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Adrian IV [real name Nicholas Breakspear]locked

(d. 1159)
  • Jane E. Sayers

Adrian IV [real name Nicholas Breakspear] (d. 1159), pope, was the first and, so far, only Englishman to be elected pope. As such, a web of myth surrounds his origins, and no doubt much is later tradition woven at the great abbey of St Albans. But the following facts seem reliable. He was born in or near St Albans (Matthew Paris says he came from Abbots Langley) and was given the name of Nicholas. His father was Richard, as is certainly stated in a contemporary calendar of obits, not Robert (de Camera) as Matthew Paris says; allegedly and probably a priest, Richard later became a monk of St Albans. He may have been a married priest, for during the course of Pope Adrian IV's struggle against the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, it was widely proclaimed by imperial propagandists that this was so. Nicholas had a brother, Ranulf or Randulf, clerk of Feering, Essex, a church in the patronage of the abbot and convent of Westminster, who alleged that Ranulf retained it after he had become an Augustinian canon at Missenden. And Ranulf's son, N. [?Nicholas], pledged the fee that he held of the abbot of St Albans, not to lay claim to his father's church. The story about the future pope's rejection for the noviciate by the abbot of St Albans cannot be checked (it originates with Matthew Paris): it became the seed of what was probably the additional fantasy that Pope Adrian laughingly rejected certain presents offered to him by the abbot of St Albans, although he accepted mitres and sandals which had been made by Christina of Markyate, a local recluse. But certainly St Albans fed upon the story of the local boy who had made good. His surname Breakspear seems to occur first in Matthew Paris. R. L. Poole argued that Nicholas became an Augustinian canon at Merton, Surrey, on the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of the last sentence in one of John of Salisbury's letters, but this might be taken to mean no more than that there was a connection by reciprocal prayer between the Augustinian abbeys of Merton and St Ruf.

The next certain step in Nicholas's career is his arrival in Arles, where he spent some time in the schools and then became a canon regular, and later abbot, of St Ruf near Avignon. As such he came to the notice of Pope Eugenius III who, in 1149, created him cardinal-bishop of Albano. In this capacity he was sent as legate to Scandinavia. Such was the success of his mission that he was later seen as the apostle of Scandinavia. In August and September 1152 he presided over a council of the Norwegian church at Nidaros (now Trondheim), which promulgated reforming canons, and he set up an ecclesiastical province there. In Sweden he called a council at Linköping. He reorganized the Swedish church under the primacy of the Danish archbishopric of Lund and severed the Scandinavian church from its previous German dependence. He also introduced, with royal assent, the annual payment of Peter's pence. It appears that he travelled through England on his way to Norway and that he may have taken with him advisers who knew Norway from trading contacts.

Eugenius III's successor, Anastasius IV, died on 3 December 1154. By this time the legate was back in Rome and on 4 December he was chosen as pope, taking the name of Adrian. On Sunday 5 December he was enthroned and crowned at St Peter's. Within the city of Rome itself, the pope's position was precarious, due to the machinations of the heretic, Arnold of Brescia, who had the support of the senators. The commune was hostile, and the pope therefore left shortly after Easter 1155 for Viterbo. His primary task was to control the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, whose aid he needed within the city and in the papal patrimony. Frederick, for his part, as the newly elected emperor, was eager to secure his coronation by the pope. Pope met emperor at Nepi on 7 June 1155 in what turned out to be a spectacular contest between the two to gain propagandist supremacy. It was on this occasion that Frederick refused to perform the ceremonial duty of leading the pope's horse and aiding him to dismount. Adrian replied by refusing Frederick the kiss of peace. But the emperor still required crowning by the pope, and after the consultation and examination of certain documents by the imperial party, the ceremony was performed, by Frederick leading the pope's horse in full view of the emperor's army. Frederick's coronation took place at St Peter's on 18 June, in a ceremony which, it has been argued, was a reformed one, symbolically highlighting the difference between the anointing of a mere layman and that of a priest. The emperor was not anointed on the head, as befitted a priest, but between the shoulders and on the right arm, and the investing of him with a sword drew attention to the emperor's role as defender of the faith and ‘protector’ of the pope.

But Frederick did not come to the assistance of Adrian by driving back the king of Sicily, William I (1151–66), who was threatening the papal lands, or by quelling the Romans. He returned north, leaving the pope in virtual exile at Tivoli. The pope now appeared to be wedged between a recalcitrant emperor and a ravaging and advancing king of Sicily. It was at this juncture that Adrian received overtures from the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I, and from the barons of Apulia, eager to take advantage of King William's excommunication by the pope. William treated for peace, which Adrian at first refused, but after William had successfully defeated both the Greeks and the Apulians, in June 1156, the pope invested William with Sicily, Apulia, and Capua at the concordat of Benevento. In return William performed homage, and promised his loyalty and the payment of an annual census.

