The Avignonese Papacy
The Catholic Church endured a prolonged period of crisis that
lasted from 1305 until 1416; some would extend the date even
later. During these years, the Church found its authority undermined,
openly challenged, and divided among rivals. Although it emerged
at the end of the period with its authority seemingly intact,
the struggle brought significant changes to the structure of
the Church and sowed seeds that would later be harvested in the
The century of crisis divides into two periods of unequal
length. In the first phase, the popes were resident not in Rome
but in Avignon, in southern France. Because of bishop is supposed
to reside in his see, this circumstance, which lasted from 1305
to 1378, undermined the authority and prestige of the papacy.
No sooner did the popes finally return to Rome than there
was a disputed election. For the next 38 years there were two
popes in Christendom, each with his own college of cardinals
and curia. This state of affairs scandalized pious Christians
and further diminished the prestige of the papacy.
Oddly enough, in response to these events, individual popes
extended themselves to bolster papal authority and draw to themselves
more tightly the reins of power. Consequently, we see a concurrent
development in which papal government was rationalized, centralized,
and made more efficient. This lead to an increase in revenues
and in claims to authority. Once the crisis was over, the popes
that followed were among the most magnificent and splendid the
Church has ever seen.
The long crisis of the Church began with a confrontation between
two powerful and determined figures: King Philip IV of France,
and Pope Boniface VIII.
Philip IV of France - Background
Philip IV is one of the most important of the medieval French
kings. He was proud, arrogant, and determined that the king should
have his way. He was no respecter of tradition or rights and
was greedy and unscrupulous. He appointed men to his court who
were well trained in Roman law and who believed in royal
supremacy. They found the legal and historical precedents to
justify his actions.
One of the great dangers to Philip's position was the authority
and privileges of the Church in Rome. French bishops were powerful
men who had command of large tracts of land and vast quantities
of money, all of which were technically outside royal authority.
In practice, this bishop was more or less under royal control
while that one was more loyal to Rome, with many sitting the
fence and ready to go with whomever seemed likely to grant them
the better position and favors. Who controlled the Church in
France was therefore a very pressing matter indeed.
Philip IV of France - Immediate Circumstances
This was a trend that other French kings had either agreed
to or had been unable to oppose effectively. Philip was determined
not only to oppose but to counteract and reverse the trend.
It was made more pressing by war. France and England fought
two wars in the early part of Philip's reign and war always created
a serious financial burden. Philip saw assertion of royal authority
over the French Church (sometimes called the Gallican Church,
after Gaul, the old name for France) as at one and the same time
a matter of royal dignity and a matter of pressing fiscal and
national concern. Unfortunately, the Roman Church was at the
same time asserting its rights and privileges with a new
The specific issue was over clerical exemption from royal
taxes. Where the clergy held non-Church lands, Philip argued
they should pay royal taxes. Of course, the clergy sought diligently
to have as much land as possible be considered as Church land.
Even more, though, Philip claimed the clergy should also contribute
to direct taxes, arguing that they were benefitting from royal
protection from the English and so should contribute to the expense
of that defense.
These were not new battles, but were the same sorts of issues
that had caused clergy and kings to squabble for two hundred
years. But there was a new pope in Rome, and he proved to be
every bit as determined as Philip in defending and extending
the rights of his position.
Boniface was in some ways a man of similar temper and ambitions
as Philip. He had an exalted view of the role of the pope as
a kind of clerical monarch. He had been trained as a lawyer and
knew how to use the law as a weapon as effective as any sword
to get what he wanted. And, like Philip, he wanted a very great
Boniface was stubborn, ambitious, intelligent, vain,
and unscrupulous. He believed deeply that the pope was literally
the vicar of Christ on Earth and that he held extraordinary powers.
Anyone who opposed him opposed God and therefore must certainly
Boniface also had a notorious temper and he specifically despised
the French, saying that he would rather be a dog than a Frenchman.
