A Plethora of Pontiffs

THE TROUBLE STARTED when Pope Gregory XI died in 1378. One year earlier, he had returned the papacy to Rome after 68 years of “Babylonian captivity” in Avignon, France. The shift made Italians happy but enraged the French, putting the cardinals charged with choosing Gregory’s successor in a very tight spot.

Or maybe the trouble started even earlier. The opulence of the papal court at Avignon had alienated many Catholics. As the abbots of the church in Cologne stated publicly in 1372, “The Apostolic See has fallen into such contempt that the Catholic faith in these parts seems to be seriously imperiled.”

King Edward III of England was even more caustic: “The successor of the Apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s sheep to pasture, not to fleece them.”

So the church’s problems were obvious. The solution proved elusive.

Pope and anti-pope

Because the papacy had been based in France for so long, by 1378 a disproportionate number of French cardinals had been created. Their inclination toward another French pope was stifled, however, by the rioting crowd outside the conclave in Rome. The cardinals took a quick vote and elected an Italian who took the name Urban VI. Then they ran for their lives.

Urban VI turned out to be impetuous and despotic, and the cardinals who had elected him promptly repented of their choice—especially after Urban turned on them. He told one cardinal to “shut up his ceaseless chatter.” He called another a “blockhead” and humiliated him in front of his colleagues.

Angry and bitter, the French cardinals called another conclave and elected a second pope (or, according to Roman Catholics, an anti-pope), Clement VII, saying that Urban’s election had been forced by the Roman mob. Clement, Swiss by birth, moved his court back to Avignon.

Catholic nations split over which pope to obey. Half the church now accused the other half of being heretical, blasphemous, and excommunicate. Catherine of Siena, who had been influential in bringing the papacy back to Rome, denounced Clement as “Judas Iscariot.” Vincent Ferrer, a prominent Dominican preacher in France, applied the same slur to Urban.

Both sides claimed that the sacraments ministered by the priests of the opposite party were invalid—the children who had been baptized were not really baptized, those who had been forgiven their sins were not forgiven, the dying who had received final rites had died unpardoned. And matrimony pronounced by the wrong priest meant that those who thought they were married were actually living in sin.

Hatred and suspicion rose to such a pitch that when seven of Urban’s newly appointed cardinals came to him in 1385 asking him to step down, he had them arrested, tortured, and killed.

When Urban finally died in 1389, Clement anticipated a triumphal return to Rome. Instead, the 14 cardinals who had survived in Urban’s camp elected one of their number to be the new Roman pope, Boniface IX, and the division continued.

"I’ll quit if you will”

Clement VII died suddenly in 1394, and instead of accepting Boniface, the predominately French cardinals elected a Spaniard, Benedict XIII, to be the new pope in Avignon. King Charles V of France proposed that both popes should resign and a new one be elected, but Benedict would not resign unless Boniface promised to do so as well.

After Boniface died in 1404, the Roman cardinals elected Innocent VII. A revolt broke out, led by prominent Italian families, and Innocent fled to another town. The Roman mob, looking for the pope, sacked the Vatican in 1405, threw the papal registers and historic papers into the streets, stole all the money and gold they could find, and rioted for days.

After the mob cooled down and sobered up, they made their peace with the pope, asking him to come back and forgive them. Innocent returned, then died a short time later.

Innocent was succeeded in Rome by Gregory XII, who invited Benedict to a conference. Benedict offered to resign if Gregory would, but Gregory’s relatives dissuaded him.

With no end to the schism in sight, some cardinals withdrew to Pisa and called for a general council to elect a pope acceptable to all of Western Christendom and depose the other two.

Church councils still had the potential for this kind of power, for as philosopher and theologian William of Ockham had proposed in the fourteenth century, “The Church is the congregation of all the faithful; the whole has authority superior to any part. It may delegate its authority to a general council of all the bishops and abbots of the church. Such a council should have the power to elect, reprove, punish, or depose the pope.”

The 1409 Council of Pisa was impressive. In a majestic cathedral, 26 cardinals, 4 patriarchs, 12 archbishops, 80 bishops, 87 abbots, the generals of all the monastic orders, 300 professors of canon law, and ambassadors from many governments all appeared. The council declared itself canonical and ecumenical—representing the whole Christian world (minus the Orthodox church). Then it elected Alexander V as the new pope, told him to call another council before 1412, and directed his rivals to resign.

Of course, neither of the existing popes submitted to the council’s authority. The church now had three popes: Alexander V in Pisa, Gregory XII in Rome, and Benedict XIII, who had no supporters (the French cardinals had defected to Gregory) and had fled to Spain. None acknowledged the others.

Empty victories

Just one year after his election, Alexander V died. Rumors circulated that Balthasar Cossa, who succeeded Alexander as Pope John XXIII, had him poisoned. Such treachery would hardly be out of character.

