The Great Papal Schism: Two Christian Leaders Against Each Other

On September 21st, 1378, the Christian world woke up to a terrifying reality. The papal schism meant that the Western Church had two heads; both declared the other heretics.

Dec 7, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

great papal schism


Unlike the Great Schism of 1054, which ordinary people barely noticed, the papal schism moved hearts. Every cleric and secular prince, everyone had to choose. In some countries, it was the king against his archbishop and clergy, including simple village pastors loyal to one side or the other. People were scared. What if the priest who baptized their dying child chose the wrong pope? What if they would burn in hell for their sins because their confessor was loyal to the wrong archbishop? Together with the plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and political turmoil in many parts of Europe the Papal Schism brought the feeling of terror. Obviously, God was angry. And his vicar on the papal seat was supposed to mitigate the holy wrath. But which one?


The Years Before the Papal Schism: The Great Middle Ages Crisis

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The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death, from Pierart dou Tielt, 1353, via Belgian arts Links and Tools


At the end of the 14th century, a crisis was imminent. One reason was the plague epidemic. European people had their share of experiences with bubonic plague but the epidemic that hit Europe in the 14th century, the Black Death, was unprecedented. Whole villages turned into cemeteries; city walls became prison bars for those who could not escape to the country. Those who fled usually carried the infection with them and died either way. With no knowledge of microbiology, wild theories circulated, and people turned to spiritual remedies.


Plague was the main thing that caused terror among Europeans, but it was not the only horror. The century came to an end, and every hundred years, prophecies spread among people that this year, the world would surely end. Then there was the political crisis. The Hundred Years´ War ravaged Western Europe; France was ruled by a dauphine, with the king in captivity. Central Europe would end up in turmoil soon after the great Luxembourg emperor died, and his progeny would unleash a civil war.


And then there was the Church.

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The Western Church at the End of the 14th Century

popes palace avignon
Front of Pope’s Palace in Avignon, 2005, via Wikipedia Commons


In 1309 the wheel of fortune turned for the papacy. The power of the Church rising through the 13th century hit its limits. Gone were the days when popes made emperors kneel when they deposed them and interfered with European politics. The last great pope of the Middle Ages, Boniface VIII, overestimated the limits of papal power and dared to challenge the French king, Philip IV. And he lost; in a humiliating incident, he had to admit the defeat and live his remaining years in despair. His successors ruled according to the French king’s wishes and moved to Avignon. The French king led the papal horse through the gates, presenting himself as the humble servant of the Church, but everybody knew the truth. The times of independent papal policy were over, and now France would dictate the words of the papal bulls.


The Popes in the Avignon: The Main Cause of the Papal Schism

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Return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome from Avignon, by Giorgio Vasari, via Wikimedia Commons


Avignon was a free enclave in French territory, and the popes were free to come and go. It was no captivity. And most popes were happy in Avignon. Unlike in Rome, where public opinion and the complacency of wealthy Roman families had to be considered, here they felt free. The French grew weaker after the death of Philip IV and did not exercise their influence over the Church too much. And unlike Rome with its stinking Tiber, Avignon could flourish with late Gothic and early Renaissance art.


Popes in Avignon lived secular lives with mistresses and exquisite wine, accompanied by famous artists and a lavish court. This did not go unnoticed, and voices grew louder that the Church should return to its roots. John Wycliffe, first, and John Hus, second, criticized the very vices of the Church that would later lead the Protestant reformers to create their own institution. But that was unimaginable at the moment.


The main point of interest for all those calling on the Church to return to its origins pointed to the seat of Saint Peter. Catherine of Sienna, Francisco Petrarch, and Dante Alighieri were just a few such critics. All appealed to the pope to return to Rome, to leave secular and lavish Avignon, and return to the place where the successor of Saint Peter belongs.


But it was not so easy. France would not let go so easily, and a diplomatic battle began with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who was finally victorious. Charles made it his lifelong mission to return the pope to Rome. With Gregory XI, he succeeded.


