The end of the 14th century saw the blossoming of the Proto-Reformation, and huge social upheavals across Europe. John Wyclif translated the Bible from obscure ecclesiastical Latin into vernacular English for the first time. John Ball, Wyclif’s radical student, led the Peasants’ Revolt against King Richard II. And Bohemian preacher Jan Hus’ execution by Catholic authorities led to the decade-long Hussite Wars, which we have examined in significant detail.

But these rebels did not spring forth fully formed from nowhere. The Catholic Church, which was still Europe’s only real international organization, had spent much of the 14th century in complete paralysis. First, the Papacy moved to Avignon, where it was widely perceived to corrupt and partisan, and when it was forced to return Rome, it was split asunder by the election of two Popes at once. And a few years after that, a third claimant to the Holy See tried to settle the dispute by declaring themselves Pope as well! Medieval Catholicism was split three ways, and it was only settled by a thorough round of bans, excommunications and heretic-burning.

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was partly inspired by radical preachers, who questioned the discredited Papacy during the Western Schism. Image of Richard II meeting the peasant rebels, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (via Wikimedia Commons)

But the damage was already done – the door had been opened wide to those who questioned the foundations of Catholic temporal power, and this period was one of the major antecedents of the coming Reformation. The period of two or even three Popes at once has become known as the Western Schism – or the ‘Vatican Standoff’. (All of this talk of Westerns and Standoffs is enough to make us imagine three Pontiffs on a dusty road outside a bar with swing-doors, settling things with six-shooters.)

The Pope In Avignon

The seeds for the Western Schism were sown two generations before it broke out into the open, with the Papacy’s unprecedented (and highly unpopular) move to the town of Avignon. The Pope, from the 3rd century onward, had always been both the temporal master of the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome. Papal power was riding high in the 13th century, bolstered by the fairly successful early Crusades, and the Pope had asserted its influence over the Holy Roman Emperor in the Investiture Controversy in the previous century.

But things had begun to get shakier for the Holy See’s power over the mortal realm by the end of the century. France’s expensive wars with the English and the Flemish had left a gaping hole in the French treasury, and King Philip IV of France was greedily eyeing up the vast wealth accrued by the Vatican. Threatened with becoming a cash-cow for the French King, Pope Boniface VIII declared that “it is necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff”, and moved to excommunicate King Philip. Shortly after, Philip’s Italian allies broke into the Vatican and beat the Pope to death. King Phillip maneuvered a close ally into being elected as the new Pope, and this new Pope, taking the name Clement V, declared that the Papacy was to relocate from Rome for the first time in its history – to Avignon, in the Kingdom of Arles, in 1309 CE.

The spectacular medieval Palace of the Popes in Avignon, modern France, was the base of Papal power for the Avignon Popes from 1306-1417. (via Outdooractive)

Whilst it is clear that French influence over the subsequent Popes was significant (all 11 of the following Popes were French, as well as three-quarters of the Papally-appointed Cardinals), it can be overstated. The Kingdom of Arles was a nominally independent kingdom that was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and though French influence was significant, it wasn’t absolute. The political and religious culture of Occitania, the wider cultural region containing Arles and Avignon, was quite distinct from that of northern France, as it remains today.

But there can be little doubt that the Avignon Papacy both entrenched the secular, property-focused nature of the Papacy, and it did so as a French partisan. The Papacy exerted much greater control over the appointment of Church functionaries, which brought it ever greater incomes, and it aggressively expanded Church property rights. The Avignon Popes began to live and behave much more like ordinary princes than spiritual ambassadors from God, spending their vast incomes on feasting, rich clothes and expensive tableware. Unsurprisingly, they reacted with uncompromising violence toward Christian movements that sought to question the foundations of wealth and power, like the Wyclifites, the Waldensians and the Hussites – setting in the reactionary trend toward intolerance and failure to reform which would make the Reformation inevitable.

