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date: 25 February 2021

Adrian IV: England's only popefree

  • Henry Summerson

Eight hundred and fifty years ago, on 4 December 1154, Nicholas Breakspear (d. 1159) became the only Englishman to occupy the throne of St Peter when he was elected pope in succession to Anastasius IV, taking the name Adrian IV. A man of relatively humble background, who had probably been born in or near St Albans, Nicholas owed his elevation both to his own talents and to the favourable circumstances of his time. The coming of Christianity to England in the late sixth century had been a process inaugurated and monitored from Rome, through the mission of Augustine to Kent, which was launched by Pope Gregory I (r. 590–604). Links between the English churches and the papacy remained close thereafter, maintained by visitations by papal legates, and by the pilgrimages and other journeys which English kings and prelates made to Rome, as well as by reverence for the Holy See itself. King Alfred went to Rome as a child during the 850s, and in 959 Archbishop Ælfsige of Canterbury died of exposure in the Alps when on his way to receive his pallium, an indispensable symbol of archiepiscopal authority. After the Norman conquest in 1066—during which William I fought under a papal banner—links became closer still. When Archbishop Anselm went into exile after quarrelling first with William Rufus and then with Henry I, on both occasions (1097–1100; 1103–6) his travels took him to Italy and eventually to Rome.

It was against this background of an increasingly international Western church that the remarkable career of Nicholas Breakspear developed. Having made his way to southern France, he became first a canon and then abbot of the monastery of St Ruf near Avignon. There he attracted the attention of Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–53), who made him a cardinal and in 1152 sent him as legate to Scandinavia. His success in reorganizing the northern churches was directly responsible for his being made pope when he returned to Rome two years later. Further successes followed his elevation. He faced down the claims to supremacy over the papacy of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and to secure his position in Rome made a lasting alliance with the king of Sicily. He was generous to the land of his birth, for instance by granting extensive privileges to St Albans Abbey, but his most important contribution to the future of the British Isles was of an altogether more contentious nature, in the bull Laudabiliter, which in 1155 conferred the overlordship of Ireland on Henry II. The consequences of the bull were still invisible when Adrian died on 1 September 1159, and he left a high reputation, even becoming 'something of a role model for later popes' (Oxford DNB).

There have been no Englishmen among his successors, though connections between England and Rome long remained close, and indeed were strengthened when King John made England a papal fief in 1213. Perhaps these links did something to foster the myth of Pope Joan, first recorded in the mid-thirteenth century, though after some chronological experimentation her story was eventually placed some 400 years earlier, with a two-and-a-half-year papacy beginning in 855—she is variously described as having been born in England, or as having studied there, or as having taken an English lover. In more sober reality, three papal legates played an important role in thirteenth-century English politics: Guala and Pandulf, who did much to restore peace after the civil wars at the end of John's reign, and Ottobuono Fieschi, who performed a similar task after the barons' wars of Henry III's reign. Ottobuono briefly became pope in 1276, taking the name Adrian V from the title of his cardinalate, that of San Adriano.

By that time the ambitions of English prelates were usually confined to Britain. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey appears to have had papal aspirations, but in 1522 he obtained only seven votes in a single ballot (the Dutchman Adrian Florensz Dedal prevailed, and latinized his own name to become Pope Adrian VI). In 1549, however, Cardinal Reginald Pole came closer to becoming pope than any Englishman had done for nearly 400 years, failing to obtain election by just two votes. Tellingly, one of the principal objections to Pole's candidature made by the Italian-dominated curia was that he was a foreigner. Following the deaths of Pole and Queen Mary in 1558, and the final severing of formal religious links between England and Rome, the elevation of an Englishman to the papal throne became inconceivable for centuries. In 1878 Cardinal Henry Manning was named as a possible successor to Pius IX (r. 1848–78), but he let it be known that he did not wish to be considered. Only in fantasies like those of Frederick Rolfe, styled Baron Corvo, whose significantly titled novel Hadrian the Seventh appeared a century ago in 1904, was it still possible for a compatriot of Nicholas Breakspear to become the vicar of Christ.

Click here for more about the Oxford DNB subjects mentioned, but not highlighted, in this article: [Ælfsige (d. 959)]; [Alfred (848/9–899)]; [AnselmAnselm (c. 1033–1109)]; [Henry I (1068/9–1135)]; [Henry II (1133–1189)]; [John (1167–1216)]; [WilliamWilliam I (1027/8–1087)]; [WilliamWilliam II (c. 1060–1100)].