Bishops of Rome: from the 1st Century AD
The pope is the bishop of Rome. The name derives from a Greek word pappas, meaning father, and Rome’s bishop is seen as the father figure of the early church because of the link with St Peter. Jesus is believed to have appointed Peter as the rock on which the church will be built; and Peter is believed to have been martyred in Rome. As the capital of the empire, Rome is also a natural centre for the growing church.
Unlike any other Christian see, Rome can put at least a name to every bishop in an unbroken line back to the 1st century of the Christian era and to St Peter himself as the first pope. The papacy, though not recognized as such until later centuries, has impressive credentials.
Many popes in the first three centuries of the Christian era are obscure figures. Several suffer martyrdom along with members of their flock in periods of persecution. Most of them are much involved in theological argument with other bishops, as the young church flexes its doctrinal muscles.
The change to a very different role comes during the brief pontificate of Miltiades (311-314). In 313 he holds a council openly in Rome, at the behest of the emperor, in the Lateran palace. A lasting link, between the papacy and temporal power, has begun. And there are immediate signs of the change.
The First Churches: AD 312-337
Concrete evidence of the new status of Christianity is seen in the emergence of the first church buildings. The change is most visible in Rome, the strongest Christian community. Until now, in spite of the size of the congregation of Christians in Rome, worship has been conducted discreetly in private houses. Suddenly churches become public buildings, city landmarks as prominent as the temples of the pagan cult.
Some of the churches evolve from the private houses already in use for worship; one such example is SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. Others in the capital city are new and more striking foundations.
Constantine establishes three important churches in Rome. One, intended to be the city’s cathedral, is sited immediately beside his own Lateran palace – already presented to the Christians as a residence for the pope. This church is St John Lateran.
The other two churches of Constantine in Rome are built in honour of the city’s two martyrs, Peter and Paul, on the supposed sites of their graves. One is outside the old city and is called S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls). The other, in the Vatican, is St Peter’s. Both have since been rebuilt.
The sack of Rome: AD 410
In the gravest crisis to confront Rome for many centuries, both the emperor (Honorius) and the pope (Innocent I) are safely elsewhere. They are sheltering on the coast, at Ravenna, when Alaric and his Visigoths enter Rome in AD 410 and spend three days gathering plunder.
On this occasion the papacy can claim no credit for the departure of the barbarians ( who do little damage to the buildings of the city). But when Rome is under similar threat later in the century, from Attila the Hun and Gaiseric the Vandal, the city’s new leadership – in the form now of Leo I – is perceived as being much more effective.
Leo the Great: AD 440-461
The first pope to indicate the real potential of the papacy is Leo I, who has an unusual span of twenty-one years in office. He uses his time well, not only in the papal duty of restraining heretics but also in rehearsing other roles to be played by Rome.
These include defining Catholic orthodoxy (his epistle called Tome is widely accepted by his contemporaries in this context), and the assertion of the pope’s authority over other bishops by the power of the keys, granted by Jesus to Peter and supposedly passed on to his successors: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. What you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven.’
With the collapse of imperial authority in the western empire, as Visigoths, Vandals and Huns move around almost at will, the papacy finds itself well placed to take a lead in temporal affairs. Ambrose in Milan has already demonstrated how a bishop can exert spiritual authority over an emperor. Leo confronts two dangerous men on a more purely diplomatic basis.
During Leo’s pontificate Rome is threatened by Attila the Hun (in 452) and Gaiseric the Vandal (455). He negotiates with both, and is traditionally credited with persuading Attila to turn back short of Rome and with convincing Gaiseric that the city should not be utterly destroyed. Whatever the exact truth of his achievement, his actions predict a broader role for the papacy.
Gregory the Great: AD 590-604
Gregory I, in the late 6th century, reveals in a similar way the future direction of Rome and of the papacy. It can be seen in two significant events. In 592, two years after his election as pope, the Lombards are at the gates of Rome; Gregory accepts papal responsibility for the city, negotiates with the barbarians and persuades them to withdraw (admittedly at the price of an annual tribute). Four years later, in 596, he despatches a mission of forty men to England. Like Gregory himself, until his election as pope, these missionaries are monks.
A temporal ruler of Rome, using monastic establishments to spread spiritual rule throughout Europe – the pattern for the medieval papacy is in place.
Missions to Frisia and Germany: 690-754
The careers of two great Anglo-Saxon missionaries, Willibrord and Boniface, are an indication of the value to the papacy of two recent successes: – the acceptance of the authority of the pope in England, at the synod of Whitby in 664; and the developing alliance between Rome and the Carolingian rulers of the Frankish kingdoms.
Anglo-Saxon England is the most sophisticated Christian region of northern Europe. The Carolingians are the most powerful rulers in the area. A collaboration between English missionaries and Frankish empire-builders is a development eagerly encouraged by Rome.
In about 678 Willibrord, a 20-year-old monk, leaves his Yorkshire monastery at Ripon and moves to Ireland. Inspired by the great tradition of Irish missionaries, he sets out in 690 for the northwest coast of continental Europe. The region of Frisia, or Friesland, is still pagan but has recently been conquered by Pepin, the founder of the Carolingian dynasty. Willibrord brings with him eleven companions (more modest in its apostolic implication than the twelve companions of the earlier Celtic tradition).
