MIGHTY HISTORY

How the 'Warrior Pope' led armies in vicious combat

Pope Julius II was known for his bold politics, funding of the arts, and being the only pope to raise armies against France, Venice, and other nations of the day.

Catholics know the Pope as God's representative on Earth. Most other people know him as a generally fine world leader who usually wears unique and cool hats. But, from 1503 to 1513, the papal chair was sat by Pope Julius II, the "Warrior Pope," who was known to be a shrewd politician and skilled conqueror.


Pope Julius II began life in 1443 as Giuliano della Rovere, a member of a poor noble family. His uncle had enough money to fund his way up the Catholic ranks and, eventually, became Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. Della Rovere was soon made a cardinal and continued to maneuver for his own gain.

Pope Sixtus IV, uncle of future Pope Julius II, The Warrior Pope

(Painting by Melozzo da Forlì)

In 1474, della Rovere went to war in Umbria, a Papal State. He led 3,500 infantry in initial fighting and captured a town on his way to Citta di Castello, where the leading rebel against Rome lived. Della Rovere had lost control of some of his men on the way to the town and his siege weapons were having little effect on the city walls. Della Rovere was forced to request reinforcements from Rome.

Once his reinforcements arrived, della Rovere was at the head of 2,000 infantrymen and 28 cavalry squadrons.

There is some question about whether it was della Rovere's force or political pressure that led to the capitulation of forces at Citta di Castello. Either way, della Rovere was able to head home a conquering hero.

After the death of Pope Sixtus IV, della Rovere was forced to work outside of Rome while rivals took the papal seat. But, in 1503, a resurgent della Rovere used bribes and political pressures to see himself voted into the Papacy. He adopted the name Pope Julius II.

As pope, Julius fought multiple battles — an unheard of activity for a pope, though his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, was rumored to have considered it at one point.

The city of Mirandola was relatively weak compared to other targets of the Warrior Pope, which is why the drawn-out siege was so disappointing.

(Image by unknown artist, suspected to be Lorenzo Penni)

His first battles were against Venice, which held lands taken from the Papal States. This led to a 1508 alliance with France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, known as the League of Cambrai. Once the Venetians were sufficiently beaten and cowed, Julius II actually flipped his alliances and joined the Holy League, which worked to push French troops out of Italy in 1512.

It was during this campaign that, in 1511, he took to the battlefield and performed actions that offended observers.

The pope had himself carried to the front where his troops were fighting at Mirandola, a town in northern Italy. He routinely cursed his generals and made jokes at their expense, personally directed military operations, and reviewed the assembled troops. When the city continued to hold out, he ordered that they be threatened with pillage (ignoring the protests of his generals and advisers).

But he impressed his troops once again when he came under repeated cannon attack but remained at the front. The first cannonball struck his headquarters, so the Pope moved to his personal quarters. When those were also hit, he returned to his headquarters and ordered that the damage be repaired while he waited.

Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope, at the Siege of Mirandola

(Painting by Raffaello Tancredi)

When Mirandola finally fell, he ordered money be extorted from the citizens and disbursed among his troops and that all French soldiers found in the city be executed on the spot.

Luckily for the already deeply offended faithful in his camps, there were no French soldiers to be found in the city.

But the Pope's conquests created their own problems. Angry French and Venetian forces and their allies soon re-took his conquered lands and even reportedly melted down a statue of him, used the metal to create a cannon, and then mockingly named it after him.

For these consequences, Julius II blamed one of his nephews, the Duke of Urbino, while praising a cardinal who had led forces in the same battles.

As the scapegoated Duke was leaving a tongue-lashing from the Pope and the cardinal was heading to the papal apartments to receive praise, the two men passed each other in the street. The duke leaped from his horse and savagely beat the cardinal before allowing his attendants to murder him.

Julius II was able to form a new alliance with Spain and England that eventually expelled the French, but allowed the Spanish to take hold of much of the same territory. Julius II was forming a new alliance against the Spanish when he died in 1513.