Church in the 14th and 15th Century



The 14th and 15th Centuries: The Church in Moral Crisis





The Church in Moral Crisis: Prelude to the Reformation


Though most students would have some knowledge of the great schism between East and West, few are aware of the historical rifts that occurred within the Roman church between the 13th and 15th centuries. Religious life suffered as a consequence of the schism, for "Christendom looked upon the scandal helpless and depressed, and yet impotent to remove it. With two sections of Christendom each declaring the other lost, each cursing and denouncing the other, men soberly asked who was saved" (Flick, 1930: 293). Doubt and confusion caused many to question the legitimacy and true holiness of the church as an institution. In the West, the excesses that affected the church ultimately called for radical reform through that movement which we now identify with the Protestant Reformation.

This period of moral decline was instrumental in leading to a Western Schism within Christendom, in which three Popes and anti-Popes concurrently contested control over the See of Peter. The popes refused to convene councils to effect reform, and they failed to bring about reform themselves, rather busying themselves with Italian politics and being patrons of the arts. "Thus the papacy emerged as something between an Italian city-state and a European power, without forgetting at the same time the claim to be the vice-regent of Christ. The pope often could not make up his own mind whether he was the successor of Peter or of Caesar. Such vacillation had much to do with the rise and success... of the Reformation" (Bainton, 1952: 15). By the mid-fifteenth century the Church was in urgent need of drastic reform which, when effected, would have lasting impact on the religious and secular history of Europe.

At the death of Nicholas IV in 1292 there was a deadlock in the sacred college of Cardinals which was to last for twenty-seven months before his successor could be elected. The two ruling factions in Italian politics were represented by the powerful Orsini and Colonna families who vied for control of the Papacy. At this time there were only nine cardinals left in that college, three giving their allegiance to the Orsinis, three to the Colonna family, and three were seemingly independent. Pope Nicholas had been an Orsini and they would not accept the loss of papal control. The Colonnas were determined to take it away from them, and they put pressure on the three remaining independent cardinals who were unwilling to offend either family, both of whom had a history of murder and assassination throughout the streets of Rome.

The cardinals squabbled over who should be elected Pope until the plague came to Rome in early in 1294, forcing them to withdraw to the mountains of Perugia in central Italy, still deadlocked. One of the non-partisan cardinals was Cardinal Gaetani who was considered to be a great canon lawyer. He was a cold, calculating, corpulent man with the determination of an assassin. To break the deadlock in his own insidious way, Gaetani told the senior cardinal present, Latino Malabranca, the Cardinal of Ostia that he had received a prophetic letter from a holy eccentric hermit, Peter of Morone, which predicted the punishment of God upon all of them if a Pope were not soon elected.

Malabranca, who was intensely superstitious, took the forgery which Gaetani had given to him with devout seriousness. On the 5th July 1294, after prayful contemplation, he called the handful of cardinals together and read them the letter which he believed had come from the holy hermit. He became so carried away by his own eloquence and his own convictions that he proposed that the hermit Peter of Morone be elected the next Pope. The deadlock was broken by the logic of demonstrating to Colonna and Orsini alike that neither of them needed to prevent the other from winning.

Neither the Colonnas nor the Orsinis bothered to journey to Abruzzi to meet the new Pope, to kiss his feet as every tradition of the sacred college required. However Cardinal Gaetani did pay his homage, taking with him the King of Naples and an enormous following of ordinary people:

    In a bleak cave in the Abruzzi mountains, Gaetani told the holy hermit that he had been made Vicar of Christ on earth. The confused frightened old man, who had never seen so many people in his life, nodded to the statement because Gaetani had bellowed at him from that great height, in those rich and beautiful scarlet robes covering the barrel chest and hogshead belly, commanding that Peter now nod his head to signify his acceptance of God's glory. Emaciated, hardly understanding Latin, much less the condition, Peter accepted the rulership of Christendom filled with mortal terror because he would have to leave his cave. He refused to go to Rome. He would rule from Naples. At Gaetani's suggestion, he chose the name Celestine V. From that day forward, Gaetani served the Pope as his lawyer and soothed him by creating a replica of the hermit's mountain cell in the castle Nuovo, which had become the Lateran palace of Naples (Condon, 1984: 24).

Cardinal Gaetani began systematically to ingratiate himself with Celestine - and finally convinced the confused and befuddled pontiff that God really wanted him to resign from the papacy. Fearing that unless he abdicated he would lose his immortal soul, Celestine agreed, and announced his renunciation to his cardinals. Gaetani was elected to the papacy ten days later as the compromise candidate, consecrated and crowned at St. Peter's in Rome, taking the name of Boniface VIII. His first act as Pope was to order the arrest of Celestine, whom he sentenced to death.

As a cardinal Gaetani had acquired rich cities and adjoining territories - and as Pontiff Boniface continued to amass wealth and power which was to bring him into direct confrontation with the Colonnas, who ruled their territory from the hilltop city of Palestrina, twenty-two miles east of Rome. The Colonnas tried to instigate a revolt against the Pontiff by claiming that Boniface's election was invalid as he had usurped power that rightly belonged to Celestine. At the same time, Stephen Colonna attacked and plundered the Pope's gold which was being sent to Caserta to buy yet another city for the Gaetani dynasty. Boniface, blind with fury, threw two of the Colonna cardinals into prison.

