As we saw, the long struggle for temporal power between Germany’s emperors and Rome’s popes came to an end. But the struggle continued. And it was the same old struggle. All that changed was the field of conflict and the contestants. As we will see, that field was now France, and the contestants the King of France, Philip IV, and Pope Boniface (1294-1303).
The separate history of France began with the partition of Verdun in 843. As has already been explained, Charles the Great, who succeeded his father Pepin in 768, brought under his rule all Western Europe and thereby established the Roman Germanic or the so-called Holy Roman Empire. But the mighty empire of Charles went the way of all the kingdoms of the great conquerors of the ages preceding. It fell apart soon after Charles’ death. By the Treaty of Verdun, France and the nucleus of Germany were given to Louis, one of the three surviving sons of Charles, and thus began in 843 the separate history of France. Towards the close of the century, in 987, the first of the Capetian dynasty came to the throne. His name was Hugh Capet. The line that proceeded from him included fourteen kings, whose joint reigns lasted three hundred and forty-one years (987-1328). Included was also Philip IV, the dates of whose reign are 1285-1314. The first of these kings had little actual power. The real rulers at that time were the counts and dukes of the several principalities or states of which France was formed. Each did much as he pleased in his own domain and paid lip service to the king. But by the time of Philip IV and Boniface VIII, France had become one of the most consolidated and powerful kingdoms in Europe. By the influence of the crusades, the power of the nobles had been broken and was now concentrated in the crown. Germany, on the other hand, was still a loose federation of pretty states, united under the supremacy of a ruler, who, as was stated, bore the title of emperor but v/ho had no actual power, and who therefore was powerless to suppress the incessant wars between the German princes and the cities and the discord of the lower nobility. Germany being a house divided against itself, the emperor could offer no resistance to the pope’s encroachments. But with Philip IV it was different. As the ruler of a united and powerful kingdom, and as heading a people who, like the rest of the peoples of Europe, was fast losing its dread for the thunderings of the papacy, Philip was more than a match for the pope.
Not that Philip was a good king. A French chronicler describes his character in this language, “A certain king of France, also named Philip, eaten up by the fever of avarice and cupidity.” When Philip acceded to the throne, he was seventeen years of age. They called him “The Fair” then, for he was a youth of uncommon beauty. And in a crisis he was brave, too. Besides, he was determined in the execution of his plans and as intelligent in the contrivance thereof but just as unscrupulous. He was cruel against his enemies and kept no faith with his subjects, for whose rights he was filled with a scandalous contempt. But he stood for an independent France, as over against a France ruled from out of Rome by the long arms of the papacy, the bishops and archbishops of the Roman hierarchy. He had been nine years king when Boniface VIII became pope. During that time he had greatly diminished the power of the church in civil functions. He had removed the clergy from judicial posts and had put the administration of civil affairs in the hands of laymen. Besides, he had raised the taxes on the enormous amount of real estate acquired by the church through the centuries of the past. With this monarch the history of modern France begins.
Coelestine V, the pious pope who abdicated and returned to his solitude, was succeeded by this Boniface VIII. Boniface had all the defects of Philip the Fair, but less of his ability. Petrarch and Dante, two great poets of Italy, ascribe to him a similar character. “He was,” says Petrarch, “an inexorable sovereign (was this pope), whom it was very hard to break by force and impossible to bend by humility and caresses.” And Dante puts him with Pope Nicholas III in hell. He makes Nickolas address to him the following greeting, “Already art thou here and proudly upstanding, O Boniface? Hast thou so soon been sated with that wealth for which thou didst not fear to deceive that fair dame (the church) whom afterwards thou didst so disastrously govern?” Boniface VIII, too, laid claims to supreme magisterial power over the kings of the earth, over every temporal power, being of human creation,—claims which he laid down in a long bull to the king. “God”, said he, “hath established us—the popes—above kings and kingdoms by imposing upon us, in virtue of the apostolic office, the duty of plucking away, destroying, dispersing, building up and planting in His name and according to his doctrine; to the end that, in tending the flock of the Lord, we may strengthen the weak, heal the sick. . . . Let none, then, dear son, persuade thee that thou hast no superior, and that thou art not subject to the sovereign head of the ecclesiastical hierarchy; for he who so thinketh is beside himself; and if he obstinately affirm such a thing, he is an infidel and hath no place any longer in the fold of the good shepherd. . . . We would have thee to know that thou art subject unto us in all things spiritual and temporal.” A papal decree of November 18, 1302 declared, “There be two swords, the temporal and the spiritual; both are in the power of the church, but one is held by the church herself, the other by kings, only with the assent and by the sufferance of the sovereign pontiff.”
