Previous page Page 3 of 5 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
1st - 8th century
9th - 12th century
13th - 15th century
     Crusades with a difference
     Innocent and the holy beggars
     The popes and Sicily
     France and the papacy
     The popes at Avignon
     The Great Schism
     Council of Constance

15th - 17th century
18th - 21st century

Bookmark and Share
Crusades with a difference: 1200-1208

In the 13th century, during the pontificate of Innocent III, there are two crusades which differ from their predecessors in one major respect. The crusaders use their might against fellow members of the Christian community.

In the earlier of the two, the fourth crusade, this is a flagrant travesty of the official intention. The crusaders divert from their journey east to capture and pillage the Greek Orthodox city of Constantinople - an act immediately and strongly condemned by Innocent. But the second unusual crusade is specifically preached by the pope. He launches it against heretics in the south of France - the puritanical sect of Cathars, who now have close links with the Bogomils of eastern Europe.


Early in the 13th century Innocent III sends bishops to Toulouse to preach against the Cathar heresy. But the pronouncements of these grandees of the church do little to convince the heretics. They are much more readily swayed by the certainties of their own self-denying leaders.

In 1206 a different approach is proposed by Dominic de Guzman (better known now as St Dominic), a canon accompanying a Spanish bishop to Toulouse. Christian preachers, he argues, should learn from the Cathars. They must live an equivalently simple life if ordinary people are to listen to their message. It is the beginning of the Dominican system of evangelical preaching.


Dominic's approach achieves early successes. In 1207 he establishes a convent at Prouille, in which the nuns are converts from the Cathar heresy. This convent becomes the headquarters of his mission, until an act of violence puts preaching in second place.

In January 1208 the pope's legate to Toulouse is assassinated. Innocent now calls upon the feudal lords of Christian Europe to destroy the heretics, unleashing the violence of the Albigensian crusade. Combined with the continuing efforts of the Dominicans, the crusade ends the Cathar heresy in western Europe. In the Balkans the influence of the Bogomils survives longer, until submerged in the Turkish invasions.


Innocent and the holy beggars: 1210-1215

The most lasting achievement of Innocent III's pontificate is his recognition of a new movement within the western church. The monasteries have shown an incorrigible tendency to accumulate wealth. In 1210 and 1215 the pope receives in Rome two visionaries with a strikingly different concept of how to follow the example of Christ.

The first visit is from Francis of Assisi and eleven of his companions. They are laymen who have given up their worldly possessions. They want to live among the poor, particularly in the rapidly growing towns, preaching and bearing witness to a Christian life. The pope encourages them.


Five years later Innocent's visitor is a Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, who has much experience of preaching (to the Cathars) and a specific interest in correcting doctrinal error. Like Francis, he and his fellows have embraced poverty. They work amid the bustle and argument of the towns. They too are given Innocent's blessing.

From these encounters are born the two great orders of mendicant (or begging) friars, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Western monasticism rediscovers a truth more often remembered in the east, in Hinduism and Buddhism - that the holy man's only possession is his begging bowl. But neither mendicant order, growing in power, will find the ideal of poverty easy.


The formal foundation of each order falls within the pontificate of Innocent's successor, Honorius III. He establishes the Dominicans in 1216 and the Franciscans in 1223.

This papal foundation distinguishes the friars from the more independent monastic orders, established in earlier centuries when the papacy was able to exercise only a relatively loose control. The two mendicant orders are seen and are used as an instrument of papal policy. They will be joined in this respect, after the crisis of the Reformation, by a third and even more powerful order - that of the Jesuits (who differ from the Dominicans and the Franciscans in not sharing their ideological devotion to poverty).


Inquisition: 1233-1478

The survival of the Catharist heresy in parts of France, even after the brutality of the Albigensian crusade, persuades pope Gregory IX that specialists are required. In 1233 he writes to bishops in France saying that he is sending them some Dominican friars to help them in this necessary task of rooting out heretics.

Some of these first inquisitors have the special expertise of poachers turned gamekeeper. Robert le Bougre, the most severe of those sent to France in 1233, was drawn into the sect as a young man for love of a Cathar girl. St Peter Martyr, appointed inquisitor for northern Italy by Gregory IX (and assassinated by a Cathar in 1252), was born into a Catharist family.


The work of the Inquisition is accompanied from the start by alarming ceremonies. An inquisitor, arriving in a place where heresy is suspected, commands the local people to divulge what they know of their neighbours. The names of witnesses are concealed, so there is a strong temptation to settle scores. From 1252, by a bull of Innocent IV, suspects may be tortured to obtain confessions.

The inquisitor's announcement of the penalties imposed provides an exciting public spectacle, with the condemned on parade to hear their fate.


