Through the centuries many popes displayed distinct unchristian behaviour. Only one of them, however, showed such erratic behaviour that he became generally known as "The Mad Pope". His papal name was Urban VI, but he was born in Naples as Bartolomeo Prignano (1318-1389). He was a quarrelsome man, who had his own cardinals tortured and brutally murdered. His election had ended the Papal Exile (1306-1376), but his capricious ways resulted in the Great Schism (1378-1417).

In the 14th century, French popes ruled from Avignon in France. Pope Gregory XI (1329-1378), however, was pressed by mystic Catherina of Siena to return to Rome, and finally entered the city on January 17, 1377. One of the bureaucrats in his following was Bartolomeo Prignanao (1318-1389), archbishop of Bari. He was the assistant of the vice-chancellor of the curia. In those days, the church had devised a fiscal apparatus for a continent-wide extraction of gold. All related documents passed at some stage through Prignano's hands. At 58, he had reached the highest bureaucratic level available for a man without connections.
In February, a papal representative, Roberto Visconti of Geneva (1394), ordered a massacre in Cesena, murdering 4000 citizens. The consequent fury against the pope in Rome was so great that Gregory XI fled to Anagni, where he died on March 27, 1378. In Rome a conclave met to elect a new pope. Most of the cardinals were French, but there were fervid demonstrations in the streets of Rome, demanding the election of an Italian pope. When a mob broke into the Vatican, an elderly Roman cardinal, Francisco Tebaldeschi (1298-1378), was dressed in the pontifical robes and presented to the crowds. The old man became hysterical, raved of devils, and cursed everyone. Meanwhile, the rivalling fractions of the curia opted for a compromise candidate and elected Bartolomeo Prignano as pope. They all knew him as an effective regent of the papal chancery. On the morning of April 9, Prignano was formally proclaimed pope with the name "Urban VI".

Bartolomeo Prignano was a short, plump man with heavy features, who spoke with a thick Neapolitan accent. He had a genuine piety; he periodically hungered and used to wear a penitential garment. Born a pauper in the back alleys of Naples, his unexpected election may have unhinged his mind. At his coronation feast, Urban drank much more than any of his cardinals and he had to be restrained from physically assaulting one of them. Soon he emerged as an arrogant, cantankerous and violent man. His personal assistant and only trustee was Dietrich von Niem, an earnest and solid man, who had already been with him in the Avignon days.
Urban's first official meeting with his cardinals was disastrous. His primary goal was to put an end to the luxurious lives of the "Princes of the Church". Each cardinal was singled out for an attack in foul language with taunting remarks on his behaviour. Urban called the aforementioned Roberto Visconti a "bandit", and yelled at another cardinal to shut up. His charges were justified, but it was his manner of saying it, that offended everyone. While trying to achieve his goals, Urban was unbelievable tactless, unreasonable and inflexible. He even delivered abusive tirades against important diplomatic representatives. Sometimes, he appeared almost gentle, but at other times, the least opposition would result into violent outbursts of rage.
The heat of early May afforded the dissatisfied cardinals a pretext for leaving Rome for Anagni. In the next months, Urban refused all reconciliation attempts. In a single day, he raised 29 new cardinals to the purple, four of whom refused to accept the honour. In August, the old cardinals issued a statement that Urban's election "had been made under threat of external force and was thus invalid". On September 20, they proceeded to elect another pope, the "Butcher of Cesena", Roberto Visconti (to the right). He was a notoriously brutal soldier, but also a relative of both the Duke of Savoy and the King of France. Roberto took the name "Clement VII". In april 1379 Urban's troops won the Battle of Merino and secured Rome. Clement retreated to Avignon, where he lived in luxury, surrounded by beautiful mistresses and page boys. He was recognised by France, Scotland, Burgundy and Savoy, while Urban was backed by England, Scandinavia and most of Germany and Italy. The pope and antipope were effectively at war with their armies, rival colleges of cardinals, and bulls of excommunication, directed against each other. The situation became known as the "Great Schism" with, from 1409 onwards, even 3 rival popes, including a former pirate.

The Neapolitan Urban had initially received support from the notorious, but charming Queen Giovanna I of Naples (1327-1382, to the right). When he grossly insulted her husband, the Queen decided to favour the anti-pope. Urban declared her deposed. He financially supported the claim of her second cousin, Charles of Durazzo (1345-1386). In Avignon, anti-pope Clement supported a rival claimant of Napels, the French Prince Louis (1339-1384), Duke of Anjou, whom Queen Giovanna adopted as heir. While Louis was still engaged in France, Charles besieged Naples. The generous Giovanna gave shelter to all who desired it, resulting in a shortage of food. She surrendered to Charles; but, while she knelt in prayer, he had her strangled. Pope Urban soon fell out with the new King Charles, too, because he did not fulfil his promises towards Urban's nephew, Francesco Prignano, a fat man of gross pleasures.

Although the Romans were still quarrelsome, Urban VI decided to leave Rome and go to Naples in person, taking the entire curia with him. On arrival in the city, he was imprisoned for a few days and thereafter ignored by the King. During the spring and summer, relations between Urban and Charles grew steadily worse. The Neapolitans became even hostile, when Urban's nephew abducted a noblewoman from a nunnery and abused her under the protection of papal swords. Francesco was already in his 40th year, but Urban forgivingly remarked "he is but a youth". To escape both the political and actual heat, the pope took his entourage to the small town of Nocera near the sea.
Urban placed Naples under an interdict and announced his intention to make his nephew its King. In reaction, King Charles sent an army to besiege them at Nocera. Three or four times a day, the pope used to appear at one of the windows to rave curses at the army below, excommunicating every man in it, while miraculously escaping the shower of arrows that greeted every appearance. By then, Urban's mental liability was such that 6 of his cardinals sought to place him under a council of regency. Urban found out, and had them arrested. The cardinals were confined, brutally mistreated and tortured, while the pope's nephew stood by, smiling.
After nearly 5 months, the castle of Nocera was finally relieved by Urbanists. The pope and his entourage managed to escape, taking the captive cardinals with them. One of them was put to death at the road-side. The Urbanists struggled across the entire width of Italy to a port on the Adriatic, where hired galleys brought them to Genoa. There they remained for 18 months. The doge soon bitterly regretted that he had ever offered asylum to the pope, while the Genoese were appalled by Urban's treatment of his cardinals. On December 15, 1386, Urban ordered the death of the captive cardinals - either buried alive or stuffed into sacks and thrown into the sea. Only one of them, Adam Easton, was kept alive, because his cause was championed by the English King.

The morning after the murders, Urban sailed to Lucca. In August, he proclaimed a "crusade" against Naples, which had fallen into the hands of the Clementines after the murder of King Charles in February 1386. In September, the pope set out for Perugia, where he remained till August, 1388. He tried to recruit soldiers for a new campaign to conquer his native country. When the soldiers didn't receive their pay, they deserted him. Urban raged in vain. For the first time, doubts and fears beset the usually courageous pope. He had hallucinations in which the apostle Peter appeared to him and sternly pointed the way to Rome. Sick in body and spirit, Urban VI returned in a litter to the Vatican.

Back in Rome, Urban crushed a revolt against his authority. In the midst of seething discontent, he ruled for another year. Daily, he became more estranged from the older members of the curia. He fixed the interval between the jubilees at thirty-three years (the length of Jesus' life), the first of which was to be celebrated the next year, 1390. But Urban did not live to open it. His death on October 15, 1389, came as a general relief. Many believed that Urban VI had been poisoned by angry Romans.

Copyright 2004 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.

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Content: Joan Bos. Design: Klaas Vermaas. Info: FAQ.