KNIGHTFALL character profile: Pope Boniface VIII

KNIGHTFALL (1)Knightfall is the new blockbuster drama series from the History channel featuring the Knights Templar in their final days and a quest for the Holy Grail.

It mixes fact and fiction to tell a compelling story. Some of the characters existed while others are fictional or a blend of people from that period.

I’m going to closely examine some of the factual characters in Knightfall. In this blog post, I’m looking at Pope Boniface VIII – in real life, a pope who had a dreadful relationship with King Philip of France. He is played by Jim Carter in Knightfall.

Pope Boniface VIII

bonifacePope Boniface had a miserable relationship with King Philip of France – the monarch who crushed the Knights Templar. Basically, the French king wanted to tax the Catholic church while the pope believed he needed to be asked first. It was his clergy and the king could lay off until he gave his permission. Also, the pope argued that he had no objection to funding religious wars, crusades in other words, but was less amenable to bankrolling bust ups between the kings of France and England.

There was a growing rift between a papacy that wanted to be all powerful as God’s representative on earth versus a new breed of medieval ruler that wanted full control of their own domain. These kings and queens saw the pope as a foreign intruder undermining their authority, In time, two centuries to be exact, this would lead to a religious revolution called the Reformation where monarchs like Henry VIII of England would reject the pope’s authority altogether.

Boniface didn’t lie down in the face of the French king’s aggression. He came back at him with threats of excommunication and damnation. King Philip let loose a medieval version of political spin circulating poisonous rumours that Boniface was a sodomite and diabolist.

The Italian poet Dante hated Pope Boniface as they were on opposing sides in Italy’s endless political squabbles. When he described hell in his legendary book Inferno – Dante couldn’t put Boniface in hell because he was still alive. But he had another earlier pope buried head first for the sin of simony who predicted that Boniface would soon be taking his place.

romeRelations between King Philip of France and pope Boniface just went from bad to worse. Boniface saw everything Philip did as an attack on the church. Philip reacted with measures designed to provoke Rome like banning the export of gold, silver and precious stones – a law that would starve the pope of revenue from France. There was even a suggestion that Philip wanted to establish a new Christian realm under French control incorporating the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires. In this new empire, the pope would be reduced to a patriarch on a salary.

All of this was too much for Boniface. He issued bulls and proclamations thundering that King Philip needed to acknowledge papal supremacy. He warned that he could not be answerable for Philip’s immortal soul. Boniface chastised Philip for not launching a crusade against the Muslims and urged him to reject evil counsellors. One suspects he had William De Nogaret in mind.

Things got increasingly heated. Philip started conspiring with the Italian Colonna family who detested Pope Boniface. He also convened a special council at which Boniface was accused of heresy, gross and unnatural immorality, worshipping idols, using magic and killing his predecessor as pope. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because King Philip would use very similar charges against the Knights Templar.

Sciarra Colonna slapping Pope Boniface VIII across the face, 1303There was now a showdown between king and pope. Philip called for Boniface’s removal. Boniface demanded the French people overthrow an excommunicated monarch. That was too much for the king. His adviser William De Nogaret and a leading member of the Colonna family went with 2,000 mercenaries down to the city of Anagni where Boniface was holding court and kidnapped him.

He was eventually freed when the local people drove out De Nogaret and Anagni but died shortly afterwards. Stories circulated that in his final days he went completely mad, chewing at his own hands and smashing his head against a wall. But Boniface’s body was taken out of its marble sarcophagus in 1605 and was found to be surprisingly intact. So that bit of spin hasn’t held up.

To be clear, Boniface did not suppress the Knights Templar. What happened after his death was that King Philip eventually managed to get a French cardinal elected as Pope Clement. This pope was far more compliant and moved the church’s headquarters from Rome to Avignon in southern France. With a pope at his fingertips, Philip was able to move against the Templars with relative ease.

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KNIGHTFALL character profile: William De Nogaret

KNIGHTFALL (1)Knightfall is the new blockbuster drama series from the History channel featuring the Knights Templar in their final days and a quest for the Holy Grail.

