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8. Sicilian Vespers |
The Sicilian Vespers: an event that doomed the medieval papacy

Sicilian Vespers is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 208, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The popes, fearing encirclement by the Germans, call in Charles of Anjou, who proves even worse; then a duel between king and pope changes history

The Sicilian Vespers: an event that doomed the medieval papacy

The Sicilian Vespers: an event that doomed the medieval papacy
Charles of Anjou glares coldly out across the Palazzo Reale in Naples, Italy. This man, whom the papacy originally viewed as the savior of the church, was discovered by later popes to be a relentless foe. Under his watch the papacy began its switch from the Germans to the French, a transition that would spell catastrophe.

When news of the death of Emperor Frederick II reached the Roman curia, it occasioned not mourning but unrestrained jubilation. “Wonder of the World,” some called him, but to most in the papal circle Frederick was the “Horror of the World.” He was evil incarnate, the supposed champion of Christianity who routinely sneered at its gospel, sacraments, and priests; who traveled Christendom with his oriental court, his troops of hired Muslim killers, and his harem of concubines; and who used living human beings in his sordid “scientific experiments.”

So, at any rate, his enemies accused him, and with good evidence, though they generally ignored the fact that this man also had succeeded in regaining Jerusalem from Islam without losing a single life. Whatever Frederick “Stupor Mundi” might have been, however, now he was no more. “The tyrant’s fall,” cried Pope Innocent IV to the church, “has changed the thunderbolts and tempests that God held over your heads into gentle breezes and fertile dews.”

But Frederick’s many kinsmen were not gone–that virulent Hohenstaufen brood (as Innocent saw them) with all their unholy horde of relatives, retainers, and sycophants. Known in Italy as the Ghibellines (after one of their castles), they had dominated the imperial government for more than a century, and there were powerful nests of them everywhere. True, they were generally opposed by the Guelph clan (or Guelf, from their German name, Welf) who customarily backed the pope, but the Guelphs were seldom successful. In any case, this bloody factional conflict was tearing Italy apart. “How can Christendom defeat Islam if it is chronically beset by internecine warfare?” was the anguished demand of pope after pope. And therefore how long could it be until Islam again invaded Christendom?

But who in Christendom was powerful enough to supplant the Hohenstaufen and their cabal of German aristocrats? Eleven years after Frederick’s death, the frantic curia, swayed by the French cardinal Simon of Brie, would come up with one possible answer by allying itself with France in 1261. This calamitous leap from frying pan to fire would eventually see the pope a hostage in France, indentured for seventy years to the French king. It would also spell the end of the medieval papacy, the birth of European nationalism, and the beginning of the end of Christian unity in the West. During these eleven years, moreover, the Hohenstaufen era, seemingly imperishable when Frederick died, would fade into near extinction.

The emperor Frederick’s three wives had borne him three sons. Henry, the eldest, had rebelled against his father, had been deposed, and had died, probably by suicide. Conrad, the second, was already “king of the Romans,” meaning king of Germany; his father had also named him king of Sicily, a domain that included both the island and the southern half of the Italian peninsula. To his third son, another Henry, Frederick had bequeathed two effectually empty titles. But Pope Innocent was now inspired to nominate this Henry king of Sicily, thereby putting himself on a collision course with Conrad.

The collision was not long delayed. Naming his own infant son, Conradin, titular king of Germany, Conrad headed south to claim the title bequeathed him by his father. Once again, the curia realized, the Hohenstaufen would bracket the papacy, north and south. At this point the politics turned outright criminal when young Henry was fatally poisoned. Innocent accused Conrad of the murder. Conrad publicly condemned Innocent as a usurper and heretic. Innocent responded by excommunicating Conrad. War was inevitable.

Then came another shock. Conrad himself suddenly died of malaria at age twenty-six. Only one possible Hohenstaufen claimant seemed to remain: Frederick’s illegitimate son Manfred, whom he had designated prince of Taranto, the port city in the “sole” of the Italian “boot,” with responsibility to act as Conrad’s representative in the south. Taking this assignment seriously, Manfred had been putting down rebellions there, which he claimed were fomented by Innocent. Twice defeating papal armies sent to suppress him, he was reasserting Hohenstaufen control across Italy. Innocent excommunicated him, just as he had excommunicated Conrad, but that was one of his final acts. Pope Innocent IV died in 1254, four years after his bitter enemy Frederick.

