Post-classical history



The Announcement

On December 12 Celestine was resolved in his decision. And then on December 13, the Feast of Saint Lucy, he read a statement out to the cardinals who had assembled to hear news that was, by that time, already well leaked.

First, he ordered them, by holy obedience, not to interrupt him. Then he read:

I, Celestine V, moved by valid reasons, that is, by humility, by desire for a better life, by a troubled conscience, troubles of body, a lack of knowledge, personal shortcomings, and so that I may then proceed to a life of greater humility, voluntarily and without compunction give up the papacy and renounce its position and dignity, burdens and honors, with full freedom. I now instruct the Sacred College of cardinals to elect and provide, according to the canons, a shepherd for the Universal Church.1

He’d declared himself to be essentially inutilis, “useless.”

With this written resignation Celestine gave three reasons for his leaving: his old age, his desire for asceticism, and a spiritual temperament that made him a poor pope. At the conclusion of his statement, Celestine stepped down from the papal throne from which he’d stood countless times. He removed his ring, tiara, and mantle, handing them to the men who had elected him.

Then he sat down on the floor.

Within a few hours, Peter stepped back into the dress of the simplest of friars—the grey habit of a Celestine hermit—and prepared to leave. As he departed, most certainly secreted away from the crowd waiting outside, he probably felt a mix of relief and fear. The sounds of the street probably terrified him: the hum and swarms of people, sailors, servants, soldiers, merchants, horses, the clamor of wagons on rough stone streets, their barreled cargo rattling on its way to early morning destinations. He wanted neither castle nor city.

The Immediate Aftermath

Word of Celestine’s resignation spread immediately. Before he surrendered the papacy, he had told the cardinals that they were to hold a papal election for his replacement. And his replacement would, of course, be the same man who had befriended him and helped him to resign the papacy. In fact, one of our most thorough records of Celestine’s statement on December 13 comes from Cardinal Gaetani. He tells the story thirty-nine months later in one small part of his large collection of canonical rules and papal bulls, Liber Sextus (“Six Books”), using the royal “Us” and “Our” common in papal self-reference:

Some curious people have been arguing about things that are not very appropriate, and seeking rashly, against the teaching of the Apostle, to know more than it is good to know. They have seemed, without much thought, to raise anxious doubts as to whether the Roman Pontiff, even when he recognizes himself incapable of ruling the Universal Church and of bearing the burden of the Supreme Pontificate, can validly renounce his office, its burden, and honor, as in the person of Pope Celestine V, Our predecessor, who while still presiding over the government of this Church, wished to cut off all the matter for hesitation on the subject, deliberated with his brothers, the cardinals of the Roman Church, of whom We were one, and with the concordant counsel and assent of Us and of them all, by apostolic authority established and decreed, that the Roman Pontiff may freely resign.

From those first moments as Peter prepared to walk away, it appeared that Gaetani’s aid had been disingenuous. During the election in Perugia five months earlier, Gaetani was not an obvious candidate, but even before Celestine stepped down Gaetani seemed to be at the center of everything. For his part, Gaetani made known to the other cardinals the close feelings that he shared with Celestine and how he’d been instrumental in helping the saintly man escape the responsibilities that he clearly couldn’t handle. There is even a story, later released by Gaetani himself, that the crownless Celestine came to him and begged him to correct his many mistakes.2

The Flight into Egypt

The hermit left Castle Nuovo on Christmas Eve 1294 as a free man and began his journey home to the Abruzzi. The holy man was looking to the mountains where he, again, might remember who he was and how to live his sanctified life.

By now eighty-five, the former pope had to have been accompanied on his journey by others. Most likely a retinue of the papal curia, the very few who remained faithful to the father of the Celestines, journeyed with him. As he set out in the direction of his home, people began to seek him out along the way. Enthusiasts, clergy, and the curious began to form around him. Peter made his way from the alien places surrounding Naples to the familiar locations closer to his friends and followers and home. He must have felt like a freed animal.

We don’t know exactly how long Peter’s journey north and east lasted. It couldn’t have been more than a month or two. He seems to have traveled as far as his beloved Mount Morrone, to his secluded cell of Onofrio. That’s all that he wanted—to return to his eremitic life. There he knew what he could do. There he was adored and respected. But Peter didn’t feel safe at Onofrio for very long.

The evening before Peter left, the ten-day waiting period was coming to an end and the College of Cardinals got ready to name the next pope. The gathering of twenty-two cardinals knew of Gaetani’s influence, expertise, and fierce intellect. He was outside of most of the intrigue between the competing families and the issues that usually split a conclave; and in this case, the cardinals understood the desperate need that the people were feeling for direction and firm leadership. Gathered at Castle Nuovo under Charles II’s watchful eye, the College spent only one day in conclave, beginning late on December 23. Late that evening on the first ballot they elected Matthew Orsini, who declined the honor. On the second balloting, as Peter was walking through Naples, Benedict Gaetani won the majority.

