In 2021, Viterbo celebrates the 750th anniversary of the longest conclave in the history of the Church. Indeed, it took no less than thirty-three months of deliberation for the 19 cardinals, unexpectedly confined in 1271, to choose Pope Gregory X, laying the basis for the rules governing the election of Peter's successor.
In the second part of the 13th century, the long pontifical interreges multiplied, due to a too small number of cardinals, making it difficult to agree on one of them: if the vacancy exceeded four months in 1265, before the election of the French Pope Clement IV (1265-1268), it reached nearly three years after his death! It is the longest vacancy that has ever occurred.
It was necessary to prevent the return of such a long vacancy. In 1268, the cardinals met in Viterbo where Clement IV had just died. This city is then the second capital of Christendom: by its strategic position and its many towers, it protects the popes from any raids that the masters of the Holy Empire may attempt against them, in a more or less latent conflict against the Church.
Pope Adrian IV had already taken refuge there in order to escape Frederick Barbarossa, and in 1257, Alexander IV even transferred the pontifical government there, as a precautionary measure.
Let us not forget that in 1268, after the death of Clement IV, the eighteen cardinals who then made up the Sacred College were not able to come to an agreement. Nonetheless, an excessively prolonged vacancy is quickly seen as a high risk to the interests of Christendom.
It was then that Philippe III, the King of France, arrived in Viterbo on his return from the crusade which saw the death of his illustrious father, King St. Louis IX. Along with his uncle Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily, the new sovereign begged the cardinals to press for the election of Peter's successor.
To make this wish come true, the ingenious St. Bonaventure, who was also in Viterbo at that time, advised the inhabitants of the city to enclose the cardinals tightly within the walls of the episcopal palace, so that, separated from all foreign influence, they would be determined to end it as quickly as possible.
Today, one can still see, in the hall of the episcopal palace, the holes dug to receive the wooden sleeping platforms, from which were suspended the hangings forming cells for the cardinals.
Nothing new under the sun in Viterbo: half a century earlier, in July 1216 in fact, the inhabitants of Perugia had resorted to a similar stratagem, to force the cardinals to decide without delay, a successor to Innocent III.
Likewise, the Romans, on the death of Blessed Gregory IX on August 22, 1241, locked up the porporati in the Septizonium of Septimius Severus, located on the slopes of the Palatine.
But in Viterbo, despite the arrangements made in 1268, the election still did not happen. Made impatient by so much delay, Albert de Montebono, potentate of the city, and Raniero Galli, head of the militiamen, had the roof of the palace removed, and only let bread and water reach the cardinals.
Motivated by strict confinement, to which was added a most austere fast, our cardinals sent two representatives to offer the sovereign pontificate to St. Philippe Beniti, general of the Servites of Mary. But the saint refused and fled into the mountains!
The cardinals, starving and numb with cold, entrusted six of them with the task of choosing the future pontiff: they quickly elect Théobald de Visconti, archdeacon of Liège from Plaisance.
The chosen one was not even a cardinal, he fulfilled the functions of apostolic legate in Syria. As soon as it was accepted, he took the name of Gregory X, and his accession to the sovereign pontificate gave the bishop of Porto, John of Toledo, the opportunity of creating an epigram that has remained famous:
Papatus munus tulit archidiaconus unus quem patrum fecit discordia fratrum. Which can be translated as “the disagreement of the cardinals gives birth to a simple archdeacon in the guise of pope.”
The newly elected, keeping in mind how laborious his election was, intended to make new rules, in order to prevent a vacancy detrimental to the interests of the Church: on July 7, 1274, the Ubi periculum bubble was published, which gave legal sanction to the means, a little strange, that the citizens of Viterbo took in order to hasten the election of the sovereign pontiff: the history of the conclaves had just begun.