Seventy years before the Western Schism, the French Pope Clement V moved the church’s capital from Rome to Avignon, France. He did this to escape the factionalism in Rome and to submit to the French king, Philip IV. Ever since his conflict with Pope Boniface VIII, Philip had wanted to influence future popes better. Six popes later, Pope Gregory XI decided to return to Rome against the protests of France. With his return on January 17, 1377, the Avignon Papacy officially ended, and the papal capital was restored in Rome.
Beginning of the Schism
Pope Gregory XI didn’t live long after his return. On March 27, 1378, Gregory died. Remembering what the French had done to the papacy, Roman citizens were adamant that a French candidate not be elected again. They angrily demanded that the assembled cardinals elect an Italian as pope. Fearing for their safety, the cardinals reluctantly agreed. An Italian archbishop named Bartolomeo Prignano therefore became Pope Urban VI.
Pope Urban VI had an uneasy relationship with his cardinals. The pope condemned their excesses and demanded reforms of the church. Polarized by Urban’s behavior, the cardinals retreated to Anagni to elect a new pope. Their intent wasn’t to start a schism but to find a man who was better suited for the papal throne. On September 20, 1378, Robert of Geneva was elected. This French candidate became Clement VII and served as an antipope to Urban VI.
The second pope and his cardinals further defied Urban VI by re-establishing the papal capital in Avignon. For the first time in church history, Catholic cardinals had elected both a pope and antipope. With a pope in Rome and an antipope in Avignon, the Catholic church was now split into two sides. This division only worsen as both sides refused to submit to the other.
Impact on Europe
The power struggle within the church quickly spilled over into European politics. Rulers throughout Europe had to decide which pope they would support. Due to the locations of the popes, countries decided along political lines. France and Scotland supported Antipope Clement VII in Avignon. In turn, England and the Holy Roman Empire supported Pope Urban VI in Rome. The lack of widespread support for one pope over the other only served to widen the divide in the church.
The Schism Continues
Since both popes refused to step down, the schism progressed without a foreseeable end. It would persist after the deaths of both men and was perpetuated with their successors. Pope Boniface IX succeeded Urban VI in 1389. Antipope Benedict XIII succeeded Clement VII in 1394. In 1404, Boniface died. With his death, Roman cardinals offered a truce to their Avignon rivals. If Benedict stepped down as pope, then the Roman cardinals wouldn’t elect a successor.
Although Rome made an attempt at peace, Avignon rejected it. Instead of taking steps to resolve the schism, the Avignon cardinals refused to compromise. In retaliation, Roman cardinals elected Pope Innocent VII. However, this act served to further incite hostilities between both sides.
Tiring of the turmoil in the church, political efforts were made to resolve the schism. Despite this, outside efforts did little to alleviate the situation. In 1409, a suggestion was made that a church council meet to finally end the schism. Surprisingly, both sides agreed to this. Although both popes ultimately decided not to attend, their respective cardinals showed up. The council would go through multiple sessions to debate on what action to take.
On June 5, 1409, the council decided to denounce both popes and declared them heretics. Instead of having the council lead the church in the meantime, they strangely chose to elect a third pope. The newly elected Antipope Alexander V’s pontificate proved brief and was followed by John XXIII. The election of a third pope gained little support across Europe. As a result of the council’s decision, a pope now resided in France and two in Italy.
In 1414, Antipope John XXIII ordered a council to assemble at Constance. It was intended that the schism finally be resolved and that only one pope would reign. The Roman pope, Gregory XII, approved of this council and added his support. Through the council’s actions, John XXIII and Gregory XII willingly ended their pontificates in 1415. Only Antipope Benedict XIII of Avignon refused. The council subsequently excommunicated him. With the submission of two of the three popes, the council elected a new pope, Martin V.
With the election of Pope Martin V in 1417, the Western Schism officially ended. Antipope Benedict XIII still had the support of Aragon, but his faction would eventually descend into infighting. After his death, there was a split between successors. Those loyal to Benedict elected Benedict XIV, and those opposed elected Clement VIII. There were two antipopes again in Europe, but their threat was minor. By 1429, Antipope Clement VIII submitted to Pope Martin V.
Although there was only one pope again, the Western Schism had damaged the papacy’s image. The papacy had lost a lot of respect throughout Europe and had garnered resentment towards it. Church leaders had failed to end the schism promptly, and it caused untold turmoil. Instead of seeing the pope as God’s sole representative on Earth, people began to believe that a council should govern the church. The consequences of the schism would bring about the Protestant Reformation 100 years later.
Grimshaw, P. (2018, June 8). Two Popes Were Too Many: How The Papal Schism of Medieval Era Created Confusion For Years and Weakened The Church. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/05/26/papal-schism/.
McLean, J. (n.d.). Western Civilization. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/the-western-schism/.
Western Schism. (2019, August 19). Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Western-Schism.