High-quality reproductions of 105 documents, 19 of which have never been seen before in public, have now been published in a book. The Vatican Secret Archives features a papal letter to Hitler, an entreaty to Rome written on birch bark by a tribe of North American Indians, and a plea from Mary Queen of Scots.
The book documents the Roman Catholic Church’s often hostile dealings with the world of science and the arts, including documents from the heresy trial against Galileo and correspondence exchanged with Erasmus, Voltaire and Mozart. It also reveals the Church’s relations with princes and potentates in countries far beyond its dominion.
In a letter dated 1246 from Grand Khan Guyuk to Pope Innocent IV, Genghis Khan’s grandson demands that the pontiff travel to central Asia in person – with all of his “kings” in tow – to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission”, threatening that otherwise “you shall be our enemy”.
Another formal letter in the archive highlights the papacy’s political role. In 1863 Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, wrote to Pope Pius IX claiming that the civil war raging across America was entirely due to “Northern aggression”.
“We desire no evil to our enemies, nor do we covet any of their possessions; but are only struggling to the end that they shall cease to devastate our land and inflict useless and cruel slaughter upon our people.”
Other letters in the archive are more personal. In a 1550 note, Michelangelo demands payment from the papacy which was three months late, and complains that a papal conclave had interrupted his work on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
A yellowed parchment covered in neat black script reveals details of the 14th century trials of the Knights Templar on suspicion of heresy, after which members of the warrior-monk order were pardoned by Pope Clement V.
Some of the documents are already well-known, including a parchment letter written by English peers to Pope Clement VII in 1530, calling for Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled.
An entreaty written to Rome by another British monarch, but in very different circumstances, is also reproduced in exquisite detail. In 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from Fotheringay in Northants to Pope Sixtus V, a few months before she was beheaded for plotting against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, pledging her eternal allegiance to Rome.
“An aura of mystery has always surrounded this important cultural institution of the Holy See due to the allusions to inaccessible secrets thanks to its very name, as well as to the publicity it has always enjoyed in literature and in the media,” Cardinal Raffaele Farina, a Vatican archivist, writes in the preface to the book, which was produced by a Belgian publisher, VdH Books.
One of the most unusual documents is a letter written on birch bark in 1887 by the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario, Canada, to Pope Leo XIII. The letter, written in May but datelined “where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers”, addresses the pontiff as “the Great Master of Prayer” and offers thanks to the Vatican for having sent a “custodian of prayer” (a bishop) to preach to them.
Although scholars have had access to the secret archives since 1881, they remain closed to the general public.