Miscellaneous Historical Musings

Calendar of Papal Registers

The Letters of Urban VI and Clement VII to England, Ireland, and Scotland: The Great Schism and the Hunt of Internal Religious Conflict.

Modern map depicting the schism which fails to take account of the regional divisions in Ireland

Modern map depicting the schism which fails to take account of the regional divisions in Ireland

I have long been fascinated by the Papal Schism of 1378. The mix of political and religious tension that provides a backdrop to this turbulent period in Papal history is a marvel to explore for even the most casual of historians. On the other hand, my interest could stem from my mother’s strict Catholic upbringing. On many occasions she would regale me with stories of the punishments she would receive at the hands of the Nuns in her convent boarding school. Even through the brutal punishments, which included, having to clean an entire corridor with a bucket of cold soapy water with her toothbrush, she still clings faithfully to her catholic doctrines. This faith, which I do not share, has always struck me as odd, and had more than anything else spurred my interest in religion and institutional history…Anyway I digress….

Not all of the Papal Letters to England, Ireland, and Scotland have reached us. In total there are 163 letters from the Avignon curia, with no letters from Clement VII’s pontificate after 1389, leaving a loss of five years. Careful analysis by Charles Burns has indicated that only five years of Clement VII’s letter are complete, whereas for the remaining eleven years approximately one parchment and twenty-one paper registers have been lost[1].

No similar study has been undertaken with regard to the letters of Urban VI. But simple mathematical analysis shows that only ninety letters remain, with the years 1378, 1384, and 1385 completely missing from the registers. Considering the state of the Roman Curia during the Schism we can easily imagine how such a loss might have occurred. But careful research and analysis within the papal archives needs to take place before any concrete conclusions can be offered.

With the loss of such a vast amount of data, we are faced with a difficult problem. What exactly are we missing? Unfortunately, it seems we may never know. However some missing letters have been saved by their inclusion into other documents, therefore we find a version of Urban VI’s account of the schism, lost to the Calendar, included within the Parliamentary rolls of Richard II[2]; other documents have also been found in contemporary chronicles, such as Henry Knighton’s. These scarce findings allow us to fill some of the gaps in the otherwise massive holes in our evidence.


                News of the Schism reached England fairly quickly. It seems that their information was gained from letters sent from the cardinal’s who had rebelled against Urban VI, and ‘through common report’. And although no copy of Urban VI’s letter has survived elements of their contents have made it down to us through the parliamentary rolls of Richard II, which states:

‘The said Urban had been duly elected pope, and that he is and ought to be the true pope, and that the pope and the head of the holy roman church ought to be accepted and obeyed[3]’.

The decision to adhere to Urban VI was a fairly easy one to make. England and France had been at war for most of the fourteenth century, and Clement VII’s close relationship with the French monarchy allowed the English to make their decision on political as wells as religious grounds.

Papal Nuncio to England under Urban VI

Cosmstus Gentilis (pictured as Innocent VII) Papal Nuncio to England under Urban VI

At the outbreak of the Schism Urban VI’s financial situation was dire, therefore the largest body of letters that we have are of a financial bent. His first letter (dated 6 September 1379), addressed to Cosmatus Gentilis (later Pope Innocent VII) appointing him Papal Nuncio and Collector and Reciever in England[4]. Within the letter he is given power to excommunicate and to invoke the aid of the secular arm to ensure the recovery of money. Special emphasis was placed on the Peter’s Pence which was ‘especially to be exacted’. The letter goes on to state that, ‘the pope wills that he shall not suffer a delay of more than two years in the payment of sums[5]. The letters illuminate Urban VI’s need for a quick financial aid in the early years of the schism, and many of his letters continue in the same vein. The letters also highlight for us the intricate machinery of late medieval finance. They show that under the guidance of the Papal Nuncio Cosmatus Gentilis all sums received were to be given to the Society of Guinisii, a merchant company with roots in the Italian city of Lucca but were based in England[6]. The Society of Guinisii would play a crucial role in supplying finance to the roman curia. In 1380 their role became even more important when they were given ‘faculty to receive and give aquittance to the collectors and preachers of the realms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway[7]’.

