Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Nine


The End of the Papal Monarchy

Between 1301 and 1317, Boniface VIII destroys the Templars, infuriates the king of France, and takes the papacy into exile

AS THE CENTURY TURNED, Pope Boniface VIII made a massive effort to restore the old power of the papacy; the power it had held back in the days of Innocent IV, more than half a century before.

But fifty years down the road, it was now apparent that Innocent had unintentionally put an expiration date on the power of Saint Peter’s heir. He had excommunicated Frederick II, authorized civil war in the Holy Roman Empire, and helped to split Germany, Sicily, and Italy apart; and in doing so, he had deprived the papacy of its strongest potential ally, a Holy Roman Emperor with the power to protect the Church’s interest across all three lands.

Now there was no Holy Roman Emperor at all. Sicily was controlled by James of Aragon; southern Italy, the “Kingdom of Naples,” by Charles the Lame, son of Charles of Anjou; Germany, by Rudolf of Hapsburg’s son Albert. Louis IX’s throne was occupied by Philip IV, nicknamed “Philip the Fair” for his good looks; he was much less well-disposed towards the privileges of the Church than his pious grandfather.

And the northern Italian cities were caught in a massive and complicated power struggle between two rival political parties.

These factions, known as Guelph and Ghibelline, had started out in the twelfth century, as supporters to two rival candidates for the Holy Roman Emperorship: Conrad of Hohenstaufen (the Ghibellines) and Henry the Lion (the Guelphs). The Hohenstaufens had successfully snagged the title, meaning that the family’s Ghibelline loyalists in Italy were now ardent supporters of the empire’s power over those perpetually rebellious Lombard lands.

A hundred years later, the Ghibelline and Guelph parties had lost most of their pro- and anti-empire leanings. But they still existed as hostile factions, with members of each struggling for control of Italian cities north of the Papal States. By this point, those struggles had lost any identification with the fate of the empire: they were struggles for control over ports, trading privileges, tax breaks. Like any political party that survives for more than a century and a half, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines had taken on a culture and life of their own, divorced from their original purpose.1

Boniface VIII now had to negotiate with all of the complicated and opposing powers that surrounded him: a much more difficult and precarious task than his predecessors had faced in dealing with their Holy Roman Emperors.

In northern Italy, he decided to ally himself with the Guelphs. A vicious and ongoing fight between Guelph and Ghibelline families (the Cancellieri and the Panciatichi) had devolved into an even bloodier fight within the Guelphs themselves. Two branches of the Cancellieri, the Bianchi and the Neri (the “White Guelphs” and the “Black Guelphs”) were carrying on a vigorous private warfare. Unable to persuade the two clans to make peace, Boniface VIII invited Philip IV’s younger brother, Charles of Valois, to come into Italy and settle the fight.

Charles had crossed into northern Italy just before the turn of the century; motivated, says Giovanni Villani, “in the hope of being Emperor, because of the promises of the Pope.” His army was now headquartered at Florence, which was suffering greatly from the White and Black rivalry. He negotiated an alliance with the Neri, the Black Guelphs; and in November of 1301, with papal approval, Charles of Valois and his soldiers helped the Neri launch a feud-ending attack on their enemies in Florence, both White Guelph and Ghibelline. Six days of sacking and burning, looting of shops, and the murder of White partisans followed. The great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, himself a White loyalist, lost his house and his possessions and was forced to flee from the city; the rest of his life was spent in exile, which accounts for his sour assessment of Charles in the Divine Comedy (“Not land, but sin and infamy, / Shall [he] gain”).2

Charles mismanaged the Florentine purge, which rapidly became much bloodier than Boniface had intended. In disgrace with his brother Philip, and running short on money, he was forced to return to France shortly after. But he had done Boniface’s bidding, and for a time the warfare in northern Italy lessened.

Meanwhile, Boniface dealt with Philip IV on a different front. Philip the Fair had already imposed taxes on the French church in order to help pay for his ongoing wars; he had made an uneasy peace with Edward of England, but he had continued to fight against the Count of Flanders. This was expensive, so Philip refused to hear Boniface’s complaints about the ecclesiastical taxes. He also insisted on his right to try clergymen in royal courts and to control the appointments of French priests to empty cathedral posts: all of the old issues between kings and pope, still alive and present.

In December of 1301, Boniface sent the king a papal letter reasserting the arguments of his powerful forerunners, all the way back to Gregory the Great. Ausculta fili, it began: “Listen, son . . .”

God has set us over kings and kingdoms. . . . [L]et no one persuade you that you have no superior or that you are not subject to the head of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. . . . Our predecessors deposed three kings of France . . . and although we are not worthy to tread in the footsteps of our predecessors, if the king committed the same crimes as they committed or greater ones, we would depose him like a servant with grief and great sorrow.

