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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