CONSTRUCTION on the Leonine Wall, as the structure was now universally called, proceeded apace. The fire intended to destroy it had done little actual harm; the wooden scaffolding used by the workers had burned to the ground, and one of the western ramparts had been badly blackened, but that was all. The problems that had plagued the project from the beginning now blessedly ceased. Work continued steadily throughout the winter and the following spring, for the weather remained blessedly mild, marked by long, cool, sunny days with no drop of rain. A constant supply of good-quality stone came in from the quarries, and the workers from the various domains of the papal campagna settled in to the work, laboring side by side in productive unison.
By Pentecost, the topmost row of stone reached a man’s height. No one called the project folly now; no one complained of the time and money lavished on it. The Romans felt a growing pride in the work, whose immensity harked back to the ancient days of Empire, when such prodigies of construction were a commonplace, not a rarity. When finished, the wall would be magnificent, monumental, a towering barrier even the Saracens could never scale or breach.
But time ran out. On the calends of July, messengers arrived in the city with terrifying news: a Saracen fleet was gathering at Totarium, a small island off the east coast of Sardinia, in preparation for another attack on Rome.
Unlike Sergius, who had looked to the power of prayer to protect the city, Leo chose a more aggressive course of action. He sent immediately to the great maritime city of Naples, requesting a fleet of armed ships to engage the enemy at sea.
The idea was bold—and chancy. Naples still nominally owed allegiance to Constantinople, though in reality it had been independent for years. Would the Duke of Naples help Rome in her hour of need? Or would he use the opportunity to join forces with the Saracens and strike a blow against the Roman See on behalf of the Eastern Patriarchate? The plan was fraught with danger. But what alternative was there?
FOR ten days the city waited in tense expectation. When at last the Neapolitan fleet arrived at Porto, on the mouth of the Tiber, Leo set forth warily to meet them, accompanied by a large retinue of heavily armed militia under Gerold’s command.
The Romans’ anxieties were allayed when Caesarius, the commander of the fleet, prostrated himself before Leo and humbly kissed his feet. With a degree of relief he did not reveal, Leo blessed Caesarius, solemnly committing the sacred bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul to his protection.
They had survived the first roll of fortune’s dice; on the next one all their futures would depend.
THE next morning the Saracen fleet appeared. The broad-stretched lateen sails spread across the horizon like opened talons. Bleakly Joan counted them—fifty, fifty-three, fifty-seven—still they kept coming— eighty, eighty-five, ninety—were there this many ships in the world?— one hundred, one hundred and ten, one hundred and twenty! Deo, juva nos! The Neapolitan vessels numbered only sixty-one; with the six Roman biremes still in serviceable condition, that made a total of sixty-seven. They were outnumbered almost two to one.
Leo stood on the steps of the nearby Church of St. Aurea and led the frightened citizens of Porto in prayer. “Lord, Thou who saved Peter from sinking when walking on the waves, Thou who rescued Paul from the depths of the sea, hear us. Grant power to the arms of Thy believing servants, who fight against the enemies of Thy church, that through their victory Thy holy name may be glorified among all nations.”
In the open air, the voices of the people reverberated with a resounding “Amen.”
Caesarius shouted orders from the deck of the foremost ship. The Neapolitans hurled themselves against the oars, muscles straining. For a moment the heavy biremes stood motionless in the water. Then, with an enormous groan of creaking timber, the ships began to move. The double banks of oars rose and dipped and rose and dipped, flashing like gems; the wind caught the sails, and the great biremes drove ahead, their ironclad prows cleaving the turquoise water into twin shafts of foam.
The Saracen ships turned to meet them. But before the two opposing fleets could engage, an earsplitting thunderclap signaled the advent of a storm. The sky darkened as black clouds rolled in rapidly from the sea. The heavy-drafted Neapolitan ships were able to make it back to safe harbor. But the Saracen vessels, crafted with low freeboards for speed and maneuverability in battle, were too flimsy to ride out the storm. They pitched and heaved on the rising waves, tossed about like pieces of bark, their iron rams striking their sister ships, breaking them apart.
