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Pope Boniface VIII

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Pope Boniface VIII

Boniface VIII
Papacy began 24 December 1294
Papacy ended 11 October 1303
Predecessor Celestine V
Successor Benedict XI
Consecration 23 January 1295
Created Cardinal 12 April 1281
by Martin IV
Personal details
Birth name Benedetto Caetani
Born c. 1230
Anagni, Papal States, Holy Roman Empire
Died 11 October 1303(1303-10-11)
Rome, Papal States
Previous post
Coat of arms }
Other popes named Boniface
Papal styles of
Pope Boniface VIII
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style None

Pope Boniface VIII (Latin: Bonifatius VIII; c. 1230 – 11 October 1303), born Benedetto Caetani, was Pope from 24 December 1294 to his death in 1303.

He organized the first Roman Catholic "jubilee" year to take place in Rome and declared that both spiritual and temporal power were under the pope's jurisdiction, and that kings were subordinate to the power of the Roman pontiff. Today, he is probably best remembered for his feuds with Dante Alighieri, who placed the pope in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy, among the simoniacs.


Coat of arms of cardinal Benedetto Caetani

Benedetto was born in 1230 in Todi, later describing the city as "the dwelling place of his early youth," the city which "nourished him while still of tender years," and as a place where he "held lasting memories." In 1260, Benedetto acquired a canonry in Todi, as well as the small nearby castle of Sismano. Later in life he repeatedly expressed his gratitude to Anagni, Todi, and his family.

In 1264, Benedetto became part of the Roman Curia, where he served as secretary to Cardinal Simon de Brion, the future Pope Martin IV, on a mission to France. Similarly, he accompanied Cardinal Ottobuono Fieschi, the future Pope Adrian V, to England in 1265–1268 to suppress a rebellion by a group of barons against King Henry III of England. While in England it is claimed[2] he became rector of St.Lawrence's church in Towcester, Northamptonshire. Upon Benedetto's return from England, there is an eight-year period in which nothing is known about his life, after which Benedetto was sent to France to supervise the collection of a tithe in 1276 and then became a papal notary in the late 1270s. During this time, Benedetto accumulated seventeen benefices that he was permitted to keep when he was promoted, first to cardinal deacon in 1281 and then ten years later to cardinal-priest. As cardinal, he often served as papal legate in diplomatic negotiations to France, Naples, Sicily, and Aragon.

Pope Boniface VIII, fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome

Pope Celestine V abdicated on 13 December 1294 at Naples, where he had established the papal court under the patronage of King Charles II of Sicily. There is a legend that Benedetto Caetani was responsible for Celestine V's renunciation of the papacy by convincing him that no person on the earth could go through life without sin. A contemporary, Bartholomew of Lucca, who was present in Naples in December 1294 and witnessed many of the events of the abdication and election, said that Benedetto Caetani was only one of several cardinals who pressured Celestine to resign.[3] However, it is also on record that Celestine V resigned by his own design after consultation with experts, and that Benedetto merely showed that it was allowed by Church law. Either way, Celestine V vacated the throne and Benedetto Caetani was elected in his place as pope, taking the name Boniface VIII. The conclave began on 23 December 1294, ten days after Celestine's resignation, in strict accordance with the rules established by Pope Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyons of 1274. Hugh Aycelin, also known as Hughes of Billom, of the French province of the Dominican Order, former lector at the studium of Santa Sabina which would develop into the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in the 20th century, was made Cardinal-Bishop of the suburbicarian see of Ostia in 1294 and presided over the papal conclave. Benedetto Caetani was elected Christmas Eve, 24 December and was consecrated bishop of Rome and new Pope Boniface VIII by Aycelin on 23 January 1295.[4] On the first (secret) ballot, he had a majority of the votes, and at the accessio a sufficient number joined his majority to form the required two-thirds.[5] He immediately returned the Papal Curia to Rome, where he was crowned at the Vatican Basilica on Sunday, 23 January 1295. One of his first acts as pontiff was to grant his predecessor residence in the Castle of Fumone in Ferentino, where he died the next year at the age of 81, attended by two monks of his order. In 1300, Boniface VIII formalized the custom of the Roman Jubilee, which afterwards became a source of both profit and scandal to the church. Boniface VIII founded the University of Rome La Sapienza in 1303.