The Colonna offered to return the gold but Boniface wanted not only revenge on Stephen Colonna but also the Colonnas' destruction by installing garrisons inside the Colonna cities. This option was totally unacceptable to the Colonna and the next day, Colonna messengers posted manifestos attacking the legitimacy of Boniface's election all over Rome, leaving one tacked to the high altar of St. Peter's. In response, Boniface issued a papal bull, In Excelso Throno, which charged the two imprisoned Colonna cardinals with heresy, excommunicated them and every member of the family. Boniface then announced a religious crusade against the Colonna, using money from all over Europe which had been intended to finance the Crusades in the Holy Land to buy the Knights Templar to crush the Colonna strongholds. An order went out that the Colonna women and children were to be killed or sold into slavery. With the help of his mercenary army, by 1299 all the Colonna cities had been captured. Palestrina was completely razed to the ground, and the Colonna family went to France in exile where they were given refuge by French nobility.

Boniface's fury turned against the French monarch and he forbade him to tax the French clergy. The French king reacted vehemently, and he in turn forbade the export of all money to the Pope. The king prohibited foreigners from living in France, which excluded members of the curia:

    Warming to his task, he called an estates-general to charge the Pope with infidelity, loss of the Holy Land, the murder of Celestine V, heresy, fornication, simony, sodomy, sorcery, and idolatry in a list of twenty-nine charges - all of them the sort employed when some faction wants to rid the Church of a Pope, many of them quite valid. The only weapon Boniface had was the solemn excommunication of the King of France, which would release the French people from their allegiance to the king. The publication of this fatal bull was planned for 8 September, 1303 from Agnani, the Pope's summer palace (Condon, 1984: 26).

The bull had to be stopped at any cost. The king sent 2000 troops into Italy under the leadership of Sciarra Colonna into Italy to storm Agnani, Boniface's family stronghold, with the orders to capture Boniface and bring him to France for judgement. Under treachery, Colonna gained access with his troops and with drawn sword, Colonna found the eighty year old pontiff seated on his throne dressed in his pontifical regalia, with the three-tiered tiara on his head, cross in one hand and keys to St. Peter's in the other. Mockingly, Sciarra Colonna ordered his men to strip Boniface naked. Sciarra pressed the tiara down Boniface's eyes, knocked him down, had his men drag him by the feet across down a granite stairway. He was then thrown into a narrow, dark prison where he was beaten, and as a final indignity Sciarra ordered his soldiers to urinate on him. Two nights later, supporters of the Pontiff were able to repel the French and rescued Boniface. But the ill-treatment meted out to him was too much; in sick and debilitated health, he commenced his journey back to the Vatican which he reached on 18 September. There he was to die twenty-four days later.

One of the more important and telling pronouncements of Pope Boniface VIII had been written to Philip IV of France in 1302. It was named Unam Sanctam and is one of the most extreme and arrogant statements of papal superiority over spiritual and temporal matters and gives us an significant insight into the prevalent model of Church at this time of ecclesial history. Read the following and fascinating extract from Unam Sanctam and reflect on the paradigm of Church that existed at the turn of the 14th century :

    We are compelled, our faith urging us, to believe and to hold - and we do firmly believe and simply confess - that there is one holy catholic and apostolic church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins; her Spouse proclaiming it in the canticles: "My dove, my undefiled is but one, she is the choice one of her that bare her;" which represents one mystic body, of which body the head is Christ; but of Christ, God. In this church there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism. There was one ark of Noah, indeed, at the time of the flood, symbolizing one church; and this being finished in one cubit had, namely, one Noah as helmsman and commander. And, with the exception of this ark, all things existing upon the earth were, as we read, destroyed. This church, moreover, we venerate as the only one, the Lord saying through His prophet: "Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog." He prayed at the same time for His soul - that is, for Himself the Head - and for His body - which body, namely, he called the one and only church on account of the unity of the faith promised, of the sacraments, and of the love of the church. She is that seamless garment of the Lord which was not cut but which fell by lot. Therefore of this one and only church there is one body and one head - not two heads as if it were a monster: - Christ, namely, and the vicar of Christ, St. Peter, and the successor of Peter. For the Lord Himself said to Peter, Feed my sheep. My sheep, He said, using a general term, and not designating these or those particular sheep; from which it is plain that He committed to Him all His sheep. If, then, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they necessarily confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ; for the Lord says, in John, that there is one fold, one shepherd and one only. We are told by the word of the gospel that in this His fold there are two swords, - a spiritual, namely, and a temporal. For when the apostles said "Behold here are two swords" - when, namely, the apostles were speaking in the church - the Lord did not reply that this was too much, but enough. Surely he who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter wrongly interprets the word of the Lord when He says: "Put up thy sword in its scabbard." Both swords, the spiritual and the material, therefore, are in the power of the church; the one, indeed, to be wielded for the church, the other by the church; the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and knights, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. One sword, moreover, ought to be under the other, and the temporal authority to be subjected to the spiritual. For when the apostle says "there is no power but God, and the powers that are of God are ordained," they would not be ordained unless sword were under sword and the lesser one, as it were, were led by the other to great deeds. Whoever, therefore, resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordination of God, unless he makes believe, like the Manichean, that there are two beginnings. This we consider false and heretical, since by the testimony of Moses, not "in the beginnings," but "in the beginning" God created the Heavens and the earth. Indeed we declare, announce and define, that it is altogther necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff. The Lateran, Nov. 14, in our 8th year. As a perpetual memorial of this matter. (Ernest F. Henderson, 1912: 435-37).

