Nicholas Breakspear: The only English Pope

Portait of Adrian IV Nicholas Breakspear became Pope Adrian IV in 1154

In the Vatican the preliminaries are over.

Group discussions have been concluded, oaths of secrecy have been sworn and mobile phones have been handed in to ensure total secrecy.

The 115 scarlet-clad cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic Church who will choose the next Pope have shut themselves away from the outside world and started their deliberations in earnest.

The conclave has begun.

It could be several days before white smoke billows from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signalling that a new Pontiff has been elected.

Although it is far from clear who will be chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, it is a pretty safe bet that he won't be English.

We need to look back nearly 850 years to find the last - and only - English Pope, Adrian IV.

In theory, any baptised male Catholic can be elected Pope. In practice, the job always goes to a cardinal.

Today, just two Britons hold that rank. One is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, who has not been identified as a likely contender. At 80, he is no longer eligible to take part in the voting.

The other is the disgraced Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who stood down as leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland last month and faces a Vatican inquiry into his sexual conduct. He has stayed away from the conclave.

But for four-and-a-half years in the 12th Century, the top job in the Roman Catholic Church was held by a man from humble beginnings in Hertfordshire.

'Rose from nothing'

Born Nicholas Breakspear in about 1100 at Abbots Langley, near St Albans, he was the son of an educated but poor man.

"He rose from almost nothing to become Pope, and he did it all on his talents," said historian Anne Duggan, co-editor of Adrian IV, The English Pope.

"It was an extraordinary achievement for an unknown from England."

Breakspear's father, Robert de Camera, was a clerk in lower orders in the service of the abbot of St Albans.

He entered the monastery, probably on his wife's death, leaving Nicholas to fend for himself.

Cardinals in the Vatican The successor to Pope Benedict XVI will be elected by cardinals in Rome

Nicholas also sought admission to the abbey, but was refused, perhaps because of his lack of education.

Undeterred, he went to France, studying at Arles in Provence and then joining the St Ruf monastery where he prospered, becoming abbot.

Travelling to Rome on abbey business, he was noticed by the Pope, Eugenius III who kept him there, appointing him Bishop of Albano, in what is now the Province of Rome, in 1150.

The interdict of Rome

  • Adrian IV is also remembered for an unprecedented act: imposing an interdict on the city of Rome during Easter in 1155
  • An interdict is, in Roman Catholic law, the exclusion of an individual or a group from certain Church rites
  • It meant the whole city of Rome was banned from carrying out any religious service or rite
  • Pope Adrian IV took this extreme measure to convince the Senate to expel Arnold of Brescia, a heretic who was spreading anti-papal sentiment

Source: BBC Religion and Ethics

Highly regarded by the Pope, he was given important jobs, including organising the Church in Catalonia after the defeat of the Saracens, and then in Scandinavia as papal legate.

"If Breakspear had not become Pope, it is likely that he would still be remembered for his energetic work in Scandinavia in the early 1150s," said Fr Nicholas Schofield, archivist for the Diocese of Westminster.

"As legate, he reorganised the Swedish church, sent missionaries into Finland and set up a huge bishopric embracing Norway, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, Shetland, the Orkneys and Sudreys (including the Isle of Man).

"He is supposed to have written catechisms in Swedish and Norwegian as well as a history of his mission, although none of these have survived. Not a bad achievement."

Power struggles

When he returned from Scandinavia in 1154, Eugenius had died, and Breakspear became the 170th Pope, remaining in the post until his death in 1159.

His reign was short but eventful. There were power struggles in and around Rome and tension between the Church and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa.

Pope Adrian made peace with the city of Rome, resisting the emperor's attempts to secure control over the city and the papal territories in what is now central Italy.

Site of Breakspear Farm A plaque marks the site of Breakspear Farm where Nicholas Breakspear is thought to have been born

He also formed an alliance with the King of Sicily.

But Prof Duggan, an expert in medieval history at King's College, London, said his most important achievement for Catholics generally was establishing the principle that serfs could freely and lawfully marry without the consent of their lords.

For centuries, Pope Adrian had a bad name in Ireland because of the papal bull Laudabiliter that appeared to give Ireland in perpetuity to the English king, but Prof Duggan said a text relating to this had been falsified.

But Fr Schofield said the eventual invasion of Ireland by Henry II in October 1171 fitted in with the Pope's promotion of ecclesiastical reform.

'Centuries of domination'

"The Irish church was still based around the authority of powerful abbots rather than diocesan bishops," he said.

Start Quote

They do get a sense of how important he was”

End Quote Ella McCarthy Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School

"Pope Adrian would have been keen to standardise its structure according to the Roman model.

"English monarchs up until the Reformation based their title of 'Lord of Ireland' on the pope's bull and, as far as many are concerned, the Hertfordshire pontiff was responsible for eight centuries of English domination in Ireland."

Breakspear is thought to have been born at Breakspear Farm between Abbots Langley and Bedmond.

There was a farm on the site up until the 1960s when it was demolished to make way for a development of new houses. A plaque commemorates the spot as Breakspear's birthplace.

Today the village has several streets named after him, including Popes Road, Adrian Road and Breakspeare Road.

'Choked on fly'

His memory lives on, too, at Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School in St Albans, where pupils undertake a unit of work on him.

During the school's annual pilgrimage to Rome, they also visit his tomb and say prayers.

"They do get a sense of how important he was. He came from the same place as they did, and they are in Rome where he was, so it's very nice," said Ella McCarthy, head of religious education.

Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School Pupils at Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School have visited Pope Adrian IV's tomb in Rome

She said pupils were often amused to hear stories that he died choking on a fly while drinking wine.

Prof Duggan is sceptical about these claims, however.

"There's a possibility that he choked - you never know - but these reports tend to be very unreliable. He certainly did die unexpectedly young," she said.

As to why there had been no other British Popes, she said Italian candidates had generally been favoured because of the predominance of Italians among the cardinals.

There was a line of German popes in the 11th Century, due to the influence of the Romano-German emperors.

"As the papacy extricated itself from that influence and stabilised an electoral procedure that went a long way towards excluding external control, candidates from France and from Italy were again chosen," she said.

"For much of the later Middle Ages, the balance oscillated between the French and the Italians."

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