The Western Schism

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On 27 March 1378, Pope Gregory XI died in Rome, at the early, but not unexpectedly so, age of 47. In general, the death of a Pope, although a remarkable occasion, was not era defining. Indeed, Gregory was already the ninth Pope of the 14th Century. However, whilst his death may appear rather similar to his fellow Popes, the subsequent incompetence of the College of Cardinals – the body by which Popes were elected to office – ensured that Gregory’s death was very much different, bringing about more than 30 years of tumult within Catholicism, and Europe more broadly, in what is commonly termed the ‘Western Schism’.

Although Gregory died in Rome, he spent most of his time in office in the independent republic of Avignon, an enclave within the Kingdom of France where the Papacy had held residence since Clement V relocated from Rome in 1309. In total, seven Popes had lived there, but the situation had never been stable: indeed, the Catholic Encyclopaedia refers to a “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy in Avignon, suggesting it was hardly the safest place for a Pope to reside.

Still, in 1377, Gregory set out to Rome on what he insisted was a temporary trip; he pledged to return to the enclave after the conclusion of the Easter celebrations of 1378. He died before his return. And so, the papal electoral system was plunged into disarray. The Roman mobs were keen to ensure the election of a Roman Bishop for the papacy – one Cardinal noticed that when he went to discuss the election of the future Pope, he heard outside: “Romano, Romano lo volemo lo Papa, o almanco Italiano” (“A Roman, a Roman, we want a Roman for Pope, or at least an Italian”).

However, the Cardinals decided upon a different path. Instead they elected Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari, who was neither a Roman, nor one of the twenty members of the Sacred College (another name for the Cardinals). Upon accession, he would become Pope Urban VI. Although the location of office was yet undecided, the general consensus was that he would move the papal court back to Avignon, carrying out the unfulfilled intentions of his predecessor.

However, due to the hostility of the mob, it was unclear whether he would ever be able to claim power. In fact, so frightened were the Cardinals that they deceived the crowds awaiting news outside the chamber of the Vatican on the day of decision. One Cardinal declared that the new Pope was the Cardinal of St. Peter’s; temporarily, the hordes were mollified, until the deceit was uncovered and the ballooning mass surged through the entrances, looking for Prignano. Fortunately, and somewhat fittingly given his character, he was absent.

Pope Urban VI was far from a perfect Pope: not only did he act with great hostility, at one point striking the Cardinal of Limoges, but he also lacked decorum. He would often interrupt Cardinal members with orders to ‘Be quiet’ and even referred to one Cardinal as a fool. Nor were his offences limited to religious figures: Queen Joanna of Naples, for instance, who was previously overjoyed that a Frenchman ran the Catholic Church, turned against him. However, it was not until the incumbent revealed that he did not intend to return to Rome, and personal disagreement turned diplomatic, that the Cardinals reacted. Many retreated to the town of Anagni at the end of May. Others, still in support of Urban, stayed in Rome.

The Cardinals at Anagni increasingly came to regard Urban’s election as illegitimate. In a meeting at Fondi, they ran a second papal election, in which Robert of Geneva was appointed as Pope Clement VII. Their justification for running such an election, although peculiar, was not wholly unsubstantiated. The Cardinals alleged that Urban’s election was unsatisfactory as the College had been under severe pressure from the Roman people. Rome, however, was unreceptive to this claim and thus Clement was unable to gain any real sort of foothold. He moved his office to Avignon and won the support of various French, Italian and Spanish monarchs, yet remained (technically) an ‘antipope.’ The problem was yet to go away.

Both Popes continued to insist upon their own righteousness and dismiss any claims of authority by the other, and, as a result, Europe broke in half, with no consensus about which Pope ought to be supported. For instance, when Bruges declared allegiance to Avignon, and Clement, swathes of inhabitants deserted the city to find home in an Urbanist settlement. Similarly, at the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382, the Kingdom of France held up a banner to condemn Flemings’ support of Pope Urban; and adversaries in the wars on the Iberian Peninsula advertised which Pope they had decided to support.

Even after the deaths of these two specific opponents, hostility did not subside: Boniface IX took over from Urban in 1389, whilst Benedict XIII ascended to the Avignon court, in place of Clement. It was not until the death of Boniface himself that resolution seemed a realistic possibility. At his death, the Cardinals decreed that, if Benedict resigned, no new Roman Pope would be elected. When Benedict’s delegates refused this offer, the Cardinals elected the unpopular Innocent VII, much to the chagrin of the Roman people, who erupted in riots.

Still, there remained some hope of reducing the enmity. Pope Innocent pledged to bring together a council to fix the Schism, following the advice of King Charles VI of France and King Rupert of Germany. Perhaps unfortunately, though, riots and disturbances were used as an excuse to delay the meeting time as both claimants stated the other was to blame for the failure to resolve the Schism.

Gregory XII, coming to power in 1406 upon the death of Innocent, edged closer to peace than any before by agreeing to meet with Benedict in Savona; but, whether pragmatically or cynically, both withdrew at the last minute. At this point, in 1409, the Council of Pisa, impatient with the proceedings, decided that the excessive pettiness had gone on long enough, and, in June, they proclaimed both Popes to be insidious and impious. The solution that they chose, then, was to elect a second antipope, and a third claimant to the papacy.

Pope Alexander V, who held office in Pisa, served for only a year until his death in 1410, when John XXIII succeeded him.  But, for the most part, it was not his rule that was significant: instead, his election made clearer than ever before the rampant instability and inefficiency within the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII attempted to abate the problem by bringing together the Council of but he hardly succeeded. When, finally, in 1417, Pope Gregory XII and Pope John XXIII both resigned, the Cardinals elected Pope Martin V, and, even if Pope Benedict refused to cede to the incoming leader, nearly forty years of diplomatic bedlam were brought to a sudden, but welcome, end.

The Western Schism of 1378 to 1417 did not, in itself, bring about the marked decline of the Catholic Church; rather, it was symptomatic of the structural anachronisms and legal idiosyncrasies endemic within the organisation. In 1417, the Western Schism may have ended; the problems for the Catholic Church certainly did not.

Creighton, M., 2011. A History of the Papacy During the Period of the Reformation. Cambridge University Press.