Charles II watched these proceedings closely. The French king had become so powerful that Cardinal Gaetani saw fit to secure his endorsement before his election by the cardinals was confirmed. Gaetani visited with Charles, telling him that they would jointly fight the interests of the Ghibellines, and that as pope he would do all he could to help Charles retake Sicily. The election result was then announced to the crowd outside.

Cardinal Gaetani took the name Pope Boniface VIII. He left Naples by January 1, 1295, and was crowned at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on January 23. Afterward he immediately went to the Lateran Palace to take it for himself and his office. For the new pontiff from Anagni, born and raised in the Papal States, there would be no more Neapolitan nonsense.

Boniface VIII’s First Days

It was important to Boniface to control the narrative. The story of his friendship with Celestine was repeated in various ways. Boniface portrayed himself as the wise counselor who aided the angelic pope, and would now fix his many mistakes. Scribes and manuscript illuminators, in their own ways, commented on the shift of power. One book, housed in the Vatican Libraries, shows an image of Celestine in miniature leaving his throne in a small procession followed by eight men and a young page holding an umbrella over their heads. In the picture Cardinal Gaetani is being crowned at center left while Celestine is walking off the page in the far center right. Six of the cardinals are either holding their right hands to their hearts, or making a gesture of blessing. A decade later Giotto would paint a fresco depicting Boniface VIII Addressing the People of Rome—his first act after taking the pallium. Nothing but a fragment of this work still exists, but a seventeenth-century watercolor hanging in Milan shows what Giotto’s work depicted: Standing in red cape and tiara, speaking to a large crowd below, is the new Pope Boniface. Most improbably, Celestine stands on the dais, off to the side, witnessing his successor’s first address to the people of Rome. An orderly line of succession, the painting aims to suggest. But that was impossible. Celestine was nowhere near Rome on that day.

With Celestine far away, Boniface sat in his court and quickly began to undo much of what his predecessor had done, and to do what Celestine had left undone. But Boniface was full of uncertainties and concerned for his own authority in the eyes of the people. Would they continue to address Celestine as “holy father”? What would they call him, now that he was no longer Celestine V? Worst of all, what if the previous pope were to come back, having changed his mind?

Boniface didn’t like the idea that another man might compete with him for papal authority. Peter was still alive, even if he was wandering the woods like Nebuchadnezzar, and that meant Peter was a threat. Also stories that didn’t emerge in formal documents until a few years later were already being whispered about in the loggia of the Lateran Palace. Had Cardinal Gaetani been conniving before Celestine V abdicated? Was he the one who actually wrote Celestine’s letter of abdication? How long before Celestine abdicated did the cardinal have himself fitted for his papal robes? Many voices were giving these rumors growing credence.

One legend, begun even during Celestine’s lifetime, has Gaetani devising a scheme to trick Celestine in a way that’s worthy of a medieval thriller. While Celestine was still on the throne, Gaetani created a megaphone device that would connect to Celestine’s Castle Nuovo sleeping quarters from an adjoining room. He employed a suitably angelic voice and sent whispering, reassuring “locutions” to the foolish pope, visiting him with “divine” encouragement to resign.

Boniface, wanting to put his own fears at ease, sent word to Peter asking for a meeting. Peter knew enough about power and how it corrupts to see that such a meeting was something he should avoid. He kept moving.

Although Peter was unable to read most of the language of ecclesiastical business, there were certain Latin sentences that were imbedded in his soul. A monk dreamed and cried in words like, Deus in adjutorium meum intende! “O God, come to my assistance!” He had prayed that psalm in the darkness and early morning light for half a century (Ps. 69:1). At moments of great stress, we reach for what comforts and sustains us. This return to his hermit life was a crucial turning point in Peter’s life, and such words would have come easily. This would be his via crucis, and he knew it.

The Capture

Boniface was afraid that Celestine’s sympathies for the Spiritual Franciscans might gain him more and more followers in the mountains. And, of course, it would make perfect sense for the people to recognize the authority of this man. Being savvy, or astute, or even paranoid, Boniface feared that the people might not accept the former pope’s resignation as easily as the College of Cardinals had done.

He didn’t like the news that Peter was making himself difficult to find. However it was that he was receiving updates on Peter’s situation, Boniface soon employed agents to hunt Peter on foot through the woods of the Abruzzi. An eighty-five-year-old hermit isn’t difficult to track, and an ex-pope doesn’t exactly travel unobtrusively. The new pope’s agents traveled from village to village, mountain to mountain, sniffing out the old hermit. Peter did not suspect the extent to which Boniface would go. He may have been warned along his journey to be swift and careful, to get home to his cave as quickly as possible, and to stay there. Or perhaps he didn’t believe the rumors that he might not be safe even if he made his way toward the sea.

