Sack of Rome Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome, directly challenging the power of the Catholic Church and helping to advance Protestantism in Europe. The siege also marked the virtual end of the Italian Renaissance and, in the eyes of some historians, the end of the High Renaissance.

Summary of Event

The sack of Rome began on May 6, 1527 when an army of Spanish Catholics and Lutherans beholden to Charles V and led by Charles III marched rebelliously into Rome, a city the troops held in a state of siege for nine months. When marauding, unpaid troops entered the city, they plundered, looted, and pillaged ceaselessly for eight days, inflicting harsh treatment upon those who were directly associated with the Roman Catholic Church Catholicism;Italy , most notably priests, monks, and nuns. Rome, sack of (1527-1528) Charles V (1500-1558) Clement VII (1478-1534) Charles III (1490-1527) Francis I (1494-1547) Leo X Medici, Lorenzo de’ Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Charles III (eighth duke of Bourbon) Clement VII Medici, Lorenzo de’ (1449-1492) Leo X Adrian VI Francis I (king of France)

The rampaging invaders raped nuns as well as other female residents of Rome. They destroyed many of the city’s most valued and beautiful frescoes and smashed priceless statuary. This destruction resulted in part from the growing ascendancy of Protestantism in northern Europe. Though Charles V himself was a staunch Catholic and his reasons for conflict with the pope were secular, many of his troops were Protestant, and it is thought that their choice of targets was informed both by the desire to pillage Rome's wealth and by their religious convictions.

Pope Clement VII, protected by his cadre of Swiss Guards, fled the Vatican just one step ahead of the invaders, taking refuge in the castle of Sant’ Angelo. Many of Clement’s guards were killed. The invaders from the north charged through the streets, humiliating the Romans in every possible way. They mocked them by dressing their leader in papal garb and leading him around the streets of the Vatican on a donkey. They ravaged the sacred tomb of Saint Peter and stole its riches. One soldier plundered the head of the lance that was supposed to have punctured Christ’s side as he hung dying on the cross. The soldier then attached the lance head to his own weapon.

Pope Clement VII, the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici, was orphaned at an early age. He was raised in the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose son, Leo X, was the boy’s cousin. When Leo became pope in 1513, overlooking his cousin’s illegitimacy, he named Clement archbishop of Florence and made him a cardinal. In this capacity, Clement was regarded as one of the most effective personages in the papal court. He served through Leo’s papacy, which ended with Leo’s death in 1521. He continued to serve through the papacy of Adrian VI, who was an unpopular pontiff and served less than two years before his death in 1523.

When Clement was elected pope on November 19, 1523, Italy was immersed in a struggle between Francis I, king of France, and Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Clement attempted to appease Charles V, but he had to make a choice eventually. Clement, concerned about the Holy Roman Empire's growing dominance over the Papal States and hoping to shift the balance of power in the region, cast his lot with Francis and joined the League of Cognac with him in 1526, thereby infuriating Charles V.

Clement fully expected Francis to provide troops to help protect the Vatican. This, however, did not happen. Francis, deeply in debt, could not afford to deploy troops to Italy when they were most needed to defend the Vatican in 1527.

From the time Clement became pope to the spring of 1527, wars racked Italy and destroyed much of the country. The troops of Charles V gathered in Milan. Charles III, governor of Milan and a close ally of Charles V, was their leader. Francis I was unwilling and unable to assist the pope, who was seeking a truce with Charles V, but this was impossible because Charles’s troops were becoming rebellious; they had not been paid for several months. Hungry for plunder, they marched south toward Rome and arrived there May 6, 1527. The sack of Rome ensued.

The carnage was considerable. During the occupation of the city, more than two thousand bodies were disposed of in the Tiber River and another ten thousand were buried in Rome and its environs. The losses on both sides were substantial. Many of the invaders succumbed to the plague that swept through Rome in the summer of 1527. The occupation continued until the following February.

