Dictionary of National Biography – Adrian IV

19th century portrait of Pope Adrian IV; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Adrian IV (died 1159), pope, is remarkable as being the only Englishman who ever sat in the chair of Saint Peter. His early history is obscure. His name is said to have been Nicholas Breakspear. His father was a poor man, who became a monk in the monastery of Saint Albans, and left his son without a protector. The lad made his way to France, maintaining himself by alms. He studied at Arles, and was at length received into the house of the canons regular of Saint Rufus near Valence. At first he was in a menial position, but his intelligence and aptitude won him admission into the order. He gradually rose in esteem till he was elected prior and afterwards abbot of Saint Rufus. But his discipline was too strict for the canons, and they began to murmur against the foreigner whom they had raised to be their master. They carried their complaints to Pope Eugenius III. Once he made peace; the second time he saw that Abbot Nicholas deserved a higher position. He made him cardinal of Albano in 1146, and soon afterwards sent him on an embassy to the Scandinavian kingdoms. There the Cardinal of Albano did much to strengthen the connexion of the northern church with Rome. He founded at Drontheim a new archiepiscopal see for Norway, and showed much skill in conciliating the clergy. When he returned to Rome, in 1154, he was hailed as the Apostle of the North, and, on the death of Pope Anastasius IV, was elected to be his successor. He was enthroned on Christmas Day, 1154, under the name of Adrian IV.

Adrian IV is described as a man of mild and kindly bearing, esteemed for his high character and learning, famous as a preacher, and renowned for his fine voice. He accepted the pontificate with a reluctance which was pardonable in the difficulties which beset the office and threatened its authority. Rome, under the influence of Arnold of Brescia, was animated with a strong republican spirit. William, the Norman king of Sicily, refused to recognise the papal suzerainty over his kingdom. The Greeks were striving to reassert their power in Italy, and threatened the spiritual authority of the pope. Adrian IV was not a man to abate anything of the claims of his office. He was a staunch disciple of the ideas of Hildebrand, and felt himself bound to assert them. At first he was helpless against his enemies in Italy. The only quarter where he could look for aid was the newly elected emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who had already set forth the imperial claims over North Italy, and announced his intention of coming to Rome to be crowned.

Adrian IV’s pontificate began with a disturbance. The Roman republicans fell upon a cardinal in the street and grievously wounded him. The pope showed his resoluteness by a measure which none of his predecessors had ventured to use. He laid Rome under an interdict. The citizens soon began to suffer from the cessation of pilgrims during Lent. As Easter drew near, they could endure no longer, and made submission to the pope. Arnold of Brescia was driven from Rome, and the pope consented to leave the Leonine city and celebrate Easter Day at the Lateran. But this triumph was counterbalanced by the hostilities of the Sicilian king, whose army in May wasted the Campagna. Adrian IV excommunicated William; but this was poor comfort. He looked with mingled hope and anxiety to the approach of Barbarossa, whom he besought to capture the exiled heretic, Arnold of Brescia. Arnold was made prisoner, and Frederick advanced to Nepi, whither the pope went to meet him on 7 June 1155. When Adrian IV came into Frederick’s presence, Frederick did not come forward and take the bridle of the pope’s horse, or assist him to dismount. On this Adrian refused him the kiss of peace. For some days there was a warm dispute whether or no custom required from the king this observance. Adrian IV’s pertinacity won the day, and Frederick, who had the loftiest views of the imperial prerogative, received the pope anew, and led his horse in the sight of the whole German army. Then pope and king proceeded in friendship to Rome. The Roman envoys to the king, demanding that he should respect the rights of the city, were contemptuously dismissed. Rome consequently adopted an attitude of sullen hostility. Frederick encamped on Monte Mario, and his coronation was performed in Saint Peter’s, unknown to the Roman people, early in the morning of 18 June. When the Romans heard of this, they rushed in anger to storm the Leonine city. Frederick with his troops returned to help the pope, and there was a bloody conflict before the Romans could be driven to recross the Tiber. Adrian IV used the opportunity of the emperor’s wrath to urge the execution of Arnold of Brescia, who was tried before the papal officials and put to death.

