The Great Schism 1378-1417: Beyond Canon Law

by Philip Jones

The Great Schism marked the end of the ‘classical’ canon law period that had begun c.1140 with Gratian’s Decretum.  No originality is claimed for what follows.  It is merely a narrative of the historical facts from a legal perspective, drawing on the commentaries cited at the end.


The Holy See made a confident entry into the 14th century.  Pope Boniface VIII (Pope 1294-1303) ‘occasionally dressed up in imperial insignia, boasting that he was emperor no less than pope’ (Kelly).  He uncompromisingly asserted papal supremacy in his famous bull Unam Sanctam (1302): ‘The temporal sword is in the power of Peter … It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff’.  He proclaimed the first Holy Year of Indulgence in 1300.

However, the Holy See’s political position was always precarious, to an extent that is unthinkable today.  Imagine if the present Pope were taken prisoner by a hostile state, or forced to leave Rome because of public hostility.  Yet such events were occupational hazards for his mediaeval predecessors.  The ink was barely dry on Unam Sanctam when Pope Boniface was imprisoned by the King of France.  He was later rescued, but died a broken man.

The city of Rome was ‘wretchedly unsafe’ on account of faction-fighting between the leading Roman families (Renouard).  Boniface’s successor, Bl Benedict XI (Pope 1303-1304), therefore sought safety outside Rome, but he died after only a few months.  The cardinals then elected Clement V (Pope 1305-1314), a Frenchman who was very much   under the King of France’s influence.  After moving around Provence and Gascony he finally settled at Avignon in 1309.

Avignon was not actually in ‘France’ at this time, in the sense that it did not belong to the French crown, but to the King of Naples (who was formally, and confusingly, entitled ‘King of Sicily‘).  The King of Naples/Sicily was nominally a vassal of the Pope.  Avignon also had the advantages of political stability, a pleasant countryside and climate, and access to the sea.

There were 7 Avignon popes in all.  All were French.  The move to Avignon was intended to be temporary at first, and the French popes all professed a vague desire to return to Rome some day.  The tombs of the Apostles were still at Rome, of course.  A second Holy Year was celebrated in 1350.  However, as Rome became ever more dilapidated and politically unstable for lack of effective papal government, so the prospect of returning there from beautiful Avignon became less and less appealing.

Pope Benedict XII (Pope 1334-1342) began construction of the Palais Vieux at Avignon.  Before then, popes had resided in the local bishop’s palace or in a monastery.  A purpose-built papal palace naturally gave an air of permanence to the ‘Babylonian captivity’ at Avignon.  Benedict’s worldly successor, Clement VI (Pope 1342-1352), built the sumptuous Palais Neuf for himself.

Then Bl Urban VI (Pope 1362-1370) showed serious interest in a return to Rome.  He required bishops to reside in their dioceses, so had to set a personal example.  He also sought reunion with the Greek Church, and could not credibly do this from outside Rome.  In the face of strong opposition from cardinals and curia he entered Rome in 1367 and stayed for 3 years in the Vatican.  (The Lateran palace had become uninhabitable, and no pope lived there again.)  There he received both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Byzantine Emperor.  However, he returned to Avignon just before his death.

The last Avignon pope, Gregory XI (Pope 1370-1378), delayed a permanent return to Rome for many years, but ‘saw the hand of God in the arrival of St Catherine of Siena at Avignon to urge his return’.  Curial opposition had not diminished (‘If only the mountains would move and stop our journey!’ one official prayed), but in 1377 Pope Gregory at last arrived in Rome.

The Disputed Election

After 70 years of papal absence the Eternal City was in a grievous state.  The people of Rome also bitterly resented French control of the papacy.  Such was the anti-French hostility that Gregory XI found it necessary to leave Rome, only a short time after he had arrived there, for Agnani.  He died just a year after his return from Avignon.

