With the wane of the crusading fervor waned also the power of the popes. Innocent had extended his authority by terror and physical force. But men soon ceased to find religious inspiration for such “holy wars,” and the calls of later popes fell upon deafened ears. The democratic policy of Innocent’s predecessors had rallied all Italy around them; but his successors seem to have failed to recognize their true sources of strength. They abandoned their allies and ruled with autocratic power. Italy became divided, half Guelf, half Ghibelline, Moreover, even Frederick II, the ward whom Innocent had placed on the imperial throne, refused to sanction the encroachments of papal authority over the empire. So the strife of emperor and pope began again, only to terminate with the utter defeat and extermination of the great house of Barbarossa. Their possessions in Southern Italy and Sicily were conferred by the popes upon Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France.
But while the popes were thus temporarily successful in the giant contest against their greatest rival, to such partisan extremities were they driven by the necessities of the struggle, that the awakening world looked at them with doubtful eyes, began to question their spiritual rights and honors, as well as the temporal authority they claimed. In Charles of Anjou the popes soon found that they had but substituted one master for another. Charles was rapidly becoming as obnoxious to Rome as the emperors had ever been, when suddenly the tyranny of his French soldiers roused the Sicilians to desperation, and by the massacre of the Sicilian Vespers the French power in Italy was crushed.
Men were slow to realize that the mighty hold which the papacy had once possessed on the deep heart of the world was being sapped at its foundation. Diplomatic pontiffs still managed for a time to play off one sovereign against another, and to have their battles fought by foreign armies on a business basis. As late as the year 1300 the first great jubilee of the Church was celebrated and brought hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flocking to Rome. The papacy, though sorely pressed by many enemies, still proudly asserted its political supremacy. But in truth it had lost its power, not only over the minds of kings to hold them in subjection, not only over the interests of nobles to stir them to revolt, but alas, even over the love of the lower classes to rally them for its defence. Within ten years from the great jubilee the papacy met complete defeat and subjugation at the hands of a far lesser man and feebler monarch than Frederick II.