Almost no signs of internal religious conflict can be detected in Urban VI’s letters to England, and we cannot be sure if he knew of any, or, if the letters containing concerns are lost. He was most certainly aware of the problems facing the Cistercian and Cluniac houses in England and, quite pragmatically, built a system whereby they could govern themselves and organise their own general chapters[8]. Unfortunately no records exist of those general chapters so again we cannot be sure to what extent, if any, an element of discord there was within the orders. No information in the Calendar of Papal Registers from Urban VI are addressed to Cluniac or Cistercian houses; and only Cistercian monks are referred to in a reference about the unlawful sequestration of property by the Bishop of St. Andrews.

There is also no reference to Dispenser’s Crusade, which sadly takes place in the year of which we have we only have eight letters. That said we are aware that Urban VI was happy to provide the plenary indulgence for those that undertook the crusade. Henry Knighton again fills in the missing gap and tells us that, ‘Sir Henry Dispenser, bishop of Norwich, departed on crusade against the supporters of Pope Clement VII…….for the bishop had wonderful indulgences, with absolution from punishment and from guilt, granted to him for the said crusade by Pope Urban VI..[9].’. The second Crusade undertaken was by Richard II’s uncle John of Gaunt against the king of Castile and Leon to which he had a claim to the throne. The letter, this time from Urban VI states: ‘Grant, at the petition of John, duke of Lancaster, of the privileges and indulgences granted for the holy land crusade by Innocent III’s constitutions published in the Fourth Lateran Council[10].’ The ease in which Urban VI issued the indulgence is, not only a testament to how frivolous the indulgences had become in the late middle ages. But also shows us the nature of his character and is a physical representation that is often felt through his letters. Of course there were political elements to the crusades which were unrelated to the wider schism.

Clement VII’s letters to England have a harsher tone than those of Urban VI. Urban’s financial situation and lack of effective bureaucracy meant that his letters to England were restricted to those of a financial nature. Clement, who had fared considerably better in terms of papal governance, could focus more acutely to the problems of the schism, and his letters reflect his attempts at winning England to his cause. The first letter that we have within the Calendar of Papal Registers to England is from Clement and addressed to, ‘all the faithful in Christ’ and states that ‘a certain Bartholomew, the archbishop of Bari, who being blinded by ambition, presumes to call himself pope[11]’. This statement affirms Clements position and sets a tone that continued to run throughout the remainder of his pontificate.

Clement VII, like Urban VI, appointed a Papal Nuncio to England, Ireland, and Scotland to dispense power in his name. In this case he appointed the cardinal priest of St. Cross in Jerusalem Guy de Malsec, who in spite of an extraordinary list of powers and responsibilities never actually succeeded in landing in England. Presumably this was because of the tightening of the English border during the long war with France. Nevertheless his long list of powers does indicate Clement’s enduring resolve to win England and Ireland to his cause. Among the responsibilities given to Guy de Malsec, and those that followed him, was the faculty to:

‘to make enquiry concerning any ecclesiastical persons, religious and secular, of any dignity and rank, even the pontifical, exempt and not exempt, even of the mendicant orders who pretending that Bartholomew sometime bishop of Bari is pope, obey, adhere, and favour him, receive his letters and mandates and assail the pope with words of contumely and opprobrium; to cite them and if found guilty, and persist in their rebellion, to take, arrest, imprison, punish, and correct them, and otherwise execute due justice upon them.[12]

In theory, Guy de Malsec’s faculties allowed him to excommunicate and remove from clerical office those who he deemed to be schismatic. But this is problematic for two reasons; on the one hand all of England would have been seen as schismatic, and on the other his power to do so relied on the schismatic’s belief in the authority of Guy’s power. This is a troubling concept when you consider Unam Sanctum’s declaration that, ‘it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff[13]. If the declaration of Unam Sanctum was valid then half of Europe would view the other as damned. It seems that politics is what drove the English government when concerned with the schism. Richard II was not thinking of the implications of the schism when he adopted the policy of non-interference towards the Order of St. John in England who continued support the grandmaster Juan Fernandez de Heredia who was an adherent of Clement VII[14].

