Pope Nicholas, I was the son of a Roman citizen named Theodore, a regionarius (cleric or lay official responsible for the administration of a certain region in the city) of Rome. He is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History at 858 AD. Just like his father, the young Nicholas developed a deep love for learning. The people who surrounded him knew that the boy was destined for great things. The boy’s brilliance did not escape the notice of Pope Sergius II who brought him to the Lateran Palace and appointed him as sub-deacon when he came of age. Pope Leo IV then promoted him to the position of deacon, but he was especially close to Pope Benedict III and became influential during his papacy. Nicholas, I was elected as Benedict’s successor when the pope died on April 17, 858 AD.
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Election as Pope
Nicholas’ election was unanimous, but it seemed that he was neither ready nor willing to accept the position. He fled to St. Peter’s when his election was announced. He had to be taken back to the Lateran Palace so he could accept his election as pope. He was consecrated later on April 24, 858. The Carolingian emperor Louis II, Frankish noblemen, Italian aristocracy, and Roman citizens all attended his consecration. Nicholas was later crowned when they reached the Lateran Palace. Louis II supported his election, and both men parted on good terms after the celebration of his consecration.
The issue of the Photian Schism in Constantinople dominated Nicholas’ reign as pope. However, it would be resolved only after his death. The relationship between the Eastern and Western churches had broken down since the fall of Italy to the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. This particular schism further drove a wedge between the two churches. Some of the factors in the breakdown of their relationship included the differences in languages used (the East used Greek in liturgy while the West used Latin), their disdain for each other (the East thought that the West’s Romanness had been diluted since the domination of the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. While the West thought the Eastern patriarchs were too much under the emperor’s thumb), and the controversial iconoclasm issue that dominated since the time of Emperor Leo III. The Italians also resented the fact that Constantinople shrank their dominion when they wrested Sicily and other papal lands after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The Photian Schism was primarily a political issue which evolved into a religious spat. It involved the Byzantine emperor Michael III, Patriarch Photius (the East’s equivalent of an antipope), and Pope Nicholas I. It all started when Michael III’s father, the Emperor Theophilos, died in 842 AD at the age of 28. His widow, Empress Theodora, served as the young Michael III’s regent. She appointed her brother Bardas as co-ruler while a distant relative named Photius served as their secretary.
The root of the issue pointed to Bardas when he left his wife to live with his widowed daughter-in-law. Their relationship was not a secret to the citizens of Constantinople, including the Patriarch Ignatius who, upon learning of Bardas’ domestic issues, refused to let him take part in the Holy Communion during the Epiphany of 857 AD. Bardas became so enraged with the rejection that he plotted for years to have Ignatius removed from his role as patriarch. His opportunity finally came when his young nephew, Michael III, came of age. Michael, though married to Eudokia Dekapolitissa, had a relationship with another woman that his mother and the Patriarch Ignatius disapproved of. Bardas convinced the prince to get rid of their mutual enemies. To do away with his mother, Michael told the Patriarch Ignatius to order Theodora’s transfer to a convent where she would stay for the rest of her life. But Ignatius refused his order—an act which angered Michael and played into the hands of Bardas.
The pair finally succeeded in sending Theodora (as well as Michael’s sisters) into a convent in September, 857 AD. They brought up false charges against the Patriarch Ignatius who was then banished to the Prince Island on the 23rd of November in the same year. Bardas and Michael chose the layman and secretary Photius as Constantinople’s new Patriarch while they continued to convince Ignatius to sign his abdication. Although he consistently refused to sign his abdication, Photius had already been announced as patriarch on December 25, 857 AD.
Photius knew that his hold on the patriarchate was very weak as he only had Michael and Bardas as primary supporters. In a bid to legitimize his rule, he sent a letter to Nicholas I and requested the pope’s confirmation of his appointment. His envoys carried the letter to Rome. Although he left out Michael’s plot in ousting Ignatius, the Pope was not an idiot as it did not take long for him to figure out the charges against the former patriarch were all trumped up. The Pope sent the bishops of Porto and Anagni as papal legates (envoys) to Constantinople to investigate. He sent them two letters, one of which was addressed to Photius and the other was to the emperor Michael III. In his letter, he expressed his dismay to Photius for allowing himself to be appointed as a patriarch when he was just a layman before that and Nicholas regretted that he could not confirm his appointment.
