Boniface VIII Issues the Bull

After much division between the church and state, Boniface VIII issued the bull Unam sanctam, which stated that the pope held supreme power over the state.

Summary of Event

After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, the Papacy remained vacant for more than two years because of factionalism within the College of Cardinals. The Colonnas Colonnas , a leading family in Roman politics, included two cardinals, James and Peter, who represented French interests, whereas their opponents, the Orsini Orsini , favored a Roman or Italian pontiff. The issue was resolved through the election of Peter of Murrone, an eighty-five-year-old hermit from the mountainous country of the Abruzzi. Calling himself Celestine V Celestine V , the new pontiff’s naïveté and inexperience made it possible for others to exploit the papal office because the pope affixed his signature to blank bulls, permitting the recipient to fill in whatever he chose. By the end of 1294, Peter, aware of his deficiencies, issued a bull declaring his right to resign, and he relinquished his office. Although the canonists affirmed the legality of Peter’s decision, a papal resignation was without precedent, and it cast doubt on the legitimacy of his successor. Within less than two weeks, Benedict Gaetani was elected to succeed Celestine V, and he took the name Boniface VIII. [kw]Boniface VIII Issues the Bull Unam Sanctam (November 18, 1302)
[kw]Bull Unam Sanctam, Boniface VIII Issues the (November 18, 1302)
Boniface VIII
Unam sanctam
Italy;Nov. 18, 1302: Boniface VIII Issues the Bull Unam Sanctam[2610]
Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 18, 1302: Boniface VIII Issues the Bull Unam Sanctam[2610]
Religion;Nov. 18, 1302: Boniface VIII Issues the Bull Unam Sanctam[2610]
Celestine V
Boniface VIII
Philip IV the Fair
Guillaume de Nogaret

An aristocratic Roman who was also somewhat elderly, the new pope was reported to be of bad temper. A dispute arose between Pope Boniface and Philip IV the Fair Philip IV the Fair (king of France) , king of France, over the right of kings to tax the clergy in their realms. In 1296, France and England were at war, and each king taxed the Church in his lands to finance the project. The pope issued an edict or bull, Clericis laicos
Clericis laicos , in which he declared that any cleric who paid taxes to a secular lord, and any lord who levied or received taxes from the Church, automatically incurred excommunication. In effect, the bull denied absolute authority to a sovereign within his own kingdom. Philip retaliated by forbidding the exportation of gold and silver, jewelry, and currency from France, thereby cutting off papal revenues, and French publicists began attacking the papal position. Taxation;Church

Early in 1297, pressured by bankers and a hostile group of cardinals who accused the pope of heresy, Boniface issued the bull Romana mater
Romana mater , which largely suspended Clericis laicos. The pope not only agreed to the levying of taxes on the clergy, but in certain cases, he also made it permissible without the consent of Rome. A subsequent bull left to the king the decision as to whether such assessment was necessary. One explanation that has been proposed for the pope’s abrupt change of opinion was his preoccupation with a crusade against the Colonnas in Italy. At the height of this quarrel, Boniface made peace with Philip. In 1299, the Colonna stronghold, Palestrina, was razed by papal troops, plowed under, and sown with salt.

In 1300, Boniface declared a Jubilee Jubilee (Roman) year during which thousands of pilgrims flocked to Rome to gain the special indulgences made available. Cynics view the Jubilee merely as an attempt to line the papal coffers, but the pope was undoubtedly also prompted by religious motives. The overwhelming success of the Jubilee may have given the pope a false idea of the support he commanded among the faithful in Europe. Buoyed up with misplaced confidence, he renewed the struggle with Philip.

In 1301, Bernard Saisset Saisset, Bernard , bishop of Pamiers and Boniface’s legate to Paris, was arrested by Philip’s agents for treason, blasphemy, and heresy. He was tried in the king’s court, declared guilty, and imprisoned. A basic principle of the canon law of the Church reserved the trial of churchmen for church courts, especially when the accusation involved heresy. Boniface was compelled either to acquiesce in Philip’s complete control of the French Church or to offer vigorous opposition. He ordered Saisset to be set free, and he summoned all French bishops to Rome to discuss the state of the French Church. He declared that in the case of wicked rulers, popes had the jurisdiction to take authority in temporal affairs. In a long personal letter to Philip, the pope sharply reproved him for his conduct toward the Church and went on to say, “Let no one persuade you that you have no superior or that you are not subject to the head of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, for he is a fool who so thinks.”

