Innocent III

views updated May 29 2018

Innocent III

c. 1160
Anagni, Italy

June 16, 1216
Perugia, Italy


"I have convoke a general council, by means of which evils may be uprooted...morals reformed, heresies wiped out, the Faith strengthened princes and people won to the cause of aiding the Holy Land..."

—Pope Innocent III, calling for the Fifth Crusade at the Lateran Council in 1215; quoted at

The most powerful of the medieval popes (leaders of the Catholic Church), Innocent III was a strong and talented administrator who brought the church to the zenith, or highest point, of its political power. Using the threat of excommunication (expulsion from the church) for princes, kings, and even entire countries, Innocent III put his papacy, or office, above that of political rulers of the time, including the kings of England and France as well as the German emperor. He called for the Fourth Crusade (1202–04), and though the Crusader armies eventually were beyond his control once they left Europe, Innocent III kept a grip on the religious and political affairs inside Europe for the eighteen years of his papacy, which stretched from 1198 to his death in 1216. The year before his death he called the Fourth Lateran Council, the most important church meeting of the Middle Ages, in which he demanded church reform and a new Crusade, or holy war, against the Muslims (believers in the Islamic religion) in the Holy Land of Jerusalem and Palestine. He did not live to see that fifth installment of the long-standing war between Christianity and Islam.

A Noble Background

Like many popes, Innocent III came from an old aristocratic (noble) family. Born Lothario de Segni, he was descended from the Trasimunds, one of the four oldest noble families in Italy, and was educated at the best universities of the day in Paris and in the Italian city of Bologna. There he studied civil (for ordinary citizens) and canon (religious) law. As a youth he was deeply impressed by the martyrdom (death for a cause, usually religious in nature), of the English religious leader Thomas Becket (1118–1170), who was murdered by agents of the king of England. Lothario de Segni had not only aristocratic roots but also excellent connections within the church. His uncle was Clement III, who served as pope from 1187 to 1191. Thanks to his uncle's influence, Lothario rose quickly through the church ranks, becoming a deacon, a rank just below a priest, when he was twenty-seven, and a cardinal, a leading official of the Catholic Church, at the age of thirty.

This rapid rise stopped with his uncle's death in 1191. The new pope, Celestine III, was a rival, and Lothario made no progress in the church for the next seven years. He continued to study law and began to be known for his legal writings. When Celestine III died in 1198, it was Lothario's turn. At the young age of thirty-seven he was selected by the cardinals in Rome to be the next pope, taking the name Innocent III. This election came as a complete surprise to Lothario, since his confirmation as a priest in the church had not yet been completed.

Innocent III Sees the Papacy as a Powerful Office

From the beginning of his rule, it was clear that Innocent III felt that the pope should play the most important part not only in church-related matters, or religious life, but also in temporal, or nonreligious, matters. He followed up the reforms that an earlier pope, Gregory VII (1020–1085), had started. These reforms were intended to affect not only the church itself but also its relations with kings and princes. For Innocent III all power came from God. The pope was God's messenger on earth. Therefore, the pope's power was stronger than that of any king or emperor. Innocent III called himself the "Vicar [religious representative] of Christ." The medieval papacy did not have much of an army, so Innocent could not hope to use force to keep the nobles of Europe in line. Instead, he used three powerful weapons: excommunication—the removal of the rights and advantages of the church—for an individual; interdict, or the stopping of all religious activities in a country; and the placing of canon law above civil law, thus limiting a king's power in his own kingdom.

Innocent III used these tools to help establish the church's dominance over the major political rivals of the day. He threw his weight behind one of the contenders (competitors) for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which basically included the German lands of Europe, and finally had his favorite, Frederick II (see entry), placed on the throne. When King John of England (1167–1216) tried to name the next archbishop of Canterbury, the highest church office in his land, Innocent III told him that this was the pope's job, not his. When John went ahead anyway, the pope declared an interdict on the country of England and excommunicated John. After several years of closed churches, the religious citizens of England demanded that their king give in to the pope so that they could go to church again and save their souls. Innocent III handled the king of France, Philip Augustus (1165–1223), in much the same way. When the king wanted to give up his legal wife and take a mistress (lover), the pope placed an interdict on all of France, forcing Philip to submit to the rule of the church.

Innocent III Calls for a Crusade

One of the new pope's first acts following his election was to call for a Crusade, a holy war to rid the lands of Palestine and Jerusalem of Muslims. There had already been three such Crusades by this time; the First Crusade (1095–99) was the only successful one. At that time the knights, or Christian soldiers, had taken Jerusalem back from the mostly Turkish Islamic forces then occupying the city and had set up Crusader states in the region under the control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, Muslim forces regrouped during the next century—guided by such powerful leaders as Kengi, who died in 1146; Nur al-Din, who died in 1174; and Saladin (see entry), who lived from 1137 to 1193—and ultimately took Jerusalem back in 1187. Two more Crusades failed to stop the Muslim advance. Now the Crusader states were pushed into a narrow strip along the eastern Mediterranean coast in the present-day lands of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

Innocent III wanted to retake Jerusalem and thereby demonstrate the power of the church. He began by calling for a new Crusade as early as 1198. In this call to arms the pope made himself the leader of the new holy war, promising to forgive the sins and debts of all those who took part in the military adventure. To get the kings of England and France to stop fighting each other was a difficult job. In 1199 a truce (peace agreement) was called between those two warring kingdoms; this was the same year Innocent III said that the Crusaders should leave for the Holy Land, but nobody went. Innocent III got help from many preachers, who reached out to the faithful and preached a new Crusade; by the end of 1199 men began to volunteer. It was Innocent III's plan that the Crusaders would gather in the Italian port of Venice and then sail to the Holy Land. However, once the Venetians were involved, Innocent III lost control of the Crusade.

The French made a deal with the Venetians to transport more than thirty thousand Crusaders, but only a third of them showed up. The Venetians said a deal was a deal, however, and asked for the full price to carry the Crusaders. Finally, a new bargain was struck. Now Venice would share in the profits of this holy war. They talked the Crusaders into helping them defeat the residents of the city of Zara, on the Dalmatian (Yugoslavian) coast. This city, which had a large trading empire in the Mediterranean Sea, was causing Venice problems. Against the wishes of the pope, in late 1202 the Crusaders attacked and defeated the Christian city of Zara in order to help pay off their debt to the Venetians.

The Crusaders also decided that they should take over the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, as it was then called. Centered at Constantinople, this eastern empire consisted of present-day Greece, the Balkans, and Turkey and was led by the Eastern Orthodox Church, a Christian rival to the Catholic Church of Europe. Other Crusades had set off from Constantinople, which was considered a friend and ally in the fight against the "infidels," or nonbelievers. However, this alliance had weakened over the years. The Latins, as the Byzantines called the European Christians, were not to be trusted. The Europeans felt the same way about the Greeks, as the Crusaders called the people of Byzantium. A plan developed in which the Fourth Crusade would actually take over the city of Constantinople and, using Byzantium's riches to finance the war effort, go on to the Holy Land and conquer Jerusalem.

When the pope heard of this plan, he again wrote to the Crusaders, ordering them not to attack a Christian empire. Once again the Crusaders ignored him. In April 1204 they stormed the city, stealing the wealth collected by the empire over nearly a thousand years and destroying many of the buildings. It was the worst defeat Constantinople had ever suffered, and the city never recovered from it. The sacking (destruction) of the city made the Venetians rich, for they claimed almost half of the loot. However, this "victory" did little to advance the Fourth Crusade. The Crusaders were stuck in Constantinople for decades, trying to maintain their power and fighting for their very survival. The forces of the Fourth Crusade got no farther than Constantinople, and the Crusade ended in failure.

This, however, did not kill the Crusader spirit in Europe. Innocent III next declared a Crusade against heretics, or Christians who practiced religion in ways not permitted by the church. The heretics in question were a French sect (religious group) called the Albigensians. Their belief in an active Satan got them into trouble with Rome, and Innocent III sent two large armies to the region to defeat their strongholds. This action against heretics was the beginning of Innocent III's formation of the Inquisition, or tribunals and courts that would investigate and determine the guilt or innocence of accused heretics. During his rule Innocent III also approved two new groups of friars, or roving priests, the Franciscans and

Two Churches

The writer Mark Twain once jokingly described England and the United States as two countries separated by the same language. A similar statement can be made for the two early branches of Christianity. The western, or Roman Catholic Church, based in Rome, and its eastern partner, the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had its base in Constantinople, are two faiths separated by the same religion. The differences that divided these two branches of the Christian religion were partly political and partly religious. When Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantion—or Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), as it came to be called in the fourth century—he was one step ahead of the defeat of that empire in Europe by warring tribes from the north. He took with him the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and set up a new home for it in Constantinople.

While Christianity merely survived during the Middle Ages in Europe, the faith blossomed in Byzantium, with differences growing between the two branches. The first of these differences was language. In the West, Latin was the language of the church. But in the East, most of the faithful spoke Greek, which became the primary language. In the East the priests (ministers of the faith) were allowed to marry, but in the Catholic Church marriage was (and still is) forbidden for priests. In Europe the leader of the church was called the pope, but the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church was called a patriarch—and there were several rather than just one. Many other differences, both large and small, separated the two religions.

