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Breakspear: The English pope by R. A. J. Waddingham

13 January 2023

He found it full of thorns, says Katherine Harvey

HIGH on the altar screen at St Albans Abbey, above the crucified Christ, is a small statue of a pope. If this figure goes unnoticed by most visitors, that is, in a way, strangely fitting; for it represents a curiously overlooked figure: the only English pope, Adrian IV (1154-59), who was born just down the road from the abbey in the opening years of the 12th century.

In this comprehensive and much needed biography, R. A. J. Waddingham provides a compelling account of Nicholas Breakspear’s remarkable journey from obscure origins to the very top of the medieval Church. As a young man, he was allegedly rejected as a postulant by St Albans. Undeterred, he went to France, studying in Paris and Arles before settling in Avignon. There, he joined the Augustinian canons, and rose quickly through their ranks; in the mid-1140s he was elected Abbot of St Ruf.

A falling-out with his subordinates could have ruined everything, but instead propelled him into the highest ranks of the Roman Catholic Church: when the canons complained about him for the second time, Pope Eugenius told them to elect a new abbot who was more to their liking, and made Breakspear a cardinal.

For the next few years, his life was a whirl of international travel: he went to Catalonia during the Second Crusade, and spent 1152-54 as a papal legate to “the wild people of Denmark and Norway”, as one English chronicler put it.

It was a difficult task, but the Englishman handled it well. He dealt sensitively with secular rulers, established an archbishopric at Nidaros (now Trondheim), and did his best to promote ecclesiastical reform, including the enforcement of clerical celibacy. Although the mission had mixed success, it did much to enhance his reputation both in Scandinavia (where he was popularly regarded as a saint) and in Rome.

On Saturday 4 December 1154, days after he arrived back in Italy, Nicholas Breakspear was unanimously elected as Pope Adrian IV. The reasons for his appointment are uncertain: contemporaries praised his learning, his preaching, and even his singing, but it seems likely that it was his proven diplomatic skills that appealed to the College of Cardinals.

Certainly, these skills would be much tested; for Adrian spent much of his papacy struggling for control of Rome, and caught between the competing claims of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and William, King of Sicily — the details of which conflict take up most of the second half of this book.

If the defence of papal rights and possessions against imperial incursions consumed much of his energy, it was not his only achievement. An effective administrator, he centralised ecclesiastical administration and increased the papal revenues, his fondness for gold reportedly being such that even his friends rebuked him for it. He acted to give serfs greater marital rights (on the basis that marriage was one of the sacraments, to which everyone was entitled), and granted significant privileges to the Abbey of St Albans — suggesting that, even as one of the most powerful men in the world, he did not forget where he came from.

Adrian’s pontificate was cut short by his untimely death in September 1159; there were (almost certainly inaccurate) rumours that he had been poisoned, or had choked to death on a fly. Perhaps he was simply worn out, given his complaint that “The chair of St Peter is full of thorns.” He also lamented that God had not allowed him to remain a monk.

But Waddingham’s highly readable account of Breakspear’s meteoric rise and his short but significant pontificate makes a persuasive case that this remarkable man would have been wasted in monastic obscurity, and that he deserves to be better known. Who knows? Perhaps his example might even inspire another English pope.

Dr Katherine Harvey is Research Fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.


Breakspear: The English pope
R. A. J. Waddingham
The History Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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