The Avignon Papacy was a period in the 14th century in which the papacy resided in Avignon, France, rather than Rome, for geopolitical reasons. Between 1309 and 1376, 7 successive popes resided in the papal Palace of Avignon, one of the most elaborate palaces ever built during the Middle Ages, and the entirety of the papal courts and entourage moved to conduct its business in Avignon.
All 7 of these popes were of French origin and under the influence of the French Crown. This led to power struggles and resulted in a split within the Catholic Church, which became known as the Western Schism.
Whether the popes of Avignon were puppets of French kings or their residence in Avignon was a legitimate policy to centralise the papacy is contested by historians. The Avignon Papacy was notable for its economic efficiency in organising and centralising tax collection, money-changing and banking.
Here are the 7 popes of the Avignon Papacy in order.
1. Clement V (1305-1314)
Clement V, born Raymond Bertrand de Got, is perhaps the most stigmatised of the Avignon popes, having allegedly brought the papal court to Avignon to please King Philip IV of France. Some believe he was merely Philip’s puppet, whilst others highlight Clement’s ability to manipulate his position to advance his own concerns, such as the reconquest of the Holy Land.
Philip IV was also keen to plunder the wealth of the Knights Templar, the holy order of knights established as a result of the Crusades in the Holy Land. He sought to discredit the knights and remove their power while appropriating the Templars’ assets.
Although Clement wasn’t keen to stay in Avignon, the French-born pope refused to move the papacy to Rome – long established as the seat of St Peter – due to the political chaos taking place in the Italian capital at the time. In 1309 the Papal Court officially moved to Avignon and became the centre of papal power.
2. Pope John XXII (1316-1334)
Born Jacques Duez, Pope John XXII was the second and longest-reigning of the Avignon popes. He was elected in the French city of Lyon by an assembly of cardinals and through the assistance of Philip, Count of Poitiers, later to become King Philip V of France.
Pope John was controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, he apparently lived a ‘princely life’ of wealth and status. Also, he undertook actions to condemn the religious group known as the Fraticelli. Members of this fringe religious group were extreme followers of the rules of Saint Francis of Assisi, who saw poverty to be the true ‘Catholic’ way to obey God and therefore believed that the church’s wealth was immoral.
Pope John countered the Fraticelli’s ideological position on the grounds that it would condemn the Catholic Church’s right to wealth and possessions.
3. Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342)
Even though Jacques Fournier was a Frenchman, he was, unusually for an Avignon pontiff, devoid of patriotism towards France and its king, Philip VI.
Benedict XII became known as the ‘accidental pope’ after he unexpectedly found himself replacing a candidate who had originally been selected by the Conclave of 1334. Cardinal Jean-Raymond de Comminges was originally selected, but after having refused to swear to the Conclave not to return the papacy to Rome he forfeited his advancement. Fournier was elected on 20 December 1334.
As an ardent reformist, Benedict tried to curb the excesses of monastic orders, although without much success. One aspect of his reign was his opposition to nepotism, particularly the kind that existed within the papacy. Unlike his predecessors, Benedict chose to make peace with the Holy Roman Emperor, who was a long-standing challenger of papal power.
4. Clement VI (1342-1352)
Clement VI, born Pierre Roger, is perhaps more well known as the pope who initiated the Catholic policy of granting ‘indulgences’ – allowing the remission of sins for those who undertook acts such as fasting and praying. What started out as a policy to cope with high mortality rates during the Black Death turned into a money-making business and brought the Catholic Church into disrepute decades later as men like Martin Luther accused it of having become corrupt.
Clement VI also instructed church leaders to suppress the act of flagellation (flogging or beating), He technically banning the act which had become a popular form of penance in the Catholic Church and its monastic orders.
He is also commended for having ordered two papal bulls to protect Jews from violence when angry crowds descended on Jewish citizens, blaming them for the plague. Clement is alleged to have said at the time that those who blamed the plague on the Jews were “seduced by that liar, the Devil”.
5. Pope Innocent VI (1352-1362)
Born Etienne Aubert in 1282, Pope Innocent VI began his reign by revoking a signed agreement stating the college of cardinals was superior to the pope. He also introduced immediate reforms in the administration of church affairs and brought about a treaty between arch enemies France and England.
Innocent promoted clerical and monastic reform and unlike many popes of the time who indulged in the wealth of their positions, sought to economise by cutting the chapel staff and selling works of art. His thriftiness, although limited, was most likely a response to costly wars in Italy and the ravages of the plague.
A liberal patron of letters, like his predecessor Pope John XXII, he displayed extreme condemnation of the Fraticelli, the religious group who followed the teachings of Francis of Assisi. Known for his sense of fairness and justice he presided over the restoration of papal power to Rome, making it possible for the return of the papal residency to Rome from Avignon in 1377.
6. Pope Urban V (1362-1370)
Pope Urban V, born Guillaume de Grimoard, briefly resided in Rome from 1367 before returning to Avignon in 1370. He was the only Avignon pope to be beatified. An ardent follower of the Benedictine Rule of adhering to simple living, Urban V lived by modest means, defying the affluence and indulgence of other papal figures.
Pope Urban had become a Benedictine monk as a 17-year-old youth in 1327 before being ordained a priest 7 years later in his own monastery in Chirac. A man of great learning, he studied law for 4 years at the University of Toulouse, earning a doctorate in Canon Law.
As a pontiff equipped with a scholarly mind and an acute understanding of law, Urban set out to reform the papacy. Such reforms involved Urban challenging absenteeism and the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges such as pardons. He successfully introduced reforms in the administration of justice and benefited several institutions of learning in France.
One of his most admirable moves at a time of religious persecution and prejudice was to impose a penalty of ex-communication on anyone who molested Jews or attempted conversion and baptism.
7. Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378)
In 1376, Pope Gregory XI decided to move the papacy from Avignon back to Rome. It wasn’t necessarily a controversial decision as the papacy owned Avignon and it was simply an alternative base for the seat of the Catholic church. The move was most likely due to Avignon’s lack of geographical importance compared to Rome, as well as the fact that it was increasingly seen as being an act of ‘absenteeism’ for the pope not to be in Rome, which after all, was his diocese as Bishop of Rome.
Within a year of relocating to Rome, the papacy’s authority crumbled as the cardinals decided they did not like their choice of pope. Some initiated a move back to Avignon. There, they elected a counter pope: a move which sparked the beginning of what became known as the Papal Schism.