Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Philip IV Takes Down the Church

Philip IV Takes Down the Church

Photograph via Wikipedia

Philip IV

Photograph via Wikipedia

“Your venerable stupidness may know, that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.”

—Philip IV, King of France

Imagine a man more powerful than the President of the United States. Imagine that this man is above the law, beyond reproach. This man and his office have controlled tens of millions of people for centuries. Priests and princes are under his spell, obeying nearly every command. Emperors kneel before him, desperate for approval and a temporal crown that only this man can bestow. Imagine a man that is not only the judge, jury, and executioner of everyone on his lands, but also determines the afterlife fate of your very soul.

Now imagine the man that kidnaps him.

At the turn of the fourteenth century, the strongest days of the Roman Catholic Church and its popes were over. The Church just didn’t know it yet. The fall of Western Europe’s strongest political power since the Roman Empire was nigh. Much like Rome’s fall, it didn’t happen overnight; it took centuries and a chain reaction of bad decisions and bad luck. But what initiated that chain reaction? Who pushed the Church off the precipice over which it had ruled the chasm that was medieval Europe? It was the King of France. His name was Philip IV.{{1}}

Philip Capet was born in 1268 and ascended to the French throne 17 years later.{{2}} His reign spanned nearly 30 years and laid the foundation for enormous change across the Western world.

Last month, when discussing the prevalence of Platonism during the Middle Ages, I gauged the strength of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe, arguing:

[quote]For the millennium of the Church’s hegemony—roughly the 400s to 1300s—few dared stand up to the nearly omnipotent papacy. Heretics were burned at the stake. Princes were brought to their knees. Emperors largely served at the will of His Holiness, the pope. Philosophers, from Augustine to Aquinas, operated under the assumption of an all-powerful Christian God who sent His Word through the Bible and His son, Jesus. The world and universe worked according to His will and whim. To doubt any of these presumptions was heretical and punishable by death.[/quote]

It goes without saying that our current pope, Benedict XVI, does not wield that kind of power. To say that the papacy is a shell of its former self would be an insult to empty shells everywhere. The Western world was once almost fully Catholic; now most of the West considers itself something else. What’s more, even modern Catholics march largely to their own drum. Chances are you know many Catholics who don’t support modern Church doctrine on issues like homosexuality, birth control, and abortion. Benedict, much like the English monarch, has been relegated to mere symbolism, more known for pomp and ritual than power and resolutions.

During the Middle Ages, however, it was unthinkable to cross the holy pontiff. He was considered to be the Vicar of Christ, God’s representative on Earth. Probably the most powerful pope in history, Innocent III, reigned over early thirteenth century Europe like a continental autocrat. He ordered kings around—John of England (he of Magna Carta and Robin Hood fame) and Philip II “Augustus” of France, for examples—like they were his children. He collected tithes from all corners of Western Europe and ordered the wildly devious Fourth Crusade to weaken and then control the rival Orthodox Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Within a few hundred years, though, Catholic control was severely weakened. A few centuries after that, Pope Benedict is used in farcical ad campaigns supporting gay marriage in New Zealand.{{3}} To what do we owe the decline of Church might? Many, many things. However, we can trace the beginning of the downfall to Philip IV of France.

At the turn of the fourteenth century, Philip—known as “The Fair” for his handsome looks—was driven by one guiding principle: power. For much of the Middle Ages, France was not governed by a strong, central government. Nor, for that matter, was the rest of Western Europe. Instead, the era following Charlemagne (r. 768-814) was dominated by feudalism. Feudal lords governed local lands with almost complete sovereignty. They would appoint “vassals” to manage fiefs across these lands.{{4}} As the Low Middle Ages (c. 400-c. 1000) turned into the High (c. 1000-c. 1300), feudal fiefdoms gradually coalesced around a strong central authority as the lords, too, became vassals to royalty.

By the close of the thirteenth century, Philip wanted to make it crystal clear who exactly was the most powerful person in his kingdom. While feudalism’s slow decline made it clear that nobles were subordinate to the monarch, King Philip realized that he was not the most commanding presence in his country. Indeed, Pope Boniface VIII exerted more influence in France from Rome than Philip did from Paris.


Boniface VIII | Photograph via Wikipedia

Philip wouldn’t stand for it. In a drive for wealth, he targeted the richest persons in his country—the clergy.{{5}} The Church was the largest landholder in France, making the clergy a prime source for Philip’s quest for revenue. The problem was that Church officials, scattered throughout Western Europe as archbishops, bishops, and priests, were traditionally tax exempt.

Philip taxed them anyway.

