The first pope to resign was Celestine V, born Pietro Da Morrone, who was living the life of a pious hermit when he was elevated to the papacy in 1294, in his 80s, to break a two-year deadlock in the College of Cardinals. Feeling overmastered by the job, he soon resigned in the expectation that he could return to his monastic existence. Instead, he was imprisoned by his successor, Boniface VIII, who feared that some rival faction might make Celestine an antipope.

The former pontiff died after about a year in captivity; his successor, one of the most ambitious of medieval popes, eventually fell into a disastrous struggle with the king of France that ended with Boniface temporarily imprisoned in the weeks before his death.