The Avignon Papacy or Babylonian captivity

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It was not so unusual for the pope to reside outside Rome – the city was often insecure and unruly – but that this would happen for some seventy years no one imagined. When Clement V transferred the papal see to Avignon at the beginning of the 14th century, it was thought to be only a brief transitional moment in the history of the Church. But year after year, decade after decade, none of the successive pontiffs on the Petrine throne seemed to be able to bring it home. To the Christians of the time, this period of residence in France, which lasted from 1305 to 1376, reminded the long exile of the Israelites in Babylon, to such an extent that historians still remember it as the “Avignon Papacy”. So for example Petrarch, who spent his youth in Avignon:

“From the impious Babylon, from which
all shame has fled, all good is banished,
the house of grief, the mother of error,
I’ve also fled, to prolong my life”.

Francesco Petrarca, The Canzoniere, poem CXIV, 14th century, translation by A. S. Kline1

Yet this was not a forced relocation at all! With choice and awareness the pontiffs decided to reside beyond the Alps. And if for Clement V it could be argued that there was interference from the king of France, Philip the Fair, his successors had maximum freedom of political and theological action. The Avignon Papacy was an epoch-making event that strongly marked the whole history of Europe and the sensibilities of the Christian faithful at the time. But how was it possible that the pope of the Holy Roman Church could reside far from Rome for such a long time?

Avignon Papacy
Palace of the Popes in Avignon

The heritage of Boniface VIII

The origin of the events can be traced to the turbulent relations between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair. In fact, the pontiff was the promulgator of a doctrinal line centered on the supremacy of the Church, marking the apex of the Medieval theocracy. Boniface VIII claimed for himself the role of the highest temporal authority on earth, as well as spiritual. Therefore, rulers, as baptized Christians, had to submit to the judgment of the Church.

Such a political vision had to be in conflict with the regalis potestas of European sovereigns. The starting point of the contrasts with Philip the Fair was due to the issuance of the bull Clericis laicos of February 24, 1296, by which Boniface VIII forbade the collection of tributes toward ecclesiastics. To the manifest disobedience of the ruler of France the pontiff responded, on December 5, 1301, with the famous bull Ausculta fili. Here Philip the Fair was rebuked and accused of “murders, crimes and sins”. Again Boniface VIII reiterated his theocratic doctrinal approach in the Unam Sanctam of November 18, 1302.

The “slap” of Anagni

Philip reacted decisively. Meeting the Council of State at the Louvre on March 12, 1303, he proposed to arrest the pope and put him on trial for heresy, simony, and sodomy, and especially for the murder of Celestine V. By doing so, he hoped to remove the pontiff from office. To this end, the ruler sent his trusted State Councillor William of Nogaret to Anagni, where Boniface VIII was residing, to take him to France2. The expedition was also joined by Sciarra Colonna, member of the Roman family that had had conflicts with the Pope. On September 7, 1303, William of Nogaret achieved to enter Anagni with his retinue. Boniface VIII was vehemently insulted and it is said that Sciarra Colonna struck him in the face, although it is likely that a “slap” occurred only in a moral sense.

The pontiff never recovered from that outrage: he died just a month later, on October 11, 1303, and with him the claims of any universalist doctrine fell. However, the conflict between Philip the Fair and the papacy did not ended with Caetani’s death. In fact, the French king decided to continue the case against him post mortem. This decision had great historical repercussions and finally led to the Avignon papacy.

Philip the Fair and the French Royal Family. Manuscript by an anonymous author dated 1313, classified as Ms Lat 8504 and preserved at the National Library in Paris

The election of Clement V and the beginning of the Avignon papacy

After the sad conclusion of Boniface VIII’s pontificate, the Dominican Benedict XI took the throne. He, ignoring the bull Unam Santam, turned his attention to the attempt at reconciliation with Philip the Fair, but he remained alive just eight months after his election. What uncertainty was through the Church is easy to imagine. The theocratic axioms of the papacy were no longer so inviolable. So the conclave of cardinals, meeting again in Perugia, was not able to elect a successor. There was great indecision whether to retrace the intransigent doctrine of Boniface VIII or another more conciliatory one.

The Papal See remained vacant for eleven months, thanks in part to more intrusive pressure from Philip the Fair. A French pope was finally elected: the white smoke for Clement V, born Bertrand de Got, was announced on June 5, 1305. Originally from Gascony, he was not a cardinal but held the position of archbishop in Bordeaux. It is unclear if the new pope had really promised tithes and huge concessions to the French ruler in order to direct the conclave, as reported by Giovanni Villani, a chronicler contemporary with the events3. Perhaps these were only rumors, which nevertheless spread widely. Thus, Dante Alighieri in the Comedy places Clement V in hell, among simoniacs, referring to him as Pastor without law:

“[…] For after him shall come of fouler deed
From tow’rds the west a Pastor without law,
Such as befits to cover him and me.

New Jason will he be, of whom we read
In Maccabees ; and as his king was pliant,
So he who governs France shall be to this one”.

Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Inferno, XIX, 226-227, Translation by Henry Hadsworth Longfellow, 2008

The pope of the Holy “Roman” Church remains in France

Clement V chose to be crowned in Lyon, November 13, 1305, and such a decision seemed legitimate for a French pope. But over time, while never formally expressing himself, he never returned to Rome. The pontiff adduced from time to time exigencies of a political nature or related to his personal health. Clement V first took his court to Poitiers and then from 1313 to Avignon, city of the Anjou, counts of Provence and vassals of the pope. As if that were not enough, as soon as he was elected he decided to appoint nine new French cardinals. The pontiff’s greatest concerns, which had a great impact on his choice to remain in his homeland, turned to his relationship with Philip the Fair. Towards the King he expressed gratitude but, at the same time, oscillating attempts at opposition.