In one incident, he kicked a royal envoy in the head as the man
bowed at the papal throne, because he was angry with him. His
vanity can be seen in that he had statuettes of himself distributed
This was not the sort of fellow to sit by while the French
king claimed novel and extensive powers over the Gallic Church.
Whereas Philip was threatened by the strong English king (Edward
I), Boniface was threatened by internal enemies, going back to
the circumstances of his election as pope.
Pope Nicholas IV had died in 1292. The city of Rome was at
this time split between two powerful families: the Colonna and
the Orsini. The College of Cardinals consisted mainly of Italian
prelates and most of these belonged or were under the influence
of one or the other of these two families. Between them, they
deadlocked negotiations for a new pope.
Two years went by and still no pope had been elected. It was
causing something of a scandal among the faithful. Various compromise
candidates had been proposed, but none were acceptable until
July 1294, when someone suggested a hermit of some note who was
living in a cave near Naples. The fellow was old, utterly devout,
and clearly could not be regarded as the man of either party.
So the cardinals traipsed up the mountain and delivered the good
news to the hermit, who was utterly devastated. He did not want
the honor, but saw it as his duty, and took the name of Celestine
It was a disaster. The man was unfit for the office and within
weeks administrative chaos broke out. Humiliated and ashamed,
within a year, Celestine resigned his office and returned to
his cave, leaving the cardinals back where they'd started. One
of the men who had encouraged him to resign was Benedict Gaetani,
who was soon after elected pope himself. He took the name of
The Gaetani were enemies of the Colonna family, and Boniface
immediately set about hounding them out of town and out of their
wealth. They were behind many of the plots against him that would
come later. Not only they, but others as well, murmured that
a pope could not resign and that Boniface's election was therefore
Up in France, as Boniface began making trouble there, King
Philip was inclined to agree with that position.
King and Pope quarreled early, in 1296. Over money, of course,
but in reality over who would have ultimate control over the
clergy in France.
Boniface claimed that no cleric was to pay taxes to a king
without papal consent. He made this claim in a famous bull, Ad
clericos. Philip counteracted this move by issuing a royal
edict to the effect that no hard currency was to leave the kingdom
without royal permission. Let the clergy pay their papal tithes.
The money could not be delivered!
In the face of this, Boniface had to retract. Moreover, other
kings objected strenuously to Boniface's claims, and if they
all pulled Philip's trick, the papacy would be bankrupt.
But Boniface tried again. This time, feeling even stronger,
Philip not only refused to cooperate, he went on the offensive.
He took up the claim that the pope had been elected illegally
and was no true pope at all (and therefore his demands could
be ignored). Even more, Boniface was accused of all sorts of
horrible crimes, including murder and heresy.
Boniface, exasperated, threatened Philip with excommunication,
in 1303. Once again, Philip decided to protect himself by taking
The Capture of a Pope
Philip was unwilling to face excommunication, for that could
easily give his enemies within France the excuse they needed
to foment open rebellion. So he again went on the offensive in
order to forestall Boniface.
Still claiming to be acting in the interests of Christendom,
Philip sent one William, Bishop of Nogaret, to Italy along with
a small band of armed men. Once there, they raised a force of
local Italians, greatly aided by the Colonna, and they together
went to the village of Anagni, near Rome, where the pope was
staying at the time.
There, they arrested the pope. Anagni was Boniface's ancestral
home, and the moment word came that the holy father had been
arrested by his enemies, the entire town turned out to stop it.
A tense few days past in a stalemate, but Nogaret finally released
Boniface because he realized he would never be able to get the
pope out of the town.
Although Boniface was free, the ordeal took its toll on the
old man, and he died about three weeks later, at Rome.
The Pope Moves to Avignon
The College of Cardinals had been for some time increasingly
dominated by Frenchmen. Upon Boniface's death, they elected a
Frenchman, the archbishop of Lyons, as the new pope. He took
the name of Clement V. Clement was still in Lyons when he received
the news that he was now pope. As you might imagine, he was immediately
besieged with problems and crises. For one thing, there was the
matter of all the charges against Boniface: Philip wanted the
case prosecuted so he could be justified in his actions, but
many of the cardinals wanted the matter left alone.
