It had never happened before and has never happened since. On November 11, 1417, a pope was selected largely thanks to the efforts of the English.

That would be notable enough in itself, but it is all the more significant because the pope in question, Martin V, decisively set the papacy on the course which, essentially, it has pursued ever since.

Martin was elected after a 40-year crisis. During the Great Schism in 1378, the same College of Cardinals had elected not one but two popes: Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon. After that, Catholic Christendom split on political and diplomatic rather than theological lines. When in 1408 the cardinals tried to heal the split between Rome and Avignon and elect a new pope, all they achieved was to add a third: Alexander V, who was quickly succeeded by John XXIII – now recognised as an antipope.

Into this seemingly intractable imbroglio stepped Sigismund, King of Hungary and successor-designate to the Holy Roman Emperor. He made an agreement with “Pope” John. The king would protect John from his Italian enemies if John called a council to resolve the schism and other issues. And the council was to be held in the city of Constance. For any city, this was the 15th-century equivalent of being awarded the Olympics.

The council, which lasted three-and-a-half years, was not only to reconfigure the Church but was to be an intellectual and cultural forum that fostered the latest ideas from Italy and elsewhere. Some 29 cardinals, 33 archbishops, 150 bishops, 100 abbots, 100 provosts, 300 doctors of theology and canon law and up to 5,000 Religious and 18,000 ecclesiastics attended. In total, an estimated 50,000-100,000 people went to the Council of Constance.

Initially the council comprised four “nations”: Italy, France, Germany (deemed to include Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary) and England. Each delegation established a headquarters in one of the city churches, the English impressing other delegates by their dignified celebration of the Sarum Rite.

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