Short Papers on Church History — Chapter 28

The Decline of Papal Power

From the time of Innocent III. down to the age of the Reformation, the Lord was preparing the way for that great event by weakening the power of the popes over human governments, and over the minds of men generally. The decline was slow, at least for about a hundred years, for the whole power of Satan was put forth to support the "mystery of iniquity;" but it pleased God to weaken her power by raising up men of ability and integrity to expose her many evils. These witnesses we propose to examine in our next chapter. In the meantime we may add that the whole mind of Europe had become so familiarised with the assertion of the papal claims, that they were accepted as an essential part of Christianity. The ruling idea of this great theocratic scheme was the absolute supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal power, "as of the soul over the body, as of eternity over time as of Christ over Caesar, as of God over man — that all earthly power is subordinate to the spiritual power in every respect either mediately or immediately touching on or affecting religion or its chief." This principle, first asserted in all its fulness by Hildebrand, acquired its "firmest establishment and greatest expansion" in the able hands of Innocent. He stood on the summit of pontifical power and glory. What had been the day-dream of many of his predecessors was fully realized during his pontificate; but from this pinnacle the crowned priest begins to descend.

Details of the long and ruinous wars between the papacy and the empire which immediately followed, especially between Gregory IX., Innocent IV., and Frederick II., would be unsuited to our pages and unnecessary for the purpose of our history. We will therefore content ourselves with a rapid sketch of the leading pontiffs during this period of papal decline.

In the year 1216, Honorius III succeeded Innocent. The whole attention of the new pontiff was devoted to the promotion of the holy war. The Crusades had become so established an article in the papal creed, and so necessary to the maintenance of the papal power, that no cardinal who was not in heart and soul a Crusader would have been raised to the chair of St. Peter. This was the highest qualification of the chief priest of the christian religion. Hence the first act of Honorius after his installation was to send a circular letter to all Christendom, urging Christians in the most exciting terms to contribute either in money or in person to the new campaign. Frederick II., the Emperor-elect, in his youthful ardour had made a solemn vow to Innocent to engage without loss of time in a new crusade; not against the now crushed Albigenses, whose ashes were still smouldering, but for the destruction of the Mahometans, and the liberation of the holy sepulchre from infidel desecration. And no one in those times who had taken the vow was allowed to excuse himself. If unable to undertake the expedition in person, he must find substitutes or money. Letters were instantly dispatched to Frederick, reminding him of his late crusading vow, and pressing his immediate departure for the Holy Land. But Frederick was yet a youth, his rival Otho was still alive, his realm in the most unsettled state, so that he could not possibly leave for some time. Neither menace nor persuasion could move Frederick, though in him the papal hopes were chiefly centered.

The Conquest and Loss of Damietta

The call was now fiercely sounded and the hymn of battle sung by the emissaries of the pope throughout France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, and the whole of the West: the kings, princes, and nobles, were besieged and harassed to collect without delay, ships, men, money, arms, and all needed supplies. But the pope found to his mortification that the enthusiasm of former ages had passed away — that Honorius had no longer the magic power of Urban. Neither papal legates nor preaching friars could kindle in the hearts of the people a zeal for the holy war. Only one king obeyed the summons, Andrew of Hungary. Princes and prelates, dukes, archbishops and bishops, joined the Hungarian king. A large force was collected. The first object of attack was Damietta, which, after a siege of sixteen months, fell into the hands of the crusaders. But the destruction of human life for this papal folly was fearful. "The inhabitants had been so much reduced by famine, pestilence, and the sword, that out of eighty thousand only three thousand are said to have remained alive; the air was tainted by the smell of corpses; yet even in the midst of these horrors the captors could not restrain their cruelty and rapacity."*

{*J.C. Robertson, vol. 3, p. 383.}

The report of this splendid victory was received by the pope with exultation. His hopes of ultimate success were stimulated to the highest pitch. But these hopes were soon to be disappointed. It was besieged the following year by an overwhelming force of infidels under the active and able leadership of Malek al Kamul, Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Damietta was surrendered.