The missionaries rapidly establish a foothold in the region. With Pepin’s support, and a commission from the pope in Rome, Willibrord is in a position by 695 to be consecrated archbishop of a new see in Utrecht.
Willibrord also founds a great monastery at Echternach, where he dies in 739. By then his efforts have been surpassed by another missionary some twenty years his junior.
Boniface, educated like Willibrord in an Anglo-Saxon monastery, is commissioned by the pope in Rome in 719 to carry the faith into the heathen parts of Germany. He joins Willibrord for three years in Frisia, from 719 t0 722, and then sets off into Bavaria. Converting heathen chieftains, boldly destroying their idols, and establishing monasteries with priests and nuns brought out from England, Boniface makes rapid progress – supported vigorously in his turn by Charles Martel (the son of Pepin).
By 743 Boniface has established eight bishoprics in Germany, and in that year he summons what is considered to be the first German council of the church. From 746 he makes his own archiepiscopal headquarters at Mainz, ensuring the city a long pre-eminence in Roman Catholic Germany.
In 754, when already in his eighties, Boniface resigns his archbishopric in order to return to missionary work in Frisia. The outcome demonstrates both the danger of the work and its impermanence. Soon after his arrival in this area, evangelized by Willibrord sixty years previously, Boniface and his companions are massacred by heathens near Dokkum.
Popes and Franks: 753-772
In 753 the pope, Stephen II, makes an unusual journey north of the Alps. He visits the Frankish king, Pepin III, to seek his help against the Lombards who have recently taken the city of Ravenna and who now pose a similar threat to Rome. The pope anoints Pepin at the abbey of St Denis, near Paris, together with his two young sons Charles and Carloman. Pepin duly invades northern Italy in 754, and again in 756.
He is able to drive the Lombards from the territory belonging to Ravenna. But he does not restore it to its rightful owner, the Byzantine emperor. Instead, perhaps believing the fiction revealed in the forged Donation of Constantine, he hands over large areas of central Italy to the pope and his successors.
The land given to pope Stephen in 756, in the so-called Donation of Pepin, makes the papacy a temporal power. This territory is the origin of the Papal States, over which the popes continue to rule until their incorporation in the new kingdom of Italy in 1870. The story of Rome, for the next eleven centuries, becomes almost entirely the story of the papacy.
In the short term the temporal rule of the popes is shaky. Within a few years the Lombards again invade their territory. In 772 a new pope appeals for help to a new Frankish king. Adrian I enlists the support of Charlemagne. This time the Lombards have conclusively met their match. In 774 Charlemagne adds their kingdom to his own.
Holy Roman Emperor: 800
In 799, for the third time in half a century, a pope is in need of help from the Frankish king. After being physically attacked by his enemies in the streets of Rome (their stated intention is to blind him and cut out his tongue, to make him incapable of office), Leo III makes his way through the Alps to visit Charlemagne at Paderborn.
It is not known what is agreed, but Charlemagne travels to Rome in 800 to support the pope. In a ceremony in St Peter’s, on Christmas Day, Leo is due to anoint Charlemagne’s son as his heir. But unexpectedly (it is maintained), as Charlemagne rises from prayer, the pope places a crown on his head and acclaims him emperor.
Charlemagne expresses displeasure but accepts the honour. The displeasure is probably diplomatic, for the legal emperor is undoubtedly the one in Constantinople. Nevertheless this public alliance between the pope and the ruler of a confederation of Germanic tribes now reflects the reality of political power in the west. And it launches the concept of the new Holy Roman Empire which will play an important role throughout the Middle Ages.
The Holy Roman Empire only becomes formally established in the next century. But it is implicit in the title adopted by Charlemagne in 800: ‘Charles, most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman empire.’
Emperors and Popes: 962-1250
The imperial role accorded by the pope to Charlemagne in 800 is handed on in increasingly desultory fashion during the 9th century. From 924 it falls into abeyance. But in 962 a pope once again needs help against his Italian enemies. Again he appeals to a strong German ruler.
The coronation of Otto I by pope John XII in 962 marks a revival of the concept of a Christian emperor in the west. It is also the beginning of an unbroken line of Holy Roman emperors lasting for more than eight centuries. Otto I does not call himself Roman emperor, but his son Otto II uses the title – as a clear statement of western and papal independence from the other Christian emperor in Constantinople.
Otto and his son and grandson (Otto II and Otto III) regard the imperial crown as a mandate to control the papacy. They dismiss popes at their will and instal replacements more to their liking (sometimes even changing their mind and repeating the process). This power, together with territories covering much of central Europe, gives the German empire and the imperial title great prestige in the late 10th century.
But subservience was not the papal intention in reinstating the Holy Roman Empire. A clash is inevitable.
Papal decline and recovery: 1046-1061
The struggle for dominance between emperor and pope comes to a head in two successive reigns, of the emperors Henry III and Henry IV, in the 11th century. The imperial side has a clear win in the first round.
In 1046 Henry III deposes three rival popes. Over the next ten years he personally selects four of the next five pontiffs. But after his death, in 1056, these abuses of the system bring a rapid reaction. Pope Nicholas II, elected in 1058, initiates a process of reform which exposes the underlying tension between empire and papacy.
In 1059, at a synod in Rome, Nicholas condemns various abuses within the church. These include simony (the selling of clerical posts), the marriage of clergy and, more controversially, corrupt practices in papal elections. Nicholas now restricts the choice of a new pope to a conclave of cardinals, thus ruling out any direct lay influence. Imperial influence is his clear target.