The inquisitor may prescribe penalties such as fasting, pilgrimage, the wearing of a yellow cross, the confiscation of property, flogging, or imprisonment for any period, including even life. But he cannot impose a death sentence, on the grounds that the church does not shed blood.

Instead, those condemned to death are handed over to the secular authorities - who know their Christian duty and are happy to comply. Death by burning at the stake, long the traditional punishment for heresy, has the added attraction of maintaining - in a very literal sense - the fiction that no blood is being shed.


The medieval Inquisition is mainly used against the Cathars in France, though the burning of both John Huss and Joan of Arc follow investigations by inquisitors. The inquisitorial procedure becomes firmly established in the two centuries from Gregory IX's creation of the Inquisition in the 13th century to the deaths of Huss and Joan of Arc in the 15th.

It is therefore a simple matter for pope Sixtus IV in 1478 to authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to appoint inquisitors who will ensure that Spanish Jews are genuinely converting to Christianity. And it remains the tradition that Dominicans, among them Torquemada, will undertake the task. The Spanish Inquisition is an extension of what has gone before.


The popes and Sicily: 1254-1282

Sicily, linked politically to the southern region of Italy, is an area of profound concern to the papacy - this kingdom is Rome's southern neighbour. Rome therefore takes seriously the vacancy on the Sicilian throne in 1254, caused by the death of Frederick II's son Conrad IV. Admittedly there are claimants from Frederick's Hohenstaufen line. There is his illegitimate son Manfred. And there is the legitimate heir, Conrad IV's son Conradin. But Conradin is only two.

In the circumstances the papacy feels it right to intervene. The kingdom of Sicily is a vassal of the Holy See, and a sympathetic ruler needs to be found. The crown is first offered in 1255 to one of the sons of Henry III, king of England.


The English show little interest. Meanwhile, in 1258, Manfred arranges for his own coronation in Sicily. This fait accompli leads to prolonged negotiations with Rome which finally break down in 1263. The pope then offers the crown of Sicily and Naples to Charles of Anjou - a younger brother of Louis IX, the king of France.

Charles brings a French army to Italy and kills Manfred in battle near Benevento in 1266. Two years later the 16-year-old Conradin is captured and handed over to Charles, who has him executed in a public ceremony in Naples.


Sicily and southern Italy are now in French hands, to the satisfaction of Rome. The French and the papacy share a profound hostility to the German empire - a rivalry expressed in Italian terms in the opposition of the papal party of the Guelphs to the Ghibellines, the supporters of the empire. The popes are therefore delighted to have enemies of the Germans as their southern neighbours.

The Sicilians, however, are less enchanted by the arrival of French nobles (to whom large tracts of Sicilian land are distributed as feudal territories) and by high taxes imposed on them to pay for the military campaigns of Charles of Anjou.


The resentment against Angevin rule erupts in the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Southern Italy enters two centuries of turmoil. The opponents are the French Angevins and the papacy on one side and the Spanish Aragonese, with frequent support from the German empire, on the other.

The popes are often on the losing side. Even more harmful perhaps is a new perception resulting from all this military activity. Popes come to seem almost indistinguishable from temporal princes, taking sides (usually with France) in Italy's and Europe's patchwork quilt of warfare. The resulting loss of Rome's spiritual authority is a feature of the next two centuries.


France and the papacy: 13th - 14th century

From the early 13th century the papacy develops a particularly intense relationship with France. An example is the joint response to the Catharist heresy; the crusade to stamp it out is conducted by French nobles and the French crown on behalf of the pope.

In mid-century, Rome has close links with the devotedly Christian monarch Louis IX, who goes twice on crusade to the east and is canonized twenty-seven years after his death. In 1263 it is a French pope, Urban IV, who selects Louis' younger brother Charles of Anjou to rule the kingdom of Naples and Sicily.


By the end of the century the relationship is even more intense, but it has turned sour. From 1296 Boniface VIII is involved in a struggle with Philip IV of France about whether the king has the right to tax and discipline clergy in his own realm without the pope's permission. This struggle for temporal power between church and state prolongs, in another form, the earlier tussle of the investiture controversy.

In 1302 Philip enlists the estates general in Paris in support of his cause. Then, claiming that there were irregularities in the election of Boniface, he sends an envoy to Italy with instructions to stir up insurrection against the pope.


Hearing in 1303 that Boniface is about to issue a bull excommunicating his royal master, Philip's envoy (Guillaume de Nogaret) takes a bold step. He raises a small armed force and surprises Boniface at his birthplace, Anagni. He arrests the pope and holds him prisoner for two days.

Boniface dies a month later in Rome. The prestige of the papacy is severely dented by this episode, while Philip IV's power seems enhanced. A few years later he even contrives to destroy the great order of the Templars, forcing a French pope, Clement V, to comply with his wishes. Clement formally suppresses the order in 1312.