After Boniface's death, the new Pope, Benedict X, did not last long, dying within ten months of his election. After many months of intense bargaining Bertrand de Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux and a confidant of the king of France, was elected. This Frenchman, who took the name Clement V, was never to set his foot on Italian soil; he was crowned in Lyons in November 1305 and finally in 1309 settled in Avignon which became the papal court from which the Pope and his Curia ruled. Clement was to be succeeded by six French Popes who, at the resolution of the French king, remained in France. For the next sixty-eight years the seat of ecclesial power was to remain in Avignon, not returning to Rome till 1377 during the pontificate of Gregory VI, who died through apparent poisoning.

The Italians were desperate to retain the papacy within Italy, and threatened the lives of the sixteen cardinals gathered in Rome to elect Gregory's successor. Italy had become impoverished since the papacy had moved to Avignon, with monies from about two million tourists going to the French since Clement's election. Feeling under pressure the conclave chose the safest Pope - Archbishop Bartolomeo Prigano of Bari, a Neapolitan who had been vice chancellor at the University of Avignon. Prigano took the name of Urban VI.

His autocratic manner coupled with an unbalanced personality was to lead to his downfall. He proved himself to be highly unpopular and the cardinals, now in safe territory, met and declared the election to be null and void on the ground that they had been coerced into electing him in fear of the violence of the Roman mob:

    It seems hard to believe but they elected in his place a brute named Robert, Cardinal of Geneva - he who was called the Butcher of Cesena because he had ordered his troops to put 3000 women and children to the sword when they objected to the rape of sixty women by his transient soldiers. The Butcher took the name of Clement VII, whereupon Urban VI excommunicated him; then he excommunicated Urban, and the great schism of the Church had begun. There were two Popes who ruled Christendom simultaneously: Urban in Rome, Clement at Avignon. The Cossa family's advocate, Piero Tomacelli, succeeded Urban as Boniface IX (Condon, 1984: 29).

It took considerable monies to keep the bureaucracy of the Church functioning, so Boniface tried to strengthen the Roman Church by selling various ecclesial offices and benefices, particularly special indulgences during Jubilee years. He gained enormous wealth from the Jubilees of 1390 and 1400, and under his pontificate simony reached its great climax through the sale of indulgences. Boniface rapaciously piled tax upon tax, graft upon graft, simony upon simony, taxing the patrons, papal states and properties, and requiring substantial fees from those elected to political or ecclesial office. Everything that was secular or religious was for sale, and ultimately it was out of this worldly environment that urgent calls came for reformation and church renewal.


The REFORMATION of the 15th and 16th CENTURIES


One of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church states that the Church is always in a state of renewal (Ecclesia semper reformanda est). From the twelfth century onwards, we note the resurgence of various groups calling for radical changes within the practices of Christian worship. Through your own investigations, you may wish to explore the relationships between them and the established church. In what way did the Cathars, the Albigensians, the Waldensians, and others try to correct the ills of the Church? Why did they fail, and end up condemned by the "official" Church?

      • The Cathars
      • The Albigensians
      • The Waldensians

The age saw the introduction of the Inquisition, which acted as a protective arm ensuring the supremacy and purity of the 'official' teachings against the radicalism of these primitive reformers. It is interesting to note that Augustine in the 4th century had approved the use of torture in specific cases where the salvation of souls was concerned. His rationale was based on the premise that if secular powers used torture for mere temporal gains, then how more justified would the church be to use brutality for the sake of salvation! Such also was the rationale used by the founders of the most infamous of the Church's agencies of control. Through the establishment of the Inquisition, at the dawn of the Reformation the Church protected its own temporal and spiritual supremacy.

I have listed below some key personalities that have reshaped the cultural, political, and religious landscape of Pre-Reformation Europe. You may wish to follow up in your own readings on the contribution and impact made in these two centuries by the inventiveness, dynamism and genius of such diverse pioneers as:

      • Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468)
      • Savonarola (1439-1498)
      • Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
      • Niccola Machiavelli (1469-1527)
      • Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

They all lived in the same epoch of the 15th and 16th century, and through their inventive genius, courage and political skill they were to make a unique and lasting impact on the spiritual, geographical, scientific, as well as political and ecclesial horizons of their time. You may wish to explore the state of leadership in church and state at this time: the debauchery of the Borgias culminating in the reign of the profligate Pope Alexander VI; the conquests and concerns of the warrior Pope, Julius II (who somehow has won strange exoneration in history through his patronage of Michaelangelo), the iron-willed Pontiffs of the Counter-Reformation, Paul IV, Pius IV, and Pius V. It was a time when Italians monopolized European banking, and money transformed values, ecclesial and secular, even celebrated in medieval poetry:

    Money makes the man, Money makes the stupid pass for bright... Money buys the pleasure-giving women, Money keeps the soul in bliss, The world and fortune being ruled by it, Which even opens, if you want, the doors of paradise. So wise he seems to me who piles up What more than any other virtue Conquers gloom and leavens the whole spirit (Lauro Martines, 1979: 83).

Below I have indicated the key personalities that influenced political and ecclesial history events during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was also a period of headstrong political leadership unafraid to challenge the power of the Rome weakened by inept and corrupt leadership. Some, like Henry VIII (1509-1547) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), stood in heretical opposition to Rome for a variety of personal as well as political motives. Others, like Philip II (1555-1598), Ferdinand I (1556-1564) and Christian III (1536-1559), allied themselves to Rome against the voices of Reformation. By 1565 Europe was to be rent by cataclysmic religious wars costing the lives of hundreds of thousands, tearing the religious and political harmony of Europe apart.