In 1061 the assembled bishops of Germany – the emperor’s own faction – declare all the decrees of this pope null and void. Battle is joined. But meanwhile the pope has been enlisting new allies.
In 1059 Nicholas II takes two political steps of a kind, unusual at this period, which will later be commonplace for the medieval papacy. He grants land, already occupied, to recipients of his own choice; and he involves those recipients in a feudal relationship with the papacy, or the Holy See, as the feudal lord.
This time the beneficiaries are the Normans, who are granted territorial rights in southern Italy and Sicily in return for feudal obligations to Rome. The pope, in an overtly political struggle against the German emperor, is playing a strong hand. The issue will be brought to a head within a few years by another pope, Gregory VII.
Gregory VII and investiture: 1075
Pope Gregory seizes political control by decreeing, in 1075, that no lay ruler may make ecclesiastical appointments. Powerful bishops and abbots are henceforth to be pope’s men rather than emperor’s men.
The issue becomes known as the investiture controversy, being in essence a dispute over who has the right to invest high clerics with the robes and insignia of office.
The appointment of bishops and abbots is too valuable a right to be easily relinquished by secular rulers. Great feudal wealth and power is attached to these offices. And high clerics, as the best educated members of the medieval community, are important members of any administration.
In subsequent periods compromises are made on both sides, particularly in the Concordat of Worms, in 1122, where a distinction is made between the spiritual and secular element in clerical appointments. But investiture remains a bone of contention between the papacy and lay rulers – not only in the empire, after the first dramatic flare up between Gregory and Henry IV, but also in France and England.
Rome and the struggle for power: 1076-1138
The nine-year struggle between pope Gregory VII and the emperor Henry IV provides a vivid glimpse of the political role of the medieval papacy. St Gregory, canonized in the Catholic Reformation, is one of the great defenders of papal power. His career involves incessant power-broking and military struggle.
Henry IV, alarmed at the demands being made over investiture, sends a threatening letter to the pope in 1076. The pope responds by excommunicating the emperor. By his public penance at Canossa, Henry has the excommunication lifted. But the truce is short-lived. Henry’s enemies, prompted by the pope’s action, take a hand.
German princes opposed to Henry IV elect and crown, in 1077, a rival king – Rudolf, the duke of Swabia. Rudolf and Henry engage in a civil war, which Henry wins in 1080. By then the pope has recognized Rudolf as the German king and has again excommunicated Henry.
This time Henry’s response is more aggressive. He summons a council which deposes the pope and elects in his place the archbishop of Ravenna (as pope Clement III). Henry marches into Italy, enters Rome and is crowned emperor by this pope of his own creation. Meanwhile the real pope, Gregory, is living in a state of siege in his impregnable Roman fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Gregory appeals for help to his vassals the Normans, recently invited by the papacy to conquer southern Italy and Sicily. A Norman army reaches Rome in 1084, drives out the Germans and rescues Gregory. But the Norman sack of the city is so violent, and provokes such profound hostility, that Gregory has to flee south with his rescuers. He dies in 1085 in Sicily.
Clement III returns to Rome and reigns there with imperial support as pope (or in historical terms as antipope) for most of the next ten years. Urban II, the pope who preaches the first crusade in 1095, is not able to enter the holy city for several years after his election. Unrest prevails in Rome, and uncertainty in the empire, until the Hohenstaufen win the German crown in 1138.
In this sequence of events the nature of the medieval papacy is clearly seen. Excommunication of rulers, military campaigns enjoying papal support, rival popes reigning at the same time, the split between pope and emperor as a factor in European politics – all these become familiar themes of the Middle Ages.
The cumulative effect, centuries later, is a papacy of great wealth, vast power, considerable corruption and much reduced spiritual authority. Eventually these characteristics provoke the Reformation. But in the meantime the papacy has its period of greatest power, presiding over Europe’s feuding factions and charging handsomely for the service.
Crusades with a difference: 1200-1208
In the 13th century, during the pontificate of Innocent III, there are two crusades which differ from their predecessors in one major respect. The crusaders use their might against fellow members of the Christian community.
In the earlier of the two, the fourth crusade, this is a flagrant travesty of the official intention. The crusaders divert from their journey east to capture and pillage the Greek Orthodox city of Constantinople – an act immediately and strongly condemned by Innocent. But the second unusual crusade is specifically preached by the pope. He launches it against heretics in the south of France – the puritanical sect of Cathars, who now have close links with the Bogomils of eastern Europe.
Early in the 13th century Innocent III sends bishops to Toulouse to preach against the Cathar heresy. But the pronouncements of these grandees of the church do little to convince the heretics. They are much more readily swayed by the certainties of their own self-denying leaders.
In 1206 a different approach is proposed by Dominic de Guzman (better known now as St Dominic), a canon accompanying a Spanish bishop to Toulouse. Christian preachers, he argues, should learn from the Cathars. They must live an equivalently simple life if ordinary people are to listen to their message. It is the beginning of the Dominican system of evangelical preaching.
Dominic’s approach achieves early successes. In 1207 he establishes a convent at Prouille, in which the nuns are converts from the Cathar heresy. This convent becomes the headquarters of his mission, until an act of violence puts preaching in second place.
