“Your venerable stupidness may know, that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.”–Philip IV “The Fair,” King of France, in a letter to the Pope
Imagine a man more powerful than kings and presidents. Imagine that this man is above the law, beyond reproach. He and his office have controlled tens of millions of people for centuries. Princes and priests obey his every command. Emperors, desperate for approval and a crown he legitimizes, kneel before him. Imagine a man that is not only the judge, jury, and executioner of everyone on his land, but he also determines the fate of their very soul.
Now imagine the man that kidnaps him.
At the turn of the fourteenth century, the strongest days of the Roman Catholic Church and its popes were behind them — they just didn’t know it yet. The fall of western Europe’s strongest political power since the Roman Empire was near. Much like Rome’s fall, it didn’t happen overnight; it took many years and a cascade of bad decisions. But what started that chain reaction? Who pushed the Church off medieval Europe’s perch and watched it plummet into the modern world?
Last month, when discussing the prevalence of Platonism during the Middle Ages, I described the Catholic Church’s strength in medieval Europe.
“For most of the Middle Ages up to the 1300s, few dared stand up to the nearly omnipotent papacy. Heretics were burned at the stake. Princes were brought to their knees. Emperors served at the will of His Holiness, the pope. Philosophers, from Augustine to Aquinas, operated under the assumption of an all-powerful Christian God who sent His Word through the Bible and His son. The world and universe worked according to His will and whim. To doubt any of these presumptions was heretical and punishable by excommunication and even death.” -PPFA, 3/31/17
It goes without saying that our current pontiff, Pope Francis, does not wield that kind of power, and it has nothing to do with his revolutionary ideas. To say that the papacy is a shell of its former self would be an insult to empty shells everywhere. The Western world was once almost fully Catholic; now, however, most of the West considers itself something else. What’s more, even modern Catholics largely march to their own drum. Chances are you know many Catholics who don’t support modern Church doctrine on issues like homosexuality, birth control, and abortion. Francis and his recent predecessors, much like the English monarchy, have been relegated to mostly symbolism, known more for pomp and ritual than power and resolutions.
During the Middle Ages, however, it was unthinkable to cross His Holiness. He was considered to be the Vicar of Christ, God’s representative on Earth. A century before Philip IV, Innocent III (reigned 1198-1216), probably the most powerful pope in history, ruled over western Europe like a continental autocrat. He ordered around kings — John of England (he of Magna Carta and Robin Hood fame) and Philip II “Augustus” of France, for examples — like they were his children. He collected tithes from all corners of western Europe and ordered the devious Fourth Crusade, which conquered the rival Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine Empire.
To what do we owe the decline of the once mighty Church? Many, many things. However, we can trace the beginning of the downfall to the early 1300s, with Philip IV was the catalyst.
Philip Capet was born in 1268 and ascended to the French throne 17 years later. His reign spanned nearly 30 years and laid the foundation for enormous change across western Europe. Known as “The Fair” for his handsome face, he was driven by one guiding principle: power. For much of the Middle Ages, France was not governed by a strong, central government. Nor, for that matter, were other kingdoms across the rest of western Europe. Instead, the era was dominated by feudalism. Feudal lords — wealthy nobles scattered throughout a kingdom — governed local lands with considerable autonomy. They also appointed “vassals” to manage smaller sections of these lands. As the Low Middle Ages (c. 400 – c. 1000) turned into the High (c. 1000 – c. 1300), however, feudal lords increasingly saw the benefits of coalescing around a unifying monarch’s strong central authority.
While feudalism’s slow decline gradually subordinated nobles to the monarch, King Philip knew he was still not the most commanding presence in his country. Indeed, Pope Boniface VIII exerted more influence in France from Rome than Philip did from Paris.
Philip wouldn’t stand for it. In a drive for wealth, he targeted the richest group in his country — the clergy. The Church was the largest landholder in France, making them a prime source for Philip’s greed. The problem was that Church officials, scattered throughout France and the rest of western Europe as archbishops, bishops, and priests, were traditionally tax exempt.
Philip taxed them anyway.
