Council of Constance

The Council of Constance ended the Great Schism within the Catholic Church, but it failed to institute basic reforms, especially the sharing of papal powers with regular assemblies of churchmen, and it sparked Hussite revolt in Bohemia.

Summary of Event

In the early fourteenth century, European public life seemed to be unraveling. There had been divisions in the Roman Church before, but the Great Schism Great Schism (1378-1417) that began in 1378 was worse than any previous contest of pope and antipope. After the Council of Pisa Pisa, Council of (1408) met in 1408 in an effort to remove both the Roman and Avignon popes, they achieved little more than declaring a third pope, who was soon succeeded by a former mercenary soldier, John XXIII John XXIII (pope) , whose personal life and politics were more distasteful than those of either of his rivals. [kw]Council of Constance (1414-1418)
[kw]Constance, Council of (1414-1418)
Constance, Council of (1414-1418)
Switzerland;1414-1418: Council of Constance[3120]
Government and politics;1414-1418: Council of Constance[3120]
Religion;1414-1418: Council of Constance[3120]
Hus, Jan
John XXIII (d. 1419)

Similarly, the Holy Roman Empire was being contested by three claimants: Wenceslas Wenceslas (king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) of Bohemia, who had refused to accept his deposition by the electors on the grounds of incompetence and alcoholism; Ruprecht of the Rhine Ruprecht of the Rhine , a minor prince; and Wenceslas’s half brother, Sigismund Sigismund (king of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor) of Hungary, whose qualifications were geniality, a gift for foreign languages, and the expectation that he would be Wenceslas’s heir. France was ruled by an insane king, with the regency contested between Burgundian and Orléanist factions. England, having finally resolved its internal problems, saw an opportunity to resume the Hundred Years’ War. Bulgaria and Serbia had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, Constantinople was surrounded, and the French and Hungarian Crusaders of 1396 had suffered a humiliating defeat at Nicopolis on the Danube.

In the end, everyone turned to Sigismund for leadership. Ruprecht had died, Wenceslas was unable even to maintain peace in his own kingdom, and John XXIII had been driven out of Rome by King Ladislas of Naples. In 1413, the electors of the Holy Roman Empire proclaimed Sigismund as the German king and saw to his coronation in Aachen; then they contributed a small number of knights to accompany him to Italy. There, Sigismund won general agreement to participate in general council, which would attempt to resolve some of Christendom’s most pressing crises.

The site was to be Constance, a beautiful city on a lake that everyone could reach easily via the Rhine and the Alpine passes, which had sufficient lodgings and food, enjoyed a mild climate, and was relatively neutral in politics. For convenience, the delegates would be divided into four “nations” according to the practice common in universities: the German, the Italian, the French, and the Spanish. Because the Spanish refused to attend, however, their place was awarded to the English.

Because it was not easy to get all the representatives to Constance on time, the council took up important business slowly even after John XXIII formally opened its sessions in late 1414. Sigismund did not appear until Christmas Eve. This time, however, was not wasted. The adherents of the three popes conducted informal discussions that led them to the conclusion that the present claimants had to go. As it dawned on John XXIII that he would not have an honorable retirement, he slipped out of Constance on March 20, a day when the entire populace and most of the council members were watching a tournament, leaving behind a proclamation that the council was dissolved.

Sigismund responded promptly by ordering the councilmen to stay in session, setting pursuers on the fugitive’s trail, and raising an army to attack John’s protector, Friedrich of Austria. In late April, John XXIII was captured and brought to Constance. In early May, he was put on trial for heresy, simony, and a long catalog of crimes mortal and venal. By the end of the month, John XXIII had been convicted and deposed. Heresy;Hus

Meanwhile, another trial was in process, that of Jan Hus Hus, Jan of Bohemia. Hus was the leader of the Czech reformers, a brilliant orator, a man of highest personal integrity, but hated by the German churchmen in Prague who were the target of his unrelenting attacks. Because Hus’s philosophy was strikingly similar to that of John Wyclif, Wyclif, John he was repeatedly accused of heretical beliefs and practices. The council was an opportunity for Hus to defend himself against his enemies’s charges and to persuade others to make the kind of basic reforms that would transform the Church into a servant of the people rather than the great landed families.

Sigismund had given Hus safe conduct to Constance, then rather shamefacedly arrested him when churchmen threatened to break up the council and go home unless the excommunicated scholar was put on trial for heresy. The trial was a travesty. Hus was condemned and burned at the stake in July. His follower, Jerome of Prague, came to Constance to defend Hus’s teachings. He was burned in May of 1416, shouting his defiance to his last breath.