John, who began his pontificate in Bologna (the king of Naples had seized Rome), presided over that city like the pirate he had once been. He taxed everything, including prostitution, gambling, and usury. According to his secretary, he seduced 200 virgins, matrons, widows, and nuns. He also commanded a private army.

John delayed as long as he could in calling the required council, but he was ordered to do so in 1411 by Hungary’s King Sigismund. Sigismund chose Constance, Germany, and set the date for 1414.

Sigismund invited all the prelates, princes, lords, and doctors in the West to attend. Everybody responded except the three popes. So many dignitaries came at their own leisure that six months went by before the assembly could begin. When they all arrived, the clergy and their attendants numbered 18,000—the largest and most complete council since the Council of Nicea in 325.

Constance, normally a small city, was turned into a huge armed camp. Five thousand attended the council itself, while 1,500 prostitutes offered their services after hours.

The council had hardly begun when it lost the support of the pope who had convened it. John was shocked to learn that his enemies were preparing to present a record of his crimes to the assembly. A committee of cardinals advised him to resign. He agreed, read a formal resignation, and fled, disguised as a laborer.

Fearing a repeat of Pisa, the council declared, “If anyone . . . including also the pope, shall refuse to obey the commands, statutes, and ordinances of this holy council . . . he shall be subject to proper punishment.” The council then sent a committee to find John and ensure his abdication.

The committee got no answer from John, so 54 charges were presented against him, the least of which were that he was a pagan, an oppressor, a liar, a buyer of church office, a traitor, a lecher, and a thief. Sixteen other accusations were suppressed for being too severe.

On May 29, 1415, the council deposed John, leaving him no claim to Peter’s throne. Broken by the charges, John accepted the decree and was imprisoned for three years.

The council celebrated its triumph with a parade through the city of Constance. Then it ordered Benedict and Gregory to resign. Gregory volunteered, on condition he first would be allowed to reconvene the council by his own papal authority. The council assented, and after reconvening, it declared him a valid pope and named him a governor of Ancona in Italy (to give him something official to do for the remaining two years of his life).

Benedict still refused to resign, but since his cardinals had deserted him, he was deposed in 1417. He retired to Spain and died there at age 90, protesting to the end that he was the true pope.

In October, the council decreed that another general council should be convened within five years to elect a replacement pope. On November 17, 1417, an electoral committee chose Martin V. All of Western Christendom accepted him, and so after 39 years of chaos, the Great Schism came to an end.

Though the council achieved this victory, it utterly failed in its other purpose: to reform the church. It sent Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague to the stake, delaying widespread reformation for 100 years. It also allowed Martin to play politics and make sure that only minimal reforms, written in obscure language, could be passed.

In 1430, merely 15 years after the council opened, this grim report of the Envoys of the Teutonic Order pointed to more trouble ahead:

"Greed reigns supreme in the Roman court, and day by day finds new devices for extorting money from Germany. . . . Hence much outcry and heartburnings. Many questions in regard to the papacy will arise, or else obedience will at last be entirely renounced, to escape from these outrageous exactions by the Italians; and this latter course, as I perceive, would be acceptable to many countries.”

Cast of Characters


Urban VI (1378–1389)

elected by: full college of cardinals under duress to end over 70 years of French popes 
main actions: consolidated hold on papal states 
weakness: abrasive; violent campaigns and nepotism emptied coffers 
downfall: death (poisoned?) 

Boniface IX (1389–1404)

main actions: fought a bloody 10-year battle to regain control of Naples; refused to negotiate with Benedict 
weakness: despotism, simony 
downfall: death (violent fit) 

Innocent VII (1404–1406)

main actions: refused Benedict’s proposals to end the schism; fought with Ladislas, king of Naples 
weakness: displeased Romans, who launched mob attack 
downfall: sudden death 

Gregory XII (1406–1415)

main actions: made abortive attempt to settle with Benedict; called Council of Pisa 
weakness: broke promise not to create any new cardinals 
downfall: deposed by Council of Constance; resigned 


Clement VII (1378–1394)

elected by: French cardinals 
main actions: gathered support from Urban’s enemies 
weakness: opulent court required excessive taxation 
downfall: death (apoplectic fit) 

Benedict XIII (1394–1417)

main actions: sought to negotiate with Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII; summoned a church council in opposition to Gregory’s 
weakness: lost support in France 
downfall: deposed by councils of Pisa and Constance, but refused to step down; finally died in 1423 


Alexander V (1409–1410)

elected by: Council of Pisa 
main actions: secured plush positions for friends 
weakness: nepotism 
downfall: sudden death 

John XXIII (1410–1415)

main actions: regained Rome from Ladislas, then lost it; convened Council of Constance at Sigismund’s behest 
weakness: depravity 
downfall: deposed by Council of Constance 
By Peter E. Prosser

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #68 in 2000]

Peter E. Prosser is professor of Christian History at Regent University (Virginia) Divinity School.
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