Frederick was crowned emperor; but he was forced to leave Rome, as he could get no provisions for his troops. Adrian IV accompanied him, as Rome was not safe for a pope. They went to Tivoli and the Alban Hills. Adrian IV urged Frederick to march against the excommunicated King of Sicily. But Frederick’s troops were suffering from the heat of an Italian summer. He resolved to retire northwards, and left the pope bitterly disappointed. Adrian IV had crowned Frederick, but had got nothing in return. Neither Rome nor Sicily was reduced to obedience to the papacy. Adrian IV could not return to Rome, and stayed at Tivoli. There he received overtures from the barons of Apulia, who were preparing to revolt against the Sicilian king. The Byzantine emperor, Manuel I, sent an offer to the pope that he would make war against William of Sicily, if the pope would grant him three of the maritime cities of Apulia. Adrian IV went to Benevento to meet the Apulian barons. William, afraid of the coming storm, made overtures for peace, which Adrian IV would have accepted; but the majority of the cardinals opposed a step which would be regarded as hostile to the interests of the emperor. William’s offers were accordingly rejected, whereupon he prepared for war. He succeeded in defeating the Greeks and the Apulians, and his success enabled the pope to carry out his policy of alliance with Sicily. In June 1156, Adrian IV at Benevento received King William, and conferred on him the investiture of Sicily and Apulia. William took the oath of fealty to the pope, and agreed to pay a yearly tribute, and to defend the pope against all his foes. Strengthened by this alliance, Adrian IV aimed at returning to Rome. He moved northwards, through Narni to Orvieto, where he took up his abode. He was the first pope who had visited Orvieto, and while he was there he did much to improve the buildings of the city. Thence he passed on to Viterbo, where he negotiated with the Romans, who judged it prudent to make peace with the pope and welcome him back to Rome, whither he returned at the end of the year.

Meanwhile the good understanding between Adrian IV and the emperor had passed away. Frederick regarded the pope’s alliance with Sicily and with the Romans as a breach of his engagements towards the empire. Adrian IV looked with suspicion on Frederick’s increasing power, and dreaded his influence in Italy. The pope had a specific ground of complaint. In 1156 Archbishop Eskil, of Lund in Sweden, who had aided Adrian when a cardinal in his disposal of the northern church, was taken prisoner in Germany on his return from a pilgrimage to Rome. He was imprisoned for a ransom, and, in spite of the pope’s remonstrances, Frederick refused to interfere to procure his release. Adrian IV determined to ascertain clearly the emperor’s intentions. He sent his chief adviser, Cardinal Roland of Siena, to the diet of Besançon, which Frederick held in October, 1157. Roland was a man imbued with the loftiest ecclesiastical pretensions. He gave Frederick the greeting of the pope and cardinals: ‘The pope greets you as a father, the cardinals as brothers.’ It was unheard before that cardinals should rank themselves as the equal of the emperor. Then Roland handed Frederick a letter of the pope, which was read in the assembly. It complained of Eskil’s treatment, and went on to say that the pope had conferred on the emperor many benefits: ‘qualiter imperialis insigne coronæ libentissime conferens, benignissimo gremio suo tuæ sublimitatis apicem studuerit confovere. … Si majora beneficia exccellentia tua de manu nostra suscepisset … non immerito gauderemus’. The language was studiously equivocal. The expressions to confer benefices were the current phrases of feudal law. They were interpreted by the German nobles to mean that the pope claimed to be the feudal lord of the empire and confer it like a fief. There were angry cries from the assembly. Cardinal Roland boldly exclaimed, ‘From whom then does the emperor hold the empire if not from the pope?’ The Pfalzgraf Otto of Wittelsbach laid his hand on his sword, and would have cut Roland down if he had not been prevented. The emperor with difficulty restored order. The legate’s papers were seized, and it was found that they contained letters of complaint against the emperor addressed to the German churches. The legates were bidden to make their way back to Rome at once, and leave Germany undisturbed.

Frederick I replied to the pope’s challenge by a letter which was circulated through his dominions. He asserted that the empire was held from God alone, and that whoever maintained that it was held from the pope contradicted the institution of God and the teaching of Saint Peter; he would face death rather than permit the honour of the empire to be diminished. Soon afterwards he issued an edict limiting appeals to the pope and forbidding journeys to Rome without the permission of the ecclesiastical authorities (Radevicus, 748). Adrian IV was indignant at the treatment of his legates, and issued a letter of complaint, addressed to the German bishops, in which he bade them admonish the emperor to return to the right path from which he had strayed. But the German bishops sided with the emperor, and gave the pope an answer which showed the growth of a strong national spirit. They said that they could not countenance the words of the pope, which seemed by their ambiguity to assert unheard-of claims. They besought the pope to explain his words, so as to give peace to the empire and to the church.

