Some papal elections during the rennaisance were notorious for allegations of bribery. For example the 1492 conclave which elected Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. The amount needed for bribes were considerable, e.g. Wikipedia mentioned "four mule-loads of silver". Also, elections were not frequent enough for people to simply trust each other by habit. How did people ensure that such a risky transaction was honored?

If the payment was first, how could the payer know that, after that big payment, the cardinal would vote as requested? If the payment was later, how could the cardinal know that he would be paid?

  • a third party maybe?
    – ed.hank
    Dec 11, 2016 at 16:05
  • 3
    To begin with, those interested in Papal elections and with the means to bribe cardinals are usually in the rank of Kings and above. It is never wise to cross a King or an Emperor. But, as you comment, there were not enough elections to develop an habit, so probably there was no standard way or price for votes.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 11, 2016 at 20:23
  • @ed.hank Yeah, like escrow.
    – Geremia
    Dec 11, 2016 at 20:37
  • @ed.hank do you have any references to instances of papal election bribery going through a third party?
    – user69715
    Dec 12, 2016 at 4:22
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    Presumably, part of the bribe was paid in advance and the rest was contingent upon some verification of the result. Dec 18, 2016 at 3:38

2 Answers 2


My guess is, just like today, there was plenty of fraud, people claiming to have the ability to sell votes or offices and not really being able to deliver.

But regarding how such enforcement could have worked, Cardinals often came from families like the Orsini, Sforza, or Medici who had very substantial power (military, financial, or via popular support) around Rome and were able to bring some force to bear if they needed to (I believe the power balance between these and other families affected many elections, at least implicitly). Cardinals from other places, such as France, might have the backing of the nobility there who could help enforce any agreements made.

I will also say that buying a papacy might take "four-mule loads of silver" but starting a rumor costs nothing, and if it makes for salacious reading people will spread it for fun. If you don't like Alexander VI or his family, and he isn't around to do anything about it, you can say whatever you want. Alexander VI sheltered large numbers of Jews exiled from Spain, Portugal, and Provence. That would have ruffled a few Roman feathers in those days, but today we would look at that differently (I hope).


Probably the same way that bribery in the elections of bishops was honored? Or in the elections for MPs from rotten boroughs in England? What about ensuring that bribery in the elections of municipal officials was honored? What about elections for king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1572 to 1796? What about imperial elections?

There were many elective offices in that era, and in some cases the number of electors, such as the cardinals and the imperial electors, was small enough that bribery was feasible.

So researching allegations of bribery in elections for other offices will no doubt give some clues about the practical mechanics of bribery in papal elections.

  • Sorry, too broad to be useful, and perhaps even misleading. Alas, -1. Dec 18, 2016 at 3:37
  • For example: in rotten boroughs there were non-secret elections, unlike in the OP's case of interest. Dec 18, 2016 at 3:39

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