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The perils of being pontiff – from foul play to fluke accidents

Most modern popes die from natural causes, but Mike Higgins finds this was not always the case

When Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world last Monday by announcing his resignation, he became the first pontiff to do so since 1415. It should be an ordered and dignified exit, but not all of Benedict's 264 predecessors have been so blessed: one study suggests that nearly one in 10 popes have met unnatural ends. These range from collapsing ceilings to, ahem, chronic anal conditions, with executions, starvation and murder all par for the course. The last pope to meet an inglorious end was Pius VI: in 1799, he died in prison after Napoleon's conquest of the Papal states. Happily, since then most popes have passed away in relative peace. Some say there was an attempt to poison John Paul I in 1978 just after the white smoke puffed him in; although he survived initially, he died after 33 days in office.

St Peter

Founding father of the church (and first pope), crucified by Emperor Nero during Rome's earliest purge of the Christian sect in AD64.

Martin I

Arrested and exiled to Crimea by the Byzantine emperor Constans, he died of exposure in 655.


Pope for only 20 days after his consecration in 708, he was so disfigured by gout he could no longer eat.


Poisoned then beaten to death with a hammer by a relative in 882.

Steven VI

Remembered for putting the corpse of his predecessor on trial. Steven was strangled in 897.

John X

Reigned for 14 years, but suffocated with a cushion by dissatisfied noblemen in 928.

John XII

The illegitimate son of Agapitus II, he became pope aged 18 and died nine years later, in 964, mid-coitus.

Lucius II

Hit by a flying stone in 1145, while attempting to quell an uprising in Rome. He never recovered.

John XXI

Crushed when a ceiling collapsed on him in 1277.

Leo X

Allegedly poisoned during treatment to an anal abscess in 1521 – the offical line is he had malaria.