Several of the ships headed into port, but as soon as they reached land, they were set upon. Fanned by the violent anger that follows terror, the Romans slaughtered the crews without mercy, dragging them from their ships and suspending them from gibbets hastily constructed along the shore. Witnessing their comrades’ fate, the other Saracen ships struck out desperately for the open sea, where they were broken apart by giant, roiling waves.
In the moment of unexpected victory, Joan was watching Leo. He stood on the steps of the church, arms upraised, eyes lifted to Heaven in thanksgiving. He looked saintly, beatific, as if touched by a divine presence.
Perhaps he can work miracles, she thought. Her knees bent willingly as she bowed down before him.
“VICTORY! Victory at Ostia!” The news was cried jubilantly through the streets. The Romans spilled forth from their houses, the papal storehouses were thrown open, and wine flowed freely; for three days the city indulged in wild and drunken celebration.
Five hundred Saracens were marched into the city before jeering, hostile crowds. Many were stoned or hacked to death along the route. The survivors, some three hundred in number, were taken in chains to a camp in the Neronian Plain, where they were confined and required to labor on the Leonine Wall.
With the addition of these extra hands, the wall rose more quickly. In three years, it stood complete—a masterpiece of medieval engineering, the most extraordinary construction the city had seen in over four hundred years. The whole of the Vatican territory was enclosed within a structure twelve feet thick and forty feet tall, defended by forty-four massive towers. There were two separate galleries, one above the other; the lower gallery was supported by a series of graceful arcades opening within. Three gates gave entrance: the Posterula Sant’Angeli; the Posterula Saxonum, so named because it opened into the Saxon quarter; and the Posterula San Peregrinus, the principal gate through which future generations of kings and princes would pass to worship at the holy shrine of St. Peter.
Remarkable as the wall was, this was only the beginning of Leo’s ambitious plans for the city. Dedicated to “restoring all the places of the saints,” Leo embarked upon a great plan of rebuilding. The ring of anvils sounded day and night throughout the city as work went on in one after another of the city’s churches. The burned basilica of the Saxons was restored, as well as the Frisian church of San Michele and the Church of the Sancti Quattro Coronati, of which Leo had once been cardinal.
Most important of all, Leo began the restoration of St. Peter’s. The burned and blackened portico was completely rebuilt; the doors, stripped of their precious metal by the Saracens, were covered with new, light-diffusing silver plates on which myriad sacred histories were carved with astonishing skill. The great treasure that had been carried off by the Saracens was replaced: the high altar was covered with new plates of silver and gold and decorated with a massive gold crucifix set with pearls, emeralds, and diamonds; above it a silver ciborium weighing over a thousand pounds was mounted upon four great pillars of purest travertine marble, ornamented with gilt lilies. The altar was lit by lamps hung on silver chains, garnished with golden balls, their flickering light illuminating a veritable treasure trove of jeweled chalices, wrought silver lecterns, rich tapestries, and silken hangings. The great basilica gleamed with a splendor that outshone even its former magnificence.
OBSERVING the vast amounts of money pouring forth from the pa pal treasury, Joan felt troubled. Undeniably Leo had created a shrine of awe-inspiring beauty. But the majority of those who lived within sight of this glittering magnificence spent their days in brutish, degrading poverty. A single one of St. Peter’s massive silver plates, melted into coin, would feed and clothe the population of the Campus Martius for a year. Did God’s worship really require such sacrifice?
There was only one person in the world with whom Joan dared raise such a question. When she put it to him, Gerold considered soberly before replying. “I have heard it argued,” he said finally, “that the beauty of a holy shrine provides the faithful with a different form of nourishment—food for the soul, not the body.”
“It’s difficult to hear the voice of God over the grumbling of an empty stomach.”
Gerold shook his head affectionately. “You haven’t changed. Remember the time you asked Odo how he could be certain the Resurrection had taken place, since there were no eyewitnesses?”
