The Papacy: The End of Hohenstaufen and the Last of the Crusades (1216-1303)

The demise of Pope Innocent III struck the papacy like an anvil. Two days after the pope’s death, the cardinals all met and elected a new pope, an “elderly and frail” man who took the name of Honorius III. Descending from an aristocratic Roman family who served for many years among the Curia, his true name was Cardinal Cencio Savelli. As his first act, the pope sought to continue his predecessor’s plan for a Crusade. In order to do so, he quickly began pursuing a diplomatic balance between France, England, and Aragon –the pope dissuaded Philip Augustus from invading England in the wake of King John’s bungled foibles, and he also helped John’s son, Henry, ascend to the throne of England in 1216.

The Fifth and Sixth Crusades

Predictably, a Fifth Crusade proved as silly and incompetent as the Second, Third, and Fourth Crusades. It sought to capture the Egyptian city of Damietta in the hopes of negotiating an exchange for Jerusalem. However, the crusade was plagued by months of delays, and a feud over command of the armies between John of Brienne (titular King of Jerusalem) and the papal contingent under the Spanish Cardinal Pelagius of Santa Lucia. After some seventeen months of bombardment, Sultan Malik al-Kamil desperately offered the whole kingdom west of the Jordan to the invaders, but it was, however, foolishly refused. Pelagius pressed onward for several more years, hoping to conquer all of Egypt, but the Crusaders were soon trapped by flooding of the Nile which forced them to surrender. “The Crusade, so nearly a success, had been yet another disaster, thanks entirely to the pigheadedness of its leader” (182).  

Pope Honorius blamed the failure on Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who declined to participate in the invasion for reasons unknown. While the pope was naturally eager to launch a sixth crusade in order to save face, led by a reluctant Frederick II, in 1222 Frederick’s wife, Empress Constance suddenly died. In her wake, an offer of marriage was made to Frederick by twelve-year-old Yolande de Brienne (“Isabella II”), the hereditary queen of Jerusalem. Despite her penniless claim to Jerusalem, which had by now been ruled by the Saracens for nearly a half century, Frederick relented and accepted the marriage. Thus, a new Crusade was urged by Pope Honorius to leave no later than Ascension Day, May 20, 1227. Any delays would result in the excommunication of the Holy Roman Emperor. This political maneuvering set in motion a series of events which angered John de Brienne after being informed he would lose his regency of Jerusalem. He was also angered at Frederick’s apparent seduction of Yolande’s cousin. Yolande was later kept under house arrest by Frederick. She gave birth to a child who died in infancy and she then died from complications related to childbirth after delivering a second child (a grave tragedy suffered by many women in those days). In addition to these woes, Frederick’s refusal to acknowledge papal authority over lands in Northern and Central Italy led to a feud between pope and emperor which hung on the edge of a knife.

Things were further complicated by the death of Pope Honorius in 1227 who was succeeded by Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia (he took the name of “Pope Gregory IX”). An elderly man in his seventies, who was unlikely to be friendly to Frederick’s machinations. In fact, Gregory IX despised Frederick II whose debauched lifestyle had now become the stuff of legend. Things came to a head when Frederick and his Germanic forces embarked on the Sixth Crusade, however an epidemic struck the troops, killing many and even infecting Frederick himself. At the last moment, he returned to the mainland but he was not accepted by Pope Gregory who accused the emperor of walking back his promise. On September 29, he excommunicated Frederick II. However, Frederick outplayed Gregory –he published a letter encouraging commitment to the cause and tolerance. And so, when the pope began to launch into another fiery tirade against the emperor on Easter Sunday 1228, there were riots in Rome, forcing the pope to seek refuge in Viterbo where he promptly excommunicated Frederick II, the first of several such excommunications. However, the pope’s flight was still a setback for papal prestige, it was an event that would take a great deal of time to overcome.

