Vargas y Mexia, Francisco

Dizionario di eretici, dissidenti e inquisitori nel mondo mediterraneo
Edizioni CLORI | Firenze | ISBN 978-8894241600 | DOI 10.5281/zenodo.1309444

The Castilian Francisco Vargas y Mexia (c.1500-1566) played an important part in the Catholic Reformation, first as an imperial agent, later ambassador, at the Council of Trent (1545-52) and also as Philip II of Spain’s resident ambassador in Rome (1558-63).

Vargas was born in 1499 or 1500 into one of the cadet lines of an ancient noble family in Madrid and Toledo. His parents were Antonio de Vargas from Toledo and Juana de Vargas y Mexia from Vallecas near Madrid. He had a brother, Juan, who later became Spanish ambassador in Paris (1577-81) and two sisters, both of whom married into leading families at the Castilian court. Vargas himself married Inés de Villafañe and had at least two sons: the legitimate Bartolomé, who became a Dominican missionary in Peru, and the illegitimate Jerónimo, about whom little is known.

Vargas’ career before the 1540s is obscure. He is said to have studied jurisprudence at the University of Alcalá, but no records survive. His first accepted appearance in the historical record is as attorney general of the Council of Castile (fiscal del consejo supremo de Castilla), a role he occupied immediately prior to his departure for Trent. He arrived in Trent on 29th June 1545 with instructions from Charles V to advise the Imperial ambassador, Francisco de Toledo, on legal matters. Part of Vargas’ extensive correspondence from the Council was published as Lettres et Mémoires de François de Vargas…touchant le Concile de Trente, traduits de l’Espagnol par M. Michel Le Vassor (Amsterdam, 1699) and remains an important primary source for the Council’s activities. When Julius III suspended the Council in 1552, Charles V commanded Vargas to stay on in Italy, appointing him as his ambassador in Venice. Vargas held this position until 1558 when he departed the city in the wake of a dispute with the French ambassador over precedence. The sudden death of Juan de Figueroa, the Spanish ambassador in Rome, created a new vacancy which Philip II asked him to fill. Vargas remained in Rome until the autumn of 1563, when he returned to Spain to retire to the monastery of Sisla outside Toledo. He died there in 1566.

Vargas, who held strong views on the limits of papal authority, played an active role in the negotiations surrounding the first phase of the Council of Trent. Indeed, he became one of the Council’s leading exponent of the idea that conciliarist principles established at the Council of Constance and ratified at the Council of Basle should govern proceedings at Trent. Vargas’ stern criticisms of the papacy and what he perceived as its corrupt practices, which he argued infringed both divine and canon law, led him to support the view that the general council held a higher authority than the pope. Moreover, he further maintained that bishops derived their authority directly from God, without the pope playing any intermediary role. He cited a range of Spanish theologians and jurists, including Alfonso de Madrigal, Juan de Torquemada, and Francisco de Vitoria, in support of this claim and his others. Unsurprisingly, the papal legates at Trent viewed Vargas as a Lutheran and expressed their suspicions accordingly. Charles V, on the other hand, maintained faith in Vargas, perhaps seeing him as an effective advocate of important aspects of his own agenda (in particular, reducing the scope of papal jurisdiction within his own dominions).

One of the more interesting aspects to Vargas’ career is his apparent reversal of these opinions during the Council’s final phase in 1562-63. Towards the end of the Council’s deliberation the printer Paolo Manuzio published a treatise entitled De iurisdictione episcoporum under Vargas’ name which defended the pope’s authority over bishops. Various explanations present themselves: first, that Vargas was not the text’s true or, at least, sole author. Manuzio was working under the orders of Pius IV and Vargas himself had already left Rome by the date of its publication, which factors might raise this suspicion. Alternatively, Vargas may have been induced to change his mind by the offer of a cardinal’s hat. Paul IV had previously suggested Vargas was a suitable candidate for such a promotion in 1559 and Vargas himself appealed unsuccessfully twice to Pius IV to honour Paul IV’s ‘decision’ in 1560 and again in 1562. Vargas never found favour with Pius, in part because of his support for the Carafa family at the start of Pius’ pontificate, and his volte face on the nature of papal authority may have been the product of self-interested calculation. How much Philip II knew about Vargas’ new views or, indeed, about his earlier opinions remains unknown.

In either case, Vargas emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in ecclesiastical politics of the immediate Tridentine era. Furthermore, his career serves as a useful reminder of the need to study both the role of jurists and non-Italians at the Council of Trent and in the diplomatic encounters that took place in its aftermath.


  • Gustave Constant, Rapport sur une mission scientifique aux archives d'Autriche et d'Espagne (Paris: Imprint national, 1910), pp. 359-85.
  • Constancio Gutierrez, Francisco de Vargas, in Españoles en Trento (Valladolid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1951), pp. 478-493.
  • Miles Pattenden, From Ambassador to Cardinal? Francisco de Vargas at the papal court (1559-63), in Diana Carrió-Invernizzi (ed.), Embajadores culturales. Transferencias y lealtades de la diplomacia española de la edad moderna (Madrid: Editorial UNED, 2016), pp. 139-56.

Article written by Miles Pattenden | © 2017

et tamen e summo, quasi fulmen, deicit ictos
invidia inter dum contemptim in Tartara taetra
invidia quoniam ceu fulmine summa vaporant
plerumque et quae sunt aliis magis edita cumque

[Lucretius, "De rerum natura", lib. V]

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