The Romans were adamant that the next pope should be ‘a Roman pope, or at least an Italian’.  That was the popular slogan.  In this hostile atmosphere the French cardinals who were to elect Gregory’s successor had good reason to feel uncomfortable, even frightened.  The conclave itself was invaded by the mob.  The cardinals had to pretend that an elderly Roman cardinal had been elected Pope.  Placated, the mob withdrew.

However, the cardinals really did elect a new, and Italian, pope, Urban VI (Pope 1378-1389).  The day after the incursion of the mob, they returned to the conclave to confirm the election.  They also publicised the election to the world, and officiated at the new Pope’s coronation.  For several weeks they assisted him (or tried to) in his official duties.  Only then, several weeks after the election and coronation, did the Great Schism begin.

It began when the French cardinals started to withdraw to Agnani.  There they pronounced the election invalid for duress.  If the election was invalid, this meant that Urban VI was not really Pope, so the Holy See was still vacant.  On this basis, the cardinals purported to elect a new pope.

However, the cardinals’ claim of duress is not supported by the known facts.  Commentators have rejected it: ‘the existing evidence would seem to show decisively that the undoubted pressure of the Roman populace [to elect an Italian pope] was not such as to incapacitate a body of reasonably honest and courageous men’ (Obolensky, p.416).  The cardinals’ conduct towards Urban VI after his election was inconsistent with their claim that they had elected him against their will, under threat from the mob.  Their repudiation of the election came too late to be credible.

The real reason for the cardinals’ desertion of Pope Urban was his appalling treatment of them.  The Holy Father suffered from a ‘great lack of self-control’ (Ullmann, p.45).  His ungovernable rages ‘made his face red and his voice hoarse’.  The cardinals were understandably aggrieved when he ordered them to eat only one course at meals, and worse was to follow.  There is no certain explanation for Urban’s behaviour, but ‘his unexpected elevation seems to have upset the balance of his mind.  He became very unstable, and subjected [the cardinals] to violent abuse and uncontrollable tirades’ (Kelly).  The abuse was physical as well as verbal.  He had one cardinal tortured in his presence, reciting the Divine Office so as to drown the poor man’s screams.

However, the cardinals did not attempt to declare the Holy See vacant on account of the Pope’s insanity, or to claim the power to make such a declaration.  Their desertion of Urban on account of his behaviour may be understandable.  But there were no legal grounds for disputing Urban’s title.  Mad and intolerable he may have been, but he was the Pope.  The cardinals’ action in purporting to elect a new pope was therefore schismatic.

After the French cardinals defected, Pope Urban grew madder and quarrelled with everybody.  Nevertheless, despite lengthy enforced absences from Rome, Urban remained in office till his death.  His successor, Boniface IX (Pope 1389-1404), strengthened papal control of Rome.  The French-led schism never gained a foothold there.

The Avignon Anti-Popes

The schismatic cardinals elected the most distinguished of their number as ‘Clement VII’.  The new anti-pope was actually Swiss, not French, and so could appear to rise above the French-Italian animosity.  He was personally more impressive than ranting, red-faced Pope Urban, but he was an evil man who lacked Urban’s excuse of madness for his crimes.  (When papal legate he had barbarously ordered the massacre of the inhabitants of a rebellious town.)  Most of the Roman curia defected to him.  Unable to enter Rome, ‘Clement’ returned to Avignon.  There he established an efficient administration and a glittering court.

Europe reacted to the Schism on political and national lines.  The Emperor recognised the Roman papacy, as did England.  France and her allies, including Scotland, recognised Avignon, as did Spain.  The Queen of Naples also supported Avignon when she quarrelled with Urban.  However, Italian public opinion, always resentful of any French claim to the papacy, remained consistently hostile to Avignon, whatever the political upheavals in Rome and Italy.

The Schism

Fortunately the Schism was a relatively peaceful, civilised affair.  Unlike the Reformation it did not start any wars or create any martyrs.  Those on the losing side, or losing sides, were treated magnanimously.  St Vincent Ferrer’s long and close association with Avignon (he was the anti-pope’s confessor) did not prevent his fairly rapid canonisation, though he submitted to Rome shortly before his death.