By then Manfred had declared himself representative in Italy of the child Conradin. Hearing a report in 1258 that six-year-old Conradin was dead, however, he crowned himself king of Sicily and, upon discovering the report false, refused to abdicate. The new pope, Alexander IV, declared this coronation void. More distressing to Alexander’s successors was Manfred’s feeble attempt to save the Latin empire in the East. Having contracted a marriage with a Greek princess, he sent some troops to defend the impoverished Latin emperor at Constantinople, but they were far from adequate. The Greeks swiftly regained control of their empire, and the eastern patriarchate regained its capital city–a humiliating reversal for the Western Church and the West generally.1

But the last straw came when Manfred was proclaimed “senator of the Romans” by that city’s antipapal faction, which looked like a certain preliminary to a takeover of Rome (as had twice been threatened by Manfred’s father). Pope Alexander’s successor, Urban IV, grew desperate enough to listen to Cardinal Simon of Brie. Perhaps, Urban reasoned, the French were indeed the only answer.

Certainly nothing else had worked. Successive popes had tried and failed to find a king for Sicily who would dependably rule it as a papal fief. But this proposition, in the words of one unenthused candidate, was also like being offered the moon provided you could hook it. Nevertheless, when Charles of Anjou was asked to come to Italy as the church’s champion against Manfred, he accepted. Oust Manfred, he was told, and he would be free to inaugurate a French regime in southern Italy.

Twelfth and last child of the devout and iron-willed Blanche of Castile, Charles was the youngest brother of the remarkable King Louis IX of France (see subchapter, pages 140—145), who now encouraged him to accept. The olive-skinned and muscular Charles was a cultured, competent, and energetic prince. Like King Louis, he was always ready to sacrifice his amusements for higher purposes. Unlike Louis, however, he seemed to see himself as God’s sole instrument to fulfill those purposes. He also tended to be cold and self-contained, and often harsh in his dealings for fear of looking weak.

Urban died before Charles could get started, and Manfred, utterly confident, neglected (or perhaps failed) to block the election of Clement IV, who, like his predecessor, was French. Fearing assassination by Manfred’s agents, Pope Clement pleaded with Charles to hasten to Rome to protect him, so early in 1265 Charles sailed from France with an advance party of one hundred knights. He slipped past Manfred’s naval blockade and paraded triumphantly as the pope’s rescuer into the papal city, where Clement crowned him king of Sicily. That was the easy part.

“Aha,” trumpeted Manfred, “the bird is in the cage.” But the bird was more powerful than he knew. By July much of central Italy was backing Charles, and Manfred’s own lieutenants began deserting him. Still unheeding, however, Manfred relaxed and went hunting while Charles and Clement, both cash strapped, pawned church plate to augment and pay Charles’s twenty-five-thousand-man force. By October this army was moving relentlessly out of France and into Lombardy, where city after city either greeted it joyously or fell before it. By May of 1265 his army was in Rome.

Still underfunded, he could not delay until spring and so immediately started south. Manfred, awaiting reinforcements near Naples, expected his fortresses to slow the French advance, but Charles rolled relentlessly over these dispirited garrisons. Then he abruptly swerved east into the Apennines, forcing Manfred to move inland as well. When Charles came down from the mountains, Manfred was waiting for him at Benevento, forty miles northeast of Naples, his men posted strongly behind a swollen Calore River.

Given enough time, hunger might have destroyed the French army, but Manfred’s own allies were wavering, and he dared not wait. To Charles’s delight, he began threading his army across a narrow bridge over the Calore. Next morning, February 26, 1266, Manfred launched first his Muslim troops (inherited from his father) at the well-entrenched enemy, then his Germans, and finally his Italians. But adequate reinforcements, slowed by that bridge, could not reach them in time. Charles’s troops soon cut them down so badly that when Manfred ordered a charge, even his Italian cousins gave up and simply rode away. Manfred himself, refusing to flee, plunged with his bodyguard into the melee. Fewer than six hundred of his thirty-six hundred Germans survived this battle, and days later a military straggler led a sack-laden donkey into Charles’s camp. “Who wants to buy Manfred?” he shouted.

Excommunicated by two popes (Alexander IV and Urban IV), Manfred of Sicily could not be buried in consecrated ground. Charles had him buried at the foot of the bridge at Benevento, and each soldier who crossed over threw a stone on his grave. Out of these stones a cairn was erected. Thus Sicily acquired a new king. “Holding the putrid corpse of that pestilent man, our dear son Charles holds peacefully his kingdom,” the pope exulted. With positively indecent haste, city after city and family after family sent their submission to the new monarch, a process eased by his remarkable clemency. Few estates were confiscated, no cities sacked, and Charles’s French administrators quickly spread over the realm to implement an honest tax system.2

Yet within a year Italy began to sour on “our dear son.” The somber Charles was personally less attractive than the affable Hohenstaufens, his taxes grew more onerous, and his French officials soon turned hard and arrogant. Although the Guelphs were ascendant in Tuscany and Lombardy, he would not let these northerners settle their own affairs. Instead, he campaigned ceaselessly there, seizing stubborn towns, provoking a Ghibelline coup in Rome, and alarming even his Guelph allies.