The Papal Schism Begins

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Arguing clerics, 1370 – 1378, via the French National Library


Gregory returned to Rome only to announce that he would leave after the Easter celebrations. He found Rome unappealing and the Romans threatening. Before he could leave, however, he died, and a conclave met in Rome to ensure that the pope would stay this time. The Cardinals felt under pressure and had agendas of their own. Under no circumstances should the new pope be French, and the Roman families turned to extortion and violence to ensure he was Roman.


The Cardinals elected Urban VI, and it could have ended there. Unfortunately, Urban VI proved to be a violent, choleric man with strange and dangerously reformist ideas. Most cardinals regretted their vote, moved to Anagni, and proclaimed the election to have been performed under pressure, thus being null and void.


Some remained loyal to the elected pope, who did not hesitate to excommunicate the rebels. The defectors elected Clement VII, who moved to Avignon. And, of course, excommunicated those who remained in Rome with all their successors. Thus, the Western Church had two heads.


The Papal Schism as a Problem of Every Soul

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The Harrowing of Hell, by Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, 14th -15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


The two popes, one in Avignon and the other in Rome, did not last long, but when they died, the Church did not become one again. On the contrary, two separate lines of popes emerged, and the crisis endured until 1417. Why did it matter? The Catholic Church stands on the rock of Saint Peter, who was named the first pope by Jesus himself. At least, that is what the Church teaches. Jesus gave Peter the authority to unlock heaven’s doors. The pope as the successor of Saint Peter, transfers the power onto the cardinals and archbishops. They bless those lower in the church hierarchy with papal authority, and thus it goes on. Every village pastor must be able to track his line of authority back to the pope. If he could not, then the blessing he gave, the sacraments he provided, the christening, the absolution, the last rites, and marriage, all of them would be null and void.


And that meant that those who accepted that sacrament lived in sin. If their marriage was not valid, they lived in adultery. If the christening was invalid, they would go to hell. And there was no absolution for their sins because if the confessor lacked the authority, confession was useless. So, half of all Christians would go to hell, and no one knew which one because the clergy and the princes chose the papal seat according to their political preferences. And as the ordinary people saw it, the crisis deepened.


The End of the Papal Schism

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Sigismund of Luxemburg, 1433, via the Museum of Arts, Vienna


When a council met in Pisa in 1409, they elected a new pope. This only deepened the crisis, as neither of the two remaining popes accepted the election, meaning there were now three popes. This would not do. As the pope’s return to Rome in 1377 was the work of the Luxembourg emperor, Charles IV, the solution to the Papal Schism was to be a legacy of his son, Sigismund.


After Sigismund emerged victorious from the war with his whole family, he became Holy Roman Emperor. He managed to stabilize the central European situation and gain the acceptance of all of Germany. He called a council in Constance, a free city on Bodensee, and ensured the safety of the participants with his armies.


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Meeting of the Council of Constance, by Ulrich von Richental, 1460 – 1465, via Wikimedia Commons


Every significant person came to Constance; Sigismund managed to get rid of all three popes. With a clever mix of diplomacy and violence, the three popes were forced to accept their deposition. The cardinals fought over little details, and the council had to be convened over three years. But Sigismund was patient. He presided over every council session, letting the cardinals know with his threatening presence that they would not leave until they solved the Papal Schism. The new pope was elected under the name of Martin V and furthermore swore to reform the Church.


The Legacy of the Papal Schism

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A scene from the meeting of the Council of Constance with Master Jan Hus, by Václav Brožík, 1883, via Wikimedia Commons


With the Council of Constance, the Papal Schism did not end. The new pope could not fulfill his reformist promise because the Council of Constance created a dangerous precedent. To depose the three popes, the council had to proclaim itself to be above the pope and thus gained the ability to depose and elect new popes at a whim. Thus, the papacy sunk deep into the conciliatory crisis, which ended in 1458. But that was a political struggle out of reach of ordinary people. There was a pope in Rome who quarreled with his cardinals, as the popes always do. The Papal Schism was over, and the European souls were safe. At least for a few years before a new crisis hit.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.