Today in History – May 6, 1527 – Sack of Rome

It was an event that shocked Europe.  The armies of a Christian Catholic Emperor (containing protestants) sacked the Eternal City sending the Pope fleeing for his life to the security of the Castel Sant’Angelo before he surrendered the following month.  Pope Clement VII had allied with France in an effort to liberate the Papal States from domination by the Emperor Charles V.  The French were defeated but the Spanish troops were unpaid and mutinous.  They forced their commander Duke Charles de Bourbon (a fugitive from France) to lead them to Rome with the prospect of loot.

The sack of Rome in 1527, by Johannes Lingelbach, 17th century
The sack of Rome in 1527, by Johannes Lingelbach, 17th century

The army reached Rome on May 5 and launched an assault the next day.  Unfortunately Duke Charles was killed in the assault and with his death disappeared the last commander who had any authority over the Imperial army.  The sack is known for the Stand of the Swiss Guard, almost all of whom were massacred on the steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica.  This allowed the Pope to escape to safety.  After this Rome – including churches, monasteries and the palaces of cardinals – were pillaged and destroyed.  The surviving Imperial commanders were unable to bring order to the unruly troops.

The Pope surrendered on June 6 and paid 400,000 ducati for his skin.  After that he never challenged the Emperor for the remainder of his life.

The sack of Rome also had an effect on English history.  The Pope was always unlikely to support Henry VIII in his quest for a divorce from the Emperor’s aunt.  After the Sack of Rome showed Papal vulnerability to imperial arms, the English King’s Great Matter was an impossibility for the Pope.  The Papacy’s prestige was further damaged but the embarrassed Emperor was now free to turn his attention to crushing Protestantism in Germany.  The population of Rome dropped from 55,000 before the sack to a mere 10,000 – with between 6,000 to 12,000 murdered d.  In commemoration for their bravery new recruits to the Papal Swiss Guard are sworn in May 6 every year.

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