Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"The Pope May Be French, but Jesus Is English!": England and the Avignon Papacy

by Rosanne E. Lortz

The Pope may be French, but Jesus is English!” It’s a zinger that always brings a laugh in the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale.

While most of this “period” film is the product of the screenwriter’s fertile imagination, this particular line is culled from the pages of history itself. It was a statement the exultant English made after the Black Prince trounced the French in the early part of the Hundred Years’ War, and it was what the English bitterly believed—and not without reason—all throughout the fourteenth century.

Battle of Crecy (1346) 

England’s connection with the papacy goes back to the earliest centuries of the Middle Ages. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was sent to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons by Pope Gregory I. Later, King Alfred, as a young child, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, asking the pope to intercede with God in prayer for the English as they battled the invading Vikings.

In the lay investiture controversy of the high Middle Ages, the popes supported the archbishops against the kings of England as Anselm clashed with the Conqueror’s sons and Thomas Becket battled Henry II. This controversy climaxed in the early thirteenth century, with King John capitulating to Pope Innocent III and even rendering him fealty for the country of England.

England, technically, now belonged to the pope, and in return for John’s allegiance, Pope Innocent helped his “vassal” against the French king Philip Augustus.

This concord between the pope and England did not last long, however, due to the close connection that formed between the see of Saint Peter and the throne of France. In 1309, Clement V, a Frenchman who had been elected pope, refused to go to Rome and moved the papal seat to Avignon. For the next 67 years, the pope ruled from that French city.

As might be expected, the pope’s favor was now heavily weighted toward the French, and much of the papal policy during this period was directly due to the French crown’s influence. In England there was a “manifestation of popular feeling” against the prejudiced papacy. Historian Henry Dwight Sedgwick writes that, “the English people believed, and so did the Prince of Wales with a vengeance, that [the papacy] used all its influence on behalf of France.

In 1374, the Black Prince’s father, Edward III, called a council with all the bishops and lords of the realm to ask their advice on a certain matter. One contemporary chronicler describes the scene thus:
Then the Chancellor announced that the cause of the convocation was this: ‘The Pope has sent to our Lord the King a bull in which he writes that, as he is the lord of all temporalities through the vicarate of Christ, and also the spiritual and paramount lord of the Kingdom of England through the gift of King John, he commands the King to levy a tax to aid him against Florentine rebels and others, and not to delay sending it to him….
In plain and simple terms, the pope was trying to strong-arm money out of King Edward. The council had been called because the king wanted to know if he was theologically obliged to pay it.

The chronicler goes on to tell how the Archbishop and all the bishops of the realm agreed with the pope’s demand, citing the standard example of the two swords (as outlined in the papal bull “Unam Sanctam”). In a nutshell, the “two swords” doctrine used the Bible verse Luke 22:38 (“And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.”) as proof that all spiritual and earthly power had been given to the pope as Peter’s successor.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the possible author of the "two swords" doctrine

According to his churchmen, King Edward was obliged to pay the pope’s tax.  It was not the answer the king wanted. He did not want to give money to a lackey of the French king.

At this point, John Mardisle, a Franciscan friar and a master in theology whom the king had especially invited to the council (and perhaps conferred with beforehand?), stood up to challenge the prevailing opinion.
He quoted [Christ’s command to Peter]: ‘Put up thy sword unto the sheath,’ and showed that the swords did not signify such powers; for Christ did not possess temporal lordship, and did not pass it on to His disciples, but taught them to turn from it. This he proved by Holy Writ, by the Gospels, by the opinion of learned men…and by the decretals themselves he showed that the Pope admitted that he did not have universal lordship.
Such was the friar’s eloquence that he convinced all present (although, to be fair, the king and his lords were only too happy to be convinced) that the pope was overreaching his power when he demanded money.

The Archbishop, in somewhat of a huff that his opinion had been disregarded in favor of John Mardisle’s arguments, remarked snarkily that, “There has been good counsel in England without Friars.

But the Black Prince, as much averse to the papal tax as his father, responded with equal acidity: “Because of your foolishness we were obliged to call them. Had we followed your counsel, we should have lost the Kingdom.”

