News Archive

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle...

Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
22 Mar 2006

Pope Adrian IV

by Alan Frost

Pope Adrian IV

The only English pope was born Nicholas Breakspear, c.1100, near St. Alban's, and rose from impoverished obscurity and monastic rejection to Papal Office

A curious thing that you notice quickly about the only English pope is a trio of 'firsts'. Nicholas Breakspear was the first English pope, was born near the place of execution of the first English martyr, and he took his name from Pope Adrian the First. Yet, ironically, in his early years he was denied entry into the great Benedictine house at St. Alban's, by its abbot Richard d'Essai.

We do not know the exact date Nicholas Breakspear was born, but there is general agreement it was in 1100. Improbably, among a clutch of modern houses in the village of Bedmond near St. Albans, is a small plaque recording the spot as his birthplace, historically in the parish of Abbots Langley. The houses were built after the destruction of the 300-year old Breakspear farmhouse, which had been a place of formal religious pilgrimage for many years, right up until the sixties. Not far away up the hill that once dominated Verulamium, was the great Benedictine Abbey of St. Alban's (also destroyed, at the Dissolution), with its imposing cathedral church (second longest nave in the country) built by its first abbot Paul of Caen in the late 11th . Here, the teenage Nicholas tried to gain entry after his limited schooling, but was not considered able enough.

His background was very poor, and the probability is he spent some time begging with his father, Robert, a clerk, who was accepted as a lay-brother, and later monk, of the abbey, abandoning his son to his own devices. Young Breakspear for some years received the alms (the original 'dole') that were given to the local poor at the Abbey gatehouse. By such desperate measures and using his wits, he survived to pursue learning in one of the major scholastic centres across the Channel. This is a time before the emergence of Oxford and Cambridge, and it was to places like Paris, Chartres, Orleans, Lieges and Arles that young Englishmen looked for learning.

It has to be said at this point that scholars differ as to the history of the young Breakspear, even to disputing his father being called Robert (rather than Richard).

Though he is recorded as 'Robert' in St. Alban's Cathedral where he is buried, along with the first eleven abbots, 'Adam the Cellarer' and the surgeon to King Edward III (the remains were translated there after the original tombs were discovered in 1978), the problem lies with the fact that two important medieval sources (William of Newburgh and the 13th Century monk and chronicler of the Benedictine Abbey, Matthew Paris) are seen as relying too much on gossip, wih the latter prone to elaboration in his passionate promotion of the abbey. An earlier source from letters by a friend and contemporary of Adrian IV, John of Salisbury, is seen as important but far from comprehensive. To these we can add the respected records of Cardinal Boso (another contemporary, died 1178) and Bernard Gui (Dominican Prior in Carcassone 1297-1301), an expert in the ecclesiastical history of Provence, where Nicholas Breakspear would become known to the Curia.

Allowing for no more than the probability that Nicholas studied for a time in Paris, he later travelled to Arles, where he helped out at the House of the Augustinian canons of the Order of St. Rufus (Saint-Ruf), renowned as a learned order, and received tuition from the monks. This introduction to the order helped him to finally become a Canon Regular himself at St.-Ruf abbey near Avignon (not Valence as some state, even Gui). And soon, after such humble and difficult origins, Nicholas was impressing his confreres, so much so that they elected him first their prior, perhaps around 1140, and then, probably in 1143, their abbot. There is a reference to Nicholas as abbot of Saint-Ruf in a papal letter of January 1147. Moreover it is not unreasonable to infer that Nicholas was at the Council of Rheims in March 1148 and that Pope Eugenius (who called the Council) might have had a word with him concerning the situation in Catalonia and the continuing Muslim occupation of former centres of Chrisitianity.

For it was only a couple of months later that Nicholas was in Catalonia at the siege of Tortosa (the Muslims were finally driven out by December 1148). Nicholas was there in his capacity as abbot because there was a sizeable, but threatened, presence of the Saint-Ruf Order in Catalonia, and Nicholas wished to extend and strengthen this presence. He was only there a short while, but in fact the influence of the Order did significantly grow among the Catalan nobility and the church hierarchy.

However, before and during his absence, the monks of his abbey, whose Order already enjoyed a less harsh regimen than others (with regard to diet and the material of which the cowls were made), became discontent. They found the strictness of Abbot Nicholas as he sought to improve discipline and proper observance of the rule not to their taste. They collected a body of so-called evidence disputing his fitness to be abbot, and eventually presented this to the Pope, Eugenius III. Their first attempt to dislodge him failed, and indeed the Pope, himself a Cistercian, after hearing the English abbot's skilful defense against the accusations, was convinced the charges were unfounded. Indeed the Pope came to hold Nicholas in some esteem.