For much of the 14th century France appears to have the papacy in its pocket, almost literally. Clement V is the first of seven French popes in an unbroken succession spanning seventy-three years, to 1378. From 1309 these popes are based not in Rome but on French soil, at Avignon.

Clement moves his headquarters to Avignon in 1309 to prepare for a council which he has called in central France, at Vienne, to discuss the king of France's charges against the Templars. The town is friendly, for it belongs to a papal protégé - the Angevin dynasty of Naples. When major extensions to the bishop's palace are undertaken, from 1316, it becomes evident that the papal residence in Avignon is to be a long one.


The popes at Avignon: 1309-1379

In many ways the move to Avignon has a rational justification. This city is close to the main power of the time, France, but it is in another kingdom - that of Naples. It is also the centre of western Europe in a way which Rome could never be. Lines drawn from Britain to Italy and from Germany to Spain would cross close to Avignon.

In addition this place is much more secure than Rome. Italy is in a state of anarchy, dominated by warring aristocratic families and companies of condottieri. At Avignon the French popes have the opportunity to create an efficient papal bureaucracy. Papal dignity is powerfully expressed in the great palace of the popes, constructed from 1334.


Yet the prestige of the popes derives from Rome, the see of St Peter. And their territorial base, the papal states, is Italian. Moreover there are hopes at this time that some form of reconciliation may be possible with the Greek Orthodox church of Constantinople. In terms both of history and geography, Rome rather than Avignon would be the natural setting for such a desirable development.

After a preliminary return to Rome for three years, from 1367, the final move back from Avignon takes place in 1377.


After seventy years in France the papal curia is French in its methods and to a large extent in its staff. Back in Rome some degree of tension between French and Italian factions is inevitable.

It is brought to an abrupt head by the death of the French pope Gregory IX within a year of his return to Rome. The Roman crowd, said to be in threatening mood, demand a Roman pope or at least an Italian one. In 1378 the conclave elects an Italian from Naples, Urban VI. His intransigence in office soon alienates the French cardinals. And the behaviour of the Roman crowd enables them to declare, in retrospect, that his election was invalid, voted under duress.


The French cardinals withdraw to a conclave of their own, where they elect one of their number, Robert of Geneva. He takes the name Clement VII. By 1379 he is back in the palace of popes in Avignon, while Urban pontificates in Rome.

The Great Schism has begun.


The Great Schism: 1378-1417

For nearly forty years Europe has two papal curias and two sets of cardinals, each electing a new pope for Rome or Avignon when death brings a vacancy. Each pope lobbies for support. Kings and princes play them off against each other, changing allegiance when advantage offers.

In 1409 a council is convened at Pisa to resolve the issue. The council declares both existing popes to be schismatic (Gregory XII from Rome, Benedict XIII from Avignon) and appoints a new one, Alexander V. But nobody has persuaded the other two to resign. So the church now has three popes. Another council is convened, in 1414, at Constance. It will also consider the radical notions of John Wycliffe and John Huss.


The Council of Constance: 1414-1417

The council deals with the matter of heresy more speedily than it succeeds in reducing three popes to one. The ideas of Wycliffe and Huss are discussed and rapidly condemned. Huss is burnt at the stake in July 1415. By that time Jerome of Prague has with equal courage travelled to Constance to defend his master. He too is arrested. In May 1416 he is burnt on the same patch of ground as Huss.

To ensure that there are no relics of heresy, the council has Huss's ashes scattered in the Rhine. And it orders that Wycliffe's body be dug up, burnt and consigned to an English river.


The issue of the popes comes closer to farce than tragedy. In March 1415 the Pisan pope, John XXIII, flees from Constance in disguise; he is brought back a prisoner and is deposed in May. The Roman pope, Gregory XII, resigns voluntarily in July.

The Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, refuses to come to Constance. In spite of a personal visit in France from the emperor Sigismund, he will hear nothing of resignation. The council finally deposes him in July 1417. Denying their right to do so, he withdraws to an impregnable castle on the coast of Spain. Here he continues to act as pope, creating new cardinals and issuing decrees, until his death in 1423.


The council in Constance, having finally achieved a clean slate in July 1417, elects a new pope in November. The vote is unanimous for a cardinal who is not an ordained priest (less unusual then than it sounds now), so on almost successive days he is rushed through the necessary stages. Ordained as deacon, then as priest, consecrated as bishop and enthroned as pope, he emerges as Martin V.

The new pope makes his way gradually south to Rome, a city crumbling into ruin after a century and more of neglect. The popes of the next hundred years will not solve the corruption in the papacy, which cries out for reform. But they will dramatically improve the face of Rome.


Previous page Page 3 of 5 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF THE PAPACY