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Schism (Three Popes Claim Vicarship of God), The Great Western

The Great Western Schism (1378-1417) was the period when three different men all claimed to be the rightful pope. During the early years of the schism, only rival popes existed. The first one, Pope Urban VI, lived in Rome, while the second pope, Clement VII, lived in Avignon. It was not until 1409 that a third pope was elected in Pisa. The reign of the three popes only ended in 1417 after the Council of Constance elected Pope Martin V.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time.

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The Root of the Conflict: The Avignon Papacy

Pope Clement V was elected in 1305 amid great controversy. He was known as a puppet of Philip IV of France, and he was famous for settling the papal seat in Avignon rather than in Rome. All six popes who succeeded Clement V lived in Avignon. This period was marked by the decline of papal authority after the popes were accused of various sins, such as simony, abuse of indulgences, and scandalous behavior. The 14th-century popes lived in wealth and security in Avignon. Many Europeans, meanwhile, dealt with the Great Famine, the Black Death, and wars between their monarchs. Rome and its churches also crumbled during the Avignon Papacy.

Conflicts in Italy and the Domination of the House of Visconti

The Italian peninsula remained a hotbed of violence throughout the 1360s and 1370s. Pope Urban V lived in Rome briefly, but he got fed up with the violence that he was forced to return to Avignon. He died in 1370 and was succeeded by Pope Gregory XI in the same year. The new pope, just like Urban V, was not equipped to handle the partisan violence in Italy. His most formidable enemies were the notorious Visconti brothers who ruled Milan. Bernabo Visconti himself took the city of Bologna which was a part of the Papal States. Gregory knew he would lose the Papal States if he did not return to Rome.

The bloody war that flared up between the pope’s faction and the House of Visconti went on for several years. Pope Gregory XI finally went to Rome in 1377 to sue for peace, but he did not live to see the end of the war. He died in Rome on March 1378 which marked the end of the Avignon Papacy.

The Great Western Schism (1378-1417)

The announcement of the election of Pope Martin V at the Council of Constance.

The College of Cardinals in Italy immediately assembled to elect Gregory’s successor. The college was made up of French and Italian cardinals, but the Italians maneuvered one of their own to be elected. They succeeded in electing Pope Urban VI (Bartolomeo Prignano), but his election was disputed by the French cardinals. The disgruntled French cardinals left Rome and announced Pope Urban VI deposed. They also elected an equally notorious former papal legate named Robert of Geneva as Pope (antipope) Clement VII. Robert was the leader of the massacre in the city of Cesena during the reign of Pope Gregory XI. He went to France and lived in Avignon during his reign from 1378 to 1394.

European Christians now had two popes: one who lived in Rome and one in Avignon. Naturally, European monarchs also took sides in this issue. Clement VII was backed by France, Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Naples. Urban VI, meanwhile, was supported by the Holy Roman Empire, England, Venice, and Flanders.

The new pope in Rome, however, was known to be petty and cruel. His relatives were accused of enriching themselves at the expense of the papal office. The pope suspected his cardinals of scheming to depose him, so he had them imprisoned and tortured. Urban VI died in 1389, while his rival, Clement VII reigned until his death in Avignon in 1394. Clement VII fared no better than Urban VI as his court in Avignon was also accused of simony.

Urban VI was succeeded by Boniface IX in 1389, while the Spanish cardinal Benedict XIII was elected as the new pope in Avignon in 1394. Proposals were made over the years to end the Western Schism. Some people suggested that both the Avignon and the Roman popes should resign so that a new pope would be elected. Others, meanwhile, wanted a higher general council to take over the decision-making from the popes. Both popes rejected these suggestions.

From Two to Three Popes

Pope Boniface IX died in 1404, and he was succeeded by Innocent VII in Rome. He ruled for nearly two years until he died in 1406. Gregory XII succeeded him in the same year, but the cardinals were tired of the divisions within the church. In 1409, a group of cardinals from Avignon and Rome went to Pisa and elected another pope. He took the name Alexander V, and he ruled until his death in 1410. Three popes now claimed the vicarship of God in Avignon, Rome, and Pisa.

The Pisan pope Alexander V was succeeded by John XXIII. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg was anxious to end the division. In 1414, he compelled John XXIII to assemble an ecumenical council at Lake Constance to resolve the issue once and for all. Cardinals, abbots, bishops and other church leaders attended the council in 1414. Scholars, envoys, merchants, and everyone in between also attended the crowded Council of Constance.

The council tackled two problems: the heresies of John Wycliffe and the Great Western Schism. Although John Wycliffe died in 1384, his ideas still lived on in the influential Bohemian priest Jan Hus. The priest was summoned to Constance after the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund promised that he would not be harmed. Jan Hus arrived in Constance, but he was soon thrown into prison by the College of Cardinals. The council declared Jan Hus a heretic after he languished in prison, and he was executed in 1415.

Meanwhile, John XXIII saw that his situation was hopeless and that he would not remain as pope any longer. He left the council and was immediately deposed by the cardinals. Gregory XII offered to resign if the council would depose the Avignon pope Benedict XIII. The Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Aragon supported the deposition of Benedict XIII to put an end to the Western Schism. The 39-year division of the Catholic Church officially ended in 1417 when Martin V was enthroned as the new pope.


Picture by: Public Domain, Link

Izbicki, Thomas M., and Joelle Rollo-Koster. Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, v. 17). Brill Academic Publishers, 2009.

Kidner, Frank L., Maria Bucur, Ralph Mathisen, Sally McKee, and Theodore R. Weeks. Making Europe: The Story of the West. Independence, KY: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014.

Locke, Clinton. The Age of the Great Western Schism. New York: Christian Literature Co., 1896.

McCabe, Joseph. A history of the popes. London: Watts & Co., 1939.

Procter, George. The History of Italy, From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Commencement of the Wars of the French Revolution. London: Whittaker & Co., 1844.

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