Perhaps, many people began saying, the Hohenstaufens were not so “putrid” after all–and one of them still lived. Conrad’s son, Conradin, now fifteen, was handsome, bright, and proud of his illustrious blood. By July of 1266, fed up with Charles’s supposed clemency, Manfred supporters were slipping over the Alps to Bavaria and fanning Hohenstaufen ambition. At the year’s end, the citizenry of Rome was ready to declare for Conradin, and much of Sicily was in spontaneous revolt against what was now seen as French intrusion. In September 1267 a melodramatic manifesto was published over Conradin’s name, condemning papal tyranny and demanding his rightful inheritance.

The boy king, ignoring his mother’s fearful pleas, led four thousand knights over the Alps and proceeded across Lombardy, gathering gold and supporters. The following summer he marched on Rome, past the papal castle at Viterbo, where mutterings of “lamb to the slaughter” were heard from Clement’s balcony. Rome welcomed Charles’s youthful challenger with hymns, bouquets, and torchlight processions, and then the lamb marched out to conquer Italy.

Conradin’s army collided with that of Charles at Tagliacozzo, fifty miles east of Rome, on August 23, 1268. Though they were separated by a river, Conradin’s Italians found a hidden ford and outflanked Charles’s main body, shattering it at first shock. But Charles had hidden a reserve of some thousand knights in a distant hollow. When Conradin’s army scattered to seek plunder, the boy was left almost alone–and Charles’s reserves charged from ambush to slaughter his bodyguard. As his army melted away, the royal youth escaped down the road and three days later appeared before Rome. But that fickle city refused to open its gates, and on he fled until he was seized by a local baron.

Charles’s supposed mercy did not include such a rival as this. He had Conradin convicted of treason and publicly beheaded in a piazza at Naples. Many people thought the execution appalling, one of them Pope Clement. Now dying, he was said to be “deeply troubled”–not just about the fate of Conradin but also about the emerging ambitions of “our dear son.” Charles, on the other hand, saw no need for penitence. God had given him this throne to eradicate the vile Hohenstaufens, which he had done. What was there to repent of?

The papacy now went into one of its periodic spasms of paralysis, with the cardinals deadlocked for three years as they could not agree on a successor for Clement. This void at Rome gave Charles a free hand. He crushed the resistance in Sicily, sparing none of the disaffected, and settled seven hundred French squires on confiscated estates alongside his French governors. Demonstrating undisguised disdain for the place, he rarely bothered even to visit the island himself.

This negligence he would one day have cause to regret, but by now his eyes were focused on an altogether new horizon. Baldwin, the deposed “Latin emperor of the East,” was canvassing the courts of Europe for a new crusade to win him back his empire. Charles had quietly subscribed to the Baldwin cause even before his involvement in Italy–on the condition, of course, that he, Charles, be Baldwin’s successor. To this end, he had carefully woven a network of marriages and treaties through Greece and the Balkans. The imperial throne in the West had been vacant since the death of Frederick Stupor Mundi. If he could gain the eastern imperial throne, Charles reasoned, how could any pope refuse him the western one? A second and greater Charlemagne would have fully restored the ancient empire of Rome.

Moreover, Constantinople seemed an easy target. Michael Palaeologus, the man whom Manfred had failed to defeat, had gone on to oust poor Baldwin, with all the dire consequences foreseen by Rome. Michael had reasserted the independence of the Eastern Empire from the Latin West, reinstated a Greek patriarch and eastern worship, repaired the walls of Constantinople, and rebuilt its fleet and had begun to repopulate the city. Finally, though neither he nor anyone else could know it at the time, he had founded a dynasty that would rule the Eastern Empire for another two centuries, until its final fall to Islam. Neverthe-less, as Michael must have realized, his restored empire hung by a hair. If the Latins attacked again, Byzantium might hold on but would be so weakened that it must surely fall to Islam’s next westward surge.

What Michael needed most was a “patriarch of the West” (the term eastern Christians applied to the pope) who was more interested in reconciling with the Orthodox Church than in conquering the Eastern Empire. In 1271 there appeared just such a pope. After their three-year deadlock the cardinals finally agreed on Tebaldo Visconti, who took the name Gregory X.3 He was a man who fully understood the peril in which Outremer now stood–in fact, he was on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land when told of his election. His sermon on departing for Rome took its text from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning.” As Gregory X he immediately issued a blanket order: there must be no further crusades against Constantinople. Charles, needless to say, was not pleased.