In January 1208 the pope’s legate to Toulouse is assassinated. Innocent now calls upon the feudal lords of Christian Europe to destroy the heretics, unleashing the violence of the Albigensian crusade. Combined with the continuing efforts of the Dominicans, the crusade ends the Cathar heresy in western Europe. In the Balkans the influence of the Bogomils survives longer, until submerged in the Turkish invasions.
Innocent and the holy beggars: 1210-1215
The most lasting achievement of Innocent III’s pontificate is his recognition of a new movement within the western church. The monasteries have shown an incorrigible tendency to accumulate wealth. In 1210 and 1215 the pope receives in Rome two visionaries with a strikingly different concept of how to follow the example of Christ.
The first visit is from Francis of Assisi and eleven of his companions. They are laymen who have given up their worldly possessions. They want to live among the poor, particularly in the rapidly growing towns, preaching and bearing witness to a Christian life. The pope encourages them.
Five years later Innocent’s visitor is a Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, who has much experience of preaching (to the Cathars) and a specific interest in correcting doctrinal error. Like Francis, he and his fellows have embraced poverty. They work amid the bustle and argument of the towns. They too are given Innocent’s blessing.
From these encounters are born the two great orders of mendicant (or begging) friars, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Western monasticism rediscovers a truth more often remembered in the east, in Hinduism and Buddhism – that the holy man’s only possession is his begging bowl. But neither mendicant order, growing in power, will find the ideal of poverty easy.
The formal foundation of each order falls within the pontificate of Innocent’s successor, Honorius III. He establishes the Dominicans in 1216 and the Franciscans in 1223.
This papal foundation distinguishes the friars from the more independent monastic orders, established in earlier centuries when the papacy was able to exercise only a relatively loose control. The two mendicant orders are seen and are used as an instrument of papal policy. They will be joined in this respect, after the crisis of the Reformation, by a third and even more powerful order – that of the Jesuits (who differ from the Dominicans and the Franciscans in not sharing their ideological devotion to poverty).
The survival of the Catharist heresy in parts of France, even after the brutality of the Albigensian crusade, persuades pope Gregory IX that specialists are required. In 1233 he writes to bishops in France saying that he is sending them some Dominican friars to help them in this necessary task of rooting out heretics.
Some of these first inquisitors have the special expertise of poachers turned gamekeeper. Robert le Bougre, the most severe of those sent to France in 1233, was drawn into the sect as a young man for love of a Cathar girl. St Peter Martyr, appointed inquisitor for northern Italy by Gregory IX (and assassinated by a Cathar in 1252), was born into a Catharist family.
The work of the Inquisition is accompanied from the start by alarming ceremonies. An inquisitor, arriving in a place where heresy is suspected, commands the local people to divulge what they know of their neighbours. The names of witnesses are concealed, so there is a strong temptation to settle scores. From 1252, by a bull of Innocent IV, suspects may be tortured to obtain confessions.
The inquisitor’s announcement of the penalties imposed provides an exciting public spectacle, with the condemned on parade to hear their fate.
The inquisitor may prescribe penalties such as fasting, pilgrimage, the wearing of a yellow cross, the confiscation of property, flogging, or imprisonment for any period, including even life. But he cannot impose a death sentence, on the grounds that the church does not shed blood.
Instead, those condemned to death are handed over to the secular authorities – who know their Christian duty and are happy to comply. Death by burning at the stake, long the traditional punishment for heresy, has the added attraction of maintaining – in a very literal sense – the fiction that no blood is being shed.
The medieval Inquisition is mainly used against the Cathars in France, though the burning of both John Huss and Joan of Arc follow investigations by inquisitors. The inquisitorial procedure becomes firmly established in the two centuries from Gregory IX’s creation of the Inquisition in the 13th century to the deaths of Huss and Joan of Arc in the 15th.
It is therefore a simple matter for pope Sixtus IV in 1478 to authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to appoint inquisitors who will ensure that Spanish Jews are genuinely converting to Christianity. And it remains the tradition that Dominicans, among them Torquemada, will undertake the task. The Spanish Inquisition is an extension of what has gone before.
The popes and Sicily: 1254-1282
Sicily, linked politically to the southern region of Italy, is an area of profound concern to the papacy – this kingdom is Rome’s southern neighbour. Rome therefore takes seriously the vacancy on the Sicilian throne in 1254, caused by the death of Frederick II’s son Conrad IV. Admittedly there are claimants from Frederick’s Hohenstaufen line. There is his illegitimate son Manfred. And there is the legitimate heir, Conrad IV’s son Conradin. But Conradin is only two.
In the circumstances the papacy feels it right to intervene. The kingdom of Sicily is a vassal of the Holy See, and a sympathetic ruler needs to be found. The crown is first offered in 1255 to one of the sons of Henry III, king of England.
The English show little interest. Meanwhile, in 1258, Manfred arranges for his own coronation in Sicily. This fait accompli leads to prolonged negotiations with Rome which finally break down in 1263. The pope then offers the crown of Sicily and Naples to Charles of Anjou – a younger brother of Louis IX, the king of France.
Charles brings a French army to Italy and kills Manfred in battle near Benevento in 1266. Two years later the 16-year-old Conradin is captured and handed over to Charles, who has him executed in a public ceremony in Naples.
