A power-mad dictator sends agents to kidnap the pope, plunder his palace and force him to resign in disgrace on trumped-up charges.
That may sound like the plot line of a contemporary action thriller. But it actually happened in 1303—a real-life drama featuring King Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII.
The incident capped a bitter struggle between two of the most powerful men in the medieval world. And it didn’t end with the pontiff’s death. The French king later sought to obliterate not only the pope’s reputation—but his actual bones as well.
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Rivals driven by greed and power
Philip, born in 1268, was also known as Philip the Fair, not for his sense of justice but for his handsome face. By many accounts, he was ruthless, insatiably greedy and convinced that he ruled by divine right.
Boniface was no saint, either. Born Benedetto Caetani (or Gaetani) to a noble Italian family around the year 1235, he studied law before becoming a cardinal in 1281 and pope in 1294. Like several of his papal predecessors, he believed his authority was supreme, exceeding even that of kings. He was also said to be autocratic, vengeful and not above using his position to enrich himself and his family. His enemies even claimed he murdered his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, by driving a nail into the man’s head (an accusation disputed by a 2013 forensic analysis).
It was probably inevitable that relations between these strong-willed leaders would eventually reach a breaking point. “Europe could not contain two such men,” the historian Stephen Howarth observed in his book, The Knights Templar.
Their showdown began in 1296, when Boniface issued a decree forbidding kings from taxing the clergy without his consent. Philip, who constantly needed cash and considered taxation his legal right, retaliated by prohibiting the export of gold, silver and other items of value without his approval, a move meant to deprive the pope of donations from French Catholics.
In 1301, Philip went further, arresting a French bishop close to Boniface on an assortment of phony allegations. Boniface retaliated, issuing a “bull,” or official document, demanding the bishop’s release, asserting his rightful power over Philip and threatening the king with punishment. As if to underscore his superior position, Boniface titled the bull Ausculta Fili, Latin for “Listen, Son.”
In spring of 1303 the conflict took a more ominous turn.
That’s when Philip convened an assembly called the Estates General, to press his case that Boniface was not a legitimate pope and should be removed from office. As evidence, he and his advisers compiled a stunning list of allegations against Boniface, including heresy, blasphemy, sodomy, sorcery—and even not fasting on fast days, notes historian Barbara W. Tuchman in her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
Meanwhile, Boniface prepared to use the harshest punishment at his disposal and publicly excommunicate Philip from the church. He drafted a statement that he intended to issue on September 8. But with just a day to spare, his enemies pounced.
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Kidnap his holiness…or kill him?
That summer, Philip had tired of the war of words and decided it was time for military action. He assigned the job to his longtime henchman, William de Nogaret.
De Nogaret had already found an ally in Sciarra Colonna, a member of a powerful Roman family whose lands had been confiscated by the pope’s military in a dispute over a stolen gold shipment. Together the two men amassed an army of several hundred soldiers. De Nogaret’s goal was to kidnap Boniface and bring him to France to stand trial for his supposed crimes. Colonna just wanted to kill him.
In early September 1303 the group reached Anagni, a hilltop town about 40 miles from Rome, where the pope was staying. They passed through the city gates unopposed on September 7, thanks to traitors on the inside.
Though all but two of his cardinals deserted him, Boniface managed to negotiate a nine-hour truce with Colonna, hoping the townspeople would rescue him. When that didn’t happen, Colonna presented him with a list of written demands, including that he renounce the papacy. Not surprisingly, Boniface refused.
Now realizing he had no chance of escape, “the venerable pontiff retired to his apartments, and there awaited death,” Dom Louis Tosti, a 19-century Benedictine monk, wrote in a flattering biography of Boniface.
The attacking armies failed to break down the doors of Boniface’s heavily fortified palace, but they found another entrance through the adjoining Cathedral of Anagni, which they set ablaze.
Accounts differ on what happened next. The sympathetic biographer, Tosti, claims Boniface dressed in his pontifical robes, put the papal tiara on his head, “ascended his throne and there sat.”
Soon Colonna and De Nogaret were on the scene, the latter reportedly dragging Boniface off his throne, while telling him, “We are come to lead you captive to Lyons, to deprive you of the dignity of Pope.” By some accounts Colonna or De Nogaret slapped Boniface in the face. Historian Dan Jones, in his 2017 book, The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, is skeptical of the slap legend but suggests that Boniface’s captors “roughed him up.” Fortunately for Boniface, however, De Nogaret seems to have interceded when Colonna proposed finishing him off him with a dagger.
They held Boniface prisoner for the next three days, while the invaders sacked his palace and argued over what to do with him. Then the locals, seemingly struck by an attack of conscience, finally came to Boniface’s aid and drove the invaders back.
When news of the episode reached Rome, a contingent of knights arrived to escort Boniface safely back to the Vatican. But the three-day ordeal had taken its toll. The pontiff, already in poor health, died a month later in the Vatican and was laid to rest in a tomb there.
Bones of contention
Normally the story might end here. But Philip, still bent on destroying Boniface’s reputation, wasn’t finished.
Boniface’s immediate successor as pope was Benedict XI, who died suddenly eight months into the job—possibly after being poisoned on orders of Philip or De Nogaret. In 1305, a French archbishop named Bertrand de Got was elected pope, a decision the canny French king likely had a hand in.
Not surprisingly, Pope Clement V, as he was now called, proved more amenable than his Italian predecessors to doing Philip’s bidding. The same year he became pope, Clement relocated his court from Rome to France; in 1309, he moved it to Avignon, now part of France but then just outside the French border. Avignon would remain the seat of the papacy for nearly 70 years before its return to Rome.
Meanwhile, Philip badgered Clement to put the now-dead Boniface on trial. He also demanded that Boniface’s bones be exhumed and burned.
Although Clement was a Frenchman and possibly owed his job to the king, he also seems to have felt a duty to the institution of the papacy. He stalled for a time but, as Philip grew ever more impatient, finally agreed in 1310 to arrange a tribunal to hear the evidence against Boniface.
The tribunal, which lasted into the winter of 1311, listened to both Boniface’s defenders and accusers; ultimately, it reached no decision regarding his guilt. To placate Philip, Clement issued a bull lavishly praising the king’s piety, nullifying Boniface’s orders against him and absolving him of any wrongdoing in the 1303 kidnapping.
As for Boniface, his bones escaped the flames of Philip’s wrath and now reside peacefully in the Vatican Grottoes of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.