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Pope Callistus III

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Born near Valencia in Spain, 31 December, 1378; died at Rome, 6 August, 1458. Alfonso de Borja (Italian Borgia), as he was known before he became pope, came of a noble family, and having finished his studies espoused the cause of the antipope Benedict XIII, and received from the latter the title of canon. When Alfonso V of Aragon resolved to withdraw from the Schism and place himself and his kingdom under the jurisdiction of Martin V, Alfonso Borgia acted the part of mediator with Benedict's successor, Clement VIII, and induced the latter to submit to the lawful pope. Martin V appointed Borgia Bishop of Valencia (1429), and in 1444 Eugene IV made him cardinal. In both offices he was remarkable for his mortified life, his firmness of purpose, and his prudence in face of serious difficulties. Already popular opinion had marked him as a candidate for the papacy.

On the 25th of March, 1455, Nicholas V died, and Alfonso Borgia was elected (8 April) and assumed the name of Callistus III. As pope he was chiefly concerned with the organization of Christian Europe against the invasion of the Turks. Constantinople had been captured by Mohammed II (1453), and though Pope Nicholas V had made every effort nothing had been done to stay the victorious march of the forces of Islam. Already, as cardinal, Callistus had manifested a special interest in this work, and on his election he set himself to carry out the programme which he had already planned. Nuncios were dispatched to all the countries of Europe to beseech the princes to forget for a time their national jealousies and to join once more in a final effort to check the danger of a Turkish invasion. Missionaries were sent to England, France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, and Aragon to preach the Crusade, to secure volunteers for active service in the wars, to collect the taxes necessary for the support of those in the field, and to engage the prayers of the faithful for the success of the enterprise. It was by order of Callistus III that the bells were rung at midday to remind the faithful that they should pray for the welfare of the crusaders.

But the princes of Europe were slow in responding to the call of the pope. In Germany, Frederick III, through hatred of Ladislaus of Hungary, was unwilling to join a movement from which Hungary was certain to derive an immediate advantage, while the bishops and electors were opposed to the collection of the papal tax imposed in favour of the crusaders. England and France were at war and refused to allow their forces to be weakened by participation in the plans of Callistus III. Genoa did organize a fleet and dispatch it against the Turks, but only to lay herself open to attack by Aragon, while Portugal, disheartened by lack of success, withdrew the fleet that it had already dispatched. Fortunately for Europe, the efforts of the pope were not entirely in vain. The crusading forces led by Hunyady, and inspired by the zeal and courage of the papal legate Carvajal and St. John Capistran, met the Turks at Belgrade (22 July, 1456) and inflicted upon them one of the worst defeats they underwent during their long conflict with Christian Europe. The pope had longed for such a success in the hope that it might encourage the princes of Europe to respond to his call for assistance. The news of the victory was duly announced to the courts by special messengers of the pope, but warm congratulations were the only reply. Unfortunately, too, shortly after his victory over Mohammed II at Belgrade, Hunyady himself died of a fever, and it seemed as if no Christian general could be found equal to the task of saving Europe.

