The longest papal election in history was marred by a brutal murder
Papal elections like the recent one never used to be so short or easy. In 1268 Pope Clement IV died and the cardinals, divided between French and Italian factions, would be deadlocked for the next three years over his successor. To promote the interests of France, Charles of Anjou, the real power in Italy, accompanied his nephew Philip III, the king of France, to Viterbo, just north of Rome, where the election was being held. Their retinue included an Englishman, Henry of Almain, the oldest son of Richard of Cornwall, the titular king of Germany (Almain) and brother of Henry III of England.
On 13 March 1271, Henry walked into a little church in Viterbo to attend mass. Sometime later, his body was retrieved from the square outside, bludgeoned and hacked up beyond belief. It was a political murder that shocked all of Europe, and yet it had no connection at all to the election of the pope. The cardinals may have discussed it, may have even been unnerved by it, but they went right back to bickering. It would take another six months for the new pontiff, Gregory X, to don his sacred hat.
The murder actually began inside the church, which stands on a little square off the main road to the cathedral. Henry was in the congregation when a group of armed men ominously appeared in the doorway. One of them shouted ‘Henry of Almain, you traitor, you shall not escape me!’ and rushed towards him. Henry dashed for the altar, hoping to find defence behind the priest leading the service. Clasping his hands, he cried out for mercy, but the man and his followers were relentless and showed no mercy to the intervening priest, either.
So sudden and unexpected was the attack that Henry’s attendants and the rest of the congregation could do little more than witness the grisly scene, and even then it wasn’t over. The victim was dragged out of the church and finished off on the square in a hail of blows meant to mutilate his body. Finally, the man who led the attack told his men, in French, ‘I have had my revenge.’ They then got on their horses and fled north.
Only the barest amount of justice would be served for this notorious crime, because the perpetrator was one of Charles of Anjou’s top lieutenants at the time, his vicar-general for Tuscany. He had come to Viterbo to consult with Charles when, presumably, he received a message. His cousin, Henry of Almain, would like a meeting with him and his brother Simon. He was on a mission of reconciliation, sent by another cousin, the future Edward I of England. How this message was delivered will never be known, but it’s easy to imagine what must have gone through the mind of Guy de Montfort when it was delivered.
Six years earlier Edward and his father Henry III were captives of a provisional government led by Guy’s father, Simon de Montfort. That government, hundreds of years ahead of its time, was based on the proposition that all officials, including the king, must be held accountable for their actions. Edward escaped from his house arrest, raised an army, and defeated Simon at Evesham on 4 August 1265. Montfort was killed at the height of the battle, but that wasn’t good enough for the victors. Afterward, they mutilated and dismembered his body in a thoroughly medieval manner.
Having made the killing of Montfort the top priority of his war council, Edward now feared he had unleashed a blood feud and tried to make amends through kindness to Simon’s widow, who was his aunt and sister of Henry III. Edward allowed her to go freely into exile with her youngest children and a horde of cash, which the king peevishly tried to get back. Edward offered the eldest surviving Montfort son, also named Simon, a settlement for the family’s estates, but the vindictiveness of the court sank the deal. He even made Guy an overture that would lead to his rise on the continent.
Guy had been wounded and captured at Evesham. At first he was held in Windsor but then transferred to Dover for no apparent reason other than allowing him to escape. Officially, he had bribed a gaoler into closing his eyes, but however he managed it, Guy made his way to France, whence the Montfort stock sprang, and secured a position under Charles of Anjou.
He turned out to be a fearless warrior. One account has his helmet becoming twisted around during battle and Guy flailing away like a madman until one of his men corrected the problem (and nearly caught a mace in the face before Guy came to his senses). Charles was duly impressed and rewarded Guy with power and property in Tuscany. Guy married the heiress of one of the richest men in the region and profited from umpiring the numerous feuds between local clans. He was a made man, with hundreds of knights and his powerful father-in-law in his train when he entered Viterbo.
How that fateful meeting came to happen in a little town in Italy owes to the last real crusade. Misguided as most were, this one started in Tunisia. The leader of the Christian army was Louis IX, that sainted creature who had already botched one crusade 20 years earlier. When he succumbed to dysentery, his brother Charles, who had spent most of their previous crusade playing craps, convinced his nephew Philip, the new king of France, to head home. But first they would stop in Viterbo to try and convince the obstinate cardinals to see things their way.
Edward was miffed by the hastiness of their departure. He decided to go it alone, but not before detaching Henry of Almain from his contingent and sending him to manage the affairs of Gascony, then an English duchy. The French were ultimately going that way, so he tagged along, and since Charles was connected to Guy, it seemed like a good opportunity to seek out the Montfort boys. They were unlikely to do anything stupid, not in the midst of a papal election. Besides, Edward had saved the younger Simon from a fearful mauling when he was captured during the civil war, and if there was one ‘clean’ member of Edward’s entourage, it was Henry of Almain.
Like many young noblemen, Henry became imbued with the spirit of reform in the 1260s. When Simon de Montfort returned from exile in France to force a showdown with the king and Edward, Henry joined his party. Unable to match Simon’s charisma or the nature of his cause, Edward won over many of the young nobles with bribes. They were generally ruthless hoods in it for themselves anyway, but Henry was different. He tended to vacillate, it was true, but all in all he was able and agreeable and, coming from the royal family, a boon to the ranks of the reforming party.