Boniface VIII put forward some of the strongest claims to temporal as well as spiritual power of any Pope. He involved himself often with foreign affairs. In his Bull of 1302, Unam Sanctam, Boniface VIII stated that since the Church is one, since the Church is necessary for salvation, and since Christ appointed Peter to lead it, it is "absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff".[6] These views, and his chronic intervention in "temporal" affairs, led to many bitter quarrels with the Emperor Albert I of Habsburg, the powerful Colonna family of Rome, King Philip IV of France, and Dante Alighieri, who wrote his essay De Monarchia to dispute Boniface's claims of papal supremacy. The quarrel with the Colonnas culminated in Boniface VIII ordering the destruction in 1298 of their family city Palestrina after it surrendered peacefully under Boniface's assurances that it would be spared. Much of the city still boasted intact buildings and monuments from ancient Roman times, but Boniface razed it anyway, even spreading salt on the site as the Romans did in Carthage 1500 years before. Only the city's cathedral was spared.[7]

In the field of canon law Boniface VIII continues to have great influence. He published his 88 legal dicta known as the "Regulae Iuris" in 1298. This material must be well known and understood by canon lawyers or canonists today to interpret and analyze the canons and other forms of ecclesiastical law properly. The "Regulae Iuris" appear at the end of the so-called Liber Sextus (in VI°), promulgated by Boniface VIII and now published as one of the five Decretals in the Corpus Iuris Canonici. Other systems of law also have their own "Regulae Iuris" even by the same name or something serving a similar function.[8] Pope Boniface VIII claimed that the popes were the final authority over both the church and the state.

Conflicts in Sicily and Italy

When King Frederick III of Sicily attained his throne after the death of Pedro III, Boniface tried to dissuade him from accepting the throne of Sicily. When Frederick persisted, Boniface laid excommunication on him, and an interdict upon the island of Sicily in 1296 that denied Catholic priests the right to conduct certain services there. Neither king nor people responded to this censure.[9] The conflict continued until the Peace of Caltabellotta in 1302, which saw Pedro's son Frederick III recognized as king of Sicily, while Charles II was recognized as the King of Naples. To prepare for a crusade, Boniface ordered Venice and Genoa to sign a truce; they fought each other for three more years, and turned down his offer to mediate peace.

Boniface also placed the city of Florence under an interdict and invited the ambitious French Count Charles of Valois to enter Italy in 1300 to end the feud of Black and White Guelphs, the poet Dante being in the party of the Whites. Boniface's political ambitions directly affected Dante when the pope, under the pretense of peacemaking, invited Charles of Valois to intervene in the affairs of Florence. Charles's intervention allowed the Black Guelphs to overthrow the ruling White Guelphs, whose leaders, including the poet Dante, allegedly in Rome at the time to argue Florence's case before Boniface, were sentenced to exile. Dante settled his score with Boniface in the first canticle of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, by damning the pope, placing him within the circles of Fraud, in the bolgia of the simoniacs. In the Inferno, Pope Nicholas III, mistaking the Poet for Boniface, is surprised to see the latter, supposing him to be ahead of his time.[10]