Boniface was incensed. He was a man known for his cruelty, arrogance, and intensity. His predecessor, Celestine V, was an unusually humble medieval pope, and in fact abdicated a papacy he might have never wanted.{{6}} Rumors suggested that Boniface, in his own quest to be pontiff, drove Celestine to insanity. History records that Boniface, once he did succeed Celestine, dragged his holy predecessor from retirement, arrested him, and imprisoned him in a stale cell. Celestine died the following year with a hole in his head, a likely symptom of a Boniface-ordered murder. The new pope, free of potential papal rivals, reigned supreme.{{7}}

Like Innocent III a century before him, Boniface reaffirmed papal absolutism over Catholic lands. In a feudalistic mindset, he considered the kings of Europe as his own vassals.{{8}} In 1300, for example, he commissioned a papal jubilee. As part of a grand parade, he dressed in imperial garb while touring Rome. In front of him were two swords representing his supremacy over both the here and hereafter. Flanking heralds cheered, “I am Caesar! I am the emperor!” The jubilee went according to plan; paying Europeans, who rarely got the chance to see His Holiness up close, flocked to the Roman streets and filled the Church’s coffers.

Thus, when the lay ruler who called himself “The Fair” decided to tax French clergy, Boniface knew not to stand for it. His 1296 papal bull Clericis laicos reiterated that lay, “temporal” rulers could not tax members of the clergy. Moreover, the bull expressly forbid his clerics to cooperate should a monarch decide to ignore said papal command.

Philip responded by forbidding all French money and goods from going to Rome.

[pullquote_left]Philip responded by forbidding all French money and goods from going to Rome.[/pullquote_left]


Boniface, as seen with his jubilee, was always on the hunt for funds to support his lavish lifestyle. To lose out on significant income from the largest state in Christendom was unacceptable. Boniface steadily realized this defiant French king must be directly dealt with, and he summoned Philip to the Vatican.

Philip refused. Not only did he refuse, he countered with an invitation for the Pontiff to visit him in Paris. These competing summonses, quite clearly, were overt attempts to display which of these arrogant men was preeminent.{{9}}

By 1302, Boniface took to writing a letter to the insubordinate royal. It was titled Ausculta Fili, which, in a tone we can assume was pretty patronizing, translates to “Listen, son.” The letter warned that Philip was not only contravening Catholic law, but he was also endangering his place in heaven. If he didn’t back down, it read, he was destined for hell. Looming over every word was the threat of excommunication.{{10}} Boniface made it clear that there was one king of kings. In one of the most famous papal bulls of the Middle Ages, Unam Sanctum, Boniface asserts that refusing the pope is akin to refusing God. He emphasizes that “God has set popes over kings and kingdoms” and closes with, “We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” In other words, kings were vassals, too, and they served at the pleasure of the pope.

Philip’s retort sets the tone for the subsequent downfall of the papacy and the eventual rise of the state above the Church. “Your venerable stupidness may know,” Philip wrote to Boniface, “that we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters.”

Boniface was left with no choice. He excommunicated the mutinous monarch. Philip’s response was to set a scheme into motion that was so underhanded, so diabolical, so aggressive that it arguably stands as the most controversial act of the Middle Ages.{{11}} This act led not only to the fall of Boniface, but also, in an astonishing development, the papacy’s credibility as well.

[pullquote_right]Philip created a body that, nearly 500 years later, would actually bring down the monarchy.[/pullquote_right]

Step one of Philip’s plan, in order to protect himself against retaliation, was to create an inhospitable sociopolitical climate for Boniface. This wasn’t difficult. On the heels of the more spiritual Celestine, Boniface came across as an arrogant, greedy, unkind pope. And that he was. Boniface showed little regard for the Catholic peasantry and always placed himself before Christendom. To show his power, he destroyed castles. To intimidate Europeans, he burned suspected heretics. He confiscated land at will, including from the wealthy Colonna family, just to dole out to friends. Philip realized that if he could highlight these actions while securing his own popularity at home, he could act against the Pope with little fear of reprisal from his people.

To do so, Philip created a body that, nearly 500 years later, would actually bring down the monarchy. In a rather progressive move, Philip created the “Estates General,” a congress in the vein of the new English Parliament, though it had little power outside of advising. The assembly had representatives from all over France, including clerics, nobility, and a fledgling upper-middle-class called the bourgeoisie.{{12}} Philip rallied support against Boniface and asked to try the pontiff for his impudence, among other things; the French people, never before having representation in government, supported their popular sovereign over the already unpopular pope. And so, in 1303, the king unleashed his plan and kidnapped the most powerful man in Europe in order to, presumably, place him on trial.{{13}}

Held in Anagni, Italy for several embarrassing days, the health of the nearly 70-year-old Boniface quickly deteriorated. His captors gave him no food or drink, all the while shaming and mistreating the Holy Father. An uprising from the locals freed Boniface, but the mistreated and malnourished pope died weeks later from fever and humiliation. The papacy turned vacant.

