Brogia Family - portraits as well as a picture from the Horrible Histories Borgia Family song.

Learning about the Borgia family – for fans of Horrible Histories

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Brogia Family - portraits as well as a picture from the Horrible Histories Borgia Family song.We enjoy watching Horrible Histories, and sometimes I use episodes as the basis of a history lesson. Here are some of my notes (and at the bottom, a list of resources, including a link to related math worksheets):

Watch the vignette on Pope Alexander VI on Horrible Histories (season 4, episode 9) and the song Borgia Family in the same episode. Note that Alexander VI is the name Rodrigo Borgia took on when he took his position as Pope.

Giovanne was murdered, possible by his brother Cesare. Note how the video deals with that possibility.

Label map of Italy. Locate Siena. While Rodrigo Borgias was a Cardinal there, the pope wrote to him denouncing him for his unseemly behavior, and he had to leave his station there and go off “in penance” to the hills of Tuscany (around Florence).

Note the kingdom of Naples. Charles VIII of France believed himself to have a claim on the throne of Naples. His cousin and heir, Louis XII also believed in that claim. Both attempted to take the throne.

When Rodrigo Borgias was pope, he married his youngest son, Jofre, to Sancho of Aragon, the niece of the king of Naples and son of the king’s heir. (Sancho’s father was cousin to Ferdinand II of Spain.) When she and Jofre were married, they were created Prince and Princess of Squillace. Mark Squillance on your map too. Lucrezia’s second marriage was to Sancho’s half-brother Alfonso of Aragon.

Mark in the Duchy of Gandia on a map of Spain. Rodrigo Borgias created the Dutchy for his eldest son, Pedro Luis, and that passed on to Pedro Luis’ brother Giovanne. (Pedro Luis doesn’t feature in the Horrible Histories video.)

Mark Ferrara on the map. This kingdom was ruled by the Este family. Lucrezia’s third husband was part of the Este family, and after his father’s death was duke of Ferrara.

Background to Lucrezia’s marriages:

Lucrezia Borgia was married to Giovanni Sforza when she was only 13 years old, though she had been betrothed twice before that. The marriage was arranged by her father, and the wedding festivities lasted 24 hours. Sweetmeets were passed around and instead of returning the remains to the kitchen the guests threw the leftovers out of the window to the crowds waiting below. After the wedding festivities Lucrezia returned to her home, not to take up married life until several months later. By then the political situation was looking difficult and there is a possibility that Lorenzo tried to back out of the marriage out of fear! Even married, he needed the Pope’s permission to take Lucrezia (his wife, the Pope’s daughter) out of Rome and back to his home in Pesaro (he did receive permission for a visit, but later Lucrezia returned to Rome). When faced with a question of supporting his father-in-law (the Pope, who was also his liege lord), or his native Milan, he took on the role of spy accepting a position as a commander of a Neapolitan regiment but informing his relatives of the fleet movements. In the relative peace after a war between France and Naples was over, Giovanni fled from Rome, possibly in fear of poisoning (but the stories of that, whether true or not, say that Lucrezia had warned him of the poisoning). He wrote asking Lucrezia to come back to his home, but the Pope decided the marriage should be ended, either divorced or annulled. His relatives had to abandon him in order to stay in the good graces of the Pope!

Her brother had arranged an attack on her second husband. He survived the initial attack and wounded, was brought back to where Lucrezia could care for him. She and her sister-in-law, Sancha (Alfonso’s sister, and wife to Lucrezia’s brother Giovanne), nursed Alfonso of Aragon, preparing his food for him so as to see it was not poisoned. They were, however, unable to stop a group of armed men from entering the room and killing him.

Lucrezia’s third husband was Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The Pope offered a special Mass in St Peter’s, a plenary indulgence, and a display of sacred relics in honor of the Este family coming to Rome to arrange the marriage. The dowry included a Papal Bull remitting the amount of money the State of Ferrara would pay to the Vatican as well over 100,000 ducats and a pile of other Papal Bulls. Counting the ducats was a slow process that had to be done by daylight, not torchlight, for fear torchlight would allow the Pope to conceal false or worn ducats among the numbers.