“I do.” Joan flexed her hand ruefully. “I also remember how he answered me.”
“When I saw the wound Odo gave you,” Gerold said, “I wanted to strike him—and would have, if I hadn’t known it would only make things more difficult for you.”
Joan smiled. “You always were my protector.”
“And you,” he bantered, “always had the soul of a heretic.”
They had always been able to talk like this, free from the world’s restraints. It was part of the special intimacy that had bound them from the very first.
He looked at her now with a familiar warmth. Joan was keenly aware of him; she felt his nearness like a touch on her naked skin. But by now she was skilled at disguising her feelings.
She pointed to the pile of petitions on the table between them. “I must go hear these petitioners.”
“Shouldn’t Leo do that?” Gerold asked.
“He’s asked me to see to it.”
Lately Leo had been delegating more and more of his daily responsibilities to her so he could devote himself to the continuing plans for rebuilding. Joan had become Leo’s ambassador to the people; she was so familiar a sight going about her charitable duties in the different regions of the city that she was hailed everywhere as “the little Pope” and greeted with some of the affection reserved for Leo himself.
As she reached for the pile of papers, Gerold’s hand brushed hers. She drew her hand back violently, as if from a fire. “I … I’d better go,” she said awkwardly.
She was immensely relieved, and a little disappointed, when he did not follow her.
BUOYED by the success of the Leonine Wall and the renovation of St. Peter’s, Leo’s popularity was soaring. Restaurator Urbis, he was called, Restorer of the City. He was another Hadrian, the people said, another Aurelius. Everywhere he went, crowds cheered him. Rome rang with his praises.
Everywhere, that is, but in the palace on the Palatine Hill, where Arsenius waited with gathering impatience for the day when he could call Anastasius home.
Things had not gone as expected. There was no way to depose Leo from the throne, as Arsenius had originally hoped, and even less hope that it would be left vacant through the happy accident of death: healthy and vigorous, Leo gave every evidence of living forever.
Now the family fortunes had suffered another blow. The week before, Arsenius’s second son, Eleutheris, had died. He had been riding down the Via Recta when a pig darted between his horse’s legs; the horse stumbled and Eleutheris fell, receiving a cut on the thigh. At first no one was concerned, for the wound was slight. But misfortune has a way of following upon misfortune. The wound became corrupted. Arsenius called in Ennodius, who bled Eleutheris profusely, but it availed nothing. Within two days his son lay dead. Arsenius immediately ordered a search for the owner of the pig; when he was discovered, Arsenius had his throat slit from ear to ear. But such revenge was cold comfort, for it could not bring back Eleutheris.
Not that there had been much love lost between father and son. Eleutheris was the exact opposite of his brother—soft, lazy, and undisciplined even as a child, he had scorned Arsenius’s offer of a church education and chosen instead the more immediate gratifications of a lay existence—women, wine, gambling, and other forms of debauchery.
No, Arsenius mourned Eleutheris not for the man he had been or might have become, given time, but for what he had represented: another branch of the family tree, a branch that might yet have borne promising fruit.
For centuries, theirs had been the first family of Rome. Arsenius could trace his ancestry back in a direct line to Augustus Caesar himself. Yet this illustrious heritage was tarnished by failure, for none of its noble sons had ever achieved Rome’s ultimate prize: the Throne of St. Peter. How many lesser men had sat upon that throne, Arsenius thought bitterly, and with what tragic result? Rome, once the wonder of the world, was sunk into ruinous and embarrassing decay. The Byzantines mocked it openly, pointing to the gleaming splendor of their own Constantinople. Who but one of Arsenius’s family, Caesar’s heirs, could lead the city back to her former greatness?
Now Eleutheris was gone, Anastasius was the last of the line, the only remaining chance the family would ever have to redeem its honor, and Rome’s.
And Anastasius was banished to Frankland.