At the micro-level there is reference within Clement VII’s letters to small regional disputes. In 1380 eighteen of the monks of the priory of Arundel had been ‘violently expelled from the said priory and from other dependent priories in England[15]’ by John Earl of Arundel in ‘whose domain the priory is situate.’ The priory itself was a daughter house of the Benedictine convent of St. Martin in Seez, France and they petitioned Clement VII to investigate on their behalf. The earl of Arundel wished to ‘institute anew and to endow therein a chanter at its head, and eleven secular canons,[16]’ and was requesting that the abbot of St Martin resign his rights to the priory. It is not clear from the content of the letter whether the monks were active adherents of Clement, but it is evident that they contacted their mother house which clearly was.  What this illustrates is that although England officially supported Urban VI, Clement VII was able to get involved in regional disputes within a country that did not adhere to him. Therefore the letter reveals that the lines of adherence were more blurred the closer one looks.


                From the reign of Edward I and for most of the fourteenth century Ireland had increasingly succumbed to English domination. However by the closing decades of the fourteenth century that power had begun to diminish. Therefore the contrast between Edward I’s reign, where the English crown played a major part in the politics of the secular and ecclesiastical worlds, to that of Richard II’s, where the areas of English power had receded to Dublin and the adjacent diocese, is stark. Rising nationalist sentiments among the Gallic Irish, which had began to show in the mid fourteenth century, came to fruition during the chaos of the Great Schism. In the statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 it was declared:

‘that no Irishman of the nation of the Irish should be admitted by provision, collation, or presentation into any cathedral, collegiate church, or benefice among the English of the land; and that no religious house among the English should in future admit Irishmen[17]’.

These restrictions on the Gallic Irish would no doubt have aroused contempt for the English crown and stirred nationalist feelings. The restrictions set by the Statutes of Kilkenny were exacerbated during the Great Schism when in 1381 English ambassadors told Urban VI:

that experience had shown that language and difference brought wars and other tribulations…and that all prelates should be ordered to command their subjects to learn English. Nor should anyone be appointed to ecclesiastical office unless he could speak English[18].’

It is under this context that we should view the letters of Urban VI and Clement VII.

There are very few letters extant from Urban VI concerning Ireland, which makes it very difficult to come to any solid conclusions from the letters themselves about what was happening. As with England, the few letters that we do have concern financial matters. In a letter dated May 1380 Urban VI wrote to both the chancellor of Dublin John de Karlellis, and William Pryoun, rector of Dounbyng in the diocese of Armargh instructing them to, ‘cite to appear, with their accounts, before the pope or his chamberlain[19], both the bishop of Emly and the bishop of Sodor. Both bishops were papal collectors in Ireland and had received large sums of money, ‘rendering no account to the camera[20]. Urban VI’s curia was sufficiently concerned about the missing money that they wrote a second letter to Cosmatus Gentilis stating:

‘Mandate to inform himself touching the collector of Ireland to see whether he has sent any moneys received by him as collector, and whether his is diligent in his office; upon which matters he is to certify the camera; likewise whether any prelates of Ireland do not obey him. If these things have occurred by his negligence. Cosmatus is to announce it to the pope and the officials of the camera[21]’.

It is entirely plausible that the reason that the bishop of Emly and the bishop of Sodor were withholding money from the Roman curia was because they had adhered to Clement VII and therefore were supplying the Avignon curia with their collections. However, there is not enough evidence to support this hypothesis based on the letters of Urban VI alone. Therefore we must look to the letters of Clement VII where more context will be given to the issue.

