Popes and Princes

Popes, kings, princes and dukes lived and died, but the Church’s teaching about life everlasting was relatively consistent over time with rare revisions of major dogma. Popes, as the interpreters of God’s laws set out in the Bible, wielded a great deal of power even with princes – by which is meant those individuals who held positions at the head of secular government in their realm. Just after our period of study, in 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince  offering practical, sometimes ruthless, advice to heads of state, based on his personal experience as a diplomat in Florence at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century.  A comparison of the policies of actual popes and princes with Machiavelli’s book would make an interesting essay topic.

There existed plenty of opportunity for tension between the power of a prince and the power of a pope. The greatest weapons available to a pope to exert his power were excommunication and dispensation for marriages between cousins and other closely related aristocrats. The most effective response by a prince to oppose a pope was force of arms and removal of Church treasure from Abbeys and other wealthy religious foundations. This had been routine in the 14th century, less so in the 15th century but Rome itself was later sacked in 1527.

Excommunication meant exclusion from the Christian community: a papal judgement on the actions of an individual, a social group, a city or even a whole country. This punishment was used several times against English monarchs: John, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Dispensations were the pope’s permission to set aside canon law on marriages of people who were related in some ‘degree’ that was forbidden by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. So many royal and noble families inter-married that they often needed to petition the pope for a dispensation. George, duke of Clarence with Isabel Neville and Richard, duke of Gloucester with Anne Neville are fifteenth century examples.

By granting or withholding dispensations, a pope could affect the future power structures within a country or between countries, which depended on land ownership and military alliances. In the fourteenth century a series of French popes living in Avignon, tended to favour French royal marriages over those of the English royal family and even gave cash loans to the French King to fight his enemies, which included Edward III. Monarchs also attempted to control marriages between nobles with already extensive lands which might create a rival dynasty of ‘overmighty subjects’ and threaten the authority of the king. There are several marriages in the fifteenth century which took place without royal permission and resulted in huge fines: Jacquetta of Luxembourg, dowager duchess of Bedford and Sir Richard Woodville for one, from whom their daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, emerged as Edward IV’s Queen.

The political power of popes was diminished in the fifteenth century following a schism in the late fourteenth century when two rival popes were elected by different groups of Cardinals: one in Avignon and one in Rome. By the start of the fifteenth century a third pope joined in and the situation was resolved by them either agreeing to stand down or being stood down by Cardinals.  At one critical period in European history, when Henry V conducted his first campaign in France in 1415, there was no pope at all for about a year and a half whilst disputes over elections were resolved. You can see a complete list of popes here.


Popes had the power to create Cardinals in any country and these were often given very senior positions in their secular national government such as Chancellor, controlling official communications with the king. The pope then had the possibility of direct influence over national policies through the loyalty of his Cardinals. The suspicion of divided loyalties between a monarch and a pope led to an English statue of praemunire facias  – essentially a loyalty test, which if failed, could result in a trial for treason or at least loss of office and confiscation of property.

 Cardinals also acted as ambassadors in international disputes, especially in peace negotiations, often not with any great success, used more as innocent participants in a cynical tactic to allow one side to gain military or diplomatic advantage by delay.

The Church had other roles in the criminal justice system of medieval England. Someone – always a man – who was in Holy Orders and accused of a serious crime could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ and choose to be tried and sentenced in a Church court, which might impose a more lenient punishment for crimes such as murder and rape. Gradually over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this method of escaping the secular criminal justice system was eliminated, firstly for the most serious crimes and then all together.


Criminals not in Holy Orders and others wishing to escape from threatening situations or from creditors could claim sanctuary by entering a church, abbey or other place designated by law to be a place of safety. There was a common limit of forty days for the person to remain in sanctuary before coming out to face justice for their crime or deciding either to remain in sanctuary or go into exile for the remainder of their lives. A few places offered unlimited sanctuary: Westminster Abbey, Beverley Minster and Durham Cathedral. During their time in sanctuary the accused were allowed to leave on official business such as to attend court, but were safe from arrest for their alleged offences.

Elizabeth Woodville twice went into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey – actually in the Abbot’s house next door to the Abbey. The first was for almost six months when her husband went into exile (October 1470) during which time she gave birth to the future Edward V. The second was when Edward V was taken in charge by Richard III (1st May 1483) and she remained there with all her daughters for almost ten months. During that time she was persuaded to release her youngest son, Richard of Shrewsbury, to join Edward V in the Tower of London.

Sanctuary was sometimes broken in cases of alleged treason – by Edward IV after Tewkesbury (1471) and Henry VII after a rebellion (1486) – which persuaded Pope Innocent VIII to limit the use of sanctuary – and it was abolished all together in England in 1623.

Benefit of clergy was gradually restricted during later centuries and finally abolished in 1827. Praemunire became of critical importance during the English Reformation which made King Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church in England and was formally repealed only in 1967.


The Late Medieval English Church. Vitality and Vulnerability before the break with Rome. G.W. Bernard (Yale University Press, 2013)

The Hundred Years War, Jonathan Sumption (faber & faber) Vols. I (1999), II (2001) and III (2012)