The English Pope

Pope Adrian at a crowning ceremony /

Pope Adrian at a crowning ceremony /

Strictly speaking, our title should be ‘The only English Pope’, since that is the case. There were several other leaders of the Roman Catholic church called Adrian, and this was the Fourth. He was Nicholas Breakspear, an attractive surname, and he was born in 1100. He started his career in the Church as an altar boy, and moved on to become a ‘lay brother’ but not in England. A ‘lay brother’ is a helper in the Mass, perhaps a sacristan, not yet ordained. This was in the monastery of Saint Rufus, near Avignon in France.

   It does not seem certain when he was ordained, but we do know that he was elected Abbot at St. Rufus at the age of thirty-seven, which indicates an iron will and unshakeable faith in himself, given his period in history. He was perhaps too strict a discplinarian for the other monks, because they chose to report him for his zeal in applying punishment, and he had to go to the Vatican to explain himself and his methods to the Pope there – Eugenius III. If his fellow monks had imagined Breakspear would anger the Pope, they were wrong. Not only did he explain his case, clearing away any possibility of reprobation, but he managed to acquire the esteem of Eugenio III: instead of reproving him he was made Cardinal Bishop of Albano at the age of only forty-six.

   Nicholas became Pope himself in 1154, and was in the chair of St. Peter until 1159, when he died young. He does not appear to have made much impression during those five years. Perhaps the shock of finding himself elected Pope at the tender age of fifty-four was too much for his health. But he did manage one important reform, which made him popular with a difficult and irrascible king of England – Henry II, and most unpopular with Irish barons: historians tell us that he gave ‘the Lordship of Ireland’ to Henry, which gave rise to a series of bloody uprisings. Popes tended to act rather summarily in the Middle Ages. One Pope ‘gave’ permission to the pious Portuguese and Spanish to hold sway in ‘the New World’ if they so wished, and another split the Papacy into three popes, rather like an amoeba: they were Martin V, Clement VIII and Benedict XIV, each of whom was Pope at some or other from 1417 to 1431.

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