This day in 1378 marks the beginning of the Great Schism in Western Europe. It was the date that Robert of Geneva (1342-94) was elected pope as Clement VII, despite the fact that another pope, Urban VI, was already on the papal throne in Rome.
Robert’s election was a result of the cardinals’ extreme dislike of Urban–not to mention his apparent mental instability. Urban was obstinate, insulting and given to violent outbreaks of temper. More critically, he sought to curb the power and influence of the cardinals.
Robert was the preferred candidate to replace Urban because among other things, he was neither French nor Italian. He was born in Geneva in 1342 and was appointed to high ecclesiastical office in his teens. His rise through the ranks was so swift that by 19 he was a bishop, and by 29 he was a cardinal.
He was appointed legate in Italy by Urban’s predecessor, Gregory XI. In this powerful position, Robert had command of a mercenary army of Bretons, and was responsible for a massacre of civilians at Cesena in 1377 during the papal war against the Florentines.
The following year, after his election as pope, Robert took the name Clement VII. He was heavily supported, and obtained powerful military support from key allies. But, of course, Urban also had followers and the two popes went to war.
Among Urban’s supporters were the Holy Roman Empire, England, Hungary, Scandinavia and most of Italy. Clement counted on the support of France, Naples, Savoy, Scotland and Sicily. In 1379, Urban’s mercenary army defeated Clement at Marino. Abandoning efforts to take Rome, Clement left Italy for Avignon, where he maintained a brilliant court–in great contrast to Urban’s dour court in Rome–for the remainder of his reign.
The results of the schism were disastrous. Each pope condemned his rival and all their followers, so that in theory all of western Christendom was ex-communicated by one pope or the other.
Even after Clement’s and Urban’s death, the schism persisted. Clement died on 16 September 1394, and was succeeded by Benedict XIII. Urban was succeeded by Boniface IX, who was then succeeded by Innocent VII, and then Gregory XII.
In 1409, in a disastrous attempt to end the schism, a church council held in Pisa elected a third pope, Alexander V. Alexander died the following year, and was succeeded by John XXIII. So, for over 5 years, there were three popes at the same time. The Great Schism finally ended with the election of Martin V at the Council of Constance in 1414.
The Church later decided that Urban VI was the legitimate pope, and Clement an antipope. This has led to the confusing fact that there are two Clements VII. Robert of Geneva is deemed not to count as a pope, so in 1523, Giulio de’ Medici took the title of Clement VII upon his election.