It mixes fact and fiction to tell a compelling story. Some of the characters existed while others are fictional or a blend of people from that period.

I’m going to closely examine some of the factual characters in Knightfall. In this blog post, I’m looking at William De Nogaret – in real life, a key adviser to King Philip of France and architect of the Templars’ downfall. He is played by Julian Ovenden in Knightfall.

William De Nogaret

De Nogaret came from a family that had been implicated in the Cathar heresy in southern France. This deviant form of Christianity had been condemned by the papacy which had unleashed war and damnation on the Cathars. At its height, not just the ordinary people but the aristocracy had supported a religion that refused to recognise the authority of the church and its sacraments.

nogaretClearly, De Nogaret wanted to overcompensate for this family’s past treacherous leanings. He determined to prove to the king that he was the most loyal of French subjects. This craven courtier became a pliant tool of the king’s will and an instrument for his crushing of the Templars.

However, his career was characterised by a robust contempt for the papacy. His boss, King Philip, was engaged in a long row with Pope Boniface VIII (who also features in Knightfall). Predictably, this row was about money.

Philip demanded the right to tax the church as he saw fit and stop the export of riches from dioceses in France to Rome. The king believed the Catholic church in France had a patriotic duty to support his wars financially. But the Pope thought otherwise.

Boniface wanted to continue to exert traditional church power and didn’t accept that kings could tell the church what to do or how to spend its money. Most worryingly for the court in Paris, the pope intended to excommunicate King Philip – a move that was dangerous for any royal ruler in the medieval world. After all, a king was supposed to be a divinely approved figure and to be cast out of the church undermined their very legitimacy.

arrestDe Nogaret came up with a novel idea for convincing Pope Boniface of the king’s view. He kidnapped him in Italy. And then mistreated him. But was then forced to release the pope when local townspeople besieged De Nogaret and forced him to flee back to France. When he got back there, King Philip rewarded him handsomely and both men were delighted when news broke that Pope Boniface had died.

After a short reign by a weak pope called Benedict, the French king and De Nogaret connived to get Pope Clement – a Frenchman – elected pope. He moved the centre of the Catholic church from Rome, where he had way too many enemies, to Avignon in southern France. The popes would remain in Avignon for the next hundred years. For King Philip and De Nogaret this proved to be an excellent development as they were now able to keep a very close eye and almost complete control over the leader of the Catholic church.

This was essential when it came to destroying the Knights Templar. De Nogaret was made Keeper of the Seal in 1307 and almost immediately issued warrants for the arrest of all the leading Templars in France. After they were rounded up, he worked tirelessly to extract confessions and frame the knights on trumped up charges. In this endeavour, he drew on his undoubted skills as a very smart lawyer.

In 1314, the Templar Grand Master would be burnt to death in public in Paris but De Nogaret had died the previous year. Catholic chroniclers delighted in describing his final agonies – having not forgiven him for beating up Pope Boniface and taxing the church in France.

Avignon – seat of the pope who crushed the Templars

In the fourteenth century, the papacy moved out of Rome to France. Clement V was the first pope to be based in Avignon beginning the building of a palace that still dominates the city centre. It was Clement who would bend to the will of the King of France, Philip, and banned the Knights Templar. He was the pope who sent out orders to all the Christian rulers of Europe to round up the knights and seize their assets.

Clement’s immediate successors continued to reign from Avignon and enlarged the palace but by the end of the 1300s, the popes had returned to Rome. Gradually, the huge Gothic pile that had been erected began to decay. Decorations were ripped out and ornaments spirited away. The French revolution resulted in some damage inspired by anti-clericalism and then in the nineteenth century, the building became a barracks with a false floor installed.

Repairs were undertaken and some pseudo-Gothic additions, imaginings of what the palace would have looked like at its height. Regardless of all the indignities the palace has suffered, it is still a glorious sight today. I visited Avignon as well as nearby Arles and Nimes this year. Some images of the palace for you to view here.

 

Pope Benedict XVI resigns – is this unprecedented?

