A Papal Power Play

Pope Paul III bluffs King Francis, and the king calls it.

Posted Oct 21, 2020

 J. Krueger
Birds symbolize freedom, which includes freedom from human meddling and power games.
Source: J. Krueger

For excusations, cessions, modesty itself well governed, are but arts of ostentation. –Francis Bacon 

Showtime’s The Tudors follows King Henry VIII’s storied reign over early 16th-century England. The relationships among the characters are marked by power, lust, betrayal, and greed, along with some of the lesser vices. Brilliantly written and acted, the show puts many elements of human behavior into relief. Here, we focus on an encounter between Pope Paul III, superbly portrayed by Peter O’Toole, and Francis, the aptly named King of France (Season 2, Episode 8).

Francis makes the pilgrimage to Rome to present himself as an abject penitent. What he hopes to gain from the audience is not entirely clear. In contrast, the Pope loses no time in expressing his wishes. He has excommunicated the renegade English king, and he needs Francis to deliver the punishment. “You are a great Catholic prince,” he says, “you have armies, you have ships, you have guns.” And then, in the pivotal phrase, the Pope goes on to say “So I ask you, in all humility, as your Holy Father, will you invade England, will you remove and kill the apple state and will you return that country to our common faith?”

The Pope assumes a psychological power pose. He has to because he is a spiritual authority, not a worldly one. If he had the means to invade England, he might do it himself. The King of France—in contrast to Henry of England—lays no claim to spiritual authority rivaling the Pope's, but he can put an army in the field. The Pope’s and the King’s power bases are thus in perfect opposition. The Pope appears to recognize that bringing Henry to heel in the earthly world trumps his punishment in the next, but he depends on King Francis to do it. At the level of earthly causes and effects, the Pope is the supplicant and King Francis is the man of means.

It is therefore most intriguing that the social roles are reversed. The Pope commands all the trappings of power, while King Francis denies himself any worth. The Pope projects stern paternal love; the King kisses his feet and offers to die if asked. The ritualized delivery of the papal power claim is so perfectly orchestrated that it is—at first—hard to see that it has no real teeth. It is a bluff. Eventually, King Francis seems to realize this, as he never invades England. Instead, he has to settle for checking an invading English army at Boulogne.

The episode, which is worth savoring more than once, shows how the exercise of power becomes a game when coercion is not possible. The other party must consent to a power claim. Many religious leaders have perfected this art of social influence. Their success is remarkable when there are no material resources or physical rewards or punishments to be given or withheld, and when no logical argument is made that forces the receiver’s consent.

The Pope dominates the King of France with a theatrical performance and the execution of an assumed emotional bond characteristic of father and son, which they are not. The entire encounter is, as it were, a simulation. The Pope’s repeated appeals to his own humility are the rhetorical flourishes that turns his speech into masterpiece (D’Errico, 2020; Exline et al., 2004; Heck & Krueger, 2016; and perhaps Hoption, Barling, & Turner, 2013, altough it is not clear whether O'Toole - Paul's leadership was transformational). Consider the alternative. The Pope could have assumed the role of the all-powerful and punitive father. He could have threatened Francis explicitly with excommunication. He could have declared “I am the Pope and you must do as I say!”

Why does the Pope (or the scriptwriter, rather) not take this tack? Assuming the Pope is a clever tactician and intuitive game theorist, he will realize that a direct challenge carries the risk of public defeat. By professing his humility and lack of arms, the Pope appears to leave the decision to obey the King. If the King does not complete his assignment, he is cast in the role of the wayward child, that the fatherly Pope has the power to forgive. As Paul (O’Toole) himself notes, “A father must always seek for ways to forgive his children.” The Pope, in other words, has written his own escape clause into the contract before telling the King what he wants of him. At the same time, while preserving his prerogative to forgive, the Pope makes it clear that one cannot count on his mercy. With regard to Henry, he asserts that his “sins against us and against our faith are too profound to forgive.”

Though the Pope’s demand of the king is technically a bluff, it is a survivable one. The Pope knows that he cannot lose, and Peter O’Toole’s inimitable mien of self-assurance lets us know that he is well aware of this.

Note: Alessandro Farnese, the real Pope Paul III, was a most interesting man. For bird symbolism, see here.

This post was written with Erin Gresalfi & Hanna Zwerver.


D’Errico, F. (2020). Humility-based persuasion: Individual differences in elicited emotions and political evaluation. International Journal of Communication, 14, 3007-3026.

Exline, J. J., Campbell, W. K., Baumeister, R. F. Joiner, T., & Krueger, J. I. (2004). Humility and modesty. In C. Peterson, C. & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (pp. 461-475). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Heck, P. R., & Krueger, J. I. (2016). Social perception of self-enhancement bias and error. Social Psychology, 47, 327-339.

Hoption, C., Barling, J., & Turner, N. (2013). "It's not you, it's me": transformational leadership and self-deprecating humor. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 34(1), 4-19.