to posterity but it can’t be considered successful given that at his death in July 985, “the body of Boniface was exposed to the insults of the populace, dragged through the streets of the city, and finally, naked and covered with wounds, flung under the statue of Marcus Aurelius.”
Still, the Crescentii held the whip hand for years … until little Otto III grew up and returned to Rome in the 990s with a vengeance.
* Fun papal trivia: owing to some confusion in Middle Ages scriptoria, it was for a time erroneously believed that our Pope John XIV in fact compassed two different and very short-lived Popes John — “Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis” (the second). As a result, the regnal numbering for this particular name went all wonky and eventually skipped an increment: a pope took the name John XXI in 1276 mistakenly thinking himself to be the 21st of that name, even though the previous John (more than 200 years before — the span during which the numbering goof entered the parchments) was John XIX. There has never been a Pope John XX.
** Although the players are different, the situation reminds of the circumstances around the Cadaver Synod a century prior — when the imperial instigator in question was Charlemagne’s waning Carolingian dynasty.
† He might have been starved to death, or strangled, or poisoned, or indeed slain via almost any means convenient to the new pope’s goons. The probability that the death was ordered by the new pope qualifies this borderline case for consideration as an “execution.”
‡ He was campaigning against the Byzantines and the Saracens to extend imperial power to southern Italy and Sicily.
On this day..
- 2005: Abdul Islam Siddiqui - 2020
- 1537: Baccio Valori, Michelangelo patron - 2019
- 1962: LeRoy McGahuey, the last involuntary execution in Oregon - 2017
- 1983: 26 in Tehran - 2016
- 1946: Vojtech Tuka, Slovakian Prime Minister - 2015
- 1897: Michele Angiolillo, assassin of Canovas - 2014
- 1941: Alexander Svanidze, Stalin's brother-in-law - 2013
- 1612: The Pendle Witches - 2012
- 1941: Sixteen Yugoslav partisans and one German soldier - 2011
- 1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched - 2010
- 1799: Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Neapolitan Jacobin - 2009
- 1191: Muslim prisoners at Acre - 2008