Boniface was incensed. He was a man known for his cruelty, arrogance, and intensity. His predecessor, Celestine V, was an unusually humble medieval pope, and he in fact abdicated a papacy he might have never wanted. Rumors suggested that Boniface, in his drive to be pontiff, drove Celestine to insanity. History records that once he did succeed Celestine, he dragged his holy predecessor from retirement, arrested him, and threw him in a cell. Celestine died the following year with a hole in his skull, a likely symptom of a Boniface-ordered murder. The new pope, free of potential papal rivals, reigned supreme.
Like Innocent III a century earlier, Boniface reaffirmed papal absolutism over Catholic lands. In a feudalistic mindset, he considered the kings of Europe as his own vassals. In 1300, for example, he commissioned a papal jubilee. As part of a grand parade, he dressed in imperial garb while touring Rome. In front of him were two swords representing his supremacy over both the here and hereafter. Flanking heralds cheered, “I am caesar! I am the emperor!” The jubilee went according to plan; paying Europeans, who rarely got the chance to see His Holiness, flocked to the streets and filled the Church’s coffers.
Oh, and did I mention he looked like this?
Thus, when Philip the Fair decided to tax French clergy, Boniface wouldn’t stand for it. His 1296 papal bull Clericis laicos (law for clerics?) reiterated that “temporal,” “lay” rulers could not tax members of the clergy. Moreover, the bull expressly forbade his clerics to cooperate should a monarch decide to ignore said papal command.
Philip responded by forbidding all French money and goods from going to Rome. That particularly bothered Boniface who, as seen with his jubilee, was always on the hunt for funds to support his lavish lifestyle. To lose out on significant income from the largest state in Christendom was unacceptable. Boniface steadily realized this defiant French king must be dealt with more directly, and he summoned Philip to the Vatican.
Not only did Philip refuse, but he countered with an invitation for the Pontiff to visit him in Paris. These competing summonses overtly attempted to display which of these arrogant men was preeminent over the other.
By 1302, Boniface took to writing a letter to the insubordinate royal. It was titled Ausculta Fili, which, in a tone we can assume was pretty patronizing, translates to “Listen, son.” The letter warns that Philip was not only contravening Catholic law, but he was also endangering his fate in heaven. If he didn’t back down, the letter warned, he was destined for Hell. After all, ecclesiam nulla salus — outside the Church there is no salvation. Looming over every word was the threat of excommunication.
Then Boniface made it clear that the Vicar of Christ was also the king of kings. In one of the papacy’s most infamous bulls, Unam Sanctum, Boniface asserted that refusing the pope is akin to refusing God. He emphasized that “God has set popes over kings and kingdoms” and closed with, “We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” In other words, kings were vassals, too, and they served at the pleasure of His Holiness.
Philip’s retort set the tone for the subsequent downfall of the papacy and the eventual rise of the modern Western state above the Church. “Your venerable stupidness may know,” Philip wrote to Boniface, “that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.”
His papal hand forced, Boniface excommunicated the mutinous monarch.
Philip’s response was to set a scheme into motion that was so underhanded, so diabolical, so aggressive that it arguably stands as the most controversial act of the Middle Ages. This act led not only to the fall of Boniface, but also, in an astonishing development, the papacy’s credibility as well.
Step one of Philip’s plan, in order to protect himself against retaliation, was to create an inhospitable sociopolitical climate for Boniface. This wasn’t difficult. On the heels of the more spiritual Celestine, Boniface came across, accurately, as an arrogant, greedy, unkind pope. Boniface showed little regard for his followers and regularly placed his own needs above Christendom’s. To show his power, he destroyed castles. To intimidate Europeans, he burned suspected heretics. He confiscated land at will, including from the prominent Italian Colonna family, just to dole it out to friends. King Philip realized that if he highlighted these actions while securing his own popularity at home, he could act against the Pope with little fear of reprisal from his own people.
