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Breakspear: More cannons than canon


‘The English reader may consult the Biographia Britannica for Adrian IV but our own writers have added nothing to the fame or merits of their countryman.’ - Edward Gibbon [1]

Nicholas Breakspear was elected pope in 1154, choosing Adrian as his papal name. He is the first and so far only Englishman to sit on the Throne of St Peter. To be elected pope is an achievement at any time; to have been elected at a time when all of Europe, sovereigns included, were in thrall to the papacy is doubly so. That such an honour could fall to an Englishman of low birth is almost unbelievable. Nicholas Breakspear, born near Abbots Langley early in the twelfth century, perhaps around 1100 and probably illegitimate, was elected pope unanimously by the cardinals. Despite this great accolade, his fellow countrymen seem to have completely forgotten him: Gibbon wrote his complaint in 1789 and little has changed since. Apart from a seventy-eight-page cameo by Simon Webb in 2016 and a collection of most helpful academic essays edited by Brenda Bolton and Anne J. Duggan in 2003, there has been no biography of Breakspear published since that by Edith Almedingen in 1925.[2] Most English people know about Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, born in London to a minor Norman knight only a few years after Breakspear.

Yet few in England today know anything about Nicholas Breakspear even though his story is the more remarkable. London abounds with monuments to England’s famous sons, but the capital has neither plaque nor statue to commemorate Breakspear. His family’s descendants are better known in England for brewing beer. The Brakspear Brewery was established by distant relations in Oxfordshire in 1711 and to this day its logo is a bee, copied from Pope Adrian’s seal. They appreciate the greatness of their ancestor even if the rest of England has failed to acknowledge him. Bishop Louis Casartelli, an Edwardian biographer of Breakspear, wrote in 1905:

‘It is not easy to account for the comparative neglect into which the memory of this really great Englishman and great Pope has fallen among us.’ [3]

There are reasons. Becket achieved what he did within England, whereas Breakspear spent but few years in his home country and as an adult was out of England’s sight. Becket’s exciting story centred on his quarrel with the English King Henry II, and his dramatic murder when armed knights stormed into Canterbury Cathedral. This English political story stole the limelight while Breakspear was left unnoticed over in Italy, where he was apparently just doing mundane churchy things. His activities in another country could not compete with a gory murder on peoples’ doorsteps.

British interest in happenings in wider Europe started only much later when adventurism began, and the seeds of empire were being sown. Even then, British universities, the source of most of our historical research, remained focused on events directly involving Britain. British giants on the world stage were kings, soldiers and, later, colonialists. Breakspear was none of these, so even in these later years, he continued to be overlooked. Nonetheless, the pope was supremely powerful in the twelfth century when Christianity was the beating pulse throughout the western world. There were heresies from time to time, but these concerned the interpretation of faith rather than challenging Christianity itself. The pope had temporal power too, although much less than Germany, France, England or Spain, whose kings nonetheless all recognised the spiritual leadership of the pope. In an age when the powers of Church and state were intertwined, the pope’s support for a nation’s political endeavours was crucial. William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 with full papal support. Even the mighty Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, intent on re-establishing the lapsed authority of the Roman Empire within Italy, craved papal support. He was desperate to strengthen his position in Germany by being crowned by Pope Adrian in Rome. King William I of Sicily had defeated Pope Adrian’s forces in battle but he still gave him generous terms in return for papal recognition of his kingship. Despite being greatly respected by his powerful peers abroad, English historians failed to recognise Pope Adrian’s importance or seek to scrutinise his life.

That Pope Adrian had to stand up to the powerful Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and that Adrian’s reign lasted but five years whereas Frederick dominated Europe for thirty-five years, left Adrian vulnerable to after-the event imperial propaganda. With no sympathetic historians to champion Adrian’s cause or balance the story, German historians were free to belittle Adrian’s achievements unchallenged and unfairly accuse him of deliberately sabotaging the close links between empire and papacy. Furthermore, the papal schism on Adrian’s death in 1159 clouded judgements. The full story has not been fairly told.