Arsenius felt dark despair close in on him. He shook it off brusquely, like an unwanted cloak. Greatness did not attend upon opportunity; it seized it. Those who would rule had to be willing to pay the price of power, however great.
DURING mass on the day of the Feast of St. John the Baptist, Joan first noticed something wrong with Leo. His hands trembled while receiving the offerings, and he faltered uncharacteristically over the Nobis quoque peccatoribus.
When Joan questioned him afterward, he dismissed his symptoms as nothing more than a touch of heat and indigestion.
The next day he was no better, nor the next, nor the next. His head ached constantly, and he complained of burning pains in his hands and feet. Each day he became a little weaker; each day it took more effort for him to rise from bed. Joan grew alarmed. She tried every remedy she knew for wasting diseases. Nothing helped. Leo continued to sink toward death.
THE voices of the choir rose loudly in the Te Deum, the final canticle of the Mass. Anastasius kept his face expressionless, trying not to grimace at the noise. He had never grown accustomed to the Frankish chant, whose unfamiliar tones grated upon his ears like the croaking of blackbirds. Remembering the pure, sweet harmonies of the Roman chant, Anastasius felt a sharp stab of homesickness.
Not that his time here in Aachen had been wasted. Following his father’s instructions, Anastasius had set out to win the Emperor’s support. He began by courting Lothar’s friends and intimates, and making himself agreeable to Lothar’s wife, Ermengard. He assiduously charmed and flattered the Frankish nobility, impressing them all with his knowledge of Scripture and especially of Greek—a rare accomplishment. Ermengard and her friends interceded with the Emperor, and Anastasius was readmitted to the royal presence. Whatever doubt or resentment Lothar might once have harbored against him was forgotten; once again Ana stasius enjoyed the Emperor’s trust and support.
I have done everything Father asked, and more. But when will come my reward? There were times, such as now, when Anastasius feared he might be left to languish forever in this cold, barbarian backwater.
Returning to his rooms after mass, he discovered a letter had arrived in his absence. Recognizing the hand as his father’s, he took up a knife and eagerly cut the seal. He read the first few lines and cried out exultantly.
The time is now, his father had written. Come claim your destiny.
LEO lay on his side in bed, knees drawn up, suffering from sharp pains in his stomach. Joan prepared an emollient potion of egg whites beaten into sweetened milk, to which she added a little fennel as a carminative. She watched him drink it.
“That was good,” he said.
She waited to see if he would keep it down. He did, then slept more restfully than he had in weeks. When he awoke hours later, he felt better.
Joan decided to put him on a diet of the potion, restricting all other food and drink.
Waldipert protested: “He’s so weak; surely he needs something more substantial to keep his strength up.”
Joan replied firmly, “The treatment is helping him. He must take no food other than the potion.”
Seeing the determined look in her eyes, Waldipert backed down. “As you say, Nomenclator.”
For a week, Leo continued to improve. His pain went away, his color returned, he even seemed to regain some of his old energy. When Joan brought him his evening dose of the healing potion, Leo eyed the milky mixture ruefully.
“How about a meat pasty instead?”
“You’re getting your appetite back—a good sign. Best not to rush things, however. I’ll look in on you in the morning; if you’re still hungry, I’ll let you try a bit of simple pottage.”
“Tyrant,” Leo responded.
She smiled. It was good to have him gibe with her again.
EARLY the next morning, she arrived to find that Leo had suffered a relapse. He lay in bed moaning, too much in pain to reply when she spoke to him.
Quickly Joan prepared another dose of the emollient potion. As she did, her eyes fell upon an empty plate of crumbs on the table beside the bed.
“What’s this?” she asked Renatus, Leo’s personal chamberlain.
“Why, it’s the meat pasty you sent him,” the boy replied.
“I sent nothing,” Joan said.
Renatus looked confused. “But … my lord Vicedominus said you ordered it specially.”
Joan looked at Leo doubled over with pain. A horrible suspicion dawned.
