Post-classical history



Spiritual movements were not all that was convulsing Western Europe at the time of Peter’s coronation. The lives of two kings of Sicily, a father and a son, neither of them Italian, were entangled with Peter Morrone before and after his election as holy father.

In 1294 the struggles of popes to assert both spiritual and temporal power over other rulers were intensely felt. A pope was also a king; his sacred calling was to hold regnum (royal) as well as sacerdotium (priestly) power. Yet the divine right of kings was a more ancient idea than the divine right of popes. Kings have been ordained for as long as clergy have been, and long before Christ ever walked the earth. The king of France, for instance, argued that his predecessors had been recognized as “protectors” of Christendom before there had ever been popes. Similarly, King Edward I of England, who ruled simultaneously with Celestine V, argued that England and Scotland were founded by Brutus of Troy (a legendary figure) more than a millennium before Christ. The ancient psalmist sings of a God “who is to be feared, who cuts off the spirit of princes, who is awesome to the kings of the earth”—but it is God who does these things, not man (Ps. 76:11–12). As pope, Peter would have no choice but to work closely with kings both good and bad.

The struggle between kings and religious leaders is as old as the stories of the prophet Samuel arguing with Saul, the first king of Israel, 3,000 years ago as told in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet was the one to anoint the king, signaling that the king’s leadership was according to the desire of God. But soon after Saul came to power the regal and the priestly clashed. God refused to answer the inquiries of Saul in 1 Samuel 28 and then responded immediately and even audibly to the next-appointed ruler, David (in 1 Samuel 30:8 and elsewhere). And the prophet knew what would happen all along.

Kings had a sacred duty to provide order and security so that their people could pursue lives without undue fear or want. In their work, the royal and religious were also commingled. The first Roman emperors—Julius Caesar and Augustus (100 B.C.E.–14 C.E.)—were widely deified by their people, sometimes even before they were dead; they were regarded as divus (deified ones), gods who had started out as men. By the Middle Ages, worship of a divus sovereign was less common, but many an ancient and medieval king was believed to carry powers of healing through his touch or by a glance—like a pope, like a saint. It was believed that there was a divine authority for kings that, many believed, came from God alone. There could be no legitimate earthly challengers to such a sovereign’s rule—even popes.

When the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of state in 313 C.E., he didn’t need a pope to crown him. In those days, the role of the emperor was far stronger than the papacy. Once the empire began to disintegrate in confusion in the early fifth century, the papacy took on a greater and greater role in world affairs. Historian Eamon Duffy explains it this way: “As the Roman Empire collapsed, and the barbarian nations arose to fill the vacuum, the popes, in default of any other agency, set themselves to shape the destiny of the West, acting as midwives to the emergence of Europe, creating emperors, deposing monarchs for rebellion against the Church.”1 The first prominent pope to create an emperor would be Leo III. He crowned the German-born Charlemagne the first Holy Roman Emperor on December 25, 800. From Charlemagne on, the model of Samuel’s relationship to Saul and David became the papal model and ideal for authority. It was a tradition that the Holy See attempted to continue. All leadership—secular and religious—would flow from Christ’s vicar.

But every pope was different, and Celestine V showed less appetite for ruling than had his predecessors. Meanwhile, Charles II was keen for power. So as Peter was overwhelmed by the decision of the cardinals, trying to understand what his new role would be, Charles was behind the scenes maneuvering.

Charles I and the Italian Peninsula

Charles II was the child of Charles I of Anjou, who was in turn the son of King Louis VIII of France, member of the House of Capet, hereditary rulers of France since 987 C.E. Born in 1226, Charles I had several older brothers and thus stood to inherit nothing from his illustrious father. His eldest brother, also named Louis, was twelve years his senior and became King Louis IX when their father died within a year of Charles’s birth. Louis would become the first and only French king to be canonized by the Catholic Church. The piety of Saint Louis IX was legendary; many of his subjects believed him to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Louis washed the feet of the poor, fed the hungry at his royal table, acquired a highly prized relic—the crown of thorns that supposedly adorned the head of Christ—and placed it in the glorious Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. He died in 1270 while lying on a bed of ashes in order to demonstrate the frailty of man. It would be difficult to follow such a brother.

