A brief introduction to Antipopes

Over the past few weeks I have had numerous people ask me about Antipopes. Can’t think why. I am joking, of course. People are interested in Antipopes because of the state of American politics, and the fact the medieval history is just way way to relevant anymore. You may or may not have noticed that Trump is currently on some next level nonsense and refusing to acknowledge that he has lost an election, essentially setting himself up to be an Anti-President, if you will. As a result, this week I thought I would do a brief introduction to Antipopes as a concept so that you, too, can make pithy historical bonne-motes in political conversations as the world burns around us.

When most people think of Antipopes they think of the Avignon papacy, which is not incorrect. But by the fourteenth century when all that went down Antipopes already had a long and storied history. The first Antipope is usually traced all the way back to the third century, which makes it a late antique invention rather than medieval. At that point in time Popes as Popes were not really the big deal that they are now. The Pope was mostly just the Bishop of Rome then, not seen necessarily by anyone other than themselves as the arbiter of all Christianity. Arguably, individuals such as the Patriarch of Constantinople had more religious power and sway.

Having said that, Bishop of Rome was still a pretty sweet gig, and that is why in the third century Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) decided he was gonna start some shit. He was mad the Pope Callixtus I had manged to nab the big name and also that Callixtus said that Christians who had committed grave sins like adultery could be reconciled with the Church. In order to make it clear that cheaters end up in Hell, he led a faction against Callixtus and a bunch of his successors, was eventually exiled to Sardinia, but then reconciled to the Church after his death. He is now a saint, so it isn’t always a case of Antipopes staying out of communion forever, or always being thought of as the bad guy. There were paths to reconciliation even after death, which is nice.

The late antique tradition of Antipopes is interesting because before the legal framework of the Church was well established it was a lot easier to argue against the outcome of papal elections that you didn’t like. Since rich guys are nothing if not self-obsessed and immune for criticism, a lot of dead Roman dudes gave it a whirl. For example, the Antipope Eulalius (d. 423) seems to actually have had the stronger electoral claim to the papacy against his rival Boniface I, (d.422) but just pressed the point a little too hard, pissed the Emperor off, and lost his seat. Being a giant dickhead who refused to acknowledge the results of an election was therefore a legitimate pathway to papal power, provided you could convince your opponent into showing his proverbial ass. As a result, in the late Antique period and it was generally considered a career plan to say you had actually won a papal election and then live in one of Rome’s graveyards saying you were the real Pope and that your access to the bones of a lot of dead saints was proof. It was a very big goth rich kid vibe.

St Paul Outside the Walls, the traditional place where late-Antique Antipopes would post up to be close to St Paul’s body

Because medieval people liked nothing more than a good Roman tradition, the inability to let something drop if you didn’t like the result was kept up as time progressed. Over the period there were some thirty-six Antipopes, give or take, from Dioscorus in 530 all the way up to Felix V some nine hundred years later.

Not all Antipopes were the result of elections gone wrong, however, and many were instead created because of breakdowns in papal-imperial relations. I will never stop trying to explain Holy Roman Imperial intrigue to you, and the whole Antipope thing is a big reason why I demand that you admit the HRE is undefeated when it comes to celebrity scandal and drama. See, because there was a constant back and forth between Holy Roman Emperors and Popes about what exactly made someone Holy Roman Emperor, there were also a lot of attempts by each party to replace the other, resulting in some pretty choice Antipopes.

Case in point: Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig, or Louis the Bavarian (1282-1347). Your man there got into a tiff with Pope John XXII (1244-1324) because, well, he insisted that he was Holy Roman Emperor and had been elected as such. The Pope on the other hand insisted that he had not been elected by all seven imperial electors and crowned by him, the Pope, maker of Emperors. John therefore excommunicated Louis and announced that the seat of Holy Roman Emperor was up for grabs. Louis took a dim view of this, and decided that he would declare John a heretic and announce his own Pope, Antipope Nicholas V. The whole thing fell apart when Louis died of a stroke while on a bear hunt and Nicholas lost his imperial protection. He recanted, was absolved, and lived out his days in some style under palace arrest in Avignon and died in 1333, in communion with the Church and very spoiled.

The papal palace at Avignon. It bangs.

Now I bet your ears pricked up when I said Avignon there. Here is the thing though, Nicholas died in Avignon because that is where the one and only papacy was at the time. People tend to forget that before the whole Schism thing the papacy had already been in Avignon for some time because, well, Rome was a bit of a war zone. The later thirteenth and early fourteenth century were a period of massive instability in Rome with civil wars constantly breaking out, beef between rival noble households, and the occasional attempts at new tribunates. Avignon, in contrast was extremely nice, and in Provence. So, the Popes had been chilling there from 1307, and building a very fine palace where they could keep ex-Antipopes out of trouble and generally have a nice time.

The whole Avignon as a site tied to Antipopes thing didn’t kick off until 1378 after the papacy, seeing that the dust had settled somewhat had decided to return to Rome. The Roman return was hugely favoured among people who were not French, who saw Avignon as a bit too lavish for a Church which they would like focused on spiritual matters. It was also seen as too tied to the French court, which was immensely powerful. Anyway the papacy had duly trooped back to its traditional home in 1377 when Pope Gregory XI ordered it, and promptly died the next year. This whole new election thing was a big worry among Romans, who rather liked the importance that a resident papacy gave them, and made express threats of violence if a Roman pope was not elected.