The monks put forward a second complaint, and the English abbot was summoned again, but the Pope saw quite clearly what was going on. And we with hindsight can perhaps see the finger of the Holy Spirit further directing the path of Nicholas's life. For Eugenius III granted their request to elect a new abbot, but with the words "I know who raises this storm: it is Satan. Go and choose one with whom you can or rather will live in peace." As for Nicholas, he kept him in Rome and then made him Bishop of Albano in Italy and a cardinal in 1149. We can with some confidence date his consecration to December 17th., and there is a recorded last act by Nicholas as abbot in early December 1149.

This status enabled Pope Eugenius to appoint him Papal Legate in an important mission to Scandinavia, which had only become largely Christian within the last hundred years or so, and was in need of organisation, structure and direction. He set out to tackle this formidable assignment in 1152. This was quite a brave act for there were still strong pockets of paganism in Scandinavia, and the lands were remote and to many unknown. He also had the task of splitting up the territory under Archbishop Eskil of Lund (Denmark), a strong supporter of the Cistercian cause. Nonetheless he eventually appeased Eskil to some extent, and had much success in Norway, which interestingly had another native connection for the legate, for the earliest Christian monastic community in that country, at Selje, was dedicated to St. Alban. He established a new archdiocese for Norway, based at Trondheim, and obtained important revenue for Rome through obtaining a commitment to the payment of Peter's Pence. He was not able during this time to also confer a second pallium upon a Swedish cleric, but he left it with Archbishop Eskil, declaring the new appointee would be subject to the see of Lund. He did, though, set up the foundations for a new Swedish see at Uppsala (which would receive the first Swedish archbishop five years after his death). When he set off back to Rome in 1154, he had pretty much extirpated all significant presences of pagan practice, and had achieved the fond sobriquet of 'The Apostle of the North.' He is remembered even yet in Scandinavian Christian circles.

During his two year mission, Pope Eugenius III had died after eight years in office, but his successor, Anastasius IV, continued to support his work and asked to be kept informed of its progess. The favourable news that came back from Scandinavia, and the good reputation he had already acquired in Eugenius III's Pontificate, would be of immense importance. For shortly after his arrival back in Rome, the aged Anastasius died after just eighteen months in the papal office. The day after, Nicholas Breakspear was elected the first and, as yet, only English pope on the 4th of December, 1154. To be placed in the chair of St. Peter after such lowly and discouraging origins is a remarkable, and perhaps divine accomplishment. But he would face serious challenges at the helm of the Church, and these he would not flinch from. It would be a far from comfortable papacy, requiring his spiritual and mental strength, the strength of one humble enough to sign himself Adrianus episcopus servus servorum Dei, 'Bishop Adrian, servant of the servants of God.'

Adrian's very first day as Pope served notice of the serious problems he would have to face in his time in the Papal Office. The only straightforward task immediately facing him was the choice of a name in the tradition of receiving the keys of St. Peter. Nicholas Breakspear chose 'Adrian', the fourth pope to do so. The reason was strongly English, being in recognition of the generosity shown by Pope Adrian I to King Offa on his visit, canonising the first English saint and granting numerous privileges to the abbey named after him.

His coronation completed, Adrian IV found himself in a situation where the city of Rome was in the control of a republican commune. St. Peter's, where the English Pope was crowned, was actually outside the boundary of the old city. The normal celebratory procession of a new pontiff into Rome itself to the Lateran cathedral did not take place, and would not for another four months. That he would eventually achieve entry into Rome would reflect his determination and true fitness to be the Vicar of Christ on earth, a title for the pope that he himself introduced. As he did (or at least popularised) that of referring to himself as pontiff as 'the servant of the servants of God'.

There can be no doubt that the problem of Rome occupied him from the outset. But it was not a problem in isolation, for there were other important European figures newly incumbent on their thrones: in Germany, England and Sicily, all ambitious, all wanting to establish their claims to territory and due recognition of status early. There was as well the potential threat to Italy from the east, of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Commenus. The problem of Rome lay largely with an excommunicated cleric and heretic, Arnold of Brescia, who had achieved great popularity among the Romans. Under his leadership they had seized the city. Finding his feet and using judgment and experience, Adrian allowed a stand-off to exist for the first three months of the new pontificate, but when a cardinal was attacked by a mob in Rome towards the end of Lent 1155, he took forceful action. He placed the city under an interdict, banning all public services in churches. This would seriously affect pilgrim numbers and thereby hit the local economy. Without the Easter services the pilgrims simply would not come. The ban would be lifted in return for the expulsion of Arnold of Brescia. The Romans capitulated. Arnold's fate would not be expulsion. He was captured by the soldiers of the German King Frederick I (Barbarossa) who had been marching towards Rome to greet the new pope in return for having the imperial crown placed upon his head, handed over to the chief of Rome's security forces, and executed. On Maundy Thursday (23 March), Adrian made his belated formal entry into Rome.

