Marozia of Tusculum was the closest thing we had to a female pope. Sure, there was Pope Joan, who was able to disguise herself as a man until giving birth during a procession, but she was probably a legend. Everyone knew that Marozia was a woman, so she never gave birth during any processions, but she controlled the papacy for many years.
Marozia was born between the years 890 and 892 AD and was the daughter of Theophylact, Count of Tusculum, a Roman consul, and Theodora, the woman who was actually doing all the ruling stuff. Theophylact was known as the most powerful man in Rome, and that made his wife Theodora the most powerful woman in Rome. Theodora was even called a “shameles harlot…whose very mention is most foul, was holding the monarchy of the city of Rome, and not in an unmanly way.”
When Marozia was in her early teens, Pope Sergius III became Pope. Because it would be good for their family, Marozia’s parents introduced her to Pope Sergius, and she became his mistress when she was fifteen. Pope Sergius was a relative of Marozia’s father, and he was also around thirty years older than her, so that’s totally not weird.
Marozia gave birth to a son, John, the future Pope John XI. This son may have been Sergius’s, but John may have also been the son of Marozia and Alberic I, Duke of Spoleto, whom she married around the year 909. Alberic and Marozia had another son, Alberic II (because royals always think of such different names). Alberic I (Marozia’s husband, not the son) died in the early 920s.
Now a widow, Marozia married Guy of Tuscany, one of the new Pope, John X’s, enemies. She really didn’t like Pope John. They seized an important fortress and had Pope John X arrested. I guess you should never get on Marozia’s bad side. According to Liudprand of Cremona, “they placed a cushion over his mouth by which they most wickedly suffocated him.”
From then on, Marozia effectively ruled the papacy. She wanted her son as Pope, but he was only a teenager, so she found some puppets. Pope Leo VI and Stephen VII were both controlled by Marozia, who had them killed once she didn’t need them anymore. Her son became Pope John XI in 931, and before you ask, Marozia was still pretty much the ruler of Rome.
Her husband, Guy of Tuscany, died a few years before Marozia’s son became Pope, so she was free to remarry again. Marozia married Guy’s half-brother, Hugh of Italy. Hugh was already married, but Marozia was the most powerful woman in Rome, so he had his marriage annulled and married Marozia instead. Hugh wasn’t a weird old man and he was also the king of Italy, and John XI was going to give them the titles of Emperor and Empress as a wedding gift, so this was a great marriage for Marozia.
One problem: Hugh was Marozia’s second husband’s half-brother. Remember the whole Catherine of Aragon/Henry VIII thing? Catherine had been married to Henry VIII’s brother, so he used that to annul his marriage to her because you weren’t supposed to marry your brother’s widow? Well, that’s exactly what Hugh and Marozia were doing 550 years before, and Marozia’s son from her first marriage, Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto, was scared.
Alberic was kinda frightened of his mother and Hugh’s power and thought that Hugh might want him out of the way, so he had to get rid of Hugh first. According to Liudprand of Cremona (and make sure to read it carefully), this happened:
Alberic, at his mother’s request, was pouring water so that King Hugo, his stepfather, that is, could wash his hands, he was hit in the face by him as a reprimand because he would not pour the water moderately and carefully. Therefore this man, so that he might avenge the offense against himself, gathered together the Romans and addressed them with a speech like this:
“The dignity of the Roman city is led to such depths of stupidity that it now obeys the command of a prostitute. For what is more lurid and what is more debased than the city of Rome should perish by the impurity of one woman, and the one-time slaves of the Romans, the Burgundians, I mean, should rule the Romans? If he hits my face, that is, the face of his stepson, and, what is more, when he is a recently arrived guest, what do you think he will do to you as soon as he has settled in?”
– Liduprand of Cremonia
And the amazing woman who controlled the papacy for most of her life was literally deposed by her son at her third wedding. Literally at the wedding. Alberic II really hated his mother. Along with the Romans, who apparently weren’t fond of Marozia, Alberic attacked Castel Sant’Angelo, where Marozia and Hugh were. Hugh escaped out a window, but Marozia and Pope John XI were captured by Alberic. Alberic definitely sounds like an amazing son.
Marozia would die in prison around the year 937, still only in her forties. Marozia’s son, Alberic, became ruler of Rome, and his son, Octavian, ended up becoming Pope John XII. In fact, Marozia was related to seven popes: Sergius III, her lover and distant relative; John XI, her son; John XII and Benedict VII, her two grandsons; Benedict VIII and John XIX, her great-grandsons; and Benedict IX, her great-great-grandson. Marozia certainly left her mark on the papacy of the Early Middle Ages.
The rule of Marozia and her mother Theodora began to be seen as something the papacy should’ve been ashamed of following Marozia’s demise, but nothing that horrible really happened during either of their unofficial reigns. In fact, the papacy was just fine during the time that Marozia and Theodora ruled Rome.