Pope Gregory XI: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every pope leaves his own mark on Church history. Some marks are more visible than others. In this lesson, we'll talk about Pope Gregory XI and explore his impact on history.

Pope Gregory XI

Where is the papal seat located? Nowadays, most people know that the Pope resides in the Vatican. However, people throughout history may have answered this question a bit differently. Before Rome and the Vatican formally became parts of different sovereign nations, most people would simply say that the Pope lived in Rome. But did you know that there were times when the Pope wasn't even in Italy at all? For a while the papal seat was located in Avignon, France. The last pope to reign from France, and the one to return it to the Eternal City of Rome was Pope Gregory XI, who was in power from 1370 to 1378 CE. The papal seat does not move often, making Gregory XI a rare figure in an important part of European history.

Pope Gregory XI
Pope Gregory XI

Early Life

Pope Gregory XI was born around 1329 in Limoges-Fourche, France under the name Pierre-Roger De Beaufort. He entered into church service at a young age, although not as a priest, and was elevated to the position of cardinal by his uncle, Pope Clement VI. It's important to remember that at this time, the Pope was one of the most powerful political figures in Europe. Just as many kings and royals were related and kept titles within family lines, popes managed to ensure the same thing by elevating relatives to positions of power within the Church. So, Beaufort became a cardinal and an active member within Church politics. In 1370, he was unanimously elected to succeed Pope Urban V as the new pope.

Papal Politics

When Gregory XI came into the papacy, he was facing a Europe that was in crisis. Wars were rampant throughout the fourteenth century as growing kingdoms clashed and struggled for power. In 1370, the Visconti family of Florence was leading a major rebellion against the papacy, which was successfully keeping the popes out of Italy and confined to France. At the same time, France and England were embroiled in a major succession and political crisis called the Hundred Years' War. A new stage of this crisis had just re-escalated tensions in 1369. So, Pope Gregory XI had lots to do.

Pope Gregory XI came into power while Europe was filled with war.
Pope Gregory XI

He started by trying to negotiate a peace between England and France, but was unable to. He was, however, more successful in mediating a treaty between the warring kingdoms of Sicily and Naples. Pope Gregory XI also focused on reforms within the Church, cracking down on the sale and exhibition of fake holy relics, which had become a common practice in an era when Europeans were frequently engaged in lengthy religious pilgrimages.

In 1375, the armies of Pope Gregory XI (yes, medieval popes had their own armies) were able to finally defeat the Florentine rebellion, and reclaimed control of central Italy. In 1376, the Pope formally made peace with Florence and took the dramatic step of returning the papacy to Rome after nearly a century of banishment. According to Catholic tradition, the decision to negotiate peace and to return to Rome was largely thanks to St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century mystic who counseled Pope Gregory XI and today holds a place of honor as the patron saint of all Italy.

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