Nevertheless, Frederick returned to pursue Jerusalem for the Sixth Crusade. Under the auspices of a potential treaty resulting from the feud between brothers Sultan al-Kamil and al-Mu’azzam, Frederick proceeded to the Holy Land. But after the unexpected death of al-Mu’azzam, Frederick managed to secure a tenuous ten-year peace in Jerusalem from al-Kami. It was a bloodless conquest of the city, and then in open defiance of a papal ban, Frederick attended mass wearing his crown at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1229. However, rather than greeting this qualified victory with celebration, the Sixth Crusade was instead met with indignant outrage –Christians felt Frederick had colluded with the Sultan of Egypt, while the livid Eastern Patriarch of Jerusalem put the entire city under interdict. Church services were prohibited, pilgrims were turned away from the city, and local barons wondered why they were not consulted about this massive sea-change. The final straw came when rumors spread of Frederick’s fascination with Islam –he was fluent in Arabic and he openly visited a variety of sacred Muslim sites in the city, rubbing shoulders with both clerics and sultans. Needless to say, this did not sit well in Christendom. A violent Christian rebellion spilled out into the streets of Jerusalem, and the Templars attacked Frederick’s contingent as it moved through the city, forcing him to flee while pelted with food and garbage. Upon returning to his homeland, following only a brief stop in Cyprus, he arrived to find his kingdom in chaos. Pope Gregory had launched a war against Frederick’s territories –installing a puppet emperor (Otto of Brunswick) in Germany, and sending armies to Southern Italy and Sicily while spreading rumors of Frederick’s death. The pope also issued an edict which released all the emperor’s subjects from their oaths of allegiance. It was an open civil war between church and state. In time, Frederick’s triumphant return restabilized the crisis in Southern Italy, and after a long, grueling series of negotiations, Frederick finally accepted a peace treaty with the pope in 1230 in exchange for lifting his status as an excommunicate. For now, the tempestuous relationship between pope and emperor, which had so ceaselessly roiled medieval Europe, was brought to heel.

For nine years, the uneasy peace was kept –Emperor Frederick II would send aid to put down uprisings in Rome, while Pope Gregory IX would smooth over the clerics of Lombardy if theological disagreements proved too great. But once Gregory failed to assuage the Lombards, Frederick decided to call upon the German princes to smash the Lombards, a tactical move which was considered threatening to the papacy. After all, what was to stop Frederick from invading Rome if he had stampeded through Northern Italy? The peace quickly deteriorated, and Frederick was once again excommunicated as his forces marched on Rome, surrounding the city, blocking all entry by land or sea. By now, Gregory was in his late eighties, struggling with kidney disease, and his death came imminently on August 22, 1241. With the aging pope now gone, Frederick returned to Germany, claiming his quarrel was not with the church, but rather with a maniacal pope.

Aside from his public spats with the Holy Roman Emperor, Gregory IX is often remembered today for instituting the Papal Inquisition for prosecuting “heresy” (the first of many such brutal Inquisitions) and for publishing the Liber Extra in 1234, the first complete collection of papal decretals which was canonized by the church for centuries until the early 20th century. Among the many decretals was the doctrine of perpetua servitus iudaeorum (or “perpetual servitude of the Jews”), which decreed that all Jews were condemned to political servitude throughout Christendom as well as in the Holy Roman Empire. This led to centuries of utterly abhorrent treatment of Jews throughout Europe leading up until the 19th century and the rise of liberalism. Powerful echoes of this disgraceful legacy continue even into the present-day.

At any rate, Pope Gregory IX was succeeded by the aged and frail Celestine IV who had served only seventeen days as head of the church before dying prior to his own coronation. The next pope was to be the Genoese Cardinal Sinibaldo Fieschi who became Pope Innocent IV in June 1243. Within two years, Innocent IV convened a General Council at Lyons and formally deposed Frederick, but the name Hohenstaufen simply would not fade out of German memory. In desperation, Innocent IV sought to bribe numerous German princes to support his anti-kings, however the papal coffers were nearly empty and creditors were lining up demanding payment for his predecessor Gregory IX’s foolish ventures abroad. Then in 1250, Frederick was stricken with dysentery while on a hunting trip in Apulia. He died a few days later at the age of fifty-five. His body was taken to Palermo Cathedral where he was buried inside the sarcophagus of his grandfather the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. In spite of his death, superstitious rumors and conspiracies spread like wildfire that Frederick was still alive merely hiding out in the mountains, waiting for the right moment to reclaim his throne.  

