Popes of the 16th Century

History of the Roman Catholic Papacy and Church

Illustration of Pope Gregory XIII chairing the commission for reforming the Roman Calendar
Pope Gregory XIII.

DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

The Roman Catholic Popes of the sixteenth century reigned during the time of the Protestant Reformation, a critical time in the history of the church. The first number is which pope they were in the line from Saint Peter. Learn about their significant contributions.

Alexander VI

215. August 11, 1492 - August 18, 1503 (11 years)
Born: Rodrigo Borgia. Alexander VI's maternal uncle was Callixtus III, who quickly made Rodrigo bishop, cardinal, and vice-chancellor of the church. Despite such nepotism, he served five different popes and proved to be a capable administrator. His private life was something else, however, and he had many mistresses. Among his (at least) four children were Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia, idol of Machiavelli. Alexander was a staunch supporter of the arts and culture. He was the patron for Michelangelo's Pieta and had the papal apartments refurbished. It was under his auspices that the "papal line of demarcation" divided responsibility for administration of the New World between Spain and Portugal.

Pius III

216. September 22, 1503 - October 18, 1503 (27 days)
Born: Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini. Pius III was the nephew of Pope Pius II and, as such, was warmly welcomed into the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Unlike many in similar positions, however, he seems to have had a strong sense of personal integrity and, as a result, became a good candidate for the papacy—all sides trusted him. Unfortunately, he was in poor health and died days after being coronated.

Julius II

217. November 1, 1503 - February 21, 1513 (9 years)
Born: Giuliano della Rovere. Pope Julius II was the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and, because of this family connection, he moved around among a lot of different positions of power and authority within the Roman Catholic Church—eventually holding some eight bishoprics in total and then later serving as papal legate to France. As pope, he led papal armies against Venice in full armor. He convened the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512. He was a patron of the arts, supporting the work of Michaelangelo and Raphael.

Leo X

218. March 11, 1513 - December 1, 1521 (8 years)
Born: Giovanni de' Medici. Pope Leo X will forever be known as the pope of the beginning of Protestant Reformation. It was during his reign that Martin Luther felt forced to react to certain church excesses—in particular, excesses for which Leo himself was responsible. Leo engaged is massive construction campaigns, expensive military campaigns, and huge personal extravagance, all of which led the Church into deep debt. As a result, Leo felt forced to find a great deal of new revenue, and he decided to increase the sale of both ecclesiastical offices and of indulgences, both of which were protested by many different reformers throughout Europe.

Adrian VI

219. January 9, 1522 - September 14, 1523 (1 year, 8 months)
Born: Adrian Dedel. Once a Head Inquisitor for the Inquisition, Adrian VI was a reform-minded pope, trying to improve matters within the Church by attacking the various abuses of power one-by-one. He was the only Dutch pope and the last non-Italian until the 20th century.

Clement VII

220. November 18, 1523 - September 25, 1534 (10 years, 10 months, 5 days)
Born: Giulio de' Medici. A member of the powerful Medici family, Clement VII possessed great political and diplomatic skills—but he lacked the understanding of the age necessary to cope with the political and religious changes he faced. His relationship with Emperor Charles V was so bad that, in May 1527, Charles invaded Italy and sacked Rome. Imprisoned, Clement was forced into a humiliating compromise which forced him to give up a great deal of secular and religious power. To appease Charles, however, Clement refused to grant King Henry VIII of England a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who happened to be Charles' aunt. This, in turn, allowed the English Reformation to develop. Thus, political and religious dissent in both England and Germany developed and spread more readily because of Clement's failed political policies.

Paul III

221. October 12, 1534 - November 10, 1549 (15 years)
Born: Alessandro Farnese. Paul III was the first pope of the Counter-Reformation, inaugurating the Council of Trent on December 13, 1547. Paul was generally reform-minded, but he was also a strong supporter of the Jesuits, an organization which worked diligently to enforce orthodoxy within the Catholic Church. As part of the effort to fight Protestantism, he excommunicated Henry VIII of England in 1538 because of the latter's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, a key event in the English Reformation. He also encouraged Charles V in his war against the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of German Protestants who were fighting for their right to separate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. He established the Index of Forbidden Books as part of the effort to shield Catholics from heretical views. He also formally established the Congregation of the Roman Inquisition, officially known as the Holy Office, which was given wide powers of both censorship and prosecution. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint his famous Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and to supervise architectural work on the new St. Peter's Basilica.