One part of Alfonso I d’Este’s story can serve as a reminder that the Borgia family were not alone in their violent tenancies (though they probably took them worse than most, using the Pope’s position to let Cesare run the “Papal army”). As Duke, Alfonso I d’Este was forced to decide justice in a case where his brother Ippolito had had attacked and blinded his half-brother Giulo. When Alfonso failed to punish Ippolito for the deed, Guilo plotted revenge against both Ippolito and Alfosno, and was joined in doing so by their other brother Ferrante. The plot was discovered and Guilo and Ferrante were sentenced to death together with two other accomplices. The two other accomplices were killed but as Guilo and Ferrante stepped up to the gallows the sentence was commuted and they were sentenced to life in jail.

Marrying into a powerful family like the Borgia family might give you power, but it also put you at risk of being trampled over by their power. Maria Bellonci’s book about Lucrezia Borgia suggests that after the annulment of her first marriage and the death of her second marriage, Lucrezia resisted being pushed into another marriage until offered one with a family that seemed powerful enough her family would not be able to destroy her marriage. She needed a family strong enough to stand up to her family of birth. (Little did she realize how that strength would allow her new father-in-law to break the terms of the marriage agreement and give her a lower allowance than promised!)

In some ways the power balance issue can be modeled by two people having a tug of war. As long as they can both pull at the right level they’ll stand upright but if one of them is stronger than the other they fall down.

Cesare Borgia:

Appointed cardinal by his father at age 18, Cesare later became the first person to ever resign from being a Cardinal. He was charged with delivering the Bull of divorce to the French King Louis XII but refused to hand over the bull until the King provided some assistance in arranging Casare’s marriage. Maria Bellonci describes Cesare’s time in France this way:

Anyone who follows the details of Cesare’s sojourn in France with a critical eye can see what one of the Cardinals in Rome meant when he said that the King was holding [Cesare] as a hostage so as to have the Pope on his side during his coming campaign in Italy. Now that Cesare was isolated and away from the land of his birth, the French indulged in witticisms at his expense: they said that the ‘son of God’ would not be able to slip through their fingers this time as he had done at Velletri, and the reference to his position as hostage at the time of the previous invasion was a significant comment on his sojourn in France.

In 1500 Cesare then led an army throughout Italy, capturing different fiefs and cities.

Machiavelli & Leonardo Da Vinci:

For a short while Machiavelli traveled within Cesare’s court for a while as a go between with the Florentine government. He watched the brutality of Cesare’s army and one of his letters in 1503 reported difficulty finding a messenger to deliver his letters:

Your Lordships … will excuse the delay if my letters are behind time. For the peasants conceal themselves; no solider is willing to absent himself, not wanting to forgo his chances of plunder; and my own domestics are unwilling to separate themselves from me for fear of being robbed. (150 Oppenheimer)

Among the mass of civilians (merchants, priests, musicians, etc) who traveled with the army was Leonardo Da Vinci. He was ordered to take measurements of and do detailed sketches of the fortress Cesare had captured from Caterina Sporza. He helped built a wooden bridge in the swamp at Fossombrone, make maps, and plan battles (looking at artillery, military escape routes, assembly points for soldiers and soft spots in castles). The Horrible Histories Dragon Den skit about Da Vinci misses a lot of the practical little things that it helps to have an engineer around the battle scene for.

Back in Florence Machiavelli and Leonard Da Vinci were both part of a plan to divert a river from Pisa. Leonardo backed out and a less skilled engineer took over the job. Miscalculations led to flooded swamplands and over 80 workers dying before the project was abandoned.

Wars and Soldiers

Reading about the Italian wars I found myself wondering who the soldiers were in all of this. What did they think of all the wars? In Machiavelli’s time mercenaries were very common. In The Prince the problem is described thusly:

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe; which I should have little trouble to prove, for the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries, and although they formerly made some display and appeared valiant amongst themselves, yet when the foreigners came they showed what they were.

Pay cannot justify a person staying in a dangerous situation and when pay is late there are even more problems. At one point Machiavelli was traveling with Swiss troops that, while on loan from Louis XII of France, required pay from Florence. When the pay was delayed Machiavelli’s superior officer was taken captive and only narrowly managed to bargain for his life. Louis XII was not happy that his loaner-army deflected but did apologize to Florence for the mess, and Florence had to pay for the lost troops.