A second matter was the question of who was the legitimate
Holy Roman Emperor. There were rival claimants in 1305. Boniface
had favored one side, but Philip had favored the other and brought
what pressure he could to bear on Clement. The issue was pressing
and demanded immediate attention.
There were other matters, no less important. In short, Clement
found that he could not even travel to Rome that year of his
election. Many of the cardinals had gone to France, the political
climate in Italy being inimical to Frenchmen just then, to put
Clement was very concerned not to appear that he was merely
a puppet of the French king, and he could no more remain in France
than he could go to Rome. So he chose a compromise: Avignon.
This was a respectable city in southern France, just across the
Rhone River from French territory. Avignon was, technically,
in imperial territory.
The year passed and still a trip to Rome seemed out of the
question. More and more clerks and administrators came from Rome
to Avignon, and there were a thousand things to do, and Clement
remained. And never left. Clement spent his entire pontificate
in Avignon. By the time he died, most of the curia was resident
in the city, and the College of Cardinals elected another Frenchman
and he too remained at Avignon.
The Papacy at Avignon
The French popes at Avignon were not the first to work for
a centralization of power within the Church, but many of the
trends of the preceeding century find culmination here, so this
is a convenient place to talk about the formal structure of papal
government. Working from many of the same motivations as lay
lords, and facing many of the same sorts of obstacles, the 14th
century popes worked hard to gather power into their own hands.
Centralization was, however, one of the hallmarks of the popes
at Avignon. They had a number of capable administrators, especially
Pope John XXII (1316-1334), who worked tirelessly to organize
and exploit the bureaucracy.
The papal household itself grew tremendously and was the true
center of power within the Church, even as a royal household
was the true center of power within a kingdom. The papal court
numbered three to four hundred people and included such interesting
offices as the keeper of the papal plate and the keeper of the
Every bit as important as the papal household was the College
of Cardinals. The cardinals were viewed as the Senate of Christendom;
they were the barons of the Church advising their lord. The pope
consulted them in all important matters and used them to fill
high administrative offices. And, of course, one of their most
significant functions was to elect a new pope.
Each cardinal was was a prince of the Church, with scores
or even hundreds in his household. There were twenty or thirty
cardinals at Avignon, so even the pope with his cardinals accounted
for literally thousands of new residents in the city.
The government as a whole was referred to as the curia.
As with royal governments, what had been the papal household
grew into distinct divisions, and four main departments gradually
Chancery: Its primary concern was correspondence. Here
were drafted letters, proclamations, legal documents, judgments
and bulls; also all routine administrative correspondence. The
chancery received petitions, examined the qualifications of candidates
for benefices, and had offical custody of the records of the
curia (the Vatican Library had not yet been created).
Camera apostolica was the financial arm of the Church.
Its treasurer was the head of the administration, but the chamberlain
made financial policy. The chamberlain was effectively the papal
prime minister, for he controlled the papal mint and most administrative
officials reported to him. He was the judge in legal disputes
concerning papal revenues and he supervised the tax collectors.
Datary: This area heard petitions that did not require
a decision in law. It also held dispensations from canon law
(like marriage problems).
Judiciary: There were several offices in this area;
papal justice was always a maze of overlapping jurisdictions.
The Consistory was the highest court of appeals. Special courts
could be assembled for specific cases. The Rota heard most of
the routine cases. The Audientia determined technical legal points
and investigated documentary evidence. And the Penitentiary administered
canon law with respect to ecclesiastical penalties.
The papacy had numerous sources of revenue. Bishops and abbots
paid an annate (first year's income). The spolia was the collection
of the revenues until a new official was appointed. Popes could
only collect from those whom they had appointed, so they tended
to extend their powers of appointment, at the expense of local
The papacy also sold "expectancies": a hopeful candidate
would pay for the right to be considered for provision to benefices
when they became vacant.
