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.
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.
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.
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.