The confusion and disruption caused by rival papacies can be exaggerated.  The religious practice of the Latin Church (Divine Office, sacraments, popular devotions) continued undisturbed.  As the Schism followed existing secular divisions and jurisdictions this meant in practice that the Church within a particular jurisdiction acknowledged the same pope as the local ruler acknowledged.  Thus lesser clergy and laypeople were not much affected by it.  Two great English writers of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Mother Julian of Norwich, apparently do not even mention the Schism.

However, religious orders suffered from the Schism.  Unlike the secular Church they were constituted on a supranational basis.  Authority within them was usually centralised in a single superior or general chapter.  The division of the papacy therefore forced the centralised religious orders to divide as well.

The intellectual and political elites of Europe (secular rulers, universities, bishops, even the cardinals and curias of Rome and Avignon themselves) were scandalised by the Schism.  Rival papacies were, of course, incompatible with the God-given unity of the Church.  The Schism also discredited the Holy See’s claim over the Greek Church, and the Christian cause against Islam.

From the outset, therefore, there was strong elite pressure on the rival popes to end the Schism.  Reconciliation was impossible while mad Pope Urban reigned.  His death, and the election of a more suitable successor, undermined the anti-pope’s cause.  French support for Avignon weakened, and was even withdrawn altogether for a time (1399-1403), though it was later restored.

In principle, even the rival popes accepted the imperative of reconciliation.  Candidates for both papacies made solemn promises that, if elected, they would abdicate if this would facilitate reconciliation.  However, the promises were not kept.  The second and last Avignon anti-pope, ‘Benedict XIII’, was notoriously obstinate and has been condemned as ‘the principal cause of prolonging the Schism’ (Renouard, p.76).  For their part, the Roman pontiffs, conscious of their legitimacy, were reluctant to make concessions to Avignon.


There were 2 proposals for ending the Schism:

(1) the via cessionis, inducing one or both rival popes to abdicate and

(2) the via concilii, superseding the rivals by a General Council (Obolensky, p.417).

Intellectually, the Church was not completely unprepared for the crisis of 1378.  The authority of the General, or Ecumenical, Councils of the Church, and their relationship to the Holy See, were much discussed by mediaeval canonists.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the deposition of the Pope, his involuntary removal from office, was by no means a taboo subject in mediaeval canon law.  There had long been a consensus among canonists that the Pope could be deposed for heresy.  The problem was how.  Canon law was unable to supply a procedure for effecting deposition (Tierney, p.96).

In principle, therefore, the Pope might be deposed for heresy by a General Council, but only the Pope could lawfully convene the Council in the first place.  If someone other than the Pope were to take the initiative and summon a Council, the summons and the Council would be invalid, as would any acts of the Council.  This may suggest that a heretical pope would have to consent to his own deposition.  Then again, if the Pope was a heretic, perhaps he would already, ipso facto, have lost his papal authority and would therefore be unable to depose himself!

The Great Schism created the additional problem of two rival popes.  Only the rightful Pope could summon a Council.  Gratian had anticipated this problem.  His solution was that ‘he alone shall remain in the papal chair whom the consensus universitatis [i.e the whole of Christendom] had elected’ (Ullmann, p.197).  But this ran into the same procedural difficulty that prevented the deposition of a heretical pope.  How could the consensus universitatis be lawfully articulated, so as to make a lawful election?

The inability of both canon law and the rival popes to resolve the Great Schism encouraged more radical thinking about the papacy itself.  (The deeply unattractive personalities of the rivals may also have encouraged this.)  The Schism ‘[made] men think more seriously about the institution [of the Church] … slowly there formed … the conviction that unity must be fought for, whatever the existing law of the Church might say’ (Jacob, p.7).