To do so, Philip created a body that, nearly 500 years later, would actually bring down the French Crown. In a rather progressive move, Philip created the “Estates General,” a congress in the vein of the new English Parliament, though it remained mostly advisory. The assembly had representatives from three distinct social classes, or estates: clergy, nobility, and a fledgling upper-middle class called the bourgeoisie represented commoners. Philip used the body to rally support against Boniface, and he asked to try the pontiff for his impudence, among other charges. The French people, never before having representation in government, supported their popular sovereign over the already unpopular pope. And so, in 1303, the king sent soldiers to unleash his plan: to kidnap the most powerful man in Europe.
The kidnapping was successful. Held in Anagni, Italy for several embarrassing days, the health of the nearly 70-year-old Boniface quickly deteriorated. His captors gave him no food or drink, all the while shaming and mistreating him. An uprising from the locals freed Boniface, but the mistreated and malnourished pope died weeks later from fever and, I can only assume, humiliation.
The College of Cardinals met to fill the vacant papal throne, and it elected Benedict XI, who then suspiciously withdrew Philip’s excommunication. However, he then excommunicated an ally of Philip, and Benedict soon found himself poisoned. Eyes turned to Philip as the mastermind behind this event as well.
Philip used his new reputation to control subsequent events. He influenced the next College of Cardinals, arranging the election of a French archbishop who became Pope Clement V — only the sixth French pope of the nearly 200 pontiffs to have held the office to that point. Clement, likely a pawn, did not go to Italy for his coronation. Instead, he ascended in Lyon, France, with an ornate ceremony attended by His Majesty Philip IV.
Soon, the newly minted pope moved papal quarters from Rome to Avignon, France. Clement and the next six popes — all French — reigned from France, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity (1309-1377). During this period, respect for the papacy diminished. Was it the Vicar of Christ making decisions, or was it the King of France?
The Avignon Papacy was ended by pious Pope Gregory XI, who moved the office back to Rome in 1377, but the respectability of the papacy continued to spiral. Upon Gregory’s death the following year, a Roman mob, demanding an Italian pope after seven Frenchmen had infected the position, rioted outside the papal palace. The cardinals hastily elected Pope Urban VI, but he turned out to be a narrow-minded, intransigent, and possibly insane pontiff. With the backing of the French, many cardinals ran away to elect a different pope, Clement VII. Urban, however, did not abdicate. Thus, with two competing claimants, the Great Schism began. Europe floundered in this confusion for the next four decades as the two men and their successors claimed primacy over Christendom.
By the time the Council of Constance resolved the dispute in 1417, the damage was done. Many Europeans doubted the pope’s legitimacy. With the door open for criticism, scholars of the next century pointed to the Schism as an example of the Pope’s fallibility. Erasmus openly satirized the Church, Martin Luther famously split with it, and Catholicism cracked.
By the close of the sixteenth century, the state had triumphed over the Church, allowing the Renaissance to guide the West into the modern world. The state has since earned our obedience far more than Pope Francis or any other cleric in the Western world. That modern dynamic was made possible by Philip IV.
It should be acknowledged that Philip was not the first ruler to stand up to the Church. Others, like Holy Roman emperors Henry IV (r. 1056-1105) and Frederick Barbarossa (r. 1152-1190), had raised armies against it. Some even had success in deposing a pope. In each of those cases, however, the papacy eventually returned to supremacy. Innocent III was the most powerful pope in history, and his reign came after those rebellious emperors. Instead, it’s Philip the Fair who ushered in the permanent triumph of the state over the Church, a core tenant of Western government.
As a result, Philip IV of France earns his spot as the 29th most influential Westerner in history. See you next month for #28.
I’d say this Top 30 series has three people to whom even a relatively educated person would respond, “Who?!” Philip IV is one of them. Another will be revealed a few entries from now, while the last one found his way onto the top half of this list.
While there were kings and queens during the era, they relied on their lords to manage the kingdom. The lords would owe some sort of fealty to the king, but often had more power on their own lands than the distant monarch did.
This was after targeting French Jews, a surprising decision considering the smooth history of the Jewish people.
Upon his abdication, he cited a long list of reasons, including “desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, [and] his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” In his defense, people are pretty perverse.