Charles I wasn’t so pious. And he wasn’t as lucky. In those days, the practice of apanage meant that vast swathes of territory were granted to younger male children so that they would have something to rule and rely upon in lieu of an inheritance, since everything was entailed to the eldest son. Charles didn’t receive his apanage, nor was his brother Philippe’s transferred to Charles after Philippe died at the age of ten. It seems that Charles was the least favored of all of his siblings. But by 1247 he was made Count of Anjou by his saintly brother, King Louis, and with determination he eventually became both the model crusader and the perfect knight, according to contemporary accounts.2 He was anxious to prove himself.

Frederick Rolfe once called the Italy of the late Middle Ages “not a nation, but a geographical expression.” Its land ranged from the Alps to the tip of the peninsula, “the boot,” that nearly touches Africa, and also included the two largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea. There was a multitude of competing powers battling for control of these lands, from smallish bands of mercenaries to large kingdoms led by lords and princes. For more than seven hundred years, beginning in about 1130, all of southern Italy passed from ruler to ruler under the governance of a king in an area that was then called the Kingdom of Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples, and sometimes the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples. Spanish, Norman, German, and French royals ruled. Princes and kings from the north and west had been visiting, conquering, and occupying the lands of the Italian peninsula since at least the tenth century.

Meanwhile, successive popes had been anxious to free southern Italy from the clutches of the Germanic peoples who had increasingly come to control everything south of Rome. By 1260 Pope Urban IV had offered the territory of Sicily to nearly every prince or would-be king who promised to expel the Hohenstaufen emperors from the peninsula. As one historian has explained, “The popes were generally in alliance with the kings of France, on the basis of mutual hostility to the emperor in Germany and northern Italy, though that did not always prevent conflict between them.”3

Finally, in 1266, with the help of Urban IV’s successor, Pope Clement IV, Charles I took control of the Italian peninsula and the last of the Hohenstaufens—Manfred, son of Frederick II—was ousted. Both pope and king spoke of their victory over the Germans as a true liberation of the Italian people. Charles would also go on to conquer land along the Adriatic seaboard, and in 1272 he named himself king of Albania, as well.

Once he began to rule these lands, Charles I visited and sometimes contributed to the monastic orders and abbeys throughout Molise and the Abruzzi. Sometime in the 1270s both father and son probably first met Peter Morrone. In 1277, for example, Charles I sponsored a French Cistercian monastery near Mount Morrone, on lands owned by Charles not far from Peter’s mountain retreat; he named it Santa Maria della Vittoria (Blessed Virgin Mary of the Victory). The harvests of the surrounding fields would go to support the monks’ needs. In turn, the French monks would pray for Charles’s soul and the souls of all who had died in the holy cause of his victories. The new ruler’s ambitions seemed to know few bounds. Charles even had designs on Constantinople and took part in Crusades with that object in mind, but never with any success.

Enter the Son, Charles II

A few years later, the Kingdom of Sicily—which extended from the southern suburbs of Rome to the bottom of Italy, including the island—became embroiled in a war known as the Sicilian Vespers. The conflict began the day after Easter, March 30, 1282. The Sicilian people rebelled against the rule of that same king, Charles I, who had liberated them from the Germans. Unlike the Hohenstaufens, Charles I ruled with the support of the papacy, but just like the Germans he employed soldiers and mercenaries who often pillaged and stole, even raped and tortured, in order to bring the people into submission. And he taxed the people just as the Hohenstaufens had done: excessively. Things were no better for the average Sicilian under Charles’s rule than they had been under the Germans’.

It began at vespers (evening prayer) on Easter Monday at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo. A scuffle broke out between a French officer and an Italian woman who was ignoring his advances, and soon Sicilian men began to cry out, “Death to the French!” A riot ensued. As historian Steven Runciman has described the scene,

At once the streets were filled with angry armed men.… Every Frenchman they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word ciciri, whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed the test was slain.

What began as a localized insurrection at sunset blossomed into an all-out rebellion on the island, and at least 2,000 Frenchmen in Sicily died within the first twenty-four hours.4

Within days rebels were either inspired or recruited throughout the island and any signs of empire were attacked. Some of the rebels set fire to Charles’s fleet sitting in the harbor. The Sicilians sent emissaries to the pope asking that they answer only to him, and not to another king.

