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Urban VI
Urbanus VI.jpg
Papacy began April 8, 1378
Papacy ended October 15, 1389
Predecessor Gregory XI
Successor Boniface IX
Personal details
Birth name Bartolomeo Prignano
Born ca. 1318
Naples, Kingdom of Naples
Died October 15, 1389
Rome, Papal States
Other Popes named Urban
Styles of
{{{papal name}}}
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style His Holiness

Pope Urban VI (c. 1318 – October 15, 1389), born Bartolomeo Prignano, was Pope from 1378 to 1389.


Born in Naples, he was a devout monk and learned casuist, trained at Avignon. On March 21, 1364, he was consecrated Archbishop of Acerenza in the Kingdom of Naples. He became Archbishop of Bari in 1377, and, on the death of Pope Gregory XI (1370–78), the Roman populace, who surrounded the conclave, clamorously demanded a Roman pope; the cardinals being under some haste and great pressure to avoid the return of the Papal seat to Avignon, Prignano was unanimously chosen (April 8, 1378) as acceptable as well to the disunited[1] majority of French cardinals, taking the name Urban VI. Not being a Cardinal,[2] he was not well known. Immediately following the conclave most of the cardinals fled Rome before the mob could learn that not a Roman (though not a Frenchman either), but a subject of Joan I of Naples, had been chosen.

Prignano had developed a reputation for simplicity and frugality, even austerity, a head for business when acting Vice-Chancellor and a penchant for learning, and, according to Cristoforo di Piacenza,[3] he was without famiglia in an age of nepotism, although once in the Papal chair he elevated four cardinal-nephews and sought to place one of them in control of Naples. His great faults undid his virtues: Ludwig Pastor summed up his character: "He lacked Christian gentleness and charity. He was naturally arbitrary and extremely violent and imprudent, and when he came to deal with the burning ecclesiastical question of the day, that of reform, the consequences were disastrous."[4]

Though the coronation was carried out in scrupulous detail, leaving no doubt as to the legitimacy of the new pontiff,[5] the French were not particularly happy with this move and began immediately to conspire against this pope from the Regno. Urban VI did himself no favors; whereas the cardinals had expected him pliant, he was considered arrogant and angry by many of his contemporaries. Dietrich of Nieheim considered that the cardinals concluded that his elevation had turned his head,[6] and Froissart, Leonardo Aretino, Tommaso de Acerno[7] and St. Antoninus of Florence recorded similar conclusions.[8]

Immediately following his election, Urban began preaching intemperately to the cardinals, insisting that the business of the curia should be carried on without gratuities and gifts, forbidding the cardinals to accept annuities from rulers and other lay persons, condemning the luxury of their lives and retinues, and the multiplication of benefices and bishoprics in their hands. Nor would he remove again to Avignon, thus alienating Charles V of France, and, according to Urban's assessment, opening the Western Schism.

The cardinals were mortally offended. Five months after his election, the French cardinals met at Anagni, inviting Urban, who realized that he would be seized and perhaps slain; in his absence they issued a manifesto of grievances (August 9), declaring the election invalid and claiming that they had been cowed by the mob into electing an Italian, followed by letters (August 20) to the missing Italian cardinals, declaring sede vacante. Then at Fondi, secretly supported by the king of France,[9] they proceeded to elect Robert of Geneva (September 20). Robert, a militant cleric who had succeeded Albornoz as commander of the papal troops, took the title of Clement VII, beginning the Western Schism which divided Catholic Christendom until 1417.

Urban was excommunicated by the French pope and designated the Antichrist, while Catherine of Siena called the cardinals "devils in human form". Coluccio Salutati identified the political nature of the withdrawal: "Who does not see," the Chancellor openly addressed the French cardinals, "that you seek not the true pope, but opt solely for a Gallic pontiff."[10] Opening rounds of argument were embodied in John of Legnano's defense of the election, De fletu ecclesiæ, written and incrementally revised between 1378 and 1380, which Urban caused to be distributed in multiple copies, and in the numerous rebuttals that soon appeared.[11] Events overtook the rhetoric, however; twenty-six new cardinals were created in a single day, and by an arbitrary alienation of the estates and property of the church, funds were raised for open war.[12] At the end of May 1379 Clement went to Avignon, where he was more than ever at the mercy of the king of France. Louis, duc d'Anjou, was granted a phantom kingdom of Adria to be carved out of papal Emilia and Romagna, if he could unseat the pope at Rome.[13]

Meanwhile, the War of the Eight Saints, carried on with spates of unprecedented cruelty to civilians, was draining the resources of Florence, though the city ignored the interdict placed upon it by Gregory, declared its churches open, and sold ecclesiastical property for 100,000 florins to finance the war. Bologna had submitted to the Church in August 1377, and Florence signed a treaty at Tivoli on 28 July 1378, at a cost of 200,000 florins indemnity extorted by Urban, the restitution of church properties, receiving in return the papal favor and the lifting of the disregarded interdict.

