17th Century Secret Female Pope

In September 1644, a new pope ascended the throne of St Peter. He was 72 year old Cardinal Giovanni Battista Pamphili otherwise known as Pope Innocent X.

But Innocent did not wear the triple crown alone. He shared it with his intelligent, scheming, greedy sister in law Olimpia Maidalchini.

Donna Olimpia Maidalchini

Donna Olimpia Maidalchini

During the first three years of Innocent’s papacy, Olimpia restricted her advice to matters concerning political issues of minor importance. But in 1647, with a shift of Vatican employees, Olimpia found herself in a position to influence the powerful and secret arm of the Vatican known as The Holy Alliance.

At this time in history, relations between the Vatican and France were at an all-time low. After many years in Italy courting Donna Olimpia, the most powerful man in France was Guilio Mazarini, now refashioned as Cardinal Jules Mazarin.

Mazarin knew Olimpia and her role well and cleverly insinuated a force of French agents inside the Vatican to spy on her, and to inform him of all the Pope’s intended manoeuvres against France.

Jules Mazarin

Jules Mazarin

Clever Olimpia countermanded this move by setting in place a counter-espionage arm of the Holy Alliance called The Black Order, the members of which were to find Mazarin’s spies and execute them on the spot.

The Black Order had eleven members, handpicked by Olimpia. Each one carried a pontifical seal engraved in silver with the image of a female in a toga holding a sword in one hand and a cross in the other.

Mazarin’s best spy was a Genovese priest named Alberto Mercati and, between 1647 and 1650, many important papal documents relating to France came through his hands, all of them duly copied and forwarded to Mazarin. In one such secret message came the outline of a plot by an organisation called the Fronde to overthrow the First Minister and his mistress, Anne of Austria.

This coded message was given to a French member of the Pope’s Swiss Guard who promised to get it to Paris with all possible speed. The next day his body was found hanging from a bridge with both hands cut off and a small strip of black cloth with two red stripes attached to his clothes – the sign of The Black Order.

The message was brought to Olimpia and destroyed and France embarked on the series of brutal civil wars known as The Fronde.

The Fronde

The Fronde

On September 6th 1652, Mercati was found hanged in his rooms in Rome with, inside his mouth, a small strip of black cloth with two red stripes.

Swiss Guards

All through my research for Weave a Garland I have come across the Swiss Guard.

In 17th century France there were two corps – the Hundred Swiss (Cent Suisses), who served within the Palace as bodyguards and ceremonial troops.

And the Swiss Guards (Gardes Suisses) who guarded the entrances and outer perimeters of the royal residences.

They were like frescoes behind the moveable drama of Louis XIII’s court. Marshal Bassompierre commanded the Swiss during the early part of Louis’ reign and the marriage of Henrietta Maria was coloured all over by the red and white of the Switzers who lined the parvis outside of Notre Dame on the day of her wedding to Charles I of England.

Today the Swiss Guard protect the Vatican and it has just been announced that, for the first time in their 500 year history, they are considering allowing  women to join their ranks.

See The Telegraph article dated 5 May 2009.