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8 Famous Historical Figures Excommunicated by the Catholic Church

Ratatosk, Wikimedia Commons

What do Fidel Castro, Henry VIII, and Napoleon have in common? Aside from their penchant for power and natty hats, they have all been excommunicated.

Excommunication is the harshest punishment available to the Roman Catholic Church, and essentially means that the excommunicated person must be shunned by their community and, unless they clean up their act, they will probably be going to Hell. Pretty strong stuff.

Crimes that warrant excommunication include physically attacking the Pope, violating the seal of confession (if one is a priest), or stealing the host for a sacrilegious purpose. However, the most common reason for excommunication is heresy, which—as you will see from the following instances—can come in many guises.

1. FIDEL CASTRO

Fidel Castro was excommunicated in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, some say on the basis of a 1949 decree which forbade Catholics from becoming Communists. (Other scholars say Castro was excommunicated for inciting violence against bishops, while still others question whether the excommunication technically occurred at all.) In any event, Castro had long suppressed the Catholic Church in Cuba, even going so far as to ban Christmas in 1968. However, the excommunication did not stop Castro from meeting Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Francis in 2015.

2. HENRY VIII

Joos van Cleve, Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII spent the first part of his reign very close to the Catholic Church, but things came to a head when he demanded an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he might marry Anne Boleyn. The final straw came when Henry dissolved the monasteries, plundered their holy relics, and promptly named himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. Not surprisingly, Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry in 1538.

3. MARTIN LUTHER

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Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521 after he refused to recant his heretical teachings, which fomented the Protestant Reformation. It didn’t help that he publicly burned a huge pile of Catholic books and called Pope Leo X “the Antichrist.”

4. JOAN OF ARC

Hello World, Wikimedia Commons

Joan of Arc famously dressed as a man to lead the French army to victory over the English during the Hundred Years War. Later caught and handed over to the enemy, she was excommunicated and burned at the stake by a pro-English Bishop in 1431 for heresy and cross-dressing. In 1456 (and a bit late for poor Joan), Pope Callixtus III held a re-trial and cleared her of all charges. She was declared a martyr, canonized, and became Saint Joan of Arc.

5. HENRY IV OF FRANCE

Thomas Gun, Wikimedia Commons

Though baptized as a Catholic, Henry IV was raised as a Hugenot, and thus was excommunicated as a heretic in 1585 by Pope Clement VIII while still heir to the throne. In an early precursor to today’s political flip-flopping, Henry IV later converted back to Catholicism in order to secure the French crown, and his excommunication was lifted.

6. QUEEN ELIZABETH I

After the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Elizabeth I followed her father Henry VIII’s lead and continued to rule the Church of England as its head, effectively usurping the Pope. In a desperate bid to return errant England to the papal fold, in 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I. This tactic proved unsuccessful, and nearly 500 years later England’s current monarch, Elizabeth II, is still head of the Church of England.

7. JUAN PERÓN

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Juan Perón served three terms as President of Argentina. In 1955, he enraged the Catholic Church by attempting to legalize divorce and prostitution, and by expelling two Catholic priests he thought had been spreading malicious rumors about his alleged affair with an underage girl. Unable to force Perón to retain Catholic values, the church leaders reverted to their last resort and excommunicated him.

8. NAPOLEON

Napoleon, always a keen empire-builder, was excommunicated by Pope Pius VII in 1809 after occupying and annexing Rome. Napoleon did not take kindly to this affront and had Pope Pius kidnapped. The ailing pontiff was kept prisoner for five long, uncomfortable years—carted around Napoleon’s empire and pressured into yielding papal powers. Pius VII had the last laugh, however, when Napoleon was ousted and exiled in 1814 and Pius made a triumphant return to Rome.

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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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