“Run!” she told Renatus. “Call the superista and the guards. Don’t let Waldipert leave the palace.”
The boy hesitated only a moment, then ran from the chamber.
With shaking hands, Joan prepared a strong emetic of mustard and elder-root, spooning the mixture through Leo’s tightened mouth. In a few moments, the cleansing spasm took him; his whole body heaved convulsively, but he brought up only a thin green bile.
Too late. The poison has left his stomach. Joan saw with distress that it had already begun its deadly work, tightening the muscles of Leo’s jaw and throat, strangling him.
Desperately she tried to think of something else to do.
GEROLD ordered a search of every room of the palace. Waldipert was nowhere to be found. Immediately he was declared criminal and fugitive, and an intensive hunt was instituted throughout the city and into the surrounding countryside. But they searched in vain; Waldipert had completely disappeared.
Just as they were about to give up the pursuit, they found him. He was floating in the Tiber, his throat slit from ear to ear, his face fixed in a grimace of surprise.
THE clergy and high officials of Rome were gathered in the papal bedchamber. They stood in a tight knot at the foot of the bed, as if to draw comfort from one another’s nearness.
The poppy oil lamps burned low in their silver cressets. With the first of the dawn light, the senior chamberlain came to extinguish them. Joan watched as the old man loosened the cables and lowered the rings with exceeding care so none of the precious substance would be wasted. The simple domestic gesture seemed oddly out of place in the room’s charged atmosphere.
Joan had not expected Leo to last the night. Long ago he had stopped responding to voice or touch. For hours his breathing had followed the same inexorable pattern, growing steadily noisier and more stertorous until it reached an alarming crescendo, then abruptly ceased. There was a pause during which no one in the room drew breath; then the terrifying cycle began again.
A flutter of cloth drew Joan’s attention. Across the room Eustathius, the archpriest, was weeping, pressing his sleeve across his mouth to muffle the sound.
Leo let out a long, loud, rattling exhalation, then fell quiet. The silence dragged on and on. Joan crossed to the bed. The life was gone from Leo’s face. She closed his eyes, then fell to her knees beside the bed.
Eustathius cried out in grief. The bishops and optimates knelt in prayer. Paschal, the primicerius, crossed himself, then left to carry the news to those waiting outside.
Leo, Pontifex Maximus, Servus Servorum Dei, Primate of the Bishops of the Church, and Lord Pope of the Apostolic See of Rome, was dead.
Outside the Patriarchium, the wailing began.
LEO was laid to rest in St. Peter’s, before the altar of a new oratory dedicated to him. Burials were performed quickly this time of year, for no matter how saintly the soul that had inhabited it, a body did not withstand corruption long in the heat of a Roman July.
Shortly after the funeral, the ruling triumvirate proclaimed that in three days’ time there would be a pontifical election. With Lothar to the north, the Saracens to the south, and Lombards and Byzantines between, Rome’s situation was too precarious to allow the Throne of St. Peter to remain vacant any longer.
TOO soon, Arsenius thought with chagrin as soon as he heard the news. The election is too soon. Anastasius cannot arrive before then. Waldipert, that bungling fool, had ruined things completely. He had been given explicit instructions on how to administer the poison gradually, in small doses; in that way, Leo would have lingered for a month or more—and his death would have aroused no suspicion.
But Waldipert had panicked and administered too large a dose, killing Leo at once. Then he’d had the gall to come cringing to Arsenius, asking for his protection. Well, he’s beyond reach of the law now, though not in the way he intended, Arsenius thought.
He had ordered men killed before; it was part of the price of power, and only the weak balked at paying it. But he had never had to strike down anyone he knew as well as Waldipert. Distasteful as that had been, it was unavoidable. If Waldipert had been captured and questioned, he would have confessed under torture all he knew. Arsenius had merely done what he had to in order to protect himself and his family. He would destroy anyone who threatened the security of the family, break him as one breaks the flea that has bitten one with one’s fingernails.