Alas, he too was eventually bribed away by Edward, and yet his decision clearly bothered him. Approaching Simon, he told him that he simply could not take up arms against his family anymore. But, he assured him, he would never take up arms against him. Montfort, exasperated by the treachery of the king, of Edward and the English nobility, was dismissive of the young man’s plight. He cheerfully told him to return with his arms, they were of no consequence to him.
But Simon never lost trust in him and used Henry, when he was his captive along with the rest of the royal family, as an intermediary for peace. In all likelihood, Henry was not present at Evesham, and this was crucial in Edward’s decision to send Henry to meet Guy. He had nothing whatsoever to do with the desecration of Montfort’s body. It probably wouldn’t have mattered to a hothead like Guy in any case. They were all guilty, even Edward. Moreover, Guy knew certain things about Henry’s actions after Evesham that likely sealed his fate.
One of the first acts of the royalists after resuming power was to seize all the property belonging to Simon’s party. It was an incredible blunder, for the victors, many of whom had turned coat at one point or other during the reforming period, now turned on each other over the spoils. With nothing to lose, the ‘disinherited’ Montfortians fought on, keeping the country in a state of civil unrest for another two years. Finally, a deal brokered by Henry of Almain’s father allowed them to buy back whatever property remained.
The Montforts, however, were wholly excluded because Simon’s earldom of Leicester had been given to Edward’s brother Edmund. As far as the king and barons were concerned, the Montforts were finished in England. The younger Simon began to sense that the original settlement offered to him by Edward had not been conducted in good faith (he was probably right) and fled to Italy to join his brother.
In 1270, Edward led most of the young nobility of England overseas on that final, fruitless crusade. With the country quiet, the younger Simon slipped back in to pray at the grave of his father and older brother Henry, who also fell at Evesham. He probably learned at that time of a bit of extortion that had used by Edward and Henry of Almain in seizing another earldom and giving it to Edmund as well. They simply kept the unfortunate earl locked up in prison until he signed over the deed. It was just the kind of crown abuse that Simon de Montfort had meant to end with his revolution and Henry of Almain was a direct part of it.
To make matters worse, Henry left England in the company of his new wife, the daughter of Gaston de Bearn, the irascible French nobleman who had given Simon de Montfort so much trouble when he ruled Gascony for the king. When Simon captured Gaston to put him on trial, Henry III had him freed and put Simon on trial instead. Naturally, their relations, already fraught, never recovered. The Henry of Almain who arrived in Viterbo to meet Guy de Montfort was nothing like the young idealist of the reform movement, rather another corrupt royalist married into the clan of the Montfort family’s mortal enemy.
England needed the marriage because Gaston was the bully most capable of protecting the southern reaches of the duchy. It isn’t known whether Henry of Almain intended to explain it like that to Guy at their meeting but chances are that any man who fights with fury when blinded by a malfunction in his armour is likely to do the same when blinded by revenge. A formidable military commander, Guy, with his brother Simon in tow, cased Henry’s movements after his arrival and waited for their chance to strike.
That they chose the setting of a church for the foul deed should not come as any surprise. Even their father, one of the most devout men of his generation, couldn’t prevent the cathedral of Rochester from being defiled during the English civil war. And his grandfather, the fanatical scourge of the Albigensians, was involved in thousands of men, women and children being dragged out of churches during his crusade in southern France and slaughtered. Guided by the commands and policy of the Christian church, of course.
Edward probably received the news of the murder just after arriving in Palestine, where his crusade would come to nothing and an attempt would be made on his own life. Passing through Italy on his way home, he found that the younger Simon had already died and that Guy’s father-in-law had been vindicated of the crime. In his meeting with the new pope, Edward insisted he had sent Henry on a mission of peace and demanded that Guy, now on the run for nearly two years, be brought to justice.
Ordered to appear before Gregory, Guy excused himself through his lawyer, another Montfort brother named Amaury, on the grounds that Edward swore he would kill him if he left his hiding place. They even taunted their cousin by claiming it was all his fault. Had he not dispossessed them, they would still be in England living as one big happy family.
The pope was not inclined to see anything amusing about the situation and promptly excommunicated Guy. Though still protected by Charles and his father-in-law, Guy decided it was time to assume the role of a penitent, complete with bare feet and a rope around his neck, and throw himself at the mercy of the pope. Much to Edward’s dismay, Gregory ordered Guy to be placed under house arrest and kept there at his pleasure.
But a man with Guy’s boundless energy could not be cooped up for long and he again escaped. When he re-emerged after four years, Charles and his son solicited Edward to let bygones be bygones. But the unforgiving man, now king of England, would have nothing to do with their entreaties. Edward did score one major success when he captured Amaury as he escorted his sister across the Channel to marry the prince of Wales. Although Amaury had been lying ill in Padua at the time of the murder, Edward was convinced of his complicity and had him locked away for four years. It might have been forever had a string of bishops not interceded on Amaury’s behalf. He was released, and the first thing he did after thanking Edward for his clemency was to sue him to recover the family’s estates. He eventually dropped it when it served no other purpose than to make Edward’s stammer even worse.
By that time Guy was fighting again, now for Charles’ son, but his luck had run out. Taken captive in an ill-fated attack, he languished in a Sicilian prison for four years before dying there, locked up as Edward had intended. A ransom had been fixed for his release but the collection plate was still cold when the king of Aragon, the holder of the keys to the dungeon and an ally of Edward, upped the amount to beyond all reasonable expectation.
And so the murderer of Henry of Almain departed this life, some twenty years after the crime, only to be resurrected immediately in the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno. Dante, who may have actually seen Guy during his childhood in Florence, immersed him in a river of boiling blood as his eternal punishment. Edward would have been most pleased.