Mercenary captains had their own problem. In The Prince, he describes this problem clearly:

The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.

One of Machiavelli’s early challenges involved being sent to negotiate with Jacopo d’Appiano, a condottiere hired by Florence to attack Pisa. Appiano had upped his demands from Florence, asking for more men (at Florence’s expense) and for higher pay for himself. If Florence was unwilling or unable to pay that they risked him walking away (taking troops with him) or even switching sides and fighting for Pisa.

The problem with mercenary captains is similar to the problem described in an essay by Robert Sharp in the book Superman and Philosophy: What would the Man of Steel do? In that essay the author ponders whether had Superman ended up raised in pre-WWII Germany he would have joined the Nazis, but suggests Superman would not have been a good servant of the Nazi’s, because had he embraced the notion that might and natural superiority justifies taking power, he would not have been content to serve Hitler, but at some point would have wanted to serve himself alone. A condottiere was a potential superman of his time. He could be bought, unless he believed in his own abilities enough, in which case he could turn against his superiors.

Cesare Borgia used mercenaries but tried not to rely on them alone. He recruited troops from within the conquered territories, for “the edge granted by the loyalty of soldiers convinced that they were fighting for house and home as well as for profit (which for the ordinary solider remained mostly a delusion.” (Openheimer 139)

Returning to Florence after his time in Cesare’s camp and after a trip to Rome to when the new pope was being chosen, Machiavelli argued that Florence needed a citizens militia. Members of the Grand Council preferred hiring mercenaries because they were scared that arming citizens would allow them to take over the government. However in January 1506 his project won approval with the instructions to recruit citizens from the countryside so that they would be away from the capital and less of a threat to the council. A mercenary – a condottiere – was hired as the commander. Machiavelli recommended an old friend of Cesare Borgia, a man named Michelotto, who lasted less than a year in the position before being removed for brutality. Machiavelli’s familiarity with classical literature taught him to avoid a problem in the armies of Cicero’s Roman Republic:

The danger in Cicero’s day lay in the option granted to Roman soldiers, mostly for reasons of morale, to swear allegiance to their commanders instead of the state. Ultimately, the arrogating of personal loyalties over patriotism contributed to the fall of the Republic. It was a mistake that Machiavelli was determined to avoid. (Openheimer 187)


Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was written about the same time as The Prince (1516 compared to 1513) and also contains discussions of different types of military. In Sir Thomas More’s Utopia the problem of mercenaries switching sides is solved by Utopia paying the highest of any nation for their mercenaries, having no value attached to gold (which is stored as chamber pots rather than decorations) except for its ability to purchase what is needed. The book also invents a nation of people with no skills other than being mercenaries, so as to justify the sending off of these mercenaries to death as being a good thing, ridding the world of them.

Protestant Reformation

One issue my husband wanted to know about but I still haven’t found a good source on is to what extent the Borgia family contributed to the protestant revolution. There is some discussion of that on this history forum with people saying that the Borgia were more a product of their time than the cause of it but I have not yet been able to read more serious sources on the issue. Certainly though Pope Alexander VI had no scruples about using indulgences and Papal Bulls for his own use. He wasn’t alone in practicing nepotism, as at least the two previous popes did so.

Supposedly a teenage Martin Luther traveled on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1500, where he undoubtedly would have heard tales of the scandalous Pope. However he’s also supposed to have visited ten years later when another scandalous Pope was in power.

Moving onward…

Learning about the Borgia family and their connections with both Spain and France will help with the discussion of pirates coming up. (I’ll be looking at how the balance of power between those two countries influenced Queen Elizabeth’s treatment of them.) The talk about what to do with professional armies will come up again in discussions of privateers and buccaneers.

Also, it was the Borgia Pope Alexander VI who signed the Papal bull dividing Spanish and Portuguese claims to the “New World” in 1493. Earlier Papal bulls had recognized Portuguese claims on anywhere south of the Canaries, but now Spanish exploration had challenged those claims.

Reading about the Borgia family led me to read about other families from the same era. Check out my post on the Caterina Sforza.

References (book titles link to Amazon affiliate link. Check your libraries!):

 Online resource:

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