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  • Writer's pictureKatie


The first thing Catholics see when a new pope is elected is white smoke that spews out of the tiny chimney perched on top of the Sistine Chapel. However, this was not what happened when the College of Cardinals elected the new pope when the papacy lived in Avignon, France. After seven popes operated out of the French city, a war erupted between the cardinals who wanted to stay in Avignon and those who tried to instate a Roman pope. It was a too-confusing time in the history of Roman Catholicism that resulted in the election of two popes at the same time. It proved religion is not so different from politics.

The Papacy Moved To Avignon In 1309

At the beginning of the 14th century, King Philippe IV the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII were at war with each other, which resulted in the election of a French prelate. Bertrand de Got, archbishop of Bordeaux, took the name Clement V. For many different reasons, one of them being the crisis of the Order of the Temple, Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon in 1309. The city was a vassal city of the Holy See and was next to Comtat Venaissin, which was Church property.

After Clement V died, John XXII was elected by the French cardinals who lived in Avignon and established the Sacred College. Unrest in Italy made John XXII want to stay in Avignon. He converted the Episcopal Palace in the city into an even bigger and more beautiful palace where the Pontifical court could meet. But shortly after pope Benedict XII was elected, it was torn down and made into another, bigger palace on the same site, built by Pierre Poisson.

Even in its grandeur, Benedict XII's Palace was not up to his successor's taste either, so Clement VI made his palace nearby. That one was named the "New Palace." This one, built by Jean de Louvres, was more flowery. Clement VI ended up buying the entire Avignon city from Queen Joan of Naples in 1348. Innocent VI later finished his predecessor's work on the "New Palace," and his successor, Urban V, extended the gardens. However, Urban V's successor, Gregory XI, was only concerned with bringing the pope's jurisdiction back to Rome and succeeded in 1376.

All seven popes who lived at the Papal Palace in Avignon created one of the world's wealthiest institutions and expanded ideas while expanding the building.

The Two Popes

When Gregory XI succeeded in bringing his followers back to Rome, it started a 39-year feud between the cardinals who wanted to stay in Avignon and the cardinals who wanted the pope to live in the Vatican. This was known as the Great Western Schism. During the 39 years, two popes were ruling from their respective palaces, with seven successive popes in Rome and two subsequent in Avignon.

Pope Urban VI was elected in Rome, but he turned out to be hostile to the cardinals, who had gained power during their residence in Avignon. A group of them moved to Anagni to elect their own pope, Clement VII, citing Urban VI's election as invalid. Clement VII then moved to Avignon. This not only spurred confusion among Catholics but also proved to lessen the papacy's authority.

Eventually, cardinals from both sides came together to form the Council of Pisa. They elected a third pope, Alexander V, despite the two other popes' resistance to step down. But even Alexander V was removed just as the Roman pope, Gregory XII, resigned and the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, was dismissed. The schism officially ended when Martin V was elected. In the end, we got one of the most splendid palaces in all of Catholicism.

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