The deep mortification of the pope vented itself on the Emperor. The failure of the expedition, the calamities of the Christians, were ascribed to his wilful procrastination. It is supposed that thirty-five thousand Christians, and about seventy thousand Mussulmans, had perished at Damietta. But defeat and disaster only stimulated the zeal of the pontiff for fresh crusades. During a reign of eleven years, Honorius had been chiefly engaged in promoting crusades against the Albigenses in the south of France and against the Saracens in Palestine. In 1227 he died, still pressing the departure of Frederick, and, we are not sorry to add, still pressing it in vain.

Gregory IX. and Frederick II.

Gregory IX., a near relation of Innocent III., and a staunch disciple of his school, was immediately raised to the pontifical throne with loud and unanimous acclamations. His coronation was of the most gorgeous character. "He returned from St. Peter's, wearing two crowns, mounted on a horse richly caparisoned, and surrounded by cardinals, clothed in purple, and a numerous clergy. The streets were spread with tapestry, inlaid with gold and silver, the noblest productions of Egypt, and the most brilliant colours of India, and perfumed with various aromatic odours."* He had reached his eighty-first year when he ascended the throne of St. Peter. But at that extreme age his mental faculties were unimpaired. He is spoken of as having the ambition, the vigour, almost the activity, of youth; in purpose and action, inflexible, in temper, warm and vehement.

{*Waddington, vol. 2, p. 281.}

Frederick, it will be remembered, was a ward of Innocent III. The adventures, perils, and successes of the youthful king, as he struggled upward to his hereditary throne in Sicily, and to the imperial crown of Germany, are almost unparalleled in history. During the pontificate of Honorius his character was expanding into the prime of manhood; he was thirty-three when that pontiff died. At this time he was in undisputed possession of the empire, with all its rights in northern Italy, king of Apulia, Sicily, and Jerusalem. Historians vie with each other in their descriptions of his character, and the enumeration of his virtues and vices. Milman, in his usual poetical style, describes him as at once the magnificent sovereign, the gallant knight, the poet, the lawgiver, the patron of arts, letters, and science, whose farseeing wisdom seemed to anticipate some of those views of equal justice, of the advantages of commerce, of the cultivation of the arts of peace, and the toleration of adverse religions, which even in a more dutiful son of the church would doubtless have seemed godless indifference. Others describe him as at once selfish and generous, placable and cruel, courageous and faithless; and not forbidding himself the most licentious indulgences. His personal accomplishments were remarkable; he could speak fluently the languages of all the nations which were reckoned among his subjects Greek, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Arabic.

Both the papacy and the empire were now represented by able and resolute champions of their respective claims. Frederick would bear no superior, Gregory no equal. The Emperor was determined to maintain his monarchical rights; the pope was equally determined to maintain the papal dignity as above the imperial. The mortal strife began; it was the last contest between the empire and the papacy; but the Crusaders were indispensable to papal victory.

The aged canonist addressed himself to his work. His first and immediate act after his coronation was to urge the renewal of the Crusades at the various courts of Europe. But his appeals were addressed to deaf ears. Lombardy, France, England, and Germany, persisted in their hostility to the Crusades and to their promoters. The fall of Damietta was fresh in their minds. Nothing, therefore, remained to the obdurate old man but to push on Frederick. Although, for political reasons, he was unwilling to leave his dominions, yet, to please the pope, he collected a considerable armament of men and ships, and embarked from Brindisi. But a pestilence broke out, which carried off many of his soldiers; and among them the Landgrave of Thuringia and two bishops. The Emperor himself, after being three days at sea, was overtaken by the malady, and returned to land for the benefit of the baths. This caused the dispersion of the army, and the temporary abandonment of the expedition.

Frederick Disregards the Papal Excommunication

The pope was infuriated; he treated the story of his illness as an empty pretence, and, without waiting or asking for explanation, he launched the sentence of excommunication against the perjured outcast, Frederick of Swabia. This took place within six months from his elevation to the See, and from that day Frederick found but little rest in this world till he found it in his grave. In vain did he send bishops to plead his cause, and witnesses to the reality of his sickness: the pope's only answer was, "You fraudulently pretended sickness, and returned to your palaces to enjoy the delights of leisure and luxury;" and he renewed the excommunication again and again, requiring all bishops to publish it.

