chapter thirty two

Conflict among the popes, the people and the Holy Roman Emperor clog the closing years of the first millennium

The baton of the newly-formed Holy Roman Empire was passed from Otto the Great (Otto I) to his son Otto II in early summer 973 while Pope Benedict VI struggled with the transition in Rome. The latter had succeeded Otto I's choice Pope John XIII who died on Septempter 6, 972. The Holy See remained vacant until January 19, 973 when Benedict became a compromise choice of Otto I and bitterly divided the already faction-driven Roman populace. The powerful Roman Crescenti family had pushed for their choice the deacon Franco who had been rejected by the dying Otto. This did not sit well with the Crescenti clan and they vowed to stir up trouble. Led by the consul Crescentius I who was the son of Theodora, head of the Crescenti family, they took advantage of Otto II's absence to revolt. They felt if they could depose Benedict VI who was the German choice, they could not only weaken German influence but eventually overthrow the German sovereignty in Italy. Thus a year after Otto I's death Crescentius commanded an Italian squad to enter the Vatican and imprison Benedict in Castel Sant' Angelo for trial. He then consecrated Franco as Pope Boniface VII. Otto II, though embroiled in internal affairs in Germany, immediately dispatched a personal envoy Count Sicco from Spoleto to Rome to demand Benedict's release but he was rebuffed. While the envoy wait outside the gates for another meeting with the antipope Boniface on a hot July evening in 974, the latter dispatched a priest named Stephen to strangle Benedict VI. When Sicco caught wind of the dastardly deed he let all Rome know and the Roman people turned against Boniface. Sicco led an assault on Boniface's quarters but the antipope managed to escape with some of the papal treasures, much in the same manner as a similar rogue pope eleven years before him - Pope John XII. Though Benedict VI ruled only a year and a half, he is credited with effecting the conversion of the Hungarians.

After a three month vacancy, Sicco and Crescentius agreed on a papal successor to Benedict VI settling on Pope Benedict VII. It turned out to be a very wise choice as we shall see. Benedict VII was the son of David, a relative of Prince Alberic II who was one of the most powerful rulers of Rome in the mid century and had somehow been connected to the Crescenti clan. That lineage confirms why Crescentius approved of his selection, but Benedict VII was his own man and sought to heed God's Will, not man's. However Benedict VII, who had been bishop of Sutri near Viterbo, Italy, was also astutely aware of the politics of the times and sought to follow the middle of the road. The road from the Byzantine territory in southern Italy is where the antipope Boniface had fled and he decided to resurface and cause more problems by staging a coup in the heat of the summer of 980. This forced Benedict VII to flee Rome temporarily, seeking refuge with Otto II. Otto responded by personally escorting Benedict VII back to Rome in March 981, not only re-establishing Benedict VII as the rightful supreme pontiff but setting up a separate headquarters for the Holy Roman Empire in Italy. The first result was Boniface once more fled, this time to Constantinople; the second effect was that the tactics of the Roman political machinations backfired. Rather than rid Rome of the German influence, they had managed to allow the Holy Roman Emperor to ensconse himself and the German culture deeper into Italian soil. As mentioned earlier in this paragraph, while Benedict VII's loyalty was first and foremost to Holy Mother Church, he was in total accord with the policies of Otto II. They both were present for the Synod at St. Peter's a week after he was re-installed as pope and later that same year at the Lateran synod when decrees were pronounced condeming simony and the sale or buying of any office of holy orders since many of the Roman aristocrats had been buying up bishoprics for their offspring. This was one way of stemming the tide in preventing the problems that had arisen with the dominance of the Theophylact family and the Crescenti clan. Benedict, a deeply religious man, promoted monastic life and reformed many of the monasteries that had fallen by the wayside. He worked day and night to stem the debauchery and the shameful ignorance that had permeated Italy and pervaded the Vatican for nearly a century. In addition, he extended the Church's influence in the southern Byzantine-influenced territories of Italy by establishing sees in Salerno and Trani which extended all the way to the Byzantine-controlled Bari on the Adriatic coast. He also enhanced the prestige of the Holy See and worked tirelessly to stay on top of things concerning the Christian regions of western Europe which was expanding through a combination of missionary activities and the promotion of agriculture. Benedict VII was one of the first to believe in the addage, "give a man something to eat and you feed him for a day; give him the know-how to cultivate and you feed him for a lifetime." He dispatched numerous missionaries to these areas and was about to travel himself to these regions for an important synod when he died on July 10, 983.