The Return to Rome
Clement V had intended to return to Rome, but the trial of
the Templars, then his conflict with Emperor Louis sidetracked
his efforts. Conditions in Italy were chaotic and any pope who
hoped to return to Rome had to make sure the city was at least
As the Hundred Years' War more serious, and especially as
more and more routiers spread warfare everywhere, it became
more desirable to leave Avignon. And, as the years passed, the
absence of the Bishop of Rome from his see became ever more scandalous.
Every pope proclaimed his desire and intention to return, though
some were less sincere than others.
Urban V (1363-1370) actually returned to Rome for three years,
but the situation there was too dangerous and he was forced to
return to Avignon for his own safety. This was so lamented that
the next pope, Gregory XI (1370-1378), immediately vowed to try
He, too, failed. Rome was too violent and too dangerous for
the pope to govern effectively. Gregory gave up after less than
a year in the Holy City, but on the eve of his departure he fell
ill and died.
Just as Clement V had come to Avignon intended to leave, so
Gregory came to Rome intending to stay, and the result in both
cases was both unforseen and untoward. Part of the papal government
was at Avignon and part was at Rome. The pope had died in Rome,
however, and Rome was where the election of the next pope would
The Great Schism
Political conditions in 1378 were far different than in 1304.
France was preoccupied with war and internal strife, and Charles
VI was no Philip IV. The College of Cardinals was still dominated
by Frenchmen, but the Italian faction was strong. Moreover, the
long residence of the papacy at Avignon had stirred ever stronger
calls for a general reform of the Church.
When Gregory died, the Roman people took to the streets, demanding
the election of an Italian. The cardinals elected Urban VI, who
was indeed Italian but who was a life-long functionary within
the Church, guaranteed to keep the status quo.
Urban VI (1378-1389), however, unexpectedly turned zealous
upon his election, and began active reforming with the College
of Cardinals his especial target. The cardinals were dismayed
his sudden change in behavior. One faction, largely French, fled
to Anagni where they declared Urban's election invalid, because
it was forced on them by the Roman mob. This, despite the fact
that an entire summer had elapsed before they discovered this
The faction at Anagni elected Clement VII (1378-1394) as a
rival pope. With Clement they returned to Avignon. Urban at Rome
excommunicated Clement, who returned the favor.
Thus began the Great Schism. Coming as it did on the heels
of the Babylonian Captivity, the Schism caused an even greater
scandal. There were now two popes, two Colleges of Cardinals,
two entire religious governments. They appointed rival bishops,
collected double taxes, issued conflicting penances, and excommunicated
one another's supporters.
Effects of the Schism
All the abuses of the Babylonian Captivity were likewise doubled,
as each pope unabashedly bid for power. Each hurled anathema
at the other, their canon lawyers finding numberless precedents
to prove the justice of their side.
The pious of Christendom were shocked and dismayed, but most
everyone was forced to choose sides. France and her allies (Scotland,
most of Spain, and various German princes) supported the Avignon
pope. England, Flanders, Portugal, the Emperor, Bohemia, Hungary
and most German princes supported the Roman pope. Italy was divided,
as ever, with the cities changing sides frequently.
Adherence to one side or the other meant supporting the appointment
of bishops and abbots by one pope while rejecting those from
the other. It meant ensuring that tithes and contributions went
to Rome rather than Avignon, or vice versa. It did not mean war,
however; neither pope resorted to the calling of a crusade against
Indeed, almost from the first, both sides at least talked
about resolving the conflict. The issue was a most delicate one,
for earlier medieval popes had been largely successful in asserting
that no one and no authority could sit in judgment upon a pope.
Therefore, in this matter, who was qualified to choose?
Attempts at Resolution
The first and most obvious was to wait for one rival to die--to
let God choose. But this was not a case so much of rival popes
as of rival factions. The Great Schism was the result of a split
within the College of Cardinals, and so long as those two factions
remained strong, there was really no hope of resolution.