Further, Gregory summoned an ecumenical council in Lyon to heal Christianity’s “Great Schism” and to call for another crusade against Islam. Five hundred bishops attended, although among Christendom’s monarchs only the decrepit James of Aragon showed up.4 Michael eagerly selected an eastern delegation. Half his delegates perished en route in a storm at sea, but those who made it to Lyon declared their loyalty to Pope Gregory, and a number of Orthodox bishops participated in a western Mass, using the western version of the Nicene Creed.5 This done, the council confidently declared the Great Schism between East and West officially over.

But it was not over. In the aftermath of the council Emperor Michael faced bitter opposition, even among his royal nieces and nephews, to union with Rome. When he forced into exile the stubborn Patriarch Joseph, who adamantly opposed such a union, Joseph became emblematic of the anti-Latin movement. And when Michael sent an army to suppress a pro-Orthodox rebellion in Macedonia, the army itself rebelled against him, the soldiers avowing sympathy with the rebels. Some Greek bishops even excommunicated him.

Though the Council of Lyon declared no crusade against Islam, the ban on attacks against Constantinople continued until Gregory’s death in 1276. After that things slowly turned in Charles’s favor. Four popes held office over the next five years, the third dying when his bedroom ceiling collapsed during renovations of the Viterbo palace. With each new election, tensions between Italian and French cardinals grew, and the popes became more hostile to the Eastern church. Finally Charles won a key round. With the cardinals again deadlocked, his troops moved in and forced a decision. Intimidated, the cardinals elected none other than Simon of Brie, veteran leader of the French faction, who became Pope Martin IV.

Blindly a French patriot, Martin had no concept of the papacy as a mediator between princes. He disliked Germans, distrusted Italians, and saw the East only as a field for French conquest. When Emperor Michael’s envoys arrived in Rome with congratulations and submission, they were met by Pope Martin and King Charles, both French and unmistakably evidencing the new church-state partnership. The pope denounced Michael Palaeologus as a heretic and demanded he surrender his empire. Charles, with Martin’s blessing, began assembling a fleet of forty men-of-war, two hundred galleys, and transports for ten thousand knights and even more infantry. The crusade against Constantinople was set to sail in April 1282.

King of Sicily and lord of much of France, Italy, and Greece, Charles was now the most powerful man in Christendom. He had beheaded the last male Hohenstaufen contender fourteen years earlier. Who could stop him now? The answer was a female Hohenstaufen. Manfred, long before his fall, had arranged for his daughter Constance to marry Peter of Aragon. Peter’s kingdom, lying along some three hundred miles of the Mediterranean coast from the Pyrenees to Cape San Antonio, reached far enough inland to include about one fifth of modern Spain. This granddaughter of Stupor Mundi could make a claim to the Sicilian throne, a fact that most of Europe, Charles included, either had forgotten or never credited.6

Not quite all Europe, however. John of Procida had been Frederick’s gifted physician and Manfred’s chancellor. After Conradin’s defeat at Tagliacozzo, John first tried without success to enlist the Germans against Charles. Then he began advancing Constance’s claim. When King Peter assumed his throne in 1276, he, too, made John his chancellor, specifically charged with the destruction of Charles of Anjou. With any luck, John no doubt reasoned, Charles would make the mistake of all ruthless politicians by acquiring more enemies than he had friends.7

John accordingly dispatched agents, chief among them one of his own sons disguised as a friar, to flit like shadows between Constantinople, Aragon, and Sicily, using gold provided by Michael Palaeologus to foment rebellion against their common enemy, Charles. The latter was entirely absorbed with the grand fleet he was assembling at Messina, Sicily, and stocking with supplies confiscated from sullen Sicilian farmers. He scarcely heeded intelligence reports that another armada was gathering in the mouth of the Ebro, ninety miles down the coast from Barcelona.

His agents will have inquired, of course, just where this fleet might be bound. For Tunis in North Africa, was King Peter’s answer, which indicated the Crusades and must have seemed safe enough. But there were two forgotten factors. First, from Tunis, with a fair wind the Sicilian coast was just a two- to three-day sail. Second, Charles’s French officials had become so despised in Sicily that the whole island was ready to explode.

On Easter Monday, March 30, 1282, it did. Thousands were celebrating the festival with song and dancing, and there had been a wedding at Palermo’s Church of the Holy Spirit. French soldiers joined in the jollity, drinking deeply and ignoring the scowls of Sicilians as they jostled the local girls. Eventually a certain Sergeant Drouet dragged the bride from the wedding party and began to make free with her. This proved to be a mistake that would change the whole history of Europe, in the incident known as the Sicilian Vespers.