Dante later placed Celestine in his one of his famous Circles of Hell — not because of any evil action on Celestine’s part, but because his abdication allowed the rise of the cruel Boniface. “I saw and recognized the shade of him/Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.” –Inferno III, 59–60. Tough break.
The idea of kings being subservient to the pope dated back to at least Charlemagne, the most powerful of all medieval leaders (and a future entry on this ranking). In the year 800, after three decades of sewing back together much of what was the Western Roman Empire, Charlemagne was invited to Rome by Pope Leo III for Christmas mass. Leo wanted to thank the Frankish king for defending the papacy against some rebellious nobles. As the story goes, when Charlemagne knelt to pray, Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans.” The Frankish king, not wanting to be rude to the prestigious Bishop of Rome, graciously accepted the crown. He probably also liked the only promotion remaining above king: emperor. However, Charlemagne inadvertently set the precedent of papal investiture. If one wanted to rule, one needed the approval of the pope. After all, even Charlemagne knelt at the Pope’s holy feet.
”Temporal” and “lay” basically mean the same thing: not spiritual. Temporal — think temporary — describes secular leaders and people who are on Earth for a limited time, which contrasts the eternal spirit. “Lay” is similar, and we still see the word used today when asking for something to be explained in “layman’s terms.” That’s because for centuries the clergy was the most educated group in Europe, so if someone said something too complex, one would ask for it to instead be explained so a “lay man,” or an uneducated person, could understand it. I feel like you need to know these things.
I won’t be able to fully address the Estates General in this series, but it, too, can lend credence to Philip the Fair’s influence on Western history. The creation of the body may have been liberal for the era, but its rules and organization grew outdated. Each of the estates had one vote when advising the king. The first two estates, with the similar interest of keeping their extraordinary wealth, routinely outvoted the Third Estate. For example, the first two estates remained tax exempt for centuries, and it was the Estates General that helped sustain such a tradition. Anger toward this inequity exploded in the late 1780s when Louis XVI, among other extravagances, allowed his wife to buy far too many shoes (a circumstance from which many of us suffer) during a famine and financial crisis. The state ran out of money and sought approval from the Estates General to raise the starving Third Estate’s taxes some more. Cue the French Revolution.
The implementation of this plan would make quite the Hollywood movie. Philip put together a sort of commando team to accomplish the mission. The man in charge of the commandos was Guillaume de Nogaret, a militant lawyer whose father was burned alive by the Church as a heretic. Once in Italy, guess who helped de Nogaret find and secure Boniface? The Colonna family! The same family from whom Boniface, years earlier, had gleefully taken land. I mean, you would CARE about these characters, right? Just call me, Spielberg. Or follow me on Twitter. Or sign up for email updated on the right sidebar. Your choice.
It was the King of France. Most infamously, Clement issued the papal bull, Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, in order to arrest and execute members of the historic Knights Templar, a group to which Philip owed large sums of money.
This is not to be confused with the “East-West Schism” of 1054, when the Western, Latin-speaking Catholics officially split from the Eastern, Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine Empire.
At times, there was even a third pope. This era truly broke the scale of the absurdometer.
Interestingly, historiography might further support Philip’s influence on the development of the Western world. The use of the term “Middle Ages” — surely subjective when one considers that the medieval population did not consider themselves in the “middle” of anything, and someday we will be in the middle of history as well — was eventually broken into three mini-eras within the larger one. The Low or Early Middle Ages began in the fifth century with the fall of Rome, and they ended at the turn of the millennium. (The Low Middle Ages is more known for its nickname, the “Dark Ages.) Next, beginning in about 1000 CE, came the High Middle Ages. The reason for the demarcation is because right around then Europe experienced improved climate; an increase in population, trade, and cultural achievements; modern nation-states followed in the wake of feudalism; legal codes and assemblies evolved like the Magna Carta and Parliament; and standard of living increased.
More relevant to today’s topic, the High Middle Ages end at the year 1300 — precisely the year of Boniface’s jubilee. Then, the Late Middle Ages — which last from 1300 to about 1450, give or take — laid the foundation for the demise of the Catholic Church. Philip IV set that process in motion, meaning that perhaps no one was more important in ushering in the new historical era.