Archive for January, 2020

Warnings from History

January 22, 2020

Part II Philip the Fair, Pope Boniface VIII and the separation of Church and State.

Nogaret’s men arrest the pope

When the constitution of the United States was written, the founders established a principle that was unheard of in Western (or perhaps any) society.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Since many of the original colonists had come fleeing religious persecution by their governments, this made sense. But it was a radical solution to a problem that had existed for millennia.

Philip IV of France is a classic example of the struggle for power between Church and State.

Just a bit of background first.  Contrary to what is taught almost everywhere, the popes in Rome did not control the minds of every Christian in Europe.  Nor did the rulers of the various countries always feel obliged to obey them.  Yes, by and large, most people in Western Europe considered themselves Christian.  However, there were wild variations in how they understood the faith.

Philip IV of France was not the first ruler to take on the popes.  In the eleventh century the Holy Roman emperors had huge fights with Rome over the right to appoint bishops. It was called the Investiture Conflict. Barrels of ink have been used to describe the fun and games that ensued, so I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say that there was a lot of shouting, some fighting and several anti-popes.  However, all the participants were of the same faith even if they each thought the others to be heretics and power-grabbers.

Philip wanted something more.  He had a lot of issues concerning his family and religion. First of all, since the time of his umpteenth great-grandfather Louis VII, the kings had been anointed at their coronations with holy oil, found in the tomb of St. Remi. Popular belief stretched this much further back, to the time of the first Capetian, Hugh Capet, in 987.  To this they added that the oil had been delivered from heaven by the Holy Spirit, in its form of a dove.

Added to that, his immediate ancestors had all been pious crusaders.  Philip had a lot to live up to and those pesky popes kept getting in his way.

So, Philip set about slowly easing power from Rome.  He believed, and there is some truth in this, that the papacy was nothing more than a prize in a power struggle among the noble Roman families and not a divine calling.

The pope he faced was Boniface VIII,  the current winner, who was concerned to keep the rights of the church out of the hands of monarchs.

In Philip’s war with Edward I of England,* both sides had taxed the clerics, especially wealthy monasteries.  This was a no-no. said the pope.  The  tithes from churches and abbeys helped keep the papacy afloat. Boniface forbade the kings to take more money from the Church.  Did I mention that Philip and Edward both had active armies?  After some fuss, Boniface backed down and proclaimed that kings could tax the church without approval from the pope if there were a clear and present danger. 

Round one to Philip.

In 1297, after some pressure, Boniface declared Philip’s grandfather Louis IX, who had died on crusade, to be a saint.

Round two to Philip.

Next Philip heard that a bishop from the south of France had, while in his cups, said some nasty things about him.  Bernard Saisset was Bishop of Pamiers and a good friend of Pope Boniface.  He and Philip had already been on opposite sides of a land dispute.  According to many witnesses, Bernard had said of Philip, “Our king resembles an owl, the fairest of birds, but worthless. He is the handsomest man in the world, but he only knows how to look at people unblinkingly, without speaking.”  He also accused Philip of being a bastard and opined that St. Louis was in hell.  This insulted Philip and, even more, the counsellors who wrote most of his pronouncements.

Naturally, Philip went ballistic.  He ordered the bishop arrested and charged with heresy and treason, among other things.  Now, all clerics accused of a crime were supposed to be tried in religious courts.  If they were convicted, they might be turned over to secular courts for punishment.  Boniface couldn’t ignore the treatment of a bishop and a friend.  Perhaps unwisely, he sent a pronouncement to the king, titled Ausculta fili. Loosely translated, it means “Listen up, kid”. 

Philip’s minions quickly went to work and published a “slanted summary of its main points which gave the impression that the pope was claiming the feudal lordship of France.”@   This gave Philip the opening to attack the pope directly.  As I mentioned in the first part of this essay, he accused Boniface of heresy, sodomy, murder, idolatry and simony.  The actual author of this charge was Philip’s chief advisor, Nogaret.  He arranged for assemblies to be held across France to condemn Boniface.  Then, with the help of a rival Roman family, Nogaret went to Italy and captured the pope in his home town of Anagni.  Reports differ as to what was done to him, but he was certainly abused.  The citizens of Anagni rose up and freed Boniface but the pontiff, in his eighties, died a month later.

This round was sort of a tie.

Finally, Philip got a French pope, Clement V, who would compromise enough to dissolve the Templars. 

Are you still with me?  Because I’m finally getting to the point.

Philip IV wanted money, but he also wanted to be free of papal meddling.  He was divinely consecrated, the grandson of a saint.  “ In accusing Bernard Saisset of heresy, Nogaret  created the chance to affirm the right of the Capetian king to replace the pope, if necessary, in his Christlike function Henceforth, “what [was] committed against God, against the faith or against the Roman Church, the king consider[ed] committed against himself.” #

Philip was establishing himself as the direct link to God, above the popes.  His broadsides confirmed this.  During the trial of the Templars, another advisor, Guillaume de Plaisians, told the assembly that “The king of France has come to announce to you great joy!” This was the dissolution of the Templars.  Plaisians was stating that, like the angels, Philip had received word from Heaven without going through the pope.#   God had sent Philip to the French, and he agreed, styling himself  “the most Christian king”, in the world.

Louis XIV

So Philip, and the kings who followed him, up to Louis XVI, did not want to separate church and state; they wanted control of both.  And, with power over both, people had no one to appeal to against the excesses of the monarch.  It was as if the American president also controlled the Congress and the Supreme Court,

The framers of the Constitution got it right, in my opinion.  They learned from history that legislating private belief is tyranny.  Let’s don’t let it happen again.


*The war continued, off and on, for over a hundred years.  You may have heard of it.

@ Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars. P. 30

#Julien Théry-Astruc, “Guillaume de Nogaret and the Conflicts Between Philip the Fair and the Papacy”  The Capetian Century ed. William Chester Jordan and Jenna Rebecca Phillips.(Brepols, Turnhout, Belgium, 2017) p219