Philip IV read the letter, and then set it on fire.3

This set him on the high road to excommunication; to guard himself against the inevitable public backlash that would follow, Philip did his best to rally his people behind him. In April of 1302, he summoned to Paris the two most powerful bodies of men in the country: the dukes who ruled the great counties of France, and the leading French churchmen. To these he added, for the first time, a third group: the “deputies of the good towns,” the mayors, prominent citizens, and wealthy merchants of the largest cities. All three assemblies agreed with him; Boniface was in the wrong, and Philip’s defiance was entirely justified.4

At the same time, he was struggling in Flanders. On July 11, 1302, a large French army commanded by the distinguished Robert of Artois faced down a force of Flemish foot soldiers, and was horribly defeated near Courtrai. The battlefield, crisscrossed with ditches dug by the Flemish, tripped up the French cavalry; the horses became entangled, falling into the water-filled trenches and throwing their riders, and the Flemish infantry systematically advanced through them, finishing off both men and horses. “Kill all that has spurs on!” their commander, Guy de Namur, called out; and within three hours, the “flower of French chivalry,” an entire army of elite French knights, had been slaughtered. Robert of Artois died among them. Afterwards, the peasants of Flanders scoured the battlefield, taking the golden spurs from the bodies of all of the aristocrats. More than five hundred pairs were hung as trophies in the nearby Church of Our Lady, at Courtrai.5

In the fall of that same year, another letter arrived from Boniface, even more threatening than the previous one. “If therefore the temporal power errs, it must be judged by the spiritual,” Boniface wrote, “. . . but if the supreme spiritual power commit faults, it can be judged by God alone, and not by any man.” He could condemn Philip, but Philip was powerless to retaliate.6

Philip was in no mood to hear it. When Boniface finally excommunicated him, in the fall of 1303, he sent Guillaume de Nogaret, his own Keeper of the Seal, to head up a sneak attack on the pope at Anagni. They broke into the pontiff’s residence at night on September 7, twelve hours before Boniface was due to issue a bull of deposition that would remove Philip from the French throne, and took the pope away to a nearby castle.7

They probably intended to force him into lifting the deposition, but three days later Boniface VIII was rescued by a small band of friends from Rome and taken to the Vatican. He died there a month later at sixty-eight years old, worn out by stress and fury.8

With him the old ideal of the papal monarchy—of the pope as spiritual king, over and above Church law—died too. Boniface had tried to corral the power that had once belonged to the empire, and had failed. His successor, Benedict XI, ruled for a matter of months; a yearlong argument between the French and the Italian cardinals followed, while the papal seat sat empty.

Things were looking up for Philip, who now won several victories in a row in Flanders. In the spring of 1305 he was able to force the Flemish to submit, on punitive terms. Victorious over Flanders, victorious over the pope, he now explained to the cardinals that his first choice for Benedict’s successor was the French archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand.

Bertrand was duly elected on June 5, 1305. Crowned at Lyons as Pope Clement V, he took up residence not in Rome but at Avignon: technically under the control of Charles the Lame, but essentially under French control. For the next seventy years, the papacy would remain out of Rome, in French hands: the “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy. In thanks for Philip’s support, the new pope revoked his excommunication and promised the French king a tithe of all the Church’s income.9

Philip the Fair collected his tithe and continued to raise money to pay off his war debts, with no further objections from the papacy. In 1306, he exiled all of the Jews from France so that he could confiscate their property. The following year, he made a move against the Knights Templar, the richest military order in Europe.

Until now, the Templars had been answerable only to the pope. But Clement V, Philip’s lapdog, quickly agreed to remove his protection. As soon as he did so, Philip issued a letter ordering the arrest of the Templars throughout France, on charges that the Templars indulged in all sorts of secret and occultish acts of demon worship. They were to be treated as heretics: “You will hold them captive to appear before an ecclesiastical court,” he wrote, to the chief inquisitor of Paris; “you will seize their movable and immovable goods and hold the seizures under strict supervision in our name.”10

This included a vast amount of treasure, held in the Templar fortress right outside the walls of Paris. The inquisitor duly sent out his agents, and all through France the Templars were suddenly arrested and imprisoned. Among them was Jacques de Molay, the sixty-year-old Grand Master of the order. Imprisoned, starved, and threatened with torture, de Molay confessed that, yes, when he had joined the Templars forty-two years earlier, he had been required to spit on a cross and deny the divinity of Christ; which he had done, but “not with his heart.”11


59.1 The Papal Palace at Avignon.
Credit: Photo by author

He then recanted this, but the damage was done. Wielding the Grand Master’s confession, interrogators convinced other Templars to confess to a whole range of blasphemous and idol-worshipping rituals, including black magic and ritual acts of sodomy. In 1310, Philip IV ordered fifty-four Templars burned at the stake outside the walls of Paris; on March 24, 1312, Clement V officially abolished the Templars, with “bitterness and sadness of heart . . . by an irrevocable and perpetually valid decree.” In 1314, the elderly Grand Master was removed from his prison cell and burned to death on a tiny island in the middle of the Seine.12

Meanwhile, Clement V continued his policy of royal appeasement.