But in place of Frederick being humbled, and brought before Gregory IX., as Henry IV. was brought before Gregory VII. at Canosa, he boldly denounces the whole system of popery. "Your predecessors," he wrote to Gregory, "have never ceased to encroach upon the rights of kings and princes; they have disposed of their lands and territories, and distributed them among the minions and favourites of their court; they have dared to absolve subjects from their oaths of allegiance; they have even introduced confusion into the administration of justice, by binding and loosing, and persisting, without regard to the laws of the land. Religion was the pretext for all those trespasses upon the civil government; but the real motive was a desire to subjugate governors and subjects alike to an intolerable tyranny — to extort money, and so long as that was to be got, to care little if the whole structure of society were shaken to its foundations." And many other things of a like nature did Frederick dare to say, which shows the weakened state of the papal power. At the same time he was a good Catholic king in many respects, enacting severe laws against the heretics; but he wanted the pope to keep his own place and rule the church, and leave him to rule the empire. He was willing that the pope should be the clerical, but he must be the lay, chief.*

{*See a long letter to Henry III. of England, by the Emperor, in which he justly and severely reproaches the Roman church. Waddington's History, vol. 2, p. 281.}

Frederick's great crime, in the mind of the fanatical pontiff, was his reluctance to go to the Holy Land. He had preferred the interests of his empire to the orders of the Holy See. This prudential calculation was his unpardonable sin. He did not see the sense of sacrificing men, money, and ships, without a reasonable prospect of success. He was resolved, however, to fulfil his vow and prove his sincerity as a soldier of the cross.

In the end of June, 1228, he again sailed from Brindisi. Much of the deadly animosity against the Mahometans which had animated the older Crusaders had passed away. Frederick was on friendly terms with the sultan; so that, instead of seeking by fire and sword the extermination of the followers of Mahomet, the Emperor proposed a peaceful treaty. This was agreed to by the generous Kamul, and a treaty was concluded on the 18th of February, 1229, by which Jerusalem was to be made over to the Christians, with the exception of the temple, which, although open to them, was to remain under the care of the Moslem. Nazareth, Bethlehem, Sidon, and other places, were to be given up. By this treaty the Crusaders had gained more than they had for many years ventured to expect as possible.*

{*J.C. Robertson, vol. 3, p. 393.}

But this bloodless victory, gained by an excommunicated monarch, exasperated the hoary pontiff to frenzy. He denounced, in terms of furious resentment, the unheard-of presumption of one under the ban of the church daring to set his unhallowed foot on the sacred soil of the Saviour's passion and resurrection; and bewailed the pollution which the city and the holy places had contracted from the Emperor's presence. But God overruled this remarkable event, in His providence, to lay bare to all mankind the hollowness of Gregory's professed enthusiasm for the liberation of the Holy Land. His own papal and personal dignity were a thousand times dearer to him than the birth-place of Christ. He resorted to every device which his own inventive malice, and that of his advisers, could suggest to accomplish the failure of the expedition and the ruin of Frederick. His minorite friars were dispatched to the patriarch and the military orders of Jerusalem, to throw every impediment in the way, with the expressed intent that Frederick might find either a grave or a dungeon in Palestine. A plot was laid by some Templars for surprising Frederick on an expedition to bathe in the Jordan; but, the plot being discovered, the Templars were disappointed. The revengeful old man, however, had not yet done plotting. He collected a considerable force, and, headed by John of Brienne, invaded the Apulian dominions of the Emperor. Tidings of these movements brought Frederick with all speed from the East. The papal armies fled at his approach, and the whole country was rapidly recovered by the influence of his presence.