Within seconds Sergeant Drouet fell with the groom’s dagger in his heart. Someone yelled, other Sicilians drew their blades, and within moments many French soldiers were bleeding on the ground. As the church bells rang for vespers, mayhem erupted throughout the city, with youths running through the streets shouting “Moranu li Franchiski!” (“Death to the French!”) Once begun, the killing continued in ungovernable rage. Sword-wielding Sicilians poured into the streets, slaughtering anyone French, ransacking their homes and favorite inns, impaling their wives and children. Mobs burst into monasteries, ordering the monks to pronounce the peculiar Sicilian word “ciciri” (chickpeas). This was a test: anyone who couldn’t say it properly must be French and was butchered on the spot. By dawn two thousand French bodies lay cooling on the cobblestones and the rebels held Palermo.

Messengers ran from village to village, militias assembled and marched, and within a fortnight Sicily’s French overlords had either fled or were dead. Only strongly garrisoned Messina, sheltering Charles’s fleet, hesitated to join the rebellion. But when its governor nervously tried to replace his Sicilian troops with French ones, rioting broke out, and Messina, too, fell to the rebels. The ships, trapped at anchor, were burned to the waterline. In Naples, Charles learned that his dreams and his supposedly indestructible empire now lay in ruins. “Lord God,” he cried, “since it pleases you to ruin me, let me down only in small steps.”

The Sicilians immediately sent ambassadors to Pope Martin to beg his protection. They approached his throne smiting their breasts and chanting, “Lamb of God . . . have mercy on us.” But the pope answered bitterly with the words from the Passion, “And they smote him.” He angrily excommunicated the rebels and their allies. Then he proclaimed yet another crusade, this one against Sicily, an action some see as the final discrediting of the whole crusading ideal.8

The Sicilians quickly found another protector, however: none other than King Peter of Aragon, whose fleet lay mere days from Palermo. In late June, when Charles ferried his troops across the strait and laid siege to Messina, the Sicilian “rabble” managed to repel five successive assaults. Then Charles got the news that King Peter’s army had landed at Palermo. As it crossed the island to relieve Messina, the besiegers fled, and Sicily acquired a new king and queen.

Thus ended the Latin threat to Constantinople. Now old and ill, Michael Palaeologus died two months later. He had restored a fallen empire, a rare achievement. He had also done as much or more than any man to heal the East-West schism among the Christians, acting with a pope, Gregory X, who shared his vision of a workable union. But now Michael’s heir repudiated his plans to end the Great Schism, and his bishops refused to bury in consecrated ground a man they considered a heretic. (By contrast, Pope Gregory was beatified and is revered as a saint in Rome and several European dioceses.)

Meanwhile, the War of the Sicilian Vespers descended first into farce and then into stalemate. Pope Martin demanded the unconditional surrender of Sicily, which was, of course, refused. Peter crossed into southern Italy and skirmished there with Charles, but neither could prevail. With Peter poor and Charles debt ridden, military activity declined.

To economize (and perhaps also glamorize), Charles proposed a “trial by combat” with a hundred picked knights on each side so that “God could decide.” Martin said that as pope he acted for God in these matters, and he had already decided. With most of Europe either appalled or amused, on June 1, 1283, both royal entourages showed up at Bordeaux, the appointed place of combat, as arranged. Peter and his band arrived at dawn, roared their challenge to an empty field, declared the French cowards, and rode away. Charles and his troop showed up at noon, shouted their challenge to a field still empty, declared the Aragonese cowards, and rode away. Pope Martin called for a crusade against Aragon.

If this war had a hero, it was Roger of Lauria, Peter’s commander at sea and the greatest admiral of the age, whose repeated naval victories prevented Charles from invading the island. Finally, Charles’s son and heir, disobeying paternal orders, took his father’s fleet out of Naples harbor to confront Roger. The fleet was captured, the son was captured, and the disgusted father was left muttering that he thought the boy might at least have had sufficient courtesy to get killed rather than get caught.

The great Louis IX of France was by now dead from the dysentery that destroyed the Eighth Crusade, leaving the throne of France to his ineffectual son, Philip III. He was known as “Philip the Bold” for his personal courage and fighting dexterity–but not for his performance as king. Having followed the wishes of his father all his life, he now followed the wishes of his father’s brother Charles of Anjou, who suggested that he please the pope by invading King Peter’s Aragon. This Philip did with great cost and calamitous result, a purposeless and useless war, in the view of observers then and later. It ended with his army sick and fleeing Aragon, Philip himself dying in their midst. Meanwhile, there came news that Charles of Anjou was also dead. Long sinking, toward the end he prayed, “Lord God, you know I took the kingdom of Sicily for your holy church, not for my own gain. So you will pardon my sins.” It sounds less a plea than an instruction.

That year, 1285, unfolded like the last scene of Hamlet. All the major players died: Charles in January, Pope Martin in March, Philip III in October, and Peter of Aragon in November from wounds suffered in hand-to-hand combat in the defeat of Philip’s French invaders. The Sicilian war smoldered on for another eighteen years in raids, riots, and sieges, eventually petering out because the participants lost interest. Disenchanted with the defense of Christendom from enemies within and without, monarchs increasingly pursued the wealth and glory of their own realms. After the funerary year 1285, the whole conflict between state and church came to center on two determined, intelligent, and (in many respects) ruthless men. One was a king and the other a pope.

