For almost seven decades of the fourteenth century the papacy resided not at Rome on the banks of the Tiber but at Avignon on the banks of the Rhone, north of the Alps, in what has been called (wrongly) the Babylonian Captivity. Far from Rome at Avignon, the bishops of Rome became the most flagrant absentee churchmen in medieval history, yet it was an absence which they plausibly-—to themselves and to many others—felt they could justify. The question of their subservience to the wishes of the king of France also needs to be explored. The return of the papacy to Rome prompted the worst schism in the history of the Western church, which was to last till 1415.
From 1309 to 1376 the popes lived at Avignon on the east bank of the Rhone River in what is now France. Seven popes lived there until the last, Gregory XI, at great personal risk, returned the papacy to Rome, fomenting a schism with a pope at Rome and a pope at Avignon. The story of that schism will be told in the next chapter. But now Avignon.
At the outset several points need be made. In the first place, the popes did not leave Rome with the intention of establishing themselves permanently or even quasi-permanently at Avignon or, indeed, anywhere else. After the tragic circumstances of the attack on Boniface VIII by henchmen of the French king, Philip IV (the Fair), in 1303, the papacy was in near disarray. In the turmoil following Boniface’s death the cardinals quickly elected Benedict XI, who ruled less than eight months. A long interregnum of nearly a year followed. The pro-French cardinals cleverly secured the election of a non-cardinal, the archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Got, a Gascon, who took the name Clement V (1305-14). In retrospect, it can be seen as a mistake. He never got to Rome nor did any of his successors for decades. Clement planned to be crowned pope at Vienne, but, bowing to Philip the Fair s wishes, he was crowned at Lyons in the kings presence. For several years he wandered about southern France, a few months here and a few months there. In 1309 he was at Avignon, another stop in his wandering, and resided there at the Dominican friary. Cancer struck the