In 1308, Albert of Germany had been assassinated; in his place, the German electors chose Henry of Luxembourg as King Henry VII of Germany. Henry wanted to become the next Holy Roman Emperor; Clement V did not dare enter Rome, but he agreed to send cardinals who would crown Henry there.

Henry made a long journey south, crossing into Italy in the fall of 1310. There he was welcomed by the Ghibellines. The Guelphs, who had the upper hand in Florence thanks to Charles of Valois’s support of the Neri, encouraged other Guelphs throughout northern Italy to hinder Henry’s approach. “The Florentines, the Bolognese, the Lucchese, the Sienese, the Pistoians, and they of Volterra, and all the other Guelf cities . . . held a parliament,” Villani writes, “and concluded a league together, and a union of knights, and swore together to defend one another and oppose the Emperor.”13


59.1 The Empire, Divided

Henry, hoping to get the entire territory of the old empire back under his thumb, spent most of the summer of 1311 laying siege to the rebellious city of Brescia. In September, the city finally surrendered. Genoa, ambivalent about emperors, agreed without much conviction to give Henry a twenty-year oath of loyalty; Pisa, historically pro-emperor, declared itself on his side, offered him six hundred bowmen, and provided him with transport down the coast to Rome on thirty Pisan ships.

Henry decided that this was victory enough for the moment, and headed for his coronation. But the Romans, not happy to see him, shut the gates against him. Stalled on the outside, Henry was finally forced to go to the church of St. John Lateran, beyond the city’s limits, for his coronation. As soon as the ceremony was finished—June 29, 1312—he started back up north. He intended to bring Florence, the center of the resistance, to its knees.14

He laid siege to Florence in September. But the city held out with ease, and by January Henry had decided to take a temporary break from the attack. He went instead to Pisa, where he allowed his army to rest, and sent to Germany for reinforcements.

The new regiments did not arrive until July, by which point Henry had grown more and more severely ill with a malarial fever that had tormented him since the previous fall. He died on August 24, 1313, having spent all but a few months of his reign outside of Germany.15

The German electors gathered, to the north, and immediately split into two camps. They named two kings simultaneously, Louis of Bavaria and Frederick of Austria. Immediately, civil war began; the two men were equal in supporters, in land, and in armies, and the civil war went on for a full decade.

Wary of Philip IV, deprived of German support, Clement now made overtures to the sole remaining strong power in Italy: the King of Naples. Charles the Lame had died in 1309, four years before, and his son Robert had succeeded him as king of southern Italy. Clement offered Robert the position Vicar of Italy, which meant vice-regent of the north, theoretically under papal authority. This was good for Robert, since it doubled the size of his kingdom; it was also good for Clement, since Robert directly owed him loyalty for the land.16

It was the last decision Clement made. He died on April 20, 1314, fifty years old, suffering from an illness that left ulcers all over his legs. His body was taken to Uzeste, where he had asked to be buried. While it was lying in state, says the Italian chronicler Agnolo di Tura, a fire burst out and burned the bottom half of the corpse, either a very bad stroke of luck or a folktale ending to the pope whose catastrophic rule had destroyed the Templars and taken the papacy into exile.17

Seven months later, the forty-six-year-old king of France was boar hunting on horseback in Fontainebleau forest when his horse fell, injuring him so badly that he died a few days later. His son Louis, who had already inherited the crown of Navarre from his mother Queen Joan at her death in 1305, now became king of France as well.

He ruled as king of France and Navarre for only eighteen months before dying unexpectedly at the age of twenty-seven. His second wife was about to give birth, and the nobles of France agreed to appoint Louis’s younger brother Philip as regent, pending the baby’s birth. On November 15, she gave birth to a son; but he lived for only six days.

Louis X already had a daughter, Princess Joan, from his first marriage. Her relatives attempted to argue that she, as the direct descendant of the oldest son, should become queen of France. Philip immediately had his lawyers dig out an ancient bit of law used by the barbarian Salian Franks, centuries before. The lawyers argued convincingly that this code, the Salic Law, had always been an acknowledged part of French law; and since it barred women from inheriting the rule, Princess Joan could inherit only the crown of Navarre from her dead father. The French throne had to go to the nearest male relative: Louis’s brother.

The French nobles, on the whole, preferred to be ruled by a grown man rather than by an infant girl. Philip V was crowned the new king of France on January 9, 1317. It was a personal victory; but the aftershocks of the decision would trouble France for the next century.18


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