Benedict IX: What You Need To Know About The 12-Year-Old Pope

Most people picture the pope as a frail, elderly white man — and for good reason. From 1958 to 2013, the average age of a man elected to the papacy was 70, while the average age at death was 79, according to data crunched from FiveThirtyEight. But that couldn't be further from the reality of Pope Benedict IX, the youngest pontiff to have ever taken the throne at the pre-teen age of 12 in 1032. When it was all said and done, he was pope three times, and he was a disaster every step of the way.

Benedict was born Theophylactus of Tusculum, the son of Count Alberic III of Tusculum, and was closely related to several popes, including being nephew of Benedict VIII and John XIX, and a grandnephew of John XII. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Alberic viewed the papacy as something of an "heirloom," and "placed" young Theophylactus on the Chair of St. Peter. However, as Insider points out, Benedict was in the Counts of Tusculum, a part of the powerful Colonna family, and Alberic most likely obtained the papacy for his young son by bribing the Romans. 

Historians of the period did not document much about Benedict's policies, but they did characterize him as someone most would consider to be antithetical to papal values for his ill-suited temperament, corruption, and violence. A "demon from hell in the disguise of a priest," according to St. Peter Damian, a reforming Benedictine monk, per Time. One sign that things weren't quite right came in 1036.

Benedict IX was pope three times

That's when political opponents tried to murder Benedict in St. Peter's Basilica. They failed, and he was sent into exile. He soon returned and remained in the papacy until 1044, when he was ousted because the people of Rome could no longer live with his misdeeds, according to All That's Interesting. It took just two months for Benedict IX to depose his successor and return to power. That reign, too, only lasted about two months before Benedict IX abdicated his position. But this time it was because he quite literally sold the papacy to his godfather, John Gratian (he also apparently wanted to marry his cousin), per The Catholic Encyclopedia. Benedict returned one last time to become pope in 1047, but was driven away less than a year later by German troops.

Benedict refused to appear to face charges of simony related to his selling of the papacy to his godfather, and so he was excommunicated as a result. It's not totally clear what became of Benedict IX until his death at the age of 43 in 1056, but his legacy is still considered a disgrace for the papacy, as it was at the time of his reign. Per History of Yesterday, in his third book of Dialogues, Pope Victor III, who served 50 years later, wrote of Benedict IX: "His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it."

(Deadline reports that Discovery+ will stream a documentary on Pope Francis, titled Francesco, beginning March 28.)