In considering the institutional nature (model or paradigms) of "Church" as it had developed by the sixteenth century, what do you think is the element that attracted reaction from the following personalities? Again, via your own readings you may wish to follow up the main "contribution" that the following have made to the reformation process:

      • Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)
      • Zwingli (1484 - 1556)
      • Calvin (1509 - 1564)
      • Henry VIII (1509 - 1547)
      • Charles V (1519 - 1556)
      • Christian III (1536 - 1559)
      • Phillip II (1555 - 1598)
      • Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603)

The age of Reformation had begun with a promise of new hope and new vision - and this is still reflected in the middle years of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Yet this period of history belongs to three men of diverse personality, religious conviction, and action: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Zwingli (1484-1556) and Calvin (1509-1564). Through their work and efforts, the history of the church was to take a direction which ultimately was to witness the political disintegration of the bilateral duality of church and state.

Although every school child has learnt that: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and discovered the New World, not too many children have learnt that it was also the same year in which the infamous Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, ascended the papal throne. I have listed the names of the 12 Popes who lived in this period of cataclysmic tension of Reformation and Counter Reformation between 1492 and 1572. You may want to read up on the main theological/cultural tension or contribution that marked the pontificate of each of the following:

      • Alexander VI (1492-1503)
      • Pius III (1503)
      • Julius II (1503-1513)
      • Leo X (1513-1521)
      • Hadrian VI (1522-1523)
      • Clement VIII (1523-1534)
      • Paul III (1534-1549)
      • Julius III (1550-1555)
      • Marcellus II (1555)
      • Paul IV (1555-1559)
      • Pius IV (1559-1565)
      • Pius V (1566-1572)


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Church in the 14th and 15th Century

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, on 30th November, 1874, just seven and a half months after his parents, Randolph Churchill, a Conservative politician and Jennie Jerome, the daughter of Leonard Jerome, a New York businessman, were married.

Clive Ponting, the author of Winston Churchill (1994) has pointed out: "Winston Churchill was born into the small, immensely influencial and wealthy circle that still dominated English politics and society. For the whole of his life he remained an aristocrat at heart, deeply devoted to the interests of his family and drawing the majority of his friends and social acquaintances from the elite. From 1876 to 1880 he was brought up surrounded by servants amongst the splendors of the British ascendancy in Ireland."

Winston Churchill was sent to to an expensive preparatory school, St George's at Ascot, just before his eighth birthday in November 1882. This was followed by a period in a bording school in Brighton. He was considered to be a bright pupil with a phenomenal memory but he took little interest in subjects that did not stimulate him. It was claimed that he was "negligent, slovenly and perpetually late." He was very lonely and in February 1884 he wrote to his mother: "I am wondering when you are coming to see me? I hope you are coming to see me soon... You must send someone to see me."

In April 1888 Winston Churchill was sent to Harrow School. His behaviour remained bad. At the end of his first term his housemaster reported to his father: "I do not think... that he is in any way wilfully troublesome: but his forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality, and irregularity in every way, have really been so serious... As far as ability goes he ought to be at the top of his form, whereas he is at the bottom."

Winston Churchill started his 16 month course at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in September, 1893. Churchill joined the Fourth Hussars in 1895 and saw action on the Indian north-west frontier and in the Sudan where he took part in the Battle of Omdurman (1898).

Winston Churchill: Journalist

While in the army Winston Churchill supplied military reports for the Daily Telegraph and wrote books such as The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) and The River War (1899). After leaving the British Army in 1899, Churchill worked as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. While reporting the Boer War in South Africa he was taken prisoner by the Boers but made headline news when he escaped. On returning to England he wrote about his experiences in the book, London to Ladysmith (1900).

Winston Churchill in Parliament

In the 1900 General Election Winston Churchill was elected as the Conservative MP for Oldham. As a result of reading, Poverty, A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree he became a supporter of social reform. In 1904, unconvinced by his party leaders desire for change, Churchill decided to join the Liberal Party.

In the 1906 General Election Winston Churchill won North West Manchester and immediately became a member of the new Liberal government as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. When Herbert Asquith replaced Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister in 1908 he promoted Churchill to his cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. While in this post he carried through important social legislation including the establishment of employment exchanges.

On 12th September 1908 Winston Churchill married Clementine Ogilvy Spencer and the following year published a book on his political philosophy, Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909).

Winston Churchill: Home Secretary

Following the 1910 General Election Winston Churchill became Home Secretary. Churchill introduced several reforms to the prison system, including the provision of lecturers and concerts for prisoners and the setting up of special after-care associations to help convicts after they had served their sentence. However, Churchill was severely criticized for using troops to maintain order during a Welsh miners's strike.

On 16 December 1910, a gang attempted to break into the rear of a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch. An adjacent shopkeeper heard their hammering, and informed the police. When the police arrived, the robbers burst out, shooting three officers dead. The gang leader, a Latvian, Poloski Morountzeff, was accidently shot in the back by another gang member, and died later.

Winston Churchill immediately announced that the police was looking for a gang of Jewish anarchists. It was also important to the government that the incident did not cause anti-Jewish feeling and the coroner made a point of stressing "in justice and fairness to the Jewish community" that he was uncircumcised.