But the papal sword was now drawn — the sword of implacable strife and discord. During the course of a long reign, Frederick, the greatest of the Swabian house, "was excommunicated for not taking the cross, excommunicated for not setting out to the Holy Land, excommunicated for setting out, excommunicated in the Holy Land, excommunicated for returning, after having made an advantageous peace with the Mahometans," was deposed from his throne, and his subjects absolved from their oath of allegiance. But without attempting further to describe the military adventures of the empire, or to trace the faithless politics of the papacy, we will only add, that the wretched old pontiff died in his ninety-ninth year, in the midst of hostilities, and from a fit of wrathful agitation. He was succeeded by Innocent IV., who followed in the footsteps of Innocent III. and Gregory IX. The cause of Frederick gained nothing by the change of pontiffs. He lived till the year 1250, when, in the fifty-sixth year of his age and the twenty-seventh of his reign, he died in the arms of his son, Manfred, having confessed, and received absolution from the faithful archbishop of Palermo.

With the death of Frederick we might suppose that papal hostilities would have at least paused for a little; but it was far otherwise. The hatred that followed him to his grave, and far beyond it, pursued his sons, until it was extinguished in the blood of the last scion of his house, on the scaffold, at Naples. The war was carried on between what was called the Guelphic and the Ghibelline armies, or the papal and the imperial factions. Pope Clement IV. invited the cruel Count Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX., to hasten to the help of the Guelphic army, with the promise of the crown of Sicily. "He accepted," says Greenwood, "the papal commission with the eagerness of an adventurer, and in the reckless spirit of a crusader. He was one of the most accomplished of the tyrants that figure in the world's history: cruelty, rapacity, lust, and corruption, wrought their perfect work under his command." With a large army, which had been raised for the rescue of the Holy Land, he entered Italy. Some of the bravest of the chivalry and gentry of France were in this "army of the cross." But in place of going to assist their brethren in Palestine against the Mahometans, the pope absolved them from their vow, promised them the forgiveness of sins and eternal blessedness, to turn their arms against their brethren of the house and followers of the late Emperor. This was papal zeal and honesty for the deliverance of the holy sepulchre.

Charles of Anjou being crowned king of Sicily, the pilgrims received a licence to slay and plunder in the quarters pointed out by the pope; and under his direction they invaded the fairest portions of the Emperor's dominions. But he was in his grave, and the magic of his name was gone. His sons hastened to collect such adventurers as their finances enabled them to assemble, the contest for a time was doubtful, but the well-disciplined chivalry of France at length overcame the ill-trained bands of the young princes. Manfred fell in battle, Conrad was cut off suddenly by death, and the younger Conradin, with his youthful cousin, prince Frederick of Bavaria, were taken prisoners, and beheaded by Charles in the public square at Naples.

Christendom heard with a shudder the news of this unparalleled atrocity. For no other crime than fighting for his hereditary throne against the pope's pretender, Conradin, the last heir of the Swabian house, was executed as a felon and a rebel on a public scaffold. The pope was charged with participation in the murder of a son and heir of kings; he had put the sword into the tyrant's hands, and must stand before the tribunal of divine and human judgment, as stained with the blood of Conradin. In the end of the following month the detested pope followed his victim to the grave, beyond which it is not our province to go, but sure we are that the Judge of all the earth will do right, and that from the throne of divine righteousness he will hear the sentence of eternal justice, which admits of no succeeding change for ever. The fire is everlasting, the worm never dies, the chain can never be broken, the walls can never be scaled, the gates can never be opened, the past can never be forgotten, the upbraidings of conscience can never be silenced — everything combines to fill the soul with the agonies of despair, and that for ever and ever. Who would not desire, above all things, to be pardoned and saved through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to save the chief of sinners? (Mark 9:44-50)

The Overruling Hand of God

In the providence of God this odious crime, which could never be forgotten by the monarchs and people of Europe, must have tended greatly to discredit and weaken the papal power, and to strengthen the hands of the civil ruler against the usurpations and encroachments of the church of Rome. The change becomes more apparent from this date. The tragic death of Conradin of Hohenstaufen, and of Frederick of Bavaria, took place in 1268, and the famous "Pragmatic Sanction" became the "Magna Charta" of the Gallican church in 1269. This document was issued by the most pious king, Louis IX. of France, who is commonly called St. Louis. The whole tone of this edict is antipapal. It limits the interference of the court of Rome in the elections of the clergy, and directly denies its right of ecclesiastical taxation, except with the sanction of the king and the church of France. Nothing could be more just and liberal, but nothing could more directly oppose the pretensions of the See of Rome. Under the fostering care of the civil lawyers, who were now establishing in the minds of men a rival authority to that of the hierarchy and canon law, the Pragmatic Sanction became a great charter of independence to the Gallican church.