Urban's erstwhile patroness, Joan I of Naples, deserted him in the late summer of 1378,[14] in part because her former archbishop had become her feudal suzerain, and Urban now lost sight of the larger issues and began to commit a series of errors. He turned upon his powerful neighbor, excommunicated her as an obstinate partisan of Clement, and permitted a crusade to be preached against her. Soon her enemy and cousin, the "crafty and ambitious"[15] Charles of Durazzo, representing the Sicilian Angevin line, forgetting his French blood, was invested in the sovereignty of Naples (June 1, 1381), declared to be forfeited by Joan — whom he murdered in 1382 — and was crowned by Urban. "In return for these favours, Charles had to promise to hand over Capua, Caserta, Aversa, Nocera, Amalfi to the pope's nephew,[16] a thoroughly worthless and immoral man."[15]

Urbano VI at Nocera's Castel, from Croniche of Giovanni Sercambi

Once ensconced at Naples, Charles found his new kingdom invaded by Louis of Anjou and Amadeus VI of Savoy; hard-pressed, he reneged on his promises. In Rome the Castel Sant'Angelo was besieged and taken, and Urban forced to flee; Urban in the fall of 1383 determined to go to Naples and press Charles in person. There he found himself virtually a prisoner. After a first reconciliation, with the death of Louis (September 20, 1384), Charles found himself freer to resist Urban's feudal pretensions, and relations took a turn for the worse; Urban was shut up in Nocera, from the walls of which he daily fulminated his anathemas against his besiegers, with bell, book and candle; a price was set on his head.

Rescued by two Neapolitan barons who had sided for Louis, Raimondello Orsini and Tommaso di Sanseverino, after six months of siege he succeeded in making his escape to Genoa with six galleys sent him by doge Antoniotto Adorno. Several among his cardinals who had been shut up in Nocera with him and had followed him in Genoa determined to make a stand: they determined that a pope, who by his incapacity or blind obstinacy might be put in the charge of one of the cardinals. Urban had them seized, tortured and put to death, "a crime unheard of through the centuries" the chronicler Egidio da Viterbo remarked.[17]

His support had dwindled to the northern Italian states, Portugal, England,[18] and Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, who brought with him the support of most of the princes and abbots of Germany.

On the death of Charles of Naples (February 24, 1386), Urban moved to Lucca in December of that year. The Kingdom of Naples was contended between a party favouring his son, Ladislas, and Louis II of Anjou and Urban devised to take advantage of the anarchy which had ensued (as well as of the presence of the feeble Mary as Queen of Sicily) to seize Naples for his nephew Francesco Moricotti Prignani. In the meantime he was able to have Viterbo and Perugia return under the Papal control.

In August 1388 Urban moved from Perugia with 4,000 troops. To raise funds he had proclaimed a Jubilee to be held in 1390, only thirty-three years had elapsed since that celebrated under Clement VI. During the march, he fell from his mule at Narni and had to recover in Rome in the early October, where he was able to oust the communal rule of the banderesi and restore the Papal authority. Soon afterwards he died, likely of injuries caused by the fall, not without rumors of poisoning.[19] It is noteworthy that during the reconstruction of Saint Peter's Basilica Urbans remains were almost dumped out to be destroyed so his sarcophagus could be used to water horses. It was only saved when church historian Giacomo Grimaldi arrived and when realizing the import ordered it preserved.[20]

His successor was Pope Boniface IX (1389–1404).


  1. Pastor 118.
  2. He was the last Pope to be elected from outside the College of Cardinals.
  3. In a letter to his master, Lodovico Gonzaga of Mantua; (Pastor 121, who adds "He was quickly and thoroughly undeceived!").
  4. Pastor 122; on the urgency of reforms, see the contemporary letters of Catherine of Siena.
  5. Pastor 119f.
  6. Pastor 122.
  7. Tomasso de Acerno, De creatione Urbani VI opusculum.
  8. Drawn together by Alfred von Reumont (ii, 1024), Pastor notes.
  9. Pastor 127; W. Ullmann, The Origins of the Great Schism (London) 1948:54.
  10. "Quis non videt vos non verum Papam quærere, sed solum Pontificem natione Gallicum exoptare" (quoted Pastor 131 note).
  11. John P. McCall, "Chaucer and John of Legnano" Speculum 40.3 (July 1965:484-489) p 487 notes thirty-eight surviving manuscripts of De fletu in full or in part, and three responses from French cardinals as wekll as Jean LeFevre's De planctu bonorum ("The plaint of Bologna", 1379), which played on the title and gave a point-by-point rebuttal.
  12. The reduced and disordered finances at Rome, most of the records being retained at Avignon and most of the experienced members of the papal camera and treasury having followed Clement, is discussed by Jean Favier, Les Finances Pontificales a L'Epoque Du Grand Schisme D'Occident, 1378-1409 (Paris) 1966.
  13. Pastor 133.
  14. Salvatore Fodale, La politica napoletana di Urbano VI (Rome: Sciascia) 1976, treats the convoluted career of Urban's most important political course as invariably rational— in the face of the contemporary accounts— with copious quotes from original sources.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Pastor 136.
  16. [1], Francesco Moricotti Prignano, of Vico, near Pisa; he was made a cardinal (September 18, 1378) and called the "Cardinal of Pisa"; appointed governor of Campagna, April 21, 1380; Urban's constant assistant, he died in 1394.
  17. "scelus nullo antea sæculo auditum" (Egidio da Viterbo, Historia viginti sæculorum) noted Pastor 137 note.
  18. In England Richard II lost no time in confiscating properties of the French cardinals, and subsequently Richard alone responded to Urban's call for a crusade against Clement in France. (Pastor 134).
  19. Catholic Encyclopedia, "Pope Urban VI".
  20. Reardon, Wendy. The Death of The Popes. McFarland Publishers. 


  • Rendina, CLaudio (1993). I papi - Storia e segreti. Rome: Newton & Compton. 
  • Pastor, Ludwig. The History of the Popes: From the Close of the Middle Ages. vol. I. 

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Popes of the Western Schism
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Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Gregory XI
Succeeded by
Boniface IX

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