Acting on a tip-off, police surrounded 100 Sidney Street in Stepney on 2nd January 1911. Churchill hurried to the scene in order to direct operations. He was greeted by cries of "who let them immigrants in?" Churchill authorised the deployment of 124 soldiers.

Winston Churchill at the Siege of Sidney Street
Winston Churchill at the Siege of Sidney Street

The Manchester Guardian reported: "The firing came in spurts. The murderers would shoot first from the ground floor, then the window above then there would be a barking of rifles in reply. Close on one o'clock an especially sharp fusillade rattled like a growl of exasperation . a little feather of smoke curling out of the window below the point of attack. We thought at first it was gun smoke and then with a thrill we saw that the house was on fire."

Churchill refused to allow the fire brigade to douse the flames until the firing from inside stopped. When it did and the police were allowed in, only two bodies were found. One writer, Stephen Bates, has argued: "The lesson the police took from the siege was not that they had overreacted but that they needed better weapons. The lesson the press took was that the Liberal government was soft on immigrants."

The two dead men, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were petty criminals, and not anarchists. However, the government leaked the story that the gang had been led by Peter Piatkow (Peter the Painter) who had managed to escape from the burning building. However, there are doubts that Piatkow ever existed.

First Lord of the Admiralty

Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1911 where he helped modernize the navy. Churchill was one of the first people to grasp the military potential of aircraft and in 1912 he set up the Royal Naval Air Service. He also established an Air Department at the Admiralty so as to make full use of this new technology. Churchill was so enthusiastic about these new developments that he took flying lessons.

On the outbreak of war in 1914, Churchill joined the War Council. However, he was blamed for the failure at the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915 and was moved to the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Unhappy about not having any power to influence the Government's war policy, he rejoined the British Army and commanded a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front.

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons

When David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister and he decided to bring Winston Churchill back into the government. In July 1917, Churchill became Minister of Munitions and for the rest of the war, he was in charge of the production of tanks, aeroplanes, guns and shells. Clive Ponting, the author of Churchill (1994) has argued: "The technology in which Churchill placed greatest faith though was chemical warfare, which had first been used by the Germans in 1915. It was at this time that Churchill developed what was to prove a life-long enthusiasm for the widespread use of this form of warfare."

Winston Churchill developed a close relationship with Brigadier General Charles Howard Foulkes, the General Officer Commanding the Special Brigade responsible for Chemical Warfare and Director of Gas Services. Foulkes worked closely with scientists working at the governmental laboratories at Porton Down near Salisbury. Churchill urged Foulkes to provide him with effective ways of using chemical weapons against the German Army. In November 1917 Churchill advocated the production of gas bombs to be dropped by aircraft. However, this idea was rejected "because it would involve the deaths of many French and Belgian civilians behind German lines and take too many scarce servicemen to operate and maintain the aircraft and bombs."

On 6th April, 1918, Churchill told Louis Loucheur, the French Minister of Armaments: "I am... in favour of the greatest possible development of gas-warfare." In a paper he produced for the War Cabinet he argued for the widespread deployment of tanks, large-scale bombing attacks on German civilians and the mass use of chemical warfare. Foulkes told Churchill that his scientists were working on a very powerful new chemical weapon codenamed "M Device".

According to Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013): "Trials at Porton suggested that the M Device was indeed a terrible new weapon. The active ingredient in the M Device was diphenylaminechloroarsine, a highly toxic chemical. A thermogenerator was used to convert this chemical into a dense smoke that would incapacitate any soldier unfortunate enough to inhale it... The symptoms were violent and deeply unpleasant. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant and crippling fatigue were the most common features.... Victims who were not killed outright were struck down by lassitude and left depressed for long periods."

Churchill hoped that he would be able to use the top secret "M Device", an exploding shell that released a highly toxic gas derived from arsenic. Foulkes called it "the most effective chemical weapon ever devised". The scientist, John Haldane, later described the impact of this new weapon: "The pain in the head is described as like that caused when fresh water gets into the nose when bathing, but infinitely more severe... accompanied by the most appalling mental distress and misery." Foulkes argued that the strategy should be "the discharge of gas on a stupendous scale". This was to be followed by "a British attack, bypassing the trenches filled with suffocating and dying men". However, the war came to an end in November, 1918, before this strategy could be deployed.

After the First World War Winston Churchill was appointed as Minister of War and Air by David Lloyd George. In May 1919, Churchill gave orders for the British troops to use chemical weapons during the campaign to subdue Afghanistan. When the India Office objected to the policy, Churchill replied: "The objections of the India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable. Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosive shell and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war. The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to."

Russian Revolution

Winston Churchill now took the controversial decision to use the stockpiles of M Device (diphenylaminechloroarsine) against the Red Army who were involved in fighting against invading forces hostile to the Russian Revolution. He was supported in this by Sir Keith Price, the head of the chemical warfare, at Porton Down. He declared it to be the "right medicine for the Bolshevist" and the terrain would enable it to "drift along very nicely". Price agreed with Churchill that the use of chemical weapons would lead to a rapid collapse of the Bolshevik government in Russia: "I believe if you got home only once with the Gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda."

In the greatest secrecy, 50,000 M Devices were shipped to Archangel, along with the weaponry required to fire them. Winston Churchill sent a message to Major-General William Ironside: "Fullest use is now to be made of gas shell with your forces, or supplied by us to White Russian forces." He told Ironside that this "thermogenerator of arsenical dust that would penetrate all known types of protective mask". Churchill added that he would very much like the "Bolsheviks" to have it. Churchill also arranged for 10,000 respirators for the British troops and twenty-five specialist gas officers to use the equipment.

