Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Two


The Lion’s Den

Between 1252 and 1273, three popes work to separate Sicily from the empire, the king of England tries to face down his barons, and the line of Frederick II comes to a violent end

AFTER THE DEATH of his enemy Frederick II, Pope Innocent IV had returned triumphantly to Rome. “To the Roman Pontiff, all the kings of the Christian people are to be subject,” wrote Thomas Aquinas; and Innocent IV agreed. “Whoever seeks to evade the authority of the vicar of Christ,” he declared, “thereby impairs the authority of Christ Himself. The King of kings . . . has conferred full power on us.”1

He used this power, at once, in two different directions. In 1252, he issued the papal bull Ad Extirpanda, an elaborate set of procedures governing the Inquisition in Italy. Every ruling civil official was ordered to appoint committees that would be responsible for hunting out and arresting heretics. And the officials themselves were commanded to “force” the heretics to confess, citra membri diminutionem, et mortis periculum: by any measure, short of death or permanent disfigurement. This left plenty of options (flogging, starvation, the rack) by which heretics could be questioned; it was the first papal legitimization of torture as a tool of inquisition.2

At the same time, Innocent IV busied himself reducing the power of the next Holy Roman Emperor. He had long hoped to divide Sicily off from the triple realm of Germany, Italy, and Sicily. While Frederick II’s son and heir Conrad was occupied beating off his German rival to the throne, William of Holland, Innocent IV sent messengers to Henry III of England, offering to crown his second son Edmund as the rightful king of Sicily.

The deal was a lousy one for England. Innocent had nothing to offer except the empty title; Henry would have to swear, on peril of excommunication, to hand over a substantial payment to Rome, and also to send an army to take Sicily away from Conrad. Nevertheless, Henry III (an idle, cowardly, and foolish king, says Matthew Paris) accepted on nine-year-old Edmund’s behalf.3

As it turned out, enthusiasm for the Sicilian struggle was nonexistent in England, and Henry had enormous trouble raising an army. He was still working on the project when Conrad, fighting in the lowland swamps south of the Apennines, died of malaria. His heir was his two-year-old son Conradin; at once, Conrad’s younger half brother Manfred claimed the right to serve as the child’s regent.

Manfred sent the toddler to grow up safely in Bavaria and opened negotiations with Innocent IV, apparently believing that the pope might retract the offer to crown Edmund in favor of himself. But the talks failed; Manfred exhorted the Sicilians to rise behind him and resist the papal order handing them over to foreign rule. In December, he crossed over to southern Italy with his troops and led an army against the papal soldiers stationed at Foggia, defeating them easily.4

Innocent himself was in Naples, suffering from a gradually worsening sickness. When he heard the news of the defeat, his condition took a sharp turn downward. He died on December 7, 1254.

In his place, the cardinals elected Alexander IV: “kind and religious,” says Matthew Paris, “assiduous in prayer and strict in abstinence, but easily led away by the whisperings of flatterers.” In his sixties, Alexander IV had ambitions but little clout. He excommunicated Manfred and confirmed Edmund’s kingship, but the papal troops were no match for Manfred’s armies, and Alexander IV was forced to retreat to the Papal States and leave Sicily in Manfred’s hands. By 1258, Manfred was sure enough in the loyalty of the Sicilians to crown himself king of Sicily, excommunication notwithstanding.5

At the same time, young Conradin lost his claim to Germany. Conrad’s rival William of Holland had drowned crossing a stream; after Conrad’s death, the electors of Germany gathered together to decide on the next king of Germany. No one voted for Conradin. It seemed clear that Germany, after nearly ten years of chaos, needed a grown-up as king—and preferably one from outside the country, since all the German candidates could claim only fragmented and partial support.

But there was no clear outside choice either. After nearly a year of bickering, half of the electors decided to vote for Alfonso X, king of León-Castile, an experienced statesman who also happened to be the grandson of the German baron Philip of Swabia (by way of his mother). The rest preferred Henry III’s younger brother Richard of Cornwall, second son of John Lackland. Richard managed to get Alexander IV on his side, and even went to Germany to be crowned. But, faced with the necessity of conquering over half the country to actually rule it, he soon gave up and went home again.6

Now the English royal family had tangled itself up in two foreign struggles—one in Sicily, the other in Germany—for personal gain. Henry III, never a popular king, had enmeshed himself in a web of stupid decisions. Married to Eleanor of Provence, he had promoted too many of his wife’s French relatives into plum court positions, annoying his local courtiers. He had raised taxes in an attempt to collect the pope’s fee for the Sicilian crown, annoying everyone else. And after an adolescence spent under the thumb of a regent, he had grown into a spiky and irascible man, resentful of any advisor who seemed too controlling. He feuded with his officials; he fell out with his brother-in-law, the younger Simon de Montfort; when he needed the approval of the Curia Regis, the gathering of churchmen and landholders named by the Magna Carta as the “common counsel of our realm,” he summoned only those men who were certain to agree with him; he led expensive and pointless campaigns into the French lands that had once belonged to England. “He despoiled his native subjects, and enriched his brothers, relations, and kinsmen,” Matthew Paris sums up, “. . . [and] the kingdom . . . was all full of suspicion and fox-like treachery.”7

Henry was also facing the possibility of excommunication. He had not managed to raise either an army or the necessary funds that his oath to Innocent demanded. In March of 1258, Alexander IV sent him a stern final warning: if he didn’t pay up by June 1, he would be excommunicated.

