The popes who waged war

Swiss Guards: the papacy in arms (Getty)

The Pope’s Army
By John Carr
Pen and Sword Military, 320pp, £25/$39.95

It remains a paradox, some might say a scandalous paradox, that the Catholic Church whose founder exhorted his followers to meekness should, after the fall of the Roman empire, have raised its own armies, waged war against fellow-Catholics and approved, even recommended, the torture of suspected heretics – and, when heretics were obdurate, delivered them to the secular arm of government to be burned at the stake.

There were bishops and abbots who led armies but in this book, subtitled The Papacy in Diplomacy and War, John Carr limits himself to the successors of St Peter. There have been many of them, and there are times when there is not much to add to what is already to be found in, say, Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes or, indeed, the Oxford Dictionary of Popes.

For the first three centuries, Christians did indeed turn the other cheek and went meekly to be killed by lions in the Colosseum. The justification for the popes’ use of violence in subsequent centuries was essentially threefold: the conviction that, to retain their independence, the popes must rule a swathe of territory in central Italy – the Papal States; second, the need to assert the primacy of the popes over the German Holy Roman Emperors; and thirdly the commitment, after the preaching of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095, to establish and maintain Christian rule in the Holy Land.

With historical hindsight, none of these was necessary to the survival of the Catholic Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople had no state of his own; the German emperors were mostly orthodox Catholics – even the sceptical Frederick II never promoted his doubts; and Christians in their thousands went on pilgrimage to Palestine both before and after the crusades. More justifiable was the Iberian Reconquista, and the suppression of heresy within Europe, particularly the Albigensian crusade; but these were achieved not by the pope’s army but by crusaders, rewarded with booty and territory.

It is true that, unlike the Patriarch of Constantinople, the popes in Rome, such as Leo or Gregory, both earning the title “the great”, had secular power thrust upon them because of the collapse of secular governance. But it was Gregory VII in the 11th century who claimed universal jurisdiction over Christendom in both spiritual and secular affairs – a position held tenaciously by good popes and bad, reaching its climax with Benedetto Gaitani, Boniface VIII, who proclaimed a crusade against his personal enemies, the Colonnas, and used the fees and charitable donations that poured into the papal coffers to hire mercenaries, seizing the Colonnas’ lands and possessions, and finally razing their home town of Palestrina even as he offered indulgences to pilgrims who came to Rome for the Jubilee Year of 1300.

Boniface met his match in the King of France, Philip the Fair, with whom he quarrelled over the taxing of the clergy. In an audacious coup, Philip’s minister Guillaume de Nogaret broke into the papal palace in Boniface’s home town of Anagni and held him prisoner for three days.

Boniface’s aggressive rhetoric towards his enemies was exposed as bluff: the threat of excommunication had lost its coercive power, and the pope’s temporal powers were no match for those of the monarchs of the new nation states. It took time, however, for this to sink in. More than two hundred years later we find Pope Julius II riding out in full armour at the head of an army.

Readers hoping for a scholarly work analysing the military forces available to popes over the ages may be disappointed by this book. Of course the situation is complex – the popes were notionally the supreme commanders of the formidable Military Orders, but rarely did they interfere with the strategy of the Grand Masters.

Carr is knowledgeable, and gets his facts right, but there are only two extended descriptions of campaigns in which the popes were involved – the first, the triumphant naval Battle of Lepanto, and the second the pantomime campaign by papal Zouaves and foreign volunteers to protect Pope Pius IX from the army of the Piedmontese King Victor Emmanuel. Once again, the fight was futile. Throughout its history, the papacy may have recruited its own armed forces, but to be effective it had always to depend on an alliance with one of the great powers.

After the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan in 1870, there was no great power to protect the pope: Rome was taken and Pius IX withdrew as the prisoner in the Vatican. It took a fascist dictator, Mussolini, to restore the popes as sovereign of a mini-principality, with a few Swiss Guards in their colourful uniforms to show that the use of force is still on the cards.