The Borgia Testament is an account of the life of Cesare Borgia (1476–1507) told in the first person in novelistic form. The story begins in 1504. Cesare has been imprisoned in Rome by his long-term adversary Della Rovere, who has just been elected Pope Julius II. Unsure how long he has left before his usefulness to the new Pontiff is exhausted and he is thus disposed of, Cesare begins to write his memoirs. Although The Borgia Testamenthas been described as an apologia for Borgia, and it is true that every murder or piece of double-dealing is usually justified by him as being either “inevitable” or “necessary”, Balchin’s hero issues the following declaration at the start of the book:
I don’t want anyone to think that what I shall write here is an apology or a self-justification. I am not interested in excuses. I have done many things that may be criticised. But I have done them deliberately, and because in my judgement they were necessary. If my judgement was right, then there is nothing to excuse. If it was wrong, then they were inexcusable. Anyhow, I shall be dead, and your opinions will not hurt or disturb me.
Cesare opens his testament with a description of his childhood, introducing us in the process to the other principal players in the story: his father Rodrigo, a rich, venal womanizer who is also a cardinal and Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Catholic church; his mother Vanozza, described here as Rodrigo’s “main mistress”; and his siblings Giovanni, Lucrezia and Giuffre. Cesare is initially groomed for a life as a churchman and is made Bishop of Valencia on the same day in 1492 on which his father is elected Pope Alexander VI. His unsuitability for a life clothed in clerical vestments is revealed when he feels the need to escape from the clutches of the King of France and his retinue, who insult him and his father whilst Cesare (acting as Papal Legate) is escorting them from Rome to Naples.
Following the murder of his brother Giovanni (a crime for which he denies responsibility), Cesare is defrocked, his first task as a layman being to travel to France to issue the King with a papal dispensation allowing him to divorce his wife and marry another woman. Whilst in France, Cesare gets married himself but immediately leaves the still-warm matrimonial bed in order to return to Italy, telling his new wife that he is “going to war, which is no place for a woman”.
Cesare succeeds in raising an army whilst in France and most of the remainder of the narrative is occupied with his grand plan to create a unified Italy, which involves forging alliances with rival powers, particularly the French, conducting military campaigns and murdering anyone who attempts to get in his way. He also finds time to run Lucrezia’s first husband out of Rome, find her another husband and later arrange to have him murdered because it is politically expedient to do so before, finally, fixing her up with a third husband.
Cesare has made good progress in conquering the Romagna region of Northern Italy
and bringing it under papal control when he falls ill and is confined to bed for a lengthy period, during which time his father passes away. This combination of ill fortune leads to his downfall:
I told somebody later, when I was about again, that I had planned everything that I should do at my father’s death, and that the one emergency I had never reckoned with was being ill myself at the same time.
Della Rovere is elected Pope in succession to Alexander VI, Cesare is arrested and the story is brought full circle. An epilogue then tells how Cesare is released from his confinement by Della Rovere, arrested by the Spanish and shipped to Spain, imprisoned in a fortress from which he escapes three years later and finally murdered by the French whilst in the employment of the King of Navarre.