Henry had no choice. To raise the necessary funds, he needed the entire Curia Regis to agree to new scutage. So in early April 1258, he summoned the priests and barons of England together in London and demanded more money.

Henry’s dilemma gave the barons of England the chance to air thirty years’ worth of complaints and grievances. Certainly Henry could have his money, the barons told their king, as soon as he fulfilled their conditions: he was to expel most of his French-born officials from England; he was to reaffirm all of the provisions of the Magna Charta; and he was to hand final decisions of policy over to a chamber of twenty-four leading barons, twelve chosen by him, twelve by the Curia Regis. “They moreover insisted that the king should frequently consult them, and listen to their advice,” Paris concludes.8

Unlike his father John, Henry was unwilling to risk excommunication. On June 11, 1258, he agreed to sign the barons’ demands, set down in a written treaty known as the Provisions of Oxford. The original demands had morphed: he was now to accept a standing council of fifteen who would have to ratify all his decisions, as well as another committee of twelve and the original council of twenty-four.9

But the army to conquer Sicily, and the pope’s fee, did not materialize. A dry season in England led to a drastic shortage of food, which led to famine and disease: “A measure of wheat rose in price to fifteen shillings and more,” Paris writes, “at a time when the country itself was drained of money, and numberless dead bodies were lying about the streets.” Alexander IV extended the deadline for payment. Meanwhile, the English barons expanded the Provisions of Oxford into the more elaborate Provisions of Westminster, placing even more limitations on Henry’s ability to raise money.10

Henry III had given up a whole raft of royal privileges and gotten nothing in return. But he had King John’s example to lead him; he opened secret negotiations with Alexander IV, pointing out that he could raise the money he owed if he were freed, by papal decree, from the Provisions of Oxford.

Alexander seems to have agreed. On April 13, 1261, he issued a papal bull freeing the king from all obligation to both Provisions; and on June 14, Henry sent the bull to be read out loud to the newly formed councils, which had assembled at Winchester.11

The barons, led by Simon de Montfort, began to prepare for war.

Fighting did not begin immediately. Neither the barons nor Henry were ready to launch a full-scale civil war; and the famine of 1258 had been followed by several good years of crops and rising prosperity, which meant that the English as a whole were not inclined to revolt. Instead, nearly three years of increasingly ill-tempered negotiations commenced. Alexander IV died, shortly after issuing the bull, but his successor Urban IV confirmed it; Simon de Montfort remained Henry’s most inflexible foe, but other barons went back and forth between allegiance to their peers and loyalty to the king; Henry’s oldest son and heir, Edward, at first took a virtuously principled stance of disagreement with his father (refusing, says Paris, “to accept of or profit by this absolution”) and then reversed himself, made up with Henry III, and became the leader of the royal army.12

In the summer of 1263, Simon de Montfort began to agitate, openly, for armed resistance. By March 1264, the two armies—the barons behind Montfort, the royalists led by Prince Edward—had advanced towards each other and lay only nineteen miles apart. Raids, skirmishes, and plundering of nearby estates began.

On May 14, the armies met at Lewes, on the southern coast of England. Edward, in charge of one wing of the attack, crushed the barons facing him and chased them well into the countryside. But the rest of the royal army faltered. By the time Edward returned, Henry III had surrendered after his horse was killed underneath him, and the royal forces had scattered.

Edward too was forced to surrender. Montfort, leader of the baronial cause, was now the most powerful man in England. He put Edward and Henry under courteous guard, in the Tower of London. “From that time,” Paris records, “he showed himself less inclined to treat for peace . . . because he had the king and the whole kingdom in his power.” For fifteen months, the monarchy remained under his control.13

Early in 1265, Edward managed to talk his guards into allowing him to ride outside the city gates for exercise. When they agreed, he challenged them to a race, and then quickly outrode them and took refuge with royal partisans at the castle of Wigmore. He found plenty of support for the royal cause outside of London: “Thus released from his imprisonment,” Paris says, “Edward assembled a large army, as numbers flocked to join him.” The war began again. Clashes in July and early August both ended with Simon de Montfort’s army driven backwards. In the third encounter between the two forces, at the field of Evesham on August 4, Edward’s army massacred the opposition in a brief violent two-hour confrontation. Simon de Montfort himself died in the fighting.14


52.1 The Battle of Evesham

The Battle of Evesham brought an end both to the Second Barons’ War against the crown and to the power of Henry III. It would be two years before final terms of peace were signed, and eight before Henry III’s reign finally ended. But from the moment of victory at Evesham, Edward—twenty-six years old, six foot two and towering over his peers, hardened by constant service in his father’s army—was the real ruler of England.