Philip had the letter burned, and he forged another as having come from Boniface and making extreme claims for the Papacy. The forgery was calculated to stir French indignation and prompt a feeling of national hostility toward the pope. In April, 1302, Philip held an assembly of clergy, nobles, and townsmen at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, an assembly that is considered the first meeting of the Estates General. The nobility and commons, supporting the king in his antipapal position, sent a letter to the cardinals in Rome, declaring their refusal to recognize Boniface as lawful pope. The French clergy composed a less radical reply. In November, 1302, the pope’s council met with about half the French bishops in attendance. One of the bulls issuing from this council was Unam sanctam (“one holy and catholic and apostolic church”), which was published on November 18.

In this bull, perhaps the most famous of all medieval bulls, no mention is made of the conflict with Philip. Instead, it sets forth the theoretical justification for papal primacy in Christian society regardless of time and place. It opens with statements on the unity of the Church, outside which there is no salvation or remission of sins. Church-state relationship[church state relationship];European Numerous analogies from Scripture are used to support this unity: Noah’s ark, Christ’s seamless garment, the body of Christ, and the Church as a flock. In the Church, there are two swords, spiritual and temporal, “but the one is exercised for the church, the other by the church, the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and soldiers, though at the will and suffrance of the priest.” When the earthly power errs, it can be judged by the spiritual; but when the spiritual power errs, it can be judged by God alone. The most frequently quoted assertion from the bull is its conclusion taken verbatim from a statement made by Thomas Aquinas: “Therefore we declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.”

Philip delayed a response to this challenge until the spring of 1303, when he had made plans to bring Boniface to France as a captive. In June, 1303, Philip held a council at the Louvre in which charges were brought against the pope, including simony, fornication, demon possession, illegal deposition of Celestine V, and denying the Eucharist. At the same time, Philip received word that Boniface intended to excommunicate him and had written that all subjects should deny allegiance to France. Jurist Guillaume de Nogaret Nogaret, Guillaume de , in league with Sciarra Colonna, was dispatched to Anagni, outside Rome, where Boniface was staying. With three hundred horses and a thousand footmen, they stormed the papal residence and, according to an eyewitness of the “outrage of Anagni,” physically abused the aged pontiff. While the conspirators were debating their course of action, the townspeople rose up and expelled the invaders. Although Boniface was spared the ignominy of capture, he died a month later in October, 1303.


Boniface’s successor, Benedict XI, excommunicated Nogaret and attempted to negotiate with Philip, but he lived only a short time. Benedict was followed by Clement V Clement V (pope) , a Frenchman who succumbed to French pressure by removing the papal residence to Avignon and by lifting the excommunication from Nogaret in 1311. Clement also commended Philip for the piety and zeal he had displayed in his relations with Boniface. Both Clement and Philip died in 1314. The papal residency remained in France until 1377, during which seven popes were installed. This period became known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church Babylonian Captivity of the Church .

Further Reading

  • Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Medieval Papacy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. The pontificate of Boniface VIII was a disaster of the first magnitude for the Church. Not Boniface but the system was at fault, according to this author.
  • Boase, Thomas Sherer. Boniface VIII. 1933. Reprint. Wilmington, Del.: International Academic Publishers, 1979. In what is probably the best and most exhaustive work on Boniface available in English, Boase points out that the bull Unam sanctam contains nothing new.
  • Denton, Jeffrey Howard. Philip the Fair and the Ecclesiastical Assemblies of 1294-1295. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1991. An account of the interactions between Philip IV the Fair and Boniface VIII. Indexes.
  • Eno, Robert B. The Rise of the Papacy. Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1990. The history and doctrines of the early and medieval Roman Catholic Church.
  • Tierney, Brian. The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 21. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. A collection of documents with commentary viewing the dispute as one involving national sovereignty.
  • Ullmann, Walter. A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages. 1972. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2003. A careful survey of papal history from its development in the late Roman imperial period to the Protestant Reformation.
  • Wood, Charles T., ed. Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII. Huntington, N.Y.: R. E. Kreiger, 1976. The interpretations of fifteen historians, together with a useful annotated bibliography for further study.