The Last Time A Pope Resigned

Thank you, modern world, for putting Medieval History back in the news last week! That’s two weeks in a row!

Wikicommons – attr: Fabio Pozzebom/ABr

Wikicommons – attr: Fabio Pozzebom/ABr

So for those who might have been living under a rock, a week ago Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning from the papacy at the end of February. And across the world, everyone went “Huh? Can you do that?” The answer is, of course, yes. Yes you can. But the last time a pope resigned was in the year 1415, and that resignation happened under radically different circumstances.

Here is the story of how and why that last pope resigned in 1415.

First of all, the political and religious climate of the Middle Ages was very different than what it is today. The Medieval Church was as much a government and a political force as any kingdom. More so if you consider that it could reach across borders to issue orders and demand money. It didn’t matter what country you lived in, in the Middle Ages you answered to God first and foremost. And since God wasn’t there directly, you answered to his representatives, the clergy, the cardinals, and the Pope. So naturally the papacy and everyone and thing surrounding it had extraordinary power.

In the High Middle Ages the papacy was incredibly effective. Since the reforms of Charlemagne, the Church had risen to be arguably the most stabilizing factor in Europe. It was the Pope who had declared the original Crusades. His wars in the Holy Land were successful, profitable, and supported. Kings of nations rushed to serve as the Pope’s generals, kings of England, France, and various German states. The Church sometimes settled disputes between bickering nations. This was hardcore power we’re talking about here. Citizens of various nations may have had their problems with one another, but the Church was still considered the heart of the world.

So of course things got political in a hurry.

At the dawn of the 14th century, France was arguably the most powerful nation in Europe. I say arguably because France wasn’t really “France” yet. It was a bunch of affiliated kingdoms that happened to have a central monarchy. Northern France and Southern France didn’t get along particularly well. But Southern France and the Papacy were best buddies. What was more, the situation in Rome had become tense and uncomfortable, full of infighting and back-biting amongst the major Roman families with their close ties to the papacy. The Roman curia, the business end of the papacy, actually moved to Avignon in France to get away from the mess.

Avignon Papal Palace - Nice, eh?

Avignon Papal Palace – Nice, eh?

And then, with the election of Pope Clement V in 1305, the offices of the Pope decided not move back to Rome. Nope, they were happy to stay in Avignon, thank you very much. Because Clement V was French and didn’t see any need to enter the lion’s den of Rome and it’s politicking. But this was a huge problem. Rome was the Church and had been since the word go. To have a pope stick so blatantly to their kingdom of origin turned the whole faith into an expression of politics. The non-religious consequences of France being in charge of the one organization that spread through every kingdom in Europe was not something most other nations wanted to deal with.

So the Pope now resided in Southern France. And Southern France didn’t really get along with Northern France. The French government wasn’t immune to the meddling of the Pope. In fact, Philip IV of France was one of the biggest opponents of the earliest French Pope. But the meddling of these French Popes did produce a few good results. Organization was improved and Papal power strengthened. The Pope stayed in Avignon for 67 years, taking on a decidedly French flavor and irritating everyone.

Finally, in 1378, Pope Gregory XI decided it was time to pack up and move back to Rome. (And yes, I’ve just glossed over a heck of a lot of history) And everything was well and good and they all lived happily ever after, right?


Having moved back to Rome, Gregory XI promptly died. It was time to elect a new pope. So all the cardinals gathered together to choose a successor. They looked at each other and said, “Okay, whatever you do, DO NOT elect another French Pope!” So they elected and Italian who took on the name Urban VI. Which was all well and good … until Urban VI went a little bit kooky. He liked to order people around, not nicely either, and he was prone to bouts of temper. So much so that the council of cardinals that had elected him really, really regretted their decision.

So what did they do? They packed up, moved back to Avignon, and elected another pope, Clement VII.

There had been anti-popes before this, men who had been “elected” as pope by various rival factions within the Church. What made this particular split serious was that the same body of cardinals had elected both popes. You couldn’t discredit one of them without discrediting the other. And that’s what happened. Everyone knew having two popes was a serious problem and that one of them couldn’t possibly be the “real” Pope, but since no one was willing to back down and canon law didn’t cover the situation the Great Schism continued.

As you might imagine, France and its allies supported Clement VII and his successor in Avignon, while England, the Holy Roman Empire, Flanders, and Scandinavia supported Urban VI and his successors. And once again I’m going to gloss over a lot of history and skip to the end. Because what was the solution to this problem? To put together a council that negated the legitimacy of both popes and elect a new one. Except that neither the Avignon pope nor the Roman pope agreed to step down. So in essence a third pope was created. Three popes! Oy vey!

Pope Gregory XII

Pope Gregory XII

Well, everything was finally sorted out at the Council of Constance in 1414. The council managed to convince Pope Number Three to step down, which he did, and excommunicated the Avignon pope when he refused to step down. The Roman Pope, Gregory XII also resigned, but not before investing his power in the council to elect the next pope. They then elected a new Pope, Martin V, who everyone pretty much agreed on, except for a few Frenchies who were ignored at this point because everyone was too tired to deal with the issue anymore.

So that was it. Gregory XII resigned (under duress) in 1415 in order to end a gigantic mess. As far as we know at this point, Benedict XVI’s reasons for resigning are far more benign. Unfortunately for the Medieval Church, the Great Schism and Gregory XII’s resignation seriously damaged the Church’s authority in Europe. It may have even set the groundwork for the unrest and questioning that led to the Protestant revolution. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of Benedict’s resignation will be.

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