The Decline of the Hohenstaufen

The death of Frederick II left the Holy Roman Empire in the hands of Frederick’s children (both legitimate and illegitimate), and the death of Innocent IV in 1254 also hailed a new pope, Alexander IV, one whom many hopes would reconquer Italy from Frederick’s heirs, but the “easygoing and ineffectual” Alexander died in 1261 with little to show. After months of inconclusive deliberations, the cardinals selected an outsider –the son of a cobbler named Jacques Pantaleon, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who took the papal name of Urban IV (John Julius Norwich describes Urban IV as a “cold, cruel, and vastly ambitious opportunist”). Through some clever maneuvering, Urban IV sought to exploit the wealthy brother of King Louis IX of France, Charles of Anjou, in pursuit of Southern Italy and Sicily (during this whole period, neither Urban IV nor his successor Clement IV ever set foot in Rome out of fear for their lives). Charles’s troops came down hard and ultimately annihilated Frederick’s shadow over the south. Echoes of the Hohenstaufen attempted to regain what was lost, such as the teenaged Conradin’s bloody invasion of Italy but this only ended with his capture and public beheading in 1268. This was the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty.  

However, since an imperialist is rarely satisfied with his own lands, Charles of Anjou sought to expand his empire across the Italian peninsula, hoping to place a puppet pope in power, and reconquer Constantinople in order to return it to the Latin faith, all while seeking an expansive Christian empire stretching across the Mediterranean. His ambitions proved to be a greater threat to the papacy than Frederick II.

Meanwhile, turnover continued among the enfeebled, senile papacy. Pope Urban IV served three years on the throne before passing in 1264, and he was followed by Clement IV who also served three years before passing in 1268. With Charles’s influence, the cardinals were deadlocked for a three-year Interregnum where there was no pope on the throne of St. Peter until they hastily selected Tedaldo Visconti, Archdeacon of Liege, who took the name of Gregory X, a pope who managed to institute a temporary union between east and west with the Council of Lyons in 1274. But by 1281, four more popes had come and gone until Charles finally was granted his chosen pope: a Frenchman named Simon de Brie who became Pope Martin IV. The new pope allowed Charles to launch an invasion of Constantinople (the Greeks had recovered the city from the Franks only twenty years earlier in 1282). However, the full-scale invasion of Byzantium was prevented when an uprising broke out in Palermo. Tumult in Sicily continued to threaten Charles’s rule and he died some twenty years later. “Martin had promptly proclaimed a Crusade against the Aragonese, but nobody took it very seriously; and it was a sad and disappointed pontiff who –having in March 1285 dined too well on milk-fed eels from Lake Bolsena—followed his friend Charles to the grave” (195).

John Julius Norwich notes that the “principal task of the next two popes was to expel the House of Aragon from South Italy and to restore that of Anjou” (196). The first was Honorius IV, a seventy-five-year-old Roman from a distinguished family who was suffering from gout in his old age which prevented him from mobility (he could neither stand up by himself, nor raise his own arms without aid). He reigned for a meager two years before passing, and this led to another gap year in the papacy after which the cardinals returned and elected the first Franciscan pope in 1288 –Girolamo Masci who took the name of Pope Nicholas IV. However, Nicholas’s efforts in Sicily only resulted in more failure, and he also lost the lands won by Crusaders in Jerusalem, the city of Acre (the de facto capital of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem) which fell to the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun in 1291. By now, the city had devolved into infighting, and “from its beginnings it had been a monument to intolerance and territorial ambition, its story one of steady physical and moral decline accompanied by monumental incompetence” (196).

