(22 Oct. 1303–7 July 1304)
In the uproar in Rome following Boniface VIII's unexpected death the cardinals, having excluded Giacomo and Pietro Colonna under protest as excommunicate, unanimously elected Niccolò Boccasino, cardinal bishop of Ostia. Born at Treviso in 1240, son of a notary of humble family, he joined the Dominican order in his teens, lectured in theology for more than a decade and wrote commentaries on the Psalms, Job, St Matthew, and Revelation, and was elected Dominican provincial for Lombardy in 1286, master-general on 12 May 1296. In this capacity he vigorously upheld the legitimacy of Boniface VIII, contested by the Colonna cardinals and the Franciscan Spirituals. In recognition of his loyalty Boniface named him cardinal priest of Santa Sabina on 4 Dec. 1298, having already found him useful in 1297 in negotiating peace between France and England, and cardinal bishop of Ostia on 4 March 1300. In 1301 the pope sent him as legate to Hungary to back the claims of Charles I Robert, or Carobert (1288–1342), grandson of Charles II of Naples (1285–1309), to the throne. Unsuccessful though it was, Charles's gratitude for this service helped him to be chosen pope, for the king occupied Rome during the conclave. The Bonifacian cardinals supported him as a champion of the late pontiff who, although never identified with his anti-French policies, had stood courageously by him when he was brutally attacked at Anagni. He called himself Benedict after Boniface's original name Benedetto.
Weak, peace-loving, and scholarly (he felt at ease only with Dominicans), Benedict did what he could to promote conciliation at a time of acute crisis. He first dealt with the two Colonna cardinals who, excluded from his election, were now denouncing it as invalid. Torn between conflicting advice, on 23 Dec. 1303 he absolved them and their relatives from Boniface's sentence of excommunication, without, however, restoring to them either their rank or their confiscated properties. While this compromise fell far short of their hopes, it exasperated their Bonifacian enemies; the resulting factional strife unleashed such tumults in Rome that he judged it safer to move to Perugia in Apr. 1304. He showed greater firmness towards Frederick III of Sicily (1296–1337), reluctantly recognized by Boniface in 1303 but now taking advantage of the embarrassment of the holy see, and in 1304 obliged him to renew his allegiance and payment of dues. His efforts, however, to restore peace in faction-ridden Florence and Tuscany ended unsuccessfully. The most delicate problem, however, was Philip IV of France (1285–1314), Boniface's deadly foe, who was demanding a general council to condemn the dead pope posthumously. Benedict wanted peace, but without loss of principle or insult to his predecessor, and since he regarded Philip as effectively excommunicate he did not at first notify him formally of his election. In Mar. 1304, however, when the king's envoys arrived in Rome authorized to congratulate him and to ‘accept’ any absolution that might be necessary, he published a bull (25 Mar.) releasing Philip and his family from any censures incurred. This unconditional absolution did nothing to abate the French campaign for a general council, and in Apr. and May Benedict revoked all Boniface's punitive measures affecting either France or the king, his advisers, and officials; pardon was assured to all Frenchmen who had been involved in the outrage against Boniface at Anagni except its ringleader, the king's minister Guillaume de Nogaret (c.1260–1313). Boniface's bull Clericis laicos (1296) prohibiting princes from taxing their clergy without Rome's consent was almost completely withdrawn, and Philip was granted tithes for two years. All these concessions were evidence of Benedict's precarious position, but, France having been thus appeased and the threat of a general council having for the moment receded, he felt able on 7 June to denounce Nogaret and his Italian accomplices as guilty of sacrilege by their crimes at Anagni, ordering them to appear before him, on pain of excommunication, before 29 June. The grievous sickness of the pope prevented the execution of his threat; on 7 July Benedict died at Perugia, the victim of acute dysentery and not, as was widely alleged, of poisoning. Unlike his high-handed predecessor, he could do nothing without the cardinals. The three he himself created were Dominicans; his zeal for his order led him also to annul Boniface's bull Super cathedram (18 Feb. 1301) restricting the right of the mendicants to preach and hear confessions. He also harassed the Franciscan Spirituals, and when threateningly admonished by Arnold of Villanova, Boniface's Catalan physician and himself an ardent Spiritual, imprisoned him without trial. He was buried in S. Domenico in Perugia, and miraculous cures were soon being reported at his tomb. He was beatified by Clement XII in 1736. Feast 7 July.