This Week in History

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

The following is an excerpt from our text, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization. For information on ordering this or our other texts, please go here.

King Philip the Fair

King Philip IV “the Fair” of France (reigned 1285-1314) did not appear to be an enemy of religion. He attended Mass daily and wore a hair shirt as a penitential act. He was charitable and kindly toward the poor and counted himself a loyal son of the Church. Nor was Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294-1303) anti-French; on the contrary, his policies as pope often favored France. Boniface and Philip should have been on friendly terms with each other. Instead, they came into serious conflict. The pope and the king had very different views of the nature of Church and the state and how they relate to one another.

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 Edward I (kneeling) pays homage as Duke of Aquitaine to his feudal lord, King Philip the Fair

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.”

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.”

Nogaret takes Boniface IX prisoner

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 from around Boniface’s Time

The is album presents music from 14th-century Florence.