Pope Gregory XII: The beginning of the end of the schism
Pope Innocent VII's was not mourned in the least for the people of Italy were fed up with his double standards and lack of pastoral presence in a Church that was badly in need of some ecclesial guidance. Thus, when the cardinals met in conclave to elect his successor they all made a vow that, by God, this time would be upheld. That was that whoever would be selected would agree to abdicate the papacy if the antipope Benedict XIII would do the same. It was the only way to end the Great Schism of the West. With this agreed, the College of Cardinals unanimously elected Cardinal Angelo Correr as the 205th successor of Peter on November 30, 1406. He chose the name Pope Gregory XII and immediately announced to the Christian world his intentions to renounce his title as the Vicar of Christ if Benedict would agree as well. He sent his nephew with a papal legate to Marseilles, France where Benedict was to iron out arrangements as to where they should meet. Finally they hammered out the destination - the city of Savona in Italy which owed its allegiance to Avignon. However, when word reached Gregory he was upset that his nephew, inexperienced in diplomatic matters, had conceded too much. Further he feared what might happen to the Church for his legates had failed to get a commitment of cooperation from various rulers. He greatly feared retaliation and a takeover which would be worse than what happened to his predecessors, thus not only prolonging the schism but widening the gap even further. Add to this that one of his counselors was King Ladislas of Naples who, for political expediency, saw the meeting of the two popes as detrimental to his agenda. Therefore he planted many seeds of doubts in the mind of Gregory. This further exasperated Benedict who had been led around on the proverbial leash by Gregory's predecessors. Truth be known, Benedict's outward frustrations were all show for he had no intention of stepping down. As the negotiations stretched into weeks and then months, his cardinals became openly antagonistic that Gregory was not being sincere in his pre-conclave vow and this paranoia played on Gregory as well. On May 4, 1408 Gregory created four new cardinals with two of them being his nephews. This nepotism did not play well with the rest of the conclave nor the populace who saw it as too much in the footsteps of Innocent VII. This caused all but three of the entire College to abandon him, fleeing to Pisa where they published a letter that, in essence, went over his head and appealed to Jesus Christ Himself in calling for a general council to settle the schism. They sent out letters to all the European princes assuring them of the cardinals' dedication to unity. They were also able to infiltrate Benedict's ranks and persuade four of his cardinals to join them at a council at Pisa in March 1409. Both Benedict and Gregory were invited; both declined. Regardless, the council went on and finally, during the 15th session on June 5, 1409 the Council voted to depose both Popes, declaring them both heretics. Despite attempted mediation by the German monarch King Rupert, the Council cardinals elected a new Pontiff three weeks later on June 26, 1409.
They selected Alexander V, formerly Cardinal Pietro Philarghi, a Greek prelate from northern Crete. He had been one of the cardinals who had broken ranks with Gregory and collaborated against the Pope with Cardinal Baldassare Cossa, who would become the antipope John XXIII on the former's death. Since Alexander had not been elected by the College of Cardinals but rather by the council that was not recognized by Gregory nor many rulers throughout Europe, they claimed Alexander could not lay claim to the Holy See. Thus, rather than clearing up the schism, it had only multiplied with two antipopes now in the mix along with Gregory. If before two were company, then now three were a crowd. While Gregory had initially agreed to abdicate, he was not prepared to be labeled a heretic. This not only infuriated him but Kings Rupert and Ladislas as well. They accompanied Gregory to the Aquilea region where the Pope convened his own council. There the Council, small in number, excommunicated both Benedict (again) and Alexander. There are reports that the Archbishop of Aquilea was so upset with Gregory's action that he threatened the Pontiff's life. Gregory was forced to flee in disguise to Gaeta under the protection of Ladislas. From there he ruled the Church while Ladislas reconquered the Papal States of Umbria and Rome. This didn't sit well with Alexander who, in turn, excommunicated Ladislas and invested the kingdom to Louis II of Anjou sending him against Ladislas in a military battle to be played out in Rome. Alexander also dispatched Cardinal Baldassare Cossa as one of his commanders to assist Louis' army.