On the French throne was the seventeen-year-old son of Philip III, whose handsome face would earn him the sobriquet “Philip the Fair.” In all other respects, Philip IV was distinctly unfair, however, and hidden behind his great beauty lurked a cold, disdainful reserve. He resembled an owl, critics jibed, “the handsomest of birds . . . who does nothing but stare.” A childhood marred by tragedy perhaps explains his icy view of life: three years old when his mother died; eight at the death of an older brother, possibly murdered by their stepmother; father tainted by the charge of “unnatural intercourse” (i.e., sodomy). In any case, though punctilious in religious observance, Philip IV recruited ministers of sacrilegious brutality. And while he reputedly admired his revered grandfather, he used France’s central bureaucracy, created by Louis IX to ensure more effective judicial equality, chiefly to ensure more effective tax collection.

After the death of Pope Martin, the Italians regained control of the papacy under two popes: Honorius IV, who served two years, and Nicholas IV, who served four. But the Italians themselves were divided, not only by the old Ghibelline-Guelph conflict but also by two powerful families in Rome, both of which tended to treat the papacy as a private family affair. Perhaps it was the embattled deadlock following the death of Nicholas IV that led the cardinals to seek this time a man of indisputable holiness–thus bringing briefly to the papacy one of the most extraordinary figures ever to hold the office.

Pietro da Morrone (Peter of the Mountain) was a Benedictine priest-monk living as a hermit, an occasional option for Benedictines. He came from the hill country of the Abruzzo region fifty miles east of Rome. He fasted every day but Sunday, observed four major fasts a year (three of them on bread and water alone), and draped his scrawny frame with an iron chain. When three cardinals from Rome approached him in his mountain fastness and asked him to become pope, he prayed fervently and then accepted, styling himself Celestine V. Immediately falling under the influence of the French, in four tumultuous months he named twelve new cardinals, seven of them French. He was taking steps to move the papacy to French-controlled Naples when the horrified College of Cardinals persuaded him to resign, the only pope since Rome had become Christian ever to abdicate. Having done so, the erstwhile Celestine V fled Rome by sea but was caught and cruelly imprisoned by the man who persuaded him to quit.9 This was Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, an individual as distinctly unencumbered by religious asceticism as poor Celestine was given to it. Gaetani then became Pope Boniface VIII, and in him Philip the Fair would find a formidable adversary.

The Gaetani family came from Anagni, forty miles east of Rome and not far from Peter’s mountain. They were old nobility, though second ranked behind Rome’s warring Orsini and Colonna families. They counted three popes among their ancestors but were politically Ghibelline, young Benedict once getting his head broken in a partisan brawl. Tall, bullet headed, and big jawed, he came to the papacy rude, combative, and with clearly defined goals. He aimed to renew the crusade against Islam, resolve the Sicilian war, pacify feuding Florence, make peace between Venice and Genoa, and save Scotland from the avarice of England’s King Edward I. He would fail in all five.

Even in Rome Boniface proved unable to make peace, blatantly promoting his Gaetani clan and thus stoking aristocratic resentment. In May 1297 the Colonnas seized a convoy of Gaetani gold, defying Boniface’s order to return it on the grounds that he was a heretic who had effectually usurped the papacy from Celestine. Civil war broke out, which Boniface classified as a “crusade” and which raged for a year. When the Colonnas lost, Boniface was able to destroy their castles and seize their goods, dividing them between the Orsinis and the Gaetanis, and making the Colonnas his bitter lifelong enemies.10

His one notable success was neither political nor ecclesiastical but theatrical. In 1300 he proclaimed Christianity’s first “jubilee” year. In a surge of pious enthusiasm, pilgrims came from all over Europe and even from distant Asia. A Florentine eyewitness recorded that two hundred thousand people packed Rome for the festivities and that part of the city wall was leveled to accommodate them. Ominously, however, no kings showed up for this celebration.

By then Boniface had already fought and lost his first battle with Philip. Both France and England were paying for their wars of expansion, and with one another, by pirating church revenues. Philip was levying the same tax to pay his troops, whom the pope needed for his crusades. Since a power to tax was also a power to destroy, Boniface issued a bull, known as “Clericis laicos,” forbidding taxation of church property without prior papal permission, on pain of excommunication.