In the next year of this pontificate renewed efforts were made to enlist the co-operation of Germany. The pope endeavoured to make peace between Frederick III and Ladislaus of Hungary, but during the negotiations Ladislaus died (1457), after a reign of seven years, and his death was the occasion of renewed disputes between the three great representatives of the House of Hapsburg, Frederick III, Albrecht VI, and Sigismund of Tyrol. In Albania alone was found a leader, Scanderbeg, who had steadily resisted the invasion of the Turks, and against whom all the powers of Mohammed were unavailing. Callistus III summoned (1457) another assembly of the princes of Europe to devise measures against the inroads of Mohammed. But again his efforts were unavailing. In France, the Dauphin was in favour of the proposals of Callistus, but the king refused to join in the enterprise, and the clergy were so discontented with the levy of the crusading tax that in many provinces they refused to pay, and appealed to a general council. Similar sentiments of distrust and resentment were felt by the clergy and the prince-electors of the German Empire. England, on account of the war against the allied powers, France and Scotland, was unwilling to embark in any new expedition. The war between Aragon and Genoa continued, while, as usual, Venice was more anxious to promote her own commerce than to take part in the destruction of the Turkish fleet. In Bohemia disputes raged about the succession to the throne, and even when an assembly of the nobles declared in favour of George Von Podiebrad, he was too much concerned in trying to reconcile his Catholic and Utraquist subjects, and to secure an understanding with Frederick III, to permit himself to join in the Crusade. Hungary, too, was distracted by the disputes between the rival claimants to the throne. William of Saxony and Casimir of Poland, in the names of their wives, put forward pretensions, but found little or no support from the people of Hungary. A national assembly held at Pesth chose as king Matthias Hunyady, a son of the conqueror of Belgrade, but the rival parties refused to submit to this choice. At last (1459) they proceeded to the election of Frederick III. The result of so many disputes was that the countries most closely affected by the Turkish danger were unable to do anything, and though the younger Hunyady was anxious to follow in the footsteps of his father, and to join in the imperial plans for a general crusade, he was too much occupied with provisions against internal disorder and the pretensions of Frederick III to be able to lend any real assistance. Scanderbeg was still in the field, but with the small forces at his command he could at most hope to defend his country, Albania, against attack. The pope was involved in new disputes after the death of Alfonso V of Aragon. According to the arrangements made, the latter's brother was to succeed him in Aragon and Sicily, while his son Ferdinand, previously recognized as legitimate by Callistus III, was to have Naples. But the pope refused to acknowledge Ferdinand's claim to Naples and, as feudal lord of the territory, asserted for himself the power of disposing of it as he wished. This dispute prevented him from continuing the work of organizing the Crusade and alienated from the cause the powerful family of Aragon.

Moreover, it injured the reputation of Callistus III, as it gave more colour to the charges of nepotism which were even then freely levelled against him. He had already raised to the cardinalate two of his nephews, one of whom, the youthful Rodrigo, was later to become Pope Alexander VI; he bestowed upon a third the governorship of the Castle of Sant' Angelo and the title of Duke of Spoleto. Many asserted that his opposition to Ferdinand of Aragon was due to his desire of securing Naples for the worthless Duke of Spoleto. In this way the early part of 1458 was spent, and during the last few months of his life even Callistus himself had begun to clearly realize that the work to which he had devoted his pontificate had proved a failure, and that on other shoulders must devolve the task of driving back the Turk.

His reign is also remarkable for the revision of the trial of Joan of Arc, which was carried out by direction of the pope, and according to which the sentence of the first court was quashed, and the innocence of the Maid of Orléans proclaimed. He also had the honour of placing the name of Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, on the list of canonized saints. The energies of Callistus were too much directed towards the campaign against the Turks to permit him to devote so much attention to the literary revival of the time as did some of his predecessors, especially Nicholas V, and this neglect of the Humanists made some of them his enemies; yet he seems to have spent a considerable sum of money in securing some valuable additions to the treasures of the Vatican.

Callistus III must ever be regarded as a man of lofty ideals, of boundless courage, energy, and perseverance. He realized the dangers which then confronted Europe, and made every effort to unite its Christian princes for the defence of their own countries; if he failed, the blame must fall not on the pope, but on those who refused to hearken to his counsels. It is unfortunate that a character, otherwise straightforward and unsullied, should have been damaged by contemporary charges of nepotism and avarice. He left, at his death, a rather remarkable sum of money. His letters are to be found in Raynaldus, "Annales Eccl." from 1455 to 1458; see also Harduin, "Concilia", IX, 1375-78, D'Achéry, "Spicilegium", III (Paris ed. 796-804), and "Magn. Bullar. Rom." (Lyons, 1692), I, 279-82.


HARDUIN, Concilia, IX, 1375; PASTOR, tr. ANTROBUS, History of the Popes (London, 1894), III; CREIGHTON, History of the Papacy during the Reformation, III, IV; BLUME, Iter Italicum, III; REUMONT, Geschichte der Stadt Rom (Berlin, 1858), III; 126 sq; HEFELE, Concilieng., VIII, 74 sqq.

About this page

APA citation. MacCaffrey, J. (1908). Pope Callistus III. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. MacCaffrey, James. "Pope Callistus III." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Benjamin F. Hull.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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