It should probably come as no surprise that the idea for the world’s largest Gothic building should come from a Goth. Not one of the East Germanic barbarian tribe who terrorised the Romans in the fourth century, nor a black-dressed post-punk pallid type that gauntly haunt the streets of most cities in current times. No, this Goth is Raymond Bertrand de Got, who was crowned pope as Clement V in 1305. A haughty Frenchman, he decided to be crowned in Lyon not Rome. After his election, he went one step further and moved his whole court and papacy out of Rome and into the southern French city of Avignon.
Clement V was a controversial choice for pope. The conclave of cardinals took twelve months to elect him as it was split down the middle between French and Italian cardinals. Clement was a pawn of the powerful French king Philip IV better known as Philip Le Bel (“the fair”). The king’s nickname referred to his hunky good looks not his morals. In truth Philip the Fair was Machiavellian before the word was even invented and used his influence over Clement to destroy the Knights Templar so he could remove himself from the debts he owed them. It was under Philip’s influence that Clement moved his papal court to Avignon so he could be closer the real action that was taking place in France.
Strictly speaking, Avignon was not a French city at the time but a papal enclave surrounded by French territory. In fact Avignon would not become part of France until the time of the Revolution. The city stood on a strategic position on the Rhone river on the main route between Rome and Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, the shrine of St James, and Europe’s most important pilgrimage destination since the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin’s armies in 1187. Avignon had long prospered from this lucrative trade of pilgrims.
But to get past Avignon required a treacherous crossing of the Rhone. The city’s only crossing over the hazardous waters was the St Benezet bridge (the Pont d’Avignon) which was regularly washed away by the fierce currents of Spring and early Summer when the upstream Alpine ice was melting. The bridge was finally put out of use by a catastrophic flood in 1668 and remains today as a sort of pier poking out over half the Rhone. Yet as the only fixed crossing of the river between Lyon and the Mediterranean, the Pont and the town it served were hugely important.
Clement V (and Philip the Fair) were clearly aware of the town’s importance when he (they) chose it as the site of the new papacy in 1305. But it was one thing to choose a new Vatican, what was really needed was a new St Peter’s. And so began the creation of the enormous Palais des Papes. Clement V did not build it himself and was content to as a guest at the Dominican monastery than overlooked the town but his successors were far more ambitious.
For most of the 14th century, Avignon would become the home of the popes and the imposing Palais des Papes would be their residence. Clement's French successor John XXII stayed in the city and upgraded the Dominican residence but it took a third French pope Benedict XII to build an impressive palace at Avignon befitting the papacy. Under his guidance a massive Palais Vieux took shape flanked by high towers. Under the popes that followed him, Clement VI, Innocent VI, and Urban V, the building was expanded to form what is now known as the Palais Neuf.
While a succession of popes became ensconced in Avignon, Rome never forgot the slight of losing its primary source of power. Finally under Guillaume Grimoard, crowned as Urban V, it won back its precious prize in 1367. But it was a short lived triumph. With numerous cities of the Papal States in revolt, Urban was forced to return to Avignon where he died in 1370. His successor Gregory XI would be the last of the official Avignon popes. After he died, the Romans rioted to ensure the election of a local pope. But the new man, Urban VI, was quickly disowned by the hierarchy. A majority of bishops elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope taking the name Pope Clement VII and re-established a papal court in Avignon. The great Western schism had begun.
Now thanks to the Church’s own manipulations, Christendom had a pope and an antipope. But which was which? Britain, Ireland, Portugal and Rome supported Urban, while France supported Clement. The Holy Roman Empire could not wholly support either Roman emperor. But in 1398 France withdrew its support from Clement’s successor Benedict XIII and that made him officially an antipope. The Council of Constance in 1414 ensured the legitimacy of the Roman line, and excommunicated Benedict formally ending the Avignon line.
The city remained a papal possession and a nepotistic papal nephew continued to rule the town. Finally in 1797 the treaty of Tolentino sanctioned the transfer of the city to the French state. Today the city of Avignon proudly wears its papal (and anti-papal) history on its chest. The Palais des Papes towers over the city and the Rhone. The city is a capital of culture and remains an important outpost of Catholic history, antipopes or not.