Urban VI

Urban VI (1318-1389) was pope from 1378 to 1389. During his pontificate began the Great Schism of the Church, during which rival popes at Rome and Avignon claimed legitimacy and divided the loyalties of Europe.

Bartolomeo Prignano, who became Urban II, was born in Naples. He became archbishop of Bari and an influential figure in the papal court, although he was never a cardinal. Before his pontificate, he was known as a competent Church official who was interested in reforming the Church to meet the growing criticism of the times. Much of this criticism stemmed from the "Babylonian Captivity" (1309-1377), or removal of the papacy to Avignon in France. Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome in 1377 but died in 1378. When the College of Cardinals met to elect his successor, feeling ran high. Outside the conclave, the people of Rome clamored for the election of an Italian pope and even threatened to murder the cardinals. On April 8, 1378, the cardinals decided that, under the circumstances, the wisest choice was Prignano, who took the name Urban VI.

But almost immediately, the cardinals began to quarrel with the new pope, who angered them both by his attempts to make unwelcome reforms in the papal court and by his undiplomatic personality. Thirteen of the cardinals left Rome and went to the city of Fondi. On Aug. 9, 1378, they declared Urban's election invalid, and on September 20 they elected a new pope, Clement VII (Robert of Geneva, a cousin of the king of France). Thus began the Great Schism.

Even today there is disagreement about the legitimacy of the dissident cardinals' action and about their motives. The cardinals themselves argued that Urban's election was invalid because it occurred under duress, but they waited four months before they objected. Another factor was the personality of Urban VI, who by all accounts was short-tempered, stubborn, and, in the opinion of some, abnormally violent. Undoubtedly he alienated the cardinals by his manner. But it is probable also that France feared a loss of power from the papacy's return to Rome and so persuaded the French faction of the cardinals to bring a pope to Avignon again. In any case, the Great Schism brought Urban VI the support of France's enemies and brought Clement VII the support of France and its allies, creating years of bitterness and much loss of prestige for the papacy.

On Nov. 29, 1378, Urban excommunicated his rival; Clement VII retaliated in kind, and both popes declared their own legitimacy to the end of their lives. Urban VI died on Oct. 15, 1389.


Further Reading on Urban VI

For the pontificate of Urban VI the best general history in English is Mandell Creighton, A History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation, vol. 1 (1882). However, the definitive work on Urban's part in the Great Schism is Louis Salembier, The Great Schism of the West (trans. 1907). See also Walter Ullmann, The Origins of the Great Schism (1948).