Pierre Roger de Beaufort, an aristocratic Frenchman from the Limousin, was born in 1329 and was a nephew of Pope Clement VI (1342 – 1352). In such an atmosphere of privilege, one could assume de Beaufort would have been spoiled. On the contrary, he was not. As the nephew of a pope, however, he was the recipient of several ecclesiastical favors. He was made a cardinal deacon at the age of nineteen and returned to his studies in Perugia. He was known for his sweet disposition, for his goodness and for his intellectual abilities.
Upon the death of Urban V in 1370, de Beaufort was elected pope by a majority of French cardinals since this was the era of the Avignon papacy. He took the name of Gregory XI. The new pontiff was forty-two years old in 1370 and known to be deeply religious. He declared his intention to return the papacy to Rome, a decision unfavorable to the French monarch, Charles V, who hoped to use his influence in the ongoing 100 years’ war with England.
Pope Gregory XI had an excellent education, youth and energy to bring to the papacy. He was deeply religious and had high hopes of uniting the eastern and western churches. He was not successful. He also intended to mount a crusade but could not gather funds or interest to proceed. He relied on allies who were themselves too weak to act on his behalf. The Papal States were in revolt and his solution was to issue an interdict (a grave disciplinary measure) that crippled their economy. This, too, was a grave mistake.
Amidst these conditions, Gregory XI intended to return the papacy to Rome. He was cognizant of the visions of St. Bridget of Sweden who warned him of his dependence on political alliances. Equally compelling was the visit from a young Dominican nun, Catherine of Siena. She visited Pope Gregory at Avignon as an ambassador of peace. Catherine could neither read nor write but her powers of persuasion were immense and she spoke to him through an interpreter. Known in her native land for her considerable compassion and great love for the poor, she was equally at home writing to popes, bishops, European leaders, and leaders in the Papal States. Her contention was that the pope simply had to return to Rome and she both chided him (he listened meekly to her words) and spoke with affection to him. That letter, written in 1376, is lengthy and persuasive. And in another letter, she warned him, Don’t make it necessary for me to complain about you to Christ!
Gregory did return to Rome but not before the situation had become tumultuous. The Papal States were in an uproar. French legates were bleeding the people dry until they rose in protest. Gregory dispatched French mercenaries and a brutal cardinal, Robert of Geneva, who authorized the killing of 4,000 civilians in Cesena, and who came to be known as, the butcher of Cesena.
Fury against him was so great that instead of entering Rome, Gregory retired to Anagni. In the next few months a conference was called to bring about a peaceful settlement. Gregory died at this time after only seven years as pontiff. It is surmised that, had he lived, he may have returned to Avignon.
Gregory reformed the Knights Hospitaller. He used the Inquisition to suppress heresy and condemned the writings of John Wycliffe, an English priest.
Although he never managed to settle peacefully in Rome, it is because of him the papacy was returned to Rome.
Pope Gregory died in March of 1378.
The Collection has two silver coins from his pontificate.