From 1309 to 1377, the Italian capital took an unprecedented break as the residence of the papacy, which relocated to the French city of Avignon. French-born Pope Clement V ordered the move in response to the increasingly fractious and political environment in Rome, which had seen his predecessors face off against Philip IV of France – the man who had ensured Clement’s election by the conclave and who was pressing for the papal residence to move to France.
The influence of the French crown over the Roman Catholic Church was significant. Not only did Clement choose Lyon as the site of his coronation in 1305, but all six of his successors in the Avignon Papacy and 111 of the 134 cardinals installed at this time were French. The idea that these popes were puppets for France, whether entirely true or not, hurt the Church’s reputation.
But things only got worse. When Gregory XI returned the papal court to Rome in 1377, many of the cardinals weren’t happy with that decision, or with his successor, Urban VI. They chose an alternative pope to continue in Avignon. This was the start of the Great Schism, 40 turbulent years when the papacy in Rome was challenged by a line of rival claimants.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed