Before the smoke clears: The longest papal election in history was marred by a brutal murder

When Pope Clement IV died in 1268, the college of cardinals was divided into French and Italian factions and were 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 (Allemagne) 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 defense 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.


     L-R: Henry of Almain and his brother Edmund with their Montfort cousins: Henry, Simon, Amaury, Guy, Richard, Eleanor

     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 was a constitutional monarchy hundreds of years ahead of its time. 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. The king 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.
     Guy de Montfort 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 his jailer 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 respected warlord when he rode into Viterbo with fifty knights and his powerful father-in-law.
     How that fateful meeting came to happen in a little town in Italy owes to the last crusade of the Mediterranean. The leader of the Christian army was Louis IX, who had already botched one crusade 20 years earlier. He landed in Tunisia figuring it to be an easier target, but 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 break the impasse.
     Edward was angered 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. 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 with Almain travelling under royal protection. Besides, Edward had saved the younger Simon from a fearful mauling when he was captured during the civil war, and Simon returned the favor by saving Richard of Cornwall from a similar act of revenge. Henry, moreover, had been one of them.
     In the early 1260s Edward, Henry, and their Montfort cousins were aligned with Simon in his troubles, often personal in nature, with Henry III. Suddenly Edward cut them off. Together with other disaffected barons and clergy, Almain encouraged Simon to make war on the crown. They were successful, but when Henry gained the upper hand, Almain deserted the Montfortians. His decision bothered him to the point of apologizing to Simon in person, but his uncle dismissed him with contempt.
    After seizing power in 1264, Simon used Almain as an emissary. He was not present at Evesham, which was crucial to Edward’s decision to send him to meet Guy. Although he had nothing whatsoever to do with the desecration of Simon’s body, it probably wouldn’t have mattered to a hothead like Guy. They were all guilty, even Edward. Moreover, Guy knew certain things about Almain’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. Henry of Almain was among those rewarded even though he had helped initiate the civil war. 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 Almain and the papal legate, called the Dictum of Kenilworth, allowed them to buy back their properties.
     The Montforts, however, were 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 had not been conducted in good faith 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 been used by Edward and Henry of Almain in seizing another earldom for Edmund. They simply kept the unfortunate Robert de Ferrers, the earl of Derby, locked up in prison until he signed over the deed.
     To make matters worse, Almain 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. England needed the marriage to secure the southern reaches of Gascony, but the fact remained that Henry of Almain had married into the clan of the Montfort family’s mortal enemy.
    Edward probably received the news of the murder before reaching 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 in 1273, 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 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. Now king of England, Edward refused and 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.
     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.