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Popes and antipopes – the intriguing history of Avignon

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The first pope to come to Avignon, Clement V, was invited by the astute King Philippe le Bel in 1309, ostensibly to protect him from impending anarchy in Rome. In reality, Philip saw a chance to extend his power by keeping the pope in Provence, during what came to be known as the Church’s “Babylonian captivity”. Clement’s successor, Jean XXII, who had previously been bishop of Avignon, re-installed himself happily in the episcopal palace. The next Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XII, acceded in 1334; accepting the impossibility of returning to Rome, he replaced the bishop’s palace with an austere fortress, now known as the Vieux Palais.

Though Gregory XI finally moved the Holy See back to Rome in 1378, this didn’t mark the end of the papacy here. After Gregory’s death in Rome, dissident local cardinals elected their own pope in Avignon, provoking the Western Schism, a ruthless struggle for control of the Church’s wealth. That lasted until Benedict XIII – now officially deemed to have been an antipope – fled into self-exile near Valencia in 1409. It was Benedict who built Avignon’s walls in 1403, when under siege by French forces loyal to Rome. Avignon itself remained papal property until the Revolution.

As home to one of Europe’s richest courts, fourteenth-century Avignon attracted princes, dignitaries, poets and raiders, who arrived to beg from, rob, extort and entertain the popes. According to Petrarch, the overcrowded, plague-ridden papal entourage was “a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered”.

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