On the next day, when the Archbishop and prelates of the realm were again asked by the king to give their opinion on the matter, the Archbishop—who seems to have still been in quite a snit—said that he did not know what to say. The Prince, according to the chronicler, responded, “Answer, you Jackass! It is your business to instruct all of us.” (The chronicler takes pains to excuse the prince’s rude behavior, for “when he was ill, the wild Plantagenet blood unloosed the customary restraint of his gentle manners.”)

And with the Black Prince berating him thus, “the Archbishop answered: ‘My voice is that the Pope is not lord here,’ and all the prelates accordingly said the same.

With this victory, the prince, it seems, was not yet willing to let the subject alone. “What has become of the two swords?” he asked, rubbing salt in an open wound.

My Lord, I am better instructed now than I was,” replied the cleric who had voiced the doctrine the previous day.

And so, thanks to the arguments of the Franciscan friar, King Edward refused to pay the tax to the pope with a clear conscience.

Papal Palace in Avignon, France
It was not long after this incident that the Avignon papacy came to an end, and Pope Gregory XI returned the seat of the papacy to Rome in 1376. With the pope no longer under the thumb of the French king, English antipathy toward the papacy abated.

The French, however, were loath to lose their influence over the highest churchman in the West. They backed a rival claimant to the papacy, and a second pope, known as the antipope again set up rule back at Avignon. This instigated what is known as the Great Schism with two different popes both claiming to be the true successor of Saint Peter.

The schism was over a political rather than a theological matter. The kings of Europe took sides, with England, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Scandinavian countries accepting the Roman pope, and France, Scotland, and the Spanish kingdoms siding with the usurper in Avignon. The matter was not fully resolved until 1418 at the Council of Constance where the rule of the Roman pope was upheld.

Once again, England was able to be on proper terms with the acknowledged head of the Western church…for another century, at least, until Henry VIII would behave with as much belligerence as the Black Prince, berating his bishops until they agreed that, “the Pope is not lord here.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Boniface VIII. "Unam Sanctam, 1302." Medieval Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/b8-unam.asp

Sedgwick, Henry Dwight. The Black Prince. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.


  1. Wonderful post, Rosanne! I had no idea that line from the movie had so much info behind it! Thanks for sharing! Tweeted as well.

    1. Thanks, Lana! So glad you enjoyed it! I didn't know about it either until I ran into the line in a biography of the Black Prince when I was researching for my novel I Serve. :-)

  2. Fascinating post about a fascinating time. Thank you

    1. Thanks for reading! The fourteenth century is definitely one of my favorite time periods.

  3. Very nice. I was in Chinon this past fall and down near Avignon though I didn't get there. Amazing history in that part of France.

    1. I would love to go there sometime! The only place in France I've been is Paris.

    2. Rosanne,
      You must find a way to visit Edward's Aquitaine and Avignon! The palace of the popes still has magnificent 14th century frescos -- very vivid and so evocative of the age of Edward of Woodstock. Also, you need to visit Carcassonne, which makes a great deal of Edward's siege. I tried to follow the route of the Grand Raid of 1355, it's not easy -- but worth the effort to see the countryside. I strongly recommend it.

    3. Someday I will eagerly follow all your suggestions. It's not for lack of wanting to go... :-)

  4. Thanks for highlighting this -- and the quotes from Edward. Actually, I'm very fond of the film "A Knight's Tale" (in part because of the positive portrayal of Edward of Woodstock), but also because I think it captures the essence of the "tourney circuit" and much of the spirit of the age. Precisely because it makes no pretense of historical accuracy and uses modern music etc. it makes the era more accessible and makes it more real. I prefer it by far to films like "Braveheart" that pretend to be accurate but are completely distorting history.

    1. That's a good point--the film definitely doesn't take itself seriously and is in far less danger of misinforming the average viewer about "what really happened" than something like Braveheart.

  5. Excellent summary -- and by the way a great film too!

  6. Wonderful article, the trouble between Edward III and the Avignon Papacy is fascinating!


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