Perhaps Pope Adrian received less attention because, by the time writers from the eighteenth century onwards began analysing history, Breakspear’s memory was suppressed along with the Roman Church. Breakspear was a devout churchman but his legacy is not one of liturgy, or of the minutiae of canon law, and his exclusion is unwarranted. Adrian was one of the twelfth-century popes who exercised the most influence in the political affairs of Europe, leading armies into battle and making and un-making states and their rulers. Despite a schism, he handed the papacy on to his successor in better shape than he had found it. His political power tempered by strong integrity contrasts sharply with our age, when many politicians are seen to be unscrupulous.  In 1896 the Manchester Guardian acknowledged Adrian’s power:

‘There is no more striking illustration of the openings which the mediaeval Church gave to humble worth and ability that the like of a poor Hertfordshire lad who, leaving England almost penniless, came to reorganise the Scandinavian Church, to beard the mightiest monarch of Western Europe since Charles the Great, and himself to dispose of kingdoms.’ [4]

My second Christian name is Adrian. I have always been aware of my papal namesake, and my interest was piqued on a bike ride through Morden Park in London. A notice at the ruined Merton Priory claims that both Thomas Becket and Nicholas Breakspear attended its school. I tried to discover if these two Englishmen really had schooled together but found that there is no evidence that Breakspear was at Merton. Nonetheless, I had stumbled upon a gap in the pantheon of English heroes. Having spent forty-seven years working with numbers as an actuary, I decided to turn to letters and right this omission.

Nicholas Breakspear was a mystery to me before embarking on this project. I have scoured as much as possible from the sources available in English covering twelfth-century events. The monk chroniclers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries provided background even though most had too little detail to satisfy the curious twenty-first-century mind. Two noted English chroniclers, Roger of Wendover and William of Newburgh, were both laconic. Contemporary writer John of Salisbury proved helpful and was refreshingly frank about his conversations with the pope. Notable by omission is the Laud Chronicle, the version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that reaches 1154, which never deigns to mention Breakspear. It is odd that the election of an English pope seemed not to be newsworthy in 1154, although William of Newburgh, writing in the thirteenth century, was in no doubt about Breakspear’s impressive achievement:

‘He was raised as if from dust to sit in the midst of princes and to occupy the throne of glory.’ [5]

I might have expected more help from Matthew Paris, the chronicler monk of St Albans,[6] writing 100 years after Breakspear, but he gave us not a word about Breakspear’s Scandinavian work, even though that had won for him the papacy. Fortunately two Scandinavian chroniclers, Saxo Grammaticus and Snorri Sturlason, offered some detail, not to say colour.

Adrian’s confrontations with Frederick Barbarossa dominated this period in Otto of Freising’s biography of Frederick, which was continued after 1157 by Rahewin. Both were partial to Frederick’s point of view but tell us much about events that we would not otherwise know. I am also indebted to the nineteenth-century writers Horace Mann, Alfred Tarleton, Edith Almedingen, Richard Raby and Louis Casartelli,[7] whose hagiographies have taken me to places that I could not have reached on my own. John Freed recently wrote a weighty tome on Frederick which is well-balanced on the all-important relationship between Adrian and the emperor. [8]

Breakspear: The English Pope is not a religious essay and there are as many cannons as canons in his story. My aim is to delight the general reader with a human story of an astonishing rise from a low birth in England to what was then the highest elected office in the world, an exciting tale set in a turbulent twelfth-century Europe. From his cradle in Hertfordshire to his grave in Rome, Breakspear’s life was a literal journey. There was effective free movement within twelfth-century Europe, especially for scholars, and people thought nothing of long travel even though it was so much harder than it is today. This account follows Breakspear’s footsteps throughout Europe and for most readers this is a journey into the unknown. Let us begin.

Extracted from Breakspear: The English Pope by R. A. J. Waddingham

[1] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Everyman (Dent), 1910, Vol. 6, p. 534.

[2] Simon Webb, Nicholas Breakspear: The Pope from England, Langley Press, 2016; Brenda Bolton and Anne Duggan, Adrian IV: The English Pope (1154–1159), Ashgate, 2003; Edith M. Almedingen, The English Pope (Adrian IV), Heath Cranton, 1925.

[3] L.C. Casartelli, Sketches in History, St Pius Press, 1905, p. 53.

[4] Manchester Guardian, December 1896.

[5] William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum, Appendix 3 in Bolton and Duggan (eds), Adrian IV, p. 273.

[6] Matthew Paris, ‘Gesta abbatum S. Albani’, Appendix 6b in Bolton and Duggan (eds), Adrian IV, p. 290.

[7] Horace K. Mann, Nicholas Breakspear: Hadrian IV, Keegan Paul, 1914; A.H.Tarleton, Nicholas Breakspear (Adrian IV), Chiswick Press, 1896; Almedingen, The English; Richard Raby, Pope Adrian IV, Amazon reprint, 2010; Louis Casartelli, Sketches in History, St Pius Press, 1906.

[8] John Freed, Frederick Barbarossa: The Prince and the Myth, Yale University Press, 2016.

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