While Clement V largely abrogated Boniface VIII’s bulls Clericis Laicos and Unam Sanctam, he sought to oppose the French king’s desire to continue with the post mortem process against his predecessor. This was not merely a matter of principle: the delegitimization of Benedetto Caetani, even if posthumously, meant inflicting a severe blow to the image of the papacy and its theocracy. Clement V convinced Philip the Fair to postpone the trial several times. But this occurred only by virtue of a series of agreements and concessions that included the absolution of William of Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna, the canonization of Celestine V, and above all the dissolution of the Templars. The Order was suppressed with the bull Vox in excelso of March 22, 1312, although it was exonerated of the charges of heresy that were brought against it.

Avignon papacy
Palace of the Popes in Avignon

The long period of the Avignon papacy

The residence in Avignon, while allowing the pope to administer the government of the Church in a decidedly more peaceful manner than in Italy, left the territories of the Peninsula in a precarious situation of stability. First, the ambitions of the Ghibellines, led by the Visconti of Milan and the Veronese Della Scala, were revived. To a large extent, contrasts increased in Rome, divided as it was between the powerful noble families of Colonna and Orsini. Thus, after the death of Clement V on April 20, 1314, even his successors were forced to remain in France. John XXII, elected at a Conclave in Lyon in 1316, had only to officially establish the seat of the Pope and the Curia in Avignon.

This was only the beginning of the Avignon Papacy, which lasted for another sixty years. Again Dante in the XXXII cantica of Purgatorio, with apocalyptically inspired passages, compared the Church of that time to a harlot. According to the supreme poet it had given itself to a giant, namely, the king of France, to whom it was now at the mercy:

“Firm as a rock upon a mountain high,
Seated upon it, there appeared to me
A shameless whore, with eyes swift glancing round;                    

And, as if not to have her taken from him,
Upright beside her I beheld a giant;
And ever and anon they kissed each other”.

Dante Alighieri, Comedy, Purgatorio, XXXII, 501-502, Translation by Henry Hadsworth Longfellow, 2008

Attempts to return to Rome

There was no lack of vain efforts by the popes to return to Rome. Benedict XII (1334-1342), for example, expressed this intention to some ambassadors in 1335. However, having found this impossible because of the lingering unrest in Italy, he decided to build a fortified castle in Avignon to reside in. The first core of the Palace of the Popes was thus built by master architect Pierre Poisson. Hence, the structure was later enlarged by his successor Clement VI (1342-1352), who loved the transalpine city so much that he wanted to buy it for eighty thousand gold florins from the Queen of Naples Joan of Anjou. The Avignon building became imposing, having to serve at the same time as a stronghold and a stately palace, able to accommodate the rich papal court and the artists, men of letters, and men of culture who came there.

Avignon Papacy
Palace of the Popes in Avignon

Cardinal Albornoz’s “reconquest”

Again Innocent VI (1352-1362) hoped to return to Rome when he sent the Spanish cardinal Egidio Albornoz to Italy4. In two separate decrees dated June 30, 1353, he appointed him legate and vicar in spiritualibus et temporalibus5. Basically, the pontiff conferred on him the power to intervene in ecclesiastical and equally jurisdictional matters, to collect tithes and even to impose excommunications. Albornoz was in fact tasked with restoring order to the papal territories and re-establishing the full sovereignty of the pope. The estates in the Peninsula, although under formal ecclesiastical authority, were in fact administered by local lords6.

Albornoz descended into Italy leading an army of mercenaries and, not without initial difficulties, already in the spring of 1354 he successfully subdued the usurper of the papal territories in Tuscia, the prefect Giovanni di Vico. The following year he pacified the Duchy of Spoleto and the March of Ancona and, after a brief period spent in Avignon, also reconquered Bologna. Within just five years most of the Church’s territories were brought back under the pope’s control.

Gregory XI puts an end to Avignon papacy

The exploits of Cardinal Albornoz had finally created those conditions of order and security to allow a possible return of the papal throne to Italy. Here Urban V (1362-1370), animated by good intentions and a strong nostalgic feeling, to which Petrarch’s writings contributed, returned to Rome on October 16, 1367. It was indeed only a short period. Concern about the continuation of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, toward which the pope wanted to offer himself as mediator, the revival of unrest in the Urbe and a rebellion in nearby Perugia soon forced him, after only three years, to return again to fortified Avignon.

Nevertheless, this attempt was the prelude to the final return. The new pontiff Gregory XI (1370-1378) was elected in a climate of strong resentment against the French papacy. Indeed, rumours of a possible schism were coming from Italy as it was feared that an antipope could be elected. Of great importance then was the insistence of Catherine of Siena, with whom the pontiff had long correspondence. The saint firmly succeeded in persuading him to return to Rome. And so it happened: on January 17, 1377, Gregory XI solemnly returned to the city, ending the long Avignon papacy and promising that never again would a pontiff reside elsewhere.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places


  1. F. Petrarca, The Canzoniere, translation by A. S. Kline, 2002. ↩︎
  2. E. Dupré Theseider, Bonifacio VIII Papa, in Enciclopedia dei Papi, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 2000. ↩︎
  3. C. Rendina, I papi, Roma, Edizioni Newton Compton, 1990. ↩︎
  4. G. Mollat, Les papes d’Avignon (1305-1378), Paris 1965. ↩︎
  5. Costituzioni Egidiane dell’anno MCCCLVII, a cura di P. Sella, Roma, 1912. ↩︎
  6. Ibidem note 3. ↩︎
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