Pope Clement surrendered shortly after the invasion began and was a prisoner of the invaders until December 6, 1527. Upon his release, which was negotiated by paying Charles 400,000 ducats and surrendering several cities to him, Clement fled to Orvieto and then to Viterbo, staying in these cities for most of the next two years, essentially evicted from the Holy See. Clement eventually reached an accord with Charles V and acknowledged him as the Holy Roman Emperor, making official in the eyes of the Church the title that Charles had been granted through inheritance in 1519. Charles returned many of the spoils of the invasion, said to have a combined value of more than 4,000,000 ducats, to the Vatican.


The sack of Rome marked the end of Rome’s distinction as the unofficial capital of the Renaissance world, although the city recovered with remarkable speed from the northern invasion. Some historians think that the sack of Rome marked the end of the Renaissance altogether. Certainly, the age of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo had passed, but the sixteenth century advanced in art and music nonetheless. One could say that the sack of Rome marked the end of the High Renaissance.

More significantly, Charles V’s invasion challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and marked a considerable advance for Protestantism. In 1533, Clement had to make the delicate decision about whether to grant King Henry VIII of England an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in a manner the Church could sanction. His decision was as significant in the annals of Protestant advancement as was the sack of Rome.

Keenly aware that Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, who had a decided interest in Henry’s petition, Clement denied the request, which caused Henry to withdraw from the Roman Catholic Church. The Church soon excommunicated him, leading to the formation of the Protestant Church of England. Without the sack of Rome and without Clement finding it necessary to consider how Charles V would react to his decision about the annulment, the pope might well have acceded to Henry’s request, which would have had a profound effect on the course of European history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connell, William J., ed. Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Chapter 16 by Paul Flemer, “Clement VII and the Crisis of the Sack of Rome,” offers a succinct, well-written account of the sack of Rome and its aftermath. This essay is extensively documented and provides considerable information about Clement’s growing up in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s intriguing household. In twenty-five well-considered pages, the author captures the essence of Clement’s conflicts as pope.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gouwens, Kenneth, ed. The Italian Renaissance. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. Part V, “The Power of Knowledge,” which contains a translation of the text of Pietro Alcionio’s oration concerning the sack of Rome, is the most relevant section of this highly significant text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gouwens, Kenneth, ed. Remembering the Renaissance: Humanist Narratives of the Sack of Rome. Boston: Brill, 1998. Gouwens’s consideration of the sack of Rome as a demonstration of cultural discontinuity is original and intelligent. His presentation of materials by and about such papal advisers as Pietro Alcionio, Pietro Corsi, and Jacopo Sadoleto provides unique insights into the pressures under which Pope Clement was placed by Charles V and his armies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guicciardini, Luigi. The Sack of Rome. Translated, edited, and introduced by James H. McGregor. New York: Italica Press, 1993. A translation of a contemporary account of the siege of Rome, especially useful for students. This historical work is also useful for its examination of sixteenth century Italian politics. McGregor provides an excellent introduction and notes to the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hook, Judith. The Sack of Rome: 1527. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Originally published in 1957, this work presents a classic narrative history of the siege, one of the first histories of the sack written in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stinger, Charles L. The Renaissance in Rome. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. This volume’s epilogue, “The Sack and Its Aftermath,” is valuable for its discussion of the attack on Rome and its aftermath. Stinger demonstrates how important a role the attack played in the spread of Protestantism in northern Europe and in England. He draws interesting parallels between the sack of Rome and the ancient destruction of Jerusalem, showing how other writers have drawn such a parallel.
  • citation-type="journal"

    xlink:type="simple">Van den Oever, Joost. "Cultural Trauma, Prophetic Discourse and the Sack of Rome." Journal of Religion in Europe 8.3–4 (2015): 444–74. Print.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmermann, T. C. Price. Paolo Giovio: The Historian and the Crisis of Sixteenth Century Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Chapter 6, “Clement VII and the Sack of Rome,” provides a comprehensive overview of the attack. In about twenty-five pages, it captures vividly much of the atmosphere of the era.

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

1500: Roman Jubilee

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

Categories: History