The College of Cardinals elected Benedict XI as successor, but within a year, he was poisoned. Eyes turned to Philip as mastermind behind this event. Philip used his new fearsome reputation to control subsequent events. He influenced the next papal election, arranging for the French archbishop Clement V to succeed Benedict. Clement, likely a pawn, did not go to Italy for his coronation, but rather ascended in Lyon, France, with an ornate ceremony attended by Philip.

[pullquote_left]Philip used his new fearsome reputation to influence the next papal election.[/pullquote_left]

Soon, the newly minted pope moved papal quarters from Rome to France; in 1309, it settled in Avignon. Clement and the next six popes—all French—would rule from France. Philip and his successors controlled the office for most of the fourteenth century, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity (1309-1377), during which respect for the papacy rightly diminished. Was it the Vicar of Christ making decisions? Or was it the King of France?{{14}}

This “Avignon Papacy” was ended by pious Pope Gregory XI, who moved the office back to Rome in 1377, but the respectability of the papacy would continue to spiral. Upon Gregory’s death the following year, a Roman mob rioted in the streets outside the Vatican, demanding an Italian pope after seven Frenchmen had infected the position. The cardinals hastily elected Archbishop Bartolomeo Prignano (the last non-cardinal to be elected pope), who took the name Urban VI, but he turned out to be a narrow-minded, intransigent, and possibly insane pontiff. With the backing of the French government, the cardinals ran away to elect a different pope, Clement VII. Urban, however, did not abdicate, and the Italians did not back down. Thus, with two competing claimants, the Great Schism began.{{15}} Europe mired in this confusion for the next four decades as the two men and their successors claimed primary over Christendom.{{16}}

By the time the Council of Constance resolved the dispute in 1417, the damage had been done. Millions of Europeans doubted the pope’s legitimacy. With the door open for criticism, scholars of the next century pointed to the Schism as an example of the Pope’s fallibility. Erasmus openly satirized the Church. Marin Luther famously split with it. Catholicism cracked.

By the close of the sixteenth century, the state had triumphed over the Church, and, consequently, the Renaissance was able to guide the West into the modern world. The state has since earned our obedience far more than Pope Benedict or any other cleric in the Western world. That modern dynamic was made possible by Philip Capet.{{17}}

It should be noted that Philip was not the first ruler to stand up to the Church. Others, like Holy Roman emperors Henry IV (r. 1056-1105) and Frederick Barbarossa (r. 1152-1190), had raised armies against it. Some even had success in deposing a pope or two. But in each case, the papacy eventually returned to supremacy. The aforementioned Innocent III was the most powerful pope in history, and his reign comes after those rebellious emperors. Ultimately, it’s Philip IV who ushered in the permanent triumph of the state over the Church, a core tenant of Western politics, government, and society.

Philip “The Fair,” whose effects on Western history are felt to this day, earns his spot as the 29th most influential Westerner in history.

[[1]]I’d say this Top 30 series has three people to whom even a relatively educated person would respond with, “Who?!” Philip IV is one of them. Another will be revealed in just a few months, while the last one found his way into the top 20. We’ll get to him when your calendar reads 2014.[[1]]

[[2]]The Capetian Dynasty dated back to 987, when French nobility elected one of their own, Hugh Capet, the Count of Paris, as “King of the Franks.” (The Franks were one of the Germanic tribes to carve up the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.) The Capetians succeeded the more Frankish than French Carolingian Dynasty, which began in the mid-8th century (and included Charlemagne). It died out with the heirless Louis V (the great-great-great-grandson of Charlemagne) allowing the election of Capet as successor. As the Capetians gradually consolidated power into a central government, the Franks became known as the nation-state of France—land of the Franks. In 1328, when none of Philip IV’s grandsons produced sons of their own, the Valois followed through a nephew. They themselves were extinguished in 1528 by the murder of the heirless and possibly homosexual Henry III, which led to the rise of the Bourbon Dynasty, which famously reigned over the French Revolution. Still, all French monarchs after Hugh carried the name and blood of “Capet.”[[2]]

[[3]]He’s also purportedly walking into thousands of bars with rabbis and Gandhi.[[3]]

[[4]]While there were kings and queens during the era (the Capetians, for instance), they relied on their lords—wealthy nobles scattered throughout their land—to manage the kingdom. The lords would owe some sort of fealty to the king, but often had more power on their own lands than the distant monarch did.[[4]]

[[5]]This was after targeting his Jewish population, a predictable decision considering the relentlessly persecuted history of the Jewish people.[[5]]

[[6]]Upon his abdication, he cited his “desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, [and] his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” In his defense, people are pretty perverse.[[6]]

