In 1305, Pope Clement V, under pressure from King Phillipe IV of France, refused to move to Rome and instead established his court at Avignon, where he purchased the city and its surroundings from the Provençal ruler. This began the only period of popes ruling from outside Rome, and led to decades of competing popes.

Today, Avignon is a mid-sized French city that can easily be visited as a day trip from nearly anywhere in the southern portion of the country. And, while the papacy has long since moved back to Rome, the legacy of the Avignon papacy – sometimes referred to as the Babylonian captivity of the papacy – lives on through the sights here.

Chief among those is the Palais des Papes, or Papal Palace. It is huge, appearing to be a cross between a church and castle, which in fact it was. Admission includes a wonderful GPS-based audio tour, and an iPad that creates 3D mockups of what the now bare rooms would have looked like in the 14th century. The tour gives the history both of the building and of the Avignon papacy.

The Palais des Papes

The building began life as the palace of the Avignon bishops in 1252, and construction of various wings and towers continued until 1364. It contained the residences of the pope and chancellor, as well as chapels, great halls, kitchens, treasuries, and other assorted offices for the myriad officials of the papal court. Few rooms today retain any of their original decorations or furnishings, though some fresco covered walls remain. The tour will take you about an hour and a half, though it can be done in more or less time, depending on the number of other exhibits you stop to view.

This huge room was used for festivals and masses.

Avignon in the 14th century was not the cute town it is today. It was described as filthy and crime-ridden, and was subject to flooding from the Rhône River that runs directly past the old walled city. Thus, many cardinals and even popes chose to live in estates on the higher ground on the other side of the river. During this period, the famous Pont d’Avignon (or Pont – bridge – St. Benezet) was completed over the river, although construction had begun during the life of Saint Benezet in 1234. Narrow and curved, it was never able to accommodate wagons and so never played a major role in the economics of the city, but it was used by the papal court to traverse the river, always with a stop to pray at the chapel to the namesake saint.

The Pont d’Avignon and chapel of St. Benezet.

Today, only four of the bridge’s original 22 arches stand, as changing flows of the Rhône after the Little Ice Age washed the rest away. However, the chapel remains, and a short audio tour tells the history of the bridge, the river, and the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” that immortalized it. (Funny enough, this children’s song began life as a mass.)

Seven popes ruled from Avignon until the last, Gregory XI moved the court back to Rome in 1376. This is where the story gets interesting. After Gregory XI died in 1378, his successor, Urban VI, lost much of his popularity. The cardinals, therefore, appointed a second pope, Clement VII, who took up residence in Avignon. This marked the first time that the same group of cardinals had appointed multiple popes, and questions of legitimacy split the Catholic world. This schism would last until 1417, with successors in both cities maintaining their claims.

The nine popes (seven before the schism and two after) who ruled from here.

In 1409, the cardinals met at Pisa to decide once and for all which pope was legitimate. However, they took a strange path to do so, and instead appointed a third pope.

Resolution was achieved in 1417 at the Council of Constance. Both the Roman and Pisan popes resigned and, when Benedict XIII of Avignon refused, he was excommunicated. The council elected Pope Martin V, ending the schism.

Southern France is full of so much incredible history! I hope you found this chapter as fascinating as I did.

Thank you to Avignon Tourisme for sponsoring my admission to the Palais des Papes and Pont d’Avignon.

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