In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Pope seemed to hold more power than the European kings. This is strange because monarchs can raise armies. Pope and their bishops are not exactly military men. How did the Catholic Pope manage to become more powerful than Kings in medieval Europe without the support of guns and barrels?

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    Because those monarchs desired (required?) the approval of their subjects, who believed in the Pope's supernatural powers. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 4:05
  • 6
    Power of excommunication. As rivals to the throne could tell their peers and the populace that the current king was impious and didn't have divine mandate anymore. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 4:55
  • 3
    The Pope is a king (of Vatican City). In the medieval era, the papal kingdom was much larger.
    – dan04
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 15:19
  • 1
    In which historical culture have religious leaders not had power roughly equivalent to kings?
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 16:32
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Pirenne#A_History_of_Europe
    – o0'.
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 11:06

4 Answers 4


This question needs a great deal more substantiation, but we can look to three fundamental factors that provided the base for the power of the Church and the Papacy in Medieval Western Europe:

Originating in Europe, the divine-right theory can be traced to the medieval conception of God’s award of temporal power to the political ruler, paralleling the award of spiritual power to the church. By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the new national monarchs were asserting their authority in matters of both church and state. King James I of England (reigned 1603–25) was the foremost exponent of the divine right of kings, but the doctrine virtually disappeared from English politics after the Glorious Revolution (1688–89). In the late 17th and the 18th centuries, kings such as Louis XIV (1643–1715) of France continued to profit from the divine-right theory, even though many of them no longer had any truly religious belief in it.

Catholic thought justified submission to the monarchy by reference to the following:

The Old Testament, in which a line of kings was created by God through the prophecy of Jacob/Israel, who created his son Judah to be king and retain the sceptre until the coming of the Messiah, alongside the line of priests created in his other son, Levi. Later, a line of Judges (who were not kings as they only had the power to provide insight to the people and not to take action to enforce their rulings) was created alongside the line of High Priests created by Moses through Aaron. Later still, the Prophet Samuel re-instituted the line of kings in Saul, under the inspiration of God.

The New Testament, in which the first pope, St. Peter, commands that all Christians shall honour the Roman Emperor (1 Peter 2:13-17), even though, at that time, he was still a pagan emperor. Likewise, Jesus Christ proclaims in the Gospel of Matthew that one should "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's"; that is at first, literally, the payment of taxes as binding those who use the imperial currency.

The endorsement by the popes and the church of the line of emperors beginning with the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, later the Eastern Roman emperors, and finally the Western Roman emperor, Charlemagne and his successors, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperors.

Since during the period in question, religion in (Western) Europe was the virtual monopoly of the Catholic Church headed by the Pope, the sanction of the Pope was in many respects the source of any monarch's claim to the throne, and the power of any monarch was a function of that monarch's relationship with the Church.

Perhaps the most well known historical example of the intimate bond between Papal power and Monarchic Power is the English Henry VIII's formation of the Anglican Church in concert with Thomas Cromwell, the outcome of what came to be known as the King’s great matter

From 1527 Henry pursued what became known as “the King’s great matter”: his divorce from Catherine. He convinced himself that his first marriage had been against the divine law; that is, against the biblical injunction (Lev.) forbidding marriage with a brother’s widow.

He appealed to Rome for a declaration of annulment. Popes had usually obliged kings in such matters, but Henry had picked both his time and his case badly. He was asking Pope Clement VII to help him discard the emperor’s aunt, but Clement, the emperor’s prisoner in 1527–28, never thereafter dared resist Charles, whose powerful feelings of familial honour and public prestige barred any concession to Henry’s wishes. Moreover, the pope’s reluctance was increased by the fact that he was being asked to declare illegal an earlier exercise of papal power—which had licensed Henry’s marriage to his brother’s widow—of a kind that brought a good deal of money to the papal coffers....

Action called for a revolution, and the revolution required a man who could conceive and execute it. That man was Thomas Cromwell, who, in April 1532, won control of the council and thereafter remained in command for some eight years. The revolution consisted of the decision that the English church should separate from Rome, becoming effectively a spiritual department of state under the rule of the king as God’s deputy on earth. The revolution that he had not intended gave the king his wish: in January 1533 he married Anne Boleyn; in May a new archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, presided over the formality of a trial that declared the first marriage annulled; in September the princess Elizabeth was born. The pope retaliated with a sentence of excommunication; it troubled no one.

As long as Henry was beholden to the Pope in Rome, his situation as King was compromised. The only solution was to break ties with Rome and create a new church, which recognized Henry as King by Divine Right.

  • The Power of the Purse: Although indeed the Pope and the Church were "not exactly military men", the Church controlled massive amounts of wealth in Medieval Europe, accumulated through tribute, tithes, indulgences, and bequeathals and gifts that accumulated to the extent that the Church was the largest landowner in Europe and controlled vast stores of treasure, sequestered away in the Rome, and in churches, monasteries, convents, etc throughout Europe. (Some legends and traditions also claim that treasures looted by the legions of Rome are hidden in the bowels of the Vatican store-rooms, but I don't know how much of that is historically verifiable.)

