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D - 42: Famous People in the Mediterranean - Pope Pius V

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Not everybody will be happy with my choice of person today: Pope Pius V. He was Pope and Bishop of Rome from 1566 – 1572 and probably one of the most hated Popes in history. But before rendering judgment let’s have a look at the facts.

Michele Ghislieri, the future Pope Pius V was born in the Duchy of Milan in 1504 and entered the Dominican Order at the age of 14. The year before, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the main doors of the church in Wittenberg severely criticizing Pope Leo X for his sale of indulgences to finance the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The young Dominican monk Michele grew up during these years of intense debate about the future of the church. Many clerics agreed with Luther’s criticism of the church’s abuse of power, nepotism and loss of purpose but would not want to break with the Pope, God’s Deputy on earth. By 1521, the gap between Luther and Pope Leo X was unbridgeable and Luther was excommunicated. The independent Protestant Church was the result.

Pope Pius V (1566 – 1572)

Ordained in Genoa in 1528, Michele Ghislieri drew his own conclusions and preached monastic virtues in his sermons, criticized the nepotism surrounding him and strongly opposed simony, the selling of church offices to the highest bidder. Of course, this stance did not make him popular with the Church Hierarchy in Rome. But since he also firmly opposed the Protestant Reformation and any attempt to split his Church, he gained the reputation as an acceptable reformer. Modest in his own behaviour, he fasted, did penance, spent long hours in prayers, wore only his white Dominican robe and avoided any luxury.

His anti-protestant zeal got him a job in Rome in 1550 where he was assigned to the Holy Office and worked on several inquisition cases. By 1556, he was ordained as bishop. A year later, the new Pope Pius IV made him a Cardinal (there were 70 at that time) and appointed him as Inquisitor General. He held now a very powerful position and used it to prosecute the “heretics”, amongst them eight French Bishops, with the same zeal as he criticized his fellow clergymen for their sins. It is said that future Pope Pius V enjoyed watching the suspects being interrogated and tortured. What a statement!

Whilst his predecessor appreciated Cardinal Ghislieri’s management of the Holy Inquisition, the Pope had not much time for his opposition to his way of running the Church. When Ghislieri opposed the nomination of Paul IV’s nephew, the thirteen years-old Ferdinand de Medici, as a Cardinal, he was dismissed and sacked as Inquisitor General.

Pope Pius V in the formal papal attire he seldom wore – he preferred the white robe of the Dominicans. He apparently founded the tradition of Popes wearing white

Pius V became Pope in 1566 and continued with what he did all his life. He prosecuted “heretics” and cleaned up the church. He got rid of many extravagancies at the Vatican, suspended horse racing on St Peter’s Square (must have been similar to the Palio in Siena) and imposed stiff penalties for blasphemy, adultery and homosexuality. All the luxurious building projects were stopped except for the St Peter’s Basilica dome, which was designed by Michelangelo and eventually completed in 1590. The ascetic Pope did not stop there. He created an Unity of Doctrine for the church and standardized the Holy Mass, which would remain unchanged for almost 400 years. Also, Bishops had to return to their parish and live with their people, monks and nuns were asked to spend their time in their monasteries.

In his foreign policy he had two goals:

A) Stop the infidel Turks

B) Stop the advance of Protestantism

The Mediterranean at the time of Lepanto 1571 - red are Spanish possessions


When Turkey occupied Venetian owned Cyprus and besieged Famagusta in 1570, Pius V brought the squabbling western Mediterranean Powers together and formed the Holy League. Only France and Portugal did not participate. France was always opposed to anything Spanish and Portugal was too busy in the Indian Ocean fighting Piri Reis’ successors. For the first time since the battle of Prevezza in 1538, the Ottoman Navy had a worthy opponent. Venice contributed 109 galleys, Spain 49, Genoa 27, the Knights of St John (Malta) 3 and the Pope 7. But it was not the papal galleys that made the difference. It was his purse. Having weaned the Vatican off the extravagant lifestyle, Pope Pius V had money and his treasury chest was full. He subsidized all participants of the Holy League generously. We should not forget that 10% of all Church revenue went to him. Money talks.

Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when Turkey lost an entire fleet

In his fight against Protestantism, Pius V interfered with no hesitation into French politics, insisted on the introduction of the standardised Holy Mass and opposed any compromise with the Huguenots, the French Protestants. He was not alive anymore when the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre happened in August 1572 but it was definitely the result of his intolerance and opposition to any dialogue with the Huguenots. During that night, 5’000 to 30’000 Protestants were brutally murdered by a catholic mob. Nobody kept records so we will never know how many innocent people got killed.

St Bartholomew Day Massacre in 1572

In 1570, Pope Pius V also excommunicated Queen Elizabeth because she would not bring the Anglican Church, which her father Henry VIII had separated from Rome, back under his authority and encouraged the Spanish King Philipp II to take military action against the Protestants in the Netherland. The result was the 80 Years War (1566 – 1648) in which the 17 provinces of the Spanish Netherland (today’s Netherland, Belgium and Luxembourg) rose against their Monarch in defense of their religious freedom. That war cost 100’000 lives – many thousand Protestants were burnt alive at the stake.

Queen Elisabeth and her courtiers

So what is Pius V’s legacy and why did I choose him for this blog? His program for internal reform and brutal suppression of Protestants definitely gave the Catholic Church another lease of life. He also stopped the Ottoman’s westward expansion. Lepanto was the last major fleet action between the Spanish Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire . It confined Turkey to the Middle East and excluded it from the Atlantic where the New World was created.

Pius V’s most lasting legacy is, however the unintended consequence of his policy of brutal suppression in the Spanish Netherland. It led to the creation of the independent Dutch State. Once the mighty Spanish Armada was broken after the unsuccessful attempt to invade England in 1588, Dutch Corsairs began raiding Portuguese and Spanish positions around the world. Their sea-worthy ships developed for the harsh environment of the North Sea and Atlantic could out-sail and out-gun the Portuguese carracks. It took the Dutch only a few decades to push the Portuguese out of the Indian Ocean and open the Caribbean for world trade. Pope Pius V was transformative, but not in the sense he expected.

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