Popes, Antipopes and Avignon: Part Eight

Gregory XI

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Our final Avignon pope is Gregory XI and it’s safe to say that he left the papacy in a bit of a mess. He was born Pierre Roger de Beaufort and you will recall that he was said to be the son of Clement VI, but acknowledged as his nephew. A little over 40 when he became pope, he had benefitted a great deal from his uncle’s nepotism. He was made a cardinal deacon when he was only 18. Despite this he became a respected theologian and was known for his humility. His election to the papacy was unanimous. Although a cardinal, he was not a priest and had to be ordained before he could be crowned.

He was another pope who considered returning to Rome, but he had made himself so unpopular in Italy that he did not receive much of a welcome there and, had he not died there in 1378, he would have returned to Avignon.

Gregory XI is one of those people whose deaths have more impact than their lives. On his death the Romans were so desperate not to have another French pope that a Neapolitan was elected. He became Urban VI. This decision was soon regretted and some of the cardinals who had elected him elected another pope, Clement VII, who set up a rival papacy in Avignon. This was the first time that a pope and his antipope had been elected by the same group of cardinals. Since both popes had some degree of legitimacy, different parts of Christendom chose which pope they followed. England, of course, and the majority, followed Rome. France, Scotland and the Iberian Peninsula followed Avignon. The rifts caused by the Great Schism, as it was called, were not resolved until 1417 and at one point there were three popes.

Avignon was finally abandoned in 1403. For almost a hundred years constant wars in Italy had made it impossible for the popes to live in Rome. Despite this, the Avignon papacy was seen as a disaster in the fourteenth century, except in France. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the popes were trying to extend their secular power, but by the end of it they were beginning to lose their spiritual power. This was being challenged by Wycliffe and the Lollards in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia at the end of the fourteenth century. This continued through the fifteenth century until it resulted in the Reformation in the sixteenth century. There were other factors that contributed to this, of course, but the Avignon papacy had neither started nor ended well and the ground that had been lost was not easily made up.

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