Meanwhile Frederick I was preparing for an expedition into North Italy. Adrian IV judged it prudent not to declare himself the enemy of one who was so powerful. On 1 February 1158, he sent from Rome legates who met the emperor at Augsburg. They greeted him with reverence and modesty, and handed him a letter from the pope, in which Adrian IV explained that he had used the term beneficium in its scriptural, not in its feudal signification. Frederick I was satisfied with this explanation, and friendly relations between him and the pope were restored. But Frederick’s success against Milan, and his lofty assertion of the imperial claims in the diet of Roncaglia (November 1158), filled the pope with alarm. He began to draw nearer to William of Sicily, and to uphold the Italian against the imperial party. He showed his ill-will towards the emperor by refusing to confirm the election to the archbishopric of Ravenna of a person who was in the favour of Frederick I. Soon afterwards he sent a letter to Frederick, forbidding him to interfere in a dispute between Brescia and Bergamo concerning the possessions of their churches. This letter was brought by a poor messenger who thrust it into the emperor’s hands and at once disappeared. Frederick I retorted by ordering the imperial chancery to change its style of addressing the pope, and revert to more ancient usage. The emperor’s name was to be set before that of the pope, and the pope was to be addressed in the second person singular, and not the second person plural. Adrian IV deeply resented this slight. He is said to have exhorted Milan to revolt. An open breach with the emperor seemed imminent.

But the counsels of Bishop Eberhard of Bamberg turned the pope once more to peace. In April 1159 he sent an embassy to Frederick I, and proposed a renewal of the treaty made in 1153 between the emperor and his predecessor. Frederick answered that he had been true to that treaty, but Adrian IV had broken it by his alliance with Sicily. He proposed that the differences between him and the pope should be submitted to arbitrators. The pope replied by proposing conditions to be imposed on imperial envoys sent to Rome. These Frederick I rejected, and many fruitless embassies passed between them. In May Adrian IV withdrew from Rome to Anagni, where he was nearer Sicily. Frederick I received envoys from the citizens of Rome, and agreed to receive their submission and confirm the rights of their senate. The imperial ambassadors appeared in Rome; the envoys of Milan and Sicily were busy at Anagni. Adrian IV was preparing to put himself at the head of the enemies of Frederick I, and issue an excommunication against him, when he died of an attack of quinsy at Anagni on 1 September 1159.

Adrian IV’s pontificate was a period of constant struggles, mainly of his own seeking. His object was to maintain the claims of the Roman Church as they had been defined by Gregory VII. In this he showed skill, resoluteness, and decision; but he had for his antagonist the mightiest of the emperors. He bequeathed to his successor a hazardous conflict, in which the papacy succeeded in holding its own.

In English affairs, Adrian IV is celebrated for his grant of Ireland to Henry II. The English king sent, to congratulate Adrian IV on his succession, an embassy of which John of Salisbury was a member. The envoys were charged to lay before the pope the king’s desire to civilise the Irish people and bring them fully into the pale of the Roman Church. Adrian IV granted Ireland to the king, on the ground that all islands converted to Christianity belonged to the Holy See. John of Salisbury says that this claim rested on the donation of Constantine. John of Salisbury records that Adrian IV was deeply impressed by the responsibilities of his office; he said, in conversation, that the pope’s tiara was splendid because it burned with fire. The bulls and letters of Adrian IV are to be found in Baronius, Radevicus, and Migne’s ‘Patrologia’. Oldoinus in Ciaconius, i. 1062, says that Adrian IV, before he became pope, wrote a treatise, ‘De Conceptione Beatissimæ Virginis,’ a book, ‘De Legatione sua,’ and a catechism for the people of Norway and Sweden.

MLA Citation

  • Mandell Creighton. “Adrian IV”. Dictionary of National Biography, 1885. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 April 2019. Web. 28 March 2020. <>