That didn’t happen. Instead a Neapolitan Pope, Urban VI (1318-1389) was elected with most of the cardinals hoping that someone who had ties to the Italian peninsula would be enough to calm the locals down. Trouble was that Urban was a big old dickbag. (That’s a technical term.) Suspicious, and prone to violent outbursts, a lot of the Cardinals almost immediately regretted the “choice” that they had made under threat of violence. The majority of the Cardinals had soon fled from Rome to Agnani, and there they elected Antipope Clement VII (1342-1394) five months after Urban was elected.

Urban VI at Nocera’s Castel, from the Croniche of Giovanni Sercambi

The papacy was now at an impasse. I mean sure, Urban was a violent, petty man who had been elected as a direct result of a threatening mob (ahem), but nonetheless elected he had been. Never before had an election been annulled just because the person was entirely unfit to wield power. (Ahem ahem.) You know the rest – Clement retreated to Avignon and excommunicated Urban. Urban remained in Rome and excommunicated Clement. Various kingdoms picked a team, with most of the Holy Roman Empire and its outliers choosing Rome, with France and their allies aligning with Avignon. This state of affairs is generally referred to as the Western Schism.

Despite the fact that several more popes were elected on both sides of the Schism, no one was very happy about it. There were various offers back and forth to not elect a new Roman Pope if the Avignon one would step down and a new Pope could simply be crowned. No one ever actually went through with it. By 1409 everyone was super fed up, and the Council of Pisa was called, which declared both the Roman and Avignon Popes heretics and elected a new Pope Alexander V (1339-1410) to replace them. Of course that just meant that now there were three Popes, or two Antipopes and a Pope, depending on who you want to ask.

The whole thing was finally brought to a close in 1429 at the Council of Constance (which this blog does NOT stan because we are Team Jan Hus). The Pisan and Roman Popes agreed to step down and elect a new Pope who would be the official deal from then on, just to stop this whole thing going any further. The Avignon Pope Benedict XIII (1328-1423) refused to do the same, and three more Antipopes on the Avignon line were elected after him. However, pretty much only the crown of Aragon was supporting them by that time, so the whole thing eventually fizzled out.

Benedict XIII, patron saint of the corncobbed

Retroactively, it was decided that the Roman line of Popes is the correct one, because sure, why not? So we now consider the Avignon and Pisan popes as Antipopes. All of which goes to show you that being a giant violent jerkoff that everyone hates doesn’t mean you can’t become God’s official representative on earth. Never give up on your dreams, people.

By the time that the Reformation was in full swing, Catholics generally decided that the whole Antipope fashion was played out, and that stunting on Protestants was more important than fighting each other. As a result we don’t really get to have them any longer, which is a shame for messy bitches who love drama, such as myself. It does show you, however, that arguments over power are often contingent upon the idea that there is sufficient support from other sources to make such claims viable. In general, for an Antipope to make a claim to authority, they need other secular authorities to back them up. Without a significant support base, the claim withers, and you all you have are a couple dudes hanging around in Avignon writing letters that everyone other than Aragon ignores.

So what can we learn from this? History is full of venal, self-interested rich guys who do not take no for an answer, and the thing is a lot of the time they actually get their way. People with weaker claims to the papal throne have in fact won when they managed to get other powerful people on their side. Moreover, “official” titles and lineages are not necessarily proof of moral worth. We should approach pontiffs on a case by case basis when we start making generalisations about Antipopes. The more you know about Urban VI and his election the more you can sympathise with trying for a do-over and fucking back off to Avignon.

In the grand scheme of things, however, whether or not we think of any particular Antipope as, well, an Antipope doesn’t really matter to them. What care do they have for us hundreds of years later and how we feel, when they were able to live out their days in luxury, writing screeds about how they were wronged.

There is a lesson here, as well as a warning. Rich dudes are not good at being told no. That can mean a number of things. It can been an amusing story in a blog six hundred years later, or it can mean a destabalisation process which feeds into military conflict. The difference is largely based on clout, but one should never assume that the powerful and rich who bestow such things do so because of procedure or some sort of nebulous concept of morality. They do so based on what it gives them. It is our job to make our feelings about that clear so that poor decisions are not made and retroactively forgiven. (*cough* Bush v. Gore)

Who wants a drink?

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on the medieval Church and medieval politics see,
Religious iconography has always been a prop
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leader you’ve never heard of
On the medieval separation of church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

7 thoughts on “A brief introduction to Antipopes”

  1. Lovely post—thanks.

    Looking at the picture of the Avignon papal palace I find myself wondering: what’s with the not-quite-Romanesque, not-quite-Gothic arches? Transitional style? Compromise solution?

    Also: the mention of Eulalius reminds me that I read (somewhere) about a Father Eulalio who had to be admonished for the sin of pride, the occasion of his sin being that he had all five vowels in his name.

    But take care of that cough.


      1. Definitely. It strikes me there’s something positively postmodern about using a purely formal feature of church architecture to convey an idea not about doctrine (like orientation on the compass) but about the history of the Church as an institution–not unrelated to doctrine but somehow different in emphasis, or perspective, or something. Thanks for this explanation.


  2. i am a catholic , not church of england, but i have to say your style is very funny- my father still isnt happy about me being a catholic , but i think my Catholicism has made me love and appreciate his Anglicanism, i see where both our sides have learned from each other. Anglicans famously peered over the aisle in the oxford movement, but catholic undoubtedly peered over the aisle with Vatican 2’s more open vernacular worship.


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