Sicily and southern Italy are now in French hands, to the satisfaction of Rome. The French and the papacy share a profound hostility to the German empire – a rivalry expressed in Italian terms in the opposition of the papal party of the Guelphs to the Ghibellines, the supporters of the empire. The popes are therefore delighted to have enemies of the Germans as their southern neighbours.
The Sicilians, however, are less enchanted by the arrival of French nobles (to whom large tracts of Sicilian land are distributed as feudal territories) and by high taxes imposed on them to pay for the military campaigns of Charles of Anjou.
The resentment against Angevin rule erupts in the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Southern Italy enters two centuries of turmoil. The opponents are the French Angevins and the papacy on one side and the Spanish Aragonese, with frequent support from the German empire, on the other.
The popes are often on the losing side. Even more harmful perhaps is a new perception resulting from all this military activity. Popes come to seem almost indistinguishable from temporal princes, taking sides (usually with France) in Italy’s and Europe’s patchwork quilt of warfare. The resulting loss of Rome’s spiritual authority is a feature of the next two centuries.
France and the Papacy: 13th – 14th century
From the early 13th century the papacy develops a particularly intense relationship with France. An example is the joint response to the Catharist heresy; the crusade to stamp it out is conducted by French nobles and the French crown on behalf of the pope.
In mid-century, Rome has close links with the devotedly Christian monarch Louis IX, who goes twice on crusade to the east and is canonized twenty-seven years after his death. In 1263 it is a French pope, Urban IV, who selects Louis’ younger brother Charles of Anjou to rule the kingdom of Naples and Sicily.
By the end of the century the relationship is even more intense, but it has turned sour. From 1296 Boniface VIII is involved in a struggle with Philip IV of France about whether the king has the right to tax and discipline clergy in his own realm without the pope’s permission. This struggle for temporal power between church and state prolongs, in another form, the earlier tussle of the investiture controversy.
In 1302 Philip enlists the estates general in Paris in support of his cause. Then, claiming that there were irregularities in the election of Boniface, he sends an envoy to Italy with instructions to stir up insurrection against the pope.
Hearing in 1303 that Boniface is about to issue a bull excommunicating his royal master, Philip’s envoy (Guillaume de Nogaret) takes a bold step. He raises a small armed force and surprises Boniface at his birthplace, Anagni. He arrests the pope and holds him prisoner for two days.
Boniface dies a month later in Rome. The prestige of the papacy is severely dented by this episode, while Philip IV’s power seems enhanced. A few years later he even contrives to destroy the great order of the Templars, forcing a French pope, Clement V, to comply with his wishes. Clement formally suppresses the order in 1312.
For much of the 14th century France appears to have the papacy in its pocket, almost literally. Clement V is the first of seven French popes in an unbroken succession spanning seventy-three years, to 1378. From 1309 these popes are based not in Rome but on French soil, at Avignon.
Clement moves his headquarters to Avignon in 1309 to prepare for a council which he has called in central France, at Vienne, to discuss the king of France’s charges against the Templars. The town is friendly, for it belongs to a papal protégé – the Angevin dynasty of Naples. When major extensions to the bishop’s palace are undertaken, from 1316, it becomes evident that the papal residence in Avignon is to be a long one.
The popes at Avignon: 1309-1379
In many ways the move to Avignon has a rational justification. This city is close to the main power of the time, France, but it is in another kingdom – that of Naples. It is also the centre of western Europe in a way which Rome could never be. Lines drawn from Britain to Italy and from Germany to Spain would cross close to Avignon.
In addition this place is much more secure than Rome. Italy is in a state of anarchy, dominated by warring aristocratic families and companies of condottieri. At Avignon the French popes have the opportunity to create an efficient papal bureaucracy. Papal dignity is powerfully expressed in the great palace of the popes, constructed from 1334.
Yet the prestige of the popes derives from Rome, the see of St Peter. And their territorial base, the papal states, is Italian. Moreover there are hopes at this time that some form of reconciliation may be possible with the Greek Orthodox church of Constantinople. In terms both of history and geography, Rome rather than Avignon would be the natural setting for such a desirable development.
After a preliminary return to Rome for three years, from 1367, the final move back from Avignon takes place in 1377.
After seventy years in France the papal curia is French in its methods and to a large extent in its staff. Back in Rome some degree of tension between French and Italian factions is inevitable.
It is brought to an abrupt head by the death of the French pope Gregory IX within a year of his return to Rome. The Roman crowd, said to be in threatening mood, demand a Roman pope or at least an Italian one. In 1378 the conclave elects an Italian from Naples, Urban VI. His intransigence in office soon alienates the French cardinals. And the behaviour of the Roman crowd enables them to declare, in retrospect, that his election was invalid, voted under duress.
The French cardinals withdraw to a conclave of their own, where they elect one of their number, Robert of Geneva. He takes the name Clement VII. By 1379 he is back in the palace of popes in Avignon, while Urban pontificates in Rome.
The Great Schism has begun.
The Great Schism: 1378-1417
For nearly forty years Europe has two papal curias and two sets of cardinals, each electing a new pope for Rome or Avignon when death brings a vacancy. Each pope lobbies for support. Kings and princes play them off against each other, changing allegiance when advantage offers.
In 1409 a council is convened at Pisa to resolve the issue. The council declares both existing popes to be schismatic (Gregory XII from Rome, Benedict XIII from Avignon) and appoints a new one, Alexander V. But nobody has persuaded the other two to resign. So the church now has three popes. Another council is convened, in 1414, at Constance. It will also consider the radical notions of John Wycliffe and John Huss.