This was a time for Charles II to try to be like his father. Born in 1254, Charles “was a strange contrast to his father: a frail man, slightly lame, no warrior,” not a fighter or particularly good military strategist.5 The most decisive battle of the Sicilian conflict would take place on the high seas where, at the age of thirty, Charles II led a naval party that his father intended to protect the city of Naples—their center of power in the kingdom—from the rebels and their allies. In what is known as the battle of the Gulf of Naples, the younger Charles was tricked into easy defeat by a more experienced adversary, Roger of Lauria, who commanded a fleet of Aragonese-Sicilian ships. A tall, fearsome man, Lauria had an unparalleled influence over his men. From oarsmen to archers, he trained his men to be swift and strong, relying less on armor and more on cunning and ability. Charles II’s orders were to stay in port and wait for help to arrive. Instead, he led the Neopolitan ships out in pursuit of the Sicilian ships—which is what Lauria and his men were hoping he would do. The impetuous and inexperienced Charles chased Lauria southward. Lauria pretended to retreat, only to turn and face Charles’s forces upon reaching Castlelammare, where a dozen other Sicilian vessels lay in wait. It was a trap. Before the father could arrive to help from Genoa, Charles II was captured.

Failure at battle was interpreted as failure before God and the divine will. Charles II didn’t possess the Spirit as his father more clearly did. Nor did he have his father’s fortitude or muscle. Charles I died in 1285 “knowing that all of his careful plans and machinations were unraveling,” while young Charles was still a prisoner of war.6 Four years went by before Charles II was released, and then only by the mediation of King Edward I of England, an old friend of Charles I’s from the Crusades. Charles II had lost the island of Sicily (specified in the treaty as all land “beyond the lighthouse”) and retained the mainland areas, including Naples.7

But despite being weak in the ways that his father had been strong, Charles II more than made up for his lack of military acumen with an ability to politick. He had a way with men in power. Despite his physical ailments, he was agile of mind, patient, and skilled in the tactics of conversation and negotiation. He grew to understand the intellectual strengths and weaknesses of others. Upon being released by Peter III of Aragon, Charles II traveled to Rieti, where he met with Pope Nicholas IV. There he entered into a negotiation with Nicholas whereby Charles would be declared king of Sicily—taking back the full territory in name if not in reality. In 1289 he also convinced the pope to excommunicate the Aragonese leader whom Charles then “deposed.” (That Aragonese king, Alfonso III, would later pay tribute of his own to the Holy See and be welcomed back into the fold.)

Five years went by and in 1294 we see Charles II negotiating with Peter Morrone in Sulmona, discussing with the new pope matters that were usually outside a king’s purview.

Every man in history has a variety of motivations that lie hidden from easy view. Charles II was political and selfish, but he also seems to have been religiously motivated in deeper ways than his father ever was. As often happens from one generation to the next, the son does not imitate the strengths of the father but develops his own. For example, “A review of the Angevin Registers reveals numerous episodes in which Charles I was attempting to eradicate the radical Franciscans from the kingdom,” yet in the next generation we know that Charles II appointed Franciscan Spirituals to tutor his three sons.8 The eldest of his sons was the aforementioned Charles Martel, who walked Peter down the mountain. Charles Martel may have possessed even more sincere interest than his father in Peter’s work. But he had little time to demonstrate it. He died tragically in Naples in 1295.

Charles’s second eldest, Louis, then renounced his right to succeed his father as king of Naples, choosing instead to become a Franciscan friar. And finally, Robert of Anjou, the third son of Charles II, became king, reigning long (1309–43) and championing the cause of the Franciscan Spirituals during his rule. All three of these sons may have been motivated toward sanctity by the example of Peter Morrone.9

Yet despite whatever redemption future generations can provide for their fathers and grandfathers, Dante still places both Charles I and Charles II halfway between Paradiso and Inferno in his Divine Comedy.10 Eternal uncertainty is their sentence for the havoc they stirred up in thirteenth-century religion and politics. The poet even names the seventh canto of his Purgatorio “The Valley of the Negligent Rulers” for the negative effect that such rulers had on the Church.

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