With Benedict's death, Otto II offered the papacy to the holy abbot of Cluny Maiolus whom Benedict had kept in close contact with and who often spoke glowingly of to Otto. But the saintly monk declined. For Otto it was back to the drawing board and he took considerable time before settling on the bishop of Pavia Peter Canepanova. Otto was so intent on installing one of his choices that he did not consult the Roman clergy or lay community before announcing Peter's elevation as Pope John XIV as the 136th successor of Peter. He was also Otto's previous minister and sought to fulfill all of Otto's policies, but Otto contracted malaria while in the southern part of Italy and returned weakened and dying to Rome in late November of 983. On December 7, 983 Otto died in the arms of the Holy Father. The empire was passed from Otto II to his son Otto III. The only problem was that the latter was only three years old and hardly competent for the imperial responsibilities needed. Thus Otto's widow the Empress Theophano was forced to return to Germany to protect her young son's interests from those who would prey on the throne. This left John XIV totally vulnerable for Otto's choice as pope was not a popular one with the people and they felt John was shoved down their throats by Otto. Therefore, friendless, the reign of John XIV was ripe for rebellion. It came from the same source as before - the deposed antipope Boniface who resurfaced from Constantinople where he had been lying in wait for the opportunity to return to Rome. This he did in April 984 and had John formally deposed, flinging him into the gallows of Castel Sant' Angelo. While Boniface resumed his illegitimate duties as antipope, John XIV languished in the dank gallows below where he was starved to death, succumbing in August 984. Though his pontificate was short-lived, John XIV was known as a man of great energy and virtue.

With Theophano in Germany and Crescentius regaining influence, it was easy to see how Boniface was allowed to stay on the papal throne though he was not the legitimate successor of Peter. Because of the intrigue and mistrust of almost everyone in the Vatican and the mounting disdain for Boniface, it is no surprise that he met his end on July 20, 985 at the hands of an assassin. When word reached the ears of the Romans they stormed the palace and dragged out the cadaver of Boniface, dragging him through the streets in mock triumph that he was dead, stripping him of his papal vestments one by one along the way where he was finally propped up naked below the imposing statue of the pagan emperor Marcus Aurelius in the square in front of the Lateran. The people worked up such a rage that they trampled on the mutilated body and stabbed it continuously, shouting insult after insult and forever changing his name from Bonifacius to "Malefacius" which means "bad one."

