Initially Avignon was not part of the Papal Territory in France. But the Holy See was in possession of the Comtat Venaissin, the land stretching from the outskirts of Avignon to Carpentras and Vaison la Romaine. Its previous ruler, Alphonse, Count of Toulouse, had died in 1271 without heirs on his return from the 8th Crusade and left the Comtat Venaissin to the Holy See. It became Papal Territory in 1274. Avignon and parts of the Provence were ruled by the d'Anjou family (related to the French crown). Only in 1348, 43 years after the Holy See's move to Avignon, was Avignon purchased by Pope Clement VI for 80.000 florins from Joanna d'Anjou, Queen of Naples and Provence (he subsequently declared Joanna innocent of complicity in the murder of her husband). Thirty years later the Holy See moved back to Rome but retained the possessions in France until 1791 (French Revolution).
The relationship between the Papacy and France changed considerably during the 14th century. The dispute with the German emperors was finally settled with French support in favor of the popes in 1268. But already in 1294 open conflict broke out between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France. Pope Boniface VIII wanted to be recognized also as the supreme wordly power (the Unam Sanctam decree), which was rejected by Philippe IV, who even incarcerated the pope for a while. Pope Boniface VIII died shortly after his release from prison. His successor, Pope Clement V relocated the Holy See to Avignon and closely cooperated with the French crown, as did all of the following six popes, all of them French and residing in Avignon. The Holy See became part of the power struggle between France and England and in the end it lost most of its direct political power. The nation states of France and England were established as the main powers in Europe.
The seven Popes, all Frenchmen, which resided in Avignon are:
Clement V: 1305-1314, born in 1264 as Bertrand de Goth, archbishop from Bordeaux, had aligned himself to King Philip IV of France (1285-1314) in order to get elected. He was crowned in Lyon in 1305, the first Pope wearing the tiara. Among his first acts was the creation of nine French cardinals and the removal of the Unam Sanctam decree. On Friday, October 13, 1307 (hence the unlucky Friday the 13th!) he sanctioned the arrest of the Knights Templar in France by Philip IV. Charges were drummed up, torture applied and the leading Knights Templars were executed. Real reason was financial - most of the Knights Templar's property was confiscated by Philip IV (after his death parts were handed over to the Knights Hospitaliers) with some of the spoils going to the Pope. In March 1309 the Papal Curia settled in Avignon and the town changed hands from the King of Sicily to the Papacy. Clement V died in April 1314, Philip IV a couple of months later. Dante, in his "Divine Comedy" thought that Clement V would surely be sent to the "8th Circle of Hell" such the contempt by the Italians, a view not shared by the French. Due to severe disagreement between the cardinals it took two years until Philip V of France (1316-22) was able to engineer the election of a new pope.
John XXII: 1316-1334, born in 1249 as Jacques Duèze, he was the son of a shoemaker from Cahors. After studying medicine in Montpellier and law in Paris, he became a professor of canon and civil law and in 1300 was made bishop of Frejus. In 1310 he was transferred to the Holy See in Avignon and two years later he was appointed Cardinal of Oporto. In August 1316, more than two years after Clement V's death, he was elected Pope; a sickly man and compromise candidate. John XXII surprised everyone; his reign lasted 18 years. He maintained this was due to the excellent wines from Valreas; he purchased the estate, the first step to creating the Enclave des Papes. Pope John XXII was a scholar, austere yet broadly cultivated, and a very energetic politician. He was a conservative in church doctrine, centralized the church administration and propped up its finances with rather unconventional methods. He followed his predecessor's policy of aligning the church's interests closely with France. This impression was strengthened by the increasing number of French cardinals and by the long conflict with King Louis of Bavaria, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. These policies contributed to an increasing distrust of the Papacy. Pope John XXII died in December 1334. The 1986 film "The Name of the Rose" with Sean Connery in the role of William Occam (William of Baskerville), touches upon the struggle between dogmatics and reformers, and the heretic movement of the Fraticellis; all events which occurred during the reign of Pope John XXII.
Benedict XII: 1334-1342, born in the 1280's as Jacques Fournier at Saverdun near Toulouse, of humble origins, was a surprise choice to be elected Pope in December 1334; the favorite had refused to rule out a return of the Papacy to Rome. He started out as Cistercian monk, studied theology in Paris and moved up the church hierarchy until he was made cardinal in 1327. Benedict XII was a man of integrity and instituted doctrinal and moral reform in the church. He settled the disputes between the dogmatics and reformers and undid many of the money collecting devices of his predecessor. Politically he was less successful; the influence of the Papacy in worldly matters declined significantly during his reign. He started construction of the Papal Palace in Avignon. His failure to return to Rome made him very unpopular, especially with Italians (as evidenced by Petrach's satires).
