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The attempted trial of Boniface VIII for heresy
By Jeffrey Denton
Judicial tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700: Vol.1: The trial in history, eds. Maureen Mulholland and Brian Pullan (University of Manchester Press, 2003)
Introduction: Despite strenuous efforts by the French Crown and its allies over a period of eight years Boniface VIII was not ultimately tried. Legal procedures for a trial were put in motion in 1303, in an attempt to summon the pope before a General Council of the Church; and later, after his death in October 1303, as the accusations continued to grow, there was a protracted quest to persuade the new French pope, Clement V, to condemn Boniface posthumously. Over the period 1303 to 1311 the accusations against the pope developed and became more elaborate until the legal processes, first against the person of the pope and then against his memory, were abandoned following a political agreement. The posthumous stages of the whole affair were soon very largely forgotten, indeed became shrouded in secrecy as an embarrassing episode in both papal and French history, but the conflict during the last stages of Boniface’s life, beginning in 1301 and culminating in the attempts to bring him to trial in 1303, produced masses of documentation and political treatises that were of continuing significance for the French monarchy and the French state and, indeed, for the future of the papacy. It was the first time in European history that such a welter of detailed evidence was produced by an attempt to defame or indict a supreme political leader. The surviving evidence is not always easy to interpret and has at times been wildly misinterpreted. This chapter will concentrate on the evidence of 1303: specifically, the sets of complaints against the pope of March and June 1303 which constituted the first stages in the planned legal process and from which the later accusations very largely stemmed.
What were the charges contained in the initial trial texts of March and June 1303? We now have the benefit of Jean Coste’s excellent critical editions of all the complaints against Boniface. The March text was a set of carefully prepared propositions by the knight and lawyer William de Nogaret, presented to Philip IV and his council. It constituted a trenchant defence of the Church, beginning, like a sermon, with the claim that events foreseen by St Peter, ‘glorious prince of apostle’, had come to pass: ‘But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you’ ‘by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you’ ‘following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor who loved the ways of unrighteousness . .’. The first specific charge, providing the main thrust of the whole declaration, was that Boniface was a false pope and usurper of the apostolic see: he was a master of untruths, claiming to be called ‘Bonifacius’ when he was in every way ‘maleficus’, entering ‘not by the door into the sheepfold’ but rather as ‘a thief and a robber’, deceiving his predecessor, Celestine V, into resigning (in December 1294), laying violent hands upon him and appropriating to himself the Church of Rome. He had been tolerated, for fear of schism, until it could be seen by his fruits whether he had achieved office through the working of the Holy Spirit; now it was clear to all that his fruits were the most noxious. The evil tree ‘should be hewn down and cast into the fire’. The central charge, therefore, was that Boniface had no rightful claim to be pope.
See also: The Five Worst Popes of the Middle Ages