Born at Rome, date unknown; died 13 November 867; one of the great popes of the Middle Ages, who exerted decisive influence upon the historical development of the papacy and its position among the Christian nations of Western Europe. He was of a distinguished family, being the son of the Defensor Theodore, and received an excellent training. Already distinguished for his piety, benevolence, ability, knowledge, and eloquence, he entered, at an early age, the service of the Church, was made subdeacon by Pope Sergius II (844-47), and deacon by Leo IV (847-55). After Benedict’s death (7 April 858) the Emperor Louis II, who was in the neighbourhood of Rome, came into the city to exert his influence upon the election. On 24 April Nicholas was elected pope, and on the same day was consecrated and enthroned in Saint Peter’s in the presence of the emperor. Three days after, he gave a farewell banquet to the emperor, and afterward, accompanied by the Roman nobility, visited him in his camp before the city, on which occasion the emperor came to meet the pope and led his horse for some distance.
Christianity in Western Europe was then in a most melancholy condition. The empire of Charlemagne had fallen to pieces, Christian territory was threatened both from the north and the east, and Christendom seemed on the brink of anarchy. Christian morality was despised; many bishops were worldly and unworthy of their office. There was danger of a universal decline of the higher civilization. Pope Nicholas appeared as a conscientious representative of the Roman Primacy in the Church. He was filled with a high conception of his mission for the vindication of Christian morality, the defence of God’s law against powerful bishops. Archbishop John of Ravenna oppressed the inhabitants of the papal territory, treated his suffragan bishops with violence, made unjust demands upon them for money, and illegally imprisoned priests. He also forged documents to support his claims against the Roman See and maltreated the papal legates. As the warnings of the pope were without result, and the archbishop ignored a thrice-repeated summons to appear before the papal tribunal, he was excommunicated. Having first visited the Emperor Louis at Pavia, the archbishop repaired, with two imperial delegates. To Rome, where Nicholas cited him before the Roman synod assembled in the autumn of 860. Upon this John fled from Rome. Going in person to Ravenna, the pope then investigated and equitably regulated everything. Again appealing to the emperor, the archbishop was recommended by him to submit to the pope, which he did at the Roman Synod of November, 861. Later on, however, he entered into a pact with the excommunicated Archbishops of Trier and Cologne, was himself again excommunicated, and once more forced to make his submission to the pope. Another conflict arose between Nicholas and Archbishop Hincmar of Rims: this concerned the prerogatives of the papacy. Bishop Rothad of Soissons had appealed to the pope against the decision of the Synod of Soissons, of 861, which had deposed him; Hincmar opposed the appeal to the pope, but eventually had to acknowledge the right of the papacy to take cognizance of important legal causes (causæ majores) and pass independent judgment upon them. A further dispute broke out between Hincmar and the pope as to the elevation of the cleric Wulfad to the archiepiscopal See of Bourges, but here, again, Hincmar finally submitted to the decrees of the Apostolic See, and the Frankish synods passed corresponding ordinances.
Nicholas showed the same zeal in other efforts to maintain ecclesiastical discipline, especially as to the marriage laws. Ingiltrud, wife of Count Boso, had left her husband for a paramour; Nicholas commanded the bishops in the dominions of Charles the Bold to excommunicate her unless she returned to her husband. As she paid no attention to the summons to appear before the Synod of Milan in 860, she was put under the ban. The pope was also involved in a desperate struggle with Lothair II of Lorraine over the inviolability of marriage. Lothair had abandoned his lawful wife Theutberga to marry Waldrada. At the Synod of Aachen, 28 April, 862, the bishops of Lorraine, unmindful of their duty, approved of this illicit union. At the Synod of Metz, June, 863, the papal legates, bribed by the king, assented to the Aachen decision, and condemned the absent Theutberga. Upon this the pope brought the matter before his own tribunal. The two archbishops, G????nther of Cologne and Thietgaud of Trier, who had come to Rome as delegates, were summoned before the Lateran Synod of October, 863,when the pope condemned and deposed them as well as John of Ravenna and Hagano of Bergamo. The Emperor Louis II took up the cause of the deposed bishops, while King Lothair advanced upon Rome with an army and laid siege to the city, so that the pope was confined for two days in Saint Peter’s without food. Yet Nicholas did not waver in his determination; the emperor, after being reconciled with the pope, withdrew from Rome and commanded the Archbishops of Trier and Cologne to return to their homes. Nicholas never ceased from his efforts to bring about a reconciliation between Lothair and his lawful wife, but without effect. Another matrimonial case in which Nicholas interposed was that of Judith, daughter of Charles the Bold, who had married Baldwin, Count of Flanders, without her father’s consent. Frankish bishops had excommunicated Judith, and Hincmar of Reims had taken sides against her, but Nicholas urged leniency, in order to protect freedom of marriage. In many other ecclesiastical matters, also, he issued letters and decisions, and he took active measures against bishops who were neglectful of their duties.
In the matter of the emperor and the patriarchs of Constantinople Nicholas showed himself the Divinely appointed ruler of the Church. In violation of ecclesiastical law, the Patriarch Ignatius was deposed in 857 and Photius illegally raised to the patriarchal see. In a letter addressed (8 May 862) to the patriarchs of the East, Nicholas called upon them and all their bishops to refuse recognition to Photius, and at a Roman synod held in April, 863, he excommunicated Photius. He also encouraged the missionary activity of the Church. He sanctioned the union of the Sees of Bremen and Hamburg, and confirmed to Saint Anschar, Archbishop of Bremen, and his successors the office of papal legate to the Danes, Swedes, and Slavs. Bulgaria having been converted by Greek missionaries, its ruler, Prince Boris, in August, 863, sent an embassy to the pope with one hundred and six questions on the teaching and discipline of the Church. Nicholas answered these inquiries exhaustively in the celebrated “Responsa Nicolai ad consulta Bulgarorum”. The letter shows how keen was his desire to foster the principles of an earnest Christian life in this newly-converted people. At the same time he sent an embassy to Prince Boris, charged to use their personal efforts to attain the pope’s object. Nevertheless, Boris finally joined the Eastern Church.
At Rome, Nicholas rebuilt and endowed several churches, and constantly sought to encourage religious life. His own personal life was guided by a spirit of earnest Christian asceticism and profound piety. He was very highly esteemed by the citizens of Rome, as he was by his contemporaries generally, and after death was regarded as a saint. A much discussed question and one that is important in judging the position taken by this pope is, whether he made use of the forged pseudo-Isidorian papal decretals. After exhaustive investigation, Schrörs has decided that the pope wasneither acquainted with the pseudo-Isidorian collection in its entire extent, nor did he make use of its individual parts; that he had perhaps a general knowledge of the false decretals, but did not base his view of the law upon them, and that he owed his knowledge of them solely to documents which came to him from the Frankish Empire.