Julius III

222. February 8, 1550 - March 23, 1555 (5 years)
Born: Gian Maria del Monte. Early on Julius III was persuaded by Emperor Charles V to recall the Council of Trent, which had been suspended in 1548. During its six sessions Protestant theologians attended and conferred with Catholics, but nothing ultimately came of it. He gave himself over to a life of luxury and ease.

Marcellus II

223. April 9, 1555 - May 1, 1555 (22 days)
Born: Marcello Cervini. Pope Marcellus II has the unfortunate distinction of having had one of the shortest papal reigns in the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church. He is also one of only two to have retained his original name after the election.

Paul IV

224. May 23, 1555 - August 18, 1559 (4 years)
Born: Gianni Pietro Caraffa. Responsible for reorganizing the Inquisition in Italy while archbishop of Naples, many were surprised that such a rigid and uncompromising person would be selected to become pope. While in office, Paul IV used his position both to promote Italian nationalism and to further strengthen the powers of the Inquisition. He was ultimately so unpopular that, after he had died, a mob stormed the Inquisition and tore down his statue.

Pius IV

225. December 25, 1559 - December 9, 1565 (5 years)
Born: Giovanni Angelo Medici. One of the most important actions taken by Pope Pius IV was to reconvene the Council of Trent on January 18, 1562, which had been suspended ten years earlier. Once the Council had reached its final decisions in 1563, Pius then worked to make sure that its decrees were spread across the Catholic world.

St. Pius V

226. January 1, 1566 - May 1, 1572 (6 years)
Born: Michele Ghislieri. A member of the Dominican order, Pius V worked hard to improve the position of the papacy. Internally, he cut expenditures and externally, he increased the power and effectiveness of the Inquisition and expanded the use of the Index of Forbidden Books. He was canonized 150 years later.

Gregory XIII

227. May 14, 1572 - April 10, 1585 (12 years, 10 months)
Gregory XIII (1502-1585) served as pope from 1572 through 1585. He played an important role at Council of Trent (1545, 1559-63) and was a vociferous critic of German Protestants.

Sixtus V

228. April 24, 1585 - August 27, 1590 (5 years)
Born: Felice Peretti. While still a priest, he was a fiery opponent of the Protestant Reformation and his work was directly supported by powerful figures in the Church, including Cardinal Carafa (later Pope Paul IV), Cardinal Ghislieri (later Pope Pius V), and St. Ignatius of Loyola. As pope, he continued his efforts to defeat Protestantism by sanctioning Philip II of Spain's plans to invade England and restore it to Catholicism, but that endeavor ended in a humiliating defeat for the Spanish Armada. He pacified the Papal States by executing thousands of bandits. He grew the treasury through taxes and selling offices. He rebuilt the Lateran palace and finished construction of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. He set the maximum number of cardinals at 70, a number which did not change until the pontificate of John XXIII. He also reorganized the Curia, and those changes were not amended until the Second Vatican Council.

Urban VII

229. September 15, 1590 - September 27, 1590 (12 days)
Born: Giovanni Battista Castagna. Urban VII has the unfortunate distinction of being one of being one of the shortest-lived popes ever—he died just 12 days after his election (apparently of malaria) and before he could even be coronated.

Gregory XIV

230. December 5, 1590 - October 16, 1591 (11 months)
Born: Niccolo Sfondrato (Sfondrati). Gregory XIV had a relatively short and unsuccessful pontificate. Weak and invalid even from the start, he would eventually die due to a large gallstone—reportedly 70 grams.

Innocent IX

231. October 29, 1591 - December 30, 1591 (2 months)
Born: Gian Antonio Facchinetti. Pope Innocent IX reigned only a very short period and no chance to make a mark.

Clement VIII

232. January 30, 1592 - March 5, 1605 (13 years)
Born: Ippolito Aldobrandini. The most important political event during Clement VIII's papacy was his reconciliation with Henry IV of France when Clement recognized the latter as King of France in 1595, braving Spanish displeasure and ending thirty years of religious war in France. He used the Inquisition to condemn and execute controversial philosopher Giordano Bruno.

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Cline, Austin. "Popes of the 16th Century." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/popes-of-the-16th-century-250628. Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Popes of the 16th Century. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/popes-of-the-16th-century-250628 Cline, Austin. "Popes of the 16th Century." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/popes-of-the-16th-century-250628 (accessed June 5, 2023).