The Council of Constance: The End of the Catholic Church's Great Schism

Inside the medieval council that toppled popes and created martyrs

Bishops debating with the pope at the Council of Constance
Bishops debating with the pope at the Council of Constance.

The Council of Constance (1414-1418) was an ecumenical council called by Pope John XXIII at the request of Sigismund, King of the Romans, to resolve the Great Schism, a nearly century-long split in the Catholic Church that resulted in Rome and the French stronghold of Avignon. A previous council in Pisa (1409) failed to resolve the problem, and by 1414, there were three claimants for the papacy: John XXIII in Pisa, Gregory XII in Rome, and Benedict XIII in Avignon.

  • Significance: Meeting of members of the Catholic Church designed to end the Great Schism as well as quash an insurgency led by dissident Jan Hus.
  • Key Participants: Sigismund, King of the Romans; Pope John XXIII; Jan Hus
  • Start Date: November 1414
  • End Date: April 1418
  • Location: Constance (Konstanz), Germany

A Trap For Foxes

On seeing the Constance from a high hill, John XXIII was said to have declared that it looked “like a trap for foxes.” He had been reluctant to call a council at all and was particularly unhappy it was being held in Constance, a lakeside town of about 8,000 people located in the Alps, far from his allies in Italy. But was accessible to delegates from all over Europe and was some distance from the various popes’ key power bases in Italy and France.

Constance also boasted a large warehouse that could seat the council, which was comprised of approximately 29 cardinals, 134 abbots, 183 bishops, and 100 doctors of law and divinity. This was the largest such council in the medieval era, and it brought tens of thousands of people to the small town, including representatives from as far south as Ethiopia and as far east as Russia. Entertainers, merchants, and prostitutes flooded the area to serve the needs of the dignitaries and their entourages.  

The official start of the Council was delayed until Christmas Eve 1414, when Sigismund made a dramatic entry by crossing Lake Constance by boat just in time for midnight Mass. Even before the council convened, Sigismund had become convinced that the only way to resolve the issue was to remove all three popes and select a single pope to rule from Rome. He quickly won many council members to his point of view.

Three Popes Fall

“You may go to Constance a pope, but you will come home a common man,” friends had warned John XXIII before he left Italy. He was the only one of the three popes to make the journey in person, on the slim hope that his personal appearance might allow him to stay in power.

But once in Constance, he had a falling out with Sigismund. He was further hobbled by a decision by the Council in February 1415 to vote in blocs as “nations,” giving delegations like England, which sent about two dozen people, the same power as his hundred or so Italian supporters. Finally, detractors began spreading rumors about his immoral behavior as pope, opening the possibility of the Council excommunicating him and removing him from power.

John stalled for time, promising to resign in a statement in early March 1415. Then, on March 20, he disguised himself as a workman and slipped out of the city for the refuge of a supporter in Austria. He was arrested in late April and returned to Constance. He was formally deposed as pope on May 29.

Pope Gregory, who many believed had the strongest claim to the papacy, decided not to fight the Council. He resigned on July 4, 1415 and soon retreated to peaceful obscurity.

Benedict refused to follow Gregory’s example. Even a summit with Sigismund in the summer of 1417 couldn’t persuade him. The Council finally lost patience, excommunicating him in in July of that year and ending over a century of Avignon papacy. Benedict took refuge in the Kingdom of Aragon, which recognized him as pope until his death in 1423.

With all three popes removed, the Council formed a conclave and selected Oddone Colonna, who had traveled to Constance with John XXIII and later took part in his removal, as the new and singular pope in November 1417. In honor of his election on St. Martin’s Day, he took the name and would work towards healing the wounds of the Schism until his death in 1431.

The Martyrdom of Jan Hus

As the Council worked to resolve the Great Schism, they also took an aggressive step to quash a growing insurgency out of Bohemia. 

Jan Hus, a Catholic theologian from Bohemia, had been criticizing, sparking a vocal reform movement. Hus was invited to the Constance under a safe-conduct pass from Sigismund in the hopes of resolving the tensions between himself the Church. He arrived in the city on November 3, 1414, and for the next several weeks was able to move around freely. Then, on November 28, he was arrested and imprisoned, following a false rumor that he was planning to flee. He was held in confinement until trial in early June 1415.

During Hus' trial, supporters urged him to recant his beliefs in hopes of saving his life. He insisted that he would recant only if his dissident views were proven to be in error. “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just,” he told his judges. “In His hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice."

On July 6, 1415, Hus was taken to the cathedral dressed in his priest’s robes. An Italian prelate preached a sermon on heresy and then condemned Hus from the pulpit. Hus was stripped of his robes and a paper cone inscribed with the word Haeresiarcha (leader of a heretical movement) was put on his head before being burned at the stake.

Aftermath

The Council of Constance concluded in April 1418. They had resolved the Great Schism, but the execution of Hus sparked an uprising among his followers, the Hussites, that lasted for almost 30 years. In 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed his “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted on Hus” and praised the reformer's “moral courage.”

Sources

  • Stump, Phillip H. The Reforms of the Council of Constance: (1414-1418). Brill, 1994.
  • Wylie, James Hamilton. The Council of Constance to the Death of Jan Hus. Longmans, Green & Co, 1914.