If you’ve come across any of the Avignon popes before it would probably have been Clement VI. He was the only one I’d heard of before I started this series. He was the pope who sat between two fires in the attempt to keep the Black Death at bay. He also put an end to the Flagellants when he saw that what they were doing was getting out of hand.
He was born Pierre Roger in 1291 in Corrèze and became pope in 1342. He finished building the Palais des Papes and the palace reflected his efforts more than those of any other pope. This can still be seen today. The extravagance of his papal court was said to rival that of any European monarch.
Pierre Roger studied theology and was made Archbishop of Sens at 28. At 29 he was Archbishop of Rouen. Not long after this he became Philip VI’s chancellor.
When the time came to elect a new pope after the death of Benedict XII, Philip wanted Roger to take the position. Since the cardinals also wanted this, he was elected. The new pope was known for his oratory and preaching. His intelligence also made him a good choice.
Most of the 25 cardinals he created during his papacy were French and, of these, twelve were related to him. It was said that Gregory XI, last of the Avignon popes and made a cardinal by Clement, was his son. Gregory is recorded as being Clement’s nephew, but his birth name was Pierre Roger de Beaufort, which might be considered a clue to his parentage.
In 1348 Clement bought Avignon and the surrounding area, clearly signaling that he had no intention of returning the papacy to Rome. This was also the year in which the Black Death reached the town. Avignon suffered dreadfully. Clement’s extravagance and outrageous nepotism could lead an observer to think that there wasn’t much to him, but his actions during the Black Death showed the kind of man he really was. Many senior clerics fled their posts to sit out the plague in the country, but Clement stayed in Avignon, leaving only for a short period in the summer when it was too hot to remain in the palace between his burning braziers. He returned to Avignon in the cooler weather. He was a charitable man, concerned for those in his care and he created new cemeteries for the dead and arranged for gravediggers to bury them.
Initially he supported the Flagellants, even joining their processions when they came to Avignon, but he soon realised that these processions were helping to spread the plague, not stopping it. In 1349 he declared the Flagellants heretics, thus effectively making them unwelcome wherever they travelled. When the Jews were blamed for causing the plague and massacres began, he published bulls against the perpetrators and said he would excommunicate those who killed Jews. More than two hundred Jewish communities were wiped out at that time.
Clement was frequently in dispute with Edward III as the king tried to retrieve some of the rights in clerical appointments that previous popes had taken for themselves. The king also complained about the extravagance of the papal court. The biggest problem for Edward was that Clement was French and an open supporter of the French king with whom Edward was engaged in a war. When Edward tried to get back some of the rights over appointments, it was partly out of fears that the money going from those dioceses into the papal coffers was going straight out again to those of the King of France, thus enabling him to continue in the war. This was Edward’s constant fear during the period of the Avignon papacy and it was not without justification.
Clement VI died at the end of 1352.