Pope Adrian IV (1154-59)

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Who was Pope Adrian IV?

Very little is known about the birthplace, parentage, or boyhood of Pope Adrian IV. Yet, as is usual in such cases, very various, and sometimes very circumstantial, accounts have reached us about him.

Our only reliable information we owe to two writers, Cardinal Boso and John of Salisbury. The former wrote a life of Adrian, which is included in the collection of Nicolas Roselli, made Cardinal of Aragon in 1356 during the pontificate of Innocent VI. Boso's life, published by Muratori (SS. Rer. Ital. III, I 441-446) and reprinted in Migne (P.L., CLXXXVIII, 135-160), also edited by Watterich (Vitae Pontificum II, 323- 374), and now to be read in Duchesne's edition of the Liber Pontificalis (II, 388-397; cf. proleg XXXVII-XLV), states that Boso, the author of it; was created cardinal-deacon of the title of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, was chamberlain to Adrian and in constant and familiar attendance upon him from the commencement of his apostolate. [Ciacconius says that Boso was the nephew of Adrian, but Watterich observes (op. cit. prolegomena) that he finds no proof of this.]

Boso tells us that Adrian was born in England in or near the burg of St. Albans, and that he left his country and his relations in his boyhood to complete his studies, and went to Arles in France. During the vacation he visited the monastery of Sts. Rufus near Avignon, where he took the vows and habit of an Austin canon. After some time he was elected abbot and, going to Rome on important business connected with the monastery, was retained there by Pope Eugenius III, and made a cardinal and Bishop of Albano (1146).

Matthew Paris agrees in some measure with this, for he tells us that on Adrian's applying to the abbot of St. Alban's to be received as a monk, the abbot, after examining him, found him deficient and said to him kindly: "Have patience, my son, and stay at school yet a while till you are better fitted for the position you desire." He states further that he was "a native of some hamlet under the abbey, perhaps Langley," and I may add that it is now tolerably certain that he was born at Abbot's Langley in Hertfordshire, about the year 1100; that his father was Robert Brekespear, a man of humble means, though of a decent stock; and that Adrian went abroad as a poor wandering scholar, like John of Salisbury and many others at that time. However, William of Newburgh, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, an Austin canon and a historian of high repute (1136-98?), gives a very different account, which he probably had from the neighbouring Cistercian houses of Rievaulx and Byland. "Eugenius III", he tells us,

was succeeded by Nicolas, Bishop of Albano, who, changing his name with his fortune, called himself Adrian. Of this man it may be well to relate how he was raised as it were from the dust to sit in the midst of princes and to occupy the throne of apostolic glory. He was born in England, and his father was a clerk of slender means who, abandoning his youthful son, became a monk at St. Albans. As the boy grew up, seeing that through want he could not afford the time to go to school, he attended the monastery for a daily pittance. His father was ashamed of this, taunted him with bitter words for his idleness, and, highly indignant, drove him away disconsolate. The boy, left to himself, and compelled to do something by hard necessity, ingenuously ashamed either to dig or beg, crossed over to France.

He then states that after Adrian was elected Abbot of Sts. Rufus the canons repented of their choice and came to hate him, and appealed to the Pope on two occasions, bringing divers charges against him (II, vi). This narrative is not only contrary to Boso's but to what Adrian himself told John of Salisbury.

"The office of Pope, he assured me, was a thorny one, beset on all sides with sharp pricks. He wished indeed that he had never left England, his native land, or at least had lived his life quietly in the cloister of Sts. Rufus rather than have entered on such difficult paths, but he dared not refuse, since it was the Lord's bidding" (Polycraticus, Bk. IV, xxviii).

How could he have looked back with regret to quiet and happy days if he had encountered parental cruelty at St. Albans and monastic insubordination at Sts. Rufus?

In 1152 Adrian was sent on a delicate and important mission to Scandinavia, as papal legate, in which he acquitted himself to the satisfaction of everybody. He established an independent archiepiscopal see for Norway at Trondhjem, which he selected chiefly in honour of St. Olaf, whose relics reposed in its church. He reformed the abuses that had crept into the usages of the clergy, and even aided in bettering the civil institutions of the country. Snorro relates that no foreigner ever came to Norway who gained so much public honour and deference among the people as Nicholas Brekespear. He was prevented for the time from establishing an archiepiscopal see in Sweden by the rivalry between Sweden and Gothland, the one party claiming the honour for Upsala, the other for Skara. But he reformed abuses there also, and established the contribution known as Peter's pence.