In 1054 this schism (division) between the two religions became even greater when the patriarch of Constantinople was excommunicated over an argument about control of Latin, or European, churches in Constantinople. Then came the Crusades. The next two centuries witnessed a series of wars between Christianity and Islam over control of the Holy Land. The First Crusade was called in 1095 in order to protect the Byzantine Empire from the Muslim forces of the invading Seljuk Turks—or so claimed Urban II (see entry), the pope at the time. Actually, this pope hoped to repair the damage between the two faiths and perhaps also to gain more influence over Constantinople. Relations were never perfect between the Christian Crusaders and their Byzantine allies, but it was not until the Fourth Crusade that the schism was made permanent. When the Crusaders, drunk and disorderly, sacked Constantinople in 1204, it was the final blow to relations between the two main branches of Christianity. Where earlier the competition between the two religions had been among church leaders, now the hatred trickled down to the masses, the ordinary people. The schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church remains today.

Dominicans, who would work toward ridding the church of heretics. In later centuries these policies led to the awful extremes of the Inquisition in Spain, where supposed heretics were tortured in order to gain a confession.

One of Innocent III's last achievements was the Fourth Lateran Council, a huge meeting consisting of church officials from both East and West, as well as kings and emperors. Here Innocent III called for still another Crusade and also discussed reforms in the church. These reforms included the abolition (outlawing) of simony, which is the practice of charging a price for religious services such as baptism and the mass, as well as selling religious positions or offices to the highest bidder. Simony is now considered a serious sin and can result in excommunication. Innocent III also proposed a change in the frequency of confession, in which believers admit their sins to a priest and ask for forgiveness. Although Innocent III decided that the faithful should do this every year, later centuries made this a weekly practice.

Numerous other reforms were agreed to at this conference, but the unexpected death of Innocent III in 1216 cut his rule short. Following his death, many of these reforms were not put into effect. If they had been, the later history of the church might have been quite different, and corrupt (dishonest) practices that hurt the church might have been prevented. One thing is certain: never again would the Catholic Church enjoy the power it had during Innocent III's rule. Symbolic of that lost influence is the fact that while waiting for burial, the pope's corpse, which was not well guarded, is said to have been stripped of its fancy clothes and jewels and left half naked. More respected than loved, Innocent III took his power with him to the grave.

For More Information


Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Elliott-Binns, L. Innocent III. London: Methuen, 1979.

"Innocent, III." In Historic World Leaders. Europe: A–K. Edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1994.

Martin, Malachi. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church. New York: Putnam, 1981.

Powell, James, ed. Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1994.

Queller, Donald, and Thomas Madden. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977.

Smith, Charles Edward. Innocent III, Church Defender. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Web Sites

"The Fourth Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Innocent III." Medieval Church. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Innocent III: Summons to a Crusade, 1215." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Pope Innocent III." New Advent. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Pope Innocent III (1198–1216)." Our Glorious Popes. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

Innocent III

views updated Jun 11 2018


INNOCENT III (Lothar of Segni, 1160?1216) was a pope of the Roman Catholic church (11981216). Innocent was the son of Trasimund of Segni, a count of Campagna, and Clarissa Scotti, daughter of a distinguished Roman family. He was educated first in Rome, possibly at the Schola Cantorum; then in Paris, where he studied theology; and finally in Bologna, where he probably studied law for a short time. Clement III elevated him to the cardinal diaconate of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in 1190. Before becoming pope, Innocent was active in the Curia Romana and took part in a number of legal cases as an auditor. As cardinal, he wrote three theological tracts, De miseria humane conditionis (Misery of the human condition), De missarum misteriis (Mysteries of the Mass), and De quadripartita specie nuptiarum (Four typologies of marriage), in addition to sermons. De missarum misteriis and De miseria humane conditionis enjoyed enormous popularity until the sixteenth century. Innocent was not a profound theological thinker. His thought was derivative and conventional, even a little old-fashioned.

When Innocent became pope in January 1198, the political situation in Italy and the German empire was very unstable. Emperor Henry VI had died in 1197 after subjecting most of the Italian peninsula to imperial authority. He left a young son, the future Frederick II, and two rival claimants for the imperial throne, his brother, Philip of Hohenstaufen, and Otto of Brunswick. Innocent skillfully extracted promises from both candidates that they would respect the integrity of the papal states. He regained control over the city of Rome and gradually reasserted papal hegemony over the Patrimony of Saint Peter. Although he eventually turned to Henry VI's young son Frederick in 1212, Innocent used the rivalry of Philip and Otto to establish the pope's right to judge a disputed imperial election in an important decretal, Venerabilem. He also indicated the importance of imperial affairs for the church by entering many letters, papal and secular, in a special register, the Regestum super negotio imperii.