Such being the imaginings of Boniface VIII, it was unavoidable that these two absolute sovereigns—Philip the Fair and this pope—come to a deadly clash—unavoidable as each claimed for himself the kingdom of France. The first clash occurred the year following Boniface’s elevation to the papal throne. Philip the Fair was at war with Edward I, king of England, and imposed upon the clergy a fresh tax of two tenths,—the clergy who jointly possessed one half of all the landed property in the kingdom. It was a vast domain in which the Roman hierarchy, through its bishops, performed all the offices of lay rulers and this, according to the papacy, as vassal of the pope of Rome. Several bishops refused to pay the tax and addressed a protest to the pope in which they compared the king to Pharaoh. Boniface issued a bull, addressed to the king, in which he set forth as a principle that churches and ecclesiastics could not be taxed save with the permission of the sovereign pontiff and that “all lay rulers, including the king, who should violate this principle and all ecclesiastics who should lend themselves to such violations would by this mere fact incur excommunication and would be incapable of release therefrom, unless by special decision of the pope.” Philip was angry. He made the pope feel his wrath by forbidding the export of money from France, thus cutting off the revenues of the pope. A year thereafter the pope reconsidered his action and authorized the collection of the tax that had been voted by the French bishops with the exception of those who had protested. In addition the pope conceded the right of the king to tax the
French clergy with their consent. It was a victory for Philip.
Peace prevailed between the two sovereigns but not for long. The pope had recently created a new bishopric at Pampiers to which he appointed Bernard de Saisset, an abbot of St. Antoine in that city. Besides, he made Bernard his permanent official representative at the court of Philip. That was an injudicious act on the part of the pope. For Bernard was a foe to the dominion of the French kings in France and known as such. It had been reported to Philip that he had persistently labored to incite rebellion against the king in the south of France. Arriving in Paris, Bernard was summoned before the king to answer to the charge of treason. Though he denied everything, he was jailed. Philip demanded that the pope give an order that Bernard be put to death as a sacrifice to God in the way of justice. To this the pope replied, “We do bid thy majesty,” he wrote to the king, “to give this bishop free leave to depart and come to us, for we desire his presence. We do warn thee. . . . not to offend the Divine Majesty or the dignity of the Apostolic See, lest we be forced to employ some other remedy.”
Philip replied by gathering together his subjects—clergy, nobles and commons—to deliberate on the matter with him. This body is regarded in French history as the first “States General”. It now appeared that the king had on his side the whole nation. For all three estates—clergy, nobles, and commons—wrote separately to Rome, protesting against the pope’s claims in matters temporal. That was the handwriting on the wall. But the pope had not the wisdom to read it. He replied with a bull in which he reiterated in boldest language the papal claims to supremacy over civil rulers. Philip answered by convoking a new assembly, where a number of absurdly false charges were lodged against the pope. An appeal was made for a general church council before which the pope might be tried. The king sent his jurist, William Nogaret, to Rome to compel the pope to authorize the council. Nogaret collected a force and made the pope his prisoner in Anagni. A few days thereafter, he was freed by the people of Anagni. A month later he died.
As we have seen, several strong rulers of preceding ages had defied the pope. But Philip IV is the first ruler who did so without either being destroyed or even once humiliated. The reason is obvious. The peoples of Europe and in particular the people of France, had lost much of Their dread for the pope’s thunderings; his spiritual weapons—excommunication and the interdict—no longer availed. The people of France therefore dared to support their king in his warfare with the pope. Historians are all agreed on this. It could not well be otherwise, for the thing is too obvious. It is simply a fact. But there is yet this question: Why were men losing their dread for the pope’s thunderings at this time? One may ponder long this question and present various reasons without giving the right answer, if he ends not with saying, “God took that fear from men and made their hearts stout against the pope.” God is the only final answer to all the questions that history raises.