Pope (1294-1303). Benedict Caetani was probably born at Anagni around 1235. After legal studies in Bologna (1263-1264), he embarked upon an ecclesiastical career as a papal diplomat in England and France. His mastery of canon law and curial politics helped to secure his advancement to cardinal deacon (1281) and cardinal priest (1291); he was elected pope as Boniface VIII following the abdication of Celestine V.
Boniface’s policy of relentless familial aggrandizement and a rigid insistence upon papal plenitude of power, exemplified by the claims of the bull Unam Sanctam (1302), earned him powerful enemies. The chief of these were King Philip IV of France and the Colonna family (whose lands lay in the Papal State), the joint perpetrators of the assault upon him known as the “crime of Anagni,” which led to Boniface’s death (11 October 1303).
Throughout his papacy and posthumously, Boniface was maligned for putting the interests of his kin above those of Christendom and the crusade. The great Italian poet Dante Alighieri reserved a place for him in Hell (Par- adiso XXX.145-148). Yet Boniface wrote a text of canon law, the Liber sextus; was a skillful administrator and a patron of art; and decreed the first Holy Year (jubilee) on 22 February 1300, perhaps the most significant act of his pontificate. The jubilee cannot be divorced from the crusade tradition. Hitherto enjoyed only by crusaders, the plenary indulgence was now granted to jubilee pilgrims to Rome. Crusader Jerusalem was lost; Rome was now unrivaled as Latin Christendom’s holy city. Just as the calling of a crusade depended upon papal authority, so, too, with the jubilee; and because the jubilee indulgence was not permitted to compete with crusade indulgences, holy years were limited to one per century.
Boniface launched several crusades that were political in nature: these were fought against the Aragonese regime in Sicily in 1296, 1299, and 1302, and, most famously, against the Colonna cardinals, Giacomo and Pietro. Officially, this last was a legal crusade with full indulgences preached against rebels, heretics, schismatics, and blasphemers of the Roman church. In reality, it was a struggle between the Colonna and the Caetani clans for lordship in the Campagna. Preached throughout Italy, Boniface’s crusade against the Colonna resulted in the destruction of their stronghold, Palestrina (1297-1298). Thus the crusades came to Lazio in the vicinity of Rome only a few years after the fall of the city of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) to the Muslims (1291), a fact bitterly noted by Dante (Inferno, XXVII.85-89). Boniface’s final conflict with Philip IV of France precipitated the papacy’s relocation to Avignon (1309-1376).