The Great Western Schism (distinct from the Great Schism between East and West of 1054) began in 1378 after the election of the Avignon pope Clement VII as rival to the Roman pope Urban VI. For the roughly seventy years prior, the papacy was in residence at Avignon, France, rather than its traditional location of Rome. Though previous popes had taken up residence outside of Rome, the Avignon papacy caused a stir because of its connections with the French government and the lavish lifestyle of the pope and curia, his collection of cardinals and administrative officials. It was during this period that the epithet “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” was first used, describing the papal court in Avignon. The last of the Avignon popes, Gregory XI, decided to relocate to Rome and upon his death the expectation was that the new pope would likewise retain residence there. His successor was elected and named Urban VI. However, almost immediately after Urban’s election, the cardinals expressed remorse over his ill-tempered ways and claimed their selection came under duress due to the Roman crowds pressing them to choose a pope who would not return to Avignon.
The solution of the cardinals was to declare their election of Urban invalid and select a new pope, the French Clement VII. However, Urban did not accept their decision and for the next half-century two lines of popes existed: the Avignon papacy (Clement VII and his successor Benedict XII) and the Roman papacy (Urban VI, Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII). The schism went beyond the ecclesiastical realm and had political consequences, as the nations of Western Europe aligned themselves in “obediences” to one or the other line. France, the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre, plus Scotland, and at various times Naples and French Burgundy all followed the Avignon papacy, while most of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, along with England, Portugal, and Dutch Burgundy supported Rome. Theologians, ecclesiastics, and secular rulers all made attempts to resolve the crisis. One solution was for both popes to voluntarily abdicate their claims in order to appoint a single pope in their place (via cessionis). Another solution was for diplomatic action to be taken by kingdoms of the respective obediences (via compromissi). Another option was to resolve the dilemma by force (via facti), militarily removing one or both popes. But the option that gained momentum was that the church could avail itself of an ancient means for resolving conflict: it could convene a general council (via concilii) to determine who had the rightful claim to the Roman see. Drawing on the precedent of ancient church councils and medieval canon law, those supporting the conciliar option believed a council had the right to depose a pope who was in error and remained opposed to correction.
The first attempt at rectifying the schism by way of a council occurred at Pisa (1409), when the council fathers removed the existing popes and appointed Alexander V to the papacy. But when the existing popes disagreed with the council’s decision, the result was not two, but three rival claimants: the Roman Gregory XII, the Avignonese Benedict XIII, and the Pisan John XXIII, who replaced Alexander when the latter died a year after his election. A second attempt at conciliar action was then necessary, this time occurring at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The council was convoked by the Pisan John XXIII, who reached an agreement with the bishops to resign his position. But John took flight from Constance under pressure and refused to submit to the council’s decisions. The council fathers then took action by convincing Gregory XII to follow through with the initial plan. He agreed, under the qualification that he could reconvoke the council and peacefully resign as the legitimate heir to the office. The council then condemned the remaining rival popes and appointed Martin V on November 11, 1417 to the Roman see.