Gregory’s Return To Rome

Finally, the Avignon Papacy was forced to end. The Pope’s role as the temporal governor of Rome had become increasingly untenable, and despite the strenuous objections of the French court, Pope Gregory XI resolved to gradually return the Papacy to Rome. With rumblings of discontent from other Italian city-states, and surrounded by knife-edge court politics in Avignon, Gregory attempted to try and solve his problems militarily: by brutally subduing the other city states and returning to Rome as a conquering hero. But the ensuing War of the Eight Saints (a reference to the cities’ eight-man committees which negotiated between themselves and the Pope’s hired condottieri) was a stalemate, and it blackened the absent Pope’s popularity further. Gregory had to return to Rome personally to stabilize the situation. After a long journey involving a disastrous shipwreck, the Pope re-entered Rome in January 1377. But Gregory had little time to cement the Papacy in Rome – he died in March of the following year.

An idealised painting of Pope Gregory XI’s entry to Rome in 1377, accompanied by Dominican mystic Catherine of Siena. Painted by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). (via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, a fatally confused situation faced the elders of the Catholic Church. Gregory had moved the Roman Curia (the administrative apparatus of the Church) back to Rome in 1376, but the Council of Cardinals, most of whom were French, was formally scheduled to meet at Avignon. Add to that, the French court was in uproar at the flight of ‘their’ Pope – whilst the Roman patricians were all thoroughly convinced that the Pope had returned for good. The War of the Eight Saints was far from resolved, with the Papal condottieri conducting horrendous massacres in northern Italy. The situation was a tinderbox.

‘We want a Roman, or at least an Italian’

The Roman populace, therefore, seized their moment. A mob flooded into Old St. Peter’s Basilica, the day after Gregory’s death, demanding the election of a Roman Pope, the first for almost a century. The Papal authorities struggled to clear the obstinate crowds from the Basilica under severe storm conditions. For superstitious Middle Ages Europeans, it must have felt like the end of days. The twenty-three cardinals present judged it was safer to elect a Pope immediately, than to risk the fury of the crowds – whose chant is recorded by several eyewitness accounts as ‘Romano lo volemo, o al manco Italiano’(‘We want a Roman, or at least an Italian’).

A 19th century woodcut depicting the Old St. Peter’s Basilica as it is thought to have looked in the medieval era. It was badly dilapidated by the 15th century, and was partially repaired before being demolished in 1506 to make way for the current St. Peter’s Basilica, which stands on the same site. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Though the French cardinals were in the majority, they selected a compromise candidate, Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari. Prignano was not widely known, he was not even a cardinal, and though he was an Italian, the cardinals were not certain this would mollify the mob. It’s hard to see anything other than a handful of unpopular Cardinals selecting whomever was at hand, under extreme pressure, to give them long enough to make their escape. This they rapidly did the following day, immediately returning to Avignon to regroup with the remaining Cardinals and plot their next steps. Prignano, meanwhile, selected the Papal name Urban VI, and set about examining the poison chalice of the Roman Papacy.

An evocative posthumous woodcut of Pope Urban VI, by Onofio Panvinio (1530-1568). (via Wikimedia Commons)

Urban VI was probably the worst possible choice for Pope, in an extremely delicate situation. Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor sums him up thusly: “He lacked Christian gentleness and charity. He was naturally arbitrary and extremely violent and imprudent, and when he came to deal with the burning ecclesiastical question of the day, that of reform, the consequences were disastrous”. With this characteristic intemperance, Urban immediately alienated even the sympathetic cardinals by making grandiose speeches and banning them from receiving any financial support from secular patrons. Returning to Avignon was out of the question: he was Pope of Rome, and there he shall stay. Seizing upon this obstinacy, the pro-Avignon cardinals met without their pro-Rome colleagues, and invalidated the election of Urban VI, declaring that he was elected under pressure from the Roman mob, and therefore that the Papal throne was empty. In short order, they excommunicated Urban and elected Robert of Geneva, one of the French cardinals who had assented to the election of Urban in Old St. Peter’s Basilica, as their ‘true’ Pope in Avignon. Robert took the name Clement VII – and thus, two Popes faced one another.

Rome Or Avignon?

A century before, excommunication was a judgment handed down from the unquestioned authority of the Church against an offender against God. But decades of delegitimization of Papal authority had brought us to a situation where everything was far from clear – even who was ‘the’ Pope was impossible to tell. Thus, European monarchs were faced with a religious crisis that now demanded political action: were they to choose the anti-French Roman Pope, who had been declared under threat of the mob, or the Avignon Popes, who had spent the last fifty years feasting at the French court?