Conflicts with Philip IV

The conflict between Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France came at a time of expanding nation states and the desire for the consolidation of power by the increasingly powerful monarchs. The increase in monarchical power and its conflicts with the Church of Rome were only exacerbated by the rise to power of Philip IV. In France, the process of centralizing royal power and developing a genuine national state began with the Capetian kings. During his reign, Philip surrounded himself with the best civil lawyers and decidedly expelled the clergy from all participation in the administration of the law. With the clergy beginning to be taxed in France and England to finance their ongoing wars against each other, Boniface took a hard stand against it. He saw the taxation as an assault on traditional clerical rights and ordered the bull Clericis laicos in February 1296, forbidding lay taxation of the clergy without prior papal approval. In the bull, Boniface states "they exact and demand from the same the half, tithe, or twentieth, or any other portion or proportion of their revenues or goods; and in many ways they try to bring them into slavery, and subject them to their authority. And also whatsoever emperors, kings, or princes, dukes, earls or barons...presume to take possession of things anywhere deposited in holy buildings...should incur sentence of excommunication." It was during the issuing of Clericis laicos that hostilities between Boniface and Philip began. Philip retaliated against the bull by denying the exportation of money from France to Rome, funds that the Church required to operate. Boniface had no choice but to contest Philip's demands, informing Philip that "God has set popes over kings and kingdoms."

Philip was convinced that the wealth of the Catholic Church in France should be used in part to support the state. He countered the papal bull by decreeing laws prohibiting the export of gold, silver, precious stones, or food from France to the Papal States. These measures had the effect of blocking a main source of papal revenue. Philip also banished from France the papal agents who were raising funds for a new crusade in the Middle East. In the bull Ineffabilis amor of September 1296, Boniface retreated. He sanctioned voluntary contributions from the clergy for the necessary defense of the state and gave the king the right to determine that necessity. Philip rescinded his ordinances regarding the exports and even accepted Boniface as arbitrator in a dispute between himself and King Edward I of England. Boniface decided most of those issues in Philip's favor.

First Jubilee Year

Boniface proclaimed 1300 a "jubilee" year, the first in of many such jubilees take place in Rome. He may have wanted to gather money from pilgrims to Rome as a substitute for the missing money from France. The event was a success; Rome had never received such crowds before. Boniface and his aides managed the affair well, food was plentiful, and it was sold at moderate prices. It was an advantage to the pope that the great sums of money he collected could be used according to Boniface's own judgment. Despite half victories and many defeats, Boniface was at the height of his reign.

Continued feud with Philip IV

The feud between Boniface and Philip IV reached its peak in the early 14th century, when Philip began to launch a strong anti-papal campaign against Boniface. A quarrel arose between Philip's aides and a papal legate, Bernard Saisset. The legate was arrested on a charge of inciting an insurrection, was tried and convicted by the royal court, and committed to the custody of the archbishop of Narbonne, Giles Aycelin - one of his key ministers and allies, in 1301. In the bull Ausculta fili ("Listen, son", December 1301) Boniface VIII appealed to Philip IV to listen modestly to the Vicar of Christ as the spiritual monarch over all earthly kings. He protested against the trial of churchmen before Philip's royal courts and the continued use of church funds for state purposes and he announced he would summon the bishops and abbots of France to take measures "for the preservation of the liberties of the Church".[11] When the bull was presented to Philip, the Count of Artois, Robert II, reportedly snatched it from the hands of Boniface's emissary and flung it into the fire.[12]

On February 1302, the bull Ausculta fili was officially burned at Paris before King Philip and a great multitude. To forestall the ecclesiastical council proposed by Boniface, Philip summoned the three estates of his realm to meet at Paris in April. At this first French States-General in history, all three classes – nobles, clergy, and commons – wrote separately to Rome in defense of the king and his temporal power. Some forty-five French prelates, despite Philip's prohibition, and the confiscation of their property, attended the council at Rome in October 1302.

From that council, on 18 November 1302, Boniface issued the bull Unam sanctam. It declared that both spiritual and temporal power were under the pope's jurisdiction, and that kings were subordinate to the power of the Roman pontiff. In response, Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip's chief minister, denounced Boniface as a heretical criminal to the French clergy. In 1303, Philip and Nogaret were excommunicated.[13][14] However, on 7 September 1303, an army led by Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna surprised Boniface at his retreat in Anagni. The King and the Colonnas demanded his resignation; Boniface VIII responded that he would "sooner die". In response, Colonna allegedly slapped Boniface, a "slap" historically remembered as the schiaffo di Anagni ("Anagni slap").