This anti-papal edict, coming from the most religious of kings — a canonized saint — awoke no opposition on the part of the Roman See. Had such a law been promulgated by Frederick II., or any of his race, the effect would have been very different. But it is more than probable that neither Louis nor the pope foresaw what would be made of this pious decree — originally intended for the benefit and reformation of the clergy. But in the hands of Parliaments, lawyers, and ambitious monarchs, it became the barrier against which the encroachments and lofty pretensions of Rome were destined to be broken to pieces.

Before concluding our already rather long chapter, we must briefly glance at the pontificate of Boniface VIII., as it is the crowning evidence of the papal decline, and the hinge on which its future history turns.

Boniface VIII. and Philip the Fair

A.D. 1295 to 1303

In less than forty years from the promulgation of this famous edict, since known in history as the "Pragmatic Sanction," the proud and imperious pontiff, Boniface VIII., was openly defied by the king of France. He was the first to teach the nations of Europe that the Roman bishops could be vanquished, and be trampled under the feet of the sovereign, as they had trampled for ages the sovereigns of Europe under their feet. Philip the Fair — so called from his personal appearance, certainly not from his actions — was as high-minded as strong-handed, as arrogant, as jealous, as violent, as unrelenting as Boniface, and even surpassed him in craft and subtlety. The pride of Boniface was his ruin; it acknowledged no limits, and disdained to bend to circumstances, and no considerations of religion, policy, or humanity could repress his violence and cruelty. But the high looks and the haughty pride of the prelate were soon to be brought low. He was deeply involved in many quarrels with many nations, sovereigns, and noble families; but the crafty and powerful king of France proved more than his match. When Boniface sent an extravagant demand to Philip, he sent back a contemptuous reply. And when bull after bull, in burning wrath, issued from the Vatican against the king, he caused them to be publicly burned at Paris, and sent back a message to his holiness that it was the office of a pope to exhort, not to command, and that he would suffer no dictator in his affairs.

But matters could not stop here; Philip determined on humbling his adversary. In strengthening his position against the proceedings of Rome, he had recourse to the most constitutional means. While Boniface was offending the population of France by his intemperate attacks on the king the politic king was attracting the admiration of his people by standing up for the dignity of his crown and the welfare of the nation against the encroachments of the pope. He assembled the nobles and prelates of France, and with them summoned the representatives of the third estate, the burgesses of France — said to be the first convocation of the States General. This plan was soon followed by other kings which deeply affected the future history of the papacy. The king had the satisfaction of obtaining a strong protest against the papal demands, and the assertion of the independence of the crown.

Boniface, not perceiving this crisis in his own history and in that of the papacy, blindly pursued with an ill-timed arrogance his former course. Addressing Philip in a letter he says, "God has set me over the nations and the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy, to build, to plant in His name and by His doctrine. Let no one persuade you, my son, that you have no superior, or that you are not subject to the chief of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He who holds that opinion is senseless, and he who obstinately maintains it is an infidel, separate from the flock of the good shepherd. Wherefore we declare, define, and pronounce, that it is absolutely essential to the salvation of every human being that he be subject to the Roman pontiff." The king's answer was moderate, but firm and defiant. Perplexities increased. Not content with these assertions, the pope laid an interdict upon France, excommunicated the king, and offered his crown to another. But Philip, in no wise troubled with these censures, which were now powerless, published an ordinance which prohibited the exportation of all gold, silver, jewels, arms, horses, or other munitions of war from the realm. By this ordinance the pope himself was deprived of his revenues from France.