Lack of imperial leadership during his pontificate permitted Innocent to strengthen papal prerogatives outside the papal states and inside the church. He received the kingdom of Sicily as a fief and was regent to young Frederick. In the Roman church he reorganized the Curia and managed the complex administrative and judicial affairs with consummate skill. He developed a new vision of papal monarchy, using earlier traditions, but with a powerful change of emphasis. An ingenious biblical exegete who cleverly used the Bible to support his vision of papal monarchy, he exalted the pope and his authority within the church as no earlier pope had done, and also attempted to mediate the affairs of secular rulers. He extolled the pope's status as Vicar of Christ, placing him above man but below God. The pope exercised divine authority granted by Christ only to him and held fullness of power (plenitudo potestatis ) within the church.

Innocent formulated most of his ideas about ecclesiastical government early in his pontificate. His theories had practical consequences of strengthening the judicial hierarchy of the church, underlining the pope's position of supreme judge, and, at the same time, fundamentally destroying the last vestiges of the decentralized church of the early Middle Ages. He demanded the subordination of the bishops to the pope and insisted that all episcopal translations, resignations, and depositions fall entirely under papal jurisdiction. His anonymous biographer and other chroniclers drew a picture of a pope with enormous capacity and skill in judicial affairs, who frequently participated in the cases before the papal court and enjoyed the exercise of authority.

During Innocent's pontificate, law became a central concern of ecclesiastical government. He authenticated a collection of his decisions and sent them to the law school in Bologna in 12091210. This collection, the first officially promulgated code of canon law, signaled Innocent's awareness that the papacy was an institution with many of the same concerns as secular states. He heard appeals from all parts of Christendom, issued rulings on disputed points of law, and established a professional cadre of trained men in Rome to carry out his policies.


Innocent called for a new, papally led crusade in August 1198 and imposed a special tax on the clergy to support it. Although the Fourth Crusade (12021204) lacked strong leadership and sufficient money, Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, was successfully assaulted in 1204. Innocent hoped that the conquest of Constantinople would result in the reunification of the Latin and Greek churches, but his hopes were in vain.

In 1218 he summoned another crusade, for which he made final arrangements at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Although he died before the Fifth Crusade (12171221) departed, it bore his imprint. Financed by the church and directed by the papacy, this crusade was a more sophisticated attempt to elaborate the policies Innocent had conceived in 1198. It was the last attempt of the papacy to organize a crusade without strong secular leadership.

Innocent also turned his attention to the proliferation of heretics, especially in the papal states. In 1199 he issued Vergentis, which decreed that condemned heretics should be dispossessed of their lands because heresy is treason. In effect, he defined the church as a state that the heretics had betrayed. This new conception of heresy led to his calling a crusade against the heretics of southern France, the Albigensian crusade (12081229). An army was gathered together under the leadership of a papal legate, Arnold Amalric, and at a heavy cost in lives the crusade was successful in extirpating heresy in Languedoc.

Pastoral Care and Reform

Innocent exalted the authority of the pope but also had a profound understanding of his pastoral duties. His ability to balance power and solicitude marks him as the greatest pope of the Middle Ages. In November 1215, some 412 bishops convened in Rome to take part in the Fourth Lateran Council. The council's seventy-one canons reflect Innocent's concerns. Heresy and the crusade were important items on the agendacanon 8 established the foundations for the Inquisitionbut the canons covered a wide range of other topics. Canon 18 forbade the participation of clerics in ordeals, which necessitated changes of judicial procedure in secular courts; canon 21 dictated that all Christians should confess their sins and receive Communion once a year; canon 50 changed the limits of consanguinity and affinity for marriage from seven to four degrees. Innocent also promulgated a number of canons regulating the lives of the clergy and the administration of churches.

The Fourth Lateran Council was the most important general council of the Middle Ages and provided a fitting end to Innocent's pontificate. Its canons are a measure of Innocent's strengths and serve as a guidepost for his policies. Innocent may have, in the words of the thirteenth-century Franciscan Salimbene, involved the church too much in worldly affairs, but he was a militant pastor and a great monarch.


