The 6 Most Fascinating Things In The Vatican Secret Archives

Inspiring endless conspiracy theories, the Vatican Secret Archives contain relics from the whole history of Western civilisation. Here are just some of them…

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Modern image of the Vatican.

THE FURIOUS THREAT FROM HENRY VIII

One of the prized possessions of the Archives is a letter which changed the course of history. The word "letter" doesn't quite do justice to this massive missive: it's a 3ft-wide parchment bearing 81 wax seals from English noblemen, clergymen and even the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was sent to pressure Pope Clement VII into allowing Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, thus freeing him to tie the knot with Anne Boleyn.

Sent in 1530, this document is remarkable for the strength of its wording. Far from being cowed by the might of the Catholic Church, the men behind the letter promise to go to "extreme measures" and "find a remedy elsewhere" unless the Pope gives his blessing to Henry. The threat went unheeded, and soon after that Henry broke with Rome, triggering the English Reformation. Amazingly, this letter went missing in the Archives for a long time, and was accidentally rediscovered under a chair in 1926.

THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR SCROLL

Originally formed to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land, the Knights Templar became a powerful force during the Crusades - not only dominating battlefields, but controlling vast reserves of wealth and influence, before they were eventually killed off by their political and religious opponents. Anyone who's ever been beguiled by Dan Brown-style conspiracy theories about this infamous organisation will be intrigued to know the Archives possess an ominous document written by the Templars themselves.

This is a 60-metre long parchment containing the testimonies of 231 knights, who were on trial for alleged blasphemy and immorality. Accused of such heinous crimes as spitting on crosses and homosexuality, the Templar order would eventually be crushed and many knights brutally executed. The scroll in the Archives is a chilling artefact from this turbulent time.

THE MARTIN LUTHER EXCOMMUNICATION

Martin Luther was the brash rebel who helped put the Protestant Reformation in motion, changing the direction of Europe and the world. The Archives contain the crucial order by the Pope that led to Luther's excommunication from the Catholic Church, cementing his place as a religious revolutionary. This is the "Decet Romanum Pontificem", the papal bull issued in 1521.

Luther had started off as an ordinary law student. But, as the story goes, he was travelling back to his university town one day when he was caught in a thunderstorm and almost struck by lightning. In that moment, Luther allegedly swore to become a monk, and he did just that, becoming so fiercely devoted to Scripture that he described Christ as the "hangman of my poor soul". It was this devotion to the Bible, and his contempt for what he regarded as the corrupt stranglehold of Rome, that put him on the path to excommunication and the Reformation.

THE GALILEO TRIAL DOCUMENTS

The trial of Galileo in 1633 is still regarded today as the quintessential "science vs religion" confrontation. The great astronomer was hauled up by the Inquisition for propagating the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around. The Vatican Archives contain documents from this sensational trial, including Galileo's own signature.

This wasn't actually the first time Galileo had been harassed for his opinions. Decades before, he'd been warned to abandon his opinions about the movements of the Earth. But political forces, and Galileo's personal problems with the Pope, led to the 1633 trial, which ended with the great man agreeing to recant his heretical theories and being put under house arrest for the rest of his days.

A LETTER FROM A NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBE

Not all the treasures of the Archives relate to European history. One of the unlikelier documents is a message written on tree bark in 1887, from the Ojibwe tribe of Ontario. Sent to Pope Leo XIII, it has a lyrical beauty that's still striking today. Sent in the springtime, it is dated "where there is much grass, in the month of flowers", and refers to the Pope as "the Great Master of Prayer". The letter is written in the Ojibwe language, though a Catholic missionary evidently provided a helpful translation.

NOTES FOR AN EARLY FLYING MACHINE

Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão may not be a well-known name today, but he's credited by some as an early pioneer of flight. The Archives contain his early, flamboyant designs for an airship shaped like a massive bird, propelled using the power of wind and special magnets, dating back to the early 18th Century.

The story of his life is vague and shrouded by hearsay, but it seems that he showcased an early prototype of an airship in front of a Portuguese king, and so impressed onlookers that he was granted special privileges to continue his experiments. However, it's also said that - despite the patronage of the monarch - the priest was reported to the Inquisition as a blasphemous magician, and was forced to burn his work before eventually dying in obscurity.