Immediately, the smoldering unrest in Bohemia burst into flame. Czech nationalism joined religious and class motives to create several Hussite parties. Soon, moderate Hussites Hussites were celebrating communion “in both kinds,” with the communicants drinking from the chalice as well as the priest; radicals were advocating social revolution.

Sigismund’s personal diplomacy persuaded the remaining popes to resign, which required the creation of a fifth nation in order to seat the Spanish delegates. Sigismund visited France and England, hoping to bring an end to the Hundred Years’ War Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) (Henry V had landed in Normandy in August and fought the Battle of Agincourt). The repercussions of this conflict were felt in Constance, where it was widely believed that the French nation wanted to break up the council.

There were two trials that touched on the question of tyrannicide. The first was that of John Petit Petit, John , who had defended the assassination of Louis of Orléans. The second concerned the Dominican Johannes Falkenberg, Falkenberg, Johannes who had called for the murder of King Władysław II Jagiełło Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland, whom he accused of being an idolater and a secret pagan. In the end, it was decreed that Catholics cannot commit murder, even for a good cause.

John Hus before the Council of Constance.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

With the French not cooperating, with the cardinals angry at having lost influence, with national issues intruding on the deliberations at every level, and with Sigismund absent on diplomatic missions, management of the council fell to the archbishops of Milan, Antioch, Riga, and Salisbury. Only in October of 1417 were they able to bring the nations together to pass several important decrees: Frequens established the principle of holding regular general council, the next in five years, the following in seven years, and thereafter every ten years; another established a procedure for dealing with future schisms; and a commission was established to determine a method of electing a pope.

In November, the electoral conclave met. Consisting of all the cardinals and delegates from each of the nations, this conclave came to agreement within three days on Cardinal Odo Colonna, who took the name Martin V Martin V . The enthusiasm of the moment hardly lasted past the naming of a reform commission; in January of 1418, the pope listed matters the commission should study, but he insisted on an impossible unanimity before any changes could be adopted. Papal authority was safe.


Martin V was not eager to call another council, nor was his successor, Eugenius IV Eugenius IV . They, the cardinals, and the papal bureaucrats recognized the danger presented by an effort to create a representative government for the Church. Who could resolve matters quickly and effectively, who could call for a crusade, who could decide whether a Holy Roman Emperor had been properly elected, if not the pope? Reforms would win public respect at the cost of bankrupting the Papacy and tying the pope’s hands.

The Council of Constance had been a magnificent effort. The councilmen had restored the unity of the Roman Catholic Church, but they left some important disputes to be resolved by Martin Luther, others by the Council of Trent, and the rest by time.

Further Reading

  • Bellitto, Christopher M. The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-one General Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II. New York: Paulist Press, 2002. Detailed historical discussion of each of the general councils, including that of Constance.
  • Fudge, Thomas A. The Crusade Against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418 to 1437: Sources and Documents for the Hussite Crusades. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2002. A collection of primary sources drawn together to illustrate the Bohemian aftermath of the Council of Constance and the crusades that followed.
  • Holmes, George. Europe, Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320-1450. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Includes chapters on the Avignon and Roman papacies, the Great Schism, and the Hussite movement, and several maps.
  • Hughes, Philip. The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Narrative account of the crises for a general audience by a prominent Roman Catholic scholar.
  • Lewin, Alison Williams. Negotiating Survival: Florence and the Great Schism, 1378-1417. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. Provides the Florentine point of view on the Great Schism and the Council of Constance, as well as detailing the effects of these events upon the lives of the state’s inhabitants.
  • Oberman, Heiko. Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Provides a chapter on the intellectual nature of the Church, with emphasis on Hus’s views, by a prominent theologian.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Reformation of Church and Dogma, 1300-1700. Vol. 4 in The Christian Tradition: A History of Development of Doctrine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Citation-filled scholarly work, especially for theological students and scholars.
  • Spinka, Matthew. John Hus at the Council of Constance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. Contains a lengthy account of Hus’s trial and execution.
  • Stump, Phillip H. The Reforms of the Council of Constance, 1414-1418. New York: E. J. Brill, 1994. Rehabilitative history of the council that claims it was more successful than generally thought, and explains the failures that existed.
  • Waugh, W. T. “The Councils of Constance and Basle.” In The Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Straightforward, scholarly account of the council.