The division of the Church between three popes cried aloud for settlement in some way; and besides this there were general complaints as to the need of reform in the Church. The emperor Sigismund urged Pope John to call a general council for the consideration of these subjects; and, although John hated the notion of such a meeting, be could not help consenting. He wished that the council should be held in Italy, as he might hope to manage it more easily there than in any country north of the Alps; and he was very angry when Constance, a town on a large lake in Switzerland, was chosen as the place. It seemed like a token of bad luck when, as he was passing over a mountain on his way to the council, his carriage was upset, and he lay for a while in the snow, using bad words as to his folly in undertaking the journey; and when he came in sight of Constance at the foot of the hill, he said that it looked like a trap for foxes. In that trap Pope John was caught.
The other popes, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, did not attend, although both had been invited; but some time after the opening of the council (which was on the 5th of November, 1414), the emperor Sigismund arrived. He reached Constance in a boat which had brought him across the lake very early on Christmas morning, and at the first service of the festival, which was held before daybreak, he read the Gospel which tells of the decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. For it was considered that the emperor was entitled to take this part in the Christmas service of the Church.
It was proposed that all the three popes should resign, and that a new pope should be chosen. In answer to this, John said that he was ready to resign if the others would do the same, but it soon became clear that he did not mean to keep his promise honestly. He tried by all manner of tricks to ward off the dangers which surrounded him; and, after he had more than once tried in vain to get away from Constance, he was able to escape one day when the members of the council were amusing themselves at a tournament given by a prince whom John had persuaded to take on their attention in this way. The council, however, in his absence went on to examine the charges against him, many of which were so shocking that they were kept secret, out of regard for his office. John, by letters and messengers, asked for delay, and did all that he could for that purpose; but, notwithstanding all his arts, he was sentenced to be deposed from the papacy for simony (that is, for trafficking in holy things--p 185) and for other offences. On being informed of this, he at once put off his papal robes, saying, that since he had put them on he had never enjoyed a quiet day (May 31, 1415).
John Huss, the Bohemian reformer, had been summoned to Constance, that he might give an account of himself, and had been furnished with a safe-conduct (as it was called), in which the emperor assured him of protection on his way to the council and back. But, although at first he was treated as if he were free, it was pretended, soon after his arrival, that he wished to run away; and under this pretence he was shut up in a dark and filthy prison. Huss had no friends in the Council; for the reforming part of the members could have nothing to do with him, lest it should be thought that they agreed with him in all his notions. And when he was at length brought out from prison, where his health had suffered much, and when he was required to answer for himself, without having been allowed the use of books to prepare himself, all the parties in the council turned on him at once. His trial lasted three days. The charges against him were mostly about Wyclif's doctrines, which had been often condemned by councils at Rome and elsewhere, but which Huss was supposed to hold; and when he tried to explain that in some things he did not agree with Wyclif, nobody would believe him. Some of his bitterest persecutors were men who had once been his friends, and had gone with him in his reforming opinions.
After his trial, Huss was sent back to prison for a month, and all kinds of ways were tried to persuade him to give up the opinions which were blamed in him, but he stood firm in what he believed to be the truth. At length he was brought out to hear his sentence. He claimed the protection of the emperor, whose safe-conduct he had received (as we have seen). But Sigismund had been hard pressed by Huss's enemies, who told him that a promise made to one who is wrong in the faith is not to be kept; and the emperor had weakly and treacherously yielded, so that he could only blush for shame when Huss reminded him of the safe-conduct.
Huss was condemned to death, and was degraded from his orders, as the custom was; that is to say, they first put into his hands the vessels used at the consecration of the Lord's Supper, which were the signs of his being a priest; and by taking, away these from him, they reduced him from a priest to a deacon. Then they took away the tokens of his being a deacon, and so they stripped him of his other orders, one after another; and when at last they had turned him back into a layman, they led him away to be burnt. It is said that, as he saw an old woman carrying a faggot to the pile which was to burn him, he smiled and said, "O holy simplicity!" meaning that her intention was good, although the poor old creature was ignorant and misled. He bore his death with great patience and courage; and then his ashes and such scorched bits of his dress as remained were thrown into the Rhine, lest his followers should treasure them up as relics (July 6, 1415).
About ten months after the death of Huss, his old friend and companion, Jerome of Prague, was condemned by the council to be burnt, and suffered with a firmness which even those who were most strongly against him could not but admire (May 30, 1416).
When Pope John had been got rid of, Gregory XII, the most respectable of the three rival popes, agreed to resign his claims. But the third pope, Benedict VIII, would hear of no proposals for his resignation, and shut himself up in a castle on the coast of Spain, where he not only continued to call himself pope, but after his death two popes of his line were set up in succession. The council of Constance, however, finding Benedict obstinate, did not trouble itself further about him, and went on to treat the papacy as vacant.
There was a great dispute whether the reform of the Church (which people had long asked for), or the choice of a new pope, should be first taken in hand; and at length it was resolved to elect a pope without further delay. The choice was to be made by the cardinals and some others who were joined with them; and these electors were all shut up in the Exchange of Constance--a building which is still to be seen there. While the election was going on, multitudes of all ranks, and even the emperor himself among them, went from time to time in slow procession round the Exchange chanting in a low tone litanies, in which they prayed that the choice of the electors might be guided for the good of the Church. And when at last an opening was made in the wall from within, and through it a voice proclaimed, "We have a pope: Lord Otho of Colonna!" the news spread at once through all Constance. The people seemed to be wild with joy that the division of the Church, which had lasted so long, was now healed. All the bells of the town pealed forth joyfully, and it is said that a crowd of not less than 80,000 people hurried at once to the Exchange. The emperor in his delight threw himself at the new pope's feet; and for hours together vast numbers thronged the cathedral, where the pope was placed on the high altar, and gave them his blessing. It was on St. Martin's day, the 11th of November, 1417, that this election took place; and from this the pope styled himself Martin V. But the joy which had been shown at his election was more than the effect warranted. The council had chosen a pope before taking up the reform of the Church; and the new pope was no friend to reform. During the rest of the time that the council was assembled, he did all that he could to thwart attempts at reform; and when, at the end of it, he rode away from Constance, with the emperor holding his bridle on one side and one of the chief German princes on the other, while a crowd of princes, nobles, clergy, and others, as many as 40,000, accompanied him, it seemed as if the pope had got above all the sovereigns of the world.
The great thing done by the council of Constance was, that it declared a general council to be above the pope, and entitled to depose popes if the good of the Church should require it.