The Council Of Constance


The Trail of Jan Hus at the Council of Constance by  Vaclav Brozik, 1883

For a while now, I’ve known that the Council of Constance played a part in ending the Great Schism that separated the Roman Catholic Church, but it was only when I started digging into the life of Alfonso De Borja (as part of what is slowly starting to resemble another book manuscript, just a very very small one at the moment. Hopefully over the next few months it will start resembling a full length biography. More on that another time, though) that I realised just how big a part it played. Not only that, the man who first brought the Borgia family to power as Pope Calixtus III was there – how much of a part he played is largely unknown, but what matters is that he was there and later on he became involved in helping to finalise the end of the Great Schism. It’s a significant moment in the long and arduous history of the Roman Catholic Church and an event that sent ripples throughout the Christian world at the time. Below is some of what I’ve written about the Council in my jouney of finding out a little more about the role that the first Borgia Pope played in ending the schism, and in the Schism itself. Note that this doesn’t actually mention Borgia, but rest assured he was present!

The Great Schism began in 1378 and saw a tumultuous tear in the fabric of Western Christendom that would last for almost four decades – during this time it saw the election of more than one pope at any given time with two popes being put forward by two rival factions, Avignon and Rome. It was the death of Pope Gregory XI, the Pope who finally moved the papacy from Avignon to Rome after years of being away in 1377, that sparked the split. The cardinals who convened for the election of the new Pope in 1378 were terrified at the idea of the Roman populace resorting to riots and mob rule (as they had done during previous elections, and would do since) chose a cardinal by the name of Bartolomeo Prignano to be the next heir of St Peter and he took the Papal name of Urban VI. It was here that things really started to become messy for the Church – the French Cardinals, who had not want to come back to Rome from Avignon took umbridge to Urban’s election and instead elected Clement VII (a Frenchman), who took his French cardinals straight back to Avignon. Thus began four decades of there being more than one Pope, each of which believed wholeheartedly that they were of the legitimate line of St Peter. And on the one side you had the support of the King of Naples, who wanted full control in Rome and so made sure to side with the Italian successors.

In essence, it was all a bit of a mess and there were plenty of people who wanted to see stability restored to the Catholic church. And so a council was called – in 1409, the Church convened at Pisa. It only led to a third claimant for the throne of St Peter after the two existing Popes were ruled as heretics, a choice that those Pope’s decided to well and truly ignore. But by 1414 it was all becoming far too much and another council was called, this one at Constance in Germany, by Emperor Sigismund. By the time the Council was called into play, another Italian Pope had been elected who took the name John XIII – from an ancient Neapolitan family, John was a man who had been both a soldier and a pirate, and a man who abandoned Rome when the King of Naples decided to attack the City. It led to many disliking John and, as such, accuse him of a myriad of crimes that would end up in his own downfall.

The main aim of the council was, of course, to end the Great Schism that had been plaguing the Catholic Church for decades. However there were other aims that needed to be completed at the same time – the issue of ecclesiastical governance (which was linked to the Schism), and the issue around the suppression of heresy. And it was the heresy issue that Pope John XXIII tried desperately to use to his advantage, turning the attention away from ending the Schism and the complaints about his own thuggish corruption towards getting rid of a man by the name of Jan Hus.

Hus, a man who had been a thorn in the side of the Church for a long time, had been granted safe passage to the Council so he could stand before them and explain his behaviour and views to them. Hus had boldly spoken out against the abuses of the church and stated that the highest power was the Holy Scripture rather than just one man – according to Hus the Papacy, as a human institution, could not possibly be infallible. Men, and as such Popes, would commit sin and so any such immoral Pope should be judged by his Church colleagues and stripped of his offices. These teachings were seen as heresy by the church and so Hus was excommunicated – despite this he refused to submit to the orders of the Church that he stop his heretical teachings. But the safe passage granted to Hus by Emperor Sigismund was ignored. Hus was arrested on November 3rd without trial, despite the assurances of his safety, and thrown into a cell. He was denied the chance to speak before the Council, even when he fell seriously ill and asked that someone be appointed to speak on his behalf. Hus was put to death on 6th July 1415 by being burned at the stake as a heretic.

Yet the man who wanted to use Hus as a distraction from ending the Great Schism had, in the interim, been deposed. He fled from the very council that he had called for after his supporters had turned against him and demanded that he put on trial for his many crimes against the church. John XXIII disguised himself as a stable boy and left Constance during a jousting tournament held in Emperor Sigismund’s honour – it was his aim to reach the safety of the Duke of Burgandy’s lands across the River Rhine. But by the point of his escape, 20th March 1416, people were already calling out for John’s abdication. They didn’t want a Pope who committed crimes such as rape and sodomy – that was too much even for a Church whose Popes had committed so many offences in the past! Emperor Sigismund, the main power behind the Council, sent his soldiers out after John to arrest him. During the Pope’s flight, he was tried in his absence and found guilty of multiple crimes against the church as well as rape, sodomy and incest. All familiar charges towards Popes of the past, stemming from Marozia (a woman who was mistress of a Pope and mother of Popes) and the ‘pornocracy’ – a fabulous turn of phrase I first heard used by Simon Sebag Montefiore during his history of Rime. Now formally deposed, the former Pope John XXIII spent the next four years in the custody of Elector Ludwig III of Bavaria. It was only when John made Ludwig a vast sum that his freedom was given and he was forgiven by the Church for his crimes.

Even as the Council of Constance elected Martin V in 1417, it demanded that the new Pope be subject to their authority given as they were the highest  authority in the Church. Martin believed that it was the Pope who had supreme authority yet still the Council demanded that he be under their control. He refused and asserted absolute Papal Authority, which still reigns to this day.

Following on from the Council of Constance, with the deposition of John XXIII and Benedict XIII along with the election of Pope Gregory XII (who lived for only a year) and Martin V in 1417, the Schism was officially over.

Further Reading

John Julius Norwich – The Popes: A History

Stephen Greenblatt – The Swerve

Karl Kup – Ulrich Von Richental’s Chronicle of the Council of Constance

G J Meyer – The Borgias: The Hidden History

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