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When you think of the Catholic papacy (the tenure of a pope) your mind likely drifts to Rome, The Vatican, St Peter’s Square and Italy in general. After all, the pope is technically the Bishop of Rome. But did you know that for a period of time the papal seat was in Avignon, France? Let’s take a look at some papal history you may not know about.

A Little Background

Traditionally Peter, one of Jesus’ apostles is considered the first pope of the Catholic Church. It is believed Peter was martyred in Rome in 64 CE (AD) during the reign of Nero. Christian leaders at the time recognized Peter’s presence and ultimate death in the “Imperial capital”, or Rome and that is how it became known as a place of popes.

 In 756 AD the city of Rome was liberated from the Lombards (Germanic people) and handed over to the pope, along with several large regions in Italy which became the papal states. This afforded the pope quite a lot of power in those days, especially as Christianity spread throughout the world. In addition to being the head of the Catholic Church, the pope also became a ruler of sorts, a prince of the papal States and even head of his own army.

The succession of popes using this time stayed local. In other words, all the cardinals and bishops were cut from the same noble cloth, had money, political sway and all hailed from Italy.  Their importance went far beyond the local regions and the pope influenced much of what went on throughout Europe.

In 1271 a man named Alphonse of Poitiers passed on leaving his property on the eastern side of the Rhone in the South of France to Pope Gregory X. This land encompassed all of the County of Venaissin. Avignon wasn’t a part of the county however it was the most strategically situated city in the region. The bridge over the Rhone (the famed Post d’Avignon) ensured the safety of the coveted riverside town.

In 1348, under the direction of Countess Jeanne of Provence, Avignon was sold to the papacy, making the Roman Catholic hierarchy the ruler of both the county and its principal city. The papacy was already established in the region and had a strong presence in Avignon before it became the new papal city.

The Papal City of Avignon

Pope Clement V was French and when he became pope in 1305 he chose to relocate the papacy to the South of France, specifically Poitiers, which had been bequeathed to the papacy some 34 years before. In 1309 then-pope Clement V moved the Papal Court to Avignon. Over the next 68 years the papacy saw seven different popes. It was not until Pope Gregory XI that the Papal Court moved back to Rome.

During the nearly-seven decade tenure in Avignon the papacy constructed a fortified palace. The palace stood as a spiritual symbol of the Church, to be sure, but for the most part, the fortified structure stood out proudly as a military fortress with its strategic position next to the only bridge over the Rhone from Lyon to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Papal Palace

A little more than a decade after Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, Pope John XXII began enlarging and rebuilding the palace and increasing the size and fortification of the not-so-humble abode. Between 1335 and 1362 three more popes ( Benedict XII, Clement VI and Innocent VI) added to the building, including the main portion of the structure as it stands today.

The End of The Avignon Papacy…Or Was It?

In about 1375 Pope Gregory XI, a Frenchman and the last official French pope, defeated Florence in its war against the Papal States. In 1376, the following year, Catherine of Siena, considered a great mystic and well-respected woman of faith (and later a Saint in the Church and patron of Italy) encouraged Pope Gregory to return the papacy to Rome.

In December of that year the war with Florence came to a peaceful end and Gregory began the papacy’s return to Rome, a move that was strongly opposed by France and many of the cardinals of that time. Gregory XI returned to Rome and the papacy has remained in the Italian city ever since.

But, just because Gregory XI moved to Rome doesn’t mean it was the end of the Avignon Papal Court. The next pope was appointed in 138, Pope Urban VI, and several cardinals refused to follow him. They returned to Avignon and elected a pope of their own, Robert de Genéve.

The Catholic Church was split in two from 1378-1403. This period is recognized as the Western Schism. Both Rome and Avignon claimed to be the seat of the Papal Court. Avignon was seen as the rival papacy and its popes, according to Rome, were called “antipopes”.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

You can see this gorgeous “unofficial” papal palace in Avignon today. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, this massive and beautiful example of Gothic architecture boasts a huge 160,000 square feet. It is the largest palace in Europe. The palace sees a whopping 650,000 tourists every year and the courtyard serves as a festival site or, during non festival times, a great place to enjoy a nosh and a street performance.

Avignon is include in our itinerary in Provence.