Childhood & Early Life
Antipope John XXIII was born Baldassare Cossa, in 1370, in Procida, Kingdom of Naples, into a noble Neapolitan family. Reportedly, when the family was going through tough times, he and his brothers resorted to piracy to uphold the respect and status of their family in society. His two brothers were sentenced to death for the crime.
Cossa began as an army man and fought for Louis of Anjou in the Angevin-Neapolitan War. Later, he left the military to serve the church. He studied law at the ‘University of Bologna’ to obtain doctorates in civil and canon law.
Subsequently, Cossa entered the ‘Papal Curia’ in 1392. Back then, the Western Schism crisis was on the rise. Between 1378 and 1417, there was a split within the Catholic Church, with two rival popes claiming the throne of St. Peter. These rival popes in Avignon and Rome were supported by separate European states. Cossa served Pope Boniface IX in Bologna and then in Rome.
Cossa was made the archdeacon of Bologna in 1396. Pope Boniface appointed him the cardinal deacon of St. Eustachius on February 27, 1402. In 1403, he was made the legate of Romagna/Romandiola. He went to Bologna on March 17, 1403, and stayed there till 1408, proving himself to be an able financial administrator and statesman. He managed to bring Bologna under the Papal States once again. He became an administrator, though he was not an ordained priest.
By that time, the Western Schism situation had deteriorated, as Pope Gregory XII and Antipope Benedict XIII insisted on continuing their bitter rivalry. It is claimed that Gregory had no plans of ending the schism, as he appointed four new cardinals, indicating that he intended to carry on his line of papacy.
In May 1408, seven of Gregory’s cardinals, including Cardinal Cossa, withdrew their loyalty to Pope Gregory of Rome. They claimed that Gregory had not kept his word of consulting them before appointing new cardinals. Thus, these cardinals, along with the cardinals of Antipope Benedict of Avignon, organized the ‘Council of Pisa’ in 1408, which was called to end the schism. Cossa was one of the leaders at the council.
The ‘Council of Pisa’ issued an order, stating that both Gregory and Benedict had been deposed. The council elected Pietro/Peter Philarghi as the new pope, Alexander V (1409). However, as both Gregory and Benedict ignored the decision of the council, there were three popes. Reportedly, Alexander was under Cossa’s control. He died on May 3, 1410. It was rumored that he was poisoned by Cossa.
The cardinals of the ‘Pisan Obedience’ conducted an election, and on May 17, 1410, Cossa was chosen as the new pope. He was ordained priest on May 24, and on May 25, 1410, Cossa was consecrated and crowned as the new pope. He adopted the name “Pope John XXIII.”
Pope John had more political support than the other two popes, as Britain, France, and many states of Italy and Germany supported him. Louis II of Anjou was the protector of John, while King Ladislaus of Naples (the protector of Gregory) was against John. With support from John, Louis fought Ladislaus at Roccasecca on May 19, 1411, and conquered Rome. Antipope John went to Rome on April 12, 1411.
John called for a council on April 29, 1412, but only few members attended it. Thus, it had to be discontinued and postponed. The aim of the council was to discuss ecclesiastical reforms, but the council only condemned the English reformer Wycliff. He named the ‘Medici Bank’ as the papal bank. John also created a number of new cardinals. Allegedly, he followed some corrupt practices and was lenient to those who funded his campaign against Ladislaus.
When John’s protector, Louis of Anjou, went back to France, John had to make peace with Ladislaus. However, Ladislaus charged on Rome in May 1413. John fled to Florence with his cardinals. King Sigismund of Hungary and Germany agreed to support him. With a view to put an end to the Great Schism, Sigismund asked John to call a council in his land. Though John was reluctant to call a council in a German city, he finally announced the ‘Council of Constance’ on December 9, 1413, to be held in November 1414.
King Ladislaus died unexpectedly on August 6, 1414. John wished to return to Rome, but his cardinals insisted that he should travel to Constance for the council. John opened the ‘Council of Constance’ on November 5, 1414. During the initial sessions, he could govern the actions of the council and believed that he would be able to maintain control over the council, as he was the pope. He tried to convince the council that the decisions taken at the ‘Council of Pisa’ should be confirmed and followed, which meant Pope Gregory and Antipope Benedict should be deposed, leaving John as the only pope.
However, John realized that the council had slowly turned antagonistic toward him. By the end of February and the beginning of March, most of Germany, Britain, and France were of the opinion that all three popes should step down and a new pope should be elected. Though John was reluctant, he finally agreed to renounce his position only if the other two popes resigned.
However, on the night of March 20, he fled to Schaffhausen, disguised as a commoner, to seek refuge in the land of Duke Frederick of Austria. The council and Sigismund were upset with this, and he sent his lieutenant, Count Louis III, after Duke Frederick. Following this, John went to Burgundy, where he did not receive any support or protection. By April 29, 1415, he went to Freiburg im Breisgau.
John’s actions enraged the council, which deposed him on May 29, 1415. Gregory submitted his resignation, and Benedict, who did not resign, was banished. Sigismund captured Freiburg, and John was taken back to the council. He was accused of several serious crimes, including immorality, simony, and heresy. Ludwig III (or Louis III), Elector Palatine, was put in charge of him. John went back to being known as Baldassare Cossa and was imprisoned for 3 years in Heidelberg and Mannheim.
Cossa was released in 1418 (allegedly, after a payment from the Medici family). Pope Martin V appointed him as the cardinal bishop of Tusculum-Frascati. However, Cossa died 6 months later, on December 22, 1419. The Medici family built a grand tomb with a papal crest, in the ‘Battistero di San Giovanni’ in Florence (or the ‘Florence Baptistery’). The tomb was created by sculptors Donatello and Michelozzo.