The papal alliance with Sicily brought about a worsening of relations with the emperor. In the course of diplomatic discussions, Adrian's message to Frederick at Besançon in 1157 proved inflammatory. On this occasion the pope used the term beneficium in his letter to the emperor which the imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel, sought to translate as fief (rather than as benefice), thereby making the pope say that the empire was a fief of the papacy. Relations between pope and emperor did not improve. Frederick had ambitions in northern Italy and he bitterly resented the pope's alliance with the Sicilians. In his relations with the eastern emperor, Manuel, and the eastern church, Pope Adrian showed himself a true son of the reforming papacy. He could not accept any power for the emperor that was not dependent on the pope. Although Manuel's troops had entered Italy, subdued the Balkans, and pacified Hungary, Adrian was not impressed by Manuel's suggestion that the secular sword was his, while the pope's sword was simply a spiritual one. In a letter to the archbishop of Thessaloníki, he clarified his line of thought: St Peter was the governor of all the faithful. The pope, as his vicar, did not share this authority with others; and a letter to the patriarch of Grado, about the church of Constantinople, reiterated the theme that the eastern church was subject to the West.

Adrian IV was not unmindful of the interests and well-being of his English homeland. He was generous with privileges to St Albans Abbey, and he confirmed the archbishop of York both in the latter's metropolitan authority over the Scottish bishops, and in his freedom from that of Canterbury. But of longer-lasting significance was the bull Laudabiliter, whereby he granted Ireland to Henry II as a hereditary fee, on the grounds that all islands converted to Christianity belonged to the Holy See according to the donation of Constantine, and in return for an annual payment of 1d. Matthew Paris, who provides the text of Laudabiliter, spoke of the vast solitude of Ireland, describing it as 'a kind of limbo' and of its 'bestial men' who were to be brought to the faith. This grant is associated with a visit to the pope by John of Salisbury, on behalf of the king. While the text of Laudabiliter is open to question, it cannot be doubted that there was papal approval of some kind for the Irish mission. The pope was keenly interested in the advancement of a centralized papacy. He played what was probably no small part in the realization of the notion that his court was the final court of Christendom. Appeals were encouraged to the papal court. Adrian IV died at Anagni on 1 September 1159. His final act, the nomination of a successor, Cardinal Bernard, bishop of Porto, a candidate acceptable to the pro-imperial party, might have been his master stroke, had it been accepted, and might have saved the church from the impending schism. He was buried on 4 September in an ancient red granite tomb in St Peter's, near the body of Pope Eugenius III, according to Boso, in front of the main altar in the oratory of the Virgin which had been constructed by Pope Gregory III: the tomb was later moved to the Vatican grottoes.

Adrian's biographer and chamberlain, Boso, described him as mild and kindly in bearing, of high character and learning, famous as a preacher, and renowned for his fine voice. Something of his character emerges, too, from the account of John of Salisbury whom he had favoured with his friendship and whom he had asked to tell him what people thought of the Roman church. The pope was apparently deeply aware of the crushing responsibilities of his office, which he described in some graphic detail—the pallium was full of thorns and the burnished mitre seared his head. He would have preferred to have remained a simple canon of St Ruf, he said. Nevertheless, his pontificate was extremely formative. There are echoes of his activities among the reforming popes of the thirteenth century. He attempted the implementation of canon law in Scandinavia as legate. He formulated an aggressive policy towards the papal patrimony in central Italy, under the hand of his chamberlain, Boso, using feudal rights to assert his lordship. He sought to curtail and control the powers of the emperor. The archives of his pontificate are not extensive, but the picture emerges of an assiduous administrator, a man of strange vision and singular purpose, though of balanced judgement, who became something of a role model for later popes.


  • L. Duchesne, ed., Le Liber pontificalis, 2nd edn, 2 (Paris, 1955), 388–97
  • The letters of John of Salisbury, ed. and trans. H. E. Butler and W. J. Millor, rev. C. N. L. Brooke, 2 vols., OMT (1979–86), vol. 1, pp. 87–8, no. 50; vol. 2, pp. 9–10, no. 6 [Latin original with parallel Eng. text]
  • John of Salisbury, Policraticus, ed. and trans. C. J. Nederman (1990), 132–6, 173, 224–5
  • Ioannis Saresberiensis episcopi Carnotensis Metalogicon libri IIII, ed. C. C. I. Webb (1929), bk 4, chap. 42
  • Ottonis et Rahewini gesta Friderici I. imperatoris, ed. O. Waitz and B. von Simson, 3rd edn, MGH Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum, [46] (Hanover, 1912)
  • W. Ullmann, ‘The pontificate of Adrian IV’, Cambridge Historical Journal, 11 (1953–5), 233–52
  • Pope Adrian IV, ‘Epistolae et privilegia’, Patrologia Latina, 188 (1855), 1361
  • Matthaei Parisiensis, monachi Sancti Albani, Historia Anglorum, sive … Historia minor, ed. F. Madden, 3 vols., Rolls Series, 44 (1886–9), 1.299, 304–6, 310; 3.192–4
  • Paris, Chron., 2.210–11
  • Letters and charters of Gilbert Foliot, ed. A. Morey and others (1967), 465–6
  • R. W. Southern, Medieval humanism and other studies (1970), 234–52
  • R. L. Poole, ‘The early lives of Robert Pullen and Nicholas Brakespeare’, Studies in chronology and history (1934), 287–97
Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum
H. R. Luard, ed., , 7 vols., RS, 57 (1872–83)