Ernest F. Jacob's chapter on Innocent in the Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 6, edited by J. R. Tanner et al. (1929; reprint, Cambridge, U.K., 1957), pp. 143, though dated, is still readable and full of insights. For a longer treatment, Helene Tillmann's Pope Innocent III (1954), translated by Walter Sax from the German (New York, 1980), is sympathetic but not uncritical, and sprinkled with keen observations. Christopher R. Cheney's Pope Innocent III and England, "Päpste und Papsttum," vol. 9 (Stuttgart, 1976), is a brilliant study, the sum of a lifetime's work, and broader than its title might indicate. Three German scholars have recently discussed Innocent's thought and policies: Helmut Roscher's Papst Innocenz III. und die Kreuzzüge (Göttingen, 1969) examines all aspects of Innocent's crusades; Manfred Laufs's Politik und Recht bei Innocenz III. (Cologne, 1980) describes the dispute between Philip of Hohenstaufen and Otto of Brunswick, and Innocent's handling of this complex problem; Wilhelm Imkamp's Das Kirchenbild Innocenz' III., 11981216, "Päpste und Papsttum," vol. 22 (Stuttgart, 1983), explores the theological basis of Innocent's ecclesiology. Brian Tierney gives a masterful analysis of Innocent's ideas on the relationship of church and state in "'Tria quippe distinquit iudicia.': A Note on Innocent III's Decretal Per venerabilem," Speculum 37 (1962): 4859. Innocent's vision of papal monarchy is studied in my book Pope and Bishops: The Papal Monarchy in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Philadelphia, 1984). Editions of Innocent's works cited at the beginning of the article can be found in Cheney and Imkamp.

Kenneth Pennington (1987)

Innocent III

views updated May 23 2018

Innocent III

Born c. 1161

Died 1216

Italian pope

T he papacy, or office of the pope, reached its peak during the reign of Innocent III, who held the position from 1198 to 1216. A ruthless negotiator and an expert manipulator of men, he was a politician who outwitted some of the greatest strategic minds on the European continent. Yet it would be a mistake to view him merely as power-hungry or politically ambitious; Innocent was also a man of sincere religious beliefs whose passion for what he believed was right actually contributed to some of the worst excesses of his rule.

The church had come a long way since St. Benedict (see box) led his monks to new standards of discipline more than six centuries before. Nor was the pope's role under the same threats faced by Urban II (see box) a century before Innocent. Urban had declared war on religious enemies overseas; Innocent's launch of the Albigensian Crusade proved that the church could deal even more severely with perceived enemies at home.

A pope before he was a priest

It would be ironic indeed if this most un-innocent of men had been given that name at birth, but in fact he was born Lothario de Segni (SAYN-yee). Like many another pope, he came from an Italian noble family and received the finest education available at what were then Europe's two greatest universities, in Paris and Bologna (buh-LOHN-yuh), Italy.

Benedict of Nursia

Innocent represented the church at the height of its wealth and earthly power, whereas St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–547) symbolized an entirely different side of the church. Benedict's focus was exactly the opposite of Innocent's, and if he had been offered wealth and power, he would likely have shunned it. Though there had been monks before Benedict, it was his achievement to give order and discipline to the monastic movement.

According to his biographer, Pope Gregory I (see entry), Benedict was a serious young man from the beginning, and as a teenager shied away from the wickedness he saw in Rome. He resolved to live a life of solitude in a cave, where a kindly old monk helped him by bringing him bread and water every day. Nonetheless, Gregory assured his readers, Satan came many times to tempt Benedict, at one point assuming the form of a beautiful young woman. Benedict mastered his lust by flinging himself into a patch of briars and thorns.

After he had spent three years as a hermit, Benedict was approached by a group of monks who wanted him to teach them discipline. Benedict agreed to be their master, but warned them that he would be a stern leader. They must not have believed him, because they accepted his leadership and then became so disillusioned with his severity that they tried to poison him. Disgusted, Benedict went back to his cave.

Eventually, however, so many followers gathered around him that Benedict decided he would have to establish a monastery. He chose Monte Cassino, formerly

the site of a temple honoring the god Apollo. Later his sister Scholastica established a convent, a place for nuns, at Monte Cassino.

Benedict died in 547, but the Benedictine Rule—that is, the system of life he had established for his monastery—long outlasted him. During his time, monks had tended to apply a variety of systems, some even more severe than Benedict's. Benedict discouraged his followers from going to the kind of extraordinary measures taken by lone figures such as Simeon Stylites (see box in Augustine entry). Other monastic systems emphasized the relationship between the monks and their leader, whereas Benedict's placed its emphasis on the relationship between monks. As pope, Gregory I heartily approved of the Benedictine Rule; and by the 800s, it became the prevailing monastic system in Western Europe.