The intellectual movement known as conciliarism had many different variations.  None went so far as to reject papal authority altogether, as happened at the Reformation.  However, all versions proposed some constitutional limitation of papal authority by a General Council, perhaps through the agency of the College of Cardinals, or secular rulers.  Conciliarism, like canon law, saw the Church as a corporation, or hierarchy of corporations.  Unlike canon law, it held that papal headship was, to a greater or lesser extent, subject to the consent of the whole Church, the fidelium congregatio, as represented in General Councils.

Dissatisfaction with the Pope and the papacy was not new, of course.  Nor was resentment of the papal claim of plenitudo potestatis over the Church.  Conciliarism was not created by the Great Schism.  It had ‘penetrated academic circles many years before 1378’ (Obolensky, p.418).  It had been proposed, in a radical form, by William of Ockham (c.1285-1347) and Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342).

There were 3 practical manifestations of conciliarism in the 15th century:

(1) the Council of Pisa (1409)

(2) the Council of Constance (1414-1417)

(3) the Council of Basle (1431-1449)

Pisa (1409)

Pope Gregory XII (Pope 1406-1415) broke his promise not to appoint new cardinals.  All but three of his original cardinals deserted him and made common cause with some disillusioned Avignon cardinals.  Together they called the Council of Pisa.

This Council was therefore the creature of a second schism in the Roman papacy.  The difference is that this time the cardinals summoned, or purported to summon, a General Council rather than elect an anti-pope.

The Council met, and purported to depose both Pope Gregory and the Avignon anti-pope.  It then elected a new ‘pope’ of its own.  This was the first Council anti-pope, as distinct from the Avignon anti-popes.  When he died soon afterwards the Council elected a second anti-pope, ‘John XXIII’.


This Council anti-pope was initially a great success, and even entered Rome, something the Avignon anti-popes had never achieved.  However, the tide of politics soon turned against him and he fled to Florence.  The Emperor then forced him to summon a second Council.

The Council of Constance was the most significant manifestation of conciliarism.  It was dominated by Cardinal Francis Zabarella (1360-1417), the most eminent canonist of the day and author of De Schismate, an exposition of conciliarist theory.  Zabarella might have become Pope himself but he died during the Council.

The Council issued two momentous decrees

(1)  Sacrosancta, in which the Council claimed the authority of Christ for itself, and claimed the obedience of all Christians, including the Pope.  However, the Holy See never recognised this decree.

(2) Frequens, which called for Councils to be held at regular intervals.

Constance brought the Great Schism to an end, but the process by which it did so must be clearly understood.  A glib summary has it that the Council was confronted by 3 rival popes.  Nobody could decide who the rightful pope was, so the Council got rid of all 3, and then made a fresh start by electing a new Pope.  This narrative is misleading, because it confuses law and politics.

The Council had been summoned by an anti-pope, and therefore could have no legitimacy.  The Holy See could not recognise it as truly ecumenical.  However, the ageing Pope Gregory XII had at last been converted to the cause of reconciliation.  He therefore resolved the legal difficulty by convening the Council afresh.

The Pope’s action in (re)convening the Council conferred legitimacy on it from that time on.  Hence it is now recognised as the 16th Council of the Church.  Having thus convened the Council, Gregory then abdicated.  He died shortly afterwards.

A unique conclave comprising cardinals and representatives of the Council then elected a new pope.  He took the name Martin V (Pope 1417-1431) because the conclave was celebrated on St. Martin’s Day.  Martin V’s pontificate began exactly 100 years before another Martin inaugurated the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

As well as receiving Pope Gregory’s abdication, the Council deposed both the Avignon and the Council anti-popes.  The Council anti-pope submitted to Rome.  The Avignon anti-papacy lingered on obscurely for some years after 1417, but the Great Schism had effectively been healed.  Avignon itself acquired a lasting stigma from its unhappy associations, and was never again a papal residence.