No where in the medieval British Isles was as profoundly affected by the Great Schism as was Ireland. Clement VII had been able to gain considerable support in Ireland, and it is not surprising that this support would come from the Gallic Irish who with their deep nationalist ideologies shied away from the support of Urban VI on the grounds of England and the Anglo-Irish’s adherence to Rome. By 1381 Clement VII had supporters in the diocese of Clonfert and Elphin in Tuam and was in correspondence with the bishops of Killaloe in Cashel and Raphoe in Armagh[22]. No later than 1383[23] the situation was exacerbated when the Urbanist bishop Robert of Killala sent, John Macoyreachtayg, archdeacon of Killala to the Augustinian house of St Coman Roscommon where an assembly had been convoked by Clement VII to explain the origins of the schism and denounce his rival. Clement VII’s letter details the dramatic events of the assembly:

‘…the said Robert sent John Macoyreachtayg, archdeacon of Killala to oppose and disobey…and to assert Bartholomew to be the true Pope. Upon the prior publishing the letters in the presence of the archbishop, the bishops Kilmachduagh, Clonfert, and Anchory, and other prelates and a multitude of seculars, regulars, and laypersons, who professed to obey, the said john, in the name of Robert, made opposition asserting that Bartholomew was the true pope, naming him Urban VI, and endeavouring to bring the clergy and people of the same cities and diocese to his obedience.[24]

If we consider once more the nationalist feelings aroused in Ireland at this time it should come to no surprise that Robert, bishop of Killala was Anglo-Irish, and those at the assembly Gallic-Irish. After the assembly both parties publicly denounced and excommunicated each other to no actual effect[25]. According to the letter Robert, bishop of Killala had also, ‘caused sums of money due to the papal camera to be assigned to Hugh, bishop of Clonmacnoise, for the said Bartholomew[26]’.  Here is evidence which illustrates that during the chaos of the Great Schism monies could be assigned to a rival pope within an archdiocese that adhered to another. This does not offer concrete evidence as to what happened to Urban VI’s money but it seems very probable considering the confusion of the time.


                It is hard to separate the Great Schism with Scotland’s wars with England and the wider context of the Hundred Years War. As France’s closest ally in the war with England, Scotland adhered to the Avignon papacy from the start. If there were any letters from Urban VI’s curia that directly concerned Scotland then none of them survive. Of course Scotland is mentioned within Urban VI’s letters but only in general terms. Interestingly Urban VI’s bull to the Cistercian order is addressed to England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. But during the pontificate of his successor Boniface IX Scotland had been removed from the bull to the Cistercians[27]. Does this mean that the Roman papacy had considered Scotland a lost cause? The lack of letters from Urban VI seems to support this hypothesis.

From the surviving letters of Clement VII his letters to Scotland are the most numerous; and the vast majority deal with the day-to-day ecclesiastical issues of the medieval church including; dispensations for marriage and the issuing of portable altars. Occasionally however we find evidence of the Schism and the wider political context. On July 1378 Robert II of Scotland issued a charter which transferred the priory of Coldingham from Durham Cathedral to Dunfermline abbey on the grounds that the monks of the priory threatened the crown, the realm and its inhabitants[28]. It is unlikely given the date of the charter that this was influenced by the event taking place in Rome at that time, and is more likely to do with the death of Edward III and Robert II’s play for power. However, the next year, the bishop of St Andrews and Glasgow used the schism to their advantage by writing to Clement VII for his approval. Clement VII’s reply states:

‘Mandate to summon Robert de Clakkston, Benedictine prior of Coldingham, in the diocese of St. Andrews, and others concerned, and to inform themselves touching the crimes of sacrilege, robbery, homicide, rapine, and devastation, of which the prior is accused, and his felonies against king Robert, whose ancestors founded and built the abbey…[29]

It is very probably that Robert II wished to rid the priory of any connection to England, and therefore removing its English priory. The fact that Robert II’s charter was issued before the election of Clement VII we can deduce that the events at Coldingham were political and any actions during the schism must stem from the same motives.

