HIS101 logo Background to
The Election and Coronation of a Pope by Adam Usk

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
Return to the Syllabus


Adam Usk (1352-1430) was born in the Welsh town of Usk. Nothing is known about his family, but he studied and taught law at Oxford and became associated with Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Catholic church in England. Adam Usk became somewhat influential during the King Henry IV's rise to power and immediately afterwards, but after Adam traveled to Rome in 1402, he lost favor in England. By the time he returned home, Adam had to seek Henry IV's pardon in 1411, and the death of Arundel in 1414 ended Adam's influence. Adam Usk wrote a "Chronicle" that covered the years from 1377 to 1422, and included a description of his time in Rome. This selection, which describes the selection of Pope Innocent VII (ruled 1404-1406), comes from that work.



Hierarchical systems appear in many places in society. Perhaps the easiest to recognize is the one used by the US Army, where generals supervise colonels who give orders to majors, captains, lieutenants, sergeants and corporals down to privates. Europe's feudal society was organized in a hierarchy with the Holy Roman Emperor ruling over kings, nobles and peasants. The Roman Catholic Church was organized in a hierachy as well, with the pope at the top, supervising bishops who were responsible for territories called dioceses. Each bishop supervised lesser church officials down to the level of parish priests, who were responsible for the spiritual well-being of the local peasants, also known as serfs.

In the same way that peasants were required to give part of everything they produced to the noble who ruled over them, peasants were also responsible for giving a portion of everything they produced to their priest, who used some of it for local "good works" and passed the rest on to his bishop so it could be employed in the "work of the Church." The church also received gifts of land and other valuables from the estates of wealthy people who hoped to gain salvation when they died. In these ways, the Roman Catholic Church accumulated an enormous amount of wealth which it used to finance the construction of cathedrals, pay for wars against Islam, and maintain a large bureaucracy.

The previous reading described a conflict between German nobles that grew out of an even bigger struggle between popes and Holy Roman Emperors. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII (ruled 1073-1085) obtained allies from among nobles who opposed the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (ruled 1056-1106). By the middle of the 12th century, their struggle had turned into a contest between the two German noble families headed by Henry the Lion and Conrad III. The selection of Frederick I "Barbarossa" as Holy Roman Emperor temporarily ended the conflict, but it resumed during his reign and continued into the fifteenth century while Adam Usk was in Rome. In the process, the contest for power between popes and emperors spilled over into other aspects of medieval European politics (like the selection of bishops) and the two sides became known as Guelphs (supporters of strong papal rule) and Ghibellines (their opponents).

As this reading shows, popes were selected by the College of Cardinals, which was composed of the bishops from the seven dioceses surrounding Rome, archbishops from outside the province of Rome, and priests from within the diocese of Rome. The bishop of Ostia (located just east of Rome) held the title of Dean of the College of Cardinals and had the authority to convene the College when a pope died. The College also served as an advisory council to popes (as it still does today).

Map of Rome showing the route of the papal procession
The route of the papal procession in Rome

In the early 14th century, disputes about the power of the papacy led to a crisis called the "Great Schism." In brief, as the French monarchy became more powerful during the 12th-13th centuries, it influenced the selection of bishops and archbishops until, by the 14th century, a significant number were allied with the French monarchy. In 1305, a "French pope" was chosen by the College of Cardinals, but the population of the city of Rome was so hostile that he believed his life was in danger.

The French king (Philip IV) offered to protect him, so from 1305 to 1368, popes lived in Avignon in the south of France. Naturally, people in Italy were outraged by this break with tradition, and in 1378, a new pope named Gregory tried to return to Rome. Unfortunately, he died a year later and the College of Cardinals divided into French and Italian factions during the subsequent election. The result was two popes: one in Avignon and the other in Rome. In 1409, Catholic leaders called a council whose purpose was to resolve the schism, but when the council selected a new pope, the first two refused to yield. Finally, a second council met in Constance (southern Germany) from 1414-1417, selected Martin V in 1417, and got all of his rivals to step down. But by then the damage was done -- reformers questioned the entire process by which popes were selected while ordinary Catholics wondered how they could be sure which pope represented the true will of their God. Within a century, a German monk named Martin Luther raised these and other questions in a way that ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Papal palace at Avignon
The "Papal Palace" in Avignon, France

NOTE: Did you notice the reference in the reading to a female Pope named Joan? Check out this link to learn more.


  1. Can you describe the conclave and what happened there?
  2. Why did an army surround the conclave during the election?
  3. What does this reading say about relations between Roman Catholic popes and Jews in Rome in the early 15th century?
  4. What evidence does this reading offer concerning the distribution of wealth among the people of Rome at the time Adam Usk visited there?
Return to the Syllabus