Soldier Popes:
Benedict XIV and Clement XIII
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
March 2016

The Seven Years’ War took place during the reigns of two pontiffs in Rome, Benedict XIV and Clement XIII. Neither inserted himself into power politics to the extent of popes before and after, yet in the mid-18th century the Holy See remained a potent political force that could not be simply ignored by the era’s enlightened monarchs.

Benedict assumed the throne of St. Peter in at the end of August, 1740. Kaiser Karl VI of Austria died on 20 October, touching off the War of the Austrian Succession, precursor to the Seven Years’ War on which our Soldier Kings game is focused. Maria Theresa of Austria, a staunch, Jesuit-educated Catholic, faced a host of predatory enemies led by the nominally Lutheran but more-or-less Godless Frederick II of Prussia.

Benedict XIV. Portrait by Giuseppe Maria Crespi.

Papal intervention on the side of Austria would therefore have seemed assured. However, in extracting oaths of allegiance from her assorted lands, Maria Theresa insisted that the deputies of the duchies of Parma and Piacenza swear fealty to her. They did so with little complaint, compared to some of the other Habsburg territories. However, the papacy had a long-standing claim to the duchies, and Benedict declared that Maria Theresa had trod on papal prerogatives. She would be denied the Holy See’s direct support in this war; when France and Spain entered the war on Frederick’s side, Benedict showed a distinct preference for the Bourbon powers over the Austrians.

When actual war came to Italy in 1742, the pope remained neutral. The papal army had grossly overspent during the early decades of the century, and Benedict had reduced soldiers’ pay and cut back on numbers as well. As a sop to the House of Habsburg, when the wars finally ended in 1748 the pope did bless the new Military Order of St. Stephen established by Kaiser Francis, Maria Theresa’s fossil-loving husband.

By 1756, when war returned to Europe, Benedict was 81 years old. The Bourbons had lost his favor when the Parlement of Paris overrode the Archbishop of Paris’ authority, but now France was an Austrian ally. Even though the power alignment broke down into a strict Catholic vs. Protestant struggle, the pope did not weigh in for either side.

The French crown exercised its veto power over the first candidate selected by the College of Cardinals to follow Benedict after his death in 1758, and as a compromise the cardinals chose Carlo della Torre Rezzonico, Archbishop of Padova. A Venetian, whose family had strong ties to the House of Habsburg, the new Clement XIII quickly moved to show his esteem for Maria Theresa. The pope granted Maria Theresa and her successors the proud label “Apostolic Majesty,” the title borne by Hungary’s legendary king, Saint Stephen. This grant not only symbolized the pope’s high favor for Maria Theresa, it also lent her implicit papal backing in asserting control over the fractious Hungarian nobles.

Clement XIII in 1760, by Anton Raphael Mengs.

Clement’s greatest challenge would come from the persecution of the Society of Jesus by several European courts. The issue of the Jesuits is a complicated one. At the time, the massive expenses of Seven Years’ War were driving Europe’s royal governments relentlessly toward bankruptcy. The Jesuits, with a reputation (at times well-earned) for shadowy political dealings, held vast wealth that could go far toward paying these bills. The rise of liberal public opinion, in such new venues as newspapers and pamphlets, was often highly anti-clerical. Thus a crowned head going after the Jesuits could gain money to pay bills, crush uncontrolled political forces, and play to the newly-emergent liberal movements, all at once.

Portugal began the movement, as the crown’s agents stripped the Jesuits of their wealth and power. Spain followed, and then France. Austria, however, held out. During the course of the Seven Years’ War, Maria Theresa refused to move against the Jesuits. Believing themselves safe in Habsburg lands, the Jesuits transferred their wealth to Austria. In the 1770’s the Empress-Queen finally moved against them, prodded by her desire to fund universal education and her army command’s lust for the huge Jesuit headquarters in Vienna, the only building in Europe with central heating. By that point Clement was dead, having succumbed to a coughing fit in 1769, when he was 75.

Clement proved unable to protect the Society, and was an unwitting pawn in Maria Theresa’s gambit to increase Jesuit holdings in Austria before seizing them. While unwilling to embroil the Church in the foolish crusading politics of a century before, he did support Maria Theresa as staunchly as any pontiff could be expected to do.

The papal army continued its decline under Clement that began under Benedict XIV; while Benedict left papal finances in far better shape than he found them, Clement XIII was the rare pontiff of his era who actually took his charges to care for Rome’s poor seriously. Large sums went to providing food aid during several famines in the early 1760s.

The papacy maintained the ability to raise and support military forces, though these two popes chose not to do so on as large a scale as some of their predecessors. We’ve added a few papal variants for Soldier Kings, along with a free downloadable .pdf of them available here.

The papal army is only available if the Papal States are liberated (18.8). The Papal States may only be liberated by Austria, France and Spain; these powers must liberate the Papal States if the opportunity arises. They may not transfer the Papal States to Britain, Prussia, Russia or Turkey

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.