Temporal over Spiritual Power in the Medieval Church? Part II: The Avignon Papacy and the Great Papal Schism

Although the Catholic Church had asserted its dominance over Christian Europe in both spiritual and temporal matters during the thirteenth century, this was not a state that would last. Not all nations were content with papal supremacy in temporal affairs, with France in particular having long had a tempestuous relationship with the papacy, resenting its attempts to assert temporal authority over secular rulers and disdainful of the exemption of the clergy to royal taxation. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourteenth century, with Pope Boniface VIII’s papal bull ‘Unam sanctam’. His assertion that submission to the Pope was the only way to achieve salvation, which, while a departure from the traditional belief that the Pope was only supreme in spiritual concerns, and was not to involve himself overmuch in temporal affairs, did not come as a surprise to those who had seen the papacy claim more and more temporal power, especially over the previous century. This resulted an escalation of tensions between the French Crown and the papacy, which culminated in the death of Boniface VIII at the hands of supporters of the French Crown, and led to the period known as the Avignon Papacy – a sixty-seven year period in which the papacy resided in Avignon. During this period, seven successive French popes ruled from the papal enclave of Avignon, all of whom were largely under the control of the French Crown. Such a level of influence from the Kingdom of France resulted in the papacy becoming even more entwined in the secular world, and as a result of this, the Church began to gain notoriety for its growing opulence, increasingly concerned with expanding its coffers through a variety of means.

Even after the papacy removed itself from the orbit of the French Crown, returning to Rome in 1377 under the leadership of Pope Gregory XI, this was not the end of  either this tension or the papacy’s increasing concern with temporal matters. An elderly man, Gregory XI died less than a year after his return to Rome, ironically shortly after announcing his intention to return once again to Avignon with his court. The people of Rome, having not had a Pope in the Vatican for almost three quarters of a century, were determined to prevent the return of the papacy to Avignon, forcibly ensuring the election of a Roman pope, which culminated in the election of Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI in 1378. Although seemingly a fitting candidate, he swiftly alienated many of those amongst the Church who had initially backed him, and the college of cardinals, who now regretted their papal candidate, soon backtracked on their decision. It was not long before they elected Robert of Geneva as Clement VII, returning to Avignon with their new figurehead and restoring the line of popes in Avignon. With two popes having now been elected by the cardinals, neither of whom was willing to relinquish the position, this put Christian Europe in a delicate position, as both secular and spiritual leaders were forced to choose between the two rival claimants. 

This dispute sent fractures throughout Europe, as a number of conflicts, especially in the Iberian Peninsula, erupted over who they believed was the rightful pope. However, these were vastly overshadowed by the Hundred Years War, which had been raging in Europe for decades before the schism had even begun. The English and their allies typically supported Urban and the papacy in Rome, whilst the French and their allies tended to support Clement and the Avignon papacy. However, it was not always as clear-cut as this and, even amongst religious leaders, the politics of the secular conflict outweighed their religious obligations to the schism. This was notably evident in the cataclysmic failure that was Despenser’s Crusade of 1383. Although the initial objective of the English crusading forces of Bishop Despenser was to relieve the city of Ghent in Flanders, the crusade swiftly floundered, turning its attention to the city of Ypres, which, despite its alliance to France in the wider war, was actually a supporter of Urban in the papal schism. Abandoning all pretences of being an expedition driven by religion, the crusaders laid siege to a city on the same side of the schism in order to gain an advantage in a secular conflict. This shows how the Church was riven at all levels by this conflict on both a temporal and spiritual level, and how ultimately the former outweighed the latter .

Even the deaths of both rival popes who had initiated the conflict did not serve to end the schism, as their factions refused to reconcile, instead choosing to elect successors and prolong the dispute. Neither did the loss of secular allies sway them, with the Avignon papacy notably losing the support of France, once its most staunch ally, in 1398. This refusal to back down despite such notable setbacks emphasises the growing temporal concerns at the heart of the role, with the power that maintaining their claims brought them. Concerted attempts at resolution in 1409 at the Council of Pisa failed to resolve the schism, with the council instead electing a third Pope to rival those of Rome and Avignon. However, this was not to say that it was a wholly unsuccessful endeavour, as many nations who had previously backed the other two popes threw their weight behind this new pope. Finally, at the council of Constance, after three years of deliberation, the dispute was finally resolved, with the abdication of the Roman and Pisan popes, the excommunication of the Avignon pope and the election of Oddonne Colonna as Martin V in their stead as the one, undisputed pope, ruling from the Holy See in 1417. Although this brought an end to the Great Papal Schism, the papacy had been weakened by its decades of infighting. The corruption of the Church had been laid plain for all to see, and this revelation would soon pave the way towards future discontent and dissent.

Henry G. Miller, Summer Writer

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