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“At Least I Shall Die as Pope”: September 7, 1303

The quarrel between Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface arose because the king needed money for a war with England and decided to tax the French clergy to get it. The French bishops did not protest against the tax, but the lower clergy appealed to the pope for help. In 1296, Boniface replied by issuing an official statement or bull, called Clericis Laicos, in which he excommunicated any king or prince who taxed the clergy without the pope’s permission. Philip retaliated by forbidding any gold or silver to leave France, thus cutting off a large part of the wealth the pope received from France. The English King Edward I took similar measures in his domains. Confronted with so much resistance, Pope Boniface was forced to allow that kings, in times of necessity, may tax the clergy of the realm without approval from Rome.

King Philip the Fair of France (left) receiving the homage of King Edward I of England for the duchy of Aquitaine

What brought about the final break between Boniface and Philip was the king’s arrest of the bishop of Palmiers on a rather flimsy charge of treason. Boniface had sent the bishop to Philip to protest against the king’s continued oppression of the clergy and to remind him of his promise to lead a crusade to retake Jerusalem.

After Philip had arrested the bishop, Boniface summoned the bishops of France to a council in Rome. He sent a letter to King Philip urging him to do justice to his subjects. But Philip’s counselors arranged a clever lie. They burned the pope’s letter and circulated a false letter in which Boniface was made to say that the king was subject to the pope in all spiritual and temporal matters. This forgery provoked the French people to outrage against the pope. But Boniface did not back down. In 1302, he issued another bull, Unam Sanctam. In that bull he reasserted his authority, as the spiritual leader of Christendom, to correct what was morally wrong—even in the conduct of kings. The bull ends with these words: “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

Fresco of Pope Boniface VIII by Giotto Bondone, in St. John Lateran, Rome

The following year, Philip answered the pope’s challenge by calling a council of the French Church. The council, meeting in June 1303, declared Pope Boniface guilty of heresy, blasphemy, simony, gross and unnatural immorality, magic, and murder. Five French archbishops and 21 bishops sided with King Philip, who also sent his agents throughout the kingdom to force monasteries, cathedral chapters, and cities to sign a document condemning the pope. Finally, Philip sent his right-hand man, Guillaume de Nogaret, to Italy to kidnap the pope and bring him back to France as a prisoner.

On the night of September 7, 1303, a force of 600 cavalry and 1,500 infantry, under Nogaret’s command, attacked the sleepy little Italian town of Anagni (Boniface VIII’s ancestral home, where he was then residing). The town gates had been opened through treachery; the soldiers entered and pillaged the town. When Boniface saw it was useless to resist the French, he declared, “Since I am betrayed like the Savior, and my end is nigh, at least I shall die as pope.”

His assailants found Boniface in his palace, clad in his papal robes, seated on his throne. Seeing Nogaret before him, the pope said, “Here is my head, here is my neck; I will patiently bear that I, a Catholic and lawful pontiff and Vicar of Christ, be condemned and deposed . . . I desire to die for Christ’s faith and His Church.” Boniface’s kidnappers handled him roughly, but they were unable to abduct him to France. They were stopped by the citizens of Anagni, who rose up against Nogaret and his French soldiers and forced them to flee the city. Boniface himself returned to Rome. Three weeks later, overcome by the shock of the attack made against him, he died.

Boniface’s fall was much more than a personal misfortune. It symbolized the downfall of the medieval reform movement and of the pope’s influence in Europe. Bishops of Rome had suffered insults and even martyrdom before, but never—not, at least, in the High Middle Ages—had a king so insulted a pope in the name of “Christian” principles. Because Christendom had cared little about, or even approved of, the events at Anagni, a new attitude seemed to be arising in Europe. Kings, not churchmen, were becoming the leaders of Christendom. For Western people, it meant the things of this world were growing more important than the things of the Faith.

Music of Il Miglior Fabbro

Arnaut Daniel, a late 12th century troubadour from southern France (Languedoc), was greatly admired by the poet Dante Alighieri and called by him Il Miglior Fabbro, “the best craftsman.” A contemporary of Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair, Dante despised Boniface as a wicked pope; nevertheless, in his Divine Comedy, Dante roundly condemned the events at Anagni, saying that, “in his Vicar Christ was “captive made.” Here is a performance of Arnaut’s Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra.

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