[[7]]Dante later placed Celestine in his Hell—not because of any evil action on Celestine’s part, but because his abdication allowed the rise of the cruel Boniface. “I saw and recognized the shade of him/Who by his cowardice made the great refusal” (Inferno III, 59–60). Tough break.[[7]]

[[8]]The idea of kings being subservient to the pope dated back to Charlemagne, the most powerful of all medieval leaders. In the year 800, after three decades of sewing back together much of what was the Western Roman Empire, Charlemagne was invited to Rome by Pope Leo III for Christmas mass. Leo wanted to thank the Frankish king for defending the papacy against some rebellious nobles. As the story goes, when Charlemagne kneeled to pray, Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans.” The Frankish king, not wanting to be rude to the prestigious Bishop of Rome, graciously accepted the crown. He probably also liked the only promotion remaining above king—emperor. However, Charlemagne inadvertently set the precedent of papal investiture. If one wanted to rule, one needed the approval of the pope. After all, even Charlemagne kneeled at his holy feet to receive the crown.[[8]]

[[9]]“Me come there? No, you come here.”[[9]]

[[10]]Excommunication was the papacy’s most powerful weapon. Many medieval princes were threatened with expulsion from the Catholic Church. If excommunicated, a ruler faced two serious consequences. First, his subjects would be released from their bond to serve under the ruler, so the leader’s precious power would be lost. Second—and most frightening for the devout—without reentry into the Church’s good graces, the excommunicated just booked his or her ticket to hell. For a millennium, it was believed that extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). From emperors down to serfs, medieval Europeans followed papal orders to avoid eternal damnation.[[10]]

[[11]]Quite the feat, I assure you.[[11]]

[[12]]I won’t be able to fully address the Estates General in this piece, but it, too, can lend credence to Philip the Fair’s influence on Western history. The creation of the body may have been liberal for the era, but its rules and organization were eventually outdated. The assembly was comprised of three chambers, or “estates”: the first estate was the clergy, the second the nobility, and everyone else was lumped into the “third estate,” which was represented by upper-middle class members of French society. Over the centuries, in any kind of decision-making, each estate received one vote. The first two estates, with the similar interest of keeping their extraordinary wealth, routinely outvoted the third estate. For example, the first two estates remained tax exempt for centuries; the Estates General sustained such a tradition. Anger toward this inequity exploded in the late 1780s when Louis XVI, allowing his wife to buy far too many shoes (an affliction from which many of us suffer), ran out of money and sought approval from the third estate to raise their taxes some more. Cue the French Revolution.

In sum, the makeup of the Estates General was a key contributor to the spread of revolutionary ideas in mainland Europe, and Philip IV created it. Clearly, just by the Estates General, his effects were felt in France and the Western world well beyond his reign.[[12]]

[[13]]The implementation of this plan would make quite the Hollywood movie. Philip put together a sort of commando team to accomplish the mission. The man in charge of the commandos was Guillaume de Nogaret, a militant lawyer whose father was burned alive as a heretic. Once in Italy, guess who helped de Nogaret find and secure Boniface? The Colonna family! The same family from whom Boniface, years earlier, had gleefully taken land.[[13]]

[[14]]It was the King of France. Among Philip IV’s decisions: the canonization of Celestine V, the murdered rival and predecessor of Boniface.[[14]]

[[15]]This is not to be confused with the “East-West Schism” of 1054, when the Western, Latin-speaking Catholics officially split from the Eastern, Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians from the Byzantine Empire. (In practice, though, they had been divided for centuries.)[[15]]

[[16]]At times, there was even a third pope![[16]]

[[17]]Interestingly, historiography might further support Philip’s influence on the development of the Western world. The use of the term “Middle Ages”—surely subjective when one considers that the medieval population did not consider itself in the “middle” of anything, and someday we will be in the middle of history as well—was eventually broken into three mini-eras within the larger one. The Low or Early Middle Ages begin in the fifth century with the fall of Rome, and they end at the turn of the millennium. (They’re known for their nickname, the “Dark Ages,” as they are arguably the dreariest period in Western history). Next, beginning in about 1000 CE, came the High Middle Ages. The reason for the demarcation is that, starting in the eleventh century, Europe experienced an increase in population, modern nation-states followed in the wake of feudalism, legal codes and assemblies evolved like the Magna Carta and Parliament, and standard of living increased.

The High Middle Ages end around the year 1300—precisely the year of Boniface’s jubilee. Then, the Late Middle Ages—which last from 1300 to about 1450, give or take—laid the foundation for the demise of the Catholic Church. Philip IV set that event in motion, meaning that perhaps no one was more important in ushering in the historical era.[[17]]