In mid-august 985 a learned cardinal was chosen by the curia and by Crescentius as the new pope. He chose the name Pope John XV in honor of his legitimate predecessor who had been so cruelly treated. However this John was a personal puppet of the Crescenti clan and because he catered to nobility he alienated the local clergy. Thus, for Church matters, John turned his attention to foreign missions in England, Germany, Normandy and Bohemia, settling many disputes, especially with the Church and clergy in Reims, France where disagreements had arisen and where the French clergy openly challenged the Pope. It was the beginning of a disease that would infest France for centuries to come in the form of Gallicanism, whereby the French Hierarchy claimed they had complete freedom from the authority of Rome. During a Lateran synod on January 31, 993 John XV became the first pope to solemnly do a canonization when he proclaimed Saint Ulrich, bishop of Augsburg in Germany as a saint. This, many historians feel, was also done to pacify the young Emperor Otto III, now in his early teens, whose mother, the Empress Theophano had died two years earlier on June 15, 991. With Crescentius' son Crescentius II succeeding him after the former's death in 988, any loyalty to the Pope deteriorated and, with mounting opposition to the pontiff's reputation for nepotism and avariciousness, Crescentius II made his move in March 995. John XV was forced to flee Rome seeking refuge in Sutri. Later that summer his envoys reached Otto III. The young 15 year-old emperor responded by threatening to invade Rome. Crescentius II, seeing the folly of pursuing the path he had taken, sought reconciliation with John XV to save his own neck. Nevertheless, Otto III realized the problems had not gone away in Rome and headed for the eternal city to quell any further uprisings and re-establish German control as part of the Holy Roman Empire. But before Otto III could reach the gates of Rome John XV contracted a terrible fever and died in March 996. Upon his arrival in Ravenna north of Rome, a delegation comprised of Roman nobility and clergy met the emperor beseeching him to appoint a new pope and assuage him for fear of reprisal by the emperor over their treatment of John XV. Otto III chose a young relative, Saxon-born Bruno who was Otto's chancellor and the son of his cousin Duke Otto of Carinthia. Bruno was a good priest who knew the workings of the empire from his time as a chaplain in the royal chapel in Germany. Otto escorted Bruno, along with the German Archbishop of Mainz and the Bishop of Worms.

Entering Rome, Bruno was elevated to pope on May 3, 996 taking the name Pope Gregory V in respect for the honored Pope St. Gregory the Great. He thus became the first German-born pontiff as the first millennium wound down. To further solidify the German dominance in Rome, Gregory V formally crowned the young Otto III as emperor and patrician on the feast of the Ascension - May 21, 996 at St. Peter's. The next day Otto sentenced the dictator Crescentius and others for their part in the rebellion and sentenced them to exile, but Gregory, seeking to reconcile all parties interceded and pleaded for Otto to have leniency. Though it was a noble act, it would come back to haunt Gregory for after Otto returned to Germany in the fall of 996, Crescentius II amassed troops and stormed the Vatican, stripping Gregory of his papal crown and banishing him. The Pope fled to Spoleto and in January 997 traveled to Lombardy. In early February he held a synod in France where he officially excommunicated Crescentius II. Meanwhile in Rome Crescentius II reacted to this news of receiving the "bell, book and candle" by personally appointing Grecian-born John Philagathos as acting pope. He took the name John XVI but was, in truth, just another antipope who lasted shortly more than a year. Gregory V and the rest of the western Church, appalled at such a defiance by Crescentius II that he would openly take it upon himself to elevate a Greek, excommunicated John. It wasn't until February 998 that Otto III was able to return to Rome and officially depose John and reinstall Gregory V on the throne as the rightful pontiff. John fled to Campagna where he was captured and then banished to a Roman monastery. Some accounts say, that before he was banished, he was blinded and "appallingly mutilated in his nose, tongue, lips, and hands; he was then paraded around the city, sitting back to front on an ass." This cannot be confirmed, but what can be confirmed is that it was the end of the antipope John XVI's reign and after his exile to the monastery he was never heard from again. Gregory V, on the other hand, was heard from. Re-established on the throne of Peter, he reconciled not only with the people but with Otto whom he had differed with earlier on in his papacy and during his exile. Though Otto still hoped he could control Gregory, he knew it was a lost cause as the latter sought to be the best supreme pontiff he could be, working to rid the Church and her clergy of scandal, simony, nepotism and moral vice. Gregory worked hard to reform the Church in France and stem the growing tide toward Gallicanism. Though many felt this youthful pontiff, with boundless energy and a master of Latin, French and German whose ideals were truly noble and holy, would rule for decades, the young Pope Gregory V succumbed to malaria just before the turn of the millennium and died on February 18, 999 before reaching his thirtieth birthday.

In the next installment we will cover the beginning of the second millennium as Otto III establishes a solid German dominance in the line of popes and emerges as a noble and good leader of the Holy Roman Empire.