Nevertheless, Waldipert’s death had left him feeling depressed and uneasy. Such violent acts, however necessary, took an inevitable toll.
With an effort of will, Arsenius turned his mind to more pressing matters. His son’s absence complicated affairs; his election to the papacy would now be more difficult, but not impossible. The first thing to do was to get Eustathius, the archpriest, to overturn the sentence of excommunication against him. That would take some politic maneuvering.
Lifting a jeweled silver bell from his desk, Arsenius rang for his secretary. There was much to do, and very little time in which to do it.
IN HER workshop in the Patriarchium, Joan stood at her bench, crushing dried hyssop flowers to a fine powder in her mortar. Twist and grind and twist and grind; the familiar motions of hand and wrist were soothing balm to the grief battering her heart.
Leo was dead. It seemed impossible. He had been so vital, so forceful; he had loomed so much larger than life. Had he lived, he might have done much to lift Rome out of the quagmire of ignorance and poverty in which it had languished for centuries; he had the heart for it, and the will. But not the time.
The door opened, and Gerold entered. She met his eyes, feeling his presence as keenly as if he had touched her.
“I’ve just received word,” he said brusquely. “Anastasius has left Aachen.”
“You don’t think he’s coming here?”
“I do. Why else should he leave the Emperor’s court so suddenly? He’s coming to claim the throne that was denied him six years ago.”
“But surely he can’t be elected; he’s excommunicate.”
“Arsenius is trying to prevail upon the archpriest to reverse the sentence of excommunication.”
“Benedicite!” This was very bad news. After his years of exile in the imperial court, Anastasius was surely more the Emperor’s man than ever. If he was elected, Lothar’s power would extend itself over Rome and all its territories.
Gerold said, “He will not have forgotten how you spoke against him at Leo’s election. It will be dangerous for you to remain in Rome with him as Pope. He’s not a man to forgive an injury.”
Coming on top of her still-raw emotions over Leo’s death, this realization was too much. Joan’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Don’t cry, my heart.” Gerold’s arms were around her, strong and sure and comforting. His lips brushed her temples, her cheek, sparking currents of response. “Surely you’ve done enough, sacrificed enough. Come away with me, and we’ll live as we were always meant to—together, as husband and wife.”
She had a dizzying glimpse of his face close to hers, and then he was kissing her.
“Say yes,” he said fiercely. “Say yes.”
She felt as though she were being pulled below the surface of her conscious mind and carried off by a powerful current of desire. “Yes,” she whispered, almost before she knew what she was saying. “Yes.”
She had spoken without volition, responding impulsively to the force of his passion. But as soon as the words were out of her mouth, a great calm descended upon her. The decision had been made, and it seemed both right and inevitable.
He bent to kiss her again. Just then the bell rang, summoning everyone to the afternoon meal. A moment later, voices and hurrying footsteps sounded outside the door.
With murmured endearments, they parted quickly, promising to meet again after the papal election.
ON THE day of the election, Joan went to pray in the small English church that had been her own when she first came to Rome.
Burned to the ground during the great fire, the church had been reconstructed with materials stripped from Rome’s ancient temples and monuments. As Joan knelt before the high altar, she saw that the marble pedestal supporting it bore the unmistakable symbol of the Magna Mater, ancient goddess of earth, worshiped by heathen tribes in a time beyond memory. Beneath the crude design was inscribed in Latin, “On this marble, incense was offered to the Goddess.” Obviously when the great slab of marble had been brought here, no one understood the symbol or its inscription. This was not especially surprising, for many of the Roman clergy were barely literate, unable to decipher the ancient lettering, much less understand its meaning.
The incongruity of the sacred altar and its pagan base seemed to Joan a perfect symbol of herself: a Christian priest, she still dreamed of her mother’s heathen gods; a man in the eyes of the world, she was tormented by her secret woman’s heart; a seeker of faith, she was torn between her desire to know God and her fear that He might not exist. Mind and heart, faith and doubt, will and desire. Would the painful contradictions of her nature ever be reconciled?