The Humiliation of the Pontiff

Burning with rage, Boniface repeated and redoubled his menaces. But Philip now determined on a shorter path to settle the contest. He dispatched a trustworthy officer, Nogaret, with Sciarra Colonna, a member of a noble Italian house which Boniface had ruined and desolated, and who was, of course, the sworn enemy of the pope. These, with other adventurers, and three hundred armed horsemen, had strict orders to arrest the pope wherever he might be found, and bring him a prisoner to Paris. The perplexed old man now in his eighty-sixth year — had retired to his palace at Anagni, his native place, to compose another bull, in which he maintained, "that as vicar of Christ, he had the power to govern kings with a rod of iron, and to dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel." But his blasphemous assumption of omnipotence was soon turned into a spectacle of human weakness and death.

A shout was heard; the pope, and the cardinals, who were all assembled around him, were startled with the trampling of armed horse, and the terrible cry, "Death to pope Boniface! Long live the king of France!" The soldiers were immediately masters of the pontifical palace. Nearly all the cardinals, and even the personal attendants of the pope fled. He was left alone, but he lost not his self-command. Like the English Thomas a Becket, he awaited the final blow with courage and resolution. He hurriedly threw the mantle of St. Peter over his shoulders, placed the crown of Constantine on his head, grasped the keys in one hand and the cross in the other, and seated himself on the papal throne. His age, intrepidity, and religious majesty, struck the conspirators with awe. When Nogaret and Colonna saw the venerable form and dignified composure of their enemy, they refrained from their sanguinary purpose, and satisfied themselves with heaping vulgar abuse on the wretched old pontiff. The wrongs inflicted on the families and friends of these officers by the cruel pope had extinguished every feeling towards him but revenge. But in the providence of God they were restrained from shedding the blood of a helpless old man in his eighty-sixth year.

While the leaders were thus employed, the body of the conspirators had dispersed themselves throughout the splendid apartments in eager pursuit of plunder. "The palaces of the pope," says Milman, "and of his nephew were plundered, so vast was the wealth, that the annual revenues of all the kings in the world would not have been equal to the treasures found and carried off by Sciarra's freebooting soldiers. His very private chamber was ransacked; nothing was left but bare walls."

At length the people of Anagni were aroused to insurrection. They assaulted the soldiers by whom they had been overawed. But as they were now in possession of the plunder, and the pope imprisoned, they were not unwilling to withdraw. The pope was restored to his freedom; infuriated by the disgrace of his captivity, he hurried to Rome burning with revenge. But the violence of his passion overpowered his reason; he refused nourishment; he cried for revenge; but he was now impotent as other men. He removed all his attendants, shut himself up in a room lest any one might see him die — but he died; and he died alone; and will stand before the judgment-seat of God alone; and have to answer alone for the deeds done in the body, and under a responsibility entirely his own. We cross not the line, but what, oh what! must the eternal portion be of one, of whom impartial history says, "of all the Roman pontiffs, Boniface has left the darkest name for craft, arrogance, ambition, even for avarice and cruelty."*

{*See Dean Milman, vol. 5, p. 143; Dean Waddington, vol. 2, p. 319; Greenwood, vol. 6, p. 277.}

Reflections on the Death of Boniface

Five hundred and seventy-two years have rolled heavily and drearily over the dark regions of hell since Boniface died by his own suicidal course. What time for reflection, reproach, remorse, despair! Why, oh why, will men, intelligent men, risk an eternity of misery for a few short years of earthly glory, or sensual gratification, or the love of self in any way? But alas, the most solemn warnings are disregarded; the most gracious invitations of mercy are rejected, in the eager chase after their own selfish object. And when they have reached it, what is it? How much do they enjoy it? How long do they possess it? Only nine years did Boniface reign as supreme pontiff, and in order to secure that shadowy gleam of glory, he accomplished privately the murder of his predecessor Celestine, whom he had supplanted. But as a man sows, so must he also reap. Celestine has the compassions and sympathies of posterity; but over the tomb of Boniface all posterity has written, "He mounted the chair like a fox, he reigned like a lion, he died like a dog." And so it was, without the consolations of the mercy of God and without the tender ministries of man, he died. When his bedroom door was burst open, he was found cold and stiff. His white locks were stained with blood, the top of his staff bore the marks of his teeth, and was covered with foam.