Thus the Council of Constance solved a political problem.  Pope Gregory was the rightful Pope but he was incapable of healing the Schism, so he had to go.  The two anti-popes had no legal title, and no political value either, for they too were incapable of healing the Schism.  The Council ended the Schism by overcoming the old Pope’s intransigence, prevailing on him to abdicate, repudiating the two anti-popes and effecting the election of the new Pope.

This was undoubtedly a great political achievement, but it did not change any law.  There were not ‘three popes’ in 1414, or at any other time.  There was only ever one Pope.  Pope Gregory was not deposed.  The Council of Constance started along the via concilii, but it then changed direction and ended on the via cessionis.  It did not create a new source of authority.  Conciliarism as a religious doctrine did not prevail at Constance.  The Holy See survived without renouncing any of its jurisdiction.

A canonist explains that ‘Gregory XII’s fresh convocation and authorisation of the Council were a mere matter of form [but] this form was the price to which he attached his abdication, and it meant … that the [Council] should formally acknowledge him as the lawful Pope, and …. confess that its own authority dated only from that moment, and that all its previous acts … were devoid of all ecumenical character’.

He continues: ‘The [Council’s] recognition of Gregory XII’s legitimacy necessarily includes a similar recognition of [all the post-1378 Roman popes] and the rejection of the [anti-popes]’ (quoted by Pastor, p.201).

Basle (1431-1449)

Although the Holy See had not compromised its claims at Constance, conciliarism had become a powerful political force which could not be ignored.  ‘At this epoch, the idea of a General Council exercised a strange fascination on men’s minds.  It was looked upon as the cure for all the ills of the Church’ (Pastor, p.288).  Martin V therefore reluctantly convened the Council of Basle that had been prescribed by Frequens.

It was at Basle that conciliarism made its final bid for control of the mediaeval Church.  The Council published radical decrees abolishing the papal reservation of benefices (1433) and papal first fruits and annates (1435) (an early target of the English Reformation).

Martin V died shortly after convening the Council, and was succeeded by Eugene IV (Pope 1431-1447).  The new Pope’s position was weak.  He tried to dissolve the Council in 1433 but was forced to rescind the dissolution.  The political situation at Rome was so precarious that he fled to Florence and remained there for 10 years.

However, the Council was becoming discredited by its radicalism and crude political bias (pro-French, anti-Italian).  Pope Eugene gained ascendancy over it by his dialogue with Constantinople.  He held out the dazzling prospect of an end to the Greater Schism, that between the Greek and Latin Churches.  With Greek agreement, he ordered the Council to move from Basle to Ferrara (in 1437), then to Florence (in 1439).  Full of ecumenical enthusiasm for the reunion of Christendom, most of the Council Fathers obeyed the Pope’s command and left for Italy.

Of course, the Council of Ferrara-Florence proved a failure.  Reunion was agreed there, but it was never accepted by the Greek Church.  Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.  At the time, however, Ferrara-Florence seemed an outstanding ecumenical success.

The real success of Ferrara-Florence was that it averted a second major schism in the Latin Church.  The few Fathers who refused to leave Basle purported to depose Pope Eugene in 1439, and elected a third Council anti-pope, ‘Felix V’.

However, Eugene defeated this last schism by adroit diplomacy, ensuring support for the Holy See throughout Germany and Italy.  He was assisted Aenea Silvio Piccolimini, the celebrated memoirist and future Pope Pius II, who had originally supported ‘Felix’ and then defected to Rome.  ‘Felix’ himself submitted to Eugene’s successor, Nicholas V.


The Council of Constance had a lasting intellectual and cultural influence.  While the Council met ‘Constance was for three years the metropolis of Europe’ (Obolensky, p.420).  It must have been a scintillating experience: ‘The world had never before beheld an assembly at once so numerous and intellectually so brilliant … the opportunities of intercourse between learned and cultivated men, afforded by these Councils, exercised an important influence on general civilization, and especially on the renaissance in literature’ (Pastor, p.256).  Constance ‘inaugurates a new epoch in the history of the search … for manuscripts … the impetus given to the interchange of thoughts … cannot be exaggerated.  The dawn of humanism, north of the Alps, dates from this period’.