The Council of Constance: 1414-1417
The council deals with the matter of heresy more speedily than it succeeds in reducing three popes to one. The ideas of Wycliffe and Huss are discussed and rapidly condemned. Huss is burnt at the stake in July 1415. By that time Jerome of Prague has with equal courage travelled to Constance to defend his master. He too is arrested. In May 1416 he is burnt on the same patch of ground as Huss.
To ensure that there are no relics of heresy, the council has Huss’s ashes scattered in the Rhine. And it orders that Wycliffe’s body be dug up, burnt and consigned to an English river.
The issue of the popes comes closer to farce than tragedy. In March 1415 the Pisan pope, John XXIII, flees from Constance in disguise; he is brought back a prisoner and is deposed in May. The Roman pope, Gregory XII, resigns voluntarily in July.
The Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, refuses to come to Constance. In spite of a personal visit in France from the emperor Sigismund, he will hear nothing of resignation. The council finally deposes him in July 1417. Denying their right to do so, he withdraws to an impregnable castle on the coast of Spain. Here he continues to act as pope, creating new cardinals and issuing decrees, until his death in 1423.
The council in Constance, having finally achieved a clean slate in July 1417, elects a new pope in November. The vote is unanimous for a cardinal who is not an ordained priest (less unusual then than it sounds now), so on almost successive days he is rushed through the necessary stages. Ordained as deacon, then as priest, consecrated as bishop and enthroned as pope, he emerges as Martin V.
The new pope makes his way gradually south to Rome, a city crumbling into ruin after a century and more of neglect. The popes of the next hundred years will not solve the corruption in the papacy, which cries out for reform. But they will dramatically improve the face of Rome.
Rome and the Renaissance: 15th century
Martin V takes three years on the journey south to Rome, moving cautiously between warring principalities and armies of condottieri. This is an Italy in which unscrupulous men are beginning to establish courts of glittering brilliance.
The pope newly crowned at Constance looks a tentative figure among such dangers, but over the following decades the papacy adjusts to the realities of Renaissance Italy. By the beginning of the next century unscrupulous popes have made Rome the most brilliant court of all.
The pope who begins the transformation of Rome, in the mid-15th century, has none of the scurrilous characteristics associated with the pontiffs of half a century later. He is Nicholas V, a scholarly man who founds the Vatican library, employing hundreds of scholars and copyists to provide the basis of a great collection of manuscripts.
The familiar image of a Renaissance pope begins a little later, with the election of Sixtus IV in 1471. His patronage of the arts is evident in the Sistine chapel and the Sistine choir, both named after him. But his lavish patronage goes hand in hand with a very worldly conduct of the Vatican’s affairs.
Sixtus, a Franciscan friar from a poor family in the region of Genoa, brings the papal practice of nepotism to new heights. While greatly enriching his nephews (seven of whom he makes cardinals), he also uses them as his agents in the power politics of rival Italian states. The scheming of one nephew even results in the murder of one of the Medici in the cathedral at Florence during High Mass.
Another nephew learns his trade so well with Sixtus that he easily outdoes his uncle, both in politics and patronage, when he is elected to the papacy as Julius II.
Between the pontificate of Sixtus IV and of Julius II comes the most notorious of the Renaissance popes, Alexander VI. He manipulates Italian politics not with the help of nephews but through his son, Cesare Borgia (see the Borgias).
Alexander’s successor Julius II is even more a man of his time. He is a pope who rides out in person to direct military campaigns, but he also commissions work from Raphael and Michelangelo. The frescoes of the Vatican and the Sistine chapel are created among the abuses which prompt the Reformation.
Julius II: 1503-1513
Pope Julius II, reigning from 1503 to 1513, represents the best and the worst of the newly self-confident Rome of the Renaissance. His energetic sense of purpose on behalf of the holy see emerges as naked aggression in territorial matters; yet the same boldness and ambition makes him the greatest patron of the arts in the history of the papacy.
In 1503, his first year in office, Julius launches the great scheme to rebuild St Peter’s. In 1509 the pope invites Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and persuades Raphael to decorate three rooms in the Vatican. Christian Rome’s greatest glories have been conceived within a space of six years.
Julius’s territorial ambitions are fired by a determination to restore the papal states, recently much reduced by the activities of Cesare Borgia and by encroachment from Venice. To achieve his purposes, this pope even marches into battle in armour at the head of the papal forces.
Erasmus is in Italy in 1506 when Julius II scores his first military success with the capture of Bologna. Erasmus is so shocked that he writes a play satirising this militant pope. Entitled Julius Exclusus and published anonymously, it depicts a furious Julius, after death, arriving in armour at the gates of heaven and finding them locked against him.
The Barbed comments of St Peter, as the gatekeeper in conversation with the excluded pope, reflect a hostility to the Renaissance papacy which will soon find violent expression in the Reformation.
The temporal schemes of Julius II are designed to serve Rome’s best interest within the turmoil of Italy. By the time of his death, in 1513, that seems to have been largely achieved. Papal land has been recovered from the Venetians. The French have been driven from northern Italy. But a more lasting threat to the papacy is about to emerge in Germany – prompted, ironically, by Julius’s ambitious scheme for the rebuilding of St Peter’s.