The second letter was addressed to Michael III. In this letter, the Pope expressed his dismay that as the head of the church, he was not consulted during the deposition of Ignatius. Nicholas also reiterated his refusal to confirm Photius’ appointment. He ended the letter with an exhortation to Michael to restore Ignatius as patriarch (or at least, his patriarchal rights over Illyricum and Sicily). Displeased with Nicholas’ rejection, Michael and Photius threatened the two legates and had them imprisoned. They resisted for some time until Michael decided to bribe them. They sided with Photius thereafter.
The emperor and his accomplices convened a council on May, 861 AD at the Church of the Holy Apostles to legitimize the consecration of Photius. Michael, Photius, Ignatius, Nicholas’ legates, some bishops, and Byzantine senators attended this sham synod. They proceeded to put Ignatius on trial on false charges and announced his deposition. Ignatius told them that only the pope had the power to remove him from the office. He insisted on traveling to Rome to face the pope, but this protest was also ignored. In an attempt to lend legitimacy to the synod, Photius read an altered version of the pope’s letter and issued twenty-seven canons. They returned Ignatius to prison, while the legates returned to Nicholas with a sugarcoated version of the events in Constantinople. Photius also sent a letter to the pope telling him that he did not want the position of the patriarch in the first place, but he had no choice but to accept and proceeded to justify his acceptance of it. He also shredded Ignatius’ reputation in the letter.
It did not take long for the Pope to find out the truth. He publicly admonished the errant legates in a council in Rome in 862 AD. Sometime in spring of 862, Nicholas once again sent Michael, Photius, and the bishops of the Eastern churches a letter and admonished them in their roles in the controversy. Ignatius also sent the pope a letter and implored him to investigate the events in Constantinople. The beleaguered former patriarch still clung to his position around this time and consistently refused to sign his abdication.
Pope Nicholas assembled a council in the Lateran Palace in 863 to resolve the issue once and for all. The council agreed to deprive Photius of his priestly rights and threatened him with excommunication if he persisted in his claim as Patriarch of Constantinople. The council also issued the deposition and excommunication of the papal legates, the bishops of Porto and Anagni, for their part in the plot. Finally, they reinstated Ignatius as Patriarch of Constantinople—something that Photius, Michael, and Bardas only ignored when they learned of the council’s decrees.
When Nicholas heard that the trio ignored the council’s orders, he wrote another letter of admonishment to Michael and told him to refrain from interfering in church matters. The pope also summoned both Ignatius and Photius (as well as their supporters) to Rome. Around this time, Michael had his uncle Bardas killed and replaced him with his Macedonian groom Basil as co-emperor. Basil was crowned by no other than Photius himself.
Around 866, the frail Nicholas once again sent a letter to the East with another appeal to reinstate Ignatius. His letter never arrived in Constantinople after Byzantine imperial officers harassed his envoys when they tried to cross the border. They tried to get the papal envoys to sign a declaration of faith which listed the heresies of the West. The pope’s representatives refused and promptly turned back to Rome.
Photius later issued an encyclical against Rome in 867 AD, where he listed the East’s grievances against the West and discredited the West’s teachings as heresies. He then sent this encyclical to the bishops of the East and held another fake synod, wherein the contents of encyclical were confirmed by signatures of the bishops and by Emperor Michael (the signatures were forged, and Michael was said to be drunk when he signed the document). The synod also issued their own excommunication of Pope Nicholas. They sent the document to the most powerful ruler of the west at that time, Emperor Louis II, for additional recognition. Gifts accompanied this letter, but Michael’s envoys never reached the Frankish ruler. Constantinople had changed hands once again when Basil had his dissolute Michael III murdered on September, 24, 867. He also had Photius exiled in the same year. Nicholas did not live to see the end of this issue as he also died on November 13, 867 AD.
Douglas, J. D., and Earle E. Cairns, eds. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub., 1974.
Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages: The Popes During the Carolingian Empire. II ed. Vol. III. London: K. Paul, Trench, Tru虉bner, &, 1925.
Noble, Thomas F. X., and Julia M.H. Smith, eds. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Early Medieval Christianities, C. 600 – C. 1100. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008.
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