The Borgia Dynasty is probably one of the most infamous families in the history of the renaissance era. The Patriarch of this family was one of the most powerful men in the world of this time, Rodrigo Borgia – Pope Alexander VI. Pope Alexander is remembered and even respected as a shrewd politician and leader, even though he is one of the most controversial Popes in all of history. Most of this controversy stems from the fact that Pope Alexander had mistresses and children, then strategically placed his children in key positions of power in order to obtain and retain this power. Popes (let alone any ordained clergy member) of the Roman Catholic church were forbidden to marry and required to remain chaste. It is true that many did not follow such orders. One of the reasons is that most clergy of this era entered into this calling because it was expected of them, by their family. Many did not actually volunteer. This was very true among nobility. Peasants as well, as they often entered the Church because it was a way for them to possibly move up in the world. During these days, most did not become a priest because they sincerely felt the calling to become one. The Borgia Pope was no different. The Spanish House of Borgia would grow in power too much, making them many deadly enemies in Italy.
Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio, was born to Rodrigo Borgia when he was but the Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, and to his mistress, the beauty, Vannozza dei Canttanei. Cardinal Borgia openly claimed to be the father of the first four of Vannozza’s children: Cardinal Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois; Giovanni Borgia, 2nd Duke of Gandia; Lucrezia; and Gioffre Borgia, Prince of Squillace and Duke of Alvito. She also had a half brother that was fathered by one of her mother’s arranged decoy marriages.
Lucrezia was the only daughter of her Pope father, so she was the only real bargaining tool he had. He had sons of course, but these sons offered benefit to their wives and their families. Lucrezia, as was the Western tradition, could bring benefit to her family by forging very strong political alliances. She was a very important pawn to her family surely. Also, marriage with her was very desirable for any eligible bachelor among the world’s nobility. Her father was the Pope. The Pope could make and unmake Kings in several ways. He could crown them, and he could deny a heirless King an annulment and end a dynasty. Having the Pope on your side, was the desire of nearly every European King at the time. Also, we can not ignore the fact that Lucrezia Borgia was a beauty. She was known as one of the greatest beauties of her time. Fair, healthy, and gentle… She was also a known intellect, whom had the greatest tutors and the most extensive educations any noble “woman” could ever dream to receive. No doubt her family valued her and esteemed her. She was a world renown administrator, and even Vatican business was entrusted to her.
The first marriage she entered to benefit her family was with Giovanni Sforza d’Aragona, Lord of Pesaro and Gradara, an illegitimate son of Costanzo I Sforza. Because Constanzo had no legitimate children with his wife, Giovanni succeeded him as his heir to his fortune and titles. It was a great match for Lucrezia, whom was illegitimate herself, and the alliance with the powerful Sforza family of Milan, who actually helped Borgia win the Papacy, seemed very beneficial at the time. Poor Lucrezia was just twelve years old when she married Sforza, though her marriage contract stipulated she would stay in Rome and the marriage would not be consummated until she was thirteen.
About two years passed when Lucrezia lived with Giovanni as his wife when it was discovered that Sofrza was not going to prove beneficial to the Pope. It was even believed that he was acting as a spy for the Sforza Milanos. So, the Pope and Cardinal Cesare Borgia began to plot the dissolution of Lucrezia’s marriage. The Pope began to desire other alliances, with more beneficial families. Cesare was forced into the church and had become a Cardinal after his father became Pope, so he could not marry at that time. Giovanni, Duke of Gandia, was being saved for a royal marriage, and young Gioffre, as well would probably wed a royal, though he was really young. All hopes mainly rested with Lucrezia.
The Pope petitioned to annul the marriage of his daughter and Sforza. The fact that they lived together as man and wife for a couple of years was a challenge, but since Lucrezia never conceived, it was not impossible. The Pope had Lucrezia testify that her marriage was never consummated and that she remained “in virgo intacta” (a virgin intact). Many historians find this highly unlikely by the end of the two years, as she would have been around fifteen, and of the common age for marriage and marital relations of the times… But since there was no child, it was easy to claim. Sforza was accused of impotence, a huge insult and embarrassing accusation. This pretty much insulted his manhood and made many of the Sforzas enemies of the Pope and the Borgia family. Since the Sforzas were one of Italy’s most powerful and leading families, this was not a small thing.
It was after these accusations, and the annulment, that rumors began to circulate that the Pope himself had an unnatural and incestuous relationship with his daughter, Lucrezia. It was also rumored that Lucrezia and her brother Cesare were lovers as well. Most modern historians discredit these rumors and accusations, because they only arose from Giovanni Sfroza after the insult to his virility and his disgrace. This has not stopped fiction writers and TV producers from indulging these rumors as historic fact though, which shows really bad taste to be honest. Sure the Borgia Pope was a ruthless, cut throat, shady politician… and even a lecher for he had numerous mistresses, but this kind of accusation is really vile and unfounded. But you would not expect anything less from ones enemies. The Sforza family put the pressure on Giovanni to admit to the impotency and “just move on for now,” which he eventually did.
