Pope Gregory XV: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Not every pope holds papal power for very long, but some don't need to. In this lesson, we'll examine the short reign of Pope Gregory XV and see what he did with the little time he had.

Pope Gregory XV

Most popes come into the holy office with the understanding that they will hold that seat for life. However, some popes realize that this won't be too long. Pope Gregory XV was elected to the papacy in 1621 at the age of 67 and in poor health. He knew the papacy wouldn't be his for too long, and in fact, he died in 1623, but knowing that his time was limited may have been a great motivator. Although his papacy was short, Pope Gregory XV didn't waste a day of it.

Bust of Pope Gregory XV by Bernini
Pope Gregory XV

Early Life

Pope Gregory XV was born as Alessandro Ludovisi in the Italian city of Bologna in 1554. His father was a count, so Alessandro was raised in privilege and attended first, the Roman College, and later, the University of Bologna where he studied civil and canonical law. Ludovisi entered into service for the Church, although it does not appear that he was ordained as a priest, and worked as a papal jurist in Rome.

Ludovisi would go on to hold several positions in the Church before being appointed as the Archbishop of Bologna in 1612, and later as Bishop. He started earning a more prominent role within the Pope's trusted advisors and was sent by the Pope to mediate the dispute between feuding European rulers the Duke of Savoy and Philip III of Spain. In 1616, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul V, and when Pope Paul V died, Ludovisi was elected by the conclave as the new pope. He took the name, Gregory XV.

Pope Gregory XV and Ludovico Ludovisi

Pope Gregory XV assumed the pontifical robes at the age of 67 and in failing health. He knew that he would have to rely very heavily on an advisor, and needed someone who he could trust absolutely. He decided that person was Ludovico Ludovisi, and energetic young man of 25 who was also the Pope's nephew. Pope Gregory XV promoted Ludovico to the rank of cardinal and made him his personal advisor. This was not without risk- the Pope knew that he could potentially be charged with nepotism and deposed for this. However, Ludovico proved to be a competent, loyal, and faithful advisor and both the people of the 17th century and historians have looked upon him kindly. Still, he had immense power under Pope Gregory XV's papacy, leading some to label him as il Cardinale padrone, the godfather cardinal.

Pope Gregory XV with Ludovico Ludovisi
Gregory XV

Papacy of Gregory XV

With Ludovico by his side, Pope Gregory XV set to making the most of what he knew would be a relatively short papacy. He intervened a few times in European politics, including loaning roughly a million gold ducats to the Holy Roman Emperor in his fight against Protestantism, and set to reforming some of the last medieval practices of the Church. Notably, Pope Gregory XV was the last pope to issue a papal ordinance against witchcraft, in which he reduced the push to persecute suspected witches and limited capital punishments only to those who could be undeniably proven to have contracted with the Devil and used unholy power to commit homicide. He also continued to reform the papal election process and introduced the practice of voting via secret ballots.

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