1268 Sede Vacante: The First Conclave

Rising white smoke, Latin oaths and a sealed door: the papal ‘election’ is extremely codified, and most of its features stem from a peculiar 2,000-year-old history. But why, in the first place, must the voting cardinals be locked up in order to elect a new Pope? Turns out this tradition dates back to a bizarre episode of the 13th century.

No less than 266 men have, one after the other, sat religiously on Saint-Peter’s Chair; amongst them martyrs, tyrants, serial killers, fathers, saints, and even a cadaver on trial. The Vatican is probably one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, and throughout its 2,000-year-old history, it had plenty of time to mull over its processes.

Cover of the novel Conclave (2018), by Robert Harris. (Photo: The Barnes & Noble Review)

Take the papal ‘election’ ritual, for instance. Before the 11th century, it used to be quite straightforward: a new Pope would be appointed by his predecessor and inherit the job when the latter had kicked the bucket. (Pretty much the way Russian politics work nowadays.) But regulation later changed the process, insisting on so-called democratic scrutiny: hence cardinals were tasked to elect the new Bishop of Rome.

Here is a glimpse of what it looks like: a restricted number of cardinals, locked up in a room – since the 15th century, it is the Sistine Chapel – debate together, usually in Latin or Italian. Under Michelangelo’s splendid fresco, they argue, listen, and ultimately make a decision. A column of white smoke rising in the Vatican sky will show that the cardinals have reached an agreement (or that one accidentally dropped his hat in the fireplace). Then, and only then, are the cardinals freed; hence the term “conclave” from Latin cum clave, roughly meaning “with key”.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard makes sure the doors remain closed until the end of the election.

The first conclave was introduced for a specific reason. In 1268, the French Pope Clement IV passed away, and cardinals jostled one another to find him a decent successor. At the time, one who mastered St. Peter’s Throne had a stronger stand over European affairs, and cardinals usually preached for their own parish. Gathered in Viterbo, a small town 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Rome, French and Italian cardinals quarelled endlessly. The infertile period of Sede Vacante (’empty chair’) drew out; by the winter of 1269, the twenty ecclesiastical leaders had not agreed on anything.

The local authorities grew more and more infuriated as indecision lingered on. Thus the village prefect, Ranieri Gatti, decided to shake things a bit. He ordered the doors of the Episcopal Palace sealed, turning the meeting place into an improvised dungeon… It was supposed to help cardinals clear their minds and make a quicker decision; they were later subjected to a ‘bread and water’ diet for the same purpose. By that time, months had passed by. Still no Pope? Local authorities went a step further, ordering the rooftop of Viterbo Palace to be removed “for direct access to the Holy Spirit”.

Viterbo, Italy.

Still, those harsh measures did not help speeding up the election. In desperation, the democratic way was given up for a 6-man per compromissum committee tasked with choosing the successor of Clement IV. Eventually, Teobaldo Visconti was elected the new Bishop of Rome, soon to govern the Holy See under the name of Gregory X. When he entered the town of Viterbo in February 1272, freshly back from the Crusades, did he notice the palace had been decapitated? Or had the locals already replaced the roof of the Palatio discooperto?

What an interminable Sede Vacante anyway! It took about two years and nine months to appoint a successor to Clement IV – enough time for three of the twenty cardinals summoned at Viterbo to pass away. In order to prevent further time-consuming and forever-lasting debates, the newly-elected Pope issued the bull Ubi periculum in 1274, requiring all papal elections to unfold behind locked doors… The conclave was born! Although Gregory’s successors managed to get round the new rule, it would soon establish itself a key stage of the election process, which lives on to this day. Let’s hope, nevertheless, that the removal of papal palace’s rooftop will not happen again: to uproot Michelangelo’s artwork would be considered heresy.



Thanks to Michel who submitted the witty idea behind this article! (Send yours too!)


  • Frederic J. Baumgartner, Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections (2003), Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Greg Tobin, Selecting the Pope: Uncovering the Mysteries of Papal Elections (2009), Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
  • John Paul Adams, “Sede Vacante”, 7/29/2014, CSUN.
  • The Guardian, “Every Pope ever: the full list”, 2013, DATABLOG.

Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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