The Pope Resigned? He’s Not The First!

A few days ago it was announced that our current Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, will be retiring at the end of this month. As I’m sure you’re all aware, I have a huge interest in the history of the Roman Catholic church so I found this really interesting. Mainly because tradition dictates that once elected as Pope, you’re Pope until you die – and the last Pope to resign was back in the 1400’s. And so, I thought for a bit of perspective, I’d do a post on the previous Pope’s who have retired! This list ranges from the very early papacy up until the mid 1400’s, so I’ll split it up into different Popes and provide a bit of information on the main Popes who have resigned (either by force, or by their own choice) in history ~ there are a few more, but I’ve taken 4 examples here, the four latest Popes to resign before our current one.
Benedict IX ~ Theophylactus III (1045-1046)

The nephew of John XIX, he was elected in 1032 due to the bribery of his father. He is traditionally believes to have ascended to the throne of St. Peter’s at the age of 8 or 9 but recent research has suggested that he was in fact in his early 20’s. A shameless, corrupt debauchee; the citizens of Rome rose up against him after just 12 years of rule and in January 1045 he was forced to abandon the city. He was replaced by Sylvester III who lasted just 2 months when Benedict excommunicated Sylvester and took his throne back. He was back in the chair of St. Peter by the March. It seems as though he couldn’t really be bothered with it though, and in the May resigned his post. The result was utter chaos, resulting in loads of pretenders and the situation had to be sorted out by Henry III, King of Germany. There were three contestants for the throne, and Henry knew the best thing would be to depose all of them. Only Benedict started causing trouble, all of a sudden wanting his throne back and refusing to lay down. Henry made choices over who the next Pope would be. The first was Clement II (1046-7) was on the throne for just 10 months before he died suspiciously, many said he was poisoned by Benedict who then spent the next 8 months re-establishing himself at St. Peter’s. In 1048, Damascus II took the throne bus lasted only 23 days before dying. Many whispered he had died due to the heat in Rome, whilst others spoke that Benedict had killed another pontiff. In 1048, Henry decided that the Bishop of Toul was told he was going to be the next pope, but he really didn’t want it. He wasn’t confirmed as Pope until January 1049 and he reigned as Pope Leo IX for 6 years until his death in 1054. In 1049, Benedict was charged with simony and summoned to a council which he failed to attend. He was duly excommunicated. Following his excommunication, not much is known on him or his fate.

Gregory VI ~  Johannes Gratianus (1045-1046)

It isn’t hugely clear whether Pope Gregory abdicated, or whether he was deposed. Every source I can find says something different. At any rate, he was accused of Simony in 1046 at the council of Sutri. From what I can find about him, the majority of sources state it was an abdication due to these accusations. He lost the chair of St Peter’s in December 1046.

St Celestine V ~  Pietro da Morrone (1294)

In April 1292, following the death of Nicholas IV, a group of Cardinal’s met at Perugia. They had escaped there to escape the plague which had once more overtaken Rome. They took twenty seven months to chose their new pontiff, finally settling on a compromise on Pietro del Morrone. Pietro was an 85 year old peasant who lived in seclusion in the hills of Albruzzi as a hermit. His one qualification was a very brief appearance at the court of Gregory X, nothing more. It is said that a group of five cardinals went on a trip to his little cell to tell him the news When they arrived, they found that King Charles II of Naples had got there first. Pietro was in a state of panic and he refused to accept the Throne until he had prayed. After praying, he agreed, and started on the journey to L’Aquila. Many believed Celestine would be the “Angel Pope” prophecies but in all honesty, Celestine was too old, and too malleable to keep the papacy in safe hands. Indeed, he ended up being little more than a puppet of Charles II – he even took up residence in the Castel Nuovo in Naples. Within the Castel, he ordered a tiny wooden cell to be built and there he spent most of his time as he felt more at home. He refused to see his cardinals as their sophistication terrified him. When he did grant them an audience they were made to abandon their Latin and use the crude Vernacular that Celestine was used to and the only language he could understand. He ignored all papal duties, and favours were given to anyone who asked for them. He lasted just five months before formally announcing his abdication – the only one in history to do so, until now.

Gregory XII ~ Angelo Correr (1406-1415)

1406, part way way through the Great Schism which saw the Papacy moving to Avignon and a huge number of Anti-Popes come into power. The new Pope, Gregory XII had long said he wished to see the end of the Schism although he knew that it was unlikely, given that he was already in his eighties. He was in office for 9 years, and very nearly saw it come to pass! It was agreed once he became Pope that if the current Anti-Pope Benedict VIII stepped down in Avignon (Gregory was chosen in Rome0, then Gregory would step down too so that a fresh claimant could be chosen. That didn’t happen. Instead the two pontiff’s met to discuss options, and negotiations dragged on, and on. Both of them were called in front of a Council, inn which they were both condemned as schismatics and heretics (despite the fact many wondered what heresies had been committed and both were formally deposed. A conclave was then formed, and Pietro Philarghi (who started life as an orphaned beggar) was elected as Alexander V. The problem was that neither of the other Popes wanted to take no for an answer, they refused to listen to the council and so there were three Popes. In 1415, another council was called at Constance and this one finally went some way to resolving the situation. Gregory announced Carlo Malatesta ad Giovanni Dominici as his proxies and on 4th July 1415 they announced that Gregory was formally stepping down from the Papacy. They then set aside John XXIII (Alexander’s successor), but a new pope was not elected before Gregory died in 1417 – Pope Martin V was elected in the November of the year that Gregory died, and it was his election that effectively ended the Western Schism.

Further Reading 

The Popes: A History – John Julius Norwich
The Bad Popes – Russell Chamberlin

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