This account suggests that, just as classical canon law ended when the Great Schism began, so the Renaissance began when the Schism ended.

Conciliarism addressed questions of authority and government in the Church that canon law had apparently failed to answer.  It may therefore have given birth to modern political science, the systematic study of political power.  It has been hailed admiringly as ‘part of the liberal tradition of Europe’ (Jacob, p.2).

Conciliarism again became fashionable at the Reformation: ‘[conciliarist] ideas, and those ideas alone, form the raison d’etre of the Church of England … federalism in the Church … preserving the unity of the whole while securing the independence of the parts’ (Figgis, p.236).  The 39 Articles give qualified approval to General Councils (Article 21), but warn that Councils are not infallible and can only be held with the permission of the secular authorities.  (The Council of Trent was meeting at the time.)  The English text of the 39 Articles uses the term congregation to describe the Church (Articles 19 and 23), though the Latin text only uses the term coetus once (Article 19) and otherwise sticks to ecclesia.

Yet the reformers did not succeed in making conciliarism work in practice.  There have never been any Protestant ‘ecumenical councils’ comparable to the pre-Reformation councils.  Nor was any ‘federal’ unity achieved.  Instead the Reformation resulted in the very evil that conciliarism had sought to prevent, the fragmentation of Latin Christendom by secular political jurisdiction (now euphemistically described as ‘dispersed authority’).

After initially close contact in the 16th century (when the 39 Articles were written) the Church of England distanced itself from European Protestantism.  The creation of the worldwide Anglican Communion in the 19th century was due to the expansion of the British Empire, nothing to do with mediaeval conciliarism.  Whatever the publicity they attract, modern supranational assemblies such as the Lambeth conferences and primates’ meetings are mere informal contacts with no legal authority.

Mediaeval conciliarism also gave birth to Gallicanism in the French (Catholic) Church.  Jean Gerson (1363-1429), the ‘Father of Gallicanism’, was another luminary at the Council of Constance.  Gallicanism perished in the French Revolution, but conciliarism was recalled nostalgically in the 19th and 20th centuries by those who regretted the ultramontane papalism of the Catholic Church at this time.  The papacy was again considered an obstacle to Christian unity.  Not, as in 1378-1417, because it was weak and divided, but because it was too strong and autocratic.

The second Vatican Council modified modern papalism with its doctrine of the collegiality of the Pope, successor of Peter, and the bishops, successors of the other Apostles.  Pope and bishops together constitute one Apostolic College.  (The Pope who summoned this Council, St John XXIII, took the same name and number as the second Council anti-pope, thereby proving the latter’s lack of legitimacy.)

However, any resemblance of modern episcopal collegiality to mediaeval conciliarism is superficial.  Vatican II made clear that ‘the college of bishops has no authority [without] its head, the Roman Pontiff … and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all … [which] he can always freely exercise’ (Lumen Gentium (1964), para 22).

The Code of Canon Law 1983 confirms that the Pope may abdicate, but he must do so ‘freely’, and the abdication does not have to be accepted by any other authority (canon 332.2).  He may not be deposed against his will.  The Holy See ‘is judged by no one’ (canon 1404).  It remains a canonical offence to attempt to impugn a papal decision before an ecumenical council or the College of Bishops (canon 1372).


Commentaries referred to

Figgis, J.N, Churches in the Modern State (London 1913)

Jacob, E.F, Essays in the Conciliar Epoch (2nd ed, Manchester 1953)

Kelly, J.N.D, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (OUP 1986)

Knowles, D and Obolensky, D, The Christian Centuries (vol 2, Clarendon 1969)

Pastor, L, History of the Popes (ed F.I Antrobus 1906)

Renouard, Y, The Avignon Papacy (1954, transl D Bethell 1970)

Tierney, B, Foundations of Conciliar Theory (CUP 1955)

Ullmann, W, The Origins of the Great Schism (London 1948)