On his return to Rome he was hailed as the Apostle of the North, and, the death of Anastasius IV occurring at that time (2 December, 1154), he was on the following day unanimously elected the successor of St. Peter; but the office was not a bed of roses. King William of Sicily was in open hostility, and the professed friendship of Frederick Barbarossa was even more dangerous. The barons in the Campagna fought with each other and with the Pope and, issuing from their castles, raided the country in every direction, and even robbed the pilgrims on their way to the tombs of the Apostles. The turbulent and fickle populace of Rome was in open revolt under the leadership of Arnold of Brescia. Cardinal Gerardus was mortally wounded in broad daylight, as he was walking along the Via Sacra.

Adrian, a determined man, at once laid the city under an interdict and retired to Viterbo. He forbade the observance of any sacred service until the Wednesday of Holy Week. "Then were the senators impelled by the voice of the clergy and laity alike to prostrate themselves before His Holiness." Submission was made, and the ban removed. The Pope returned to Rome, and Arnold escaped and was taken under the protection of some of the bandit barons of the northern Campagna. He was subsequently delivered up and executed. Meanwhile Barbarossa was advancing through Lombardy, and after receiving the Iron Crown at Pavia had approached the confines of the papal territory, intending to receive the imperial crown in Rome at the hands of the Pope.

After some negotiations a famous meeting took place at Sutri, about 30 miles north of Rome, on the 9th of June, 1155, between Frederick of Hohenstauffen, then the most powerful ruler in Europe, and the humble canon of Sts. Rufus, now the most powerful spiritual ruler in the world. As the Pope approached, the Emperor advanced to meet him, but did not hold the Pope's stirrup, which was part of the customary ceremony of homage. The Pope said nothing then, but dismounted, and the Emperor led him to a chair and kissed his slipper. Custom required that the Pope should then give the kiss of peace. He refused to do so, and told Frederick that until full homage had been paid he would withhold it. This implied that he would not crown him. Frederick had to submit, and on the 11th of June another meeting was arranged at Nepi, when Frederick advanced on foot and held the Pope's stirrup, and the incident was closed.

Frederick was afterwards duly crowned at St. Peter's, and took the solemn oaths prescribed by ancient custom. During the ceremonies a guard of imperial troops had been placed on or near the bridge of St. Angelo to protect that suburb, then known as the Leonine City. The bridge was stormed by the republican troops from the city proper, and a fierce battle ensued between the imperial army and the Romans. Fighting lasted through the hot summer's day and far on into the evening. Finally the Romans were routed. Over 200 fell as prisoners into Frederick's hands, including most of the leaders, and more than 1,000 were killed or drowned in the Tiber.

The citizens, however, held the city and refused to give the Emperor provisions; the latter, now that he was crowned, made no serious effort either to help the Pope against the Normans or to reduce the city to subjection. Malaria appeared among his troops. "He was obliged to turn", says Gregorovius, in his in History of the City of Rome, "and, not without some painful self-reproach, to abandon the Pope to his fate." He took leave of him at Tivoli, and, marching north by way of Farfa, reduced to ashes on his route the ancient and celebrated city of Spoleto.

William I succeeded his father on the throne of Sicily in February, 1154. Adrian refused to recognize him as king, and addressed him merely as Dominus (Lord). Hostilities followed. The Sicilians laid siege to Beneventum without result, and afterwards ravaged the southern Campagna and retired. Adrian excommunicated William. After the departure of Frederick, Adrian collected his vassals and mercenaries and marched south to Beneventum, a papal possession, where he remained until June, 1156. It was during this time that John of Salisbury spent three months with him, and obtained from him the famous Donation of Ireland (see page 158).

The fortune of war favoured William. He captured Brundusium, with an immense store of provisions and munitions of war, and five thousand pounds' weight of gold that the Greek Emperor, Manuel I, intended for his ally the Pope. He also took captive many wealthy Greeks, whom he sent to Palermo, some for ransom, but the greater number to be sold into slavery. This practically determined the issue of the war. Peace was made in June, 1153, and a treaty concluded. The Pope agreed to invest William with the crowns of Sicily and Apulia, the territories and states of Naples, Salerno, and Amalfi, the March of Ancona, and all the other cities which the King then possessed.

William on his part took the feudal oath and became the liegeman of the Pope, and promised to pay a yearly tribute, and to defend the papal possessions (Watterich, op. cit., II, 352). After this, the Pope went to Viterbo, where he came to an agreement with the Romans, and in the beginning of 1157 returned to the City. The Emperor deeply resented the act of the Pope in investing William with territories which he claimed as part of his dominions, and for this and other causes a conflict broke out between them. (See ALEXANDER III, FREDERICK I, INVESTITURES.) Adrian died at Anagni, in open strife with the Emperor, and in league with the Lombards against him. Alexander III carried out the intentions of Adrian, and shortly afterwards excommunicated the Emperor.


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia