Student Essay:
Knights and Knaves at Avignon

By Mikayla Pipes

The fourteenth-century debate over the legitimate papal line seems as if it can only be a matter of "A said this, but B said that." Can a compelling case be made for either claimant?

In 1303, King Philip the Fair of France had Pope Boniface VIII seized and threw him into prison, on several trumped-up charges, but principally for claiming that the Pope had supreme power over both political and religious affairs. Three days later, Boniface was rescued by the Roman knights; the rough treatment he had experienced took its toll, and he died a few months later. After his death, King Philip tried his best, and for a while succeeded, to make the papacy into a French satellite. The next eight Popes and almost all of the cardinals they appointed were French, and all of them resided in Avignon (an ostensibly independent enclave surrounded by French territory) rather than Rome. Finally, St. Catherine of Siena persuaded Pope Gregory IX, the eighth French Pope in a row, to relocate to Rome.

In 1378, Gregory IX died, and a new Pope had to be elected. The cardinals duly formed a conclave, but the Roman people crowded around it, declaring that they wanted a Roman Pope, or at least an Italian one. The cardinals chose the Italian Bishop of Bari, Bartolommeo Prignano, who took the name Urban VI. No doubt they were influenced by the pressure of the people; nevertheless, the Sacred College (the body of cardinals who elect Popes) took the usual measures, if not more, to ensure Urban VI was seen as the Pope. After approving him, they informed the world leaders of their approval; he was enthroned at the Vatican Palace, then in St. John Lateran, and finally, on April 18, 1378, in St. Peter’s. Thus far there was no complaint, and Urban VI was accepted by all. But before long, Urban VI began to go insane—as some thought, because of the power he was given as Pope. On September 20, the cardinals withdrew to the city of Fondi (about halfway from Rome to Naples), where they declared that they had only elected Urban VI under extreme pressure from the Roman people and that he was therefore illegitimate. They then elected Robert of Geneva, who took the name Clement VII. Thus, what is now called the Western Schism* began, and the Catholic Church was split just about in half.**

Though opinions differed and changed locally, in general, the people of England, Ireland, modern Germany, northern Italy, Portugal, Scandinavia, and the Catholic countries of Eastern Europe believed Urban VI was the true Pope, while those in France, her ally Scotland, southern Italy, and modern Spain believed Clement VII was. However, now that centuries have passed and the political biases of the time are less prevalent, the Roman Church considers Urban VI to have been the true Pope.

It was not, of course, surprising; it was what had always been foreseen. Christendom had betrayed itself again, as, since St. Peter, it was always doing.

Those who defend Clement VII of Avignon as the true Pope claim that the election of Urban VI was invalid, usually on two grounds. The first is that the Roman people threatened the cardinals with loss of life and limb, thus interfering with the election and imposing outside interference on it. The second is that Urban VI, after being elected, proved to be slightly insane (at least according to Clement VII’s supporters): from this, too, they suggest that the cardinals did not freely elect him, since they would not have willingly elected an insane bishop as Pope. Clement VII, on the other hand, was a relatively good prelate who had his wits about him.

At first glance, these arguments can seem convincing, but they fall apart on further examination of the history. To begin with, before conclaves were created for the purpose, Popes were elected in many ways. At first, all Roman Catholics (i.e., Catholics of the Diocese of Rome) had a vote. In the eighth to tenth centuries, the power to elect Popes went back and forth among the people, the clergy, and the nobility; in 898, it was even declared that the Pope must be elected in the presence of imperial ambassadors. In 1059, reforms were made such that the College of Cardinals chose the Pope, and the Roman clergy and people confirmed the decision (and in 1274, conclaves as known today were established, by sequestration† of the College throughout the process). Therefore, it was not always the case that the Roman people had no say, nor is it true that the cardinals were never influenced by outside powers. Yet never until this election—when prejudice for the French and against Romans ran eight generations deep—was the papal election contested to this extent.‡

Urban VI was elected according to the prescribed method, and thus was the legitimate Pope. Whether or not he was a bad Pope (or at least worse than Clement VII) has no influence on his legitimacy. There were many evil, but nevertheless legitimate, Popes before this time; Popes are infallible when teaching on matters of faith and morals, but not in their personal lives. And while at any given time, there may be better candidates to govern the Church than the reigning Pope, it does not follow that the pope is illegitimate. In addition, the election of Urban VI was not unreasonable, for at the time of his election he was a good and wise bishop. It was only afterwards, armed with power, that he became slightly unbalanced.

The election of Urban VI was legitimate. The cardinals had the freedom to choose a candidate, and they chose the Archbishop of Bari, Urban VI. Even under pressure by the people, it was a legitimate election, for at no other point in history were Popes considered illegitimate solely because of outside persuasion. Secondly, the goodness or evil of Urban VI has no part in whether he was legitimate, since Popes in their personal lives are not infallible. Thus, Urban VI was the true Pope, while Clement VII was no more than the leader of the Western Schism.

*This is sometimes called the Great Schism, especially in older texts (most scholars now reserve the name “Great Schism” for the split between Rome and Byzantium in 1054).
**There was a three-way split for the last few years of the Schism. One attempt to resolve it was the Council of Pisa: it declared both papal claimants deposed—something it lacked the power to do—and elected a replacement who would reign from that city (about halfway between Rome and Avignon). This compromise was not successful; actual resolution took place at the Council of Constance, which began five years later.
Sequestration means that the members of the College of Cardinals cannot leave until the election has been completed, and no outsiders are permitted to enter.
‡There had of course been antipopes (false claimants to the papacy) before; on rare occasions there had even been antipapal successions. However, these had remained mostly local and short-lived, whereas the Western Schism was a continent-spanning conflict lasting almost forty years.


Mikayla Pipes is the youngest of eight children (seven girls and one boy) and lives near St. Louis, MO. She is a 16-year-old junior in high school. Her favorite subject is math, in which she anticipates pursuing a career.

On Fridays at the Journal, we host submissions (either nonfiction essays or creative writing) from students who have achieved an outstanding score on the CLT. Congratulations to Miss Pipes on her excellent work on our exam! If you’d like to see more from our top students, you can explore their pieces at the Journal here. And be sure to take a listen to our podcast, Anchored—hosted by CLT founder Jeremy Tate, it has seen rapid growth since it began in 2020, and is one of our favorite ways of discussing and promoting the good, the true, and the beautiful in the realm of education.

Published on 31st March, 2023. “Knights and Knaves” is a nickname of the well-known logic puzzle in which we are asked to determine which of two people always lies and which always tells the truth.

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