Pope Urban VI: Out of the frying pan of the Avignon Exile, into the fire of the Great Schism.
The death of Pope Gregory XI signaled the end of the French reign of Popes, but the Italian who they chose contributed greatly in widening the ever-increasing gap between French and Italian cardinals to the point that the obstinate, unruly Pope Urban VI actually brought the Great Schism of the West on himself. It all started out innocently enough at the conclave following Gregory's death. For the first time in well over seventy years the election was held in Rome. Any thought of electing another Frenchman was curtailed by two factors. One, Gregory not brought all the French cardinals with him to Rome, leaving six still in Avignon; and two, the Italians, furious that the conclave would even consider a Frenchman, demonstrated vehemently and violently at times outside the Vatican demanding that an Italian be chosen. The cardinals who were present were no doubt intimidated and quickly chose the Archbishop of Bari, the Naples-born Cardinal Bartolomeo Prignano as the 202nd successor of Peter. The cardinals felt that by choosing this Naples-born prelate they would not only appease the masses thronging outside, but Prignano was knowledgable of Curia matters having served as Gregory's regent of the papal chancery. Prior to that, despite he was Italian, Prignano had been one of the leading voices in the curia at Avignon. It seemed like a safe choice and Urban VI was enthroned as the Vicar of Christ on Easter Sunday, April 18, 1378. What the Sacred Conclave didn't count on was Urban's violent temper and unrealistic demands. Almost immediately he started making drastic changes, beginning with the curia and the cardinals, demanding that all prelates lead a more austere lifestyle. While this is noble, it was too much too soon and his manner endeared him to no one, including Saint Catherine of Siena who tried desperately to rationalize and counsel Urban. In fact, Catherine was one of the few Urban had any time for. He dared not antagonize this strong-spirited nun. But even Catherine could not do a lobotomy on him or effect a personality change. In short, the power went to his head and Urban began to think he could do anything, treating all from servant to royalty with disdain. Urban insulted Otto of Brunswick who was the husband of Joanna I of Naples who reacted in rebellion. Soon word trickled back to Avignon that the French cardinals should join them in Anagni where they could debate what would be the Conclave's next move. In effect the Great Schism of the West was being formed. The cardinals submitted several ultimatums to Urban who steadfastly resisted any resistance and promised retribution. Rather than reconciliation, this pushed the cardinals - both French and Italian - further away from the Pope. On August 9, 1378 the majority of cardinals published their own document declaring the April election of Urban null and void. Aided by Joanna the French cardinals and disgruntled Italian red-hats met in Fondi, Italy and, on September 20, 1378, elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva, the merciless commander of Gregory's papal army, as Clement VII; in effect, the antipope. Officially, the day he was inaugurated will live in infamy in Church annals. It is no coincidence that it was Halloween, October 31, 1378 for there were scary things ahead for Holy Mother Church and her flock.
Urban VI could have thwarted this schism had he been more receptive to criticism and more attuned to what the cardinals were saying. His pig-headedness and Jeckly-Hyde personality pushed most within the curia away and made it possible for his enemies to gain strength. Christian Europe was torn. First the Avignon exile for seventy years, now this. It was enough to lose one's faith and many did, losing interest and confidence in their leaders who, as the years passed, they trusted less and less. Like hungry politicians during an hot-and-heavy election campaign, both Urban and Clement VII tried to woo nations. Urban, because of his roots was able to swing most of Italy to his side as well as England and central Europe. France had intended to stay neutral but her monarch King Charles V fell in behind Clement VII when England and Italy, both bitter rivals of the French, declared for Urban. Scotland, Burgundy and Savoy joined France while King Wenceslaus of Germany sided with Urban. With Europe once again divided St. Catherine realized her only avenue was to stand strongly behind the true Pope who was duly elected despite the fact the conclave was rushed and the cardinals greatly intimidated by the crowds. Many might think Catherine was wrong but two things should be considered: First of all, obedience bears the greatest fruit; and secondly, saints are human too. Spain washed her hands of the entire thing, remaining neutral for some time until Aragon and Castile finally declared in favor of Clement. Meanwhile, like master chess contestants Urban and Clement waged a bitter struggle through their respective armies. Even though Clement was a master military man, he conducted the warroom from Rome, but when Urban's mercenaries soundly defeated the former's men at Marino, Clement VII was forced into retreat from his fortress on June 17, 1379 at Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome to Naples and from there to Avignon. Safely back within the papal palace in France, Clement set up his papal court. Rather than being efficient and wise in counsel, the cardinals there opted for the opulence of royalty.