Pope Benedictus XVI
Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pope announced that he intended to resign today on grounds of ill health and age – leaving office before the end of the month. In recent centuries, the view has been that popes continue until they croak but Pope Benedict’s decision to leave before dying is not without precedent. If you head back into the Middle Ages – popes stepped down for any number of reasons.

Pope Benedict IX (1032-1948) for example found the burden of the papacy too much for his eleven year old shoulders – yes, he was eleven when his family arranged for him to become pope! And why not – two of his uncles had been pope before him. He got fed up with his duties and sold the papacy to his godfather though changed his mind later on and seized it back.

Pope Celestine V (six months in 1294) decided the job really wasn’t for him and passed a law permitting a pope to resign, which he duly did. Celestine rather fancied the thought of retiring to peaceful contemplation. But his rather overbearing successor, Boniface VIII, decided to imprison him instead and possibly had him murdered. His confinement certainly didn’t last very long and was followed very shortly after by his funeral.

Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) was caught up in the Western Schism where, for several decades, there were two and sometimes more popes. One sat in Rome and the other in the French city of Avignon. To try and end this crazy situation that divided Europe, a decision was made that if one pope stepped down, the other one would. Of course, there then followed a game of brinkmanship to see who would blink first but in the end, Gregory did the noble thing. He was allowed to retire to Ancona where history records nothing terrible happening to him.

Recent times have not been without papal controversy with claims that Pope John Paul I was murdered – I have no view on this – and reports that Pius XII wrote a decree insisting that if the Nazis kidnapped him, he should be deemed to be no longer pope. I’ve no doubt in the next few days and weeks we will hear many salacious theories as to the stepping down of Benedict. Just be aware that the Vatican has been here before!

The Templars, Sodomy and the Bishop

The_Magi_in_flagrante_delicto
Medieval representation of sodomy – the Three Kings in bed admonished by an angel!

This month’s edition of ‘History Today’ mentions in passing a certain bishop called Adam of Orleton who in a sermon on October 15th, 1327 declared that King Edward II of England, who was in the process of being deposed by his wife and a rebel army, was a sodomite.  The magazine says this is the first known reference to Edward II being gay – or a ‘sodomite’ to use the unpleasant terminology of the time.

Orleton didn’t actually specifiy who King Edward had sodomised or when – he was just a sodomite.  As History Today then points out, this was a tried and tested way of denigrating somebody and had even been used against a Pope.  What makes Orleton’s accusation interesting was that he had previous form.  Because just a few years earlier, the good bishop had condemned the Templars as sodomites before the pope at his residence in Avignon.

If only Freud had been alive in the Middle Ages, we might have put Orleton’s obsession with homosexuality down to a latent desire to do some sodomising himself.  But hey ho, no psychoanalysis for another six hundred years.

So who was bishop Orleton?   Well, he seems to have been something of a serial bishop, starting with Hereford.   He got that bishopric in the teeth of opposition from Edward II – who he later accuses of being a sodomite.  The pope who appoints him is John XXII – often claimed to be the pontiff who initiated an interest witch-hunting that would take off in succeeding centuries.  He would be charged with treason by Edward II and had to be placed under the protection of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Once Edward II had been overthrown by his wife and her associate Mortimer, Orleton had the joyful experience of visiting the imprisoned king to force him to abdicate.  What happened to Edward II next has always been the subject of salacious gossip.  The goriest account is that he had a red hot poker shoved up his backside – some say to leave no mark on his body but others as a kind of commentary on his sexual preferences.  But the one person who claimed to have witnessed the king’s death later retracted his remarks and some claimed to have seen the ex-king alive years later.

As I said, Orleton had spoken against the Templars a decade before in Avignon accusing them of sodomy.  At the trial of the Knights of the Temple, they were said to have kissed each other on the mouth, anus, end of the spine (in anca), naval and ‘virga virilis’.  Some say this was done to awaken the ‘kundalini’ serpent of knowledge.

Orleton died in 1345 a wealthy man as bishop of Winchester.  His alleged role in the death of Edward II was immortalised by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.