Feature: In the footsteps of the English Pope

Hertfordshire has played its part in papal affairs. Back in the 12th century, a young boy from Abbots Langley, called Nicholas, lived on a farm like many of his peers. Little did he know that as a result of unforeseen disappointments and his own strength of character, he would be the only Englishman to become a Pope.

This September marks the 850th anniversary of Nicholas Breakspear’s death.

Nicholas was born in the early 1100s. His father worked at nearby St Albans Benedictine Abbey,  so Nicholas was allowed to attend school there. He wanted to become a priest but ironically was refused by the Abbott, Paul of Caen, who didn’t consider him able enough!

With his strong spirit, Nicholas collected, or perhaps even begged,  enough money to get him to Arles, France where he continued his education. From there, Nicholas, who was a great observer of discipline, joined the Augustinian Monastery of St Rufus,  near Avignon. He successfully became elected as their prior, then Abbot.

However, Nicholas, a disciplinarian, wanted the monks to strictly adhere to the rule of the monastery. This was resented by the monks, who consequently complained to Pope Eugenius III. The Pope sensed that Satan might have a hand in all this and summoned Nicholas to the Vatican as he felt Nicholas was capable of greater things. Nicholas became Cardinal Bishop of Albano, near Rome. He was eventually sent to war-torn Scandinavia to organize the church. ‘The Apostle of the North’ did this successfully and was welcomed back to Rome with great honour and respect.

On 5 December 1154, Nicholas Breakspear was elected Pope Adrian IV. Unfortunately, he was disliked by the people of Rome but worse still, he got into dispute with the King of Sicily and Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick wanted to become Emperor of Italy but was angered by Pope Adrian for making peace with the King of Sicily.  Furthermore, as Frederick  intended to assume the government of Rome, Pope Adrian wanted to excommunicate him.  Pope Adrian died suddenly before this sentence was passed. The real cause of his death is still in question. It is not known whether he died of Quinsy (abscess on tonsils) or if he was poisoned.

Nicholas Breakspear (Pope Adrian IV) was buried in the Grotto of the Vatican basilica, beside Pope Eugenius III tomb. Eight years later his body was transferred to the crypt. In 1925 a marble plaque, with the inscription Hadrianus Papa IV, was placed on his tomb.

Hertfordshire has many places and roads named after Nicholas Breakspear, among them Popes Road, Breakspear Way and Adrian Road.  The Nicholas Breakspear Catholic College, St Albans has a mission statement:  ‘Everything we say and everything we do should be based on the Gospel values of Truth, Justice, Peace and Love.’ It is said that they have an excellent Catholic ethos and Religious Education department so maybe there is another English Pope might be in the making…..

Share this story