In hopes of bringing unity, several cardinals and German princes proposed to both Urban and Clement a general council in which the Council Fathers would decide. There had already been enough bloodshed. Both were reluctant, Urban moreso figuring he had nothing to lose by holding out for he was the true Pope and no one could do anything about it. Clement was still reeling, seeking revenge from Urban for his humiliating defeat at Marino. Thus Clement tried to coerce and promise various rulers a "piece of the action" - papal states if they could defeat Urban's troops. Urban countered by excommunicating Queen Joanna I who had aligned with the Clementines, replacing her with her cousin Charles of Durazzo whom he lavishly crowned in 1381 in Rome. But Charles secretly had no allegiance to Urban and his ties to Joanna ran deep, so much so that he tried to have Urban placed under a special council to contain his powers and abuse. Urban retaliated by arresting six cardinals, torturing them and setting a trap for Charles, but Charles was up to the task and evaded the ambush, sending his troops in undercover early. His ploy was so successful that he forced Urban to flee to Genoa. There five more cardinals vanished from the face of the earth. To this day no one knows what happened but many historians believe Urban took his wrath out on these five prelates who he accused of treason. But with Charles at large Urban was smart enough to realize he had better lay low. He seized on his first stroke of good luck in February 1386 when Charles was murdered by Urban's secret force in Hungary. With one of his main thorns eliminated, Urban tried to regroup and muster up forces to return to Rome. To do this he needed the aid of King Wenceslaus whom he invited to march with him into Rome from Pisa. Meanwhile the new French king King Charles VI decided he would beat Urban to the punch by inviting Clement to march into Rome with him as a show of force. But Clement had become fat and sassy in Avignon and had no intention of returning to Rome and all the headaches there. At the same time, Wenceslaus realized Urban did not truly have the Church and her flock in the best interest and put him off, working behind the scenes to promote the special Council to decide the fate of the Church in Europe. Undeterred, Urban began preaching a crusade against Clement and his followers - the Clementines. Urban soon ran out of money, depleted what little was left in the Holy See's treasury and, slowly but surely, most of his soldiers - mercenaries all - began to defect when they discovered they would not be paid. Pretty soon Urban's once mighty river of force had been reduced to a mere trickle and he abandoned his grandiose plans to return to Rome triumphantly, instead stealing back in the middle of the night undetected and walling himself inside Castel Sant'Angelo in October 1388. There, alone except for a small cadre of loyalists, he remained virtually a recluse since the vast majority had abandoned him because of his temperament which had alienated everyone. As history accounts, he alienated one too many for he was poisoned on October 15, 1389. Though his body is entombed in the crypt of St. Peter's, he contributed very little to the ecclesiastical life of the Church other than extending a Franciscan feast - the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary - to the universal Church. In summary, he was too busy trying to be "king" that he forgot he was a shepherd first and consequently the wolves of the world, the flesh and the devil ravaged his flock from prelates to clergy to the laity. The Church had fallen into great disarray and her leaders were solely responsible. St. Catherine had died in 1380 perhaps realizing the Church had made a grave mistake in selecting this obstinate, uncompromising pontiff.
Next installment: Pope Boniface IX: Trying to pick up the pieces without much help.