The Anglo-Scottish wars meant that communication between monastic mother houses and their daughters was cut off[30]. This would have been exacerbated during the Great Schism especially within the Cistercian and Cluniac monasteries, where the mother houses in England were now considered schismatics by the Scottish and their French allies. But it seems that the impact of the Schism was felt less acutely than those in England who were cut off from the General Chapter and who had to reorganise. Unfortunately records for Scottish monasteries, particularly during the Anglo-Scottish wars and the Great Schism where destruction of church property was common, are scarce and thus how much difficulty they faced is unknown. No sense of difficulty can be deduced from the letters of Clement VII therefore once again we are left in the dark.

[1] Charles Burns, ‘Papal Letters of Clement VII of Avignon (1378-94) Relating to Ireland and England’ in Collectane Hibernica 24 (1982) 11.

[2] ‘Richard II: October 1378′, Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=116477 Date accessed: 14/01/2012.

[3] Richard II: October 1378.

[4] ‘Regesta 310: Folio 9-1379′, Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 4: 1362-1404 (1902), pp. 257-265. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=96414&strquery=regesta Date Accessed: 03/02/2012.

[5] ‘Regesta 310: Folio 9-1379′.

[6] ‘Regesta 310: Folio 21-1380’.

[7] ‘Regesta 310: Folio 32-1380’.

[8] Rose Graham, ‘The Great Schism and the English Monasteries of the Cistercian Order’, in The English Historical Review 44, (1923) p375; Rose Graham, ‘The Papal Schsim of 1378 and the English Province of the Order of Cluny’ in The English Historical Review 38 (1923), p484.

[9] Henry Knighton, ‘Chronicle’ 325.

[10] Regesta 310: Folio 343-1383’.

[11] ‘Regesta 291: Folio 26.d-1378′, Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 4: 1362-1404 (1902), pp. 228-237. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=96405 Date accessed: 03/02/2012.

[12] ‘Regesta 291: Folio 52-1378′.

[13] ‘Unam Sanctum’ in Roberta Anderson, Dominic Aidan Bellenger (eds.) Medieval Worlds: A Sourcebook (Padstow, 2003) 80.

[14] Charles L. Tipton, ‘The Irish Hospitallers during the Great Schism’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 69 (1970) 36.

[15] ‘Regesta 292: Folio 234.d-1380′, Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 4: 1362-1404 (1902), pp. 237-242. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=96405 Date accessed: 03/02/2012.

[16] ‘Regesta 292: Folio 234.d-1380′

[17] A.J. Otway-Ruthren, ‘A History of Medieval Ireland’ (London, 1980) 139.

[18] John Watt, ‘The Church in Medieval Ireland’ (Dublin, 1988) 149.

[19] Regesta 310: Folio 16-1380’.

[20] Regesta 310: Folio 16-1380’.

[21] Regesta 310: Folio 21-1380’.

[22] A.J. Otway-Ruthren, ‘A History of Medieval Ireland’ 140.

[23] The Assembly at Roscommon probably took place in the closing months of 1382 considering that Clement’s letter that details the events is dated February 1382. Given the time it took for messengers to travel from Avignon to Ireland it is unlikely that the assembly would have been in January 1383.

[24] ‘Regesta 294: Folio 34-1383′, Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 4: 1362-1404 (1902), pp. 244-249. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=96405 Date accessed: 03/02/2012.

[25] ‘Regesta 294: Folio 34-1383′

[26] ‘Regesta 294: Folio 34-1383′

[27] Rose Graham, ‘The Great Schism and the English Monasteries of the Cistercian Order’ 374.

[28] Alexander Grant, ‘The Otterburn War from the Scottish Point of View, in Anthony Goodman, Anthony Tuck (eds.), War and Border Societies in the Middle Ages (Cornwall, 1992) 40.

[29] ‘Regesta 291: Folio 112-1378′

[30] Emilia Jamroziak, ‘Cistercians and Border Conflicts: Some Comparisons between the experiences of Scotland and Pomerania’ in Janet Burton, Karen Stober (eds.), Monasteries and Society in the British Isles in the Later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2008) 47.


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