MEANWHILE, the Sicilian match that had lit the English powderkeg was burning merrily away in new directions.

Since Henry was clearly not going to get Sicily out of Manfred’s hands, Pope Urban IV offered the crown to Louis IX instead. Louis declined, on principle; he did not wish to be the usurper of young Conradin’s rights. But Urban IV found a more willing candidate in Louis’s younger brother, Charles of Anjou: aged forty, constantly in motion, a veteran of the failed Damietta Crusade, impatient with Louis’s scruples and ambitious for himself. He agreed at once—over Louis’s objections—to both take the crown and conquer the country. And, like Henry III nearly a decade earlier, he accepted a truly awful set of conditions in exchange for the meaningless title. He agreed to give up all power over the clergymen in Sicily, to claim no other title in Italy, to pay off the English debt to Rome, and to hand over an enormous yearly tribute to the pope. In exchange, he got the name of king—and the pope’s promise to give anyone who fought against Manfred the rewards of crusade.15

By the time Charles arrived in Sicily, Urban IV too was dead (the continuing election of elderly priests to the seat of Peter lent itself to quick turnover), and the French cardinal Guy Foulques le Gros had become Pope Clement IV.

Charles and his wife were crowned king and queen of Sicily in Rome; and, with title in hand, Charles prepared to attack Manfred. Learning of the new arrangement, Manfred had crossed over into southern Italy with a good-sized army of his own. He intended to surround Charles in Rome and make short work of him: “The bird is in the cage,” he had remarked, hearing of Charles’s arrival in the city.16

Before Manfred could arrive, Charles marched his own army, recruited from the French provinces, out of Rome and down into Manfred’s southern Italian lands, bordered by the Garigliano river. The French forces found a gap in the border defense, at the town of Ceprano. Rumors later spread that traitors in Manfred’s kingdom had arranged the hole: “Bones are gather’d yet / At Ceprano,” the Florentine poet Dante wrote later, in the Inferno, “there where treachery / Branded the Apulian name.”17

The two kings met at Benevento, and Charles of Anjou’s battalions easily outmaneuvered the Sicilian soldiers. Three thousand of Manfred’s men fell; more were drowned in the river nearby as they fled. Manfred himself was killed at the center of the fighting. When Charles located his body, three days later, he buried it in unconsecrated ground near the battlefield: Manfred had died in his excommunicated state. (Dante would later meet Manfred in purgatory, working off his sins: “When by two mortal blows / My frame was shatter’d,” the shade laments, “I betook myself / Weeping to Him, who of free will forgives.”)18

The capture of the Sicilian kingdom by Charles of Anjou had a bloody and brutal postscript. When the Italian cities in the north declared independence, young Conradin—now fourteen and backed by the German troops of his uncle, the Duke of Bavaria—made a play for what remained of his inheritance. Impelled by his advisors, he crossed through the Alps and tried to rally the Lombard cities against Charles’s power.

He made it as far as Rome. Clement IV came out to watch him march by, driven by hopes of victory and a teenager’s sense of immortality: “Dragged by wicked men as a lamb to the slaughter,” he is said to have muttered from his balcony.19


52.2 The Kingdom of Sicily

Charles came north against him and repeated his victory, driving back Conradin’s supporters at the Battle of Tagliacozzo on August 23, 1268. “The better part of the enemy was destroyed with the edge of the sword,” he wrote back to Clement IV afterwards, “. . . the slaughter of the enemey there was so great that what happened . . . on the fields of Benevento can hardly be compared to it.” Conradin himself was captured as he fled from the battlefield. Charles imprisoned him for a year and then, in October 1269, had the teenager publicly beheaded for treason.20

The three-way dominion of the Holy Roman Emperors had disappeared, along with the line of Frederick II. Charles reigned in Sicily and southern Italy; the Lombard cities remained in revolt; and, four years after young Conradin’s death, the German electors finally decided on one of their own, Rudolf, Count of Hapsburg, to be the next king of Germany.

Rudolf prudently remained in Germany, content with the title king of Germany and making no efforts to regain the empire. To be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he would have had to go to Rome and appeal to the pope; and he preferred to stay home. “Rome is like the lion’s den in the fable,” he explained. “One may see the footsteps of many who have gone there, but of none who have come back.”21


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