In England both the clergy and the nobility endorsed the papal ultimatum, which forced the king to accept. Not so in France, however, where the language of the bull rather than its principle evoked outrage. “Toward the clergy, the laity have always been hostile,” it declared, a proposition clearly false but potentially self-fulfilling. Philip’s ministers raged, the French clergy waffled, one abbot loudly branded Boniface a “heretic and usurper,” and the nobles hungered to harvest church revenues themselves. So Philip took a dire step: he embargoed any export of gold or valuables from France and expelled the papal collectors, starving Boniface financially.

Philip had by now flanked himself with two antipapal zealots: the one-eyed lawyer Peter Flote and the law professor William of Nogaret. The former was dispatched to Boniface, by then so hard up that he had to yield by issuing a new bull recognizing the king’s right to take church revenues in a “national emergency.” The pope also announced the canonization of Philip’s grandfather but sent the triumphant Flote home with the parting observation that he “would rather be a dog than a Frenchman.”

Although Philip lifted the embargo, the conflict quickly escalated. Under royal pressure the clergy doubled the church tithe to the French crown. The Colonnas, expelled from Rome, found welcome at the French court, where they pressured Philip to depose Boniface. A manifesto was published urging the king to make the church a department of his government. French bishops expressed loyalty to the pope but obeyed the king. “Your power is made of words,” Flote taunted Boniface. “Ours is real.”

In response, Boniface appointed as his legate in France a man as confrontational and loose tongued as himself, Bernard of Saisset. Bernard, who hailed from rebellious Languedoc, proceeded to speculate publicly on the possible secession of that region from France. Further, he fumed with imprecations against the French monarch, portraying him as “surrounded by corrupt, lying courtiers” and “as bad as any of his men.” Worst of all, he questioned Philip’s legitimacy. Predictably, Bernard was arrested in his bedchamber one night, tried for treason with Flote as prosecutor, and found guilty in the church courts by a royalist abbot. Both Flote and Nogaret then set out for Italy to demand that Boniface “degrade” his legate and turn him over to the secular courts for sentence.

At that, Boniface boiled over. Previous popes, he reminded Philip, had deposed three emperors and, if necessary, he himself would dump the king of France “like a stable boy.” He barraged France with bulls demanding Saisset’s freedom, withdrawing all concessions to the crown, and forbidding churches to surrender any tithes. He also summoned the French bishops to Rome for a council the following year to discuss the state of their church and to reform their monarchy. A letter to Philip, “Ausculta fili”–literally, “Listen, son”!–chastised him for oppressing the church, debasing the coinage, and hiding behind his ministers. The church is one, Boniface proclaimed, and while the king is responsible for France’s temporal affairs, the pope is responsible for the discernment of his sins. For Philip to think that he had no earthly superior was madness. Indeed, it was heresy.

Philip burned the letter and substituted a forgery over Boniface’s name. It showed the pope claiming full temporal jurisdiction over France, the French treasury, and virtually all private wealth in the land. Then Flote organized town meetings throughout the country to warn the major families that the church was about to seize everything they had and to present their king as the true defender of the faith in France.

To preempt Boniface’s council, set for November 1302, Philip convened in April the country’s first “Estates-General” of the nobles, clergy, and townsmen (akin to the English Parliament). He flaunted the forged ultimatum and begged national support for his “defense of the faith” against papal aggression. The nobles enthusiastically denounced Boniface as the Antichrist. The clergy dithered but then, under threat from Flote, sent a plea begging Boniface to make peace.

Boniface castigated the French clergy as cowards, denounced the forgery, denied that he was invading royal jurisdiction, and added a personal message for Flote–namely, that he was headed for hell. Wherever Flote was headed, it didn’t take him long to get there. About two weeks later, in a bloody clash with rebellious Flemish militia, the French army was defeated and Flote was killed. Some hoped that this would bring peace with the church. It did not. With Flanders in rebellion, Philip needed more money than ever, and it was William of Nogaret’s job to get it.

Only thirty-six of France’s seventy-eight bishops attended Boniface’s council at Rome in November, thirty-one of them without royal permission, causing their fiefs to be confiscated by the king. The council achieved little, although it did try to resolve a long-disputed ambiguity in the ancient doctrine of the “two swords.” There are two swords all right, Boniface declared, one spiritual and one temporal, but the spiritual must instruct and judge the temporal. Moreover, salvation requires that “all be subject to the Roman pontiff.”11

Boniface then fired his last shot. He sent another legate, Cardinal Jean Lemoine, to Philip with a twelve-point ultimatum, warning that if it went unanswered, the king would be excommunicated and deposed. Receiving no reply, he dispatched a messenger to Lemoine with two more letters, the first excommunicating Philip and the second summoning France’s bishops to Rome. The messenger was arrested and the letters burned. Lemoine protested, then fled France.