He left Rome a short while later with an impressive escort of cardinals to meet Frederick I as he neared the capital, at the town of Sutri. But here Adrian and Frederick would come to know something of the respective steel of each leader over a matter of protocol. There was a tradition from the early days of the Holy Roman Empire when the imperial criown was about to be bestowed, of holding the stirrup for the pope to mount his donkey and then walk the animal some paces to lead the procession into Rome. Frederick did not observe this and Adrian's cardinals showed their disapproval and retreated from the gathering. The 31-year old Barbarossa was affronted, he had inherited his power, he was of the royal House of Hohenstaufen. What of Adrian's birth? It took nearly two days to resolve the dispute, but Barbarossa finally agreed to concur with tradition. He held the stirrup for the lowly-born Englishman, and Adrian in acknowledgment bestowed the very significant osculum pacis, the kiss of peace. And on June 18th 1155, he crowned him Emperor; in theory a leader and champion of the Roman Church, but in effect over time, often a rival.

No sooner had Adrian emerged from this exercise in high diplomacy, than he had, in a similar way, another problem over protocol with another new monarch. This time it was in the south of Italy with William I ("The Bad") of Sicily. Though in some respects it was a Norman problem, for William's family were part of the line that had successfully invaded England ninety years earlier. William had been crowned (in Pope Anastasius' time) without obtaining papal approval, therefore Adrian did not acknowledge him, addressing him as 'lord' not 'king'. Matters became the more serious here and engaging what help he could he had papal forces sent against William, but they were badly defeated. Adrian had to make some concessions over land to secure Sicily's acceptance of the jurisdiction of Rome. This was formally ratified at the Treaty of Benevento, a year to the day after Frederick's coronation. But the latter's enforcement of claims to territory in northern Italy had displeased Adrian and he perhaps saw an unlikely ally in William against the high ambitions of Frederick, who did not see his imperial title as beholding to the pope. Professor Anne Duggan of London University (King's) offers an enlightening in-depth argument that Adrian's Curia was deeply divided between pro-imperial and pro-Sicilian factions. Which in its way, even if Adrian might not be held to always have taken the right advice, underlines the strength of Adrian as his own man in the papacy. But for the papacy, not himself.

And what of England, his own country with its own new king, Henry II? Here again, and early in his pontificate, there would be problems, but more after his death and for many years to come. It concerned Ireland, and it could be said Adrian pre-figured the long-standing 'Irish Question'. It is claimed that Henry II was keen to have official control of Ireland, and that Adrian 'granted' this with a Bull called 'Laudabiliter', but it is argued both that this is a forgery and that no such bull exists in the papal archives. There is some muddying of the waters in the record of John of Salisbury that Adrian had granted Ireland to Henry on certain conditions, but this contradicts what Laudibiliter is claimed to say in the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223). The probability is that Adrian is unfairly linked with any approval of Henry's later 'conquest' of Ireland (1172), though some Irish patriots might be unconvinced. Otherwise links with Henry were cordial, and envoys mutually well received. Indeed, where the subject of St. Alban's might have been expected to be thorny, Adrian proved forgiving and generous. Though he did at first refuse gifts sent by the Abbot Robert de Garron, who deftly argued that had the young Breakspear been accepted at the abbey, it would have been counter to God's plan for his becoming pope! Amused by this, Adrian proved very generous to St. Alban's even giving it rank above Westminster and much independence, notably from the diocese of Lincoln. He was also very generous to the abbey at York. He did not come back to England as pope, though he may well have taken a 'back lanes' route through Norfolk to Grimsby as Papal Legate en route to Scandinavia.

However, throughout all of this time, and the "unremitting toil" of the day-to-day demands of being pope, which, for example, seriously curtailed his building projects in Rome, the problem of Frederick Barbarossa never went away. The German king had become increasingly antagonistic since Adrian's Sicilian alliance, which he maintained contravened an agreement made with Pope Eugenius III (Accord of Constance 1153). Matters got worse over a letter sent by Adrian to Frederick at Besancon concerning his imperial duty over the rescuing of a captured archbishop. A great row broke out over the use of the word beneficia: whether it just innocently referred to a benefit or good deed, or implied that Adrian saw Frederick as someone whose position was that of a feudal underling. This took some time and more curial diplomacy for Barbarossa to accept it was a misunderstanding. Even so, it did not stop him planning an attack on Milan (North Italy territories secured by Frederick had to pay taxes to the Empire), nor propounding imperial rights as Roncaglia in 1158.

When he sought to appoint his own archbishop of Ravenna in 1159, Adrian refused to confirm the appointment. Indeed, Pope Adrian was now seriously considering excommunicating Frederick when he died after a short illnes at the papal retreat of Anagni on the 1st of September, 1159. The suddenness of his death gave rise to much speculation of foul play, but it is likely he died of a quinsy of the throat.

He once told John of Salisbury he did not much enjoy being pope, but it is a tribute to and reflection of the strength of his character and his determination to be a good pope in every sense of the word, that he restored much credibility to the papal office. Bearing in mind that his very humble background, his abilities, exemplary spirituality and sheer presence, must have been great indeed to be elected the only English pope, something it is high time my country properly recognised.

© Copyright 2001-2006 Seattle Catholic. All rights reserved.