Some years ago, when this blog was young, I wrote about the popes of the fourteenth century and why they were mostly French and based in Avignon rather than Rome. Last week the Great Schism came up in the comments, so I thought I’d write something about it. I’m afraid it turned out to be rather long, so I hope that you can spare the time to read it.
In 1305 Clement V, a French pope under pressure from the French king to stay in France, moved the papacy to Avignon, which wasn’t then in France but most definitely wasn’t Rome, and made lots of French cardinals who, unsurprisingly, elected a French pope when he died. This pattern continued for most of the fourteenth century, with each pope saying that he wanted to move the papacy back to Rome, but now just wasn’t the right time.
The English weren’t happy having French popes. They believed, not without foundation, that the French popes supported France in the Hundred Years War. The popes made many appointments to important clerical posts in England (and other nations) from men who attended the papal court in Avignon. Again, these were mostly French.
This was mostly seen in the appointments to canonries, prebends and archdeaconries of cathedrals. In 1326 the bishop of Salisbury complained that out of fifty posts available within the cathedral administration, twenty-eight had been filled by order of the pope and only three of the office holders had ever been seen in Salisbury. Half the chapter of York and a quarter of that of Lincoln were foreigners around the middle of the century.
In 1376 Gregory XI managed to return the papacy to Rome. When he died two years later the people of Rome didn’t want yet another French pope and a mob stood outside the building in which the cardinals met to choose his successor shouting that they wanted an Italian, preferably Roman, pope. By now the number of non-French cardinals must have been fairly small, so the options for finding a pope of different nationality were reduced. This can be the only reason why the cardinals chose the archbishop of Bari, who became Urban VI. It soon became clear that since his election he had developed a temper which sometimes drove him to physical violence, even during services in church. This was not a desirable attribute in a pope. The cardinals reconsidered their choice and left Rome, all but three of them. In Anagni they said that they had been coerced by the mob and declared the election invalid. They had another election and chose someone who was neither French nor Italian: Clement VII. This was the beginning of the Great Schism.
When the appointment of another pope was announced, Urban VI simply made new cardinals and stayed in Rome. Clement VII went to Avignon and each pope excommunicated the other. It seems that neither man was really someone who should have been pope. They held similar views and ran things in a similar way. Which pope you supported depended on your nationality. Scotland, France and Spain supported Clement VII. England, the Italian states and most of the Holy Roman Empire supported Urban VI.
This wasn’t the first time there had been two popes at the same time. For 75 years between 1059 and 1179 there were always two popes, each one declaring the other an antipope. The issues here were mainly about the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.
This new schism was a real challenge to the unity of the church that previous schisms had not been. There had been disillusionment with the church since the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century and the appearance of two popes who were divided by no great theological issues or by different approaches to running the church caused people to question papal authority. No one could work out how to solve the problem and both popes died before it was resolved. Rather shockingly, both popes were replaced. These new popes promised they would resign should it become clear that their resignation would bring about the unity that everyone desired, but neither they nor their own successors, who made the same promise, did so.
You would think that the situation could not get worse, but it did. The one thing everyone agreed on was that the only way to end the schism was to call a general council of the cardinals, but only the pope could do that and there was no agreement as to who that was.
In 1409 all the cardinals, regardless of which pope they supported, called a council themselves, declared both popes invalid and elected another pope. You can probably see where this is going better than they could. Since it wasn’t clear that the council was entirely legal, the two existing popes didn’t see any need to accept its decisions and remained in post. Alexander V (the third pope) took up residence in Pisa. You won’t be surprised to know that when he died a successor was elected.
Since the popes were supported along national lines, mainly decided by who was or wasn’t at war with one another, this made it even harder to obtain agreement about who was really the pope. It was the nations that took the first step, however, with enemies joining together in support of calling a council to resolve the issue. Eventually a pope was forced to call a general council in Constance. After thirty years, though, a divided church had changed greatly. It was no longer as international as it had been and the rulers of Europe were growing used to having more control over their national churches. It was clear that whoever emerged as pope would not have the pre-eminence his predecessors had had.
It was during this time of schism that theologians such as John Wyclif and Jan Hus were teaching against the pope. One of the actions of the council was to declare Hus a heretic and burn him.
Each of the three popes fought hard to remain pope, but all three were deposed. Eventually Odo Colonna was elected and he became Martin V.
One of the remits of the council was to reform the church, but it didn’t. The cardinals didn’t really get to grips with reform until the Council of Trent in 1545. By then it was already far too late. Luther had issued his 95 theses almost thirty years earlier. Having a single pope didn’t really solve any of the issues around the church’s loss of authority, and the abuses that had prompted talk of reform in the fifteenth century were much worse a century later.
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
The Fourteenth Century by May McKisack
Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages by R. W. Southern
The Pelican History of Medieval Europe by Maurice Keen
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.