Meanwhile, at a French council of state Nogaret avowed that Celestine V was still alive, condemned Boniface as a “master of lies,” and urged Philip to convene an assembly to condemn the pope. Philip complied. Before an assembly of bishops and nobles at the Louvre, Nogaret read a list of twenty-nine charges against Boniface, including heresy, simony, gross and unnatural immorality, idolatry, magic, loss of the Holy Land, and, finally, the murder of Celestine V. Little of this has been substantiated by evidence, then or since, but Philip declared himself conscience bound to depose the pope. A third of France’s bishops concurred. One dissenting abbot was imprisoned.

Fighting back, Boniface, under solemn oath, denied all charges, suspended a rebellious Cypriot bishop for supporting Philip, canceled the right of the French church to appoint its officials, and declared that only popes can call ecumenical councils. He also announced that, failing Philip’s repentance, a bull would be promulgated on September 8, 1303, excommunicating the king of France and absolving his subjects from their oath of fealty.

But Philip and Nogaret moved first. Furnished with a French warrant to bring Boniface to the “king’s justice,” bands of armed Italians, under a deposed Colonna cardinal and led by William of Nogaret, crept up to the walls of Anagni on the night of September 3, 1303. The town gates were traitorously opened. Sudden shouts and rattling weapons awakened the populace. “Men and women leapt from their beds, opened the doors, and asked the cause of such hubbub,” wrote Boniface’s English secretary, William Hundleby of Lincoln. “They discovered that [the Colonnas] had entered the town with a great force from the king of France, that they might seize the pope and give him to death.”

Bells clanged and people rushed into the marketplace, but the town captain, brother of one of the intruders, offered no resistance. The crowd, realizing the circumstances, became an opportunistic mob that plundered the villas of the cardinals, then laid siege to the papal palace. Under truce Boniface appeared before them. What, he demanded, did they want? Reinstatement of the Colonnas, they replied, plus the whole church treasury, plus the pope himself as their prisoner. Boniface refused. The truce expired. The mob attacked the adjoining cathedral, barricaded by Boniface supporters, set fire to the doors, broke in, murdered a visiting archbishop, plundered the place, then burst into Boniface’s palace. “Long live the king of France!” they shouted. “Long live the Colonna! Death to the pope!”

In the papal chamber they found Boniface seemingly very ill, lying on a couch, crucifix at his breast. “Come forward!” he challenged. “Strike my head. I want martyrdom. I want to die for Christ. Here is my neck. Here is my head.” A Colonna lunged forward to oblige, but others restrained him and repeated their three demands. Angrily, Boniface refused. The old pope was then struck, according to one chronicle, with a mailed fist.12

Moments later, Nogaret arrived. “What are you doing here, you son of Patarine?” Boniface challenged him, referring to a Cathar heretic. “I arrest you,” Nogaret retorted, “by the public law, in defense of the faith. You are a sad pope! Consider the goodness of your lord, the king of France!” Then Boniface’s ornaments were ripped away and his palace plundered, while throughout the town the mob broke into wine cellars and most of Anagni got drunk. “Papa habuit malem noctem,” the Englishman Hundleby wrote home. (“The pope had a bad night.”)

The following morning, while his assailants debated whether to kill Boniface or imprison him, Anagni’s citizenry woke up, sobered up, and began repenting. Soon fighting broke out with the intruders. Nogaret was injured. The crowd began shouting for the pope. The intruders scattered. The pope was found and brought down to the market, where citizens dragged the French banner through the mud and implored his forgiveness. Much of the plundered treasure was returned.

A week later a well-guarded Boniface left for Rome, but he was, writes Hundleby, “a broken man.” Some accounts describe him as behaving like a madman, gnawing his hands and bashing his head against a wall. On October 12, forty days after Anagni, came the death of Pope Boniface VIII–of “exhaustion,” it was said. Ten days later the cardinals gathered in conclave and elected a Dominican, Cardinal Nicholas Boccasini, as Pope Benedict XI. William of Nogaret, with staggering audacity, attended as the representative of France.

Significantly, the near murder of a pope occasioned no general protest, clear evidence of the papacy’s declining prestige since Martin IV. In the next six months Pope Benedict, although he lifted the censures against Philip, also demanded that Nogaret appear before him as a public penitent by July 7, 1304, on pain of excommunication. That very day the relatively young and healthy Benedict XI was found dead in his bed. Was he poisoned? No evidence was offered and no such charge ever laid. Nogaret called the death “a miracle.”

What very nearly was murdered was the papacy itself. Benedict’s successor moved it into France, where for the next seventy years the entire church would become little more than a department of the French government. Nogaret lived nine more years–and died, according to one account, with his tongue sticking out. Philip the Fair would last another ten, during which he would commit one crime more, a crime that some declare worse than the Anagni episode (see sidebar, pages 224—225).

This is the end of the Sicilian Vespers category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 208, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Sicilian Vespers from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at