At the close of the thirteenth century, the papacy was at the height of its religious prestige and political power. Over the course of the preceding centuries, the popes led the moral regeneration of the Church and secured its independence from, and even dominance over, the secular arm of the German emperors—called (at various times) the Holy Roman Emperors.
But the success of the papacy was never a fixed or permanent feature. Gregory VII’s humiliation of Henry IV at Canossa is a famous moment in history, but it did not end the conflict between the Church and the State. On the contrary, for two hundred years after Canossa, the popes were engaged in war and political strife with the German rulers who believed that they could not truly reign as a new Caesar without control of Italy.
After centuries of warfare, at the death Frederick II—the Italian-born scion of the imperial Hohenstaufen family whose mother was Queen of Sicily—Pope Urban IV saw an opportunity to rid the peninsula of the Germans’ power forever. Urban invited Charles of Anjou, brother of the King of France, to assume the crown of Sicily. Thus, the Angevins came to Italy and, like the German Kings before them, these supposed vassals of the Holy See would seek to become its master.
The death of Nicholas II in 1292 offered an opportunity for Charles II, the second ruler of the House of Anjou, to reign over Naples and Southern Italy and to make the new pope his client. The Cardinals were divided between warring factions, one resistant to Charles’s pretensions and the other compliant. The conclave met sporadically. During a meeting at Perugia in the winter of 1293, the Cardinals admitted Charles and his son into the conclave and seated them amongst the College, as if electors. The fierce and independent Cardinal Benedict Gaetani is said to have rebuked the King for his unlawful interference.
Finally, more than two years after Nicholas’ death, the Cardinals, in their guilt over the failure to choose a pope, were seized by a fit of pious exuberance. They conceived that they should carry off a hermit monk with a reputation for great holiness, Peter of Mt. Morrone, and place him upon the papal throne. The plan was agreeable to Charles II, who realized that he could easily control this otherworldly old man. So it was that Peter of Mt. Morrone became Pope Celestine V in August 1294.
READ ON BELOW…RORATE CÆLI: The Great Resignations — Guest Article by Christian Browne