1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/John XXIII (pope)

JOHN XXIII. (Baldassare Cossa), pope, or rather anti-pope from 1410 to 1415, was born of a good Neapolitan family, and began by leading the life of a corsair before entering the service of the Church under the pontificate of Boniface IX. His abilities, which were mainly of an administrative and military order, were soon rewarded by the cardinal’s hat and the legation of Bologna. On the 29th of June 1408 he and seven of his colleagues broke away from Gregory XII., and together with six cardinals of the obedience of Avignon, who had in like manner separated from Benedict XIII., they agreed to aim at the assembling of a general council, setting aside the two rival pontiffs, an expedient which they considered would put an end to the great schism of the Western Church, but which resulted in the election of yet a third pope. This act was none the less decisive for Baldassare Cossa’s future. Alexander V., the first pope elected at Pisa, was not perhaps, as has been maintained, merely a man of straw put forward by the ambitious cardinal of Bologna; but he reigned only ten months, and on his death, which happened rather suddenly on the 4th of May 1410, Baldassare Cossa succeeded him. Whether the latter had bought his electors by money and promises, or owed his success to his dominant position in Bologna, and to the support of Florence and of Louis II. of Anjou, he seems to have received the unanimous vote of all the seventeen cardinals gathered together at Bologna (May 17). He took the name of John XXIII., and France, England, and part of Italy and Germany recognized him as head of the Catholic church.

The struggle in which he and Louis II. of Anjou engaged with Ladislaus of Durazzo, king of Sicily, and Gregory XII.’s chief protector in Italy, at first went in John’s favour. After the brilliant victory of Roccasecca (May 19, 1411) he had the satisfaction of dragging the standards of Pope Gregory and King Ladislaus through the streets of Rome. But the dispersion of Louis of Anjou’s troops and his carelessness, together with the lack of success which attended the preaching of a crusade in Germany, France and England, finally decided John XXIII. to abandon the French claimant to the throne of Sicily; he recognized Ladislaus, his former enemy, as king of Naples, and Ladislaus did not fail to salute John XXIII. as pope, abandoning Gregory XII. (June 15, 1412). This was a fatal step: John XXIII. was trusting in a dishonest and insatiable prince; he would have acted more wisely in remaining the ally of the weak but loyal Louis of Anjou. However, it seemed desirable that the reforms announced by the council of Pisa, which the popes set up by this synod seemed in no hurry to carry into effect, should be further discussed in the new council which it had been agreed should be summoned about the spring of 1412. But John was anxious that this council should be held in Rome, a city where he alone was master; the few prelates and ambassadors who very slowly gathered there held only a small number of sessions, in which John again condemned the writings of Wycliffe. John was attacked by the representatives of the various nations and reprimanded even for his private conduct, but endeavoured to extricate himself from this uncomfortable position by gratifying their desires, if not by reforming abuses. It is, however, only fair to add that he took various half-measures and gave many promises which, if they had been put into execution, would have confirmed or completed the reforms inaugurated at Pisa. But on the 3rd of March 1413 John adjourned the council of Rome till December, without even fixing the place where the next session should be held. It was held at Constance in Germany, and John could only have resigned himself to accepting such an uncertain meeting-place because he was forced by distress, isolation and fear to turn towards the head of the empire. Less than a year after the treaty concluded with Ladislaus of Durazzo, the latter forced his way into Rome (June 8, 1413), which he sacked, expelling John, to whom even the Florentines did not dare to throw open their gates for fear of the king of Sicily. Sigismund, king of the Romans, not only extorted, it is said, a sum of 50,000 florins from the pontiff in his extremity, but insisted upon his summoning the council at Constance (December 9). It was in vain that, on the death of Ladislaus, which took place unexpectedly (August 6, 1414), John was inspired with the idea of breaking his compact with Sigismund and returning to Rome, at the same time appealing to Louis of Anjou. It was too late. The cardinals forced him towards Germany by the most direct road, without allowing him to go by way of Avignon as he had projected, in order to make plans with the princes of France.

On the 5th of November 1414 John opened the council of Constance, where, on Christmas Day, he received the homage of the head of the empire, but where his lack of prestige, the defection of his allies, the fury of his adversaries, and the general sense of the necessity for union soon showed only too clearly how small was the chance of his retaining the tiara. He had to take a solemn oath to abdicate if his two rivals would do the same, and this concession, which was not very sincere, gained him for the last time the honour of seeing Sigismund prostrate at his feet (March 2, 1415). But on the night of the 20th–21st of March, having donned the garments of a layman, with a cross-bow slung at his side, he succeeded in making his escape from Constance, accompanied only by a single servant, and took refuge first in the castle of Schaffhausen, then in that of Laufenburg, then at Freiburg-im-Breisgau, and finally at Brisach, whence he hoped to reach Alsace, and doubtless ultimately Avignon, under the protection of an escort sent by the duke of Burgundy. The news of the pope’s escape was received at Constance with an extraordinary outburst of rage, and led to the subversive decrees of the 4th and 5th sessions, which proclaimed the superiority of the council over the pope. Duke Frederick of Austria had hitherto sheltered John’s flight; but, laid under the ban of the empire, attacked by powerful armies, and feeling that he was courting ruin, he preferred to give up the pontiff who had trusted to him. John was brought back to Freiburg (April 27), and there in vain attempted to appease the wrath which he had aroused by more or less vague promises of resignation. His trial, however, was already beginning. The three cardinals whom he charged with his defence hastily declined this compromising task. Seventy-four charges were drawn up, only twenty of which were set aside after the witnesses had been heard. The accusation of having poisoned Alexander V. and his doctor at Bologna was not maintained. But enough deeds of immorality, tyranny, ambition and simony were found proved to justify the severest judgment. He was suspended from his functions as pope on the 14th of May 1415, and deposed on the following 29th of May.

However irregular this sentence may have been from the canonical point of view (for the accusers do not seem to have actually proved the crime of heresy, which was necessary, according to most scholars of the period, to justify the deposition of a sovereign pontiff), the condemned pope was not long in confirming it. Baldassare Cossa, now as humble and resigned as he had before been energetic and tenacious, on his transference to the castle of Rudolfzell admitted the wrong which he had done by his flight, refused to bring forward anything in his defence, acquiesced entirely in the judgment of the council which he declared to be infallible, and finally, as an extreme precaution, ratified motu proprio the sentence of deposition, declaring that he freely and willingly renounced any rights which he might still have in the papacy. This fact has subsequently been often quoted against those who have appealed to the events of 1415 to maintain that a council can depose a pope who is scandalizator ecclesiae.

Cossa kept his word never to appeal against the sentence which stripped him of the pontificate. He was held prisoner for three years in Germany, but in the end bought his liberty from the count palatine. He used this liberty only to go to Florence, in 1419, and throw himself on the mercy of the legitimate pope. Martin V. appointed him cardinal-bishop of Tusculum, a dignity which Cossa only enjoyed for a few months. He died on the 22nd of December 1419, and all visitors to the Baptistery at Florence may admire, under its high baldacchino, the sombre figure sculptured by Donatello of the dethroned pontiff, who had at least the merit of bowing his head under his chastisement, and of contributing by his passive resignation to the extinction of the series of popes which sprang from the council of Pisa. (N. V.)