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Adrian IV


Pope Adrian IV reigned as pope from 1154 until 1159 which is where he is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History. His short reign was stormy as he started it right in the middle of the conflict between the Norman King William of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. He also had to deal with the rebellion of the reformist Arnold of Brescia.

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Early Life and Rise to Prominence

Pope Adrian IV was born Nicholas Breakspear around 1100. He came from a family of modest means in the city of St. Albans, Hertfordshire County. His father was a clerk named Robert, and he was a cousin to the future Cardinal Boso who also became his biographer. Nicholas became a monk at the abbey of St. Albans during his youth but left it to study in Paris in 1125. After his stay in Paris, he travelled to Provence in southern France and worked as a clerk at the Church in Saint James Melgorium in Maguelone. He also studied in Arles, and later served at the monastery of Saint Rufus in Avignon where he became a canon regular and prior.

He became an abbot around 1137 or 1145, but his reformist beliefs clashed with the beliefs of the monks. This did not escape the notice of Pope Eugene III who ordained him as bishop and then as cardinal of Albano in Italy in 1150. He became a Eugene III’s papal legate to Norway in 1152 where he helped reconcile the sons of the murdered Norwegian king Harald Gilla Christe. Nicholas created the Diocese of Hamar in Hedmark county, made Trondheim a metropolitan bishopric, and initiated reforms that endeared him to the Norwegian Christians. He also travelled to Sweden where he made Gamla Uppsala a metropolitan bishopric. He also introduced the payment of Peter’s pence to Scandinavia which was a tax sent by English Christians to the pope to help support the poor pilgrims who lived in the Schola Saxonum.

Pope Adrian IV

Election as Pope and Struggles

Meanwhile, Pope Eugene III had died in 1153 in Rome, and Pope Anastasius IV succeeded him. The new pope lasted only a year and seven months in the office until he, too, died in 1154. Nicholas had returned a couple of months before the death of Pope Anastasius IV, so the cardinals elected him as pope on December 4, 1154. They held his consecration at St Peter’s the next day, and he adopted Adrian IV as his papal name.

But the new Pope Adrian IV inherited the problems of Pope Eugene III and Anastasius IV with the Norman King William of Sicily, Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, and the nobles who fought each other for the domination of Italy. The reformer Arnold of Brescia also clashed with the pope when he advocated poverty within the church. But he was banished from Rome by Adrian and then excommunicated as punishment. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa did Pope Adrian IV a favor when he captured Arnold of Brescia and brought him back to Rome to be executed.

This was just the start of Adrian’s problems with Frederick Barbarossa when both men refused to submit to each other during the German king’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in Sutri. Pope Adrian refused to crown him as Holy Roman Emperor for his defiance. But Frederick finally relented. He was crowned at Saint Peter’s on the 18th of June, 1155. His coronation ended when the Romans rioted so that he, along with Pope Adrian and his guards, had to flee to Tivoli to escape their enemies.

Adrian came with Frederick to Germany as Italy was still unstable at that time. But he returned some time later and recognized the Norman King William of Sicily as ruler of a large part of southern Italy in exchange for a yearly tribute. The Holy Roman Emperor was unhappy with the turn of events in Italy. A misunderstanding between the papal legates and Frederick’s chancellor in the diet of Besancon in 1157 also worsened the relationship between the two. Adrian tried to patch things up with Frederick in 1158. However, he died of quinsy on September 1, 1959, in the town of Anagni before their relationship could improve.

Picture By PHGCOM – self-made, photographed at Notre-Dame de Paris, GFDL, Link
Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925.
Robinson, I. S. The Papacy, 1073-1198: Continuity and Innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Ua Clerigh, Arthur. “Pope Adrian IV.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 9 Nov. 2016 <>.
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