Some one leaked this information and Winston Churchill was forced to answer questions on the subject in the House of Commons on 29th May 1919. Churchill insisted that it was the Red Army who was using chemical warfare: "I do not understand why, if they use poison gas, they should object to having it used against them. It is a very right and proper thing to employ poison gas against them." His statement was untrue. There is no evidence of Bolshevik forces using gas against British troops and it was Churchill himself who had authorised its initial use some six weeks earlier.

On 27th August, 1919, British Airco DH.9 bombers dropped these gas bombs on the Russian village of Emtsa. According to one source: "Bolsheviks soldiers fled as the green gas spread. Those who could not escape, vomited blood before losing consciousness." Other villages targeted included Chunova, Vikhtova, Pocha, Chorga, Tavoigor and Zapolki. During this period 506 gas bombs were dropped on the Russians.

Lieutenant Donald Grantham interviewed Bolshevik prisoners about these attacks. One man named Boctroff said the soldiers "did not know what the cloud was and ran into it and some were overpowered in the cloud and died there; the others staggered about for a short time and then fell down and died". Boctroff claimed that twenty-five of his comrades had been killed during the attack. Boctroff was able to avoid the main "gas cloud" but he was very ill for 24 hours and suffered from "giddiness in head, running from ears, bled from nose and cough with blood, eyes watered and difficulty in breathing."

Major-General William Ironside told David Lloyd George that he was convinced that even after these gas attacks his troops would not be able to advance very far. He also warned that the White Army had experienced a series of mutinies (there were some in the British forces too). Lloyd George agreed that Ironside should withdraw his troops. This was completed by October. The remaining chemical weapons were considered to be too dangerous to be sent back to Britain and therefore it was decided to dump them into the White Sea.

Winston Churchill created great controversy over his policies in Iraq. It was estimated that around 25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops would be needed to control the country. However, he argued that if Britain relied on air power, you could cut these numbers to 4,000 (British) and 10,000 (Indian). The government was convinced by this argument and it was decided to send the recently formed Royal Air Force to Iraq.

An uprising of more than 100,000 armed tribesmen took place in 1920. Over the next few months the RAF dropped 97 tons of bombs killing 9,000 Iraqis. This failed to end the resistance and Arab and Kurdish uprisings continued to pose a threat to British rule. Winston Churchill suggested that the RAF should use chemical weapons on the rebels. Some members of the Cabinet objected to these tactics: Churchill argued: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas... I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gases against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum... Gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would leave a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent affect on most of those affected."

Winston Churchill rejoins Conservative Party

The divisions in the Liberal Party led to Winston Churchill being defeated by E. D. Morel at Dundee in the 1922 General Election. Churchill now rejoined the Conservative Party and was successfully elected to represent Epping in the 1924 General Election.

Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the new Conservative administration, appointed Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1925 Churchill controversially returned Britain the the Gold Standard and the following year took a strong line against the General Strike. Churchill edited the Government's newspaper, the British Gazette, during the dispute where he argued that "either the country will break the General Strike, or the General Strike will break the country."

With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Winston Churchill lost office. When Ramsay MacDonald formed the National Government in 1931 Churchill, who was now seen as a right-wing extremist, was not invited to join the Cabinet. He spent the next few years concentrating on his writing, including the publication of the History of the English Speaking Peoples.

Rise of Nazi Germany

After Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party gained power in Germany in 1933, Winston Churchill became a leading advocate of rearmament. He was also a staunch critic of Neville Chamberlain and the Conservative government's appeasement policy. In 1939 Churchill controversially argued that Britain and France should form of a military alliance with the Soviet Union.

Britain was in a very difficult situation. In 1939 Germany had a population of 80 million with a workforce of 41 million. Britain had a population of 46 million with less than half Germany's workforce. Germany's total income at market prices was 7,260 million compared to Britain's 5,242 million. More ominously, the Germans had spent five times what Britain had spent on armaments - 1,710 million versus 358 million.

Second World War

On the outbreak of the Second World War Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and on 4th April 1940 became chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee. Later that month the German Army invaded and occupied Norway. The loss of Norway was a considerable setback for Neville Chamberlain and his policies for dealing with Nazi Germany.

On 8th May the Labour Party demanded a debate on the Norwegian campaign and this turned into a vote of censure. At the end of the debate 30 Conservatives voted against Chamberlain and a further 60 abstained. Chamberlain now decided to resign and on 10th May, 1940, George VI appointed Churchill as prime minister. Later that day the German Army began its Western Offensive and invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Two days later German forces entered France.

Winston Churchill: Prime Minister

Winston Churchill formed a coalition government and placed leaders of the Labour Party such as Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton in key positions. He also brought in another long-time opponent of Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, as his secretary of state for war. Later that year Eden replaced Lord Halifax as foreign secretary.

As soon as he gained power Churchill considered using chemical weapons. He changed his mind when informed by military intelligence that Germany was capable of dropping three of four times more chemical bombs than Britain. However, plans were put in place to use gas-warfare in Adolf Hitler ordered an invasion of Britain. On 30th May, 1940, he told the Cabinet "we should not hesitate to contaminate our beaches with gas". By the end of September, with the invasion scare over, he decided against first use of the weapon. He instructed General Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff, that stocks should be maintained: "I am deeply anxious that gas warfare should not be adopted at the present time... We should never begin but we must be able to reply."