Meanwhile, Benedict was doing his own railing and excommunicating but his support had waned greatly. No longer at Avignon because France had fallen out of favor, he was forced to move to Barcelona where Spain was still behind Benedict. Save for Portugal and Scotland, no one else threw their support to him. While all this was underway Alexander did do something right, condemning the writings and teachings of the reformist John Wycliffe, but because the papacy was so fragmented, it did little to alarm the people to what was to come a century later. Alexander was a good man, a devoted Franciscan, who meant well but was merely a pawn in the plans of Baldassare who, some suspect, poisoned him on May 3, 1410 after returning from battle and weary. In all fairness, Alexander should not be termed an "antipope" but rather, as many historians so note, a "council pope."
With Alexander's death Baldassare was the logical successor and he manipulated it to make that a reality by being elected John XXIII by the Pisan cardinals at Bologna on May 17, 1410. Many believe he was rubberstamped in through the intimidation tactics of Louis II of Anjou who had tied his fate to Baldassare. He was as different from Alexander as night and day. While Alexander was a pious, austere man, John XXIII was a philanderer and adulterer. [It must be noted here that this John XXIII should not be confused with Pope John XXIII who became the legitimate 261st successor of Peter on October 28, 1959.] Because Gregory had lost much support and his chief supporter was embroiled in battle, France, England and several Italian and German states threw their support behind the slick John XXIII who portrayed a papal presence that persuaded many. In fact John was so persuasive that he even convinced Ladislas to forsake Gregory after Louis II had failed in his attempts to defeat the King of Naples. Gregory was crestfallen at this falling out. But it didn't take long for Ladislas to realize the error of his ways and the forked-tongue ways of John. He retaliated against the latter and John fled for his life from Rome, seeking refuge in Florence. He appealed to the German King Sigismund who had replaced King Rupert. Sigismund could see the inherent problems and thus called for a council - the Council of Constance to determine, once and for all, a solution to this schism. Having painted himself into a corner, John had no choice but to agree to Sigismund's terms and thus, on December 9, 1413, issued a bull announcing the Council. Before the Council could be convened Ladislas died on August 6, 1414 and John entertained ambitions of winning back the papal states, but he had committed himself to the course of council and thus was prevented from militarily taking action.
The Council of Constance resembled a political convention with lobbying on all sides. Benedict again refused to attend or to abdicate, holing himself up in Peniscola on the Valencia coast and claiming that there was the seat of the Church which he referred to as the "Ark of Noah." Few paid attention and Spain disavowed any loyalty to this "mad man." After numerous sessions John XXIII tried an end run by disguising himself and fled the city disguised as a bridegroom hoping that it would disrupt the council and they would disband. Rather it prompted the council to dig in. They brought him back as a prisoner and proclaimed that the Council was superior to the Pope in matters such as these, a sticky wicket that would gum up the works for years to come. But the Council did decree that all who laid claim to the papacy - Gregory, Benedict and John must be suspended. While Benedict stubbornly refulsed, both Gregory and John had no choice but to agree to the terms. Both renounced the papacy and Gregory issued a landmark papal bull on July 4, 1415 in what could be rightly referred to as the "first independence day" for finally the schism was over. John retired to Germany to live out his life there in the custody of Ludwig III of Bavaria until he was able to ransom his freedom and travel to Rome where he publicly offered homage to the new Pope before dying on November 22, 1419.
As for Gregory XII, it was not easy but he was obedient to the Council's actions. In obedience he was appointed Cardinal-bishop of Porto and a lifetime legate to Ancona while being declared ineligible from ever being considered again for the papacy. Yet, in loyalty to him, he was assured of ranking next in priority to the new Pope who was a while in being elected due to the Council and the reforms of elective process that continued for over 18 months. It would be over two years later when Pope Martin V would be chosen on November 11, 1417. Three weeks prior to that Gregory, obedient and repentive and exuding holiness, died at Recanati, Italy
Next issue: Pope Martin V: The struggle to start anew