She loved Gerold; about that there was no question. But could she be a wife to him? Never having lived as a woman, could she begin now, so late in life?
“Help me, Lord,” Joan prayed, raising her eyes to the silver crucifix atop the altar. “Show me the way. Let me know what I must do. Dear God! Lift me into Thy bright light!”
Her words flew up, but her spirit remained below, weighted down by incertitude.
A door cracked open behind her. She turned from her place before the altar to see a head insert itself in the opening and as quickly withdraw.
“He’s in here!” a voice shouted. “I’ve found him!”
Her heart pounded with sudden fear. Could Anastasius have moved against her so quickly? She rose to her feet.
The doors swung open, and the seven proceres entered, proceeded by acolytes carrying the banners of their office. They were followed by the cardinal clergy and then the seven optimates of the city. Not until Joan saw Gerold among them was she sure she was not going to be arrested.
In slow procession the delegation came down the aisle and halted before Joan.
“John Anglicus.” Paschal, the primicerius, addressed her in formal tones. “By the will of God and of the Roman people, you have been elected Lord Pope of Rome, Bishop of the Roman See.”
Then he prostrated himself before her and kissed her feet.
Joan stared at him disbelievingly. Was this some kind of ill-considered jest? Or a trap to lure her into expressing disloyalty to the new Pope?
She looked at Gerold. His face was taut and grimly serious as he dropped to his knees before her.
THE outcome of the election had taken everyone by surprise. The imperial faction, led by Arsenius, had stood staunchly for Anastasius. The papal faction countered by nominating Hadrian, priest of the Church of St. Mark. He was not the kind of leader who inspired confidence. Plump and short, with a face disfigured by smallpox, he stood with slumped shoulders, as if already burdened by the responsibility that had been placed upon him. He was a pious man, a good priest, but few would choose him to be the spiritual leader of the world.
Evidently Hadrian agreed with the general opinion, for he unexpectedly withdrew his name from nomination, informing those assembled that after much prayer and deep reflection he had decided to decline the great honor they would bestow on him.
This announcement caused a mild uproar among the members of the papal party, who had not been informed of Hadrian’s decision in advance. There was a great deal of cheering from the imperialist side. Anastasius’s victory now seemed certain.
Then a clamor arose from the rear of the assembly, where the lower ranks of the laity were gathered. “John Anglicus!” they shouted. “John Anglicus!” Paschal, the primicerius, sent guards to quiet them, but they would not be silenced. They knew their rights; the constitution of 824 gave all Romans, lay and clergy, high and low, the right to vote in a papal election.
Arsenius sought to head off this unexpected problem by making an open bid to buy the people’s loyalty; his agents circulated swiftly through the crowd, offering bribes of wine, women, and money. But even these strong enticements did not prevail; the people were set against Anastasius, whom their beloved Pope Leo had seen fit to declare excommunicate. Vociferously they clamored for “the little Pope,” Leo’s friend and helpmate John Anglicus, and they would not be swayed.
Even so they might not have carried the day, for the ruling aristocracy would not have allowed its will to be overturned by a bunch of commoners, constitution or no. But the papal party, seeing in this popular insurgence an unlooked-for opportunity to block Anastasius from the throne, joined their voices to the people’s. The deed was done, and Joan was elected.
ANASTASIUS and his party were camped outside Perugia, some ninety miles from Rome, when the courier arrived with the news. Anastasius barely finished reading the message before he let out a cry of pain. Without a word to his bewildered companions, he turned and reentered his tent, tying the flaps to prevent anyone from entering after him.
From inside the tent the men of his escort heard wild and unrestrained sobbing. After a time the sobbing became a kind of animal howling that went on through most of the night.
ROBED in scarlet silk woven with gold and seated on a white palfrey also clothed and bridled in gold, Joan rode in ceremony toward her coronation. From every door and window along the Via Sacra, streamers and banners fluttered in riotous color; the ground was strewn with sweet-smelling myrtle. Throngs of cheering people lined the street, pressing forward to catch a glimpse of the new Lord Pope.