Following Nicholas’s death in 1292, the twelve humble surviving cardinals who did not succumb to the plague which was raging at the time, deliberated from some twenty-seven months before picking “one of the most unsuitable men” to ever become pope –Pietro da Morrone who took the name of Celestine V, an eighty-five-year-old hermetic peasant who, upon learning of his appointment, faced a panic attack at his remote hermitage in Abruzzi. After a prolonged period of prayer, he reluctantly accepted his new role. This delicate, agonized old man served mostly as the political stooge of Charles II. He took up residence in a tiny wooden cell, refusing to see his cardinals, whose worldliness and sophistication utterly terrified him. He mostly ignored the duties of the papacy –political, diplomatic, and administrative—and could not even speak Latin. He lasted a mere five months before abdicating his position (spurred on by Cardinal Benedetto Caetani who may have installed a speaking tube into the pope’s cell through which the conniving cardinal imitated the voice of God condemning hellfire if the pope did not abdicate), leaving the papacy a mockery as he returned in rags to his beloved mountain hermitage. He was later caricatured by Dante in The Inferno as a cowardly figure, even though he was just a simple hermit who was unfit for the politics of governing an imperial theocracy.

Unsurprisingly, Cardinal Benedetto Caetini who took the name of Boniface VIII, was “by far the most able, the most strong-willed, and the most ambitious.” Born in Anagni to an aristocratic well-connected family, Boniface VIII was in his early sixties when he ascended to the papacy. His first act was to orchestrate a vast procession into Rome with his predecessor, Celestine (much to the former pope’s horror), due to his popularity among the faithful. A chase was ordered to locate Celestine and it took some time, but the aging hermit was soon captured at which time he uttered his famous prophecy of Boniface VIII: “You have entered like a fox, you will reign like a lion –and you will die like a dog.” Boniface responded by imprisoning Celestine in a remote castle at Fumone where the former pope died ten months later at the age of ninety.

Pope Boniface VIII was unlike his predecessor in every way –worldly, scholarly, erudite, and political. He founded the Sapienza University in Rome, codified canon law, and reinstituted the Vaitan Library and Archives. However, while he succeeded as a strong-willed governor (an office which was badly needed if the papacy was to survive), Boniface lacked the more tender, spiritual, and otherworldly concerns of the Christian faith. His vision of papal supremacy was to be extended over the emerging nations of Europe.

He declared that the year 1300 was a “Holy Year” in which pardons were to be granted for all Christians who visited the sacred sites of St. Peter’s or the Lateran. As a result, some 200,000 pilgrims descended upon Rome, greatly enriching the city and elevating the pope’s prestige. One such pilgrim was none other than the famed Italian poet Dante (he later satirized the hellish crowds he experienced at Ponte Sant’Angelo in The Inferno). However, there few if any crowns among the hordes in Rome that year. Boniface had successfully alienated a great many –including King Charles and Edward I of England when the pope claimed Scotland as a papal fiefdom, as well as political foibles in Poland and Hungary, but perhaps his most notorious enemy was the French king, Philip the Fair, with whom the pope sparred over taxation (which served as the prelude to the Hundred Years War) and he expanded the notion of “Papal Absolutism” across all peoples. Boniface’s troubles continued to mount when he lost the support of various constituencies, like the Colonna family and the Fraticelli (a Franciscan branch which believed strongly in the values of poverty and asceticism). The pope was accused of every sin imaginable –like idolatry (resulting from all the statues he erected of himself), as well as simony, avarice, and even pedophilia. These rumors among the peasants were only all-too easily exploited by powerful interests in the halls of Boniface’s many enemies, especially in France. “Within three or four years of his accession, Boniface VIII was probably the most widely detested pope there had ever been” (200). Before the pope could excommunicate King Philip of France, he was briefly captured in Anagni during a failed kidnapping plot that was only stopped in order to prevent the outbreak of a violent bloodbath. About a month later, Boniface returned to Rome where he died on October 12, 1303. Today, Pope Boniface VIII is often infamously remembered as the pope who was placed upside down in a furnace inside Dante’s eighth circle of hell.    

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy.

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