Therefore, when Urban VI died in 1389, the Italian cardinals
immediately elected Boniface IX, and the Schism went on. When
Clement VII died in 1394, the French cardinals elected Benedict
XIII and the Avignonese papacy persisted. In Rome, Boniface IX
was succeeded by Innocent VII (1404-1406) and then by Gregory
XII (1406-1415). It was soon clear enough that God was not going
to resolve the Schism.
A second course was proposed, fairly early, and continued
to have favor in some circles: both popes would voluntarily resign,
clearing the way for the election of a compromise candidate.
At one time or another, the rival popes even agreed to this arrangement,
but then the difficult matter of timing arose. Neither would
be the first to resign, so both had to resign together. But agreed
dates came and went, no rival could be induced to meet in the
same city with the other, and this course, too, seemed to be
barren of results.
Some began to argue that the whole Church together might have
authority to judge in this matter, and that a Council might represent
the Church and choose a pope. It had long been recognized that
a general council could speak on matters of faith, but never
had it been suggested that a council might choose a pope. As
the Schism dragged on, though, pressure for a General Council
By the early 1400s, even cardinals were urging this last course,
but one great problem remained: only a pope could call a General
The Council of Pisa
In 1409, cardinals on both sides managed to arrange a General
Council at Pisa. It was an imposing affair, with over 500 prelates
in attendance. Both popes were deposed as schismatics and heretics,
and the Council elected a new pope, Alexander V (1409-1410).
Gregory XII and Benedict XIII had opposed the calling of this
council, though, and they promptly denounced and excommunicated
Alexander. The Council refused to back down.
So, now there were three popes.
Alexander was succeeded by John XXIII (1410-1415), and the
situation remained unchanged. The failure of the Council of Pisa
led immediately to calls for another Council, but the question
of authority was now worse than ever.
From all quarters came the call for another council. The spectacle
of three popes, three Colleges of Cardinals, three bodies of
curia, was too much to bear. The only figure within Christendom
with sufficient prestige, if not authority, was that of the Emperor.
Emperor Sigismund was not an especially strong or dynamic
ruler, but he was as concerned as any Christian with the miserable
state of affairs. With the failure at Pisa, he at last responded
to entreaties and called another general council at the Imperial
city of Constance. It is a nice irony that the rivalry among
popes was solved only upon the instigation and authority of their
ancient rival, the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Council of Constance
The Council met from 1414 to 1418 and accomplished a great
deal. The first order of business was the Schism, which it accomplished
by deposing all three popes. There were even more prelates at
Constance than at Pisa, and, more importantly, many of the cardinals
were working actively for a resolution. The rival popes found
themselves with few supporters.
Pope John went to Constance thinking to cow the attendees.
Their temper was so stern, however, that he actually left town
in disguise, fearing arrest. He accepted and ratified his own
Gregory went through the fiction of summoning the council,
even though it had had already met, then voluntarily abdicating.
Benedict refused to recognize the Council or his deposition.
He retired to a castle in Spain where he held out until his death
in 1423, excommunicating just about everyone.
The Council elected a new pope, Martin V (1417-1431), who
was a good and effective pope. His election ended the Schism,
though a few pathetic remainders lasted until as late as 1429.
Martin Martin returned to Rome and rebuilt papal power there
and began rebuilding the city itself.
The Council was called as much to address other issues as
to settle the Schism, for by this time many people believed that
reform of the Church was necessary to prevent another catastrophe
like the Schism.
Suppression of heresy The most pressing issue after
the ending of the Schism was that of heresy; specifically, John
Hus of Bohemia. Hus had ignited a controversy over the Eucharist,
claiming the right for the laity to receive both the bread and
the wine at Mass.
Hus had already been condemned, but he was invited to Constance
to defend his views and to answer charges. Sigismund gave him
an imperial safe conduct, but Hus was arrested almost immediately
upon arriving. He languished for months in prison before even
being allowed to speak. He was condemned by the Council as a
heretic and burned at the stake in 1416.