Lost in her own reverie, Joan scarcely heard the noise of the crowd. She was thinking of Matthew, of her old master Aesculapius, of Brother Benjamin. They had all believed in her, encouraged her, but none could have dreamed of such a day as this. She could scarcely believe it herself.
When she had first disguised herself as a man, when she had been accepted into the Fulda brotherhood, God had not raised His hand against her. But would He truly allow a woman to ascend the sacred Throne of St. Peter? The question spun round in her mind.
The papal guards, led by Gerold, rode escort around Joan. Gerold kept his wary gaze fixed on the crowds lining the road. Now and again someone broke through the ranks of guards, and each time Gerold’s hand strayed to the sword at his side, ready to defend Joan against attack. There was no occasion to draw his sword, however, for each time the interloper wanted only to kiss the hem of Joan’s robe and receive her blessing.
In this slow and interrupted fashion, the long procession wound its way through the streets toward the Lateran. The sun was at midpoint in the sky when they drew up before the papal cathedral. As Joan dismounted, the cardinals, bishops, and deacons fell into place behind her. Slowly she climbed the steps and entered the shimmering interior of the great basilica.
REPLETE with ancient and elaborate ritual, the ordo coronationis, or coronation ceremony, took several hours. Two bishops led Joan to the sacristy, where she was solemnly vested in alb, dalmatic, and paenula before she approached the high altar for the singing of the Litany and the lengthy ritual of consecration, or anointing. During the recitation of the vere dignum, Desiderius the archdeacon and two of the regionary deacons held over her head an open book of the Gospels. Then came the mass itself; this lasted a good deal longer than usual because of the addition of numerous prayers and formularies befitting the importance of the occasion.
Throughout it all Joan stood solemn and erect, weighted down by the liturgical robes, as stiff with gold as those of any Byzantine prince. Despite the magnificence of her attire, she felt very small and inadequate to the enormous responsibility being laid upon her. She told herself that those who had stood here before her must also have trembled and doubted. And somehow they had carried on.
But they had all been men.
Eustathius, the archpriest, began the final benediction: “Almighty Lord, stretch forth the right hand of Thy blessing upon Thy servant John Anglicus, and pour over him the gift of Thy mercy …”
Will God bless me now? Joan wondered. Or will His just wrath strike me down the moment the papal crown is placed upon my head?
The Bishop of Ostia came forward bearing the crown on a cushion of white silk. Joan’s breath caught in her throat as he raised the crown above her. Then the weight of the gold circlet settled upon her head.
“Life to our illustrious Lord John Anglicus, by God decreed our chief Bishop and Universal Pope!” Eustathius cried.
The choir chanted Laudes as Joan faced the assembly.
EMERGING onto the steps of the basilica, she was greeted by a thunderous roar of welcome. Thousands of people had been standing for hours in the blistering sun to greet their newly consecrated Pope. It was their will that she should wear the crown. Now they spoke that will in one great chorus of joyous acclamation: “Pope John! Pope John! Pope John!”
Joan raised her arms to them, feeling her spirit begin to soar. The epiphany, which only yesterday she had striven in vain to achieve, now came unlooked for and unbidden. God had allowed this to happen, so it could not be against His will. All doubt and anxiety were dispelled, replaced by a glorious, glowing certainty: This is my destiny, and these my people.
She was hallowed by the love she bore them. She would serve them in the Lord’s name all the days of her life.
And perhaps in the end God would forgive her.
STANDING nearby, Gerold stared at Joan in wonderment. She was aglow, transformed by some unspeakable joy, her face a lovely shining lamp. He alone, who knew her so well, could guess at her inner hallowing of spirit, more important by far than the formal ceremony which had preceded it. As he watched her receive the acclamation of the crowd, his heart was torn by an unbearable truth: the woman he loved was lost to him forever, yet he had never loved her more.