Popes, Antipopes and Avignon: Part One

palais des papes

Often when I write these posts I write about things that I know and I just check some of the facts as I write. This post, and the ones that follow, are the result of some specific research that I did so that I would have some background information on the fourteenth century.

When I was much younger I assumed that the Avignon papacy was some kind of rival to a Roman papacy, much in the same way that there were antipopes (in one case three at one time, as we shall see at the end of this series). Gradually I came to realise that the Avignon popes were real popes, were acknowledged as real popes and had, for reasons unknown to me, relocated the papacy to south east France. When I realised that they were not regarded with favour by England, I knew that I had to find out more.

It’s true that what was happening with regard to the papacy would have very little impact on the stories that I’m currently writing, but research is fun and I believe in making the world inhabited by my characters as real as I can. So I knuckled down and started doing the research. The papacy was based in Avignon from 1309 to 1367 and again from 1370 to 1376. The only one about whom I knew anything was Clement VI. He was the pope who warded off the Black Death by spending his days sitting between two fires in the papal palace and refusing to see anyone.

Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was small and dirty. After the papacy was established there the town attracted criminals of all kinds and its taverns and brothels became notorious. Gradually it became larger and more splendid as the cardinals built palaces and the Palais des Papes was finished

The Avignon popes had a reputation for corruption, not only because they seemed to favour the French king, but also because they seemed to be greedy for money and tried to extend their sphere of influence beyond ecclesiastical bounds. It’s not the most edifying period for the papacy, for many reasons, and in order to have any hope of understanding it we need to go back to the end of the thirteenth century.

In 1294 Pope Celestine V was persuaded to abdicate less than six months after he had been crowned. Before his election he had been a hermit and had had no desire to be pope, but two years had passed since the death of the previous pope and the cardinals could not agree on a candidate until someone nominated the reclusive monk. He was completely unworldly and it was easy enough for Cardinal Caetani to talk him into resigning when it became clear that he was not suitable. Not entirely surprisingly, Caetani became the next pope – Benedict VIII – and imprisoned Celestine, afraid that he could be installed as an antipope. Eighteen months later the former pope was dead. Despite his advanced years (he was eighty-one) it was rumoured that Benedict VIII had had him killed. Celestine was canonised by Clement V in 1313.

Boniface VIII was not a popular figure with the European monarchs, because they believed that he interfered too much in secular matters. Despite universal disapprobation, it was Philip the Fair of France (Philip IV) who became his greatest enemy. It should be pointed out that Philp was not called ‘the Fair’ because of his exemplary character, but because of the colour of his hair. Philip wanted to raise a tax so that he could fight Edward I of England in Gascony and the burden of the tax fell on the clergy. This angered Boniface who said that a king didn’t have the right to tax the clergy. This in turn angered the kings, who said that they did. Boniface was ultimately forced to accept their position within certain constraints.

A campaign of rumours was started against Boniface, probably by Philip. It was a ploy he was to use again against the Templars. The pope was accused of nepotism, simony, avarice and sodomy. I had to look up simony and it means the buying or selling of something spiritual or closely connected with the spiritual. In this case it means the selling of ecclesiastical positions.

Matters between Boniface and Philip came to a head in 1301 when the king imprisoned a French bishop, Bernard Saisset. The bishop was accused of treason and insulting behaviour. Needless to say, Boniface demanded the bishop’s release, stating that Philip didn’t have the authority to arrest him. Philip later acknowledged that he did not indeed have the authority to arrest the bishop and released him a few months later. Boniface, however, called the king to appear before him in Rome. Philip refused and responded with accusations against the pope. These included heresy, so he demanded that a General Council be held in France at which the pope could be arraigned. Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip’s right hand man and head rumourmonger, went to Italy to take the pope to France, by force if necessary.

As it turned out it was necessary, but unsuccessful. Boniface was in his home town of Anagni when de Nogaret found him. Boniface was writing a bull to excommunicate Philip, but it went unfinished. He was captured, beaten and nearly executed. Whether he was released or escaped is uncertain, but he managed to get to Rome, where he died a month later. Boniface was very briefly (for eight months) succeeded by Benedict XI.

It might seem odd to write at length about two popes who never, as far as I know, set foot in Avignon, but Boniface’s relationship with Philip set the tone for what was to come later and how he dealt with Celestine shows us something of his character.

After Benedict XI’s short tenure a new pope was elected and this was Clement V (1305-14), the first Avignon pope. Before he became Pope he was Archbishop of Bordeaux. Since he was already in France, he was crowned in Lyon, rather than Rome, at the behest of Louis X, who was very happy to have a French pope. It wasn’t long before it was clear that Clement was little more than a puppet of Louis.

Very quickly a number of Frenchmen were made cardinals, until the majority were French. Clement V didn’t have a settled life. Unable to live in Rome, due to the wars that were constantly being waged in Italy, he moved between Lyon, Poitiers and Bordeaux. It wasn’t until 1309 that he decided to settle in Avignon. The town was in Provence, which was not part of France at that time, but which belonged to a vassal of the French king, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily and Count of Provence. Nonetheless the papacy was seen for most of the rest of the century as being under the sway of the French kings.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century

2 responses to “Popes, Antipopes and Avignon: Part One

  1. Pingback: The Holy Roman Empire | A Writer's Perspective

  2. Pingback: The Medieval Pilgrim | A Writer's Perspective

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