On 11 February 2013, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI would resign on 28 February, due to infirmity from advanced age. Earlier in the history, few popes resigned similar way, probably the most important being Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415, in order to end the time of the Western Schism.

But few of popes made it official, that they automatically resign from their functions if they get imprisoned. Examples are Pius VII in the times of Napoleon Wars and later Pius XII during the World War II.

My question is, if any of the popes were in fact imprisoned by anybody in the time of their service as a head of the Catholic Church?

I don't count Celestine V, who became imprisoned by Boniface VIII, as it happened two years after he resigned by himself of being a pope.

  • The story of Pius IX sounds very interesting and I didn't know that, thanks. But yes, apart of those two stories, as the imprisonment in both cases is rather a metaphor. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 20:48

3 Answers 3


The French imprisoned both Pius VI and Pius VII.

You should be able to find plenty of hits during the "pornocracy" between 867–1049 CE. Leo V was imprisoned by an antipope. John X was imprisoned at the height of the pornocracy as was poor Benedict VI. John IV was another unfortunate who was imprisoned by an antipope.

Then there's infamous Formosus who, one could opine, was incarcerated within his coffin until he was exhumed, placed on trial, found guilty, thrown into a river, recovered, reburied, re-exhumed, re-tried, found guilty, beheaded, and so on.

  • 1
    That shows how small I know about history. Thanks! Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 16:33

Pope Liberius was exiled to Thrace for a while in the mid 4th century.

During the early middle ages it was not unheard of for the Byzantine emperor to send people to arrest (or murder) the Pope in Rome when he started acting too independently for the emperor's taste. A prime example is Pope Martin I, who was arrested on the orders of Emperor Constans II and banished to the Crimea. The dispute was over an arcane detail of nature of the trinity, but the root issue was really about who had the ultimate authority over the church, Pope or Emperor.

As time went by, this got harder and harder for the Byzantines to do, and eventually the Popes started looking toward western authorities (starting with the Catholic Franks) for temporal protection rather than the Byzantines.

During much of the late middle ages, the papacy became pretty much a political plaything for north Italian rulers. It also controlled a fair bit of territory in central Italy, and thus spent a fair bit of time doing stuff that today we would consider rather inappropriate duties for the Vicar of Christ, like fielding armies and waging war on his Italian neighbors. Some of the popes during this period were decidedly less-than-holy men, even by the standards of the day.

My personal favorite from this period was (Anti)Pope John XXIII. He was put on trial, and as Gibbon put it, "The more scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was accused only of piracy, rape, sodomy, murder and incest." Eventually he was imprisoned in Germany, released, and (incredibly), made a Cardinal.

Still, typically what it took to get arrested was a dispute with a king, such as happened between Pope Boniface VIII and Phillip IV of France. The pope excommunicated Phillip and a local Italian family head, so they had the Pope arrested and tried to get him to abdicate. He refused, so he was just beaten up badly and left to die. There seems to be some dispute over his actual cause of death, but it occurred barely a month after his release.

  • Can you give an example of the Byzantine emperor arresting a Pope? Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 17:02
  • +1 and thanks. I forgot about ancient times, as it's out of my historical interests, but still it's crucial to know those times to understand later papacy history. Do you know if such thing didn't happen after Liberius? If not, I'll accept this answer as the problem would be solved. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 17:07

Actually I've just found out about such situation. In 1303, Philip IV of France, who was in a long conflict with Pope Boniface VIII, decided to judge the pope for his blasphemies (as a politic consequence of the papal bull Unam Sanctam). He sent Guillaume de Nogaret with 1600 soldiers to Rome. Boniface VIII tried to escape, but was found in family residence of (his) Gaetani family. After imprisonment, Boniface VIII lost his mind and died from an attack of madness, later the same year. When two years later his body was digged out, it was found untouched by time. It led Philip IV to order next pope, Clement V, to burn the body at the stake.

  • The only thing I didn't understand is "died of the rampage" - what did you mean? Otherwise +1 Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:11
  • 1
    Btw, Boniface was only held prisoner for a few days, then he was released by the townspeople; but as you correctly wrote the shock was too great for him and he dies soon of it. The details can be found here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anagni#Outrage_of_Anagni Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:13
  • That's fault of my poor English. I didn't know how to translate "zmarł od napadu szaleństwa". :) Thanks for the link, I'll follow that way to find more informations. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:17
  • Google translate offers "died from an attack of madness". Dying of rampage would be possible if he were, say, trampled on by an elephant. :) Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:18
  • 1
    So that "died of the rampage" was just a mistranslation? I find myself sorely disappointed...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 19:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.