Immaculately preserved, central Avignon is enclosed by medieval walls, built in 1403 by the Anti-Pope Benedict XIII, the last of nine popes who based themselves here throughout most of the fourteenth century. The first pope to come to Avignon was Clement V in 1309, who was invited over by the astute King Philippe le Bel ("the Good"), ostensibly to protect Clement from impending anarchy in Rome. In reality, Philip saw a chance to extend his power over the Church by keeping the pope in the safety of Provence, during what came to be known as the Church's "Babylonian captivity". Clement's successors were a varied group, from the villainous John XXII (of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose fame), to the dedicated Urban V, and later Gregory XI, who managed to re-establish the papacy in Rome in 1378. However, this was not the end of the papacy here – after Gregory's death in Rome, dissident local cardinals elected their own pope in Avignon, provoking the Western Schism: a ruthless struggle for the control of the Church's wealth, which lasted until the pious Benedict fled Avignon for self-exile near Valencia in 1409.
As home to one of the richest courts in Europe, fourteenth-century Avignon attracted hordes of princes, dignitaries, poets and raiders, who arrived to beg from, rob, extort money from and entertain the popes. According to Petrarch, the overcrowded, plague-ridden papal entourage was "a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered". Burgeoning from within its low battlements, the town must have been a colourful, frenetic sight.
Pages in section ‘Avignon’: The City, Information, Festival, Discovery passports, Listings, Eating and drinking, Nightlife, Palais des Papes, Place de l'Horloge, Banasterie, Rue de la République, Musée Calvet, Southeast.
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