Now that Lucrezia was a free woman, and officially declared a virgin, she was back in the game. Her family could use her again to their advantage, except for one minor problem. Lucrezia was pregnant. The Borgia family continued to deny that Lucrezia was pregnant or had been, let alone that Sfroza was the father. They tried to cover it up by sending Lucrezia to a convent to have the baby. This only fueled the rumors that Cesare could possibly be the father of his sister’s child. Then rumors emerged that the child was fathered by a servant of the Pope’s. No one may ever know who fathered this child, but it is most likely that the child was Sfroza’s. They furthermore tried to cover up about the child by claiming the child was Cesare’s by an unknown mistress. The child was also claimed in another Papal bull to be the Pope’s son. People were kinder to bastards of men then they were of bastards of women. It was not such a bad thing for a man to father illegitimate children, but it was a huge ordeal for a woman to do so. One thing was for certain, the Borgia’s would not want Lucrezia to have such an awful reputation, as it would harm her prospects of making an advantageous alliance for the family. One can see how such crazy rumors existed and were used against the Borgia family. It is not surprising in the least.
Lucrezia’s second marriage was to Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie and Prince of Salerno (the illegitimate son of Alfonso II King of Naples). This husband was mysteriously murdered; some say by Cesare, as Cesare (and the Pope it is assumed as well) allied with the French against Naples. The interesting thing is, Pope Alexander wanted Cesare to marry the King of Naples’s legitimate daughter and heir, but the royal princess refused to accept a illegitimate son of a Pope as a husband (which is pretty understandable for many reasons). So the King of Naples offered his illegitimate son to the Pope’s illegitimate daughter. A more reasonable match.
Anyway, the murder of Alfonso got rid of the Borgia’s Naples alliance in favor of a much more desired French one. Also, Lucrezia was free to be married off again. The next alliance the Pope sought was with Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. This was the most significant marriage for Lucrezia. An arranged and fully political marriage, both husband and wife indulged in many extramarital affairs. Lucrezia herself was known to have three lovers during this marriage. No historian can say that their marriage was unhappy, but the couple seemed to have a mutual respect for each other and some kind of understanding. Lucrezia was esteemed as a well governing Duchess and entrusted with governing the Duchy when her husband was away. She proved to be a great governess. They had 8 known children.
Lucrezia, like many women of this age, took a great risk for every pregnancy they endured and every child they gave birth to. Childbirth complications and childbed fever was the leading cause of death among women of these times. Since Western noble women were expected to have baby after baby, not even able to take a rest for a couple of years and nurse their own babies, women’s health suffered greatly in these times. Also, western men could only be married to one woman, and often until death. She alone had to bare all the legitimate heirs. Lucrezia’s end was quite common. She died, along with her 10th or 11th child, after giving birth, of puerperal fever (childbed fever).
Lucrezia gave birth to 10 (possibly 11) children. It is said that her first child may have been the illegitimate child that Cesare Borgia claimed as his by an unknown lover, and that this child’s birth was covered up by the family. Some rumors were that it was Lucrezia and her brother’s child; others were that it was a servants child. Most historians suspect it was Giovanni Sforzas child (her first husband).
Giovanni Borgia, Infans Romanus/Infant of Rome (1498-1548)
With her second husband, Alfonso De Colabria (Alfonso of Aragon), Duke of Bisceglie, Prince of Salerno it is believed she possibly had one child that was miscarried or stillborn. It is also documented that she had another:
Rodrigo of Aragon (Little Rodrigo), Duke of Bisceglie and Sermoneta (1499-1512)
With her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, she gave birth to 8 known children:
A stillborn daughter (1502)
Alessandro d’Este (1507), died shortly after birth.
Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio (1508-1559)
Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este/Archbishop of Milan (1509-1572)
Alessandro d’Este (1514–1516)
Sister Eleonora d’Este (1515-1575)
Francesco d’Este, Marquess of Massalombarda (1516–1578)
Isabella Maria d’Este (1519), died shortly after birth.
Lucrezia Borgia has been portrayed on TV many times and sadly, most portrayals paint her as a bad person. The likely truth is that she was used as a pawn by her family, like most high born girls were, and that she was more a victim than a villain. One of the more recent portrayal is in the TV series called “The Borgias,” and stars Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander. There is also another BBC TV series by the same title too. I prefer Irons as Pope Alexander, as well as the other actors, so I like this one more. Both can be seen on Netflix.