It was one of the many curious facts of Innocent's career that he had not even been ordained, or formally appointed, as a priest when he became pope at age thirty-seven. He had reached the position of deacon, an office in the church below that of priest, when he was twenty-seven. Three years later, thanks in large part to a good relationship he had cultivated with Pope Clement III (ruled 1187–91), he was promoted to cardinal, the highest position short of pope.

Cardinals took part in the elections of popes, and Lothario's colleagues voted him to the church's highest position upon the death of Celestine III in 1198. He then chose the name of Innocent, and six weeks after his election was hastily ordained as a priest.

Ruler of kings

Innocent was the first pope to refer to his office as the "Vicar of Christ"—a title, meaning that the pope was Christ's direct representative on Earth, that all subsequent popes have used. It was just one of the many extravagant claims Innocent made for the papacy.

Innocent believed that the popes, "seated on the throne of dignity … judge in justice even the kings themselves." He participated in a seemingly endless series of intrigues with political leaders of Europe, promoting the career of Frederick II (see Holy Roman Emperors entry) as Holy Roman emperor and tangling with King John of England (see box in Eleanor of Aquitaine entry).

Urban II

Urban II, most noted for starting the First Crusade in 1095, assumed the position of pope a few years after GregoryVII. While Gregory had been perhaps the most important pope of the Middle Ages, his troubles with Emperor Henry IV (see dual entry with Gregory VII)—troubles Urban inherited—had left Rome a heap of smoking rubble. Therefore Urban wisely chose to stay away from the city, home of the papacy, and spend much of his time as pope traveling through Catholic realms.

Gregory had come from poverty, but Urban, born Odo in France, came from nobility. Perhaps his noble upbringing, and the fact that he had not had to fight for everything in life, taught him to be a bit more accommodating toward rivals: unlike Gregory, he knew when to give in, and often made concessions to powerful French leaders.

Urban was the first pope to model the papal government on that of a European monarchy; thenceforth, and up to the present day, the center of papal power would resemble a royal court in function. Heavily influenced by the monastic system at Cluny, where as a young man he had developed a passion for reform, he set about changing the church's finances. Also, like popes before and since, he became heavily involved with European political affairs.

He arranged a marriage between two supporters, Matilda of Tuscany (see box in Gregory VII and Henry IV entry) and Count Welf of Bavaria; and though the marriage ended badly when Welf learned that Matilda intended to leave her inheritance to the church and not to him, Urban was able to use both of them against his archenemy, Henry IV. In contrast to Henry, there were a number of European leaders who accepted Urban's leadership unquestioningly: not only Matilda, but Henry's son Conrad, a number of Norman rulers, and the kings of Spain.

The latter were engaged in a war to take their land from the Muslims, a war from which El Cid (see entry) was to emerge the most noted hero. Perhaps it was from this conflict that Urban first hatched the idea of the Crusades. Whatever the case, when Byzantium's Alexis I Comnenus—father of Anna Comnena (see Historians entry)—sent him a request for a few troops to help battle the Turks, Urban began to conceive of a vast "holy war" to seize Palestine from Muslim hands.

Urban announced the idea at the Council of Clermont in France in 1095, where he made a stirring and memorable speech. This would ultimately lead to some two centuries of fighting, but none of the Crusades was destined to be as successful (from the viewpoint of the Europeans, that is) as the first. It ended in 1098 with the capture of Jerusalem and three other "crusader states" in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

Ironically, Urban died two weeks before Jerusalem's capture. He had lived to see his old foe Henry punished, however, by being denied participation in the crusade.

Angered by John's refusal to pay him what he considered his fair share of England's finances, Innocent placed England under what was called the interdict in 1208. For six years, until John relented, all religious services in the country were forbidden. Later Innocent did the same thing to the powerful King Philip II Augustus of France. Thus he proved that although he did not command armies as large as those of Europe's monarchs, he still ruled their people's hearts and minds, and could undermine a king whenever he chose.

Reforms of church law

Having been a student of law at the University of Bologna, Innocent set out to reform the laws of the church. Those laws, he maintained, should govern the actions of church leaders throughout Christendom, and secular laws should hold secondary importance. Within the church, he undertook a campaign against simony, or the buying and selling of church offices, and reintroduced discipline to monasteries that had become too relaxed in recent years.

One of the most important aspects of Innocent's role as lawgiver was his convening of the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215. Among the many concepts established at this highly important meeting of more than a thousand church officials was the idea that Catholics should go to confession at least once a year. Formerly church members had believed that they should make confession—that is, tell a priest about their sins—just once in a lifetime; within three centuries of Innocent's time, confession was a once-a-week event.