Churchill realised straight away that it would be vitally important to enlist the United States as Britain's ally. Randolph Churchill, on the morning of 18th May, 1940, claims that his father told him "I think I see my way through.... I mean we can beat them." When Randolph asked him how, he replied with great intensity: "I shall drag the United States in."

Churchill now sent William Stephenson to the United States. Stephenson's main contact was Gene Tunney, a friend from the First World War, who had been World Heavyweight Champion (1926-1928) and was a close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. Tunney later recalled: "Quite to my surprise I received a confidential letter that was from Billy Stephenson, and he asked me to try and arrange for him to see J. Edgar Hoover... I found out that his mission was so important that the Ambassador from England could not be in on it, and no one in official government... It was my understanding that the thing went off extremely well." Stephenson was also a friend of Ernest Cuneo. He worked for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and according to Stephenson was the leader of "Franklin's brain trust". Cuneo met with Roosevelt and reported back that the president wanted "the closest possible marriage between the FBI and British Intelligence."

On his return to London, Stephenson reported back to Churchill. After hearing what he had to say, Churchill told Stephenson: "You know what you must do at once. We have discussed it most fully, and there is a complete fusion of minds between us. You are to be my personal representative in the United States. I will ensure that you have the full support of all the resources at my command. I know that you will have success, and the good Lord will guide your efforts as He will ours." Charles Howard Ellis said that he selected Stephenson because: "Firstly, he was Canadian. Secondly, he had very good American connections... he had a sort of fox terrier character, and if he undertook something, he would carry it through."

Churchill now instructed Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, to appoint William Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). Menzies told Gladwyn Jebb on 3rd June, 1940: "I have appointed Mr W.S. Stephenson to take charge of my organisation in the USA and Mexico. As I have explained to you, he has a good contact with an official (J. Edgar Hoover) who sees the President daily. I believe this may prove of great value to the Foreign Office in the future outside and beyond the matters on which that official will give assistance to Stephenson. Stephenson leaves this week. Officially he will go as Principal Passport Control Officer for the USA."

As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase (British Security Coordination) is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention." An office was opened in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan with the agreement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. In 1940 a BSC agent approached Donald Chase Downes and told him that he was working under the direct orders of Winston Churchill. "Our primary directive from Churchill is that American participation in the war is the most important single objective for Britain. It is the only way, he feels, to victory over Nazism."

Churchill had a serious problem. Joseph P. Kennedy was the United States Ambassador to Britain. He soon came to the conclusion that the island was a lost cause and he considered aid to Britain fruitless. Kennedy, an isolationist, consistently warned Roosevelt "against holding the bag in a war in which the Allies expect to be beaten." Neville Chamberlain wrote in his diary in July 1940: "Saw Joe Kennedy who says everyone in the USA thinks we shall be beaten before the end of the month." Averell Harriman later explained the thinking of Kennedy and other isolationists: "After World War I, there was a surge of isolationism, a feeling there was no reason for getting involved in another war... We made a mistake and there were a lot of debts owed by European countries. The country went isolationist.

William Stephenson knew that with leading officials supporting isolationism he had to overcome these barriers. His main ally in this was another friend, William Donovan, who he had met in the First World War. "The procurement of certain supplies for Britain was high on my priority list and it was the burning urgency of this requirement that made me instinctively concentrate on the single individual who could help me. I turned to Bill Donovan." Donovan arranged meetings with Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) and Frank Knox (Secretary of the Navy). The main topic was Britain's lack of destroyers and the possibility of finding a formula for transfer of fifty "over-age" destroyers to the Royal Navy without a legal breach of U.S. neutrality legislation.

It was decided to send Donovan to Britain on a fact-finding mission. He left on 14th July, 1940. When he heard the news, Joseph P. Kennedy complained: "Our staff, I think is getting all the information that possibility can be gathered, and to send a new man here at this time is to me the height of nonsense and a definite blow to good organization." He added that the trip would "simply result in causing confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the British". Andrew Lycett has argued: "Nothing was held back from the big American. British planners had decided to take him completely into their confidence and share their most prized military secrets in the hope that he would return home even more convinced of their resourcefulness and determination to win the war."

William Donovan arrived back in the United States in early August, 1940. In his report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt he argued: "(1) That the British would fight to the last ditch. (2) They could not hope to hold to hold the last ditch unless they got supplies at least from America. (3) That supplies were of no avail unless they were delivered to the fighting front - in short, that protecting the lines of communication was a sine qua non. (4) That Fifth Column activity was an important factor." Donovan also urged that the government should sack Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was predicting a German victory. Donovan also wrote a series of articles arguing that Nazi Germany posed a serious threat to the United States.

On 22nd August, William Stephenson reported to London that the destroyer deal was agreed upon. The agreement for transferring 50 aging American destroyers, in return for the rights to air and naval basis in Bermuda, Newfoundland, the Caribbean and British Guiana, was announced 3rd September, 1940. The bases were leased for 99 years and the destroyers were of great value as convey escorts. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British Chief of Combined Operations, commented: "We were told that the man primarily responsible for the loan of the 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy at a critical moment was Bill Stephenson; that he had managed to persuade the president that this was in the ultimate interests of America themselves and various other loans of that sort were arranged. These destroyers were very important to us...although they were only old destroyers, the main thing was to have combat ships that could actually guard against and attack U-boats."

