Popes I have known, by John Julius Norwich

Last night, noted historian John Julius Norwich gave a talk based on his book History of the Popes at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Here's a rough and (only slightly) inaccurate transcript.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. So what am I supposed to be talking about today? Popes, I think. I'm told I've written a book about them. So I have, it's here on the table, and what an utterly splendid book it is, if I may say so myself. You must buy a copy. I'm sorry to say I've forgotten most of what's in it. It was all so long ago. But then I'm deaf as a post anyway so it doesn't really matter.

I only wrote this book because my daughter told me that it would be a terrific wheeze, and so it was. Hilarious. I don't think I've ever had quite so much FUN in my entire life! The only problem was that were so many of them and they all had such similar names. Twenty-three Johns, would you believe? How confusing! So, yes, there were two or three hundred of the blighters. No-one knows quite how many there were and I've certainly forgotten. I am eighty-two, remember. But they're all here in the book.

The thing to remember is that most of them were quite useless, not really Pope material at all, I'm afraid to say. One does wonder how the Roman Catholic Church has survived so long with such a long procession of nincompoops at the helm, as it were. But it has, somehow, and I'm pretty sure it'll see me out, and most of you people here too, which is quite extraordinary, isn't it, when you come to think about it?

Saint Peter was the first pope, so they say, although of course he wasn't. How could he have been? Why on earth would a simple Galilean fisherman want to go to Rome anyway? Saint Paul, yes, he was a man of the world, he could have held his own at one of my mother's dinner parties, but Saint Peter wouldn't have known which knife to use, so he couldn't possibly have been Pope, I'm fairly sure of that.

It's just a legend. So is Pope Joan. I gave her a long chapter in my book even though she didn't actually exist because it's such a good story. She was an English gal, and really terribly bright, and managed things terribly well for years. But she did insist on giving birth in St Peter's during high mass, which rather gave the game away. So that was the end of her. John XII was quite fun. He became pope at the age of twelve and immediately started having sex with every woman in Rome. His mother, incidentally, was the most notorious prostitute in the city, which doesn't sound too good but on the positive side she did give the most delightful dinner parties.

Nicholas V, he was my favourite. Absolute darling, and did you know he single-handedly invented the Renaissance? Without his support Gutenberg's printing press would never have taken off, I'm quite sure about that. And let's not forget Alexander VI, il Borgia. People say he was a dreadful man, and I suppose he did have an unfortunate habit of killing anyone who got in his way, but you know I've always had a soft spot for old Rodrigo. He was witty, highly intelligent, well-read, shrewd, wonderful sense of humour, great raconteur. And of course he did know how to charm the ladies. He would have been delightful company at one of my mother's dinner parties. I'm afraid he would probably have poisoned the other guests, which might well have dampened the mood very slightly, but then nobody's perfect, not even a pope. He wasn't at all religious, of course, and his son was appalling. Even more fond of poisoning people than his father was. Still, popes weren't meant to be religious in those days. The Renaissance was all about fun, wasn't it? And of course he did invent Brazil, so he couldn't have been all bad.

I'm afraid time is short so we'll have to miss out a few centuries. But you get the picture.

Pius XII, I'm sorry to report, was entirely not a darling. He was a frightful bore, not at all the sort of person my mother would have had to supper. When he was in Germany before the war, do you know he insisted on having his own train and his own food, just like Hitler? He spoke fluent German, too. And of course he was a thoroughgoing Nazi. Beastly about the Jews. Beastly. He didn't lift a finger to stop the Holocaust. He was probably in on it, you know, though that's just me sticking my neck out. I've had lots of angry letters from people who tell me he was a good sort, really, but I don't believe a word of it. Odious little man.

Who's next? Ah yes, John XXIII. Darling man, absolute sweetie. I knew him a bit from when my father was Ambassador in Rome. I'm reliably informed that he was the fattest man in the world - John XXIII, that is, not my father. I've never seen anyone eat quite so much food. He was always coming round for supper. My mother used to get him drunk and make him dance on the table and sing obscene Italian songs about I'm not sure what, prostitutes probably. What a hoot. But yes, absolute darling. It was a bit silly of him to ban Latin, though. He didn't seem to realise that with cheap air travel everyone would be jetting off round the world just to go to mass; and you'll be halfway up darkest Peru and pop into church one Sunday morning and won't have a clue what's going on. Which is just so inconvenient. It does make you wonder somewhat about the doctrine of papal infallibility, a decision like that.

Paul VI was a darling too, naturally, apart from the birth control business, but completely out of his depth, poor love. Anyway, he doesn't matter very much. But his successor, John Paul I - the one who only lasted a month, if you remember - what a poppet! Simple man, barely literate in fact, probably wouldn't have "done well" at one of my mother's parties, but he had the sweetest smile. I knew him in Venice. Whenever I patched up a church he would insist on coming round to bless it, which was awfully sweet of him, even though he couldn't speak a word of English. Of course he was murdered. He was about to lift the lid on corruption in the Vatican, so they bumped him off. I read a book about it once and I must say I was totally convinced. So I'm pretty sure he was killed. What a terrible missed opportunity. Had he lived, he would have got rid of the rules on birth control, and allowed married priests, and gays and women too, I'm quite sure of it, in fact he told me so himself.

John Paul II wasn't particularly noteworthy, a darling but then they all were (apart from Pius XII, of course, and some would add Borgia). The only interesting thing about him was his obsession with making saints, hundreds and hundreds of saints. How utterly idiotic. Where did he find them all, I wonder? Did he just go through the telephone directory ticking off names? He might well have done. He was Polish, after all.

And Benedict XVI? I'm afraid to say I have my doubts about him. I'm sure he's a darling, deep down, though he is a German, but he's really the most frightful donkey, no tact at all. Why does he insist on insulting everyone? That's what I'd like to know. He insults the Jews, and the Muslims, and the protestants, and the gays, and women. And then he has to go round apologising! I just don't understand him at all. I doubt very much that my mother would have invited him round for supper, just so he could insult all the other guests. At least he hasn't invented quite so many saints as darling John Paul, I suppose. If I had to say something nice about him it would be that.

So, yes, that's the popes. Thank you all very much. You can ask me some questions if you must but I probably won't have a clue what you're talking about.


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