Two uncontrollable crusades

By the time of Innocent's rule, Europeans had engaged in a century of crusades intended to take control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Except for the First Crusade, they were a disaster, and perhaps none were worse than the two that occurred under Innocent's leadership: the Fourth Crusade (1202–4) and the Children's Crusade. The latter was an absolutely miserable affair, whose participants mostly ended up captured and sold as slaves; and the former ended with the takeover of Constantinople and part of the Byzantine Empire by greedy knights representing business interests in Venice.

Actually, the two crusades were not really Innocent's fault. Though he can be blamed for starting the Fourth Crusade, he intended for it to result in the capture of Jerusalem, not Christian Constantinople, and he heartily disapproved of the so-called crusaders' actions. The fact that the Fourth Crusade went as it did, and that the Children's Crusade even occurred, illustrated the limits even of Innocent's power.

The attack on the Cathars

There were other crusades, however, over which Innocent seemed to be perfectly in control. Most notable was the Albigensian Crusade (al-buh-JIN-see-un; 1208–29), an attack on the Cathars, a sect in southern France that taught that the physical world was evil. Because God had also created the physical world, the church judged this belief heretical, or something that went against established teachings.

The Albigensian Crusade would later lead to the Inquisition, a wholesale attempt to root out heresy under Pope Gregory IX in 1231. A positive side effect of the crusade, however, was the introduction of mendicant groups of friars— preachers and teachers who survived by begging alms—under St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic (see St. Francis of Assisi entry and box). The Franciscans reached out with compassion to the poor, and the Dominicans tried to reason with unbelievers. Both represented the gentler side of the church, quite unlike the murder and mayhem sweeping southern France as part of Innocent's crusade.

Most powerful man in Europe

Another outgrowth of the Albigensian Crusade, a "holy war" that outlasted Innocent by many years, was the strengthening of the French royal house. By seizing lands belonging to noblemen in southern France, the church aided the kings of France, who would in turn try to assert their power over the popes. This led to a clash between King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII (see box in Gregory I entry), a con

flict Boniface was destined to lose. Six years later, the French king would move the papal seat from Rome to the city of Avignon in southern France.

That conflict, however, still lay far in the future when Innocent died of malaria in May 1216. As he breathed his last, the papacy was secure in its absolute power over all of Western Europe. Yet, almost as a sign of things to come, robbers broke into the place where Innocent's body was prepared for burial, and on the night before the funeral stripped him of his clothes and jewels. The next day the corpse was found, half-naked, and the man who had briefly held the most powerful position in Europe was laid to rest.

For More Information


Binns, L. Elliott. Innocent III. London: Methuen, 1968.

McDonald, Father Stephen James. Bible History with a History of the Church. New York: Row, Peterson and Company, 1940.

Rice, Edward. A Young People's Pictorial History of the Church. Text adapted by Blanche Jennings Thompson. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963.

Web Sites

"The Abbey of Montecassino: Life of St. Benedict." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Brusher, the Rev. Joseph, S. J. "Popes through the Ages." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Catholic Encyclopedia: List of Popes." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Chronology of Popes." Information Please. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"The 11th to the 13th Centuries: Innocent III and the Great Schism." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Saint Benedict of Nursia." Order of Saint Benedict. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Innocent III

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Innocent III

Innocent III (1160-1216), an Italian aristocrat, theologian, and canon lawyer, reigned as pope from 1198 to 1216. His pontificate has customarily been taken to mark the most splendid moment of the medieval papacy.

Born Lothar of Segni, the future pope was the son of Count Thrasimund of Segni. He studied theology at Paris and law at Bologna, the leading medieval centers of these studies, and at about the age of 30 had already attained the rank of cardinal deacon. He owed his elevation to the Sacred College to his uncle, Pope Clement III, but this could not obscure the fact that he was a man of outstanding ability and energy. Not even the temporary eclipse of his fortunes during the pontificate of Celestine III prevented the cardinals from turning to him in January 1198, when that aged and unsuccessful pontiff died. The years of eclipse, indeed, had enhanced rather than diminished Lothar's stature, because they were for him years of literary activity; out of them came the two conventional works which nonetheless attained considerable fame: De contempt mundi and De sacro altaris mysterio.