St Peter’s: 1506-1590
In April 1506 Julius II and his architect, Bramante, are ready to lay the foundation stone of the new St Peter’s. A commemorative medal is struck with the classical inscription Templi Petri Instauracio (Renewal of the Temple of Peter), showing a view of a great domed basilica with a classical portico.
In spirit – though not in detail – this design is similar to the church which is eventually completed in 1590, by which time Raphael and Michelangelo and several others have succeeded Bramante as official architect for the scheme.
Meanwhile the need for funds for the vast new project, together with the unscrupulous manner in which Renaissance popes are willing to raise them, provokes the great central crisis of Europe in the 16th century – the Reformation.
The flash point proves to be Germany. And it is not hard to see why.
Albert of Mainz: 1517
Germany provides a context in which materialism within the Roman Catholic church is offensively evident. Some of the principalities, which together make up the Holy Roman empire, are ruled by unscrupulous prelates living in the style of Renaissance princes. Foremost among them is Albert, archbishop of Mainz and one of the seven imperial electors.
By the age of twenty-four Albert holds a bishopric and a second archbishopric in addition to Mainz. Such plurality is against canon law. But the pope, Leo X, agrees to overlook the irregularity in return for a large donation to the building costs of the new St Peter’s.
Both pope and archbishop are men of the world (the pope is a Medici). Leo makes it possible for Albert to recover his costs by granting him the concession for the sale of indulgences towards the building of St Peter’s. Half the money for each indulgence is go to Rome; the other half will help to pay off Albert’s debts (he has borrowed the money for the original donation from the Fuggers of Augsburg).
This secret arrangement might distress the faithful if they knew of it. But more immediately shocking to some is the behaviour of the friar Johann Tetzel, whom Albert employs to sell the indulgences.
Tetzel is a showman. When preaching to gullible crowds in German towns he goes far beyond the official doctrine of indulgences. He promises the immediate release of loved ones from the pain of Purgatory as soon as a purchase is made. He even has a catchy jingle to make the point: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.’
In October 1517 some parishioners return to Wittenberg with indulgences which they have bought from Tetzel – indulgences so powerful, some have been led to believe, that they could pardon a man who had raped the Virgin Mary. News of this travesty reaches the ears of a professor at the university of Wittenberg.
Luther’s ninety-five theses: 1517
Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner’s faith must be the only merit for which God’s grace might be granted.
Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St Paul.
Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than Tetzel’s impudent selling of God’s grace. Luther has often argued against the sale of indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.
The tone of these ‘theses’, as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints’ in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.
Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the ninety-five theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred which lasts in some Christian communities down to the present day. No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517.
Luther is as surprised as anyone else by the eruption which now engulfs him – slowly at first but with accelerating pace after a year or two. Its violence derives from several unusual elements.
The papacy is determined to suppress this impertinence. Luther’s writings are burnt in Rome in 1520; his excommunication follows in 1521. This is the predictable part. The unexpected elements are the groundswell of support in Germany, nourished by a deep resentment of papal interference; and the effect of the relatively new craft of printing.
Before Gutenberg, news of Luther’s heresy would have circulated only slowly. But now copies of the ninety-five theses are all over Europe within weeks. A fierce debate develops, with pamphlets pouring from the presses – many of them from Luther’s pen. Within six years, by 1523, Europe’s printers produce 1300 different editions of his tracts.
In these circumstances it is impossible for the issue to be swept under the carpet. Any action taken against Luther in person is certain to provoke a crisis – though in the early years his safety depends heavily on the protection of Frederick the Wise, proud of his university and reluctant to hand over to Rome its famous theologian, however controversial.
Support for the excommunicated monk is so strong among German knights that the young emperor, Charles V, is prevailed upon to hear his case at a diet held in 1521 in Worms. Luther is given a safe conduct for his journey to and from the diet. He is no doubt aware of the value of an imperial safe conduct to John Huss a century earlier, but he accepts the challenge.
The Diet of Worms: 1521
Where Huss had slipped into Constance in 1414 almost alone, Luther arrives at the diet at Worms supported by a large number of enthusiastic German knights. Nevertheless the purpose of the confrontation, from the emperor’s point of view, is a demand that he should recant.
In a lengthy speech Luther explains that he will recant any of his views if they can be proved wrong by scripture or reason. Otherwise he must remain true to his conscience and to his understanding of God’s word. The presses soon reduce this to the pithy statement which has been remembered ever since: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders., ‘Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.’
Luther’s stand leads, eventually, to the emergence of the first sect to break away from the Roman Catholic church and to survive the opposition of the papacy – Lutheranism, finally established by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This first Protestant faith is soon followed by others, violently disagreeing among themselves. Zwingli goes further than Luther. The Anabaptists far outstrip either. Meanwhile Henry VIII devises a new English church for personal purposes.
The papacy, unable to stem the tide, calls the council of Trent and develops the Catholic Reformation – Rome’s own rigorously virtuous programme of reform.
Italian realignment: 1508-1540
A series of shifting alliances, often brokered by the papacy and ending in inconclusive battles, redraws the map of Italy during the first decades of the 16th century.
Between the league of Cambrai (1508) and the treaty of Cambrai (1529), the territories of Milan, Venice, the papal states and Naples grow or shrink, and abruptly suffer changes of allegiance, according to the temporary effects of battles such as Agnadello (1509), Marignano (1515), Pavia (1525) and the sack of Rome by imperial troops in 1527.