Reform of the Church The Council did attempt to reform
the Church, but most of its actions were little more than calls
for the new pope to do something. Its most significant reform
concerned councils in general.
The Council of Constance affirmed the supremacy of a General
Council within Christendom. It went on to require the calling
of a new council every five years. The Council was clearly trying
to create a kind of parliament for Christendom, an assembly to
act as a counterweight to papal authority.
In fact this did not happen, as the popes quickly regained
control of the Church. Martin V used a variety of tactics to
avoid calling another council, and was so successful that in
fact no council met during his pontificate. He also ignored most
of the reforms of Constance, largely because they tended to circumscribe
The Council of Basle
A council was called at Ferrara, but Pope Eugenius effectively
side-tracked council business and nothing lasting was accomplished.
The next council of note met at Basle. This council began well,
being attended by hundreds of prelates. It re-affirmed the power
of councils and turned to the issue of reform, but when it did
so it came into conflict with the pope. As the struggle progressed,
the council became increasingly radical and began to unravel
around the edges. Conservative members, distressed by the direction
matters were taken, began to leave Basle and go home, leaving
the radicals increasingly in charge.
In 1439, the Council of Basle was so frustrated with the pope
that it deposed him and elected an anti-pope, Felix V. Once more
there was a schism in the Church, but conditions now were far
different than in 1378. The Council was only a fraction of its
former size and few people supported the anti-pope. In fact,
his election discredited the conciliar movement as being schismatic.
The conciliar movement was also gradually losing secular support,
the source of its original strength. Felix was generally ignored
in Europe, and the Council of Basle trickled away into oblivion.
There was no more talk of councils and, in fact, there would
not be another one for over a century.
The failure of conciliarism is significant. Because reform
was associated with conciliarism, and the whole business was
so discredited, the papacy went into the later 15th century believing
that the matter was closed. The question for these popes was
not reform but the re-assertion of papal authority and power.
The need for reform was ignored and reform-minded Christians
thought of the papacy not as a power to save the Church but a
power that threatened the Church.
Summary: The Effects of a Century of Crisis
Centralization Through the efforts of popes like John
XXIII, power within the Church was more centralized than it had
ever been. More bishoprics were under papal authority, more sources
of revenue flowed directly to the curia, and the College of Cardinals
was firmly in control as the senate of Christendom, holding all
the major curial offices. At the same time, however, the kings
of Europe had demonstrated once and for all that they could defy
the Church with relative impunity.
Anti-clericalism Both the crisis and the innovations
that resulted from it fueled the sentiments of anti-clericalism
at every level of society. For the crisis involved more than
just the central power, it involved bishops, abbots, and even
common priests. The excesses of the papacy at Avignon, and even
more the spectacle of the schism, caused many thoughtful Christians
to lose faith not in their religion, but in the priesthood. The
most significant development was that of lay piety, movements
all over Europe (but especially strong in the cities) in which
laymen sought God not through the agency of their priest and
the sacraments, but through Bible study and common prayer.
Conciliarism The conciliar movement did not lead to
any permanent change in the Church--the popes triumphed over
it. The writings of the conciliarists, however, had a lasting
impact on political thought in Europe. In their criticisms of
the papacy, and in their exaltation of royal power, they laid
the foundations on which later thinkers drew. Some chose the
royalist arguments and developed theories of absolutism; others
chose the anti-papal emphasis and developed theories justifying
the resistance of a free people against a tyrant.
Loss of leadership The Renaissance popes were the most
magnificent in the history of the Church. They held more territories,
enjoyed more wealth, and claimed almost limitless powers. Ironically,
these same popes had lost almost completely the spiritual leadership
of the Church. Everywhere one looks in 15th century Europe, movements
of reform and spirituality were taking place outside the confines
of the Catholic Church; indeed, we find the popes condemning
and even excommunicating some of these reformers. The last place
an ardent Christian looked to for leadership in the 15th century
was to Rome.