Pope John...or Pope Joan? How a woman may have become the head of the Roman Catholic Church.


Hundreds lined the streets. Rich, poor, young, old. All to see the Pope’s procession through Rome.

Pope John Anglicus.

The golden mitre he wore on his head was studded with rubies and emeralds. The golden staff he held in his hand glistened in the sunlight.

Resplendent. Glorious. God’s representative on earth.

Then, suddenly, he doubled over. Clutched his stomach, cried out in pain.

Pope John Anglicus was giving birth…

The year was 855AD. But even then, news spread fast.

A woman had become pope. And she’d been found out.

The story appeared in chronicles and letters, histories and accounts across Europe.

To this day, the Roman Catholic Church dismisses it as just that. A story.

But what if that story were true?

Before she was Pope John Anglicus, she was Joan. And she lived in Mainz, central Germany.

As a young girl, she’d wanted to learn, study. But education was for boys only.

Often, learning happened in monasteries and other religious institutions.

So Joan disguised herself as a young man called John, and joined the local monastery as a novice monk.

It was easy, really.

The baggy robes disguised her figure. All monks were required to be clean-shaven at all times, so no one would have questioned Joan’s lack of facial hair.

And none of the other monks would ever have seen her body. They didn’t wash anything but their hands and faces, and they never undressed. Eating, sleeping, praying in those baggy robes.

Monk praying


But one monk did see Joan’s body – the monk she fell in love with.

The passion shared by the two ‘monks’ was intense. Together, they decided to elope. Perhaps to avoid detection.

They made their way to Rome.

There, Joan – or John – impressed the bishops and cardinals with her knowledge. She became a priest, then a cardinal.

In 855CE she was made Pope.

But always, John had her lover by her side. The monk from Mainz.

That love proved to be her downfall.

After two years as Pope, Joan went into labour while on a procession from Saint Peter’s Basilica to the Lateran Palace.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica (Photo: iStockphoto)

There was widespread anger. Not only among other priests and bishops, but among the public, too.

God’s representative on Earth should be a man.

Joan had tricked them all.

So, she and her newborn child were stoned to death. Their bodies dragged through the streets by horses.

In the centuries after, the Roman Catholic Church denied any of this had happened.

They said the story had been made up by early Protestants to discredit the Catholic Church, and make them look foolish.

Although, some scholars believe the story may have been put out as a sort of cautionary tale, or warning. The message to women? Don’t overreach your position, because there’ll be serious consequences.

And perhaps those scholars were right.

There’s no mention of Joan, or Pope John Anglicus, in the official papal records.

So maybe she didn’t exist.

Or maybe, she did. And maybe, her fellow bishops and cardinals were so embarrassed they’d simply destroyed their records of her.

The public seemed to remember Joan, though. So much so, the street where she’d gone into labour was renamed.

People called it the Vicus Papissa – the Street of the Female Pope.

Why, unless the story were true?

After the scandal of having a woman pope, the Vatican was keen never to make the same mistake again.

Supposedly, every pope after Joan had a physical examination. He’d sit on a special chair called the sedia stercoraria –  a chair with a hole in its seat.

Two cardinals would then take it in turns to reach up through the hole…

If they found what they were expecting, they’d make the announcement, ‘Duos habet et bene pedentes.

It means, ‘He has two and they dangle nicely.’

Why go through this, unless the story of Pope Joan were true?

Since then, Joan’s story has been made into novels and films. But the question remains. Is it just a story?

Or, did a young, intelligent woman become the most powerful man in the world?


Not the only one

Mandatory Credit: Photo by imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock (3463861a) St. Eugenia, martyr, stucco relief, early baroque, Church of St Andreas VARIOUS

(Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Eugenia from Alexandria was so keen to learn, she ran away from home and entered a monastery, pretending to be Brother Eugene. Sadly, a woman called Melancia fell in love with Brother Eugene. When Melancia made a move, Eugene was scared of being found out so rejected her advances. Melancia decided to get her revenge, and she accused Brother Eugene of fathering her illegitimate child. ‘Brother Eugene’ was arrested, but proved her innocence by baring her naked body. She later became a saint.