A map of Europe showing the diplomatic aspects of the Western Schism, divided between support of the Roman Papacy, the Avignon Papacy, and those who changed their allegiances – until the election of the Pisan Popes in 1409. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Naturally, the French crown was a strong protector of the Avignon Papacy, and they were joined by Castile, Navarre, Scotland, and the Latin East. The Roman Popes were obviously supported by Urban’s wealthy and powerful homeland of the Kingdom of Naples, but also counted upon some patronage from the Kings of England, Christian Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary. Many of the smaller states of Europe changed their allegiance according to the fortunes of their local politics – but larger conflicts in the era got folded into the dynamics of the Western Schism. For example, rival factions in the Portuguese Interregnum (1383-85 CE) supported different Popes, and Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English crown was patronized by the Avignon Papacy. A modern parallel might be the 20th century Cold War: it did not deteriorate into a direct, large-scale armed conflict, but local or regional events became folded into the wider schematic of the Free World and the Communist Bloc, inevitably taking on wider ideological characteristics to appeal to the larger players.

The Schism Sets In

Given the wider diplomatic character which the Western Schism assumed, it is unsurprising that the Schism did not end with the deaths of Urban VI and Clement VII. Some diplomatic overtures were made, for example in 1404 the Romans offered to refrain from electing a new Pope. The French crown, wearying of the liability of maintaining this conflict, attempted to coerce the Avignon Pope into resignation, but they failed. Thusly, the Romans elected a new Pope, and the conflict continued. One such attempted diplomatic solution ended up making things even worse. The Council of Pisa, called by cardinals outraged at the arbitrary and self-serving political behaviour of both lines of Popes, was convened in 1409 to put an end to the schism. In a marathon series of meetings, it finally attempted to break the deadlock by deposing both of the rival Popes for heresy, and replacing them both with a new Pope, Alexander V – with the support of several large states including England and France, but lacking unanimity. Since the other two Popes immediately declared the Council of Pisa illegitimate, all it did was to add a third Pope into the mix. There were now three Popes at once – and there would be for eight years!

The Cathedral of Pisa, with its freestanding belltower better known as the Leaning Tower, where the Council of Pisa met in 1406. It failed to bring an end to the Western Schism, only adding another Papal claimant to the confusion. (via Encircle Photos)

Although there were now three Popes at once, the Council of Pisa did demonstrate that some degree of consensus amongst the rival factions and powers was finally possible. France in particularly had shown that, given the backdrop of widespread denigration of the Papal office and the emergence of strong ‘heretical’ movements that heralded the proto-Reformation, it was willing to abandon its policy of limitless support for the Avignon Popes. Another Papal council, the Council of Constance, was called by the Pisan Pope to end the mess altogether. It secured the resignation of both the Pisan and Roman Popes, isolating the Avignon Pope. Backed now only by the Kingdom of Aragon, the Avignon Pope refused to resign, and was subsequently unanimously excommunicated. Though three more Avignon Popes would continue to lay claim to the Holy See, they were not widely influential outside of Aragon. The Council of Constance duly elected Pope Martin V in 1417 CE, ending the great Western Schism.

The Winds Of Change

But the Papacy in 1417 was fundamentally different to that before the Avignon Papacy. In the 13th century, Popes were almost universally recognised as a transcendent messenger of God. By the election of Martin V, the supremacy of the Papacy was badly battered. The lack of unified Papal oversight had necessitated the development of more independent forms of government, laying the foundations of the nation-state in France and England. And it is no coincidence that the Council of Constance which elected Martin V was also the same Council which condemned Czech reformer Jan Hus to burn at the stake as a heretic. Unity was only achieved in the face of what was perceived as a growing existential threat to Catholicism.

Czech reformed Jan Hus testifying before the Council of Constance in 1417. The Council would both end the Western Schism by electing Pope Martin V, and condemn Hus to death as a heretic. Painting by Václav Brožík, 1883 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The coming centuries would result in a fundamental transformation of Christianity, from a Catholic monopole that was inextricably entangled in secular politics, to a more fragmented, pluralist religion that was sometimes divorced from temporal matters entirely. Without the Western Schism, the modern world would like quite different.


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.