The situation in England typified what was common in Europe at large during the period in question:

Typically, 11th and 12th century founders had endowed monastic houses with both 'temporal' income in the form of revenues from landed estates, and 'spiritual' income in the form of tithes appropriated from parish churches under the founder's patronage. In consequence of which, religious houses in the 16th century controlled appointment to about two-fifths of all parish benefices in England disposed of about half of all ecclesiastical income and owned around a quarter of the nation's landed wealth.

Along these lines, with the founding of the Anglican Church Henry instituted the Dissolution of the Monasteries

A set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former members and functions. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority, and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539).

Wealth and territory bequeath power; Kings need money.

  • Rome was already the seat of power in Western Europe prior to the rise of the Church, as the capital city of the Roman Empire: Europe was accustomed to looking towards Rome for leadership and authority. In many respects, the Papacy and the Church filled the vacuum of power left in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Although the Church did not have the legions of the empire, it had other ways of expressing power, as we have mentioned, thus paving the way for the Church to take up where the Roman Empire had left off, as the nexus of power in Western Europe.
  • 3
    Which makes Henry VIII of England's actions a "The Emperor Has No Clothes" moment for the Catholic Church. While the actual power of the Church peaked much later; monarchs like Henry basically broke the back of the Church's temporal power. In time this growing separation of church and state trickled down to religious freedom for the peons. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 5:02
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    @LateralFractal - "The Emperor Has No Clothes": Perhaps we can say that Martin Luther stole his shirt and hat, while Henry stole his breeches.....
    – user2590
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 5:37
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    @Coelacanth: Thank you for the answer. It is interesting to note that the Anglican church was started out of a King's determination to break the "No divorce is allowed" rule set by the Catholic Church.
    – curious
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 6:35
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    @Coelacanth: Thanks. This explains the brilliant political move by Henry VIII to create his own Church. Kill 2 birds with one stone. 1) Create a church which he can control and which continues to give him the Divine Right of Kings (2) Permit him to legitimately to get rid of the woman he hates and marry the woman he loves, with God's blessing of course.
    – curious
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 7:38
  • 3
    This is a completely wrong answer. The Divine Right of Kings was INVENTED during the rise of nation-states (Absolutism) so to combat the Pope. Now the king could say that he receives power directly from the God and does not need the Church's mediation.
    – Anixx
    Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 11:10

Most nobles of the Middle Ages felt that they owed allegiance to TWO kings: 1) the king of their country, and 2) God, their heavenly king, for whom the Pope was the "viceroy" (vice-king) for Christians.

If anything, the Pope, as God's "representative" held greater sway over the nobles than the national king, because the Pope could quite literally tell the king (or the nobles themselves) to "go to Hell." And most Christian nobles believed that the Pope could send them there for all eternity, meaning that in a "forced choice," they would support the Pope over their king.

When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV got on the wrong side of the Pope in 1077 by trying to appoint bishops, the Pope excommunicated him. His "Electors" threatened to elect a new Emperor as a result. So Henry had to walk barefooted to the Pope's residence at Canossa and fast three days to get the Pope to remove the ex communication, so that he could maintain his political power.

In theory, the Pope only had authority over temporal matters, but in practice, there was a certain amount of overlap with secular matters. For instance, there were questions about whether the king or church could collect certain taxes, and how the money could be spent.

It was not until the time of Martin Luther, and the rise of Protestantism that people started to believe that the Pope did NOT have a monopoly on heavenly salvation, and therefore could be defied. But shortly afterward, during the time of Henry VIII, the Pope forebade his divorce from Catherine of Aragon on religious grounds, which had a bunch of political (secular) implications. Henry's response was to set up the Church of England and make himself a quasi Pope at the head of his own church.

  • 1
    Actually before 1077 kings and the emperor had always appointed their bishops, It was only after canossa that the pope held this power.
    – Jeroen K
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 17:36
  • Yes, the Pope decided to "crack down" in 1077, and succeeded in doing so.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 15:47

It is unevident that he was. There were multiple instances when popes were desposed by various rulers.

For instance, Charles V took Rome and installed his own pope.

Since the position of a pope was electable, it was usually the most powerful state or alliance that influenced the decision on who shall be the pope.

The pope controlled the extensive church hierarchy and could excommunicate a king, but in return he could be desposed as well.

  • Also, the Pope was old. Kings could wait out the life of this Pope and wait for another.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 21:40
  • @Anixx desposed or deposed?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 15:57
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    @CGCampbell what's the diffrence?
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 20:07
  • @Anixx Are you being ironic, or serious?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 23:37
  • 1
    @CGCampbell serious.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 23:55

Another factor not mentioned in other answers seems to be something mentioned by Dan Carlin in a recent podcast: a trick played by Pope Leo III on Charlemagne, which had him place the crown on the kneeling king's head.

This basically confirmed that the Pope had the right to nominate/declare the king, and put the practical point on the "Catholic Justified Submission" theoretical argument discussed in an earlier answer.

  • 1
    Actually, that right was just to nominate an Emperor, not a king. Charlemagne was already king long before that.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 21:39
  • Taking that logic further--the right to crown emperors certainly places the Pope above kings.
    – Jeff
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 0:50

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