In 1409, There Were Three Simultaneous Popes

(Depiction of the Council of Constance, c. 1417, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


The Years from 1309 to 1377 were called the Avignon Papacy, or the Babylonian Captivity. It was a time when the headquarters of the pope was moved from Italy to France. In 1377, Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome, but after his death in 1378, the Catholic Church was thrown into an even stranger set of events.

The people of Rome took to the streets to voice their desire that the papacy be kept in their city. After all, Pope Gregory XI had only just moved back to Rome right before he died. Romans, understandably, did not want the next pope to immediately pack up and leave for France.

With unrest in the streets, Cardinals met in a conclave and elected Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) to lead the Catholic Church. A large group of the Cardinals, however, felt that the election of Urban VI had been a mistake that had only occurred because of the rioting Romans. As a result, the disillusioned Cardinals snuck out of Rome and elected Clement VII (1378-1394) as their pope. Of course Urban VI, in Rome, scoffed at the election of another pope and he excommunicated Clement VII. In turn, Clement VII excommunicated Urban VI.

Urban VI remained in Rome and Clement VII returned to Avignon. The Christian countries of Europe began to fall in line behind the two popes. Pope Urban VI was supported by Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Scandinavian countries, and England. As England was on the side of the pope in Rome, it was not surprising that France and Scotland, along with the Spanish countries of Castile, Aragon and Navarre were on the side of Clement VII, in Avignon.

The Council of Pisa in 1409 sought to end the schism between the popes in Avignon and Rome, so they elected a new pope, Alexander V (1409-1410). Then, they decreed that the other two popes should step down in favor of the new pontiff. The popes of Avignon and Rome, however, refused to comply. There were now three popes—The pope of Rome, the pope of Avignon and the pope of Pisa.

Alexander V’s successor, John XXIII, called the Council of Constance into session in 1414, hoping that he would be legitimized in favor of his rivals in Rome and Avignon. Instead, in 1417, the Council of Constance put an end to all the crazy nonsense by deposing all the popes and having a new election. They elected Pope Martin V (1417-1431) as the sole pope and finally restored the Catholic Church to stability.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


  • The European Reformations (Second Edition) by Carter Lindberg. Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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