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Top 10 Antipopes

About forty or so men hold a dubious distinction. They are considered Antipopes – false rivals to the Popes. Between the 3rd and 15th centuries, there would be many claims to who should be Pontiff of Rome. Here are ten of the men who, while they may have held the Papal throne, but ultimately are not considered to be Popes.

Hippolytus of Rome

The Martyrdom of of former Antipope Hippolytus, according to the legendary version of Prudentius (14th century)
The Martyrdom of of former Antipope Hippolytus, according to the legendary version of Prudentius (14th century)

Considered to be the first antipope, Hippolytus was part of a group of conservative church leaders opposed to Pope Callixtus I (217–222) when he announced that even Christians who had committed grave sins could be forgiven. The conservative group elected him to be the new Bishop of Rome, and for about 15 years he remained opposed to the Papacy. However, he did finally reconcile with Pope Pontian (230–235), just before he was caught up in the persecution of Emperor Maximinus Thrax. Martyred by being torn apart by horses, Hippolytus would be named a saint. In the Middle Ages he was considered the patron saint of horses.

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Constantine II

After the death of Pope Paul I in 767, a Roman noble named Toto of Nepi entered the city with an armed force. He ordered that his brother Constantine would become the next Pope. However, Constantine was a lay person, so in one day the church officials made him a deacon, priest, and then bishop before elevating him to the Papacy. Constantine’s rule only lasted a year before some rivals persuaded the King of the Lombards to intervene, and marching on Rome, the Lombards killed Toto in battle. Constantine was imprisoned, and after a new Pope was elected, they had the antipope excommunicated, blinded, tortured, his tongue cut out, and publicly humiliated before sending him to live the rest of his days in a monastery.

Boniface VII

Franco Ferrucci was a Cardinal Deacon living in Rome during the pontificate of Benedict VI (973-4). Benedict was supported by Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great but was deeply hated by the people of Rome. Franco was part of a revolt against Benedict, and the Pope was captured and strangled to death. Afterwards the Romans named Franco the new Pope, taking the name Boniface VII. However, in less than two months forces from the Holy Roman Emperor came into Italy looking to put down the revolt. Boniface stripped the Papal treasury and fled to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. He still had the support of the local population, and on two occasions was able to return to Rome and take over the Papal palace.

Sylvester III

Our list is really 9 antipopes, as officially this person is considered to be a real Pope. However, he more than qualifies to be an antipope. When Pope Benedict IX, considered on the worst popes in history, was driven from Rome in September 1044, John, bishop of Sabina, was elected to the Papacy (he may have bribed his way into office). He began his rule in January 1045 under the name Sylvester III, but in April of that year Benedict IX’s forces returned and expelled his rival. Sylvester III returned to Sabina, where he continued to serve as its bishop until 1062.

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Clement III

Antipope Clement III with Henry IV, image from Codex Jenesis Bose q.6 (1157)
Antipope Clement III with Henry IV, image from Codex Jenesis Bose q.6 (1157)

Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) was one of the great reforming pontiffs, but his demands for Papal supremacy would lead to a clash with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Called the Investiture Controversy, it lead to a state of war between the supporters of the Papacy and Emperor. By 1080, Emperor Henry decided to install his own Pope, and called upon Guibert, archbishop of Ravenna, to fulfil the role. Ruling as Clement III, he often had control of Rome for the next 20 years, and was the start of a line of antipopes supported by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Gregory VIII

The run of antipopes supported by the Holy Roman Emperors ended with Gregory VIII, who reined from 1118 to 1121. He was eventually captured by the papal troops of Calixtus II (1119-1124), forced to surrender and was kept imprisoned in monasteries until his death in 1137.

Antipope Gregory VIII surrenders to Pope Calixtus II - Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493
Antipope Gregory VIII surrenders to Pope Calixtus II – Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493

Clement VII

From 1378 to 1418, the Catholic church was split into two – known as the Western Schism, it was primarily a political dispute – one Pope was in Avignon, where he was supported by France, Aragon, Castile, Scotland and Naples, while another Pope was in Rome, where he had the allegiance of England, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland and other city-states in Italy. Clement VII was the antipope in Avignon from 1378 to 1394, but he is perhaps best known for leading a mercenary army against the small city of Cesena in 1377, when he was a Papal Legate. When the city was captured, Clement ordered the massacre of between 3,000 and 8,000 civilians, an act which earned him the nickname the Butcher of Cesena.

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The consecration of Benedict XIII, in Avignon, on September 28, 1394
The consecration of Benedict XIII, in Avignon, on September 28, 1394

Benedict XIII

After Clement’s death on 16 September 1394, the supporters of the Avignon papacy met and elected Pedro Martínez de Luna, an Aragonese noble and scholar, as their new Pontiff. However, the European support for the Avignon popes went into decline during his reign, and Benedict is mostly known for instigating a number of acts against the Jewish community in Spain.

Alexander V

In 1409 some church leaders hoping to end the Western Schism met in Pisa and elected the Archbishop of Milan, Petros Philargos, as the new Pope. However, the popes in Rome and Avignon refused to accept this council’s decision, and the situation now emerged where there would be three rival pontiffs. It would not be until the Council of Constance, held between 1414 and 1418, that crisis was finally resolved with the election of Pope Martin V.

Felix V in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Felix V in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Felix V

After the end of the Western Schism, the main dispute within the church was over how much power the Papacy should wield. In 1439 the Council of Florence decided to depose the sitting pontiff over this issue and elected Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy as the new Pope. Taking the name Felix V, he tried to serve as Pope until 1449 but found little support in Europe. Eventually, he stepped down and became a Cardinal, and is now considered the last antipope.

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Want to learn more about the Papacy? Take a look at:

The Woman who Ruled the Papacy

Top 10 Scandals of the Middle Ages

Quiz: Medieval Popes

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