Depiction of the death of Boniface in a 15th-century manuscript of Boccaccio's De Casibus.

Boniface was probably beaten and nearly executed, but was released from captivity after three days. He died on 11 October 1303.[15] He had died of suicide from "gnawing through his own arm" and bashing his skull into a wall.[16]

Posthumous trial

After the papacy had been removed to Avignon in 1309, Pope Clement V consented to a post-mortem trial by an ecclesiastical consistory at Groseau, near Avignon, which held preliminary examinations in August and September 1310.

A process (judicial investigation) against the memory of Boniface was held [17] and collected testimonies that alleged many heretical opinions of Boniface VIII. This included the offence of sodomy, although there is little substantive evidence for this, and it is more likely that this was the standard accusation Philip made against enemies.[18]

Before the actual trial could be held, Clement persuaded Philip to leave the question of Boniface's guilt to the Council of Vienne, which met in 1311. When the council met, three cardinals appeared before it and testified to the orthodoxy and morality of the dead pope. Two knights, as challengers, threw down their gauntlets to maintain his innocence by wager of battle. No one accepted the challenge, and the Council declared the matter closed.[19]

Statue of Pope Boniface VIII at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence

Burial and exhumation

The body of Boniface VIII was buried in 1303 in a special chapel that also housed the remains of Pope Boniface IV. Boniface VIII had arranged that this would be done to offset the fact that his predecessor was still alive, which caused him to worry that the legitimacy of his own papacy would be thrown into doubt. In choosing such a burial, Boniface VIII was trying to show that he was a legitimate pope with the implicit support from the grave of a popular predecessor, Boniface IV.

The body was exhumed in 1606, the results recorded by Giacomo Grimaldi. The body lay within three coffins, the outermost of wood, the middle of lead, and the innermost of pine. The corporal remains were described as being "unusually tall" measuring seven palms when examined by doctors. The body wore ecclesiastical vestments common for Boniface's lifetime: long stockings covered legs and thighs, and it was garbed also with the maniple, soutain, and pontifical habit made of black silk, as well as stole, chasuble, rings, and bejeweled gloves.

After this exhumation and examination, Boniface's body was moved to the Chapels of Pope Gregory and Andrew. It is now located in the grottoes.[20]


  • In his Inferno, Dante portrayed Boniface VIII as destined for hell, where simony is punished, although Boniface was still alive at the fictional date of the poem's story. Boniface's eventual destiny is revealed to Dante by Pope Nicholas III, whom he meets. A bit later in the Inferno, we are reminded of the pontiff's feud with the Colonna family, which led him to demolish the city of Palestrina, killing 6,000 citizens and destroying both the home of Julius Caesar and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Boniface's ultimate fate is confirmed by Beatrice when Dante visits Heaven. It is notable that he does not adopt Guillaume de Nogaret's aspersion that Boniface VIII was a 'sodomite', however, and does not assign him to that circle of hell (albeit that Simony was placed in the eighth circle of Fraud below Sodomy in the seventh circle of Violence, designating it as a worse offense and taking precedence above activities of sodomy).
  • He is also referenced in François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the chapter where Epistemon is listing the inhabitants of hell and their occupations, he says that Boniface was (in one translation) "skimming the scum off soup pots".
  • Mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Campano served as personal physician to Pope Boniface VIII.[21]
  • In Boccaccio's Decameron, Boniface VIII is satirically depicted granting a highwayman (Ghino di Tacco) a priorate (Day 10, second tale). Earlier (I.i), Boniface VIII is also mentioned for his role in sending Charles of Valois to Florence in 1300 to end the feud between the Black and White Guelphs.
  • The Tale of Pope Boniface is told in Book 2 of John Gower's Confessio Amantis as an exemplum of the sin of fraudulently supplanting others. Gower claims that Boniface tricked Pope Celestine V into abdicating by having a young cleric, pretending to be the voice of God, speak to him while he was sleeping and convince him to abdicate (ll. 2861-2900). Gower also repeats the rumour that Boniface died by gnawing off his own hands, but attributes this to hunger rather than a deliberate suicide attempt (ll. 3027-28).
  • Boniface was a patron of Giotto di Bondone.
  • Boniface had the churches of Rome restored for the Great Jubilee of 1300, particularly St. Peter's Basilica, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the Saint Mary Major Basilica.