Nevertheless, Peter left Onofrio not long after arriving there, and headed for Apulia, preparing to flee across the Adriatic. He stayed away from the port cities of Bari and Ancona and Brindisi. He wasn’t far from Apulia, on a remote part of the shore where the coast rises and falls, shelving sharply toward the water. But the waters were rough, like the river torrents that flowed into the sea in the early spring.

The sea was known to rage, and the water was always dangerous at that time of year; there were few safe places for ships large or small to put in. Peter had never crossed there before, but like every man in the Abruzzi he had heard stories of dangerous crossings, aborted attempts, sunken vessels just offshore, and sailors who had been lost at sea within sight of their destinations. He also knew the legends of the leviathan that lurked in the deep. The psalmists had spoken of the awesomeness of God’s creation: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! … Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan which you formed to sport in it” (Ps. 104:24–26). On the Adriatic coast Peter waited, making preparations for a difficult crossing.

In the end, Boniface’s men found Peter rather easily on the easternmost coast of Italy. The poor ex-pope was near the village of Vieste, on the tip of the Gargano peninsula, about to begin a sea voyage to Dalmatia (part of today’s Croatia). It was the middle of the night and a violent storm was raging. If they’d successfully made it to sea, Peter and his party could have found sanctuary on any of the islands sitting just off the coast of Dalmatia, which were Venetian towns in the late thirteenth century. But instead, when he was found on May 10, 1295, Peter was, to use the Italian, inzuppato, literally “soaked in the soup.”3

Peter was taken quietly, and certainly against his will, to Anagni, the hometown of the new pope, to Boniface’s own home, where Peter was held for many days while his captors waited to learn what their next steps might be. Anagni is an ancient Roman city where Cicero had once had an estate, as did many medieval popes. It was the birthplace of Boniface VIII, and a statue of him can still be seen high on the south wall of the Cathedral of Santa Maria. Playwright Peter Barnes has the two popes meeting face-to-face in Castle Nuovo after the abdication, and Boniface saying to Celestine, “Your virtue is contagion which will destroy Mother Church.”4 But it seems more likely that such a conversation, if it ever took place, happened at Anagni, a place where Boniface felt completely in control.

But keeping the ex-pope at Anagni couldn’t be a long-term solution. He needed to be moved somewhere else where he would go unnoticed and be soon forgotten. Word came from Boniface that Peter should be taken to nearby Castle Fumone and held captive there. Castle Fumone sat along the ancient Roman road Via Casilina, connecting the Holy City with Naples, in the area now known as the Campagnia. Today Castle Fumone is near the town of Ferentino, situated just off the A1, the primary highway connecting Rome with cities to the south, and forty-six miles southeast of the capital city.

Why a castle? Certainly, Boniface didn’t imagine that Peter would call for knights and mercenaries to come to his aid. By this time Peter was absolutely guileless. Nevertheless, he was to be guarded by a garrison of thirty-six men. Castle Fumone was positioned at a key post along Roman trading routes dating back to the time before Christ. It is set high on a hill, surrounded by forests, along the river that connected Rome to the key center of Capua, and standing on its ramparts soldiers could see danger coming from far away. Fumone is an Italian word that resonates with the French and English fumere and fume. It means literally “big smoke.” Once this hill was a site for smoke warnings, which were used in the event of the threat of invasion.

Many popes have used castles as prisons and places for detaining, torturing, and executing enemies and heretics. Castle Sant’Angelo in Rome, beside St. Peter’s Basilica, is where Pope John XIV (983–84) came to his end. Pope Paul II (1464–71) would give the order for twenty humanist scholars to be tortured on the rack at Castle Sant’Angelo in 1468; and Pope Clement VIII (1592–1605) held the famous Renaissance mathematician Giordano Bruno there for six years before having him executed before a crowd in the nearby market square, Campo de Fiori. The popes of Avignon in the fourteenth century also used their papal castle prison often. For a century before Peter’s imprisonment, and for a few centuries afterward, Castle Fumone was a place for imprisoning enemies. It was there, for instance, that the antipope Gregory VIII (d. 1137) was once held captive by Pope Calixtus II. The site is a tourist attraction today, rented out for gala dinners, weddings, and corporate lunches. But it was an inauspicious place to be brought to during the thirteenth century.

Knowing his predecessor well and his weaknesses well, Boniface knew that Peter was no threat, yet the new pope decided that Peter must be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Boniface wasn’t about to risk his enemies deciding to liberate and reinstall his spiritual foil.

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