Andrew Rylah, of Codicote Local History Society, looks at the life Hertfordshire's Nicholas Breakspear, who later became Pope Adrian IV​.


No, this isn’t a late April Fools trick. Nicholas Breakspear, reputedly born around 1100 in Bedmond, Abbots Langley, is the only ever English pope, reigning as Adrian (aka Hadrian) IV.

How did Nicholas rise up from modest beginnings in a Hertfordshire hamlet? Allegedly he was the illegitimate son of a priest, though this could have been a malicious rumour spread by his enemies.

He must have shown promise and determination as he went to study church law in Arles, southern France, and then onto Avignon where he became abbot. That posting gave him opportunities to go to Rome where he caught the eye of Pope Eugenius III, who obviously saw his potential.

This led to Nicholas undertaking several diplomatic missions, firstly successfully reorganising religious houses in Catalonia, Spain, where Christian kingdoms were fighting Muslims from Al-Andalus (from where we get ‘Andalusia’).

Then he acted as papal legate in Scandinavia where he managed to reconcile opposing factions in a civil war, creating an ecclesiastical province from Norway to Iceland. This was no mean feat amidst the fighting.

In the meantime, Nicholas had become Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, close to the seat of power in Rome. Returning from his missions in 1154, he found himself in the right spot at the right time.

The latest Pope had just died, and Nicholas was duly elected, taking the name Adrian IV. That said, it was something of a poisoned chalice. In fact, Adrian couldn’t even be crowned at the time due to anti-papal hostility and religious chaos in Rome.

Papal rule then was as much about political power struggles as religion. A new formidable figure, Frederick I, had just been made Holy Roman Emperor (essentially ruling from Germany down to northern Italy).

From differing perspectives, both Pope and emperor believed in their own supremacy in Christian Europe. It was the start of many years of hostility between the two, culminating in Adrian excommunicating Frederick from the church in 1159.

The power struggle worsened when a third contender, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I, attacked southern Italy. He was hoping to extend his empire, but was heavily defeated in battle. Unfortunately, Adrian had supported Manuel and was essentially taken prisoner, and forced to accept hostile rule in the south.

The stress of papal intrigue and political strife took their toll, and Adrian died on 1 September 1159, after reigning for just four years, six months and 28 days.

He’s said to have died from a mouth abscess, which may have caused sepsis. More ‘poetically’, a contemporary chronicler said that Adrian was drinking from a fountain when a fly entered his mouth, stuck firmly to his throat and caused his death! Take your pick!

What should we make of his short reign? On the plus side, he reorganised papal finances and set about an effective building programme. He was keen on moral reforms in the church and would have probably achieved much more, given time.

On the downside, he couldn’t resolve the continuous military and religious power struggles. Unfortunately, his untimely death made matters worse and led to the election of both a pope and an antipope (a rival claimant) to battle it out.

And what about Adrian, the man? Some saw him as a tough, inflexible disciplinarian – and monks did complain about him. But many in Scandinavia saw him as a living saint. Others again depict him as mild, kindly and eloquent, and apparently with outstanding good looks.

Clearly he was an effective organiser and he must have had strength of character to win over papal Rome after arriving as an outsider from a far-distant land.

Adrian never forgot his Hertfordshire origins. It’s said that he took his papal name from his namesake, Adrian I, a pope who had revered St Alban, the person. Adrian was clearly fond of St Albans Abbey and gave it lots of privileges and special authorities.

In turn, St Albans apparently played up its links with the local lad turned good. That said, these favours caused much resentment and jealousy elsewhere in the English church. Disputes just seemed to follow Adrian’s every move!


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