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Churchill developed a strong personal relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and he asked him for help to beat Nazi Germany. On 17th December, 1940, Roosevelt made a speech to the American public: "In the present world situation of course there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of a very overwhelming number of Americans that the best immediate defence of the United States is the success of Great Britain in defending itself; and that, therefore, quite aside from our historic and current interest in the survival of democracy in the world as a whole, it is equally important, from a selfish point of view of American defence, that we should do everything to help the British Empire to defend itself... In other words, if you lend certain munitions and get the munitions back at the end of the war, if they are intact - haven't been hurt - you are all right; if they have been damaged or have deteriorated or have been lost completely, it seems to me you come out pretty well if you have them replaced by the fellow to whom you have lent them." The Lend Lease agreement of March 1941 allowed Britain to order war goods from the United States on credit.

Although he provided strong leadership the war continued to go badly for Britain and after a series of military defeats Churchill had to face a motion of no confidence in Parliament. However, he maintained the support of most members of the House of Commons and won by 475 votes to 25. Churchill continued to be criticized for meddling in military matters and tended to take too much notice of the views of his friends such as Frederick Lindemann rather than his military commanders. In April 1941 he made the serious mistake of trying to save Greece by weakening his forces fighting the Desert War.

One of the major contributions made by Churchill to eventual victory was his ability to inspire the British people to greater effort by making public broadcasts on significant occasions. A brilliant orator he was a tireless source of strength to people experiencing the sufferings of the Blitz.


After Pearl Harbor Churchill worked closely with Franklin D. Roosevelt to ensure victory over Germany and Japan. He was also a loyal ally of the Soviet Union after Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941. Churchill made a public statement that if Germany used chemical bombs against the Soviet Union he would order instructions that Britain would also use these weapons. Churchill told General Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff: "We would retaliate by drenching the German cities with gas on the largest possible scale."

Churchill held important meetings with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Teheran (November, 1943) and Yalta (February, 1945). Although Churchill's relationship with Stalin was always difficult he managed to successfully develop a united strategy against the Axis powers.

Despite intense pressure from Stalin to open a second-front by landing Allied troops in France in 1943, Churchill continued to argue that this should not happen until the defeat of Nazi Germany was guaranteed. The D-Day landings did not take place until June, 1944 and this delay enabled the Red Army to capture territory from Germany in Eastern Europe.

In March 1944 Churchill ordered 500,000 anthrax bombs from the United States. These bombs were to be dropped "well behind the lines, to render towns uninhabitable and indeed dangerous to enter without a respirator". Churchill was now told by military intelligence that the British had far larger stocks of poison gas than Nazi Germany. He wrote to General Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff, on 6th July, 1944: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a nod of complaint from the moralists of the Church... It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women... One really must not be bound by silly conventions of the mind."

Churchill now sent a message to his chiefs of staff: "I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention... If we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meantime, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there."

On 28th July 1944, the chief of staffs reported to Churchill that gas warfare was possible and that Britain could drop more than Germany but they doubted whether it would cause many difficulties to the German authorities in controlling the country. However, they were deeply concerned by the possibility that Germany would retaliate as they feared the British public would react in a different way to those in Germany: "the same cannot be said for our own people, who are in no such inarticulate condition". After reading the chiefs of staff assessment Churchill concluded gloomily, "I am not at all convinced by this negative report. But clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time."

Winston Churchill and 1945 General Election

In public Winston Churchill accepted plans for social reform drawn up by William Beveridge in 1944. However, he was unable to convince the electorate that he was as committed to these measures as much as Clement Attlee and the Labour Party. In May 1945, Churchill made a radio broadcast where he attacked the Labour Party: "I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas on freedom. There is to be one State, to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State, once in power, will prescribe for everyone: where they are to work, what they are to work at, where they may go and what they may say, what views they are to hold, where their wives are to queue up for the State ration, and what education their children are to receive. A socialist state could not afford to suffer opposition - no socialist system can be established without a political police. They (the Labour government) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo."

Clement Attlee's response the following day caused Churchill serious damage: "The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life."

In the 1945 General Election Churchill's attempts to compare a future Labour government with Nazi Germany backfired and Attlee won a landslide victory.

Churchill became leader of the opposition and when visiting the United States in March 1946, he made his famous Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri. He suffered the first of several strokes in August 1946 but this information was kept from the general public and he continued to lead the Conservative Party.

Churchill's cousin, Clare Sheridan had lunch with him in June 1948. "Winston, in his dreadful boiler suit was looking pale. He rants, of course, about the inefficient ignorant crowd now in power, who are what he calls throwing the British Empire away. He is almost heartbroken. All his life he has been such a great Imperialist. He is so brilliant, but unless one can make notes in shorthand one cannot recapture all he says. He quotes so aptly, which I envy, having myself no memory. He quoted Hamlet several times which illustrates his spirit of despondency... He has finished three volumes of his new book The Second World War, and only the possibility of being called back into politics prevents him going on with it."


Churchill returned to power after the 1951 General Election. After the publication of his six volume, The Second World War, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Churchill's health continued to deteriorate and in 1955 he reluctantly retired from politics. Clare Sheridan remembers visiting his home in London after he left politics. She found him very depressed. He told her that he felt a failure. She replied: "How can you!" You beat the Nazis." Churchill remained sunk in gloom: "Yes.... we had to fight those Nazis - it would have been too terrible had we failed. But in the end you have your art. The Empire I believed in has gone."

Winston Churchill died on 24th January, 1965.