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Pope Boniface IX

Reigned: 1389-1404

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Boniface IX, POPE, elected at Rome, November 2, 1389, as successor of the Roman Pope, Urban VI; d. there, October 1, 1404. Piero (Perino, Pietro) Tomacelli came of an ancient but impoverished baronial family of Naples. He lacked good theological training and skill in the conduct of curial business, but was by nature tactful and prudent. His firm character and mild manner did much to restore respect for the papacy in the countries of his own obedience (Germany, England, Hungary, Poland, and the greater part of Italy). The Avignon Pope, Clement VII, had just crowned (November 1, 1389) as King of Naples the French prince, Louis of Anjou. Boniface took up the cause of the youthful Ladislaus, heir of Charles III of Naples and Margaret of Durazzo, had him crowned King of Naples at Gaeta (May 29, 1390), and for the next decade aided him efficiently to expel the Angevin forces from Italy. In the course of his reign Boniface extinguished the municipal independence of Rome and established the supremacy of the pope. He secured the final adhesion of the Romans (1398) by fortifying anew the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, the bridges, and other points of vantage. He also took over the port of Ostia from its cardinal-bishop. In the Papal States Boniface gradually regained control of the chief strongholds and cities, and is the true founder of these States as they appear in the fifteenth century. Owing to the faithlessness and violence of the Romans he resided frequently at Perugia, Assisi, and elsewhere. Clement VII, the Avignon pope, died September 16, 1394. Boniface had excommunicated him shortly after his own election, and in turn had been excommunicated by Clement. In 1392 Boniface attempted, but in vain, to enter into closer relations with Clement for the reestablishment of ecclesiastical unity, whereupon Boniface reasserted with vigour his own legitimacy. Clement was succeeded at Avignon, September 28, 1394, by Cardinal Pedro de Luna, as Benedict XIII. Suffice it to say here that Boniface always claimed to be the true pope, and at all times rejected the proposal to abdicate even when it was supported by the principal members of his own obedience, e.g. Richard II of England (1396), the Diet of Frankfort (1397), and King Wenceslaus of Germany (Reims, 1398).

During the reign of Boniface two jubilees were celebrated at Rome. The first took place in 1390, in compliance with an ordinance of his predecessor Urban VI, and was largely frequented from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, and England. Several cities of Germany obtained the privileges of the jubilee, but the preaching of the indulgences gave rise to abuses and to impositions on the part of unaccredited agents of the pope, so that he was obliged to proceed against them with severity. The jubilee of 1400 drew to Rome great crowds of pilgrims, particularly from France. In spite of a disastrous plague Boniface remained at his post. In the latter part of 1399 bands of penitents, known as the Bianchi, or Albati (White Penitents), arose, especially in Provence and Italy. They went in procession from city to city, clad in white garments, with faces hooded, only the eyes being left uncovered, and wearing on their backs a red cross. For a while their penitential enthusiasm had some good results. After they had satisfied their spiritual ador at Rome, Boniface gradually discountenanced these wandering crowds, an easy prey of agitators and conspirators, and finally dissolved them. In England the anti-papal virulence of Wyclif increased the opposition of both Crown and clergy to the methods of Boniface in the granting of such English benefices as fell vacant in the Roman Curia through the death or promotion of the incumbent. The Parliament confirmed and extended more than once the statutes of Provisors and Praemunire, of Edward III. Boniface protested vigorously, particularly in 1391, but in the end found himself unable to execute his grants without the king’s consent and sanction. “Thus ended”, says Lingard (ad. an. 1393), “this long and angry controversy entirely to the advantage of the Crown.” Nevertheless, at the Synod of London (1396), the English Church condemned the anti-papal teachings of Wyclif, and in 1398 the University of Oxford, consulted by Richard II, issued in favor of Boniface an influential document, while in 1390 and again in 1393 the spiritual peers upheld the right of the pope to excommunicate even those who obeyed the statutes of Provisors. In Germany the electors had deposed at Rhense (August 20, 1400) the unworthy Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, and had chosen in his place Rupert, Duke of Bavaria and Rhenish Count Palatine. In 1403 Boniface abandoned his uncertain attitude towards both, approved the deposition of Wenceslaus as done by papal authority, and recognized the election of Rupert. In 1398 and 1399 Boniface appealed to Christian Europe in favor of Emperor Emmanuel, threatened at Constantinople by Sultan Bajazet. St. Bridget of Sweden was canonized by Boniface, October 7, 1391. The universities of Ferrara (1391) and Fermo (1398) owe him their origin, and that of Erfurt its confirmation (1392). In 1404 Benedict XIII sent the last of his embassies to Boniface, who received the agents of Benedict September 29, but the interview ended unfavorably. The pope, highly irritated, took to his bed with an attack of gravel, and died after an illness of two days.

Contemporary and later chroniclers praise the political virtues of Boniface, also the purity of his life, and the grandeur of his spirit. Some, like Dietrich of Niem, charge him with an inordinate love of money, dishonest traffic in benefices, the sale of dispensations, etc. But Dietrich is no impartial writer and is blamed by Raynaldus for being bitter and unjust (acerbus et iniquus). In his gossipy pages one misses a proper appreciation of the difficulties that surrounded Boniface—local sources of revenue lost in the long absence of the papacy from Rome, foreign revenue diminished by the schism, extraordinary expenses for the restoration of papal Rome and the reconquest of the Papal States, the constant wars necessitated by French ambition, the inheritance of the financial methods of Avignon, and the obligation of conciliating supporters in and out of Italy. Boniface sought nothing for himself and died poor. He is also charged with nepotism and he certainly provided generously for his mother, brothers, and nephews. It may be said, however, that in the semi-anarchic conditions of the time good government depended upon such personal support as a temporal ruler could gather and retain, i.e. could reward, while fidelity was best secured by close domestic ties. Boniface was the first pope to introduce the form of revenue known as annates perpetuae, or reservation of one-half the first year’s fruits of every benefice granted in the Roman Court, this in addition to other traditional expenses. It must be remembered that at this time the cardinals claimed a large part of these revenues, so that the Curia was perhaps more responsible than the pope for new financial methods destined in the next century to arouse bitter feelings against Rome, particularly in Germany.


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