September 25 – A poisoned pope?

On this day in Tudor history, 25th September 1534, in the reign of Henry VIII, Pope Clement VII died in Rome.

It was rumoured that the pope, born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, died from eating death cap mushrooms or from fumes from poisoned candles placed in his room, but it is more likely that he died from natural causes.

Let me introduce Pope Clement VII and look at the rumours surrounding his death…


On this day in Tudor history, 25th September 1534, Pope Clement VII, who was born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, died in Rome.

He’d been pope since he was elected in 1523, having served as chief advisor to the two previous popes, his cousin Pope Leo X and Pope Adrian VI. Pope Clement VII was pope at rather an interesting time – the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther was spreading through Europe, Henry VIII was seeking an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France both wanted the pope’s support on their very different sides, Suleiman the Magnificent was causing trouble in Eastern Europe, and the church was having financial problems.

Then, in 1527, there was the Sack of Rome, a massacre and pillage carried out by the mutinous troops of Emperor Charles V and those associated with Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, an enemy of Clement. The pope ended up being captured and imprisoned at the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican was plundered. Clement stayed holed up in the castle for seven months before escaping, allegedly dressed as a gardener.

Pope Clement VII was a scholar, expanding the Vatican Library, and being friends with humanist men like Erasmus; he was a patron of the Arts – he commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the scene which turned out to be the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, as a cardinal he had commissioned Raphael to paint the “Transfiguration” altarpiece for his cathedral at Narbonne, in France, and he also ordered the restoration and refurbishment of churches and buildings in Rome; and a patron of science too – he personally approved Copernicus’s theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. He was also a patron of Machiavelli, and opposed the Spanish Inquisition’s treatment of the Jews. He was an interesting man.

And his death is rather interesting too!

It was said that he died from eating death cap mushrooms or from fumes from poisoned candles placed in his room, but it is not known whether these rumours were based on any truth. In “Diseases and causes of death among the Popes”, Louise Cilliers and FP Retief, put his death down to natural causes, specifically a major anxiety neurosis. Whatever happened, Pope Clement VII was laid to rest in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

I looked up death cap mushroom poisoning and found out that 90 percent of deaths related to mushroom poisoning worldwide are due to the death cap mushroom and that these mushrooms can easily be mistaken for edible mushrooms and are even said to be quite tasty. As little as half a death cap mushroom contains enough toxin to kill and adult, but symptoms take some time to manifest – 6-24 hours after eating – so you don’t find out you’ve eaten one for some time. Symptoms of death cap mushroom poisoning include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, then later, jaundice, delirium, seizures, coma, kidney failure, intracranial pressure and bleeding, and cardiac arrest. Death tends to happen between 6 and 16 days of eating the mushroom.

So, on this day in history, 25th September 1534, Pope Clement VII died of something, and perhaps mushroom poisoning.

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