The so called “Bishops’ Prison” – “Prison des Evêques” – is a little house like building on the main street of the old part of Saint Jean Pied de Port. While its history is still shrouded in mystery it is now listed as a historic monument and houses a museum dedicated the pilgrims to Saint Jacques de Compostelle.
Its name misleadingly recalls the detention of a bishop; in reality it hints at two historic facts: the residence in Saint Jean Pied de Port of the Bishop of Navarre, during the so called Great Schism of the western church, between the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century, and the use of the building as a prison from 18th century onwards.
During the Great Schism (1378-1417) the Catholic Church was represented by two rival popes – one having his seat in Avignon, France and supported by the King of France and the King of Navarre, and one in Rome, backed by the English King. At the time, the pope of Avignon appointed a bishop of Navarre, who took as his residence the most important town of the region: Saint Jean Pied de Port.
Archeological research however unveiled that the house that the Bishop most probably inhabited was located on the site that is now the adjacent garden of the today’s “Bishops’ Prison”, a house that was destroyed by fire at the very end of the 14th century. The building that still stands was built on the top of a 14th century vaulted hall, its basement, most probably at the end of the 16th century.
The medieval vaulted hall accessible by a narrow staircase was most likely used as a storage room having had an access door and ventilation windows whose frames can still be seen.
Starting from the 18th century the “Bishop’s Prison” was used as a civil prison, most recently during the German occupation of the region in WWII.