Pope Clement VI: 1342-1352, born in 1291 as Pierre Roger in a small village in the Corrèze, a Benedictine monk and doctor of theology. He rose quickly in the church ranks and received the red cardinal hat in 1338. Four years later he was elected Pope. He closely aligned the Papacy to the interests of France. Of the 25 cardinals appointed by him, 12 were relatives. In 1344 he bought the lands around Visan, Grillon and Richerenches from Humbert II, the last Dauphin, for 12.000 florins. Together with Valreas (purchased by Pope John XXII earlier) these lands formed the Enclave des Papes, separated from the Comtat Venaissin (and still today from the Provence) by a few kilometers. Four years later he purchased Avignon for 80.000 florins from Joanna of Naples and Provence. Pope Clement VI was a skilled politician with great influence in European politics. While he had an opulent lifestyle, he was charitable at the time of the Great Pestilence, or Black Death, in Avignon (1348-49). During this time numerous Jews were massacred in France, as they were accused of causing the pestilence. Clement VI decreed their protection and afforded them a refuge in the Papal States. He died after a short illness in 1352.
Pope Innocent VI: 1352-1362, born between 1282 - 1295 as Étienne Aubert in a small hamlet near Limoges. He was probably the most beneficial to Avignon. He strengthened the fortifications (today's city walls are still largely intact) to protect Avignon against the many marauding bands. He was a skilled and effective diplomat on the European stage and a great benefactor of the arts. Luxury was banished from the papal court and he made great efforts to impose this also on the cardinals (only with partial success). More important - for the later return of the Papacy to Rome - were his efforts to establish effective control over the Papal State in Italy, which had largely been usurped by local petty princes. He died in 1362; you can visit his tomb in the Chartreuse Pontificale du Val (Carthusian Monastery) in Villeneuve lez Avignon (on the right banks of the Rhône opposite Avignon).
Pope Urban V: 1362-1370, born in 1310 as Guillaume Grimoard in Grizac, Languedoc, became a Benedictine monk and one of the most renowned professors of canon law, teaching in Montpellier, Avignon and Paris. In 1352, as abbot of St. Victor at Marseilles, he was entrusted with a succession of diplomatic missions by Pope Innocent VI. On one of these missions he learned of his election to the papacy by the cardinals (who could not agree on a candidate from their own ranks). He continued the work of his predecessor, enforcing a more austere lifestyle on the cardinals and preparing the ground for a return of the Papacy to Rome. He embarked for Rome, which he reached in October 1367. While he was greeted with great joy and respect in Rome, the French cardinals and Charles IV, King of France, were conspiring to keep the Papacy in Avignon. Pope Urban V eventually returned to Avignon in September 24, 1370, where he died a couple of days later. He was a great benefactor to universities in Europe. In an age of corruption he stood for and practiced integrity. His tomb is in the abbey church of St. Victor at Marseilles; miracles multiplied around his tomb.
Pope Gregory XI: 1370-1378, born in 1331 as Pierre Roger de Beaufort in Maumont, Limoges, was a nephew of Pope Clement VI, who created him cardinal in 1348, when he was only eighteen years of age. As cardinal he attended the University of Perugia and became a recognized theologian. After the death of Urban V, the cardinals unanimously elected him pope at Avignon, in December 1370. He had to be ordained priest first; he was crowned pope on the following day. He had to give most of his attention to the turbulent affairs of Italy, quelling various revolts and usurpations, especially in Florence. Finally Gregory XI decided to move the Holy See back to Rome, despite the protests of the French King and the majority of the cardinals. He left Avignon on 13 September, 1376, boarded the ship at Marseille on 2 October, and after various delays made his solemn entrance in Rome on January 17, 1377. But he was unsuccessful to put an end to the hostilities. He was so disgusted with the conditions at Rome that he wanted to return to Avignon, but he died in Rome in March 1378.
The last two popes residing in Avignon are considered antipopes by the Catholic Church (there are a total of 42 antipopes in Catholic Church history). They were elected by French cardinals dissatisfied with the return of the papacy to Rome. This was the beginning of the period from 1378 to 1414, commonly referred to as the "Western Schism". Clement VII, born Robert of Geneva, antipope from 1378 - 1394; the "official" Pope Clement VII is Giuliano de Medici (pope from 1523 to 1534). Benedict XIII (born Pedro Martinez de Luna, antipope from 1394 - 1403); the "official" Benedict XIII is Pietro Francesco Orsini (pope from 1724 to 1730).
For the next 388 years the Papal Territories in France (the plural is used because Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin retained separate administrations) were ruled by papal legates, i.e. official representatives of the pope. Its inhabitants did not pay taxes and were not subject to military service - quite a difference to France. Since Pope Clement VI's reign the Papal Territories were tolerant with Jews, albeit they had to live in separate quarters and were restricted to exercise certain professions. Avignon and Carpentras had significant Jewish populations. Needless to say that successive French rulers sought to incorporate the Papal Territories into France; there were invasions in 1663, 1668 and from 1768 - 1774 and occasional trade and customs restrictions. During the French Revolution an unauthorized plebiscite was held in 1791; the inhabitants voted for annexation by France. The Papal Territories were subsequently incorporated into the Département Vaucluse, which is today a subdivision of the Provence-Côte Azur-Alpes (PACA) region. The papacy did not recognize this annexation until 1814.