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The Popes At Avignon

Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy


Today the papacy is intimately associated with Rome. The pope does, after all, claim to derive his authority from being the direct successor of the apostle Peter, first bishop of Rome. Despite the fact that the papacy started off in Rome and is today based in Rome, it wasn’t always located there. For a time, the popes were based in Avignon, France, commonly known as the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the papacy.

People today may find it inconceivable that the entire papal court would pull up stakes and move to another country, but to those involved at the time it seemed like a pretty good idea. For a long time the papacy had been embroiled in conspiracies and conflicts with whichever secular ruler was most powerful in the region. Things reached a head with Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII and Clement V simply couldn’t take it anymore.

Why Avignon? The papacy had also developed very poor relations with the French court and Clement thought that a move to France, as opposed to Spain or Austria, would help patch things up. Aligning his fortunes with the powerful French king would also serve as a good counter-balance to the machinations of Henry. The fact that Clement was French and originally the archbishop of Bordeaux probably wasn’t a coincidence, either.

Clement V was elected in 1305 and he never even set foot in Rome. He searched around France for a suitable site and in 1309 decided on Avignon. Already, though, he was under the thumb of king Philip IV who insisted that Clement be crowned at Lyons. Clement’s subservience continued and worsened, reaching its nadir when he allowed Philip to arrest the entire Templar Order in France and seize their lands.

Clement also helped France dominate the College of Cardinals. Between 1305 and 1312 he appointed a large number of cardinals, almost all French. Because of this the following popes (John XXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, and Gregory XI) were also all French. They kept the papal court in Avignon, at least until Gregory XI began to feel guilty about it and decided that perhaps a return to Rome was in order. He wasn’t able to accomplish this until 1377, just one year before his death.

The French cardinals didn’t support this, however. When Gregory died they hoped to elect another French pope and get back to Avignon, but by this point they were in the midst of Rome and the Roman people wouldn’t allow it. They rioted and demanded that an Italian, preferably a Roman, pope be elected. The French cardinals panicked and elected Urban VI from Naples, but he only made matters worse from their perspective by insulting the cardinals generally and promising reforms that would take away many of their privileges.

Once the French cardinals got away from Rome, they recanted the election of Urban and insisted that any papal election done under duress of a rioting mob wasn’t valid. In Urban’s place they elected Robert of Geneva, another Frenchman, who adopted the name Clement VII. This launched the Great Western Schism as well as two lines of antipopes, splitting up the Catholic Church in a variety of ways both theological and political.

Was the Avignon Papacy a complete disaster? Not quite. It wasn’t unusual for the papal court to leave Rome for short periods of time in order to escape the political turmoil there. Once free of Rome, the papal court was forced to completely overhaul its legal and financial machinery, allowing it become far more efficient and effective. At the same time, though, it also became more worldly and caused the papacy to lose sight of its religious mission. Efficiency came with a price and the papal court became more like a secular court.

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