Among the Italian players in this board game, the Medici are among those who gain – being restored, with Spanish support, to their rule in Florence. Venice, an early loser when alone against all the others in 1508, later recovers most of its territory and retains its independence.
The papacy, responsible for the scheming alliances which foster so much of the conflict, appears to receive its just deserts in the sack of Rome in 1527. But it too emerges much strengthened a decade or two later. Once the Catholic Reformation is under way, Rome and Spain – allies in spiritual severity – are well equipped to exercise strict control over the entire peninsula apart from republican Venice.
Paul III: 1534-1549
Alessandro Farnese, elected pope in 1534 as Paul III, seems likely to prolong the worst aspects of the Renaissance papacy. He was appointed cardinal at the age of twenty-five because his sister Giulia was having an affair with the Borghese pope, Alexander VI. While a cardinal, he kept a mistress in Rome by whom he had four children. As pope, he outdoes many of his predecessors in the favours he heaps upon his family. He detaches Parma and Piacenza from the papal states and turns them into hereditary duchies for his eldest son. Two of his grandsons are in their teens when he creates them cardinals.
Yet, as it turns out, this is the pope who launches the Catholic Reformation.
Two details in particular during Paul’s pontificate signal the start of the Catholic Reformation (also often known as the Counter-Reformation, being the church’s response to the Protestant reformers). One is Paul’s convening of the Council of Trent in 1545. He achieves this after several attempts and against considerable opposition.
The other great innovation of his reign is more of a God-given accident than any result of papal initiative. Paul is visited in Rome in 1537 by a group of passionately committed students from the university of Paris. Headed by Ignatius of Loyola, they offer their services directly to the pope.
Society of Jesus: 1540-1541
The visit to the pope by Ignatius Loyola has echoes of St Francis and St Dominic with Innocent III. Like those 13th-century saints, with their mission to live and preach among the poor of the expanding towns, St Ignatius is very much of his own time – a man of the 16th century, where the twin challenge is the drift of much of Europe into the Protestant heresy and the opening up of a far-flung pagan world, bringing fruitful fields for mission work in this new age of ocean travel and exploration.
To these challenges Ignatius can bring the energy and the organizing skills of a trained soldier.
Offered a force of spiritual commandos, answerable directly to himself in fighting Rome’s battles, Paul III seizes his chance. In September 1540 he authorizes a new order, to be known as the Society of Jesus. In April 1541 Ignatius’s colleagues elect him as the first general; the title, in use to this day, accurately reflects the nature of the campaign being undertaken.
Ignatius writes simple rules for his order. There is to be no specific form of dress, no regular commitment to attend particular services. Jesuits, as they soon come to be called, are to be free to move fast wherever they are needed. Obedience to the pope is central. Jesuit theologians are already at the pope’s side during the Council of Trent.
Council of Trent: 1545-1563
Pope Paul III first proposes in 1536 a council to tackle the issues raised by the Protestant reformers. He also sets up a commission of cardinals to report on abuses within the church. The cardinals find evidence of many of the failings pointed to by Luther, including inadequate training of priests, incompetence of bishops, laxity in the monastic and mendicant orders and the scandal of prelates holding multiple appointments.
It is nine years before Paul III finally assembles his council, at Trent in 1545. The delay is caused by many conflicting interests – including those of the emperor Charles V, who insists on it being held in imperial territory, and Francis I of France who fears it may somehow benefit Charles.
From an unpromising start (only 3 papal legates and 31 prelates at the first session), the council grows in stature during a period of 18 years. There are long intervals during which it is not convened. The sessions occur in 1545-47 under Paul III, in 1551-52 under Julius III and in 1562-63 under Pius IV.
By the end it proves a turning point for the Roman Catholic church, largely because the council responds differently to the two prongs of the Protestant challenge – in each case with considerable vigour.
On the question of abuses within the church, the council accepts the validity of the criticism and puts in place corrective measures – improved seminaries to educate clergy, strict rules about bishops residing in their dioceses, reforms within the monastic orders.
With these practical steps taken, the council refuses by contrast to yield an inch on doctrinal matters. The number of Sacraments remains at seven, marriage for priests is rejected, justification by works as well as by faith is endorsed, and the efficacy of relics and indulgences is reaffirmed – as also is the cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints.
With the ancient colourful certainties thus reinforced, and an improved priesthood entering service (including the invaluable Jesuits), the Roman Catholic church after the Council of Trent is suddenly well placed to confront the Protestant challenge.
During the period of the council, in 1562, the Spanish mystic and ascetic, Teresa of Avila, founds the first of many convents in the movement known as the Carmelite Reform. The same reforming zeal is applied to monasteries by St John of the Cross.
Saints such as Teresa of Avila (and there will be several during the 17th century) are the perfect Roman Catholic response to the Protestant reformers. They are as morally severe as any northern puritan, but there is an ecstatic quality to their religion which is distinctly southern. In its new style, the baroque, the Roman church has the ideal medium in which to hint at religious ecstasy.
It is conventional to call this renewal of Roman Catholicism the Counter-Reformation, but the phrase is too negative. Originally a response to northern reform, the movement amounts in the end to a full-scale southern alternative. Catholic Reformation is a more accurate description.