How happy they, we are ready to exclaim, who have an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for all whose faith and hope are firmly fixed on Christ alone. They are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus; they belong to the royal family of heaven; they need not seek after earthly glory; they are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. They have a throne that can never be shaken, a crown that can never be cast to the ground, a sceptre that can never be plucked from their hands, an inheritance that can never be alienated. Still they can afford to linger over the melancholy end of a fellow-sinner with profound pity, and seek to turn that scene of darkest and deepest sorrow into an occasion of spiritual profit for others. One look of faith to the Saviour would have been life to his soul, chief of sinners though he was, and the first look of faith is eternal life to the chief of sinners today. "Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else." (Isa. 45:22)

But we must now return to our history.

The Popes of Avignon

We have been at some pains to present to our readers, as fully as our space would admit, the quarrel between Boniface and Philip, as it is one of the great epochs in the papal history. From this moment it sank rapidly and never rose again to the same commanding height. But the degradation of the papal chair was not yet complete according to the hard and unrelenting spirit of Philip. His next object was to have the pope under his own eye, and as his abject slave. This he accomplished in Clement V., who was raised to the chair in the year 1305. His election led to the most debasing period in the history of the Romish church. Clement, who was a native of France, and the king's obedient servant, immediately transferred the papal residence from Rome to Avignon. The pope was now a French prelate, Rome was no longer the metropolis of Christendom. This period of banishment lasted about seventy years, and is spoken of in history as the Babylonian captivity of the popes in Avignon. The great line of mediaeval pontiffs, the Gregorys, the Alexanders, and the Innocents, expired with Boniface VIII. After seventy years of exile they emerged from their state of slavery to the kings of France, but only to resume a modified supremacy.

Philip survived his adversary eleven years; he died A.D. 1314. History speaks of him as one of the most unprincipled, evil-hearted kings that ever reigned. But nothing so blackens his memory as his cruel assault on the order of the Templars. His avarice was excited by their wealth, and he resolved on the dissolution of the order, the destruction of the leaders, and the appropriation of their wealth. He knew that thousands of the best manors in France belonged to the institution, and that the spoils of such a company would make him the richest king in Christendom. In order to lay his hand on such treasures, he first sought to discredit the knights because of their defeat at Courtrai — the battle of the Spurs; then he exacted the consent of his creature, Pope Clement V., and summoned a council of the realm to sanction the suppression of the order. Having now these authorities to support him — the sacred and the civil — his covetous and cruel ends were gained. Numbers of these gallant Christian knights — for such they were, though they had greatly degenerated from their original vows — were seized and thrown into prison, on a charge of having dishonoured the cross, and trampled on the sign of salvation. The severest tortures were applied to crush out confessions of guilt, numbers were condemned and burned alive, sixty-eight were burned alive at Paris in 1310. The grand master, James de Molay, was also burned at Paris in 1314. Letters were sent to all other kings and princes, under the sanction of the pope and Philip, to pursue the same course; but the European sovereigns in general were satisfied with the spoils, and adopted gentler methods in dissolving the order.

The reader may here note for further examination what we may call a new division in the history of Europe. The papacy, feudalism, and knighthood, which had risen and flourished together since about the time of Charlemagne, fell together during the reign of Philip the Fair.

But a heavy cloud was gathering over the house of the cruellest and worst of kings. The darkest shades of immorality covered with shame and disgrace his whole family. The deep dishonour of the royal house of France through the infidelity of his queen and his three daughters-in-law sank into his heart, and hastened his end. The people now said, it is the vengeance of heaven for the outrage on Boniface, others said, it is for the iniquitous persecution and extinction of the Templars. But he was now before a tribunal without the shelter of a pope, or the sanction of a national assembly, and must answer to God for every deed done in the body, and for every word uttered by his lips; for even the thoughts and counsels of the heart must be brought into judgment. And neither the people nor the ermine can shelter a sinner there; nothing but the blood of Christ, sprinkled as it were on the door-posts of the heart before we leave this world, can be of any avail in the waters of death. Those who neglect to apply the blood of Christ by faith now, must be engulfed for ever in the cold, deep, dark waters of eternal judgment. But the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanses us who believe from all sin.

We now leave this fresh division of our history, and take up the line of witnesses, and the forerunners of the Reformation.