Have Any Popes Ever Been Assassinated?

Though the position of the pope, i.e. head of the Catholic Church, comes with reverence and respect from most people, it also can attract jealousy and violence. Though there is no official tally for how many popes have been assassinated, it has been estimated by African Journals Online that 25 popes have died of unnatural causes. However, it should be noted their "unnatural" causes included deaths such as starvation in captivity, which is not quite the same thing as an outright assassination.

The first pope who was allegedly murdered was Pope John VIII, who presided over the Vatican from 872 to 882. According to History.com, Pope John VIII was poisoned by one of his own clerics. The poison acted very slowly, however, and the impatient murderer resorted to using a hammer to complete his horrible deed. Pope John VIII's death heralded a turbulent time for the Holy See, and the papal position not only became less powerful, but also descended into political intrigue.

The years directly after the murder were particularly gruesome. Pope Stephen VI, who came into power just 14 years later, exhumed the body of his own predecessor, Pope Formosus, to put the corpse on trial. The macabre show trial outraged much of the Roman public and emboldened the supporters of the late Pope Formosus to imprison Pope Stephen VI, strip him of his papal insignia, and strangle him in 897.

The 10th century was particularly deadly at the Vatican

The 900s proved to be a particularly dangerous time for the Holy See, and five other alleged papal murders took place in that century alone. According to African Journals Online, Pope Leo V is thought to have been murdered in September 903 after just one month in the position. Pope John X, who was pope from 914 to 928, lived the last year in his life in prison before being smothered by a pillow (though some historians, per The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Volume 4, maintain he actually died from grief).

Although members of the clergy are supposed to practice chastity, Pope John XII was a notorious womanizer, and rumors (via Learn Religions) have claimed that he was killed in bed by an angry cuckolded husband.

According to Britannica, Pope Benedict VI reigned from January 973 to July 974. He was strangled by Boniface VII, who later ascended to the papacy but today is considered an antipope.

Just a decade later, Pope John XIV would be imprisoned by Boniface VII in the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome before being executed on August 20 (via Executed Today).

A modern assassination attempt brought about the popemobile

Though no pope has been killed in recent times, there was an assassination attempt on Pope (now Saint) John Paul II in 1981. The attack was orchestrated by Mehmet Ali Ağca, who was aided by three accomplices. Mehmet Ali Ağca shot St. John Paul twice in a scene that shocked the world, especially since it was caught on video (posted on YouTube).

Despite the serious wounds and blood loss, St. John Paul not only survived, but also went on to forgive his would-be assassin. According to Mashable, the pope visited Ağca in jail, and "they had a private conversation and emerged as friends. The pope stayed in touch with Ağca's family during the latter's incarceration, and in 2000 requested that he be pardoned."

Though Ağca received a pardon in 2000, he had to serve out a prison term in Turkey, and was finally released in 2010. Four years later, he returned to Rome to pay his respects to the late pope by laying two dozen white roses at St. John Paul's tomb.

Understandably, security around the pope became much more stringent after that attempted assassination, and a popemobile, fitted with bulletproof glass (as Smithsonian tells us), was developed shortly after the shooting.