One of the more political and power-hungry Popes of all time was Boniface VIII. It was said that if it was a toss-up between saving a man’s soul for all eternity and running his life on Earth, it was no contest. In his view (and through his edicts), the Pope was at the top of the pyramid and everyone, kings included, were subservient to him. He began life as Benedetto Caetani, born circa 1235, in Anagni, about 30 miles southeast of Rome. He was the younger son of Roffredo Caetani, a member of a baronial family of the Papal States. His mother, Emilia Patrasso di Guarcino, was a niece of Pope Alexander IV, so Benedetto was not so distant from the seat of ecclesiastical power and patronage. Educated in law, Benedetto developed a cunning nature and rose through the ranks of the Church. He was one of the Cardinals who convinced Celestine V, a former monk, to resign the Papacy and return to a life of solitude. With Celestine out of the way, Benedetto became Pope Boniface VIII.
Boniface reigned from 1294-1303 and was one of the Church’s most ardent supporters of Papal authority. His quest for power reached its zenith during what should have been a minor squabble with the King of France. Philip IV began taxing the clergy of the Church to help finance his wars, which was not exactly a new thing. In fact, the King is also known as Philip the Fair. In response, Boniface VIII released one of the most important Papal edicts in Catholic history – the infamous Unam Sanctum. It declared that both spiritual and temporal power were under the Pope’s jurisdiction and that kings were subordinate to the power of the Church. This was considered to be an infallible declaration of the Catholic Church.
Philip’s chief minister declared that Boniface was a heretic, so the Pope excommunicated the King. He engaged in a private war against the prominent Colonna family. Boniface sent mercenaries to destroy their castles, declared all the family’s property forfeited and proceeded to parcel out the Colonna’s land to his own family members. This incensed both Philip and the Colonnas. In September 1303, an army led by the family, kidnapped the Pope. King Philip and the Colonnas demanded that he resign, to which Boniface VIII responded that he would ‘sooner die.’ Boniface was beaten badly and nearly executed, but was released from captivity after three days. He died a month later, on October 11, 1303. Although Boniface VIII was still alive when Dante Alighieri, who had been personally exiled by the Pope for supporting Papal limitations, wrote his famous Divine Comedy, the Italian writer placed the Pope in the Eighth Circle of Hell, among the simoniacs (those who sold Church offices).
Pope Urban VI ruled from 1378-1389, but his Papacy certainly got off on the wrong foot. An Italian, although not a Roman, Urban was elected to succeed Pope Gregory XI in April 1378. It was a move intended to placate Romans, who for decades bristled at the French domination of the Papacy. Urban had developed a reputation for simplicity, frugality, a penchant for learning and a head for business when he was acting Vice-Chancellor. Those virtues seemed to dissipate instantly upon his election as Pope. Once installed, Urban VI immediately alienated his followers with a harsh, autocratic leadership style and he was prone to outbursts of rage. The cardinals who elected him decided that they had made the wrong decision. Thirteen French Cardinals who feared that their new leader would favor his fellow Italians fled Rome. The Cardinals declared that Urban VI’s election was “null because it was not made freely, but under fear.” On September 20, 1378, they chose their own Pope, French Cardinal Robert of Geneva. He became Antipope Clement VII, who started a second Papal court in Avignon, France. Urban was declared excommunicated by the French antipope and was called “the Antichrist.”
This did not go over well with Urban VI, but even against this major rift with the French, the Pope still managed to stir up even more trouble at home. He declared that cardinals could no longer accept gifts from patrons, which did not go over well and he even excommunicated his own former patron, Queen Joan I of Naples. With much of the Italian peninsula either at war or planning war, Urban had few allies that he could count on. When Louis of Anjou and Amadeus VI of Savoy invaded Rome, Urban fled to Naples to seek the protection of his erstwhile ally, Charles of Durazzo. He was a ruthless man who had usurped Queen Joan and held Urban a virtual prisoner in Nocera. There Urban fumed and set a price on the heads of those who had besieged his Papacy. He was ultimately rescued by two Neapolitan barons and made his escape to Genoa. Several cardinals who had been with him in Nocera felt Urban was no longer up to the task of the Papacy. Urban had them seized, tortured and put to death, an event later described as a crime unheard of through the centuries. Urban however complained that he did not hear enough screaming. The competing papacies launched the Western Schism that proved a thorn in the church’s side for four decades. It was only resolved when all three of the (then) reigning Popes abdicated together and a successor elected in the person of Pope Martin V.