As everyone knows by now, it’s 600 years since a pope last resigned. It’s even longer than that since the pope was an Englishman: Hadrian IV (1154-59) is the only one there’s been so far, and it seems unlikely there’ll be another any time soon, despite the aspirations of the Twitter account @tonyforpope: ‘Tony Blair. Regular guy, former PM, saviour of Western civilisation, next pope.’
Hadrian IV has had a few fictional successors, though. Hadrian the Seventh (1904) is a brilliant fantasy self-portrait by Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo. George Arthur Rose – such English names – is an impoverished writer, a former seminarian chucked out because his clerical superiors doubted his vocation. Years after this disgrace, the Cardinal of England is inspired to visit, interview and – now convinced of his sincerity – ordain Rose. Shortly afterwards, when the conclave to elect a pope has reached stalemate, the cardinal is moved to tell the story to his fellow princes of the church, who immediately decide they’ve found their man. Enthroned, Hadrian is theatrically humble, sentimentally peremptory, an innocent with an uncanny knack for palace politics. He cajoles world leaders into peace, and sells off the Vatican’s treasures to feed the poor (rather like the Russian pope in The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West’s Cold War popeboiler). Corvo’s biographer, A.J.A. Symons, called Hadrian ‘a superman in whom we are compelled to believe’. I wouldn’t go that far; but you have to admire the unembarrassed strength it takes to expose to the world such daydreams of superiority.
The English pope in Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (1976) is more concisely sketched. The novel is set in a world where the reformation never happened: Martin Luther became Pope Germanian I and his successors included Thomas More, who took the title Hadrian VII. In the present day, science is frowned on, America is a backwater, and Pope John XXIV – who laments the plainness of Roman churches compared with the gorgeousness and colour you get in England – is a Yorkshireman who says ‘Shall I be mother?’ before pouring the tea. On first reading it I had a vague idea that this was some sort of dig at Harold Wilson, but Zachary Leader says in his biography of Amis that the model was John Braine.
Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs by Robert Player, the pseudonym of the art historian Robert Furneaux Jordan, was published in 1975. Barnabas Barbellion is a 19th-century Anglican clergyman who, after his wife’s death, goes over to Rome as priest, then cardinal, and finally Pope Paschal IV. Barbellion was presumably inspired by Cardinal Manning, who followed the same trajectory without making the top job, though I don’t think even Lytton Strachey accused Manning of poisoning his wife, repudiating his offspring and maintaining a mistress and their illegitimate child.