See also

  • Giovanni Villani (Florentine chronicler who made an account of Boniface and his jubilee)


  1. ^ Tosti, p. 37, citing Teuli, History of Velletri, Book 2, chapter 5.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Bartholomew of Lucca (Odoricus Raynaldus [Rainaldi], Annales Ecclesiastici Tomus Quartus [Volume XXIII] (Lucca: Leonardo Venturini 1749), sub anno 1294, p. 156: Dominus Benedictus cum aliquibus cardinalibus Caelestino persuasit ut officio cedat quia propter simplicitatem suam, licet sanctus vir, et vitae magni foret exempli, saepius adversis confundabantur ecclesiae in gratiis faciendis et circa regimen orbis.
  4. ^ "Frater Hugo de Bidiliomo provincie Francie, magister fuit egregius in theologia et mul famosus in romana curia; qui actu lector existens apud Sanctam Sabinam, per papam Nicolaum quartum eiusdem ecclesie factus cardinalis" [16.V.1288]; postmodum per Celestinum papain [1294] est ordinatus in episcopum ostiensem (Cr Pg 3r). Accessed May 9, 2011; See also Rome Across Time and Space: Cultural Transmission and the Exchange of Ideas, 2011, p. 275. Accessed 7-10-2011
  5. ^ See the poem by Jacopo Stefaneschi, Subdeacon of the Holy Roman Church, who participated in the events: Ludovicus Antonius Muratori, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores Tomus Tertius (Milan 1723), 642.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "The Bad Popes" by ER Chamberlin 1969, 1986 ISBN 0-88029-116-8 Chapter III "The Lord of Europe" page 102-104.
  8. ^ cf. Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia Christopher Kleinhenz et al. eds. Routledge, 2004, p. 178.
  9. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, II, 663d
  10. ^ Dante Alighierli, Divine Comedy, Inferno, 19.49–63
  11. ^ Guizot, F., History of France, 1872, 8v., vI, 591
  12. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia
  13. ^ Chamberlain, E.R. "The Lord of Europe". The Bad Popes. Barnes and Noble. p. 120. 
  14. ^ Ian Mortimer: "Barriers to the Truth" History Today: 60:12: December 2010: 13
  15. ^ Reardon, Wendy. The Deaths of the Popes. McFarland. p. 120. 
  16. ^ Chamberlain. "the Lord of Europe". The Bad Popes. Barnes and Noble. 
  17. ^ Its records were republished in a critical edition by J. Coste (1995).
  18. ^ James Brundage, Law, Sex and Christianity in Medieval Europe (University of Chicago, 1990), p. 473
  19. ^ The Age of Faith, Will Durant, 1950, 13th printing, page 816
  20. ^ Reardon, Wendy. The Deaths of the Popes. Comprehensive Accounts Including Funeral, Burial Places and Epitaphs. McFarland. pp. 120–123. 
  21. ^ Robin Healey, Italian Literature Before 1900 In English Translation: An Annotated Bibliography 1929–2008, page 390 (University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2011). ISBN 978-1-4426-4269-0


External links

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Celestine V
24 December 1294 – 11 October 1303
Succeeded by
Benedict XI
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