12 October 2011

Villains: Pope Boniface VIII

By Sandy Frykholm

No man in the thirteenth century rose to a greater height of power than Pope Boniface VIII. Born Benedict Gaetani, he came from a noble family and was related to three earlier popes. He studied law, and was made a cardinal before he was fifty years old.

Pope Boniface VIII
I consider him a villain primarily for his dealings with his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, and Charles II, King of Naples, a vassal of the church. These three figures are tied together in a strange triangle of historical relationship. Charles was a prisoner in Aragon when his father died, leaving the crown of Naples to him. Naples and Aragon were at war over the island of Sicily, but after years in prison, Charles came to an agreement with the King of Aragon—an agreement which required the consent of the pope. Charles arranged for three of his sons to go to Aragon in his place while he took the treaty to Pope Nicholas in 1289.
Nicholas refused to sign the agreement, and Charles’ sons—ages 8, 12, and 14—remained prisoners.  After a couple of years, Pope Nicholas died. The cardinals split into two camps and for two years they argued, but failed to elect a pope. When they convened in Perugia in 1294, King Charles came to them and asked them to ratify his treaty with Aragon. Though they had the power to do it, the cardinals refused. Cardinal Gaetani, who had dealt with the royal family of Naples since Charles was a child, berated him for bringing his request to the curia, and they parted in anger.
King Charles II of Naples
Charles stopped at an abbey in Sulmona on his way to Naples, and shortly thereafter the retired founder of the abbey, Peter of Morrone, wrote to the cardinals urging them to speed the election, because the church needed a leader. One of the cardinals was a longtime friend and admirer of Peter, and taking his letter as a sign from God, proposed Peter of Morrone as a papal candidate.
Peter, in his mid-eighties, had lived a rustic life, often as a hermit, in the rural mountains of central Italy, part of Charles’ kingdom. He had founded a monastic order and several churches, and his spiritual life was greatly admired by those who knew him.
The cardinals found it expedient to elect him pope, considering his great age and the limited time he was likely to serve. No doubt many of these sophisticated men, including Cardinal Gaetani, believed that a rustic hermit like Peter of Morrone could be used for their own ends.
King Charles heard of Peter’s election within days, and raced back to Sulmona. He arrived at the hermitage before the cardinals’ delegation, and pleaded for his sons’ release. Peter promised to help him, and in fact agreed to visit Charles’ court in Naples before going to Rome.
The cardinals were furious, but Peter was crowned Celestine V, went to Naples, and set up his papal court in King Charles’ castle. By December it was clear to Celestine that he was ill-equipped for the job, essentially a political position. He wanted to resign, withdraw back to his hermitage. With no precedent for the resignation of a pope, Celestine called on Cardinal Gaetani for legal advice.
Ambitious for the ultimate advancement, Gaetani saw the possibilities. He went to King Charles, promising to free his sons if Charles would support Celestine’s resignation and Gaetani’s election. Charles knew Gaetani had the political savvy to fulfill his promise, but did not trust Gaetani. Still, his sons had been prisoners nearly six years.
Pope Celestine V
Gaetani arranged the legal aspects of Celestine’s resignation, and the next day he was elected pope, taking the name Boniface VIII. Celestine’s supporters were convinced that Boniface had coerced the resignation—which I doubt. Boniface requested Celestine to join him in Rome for the coronation, to convince the public that the new election was legitimate. However, as Celestine was traveling to Rome he learned that Boniface planned to imprison him. Celestine escaped with a friend, and for months hid in the mountains and forests.
In May, Pope Boniface heard rumors of Celestine’s whereabouts, and immediately called on King Charles. His assignment: Capture Celestine, and then I’ll sign your treaty with Aragon and free your sons.
Charles had looked to Celestine for spiritual advice, and counted him a good friend. Now he had to capture him, ensuring he would end his life a prisoner of Pope Boniface.
This had to be the bitterest of conflicts for King Charles. He sons had grown to manhood as prisoners in Aragon. To free them, he had to betray his friend. In fact, Pope Boniface did free Charles’ sons, and he kept Celestine in a family castle south of Rome until his death.
Villains come in many forms, some from the low-life criminal element, from whom you would expect no good thing. Others, like Pope Boniface VIII, come from places of privilege and honor, and their villainy is all the more contemptible because of the power they have to do good.