Lothar was chosen pope by his fellow cardinals less, it would seem, because they were impressed by the quality of his spirituality than because they saw in him a man of proven strength who could be relied upon to combat the rise of heresy, now for the first time in the Middle Ages a serious threat to the unity of the Church, and to restore the badly damaged political fortunes of the papacy in Italy and elsewhere. As a result, Innocent III expended a great deal of his energy on matters diplomatic and political. The greatest and most enduring achievements of his pontificate lay, nevertheless, in the realm of ecclesiastical government—in his contribution to the development of canon law, his promotion of administrative centralization in the Church, his imaginative encouragement of the Franciscans and Dominicans, and, above all, his convocation and direction of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

Conception of the Papacy

An unusually young man at the time of his election to the papacy, Innocent was small and dark and had a commanding presence, a driving dynamic personality, and notable rhetorical gifts which he exploited to the full in expounding and defending his conception of the papal office and responsibilities. It was a lofty conception, well exemplified by a text on which he chose to preach at his consecration: "See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jeremiah 1:10).

What this exalted conception meant for Innocent's dealings with the clerical hierarchy and the local churches of Christendom is clear enough. As pope, he was successor to Peter and vicar of Christ, with supreme authority in the Universal Church and the ultimate responsibility for the health of that Church. "Others," he said, "were called to a part of the care, but Peter alone assumed the plenitude of power." Hence his willingness to regard the jurisdictional powers of the bishops as deriving from his own fullness of power; hence, too, his vigorous and wide-ranging judicial activity, his extension of papal rights over episcopal appointments, and his frequent efforts to make the force of his authority felt in the national churches by means of cardinal legates endowed with the broadest of powers.

What Innocent's view of the papal office meant for his relations with temporal rulers is by no means as clear. The formulas in which he couched his claims were undoubtedly often extreme. To Peter was left "not only the Universal Church but the whole world to govern." The pope "set between God and man, lower than God but higher than man … judges all and is judged by no one." Innocent claimed, "Just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority."

On the basis of these and of similar theocratic utterances, some have concluded that Innocent was clearly laying direct claim to the supreme temporal as well as spiritual authority in Christendom, that it was his ambition, in fact, to be nothing less than "lord of the world." Others, however, have noted the disparity between the extremism of such theoretical claims and the caution and scrupulous attention to legality with which he proceeded when he actually did choose to intervene in matters pertaining to the jurisdiction of temporal rulers.

It is true that for Innocent the pope succeeded to the position of Christ, who, like Melchisedech, had been king as well as priest and, as a result, was in some sense possessed of a monarchical authority even in secular matters and over temporal rulers. However, he did not seek to absorb temporal structures of government into ecclesiastical, and he could often defend his intervention in temporal affairs as necessitated by his spiritual responsibilities. Furthermore, his policies in such matters were usually distinguished by a pragmatic rather than a doctrinaire quality.

Political Activity

Matrimonial affairs led to Innocent's intervention in the kingdoms of León, Argon, and France (although in the last case diplomatic considerations also played a role), and a disputed election to the archbishopric of Canterbury led him to intervene in English affairs. King John's refusal to accept Cardinal Stephen Langton, who had been elected to that see after Innocent had invalidated the earlier election, led in 1208 to the imposition of an interdict on England, in 1209 to the King's excommunication, and in 1212 to his deposition and a papal invitation to the French king to invade England. Under this last threat John finally capitulated, accepted Stephen Langton's election, and sought (successfully) to ensure papal support in the future by surrendering and receiving back the kingdoms of England and Ireland as papal fiefs.

In most of these cases Innocent could claim that the need to preserve ecclesiastical discipline dictated his policy, but he could hardly do so in the cases of Portugal, Aragon, and other kingdoms that also became his feudal fiefs. Here he was motivated presumably by the view that he had expressed at the start of his pontificate: "Ecclesiastical liberty is nowhere better cared for than where the Roman church has full power in both temporal and spiritual matters."

Certainly this belief influenced his vigorous efforts to reestablish papal hegemony at Rome and in the affiliated papal territories, where the German emperors Frederick I and Henry VI had done much to extend imperial control at the expense of the papacy. Thus he was able to transfer the feudal allegiance of the city perfect from the emperor to himself, to restore a considerable measure of papal control in the Romagna, and to establish some sort of papal administration for the first time in much of the territory bequeathed to the papacy a century earlier by Countess Matilda of Tuscany.

If Innocent's Italian policy met with a fair degree of success, it did so in part because of the confused conditions prevailing in the empire. Henry VI, already ruler of Germany and large parts of northern Italy, had acquired by marriage the old Norman kingdom of Sicily. His objective to make good his control of all these territories, including the Italian, threatened the papal freedom of action in the future. But Henry VI died 4 months before Innocent became pope, and his widow, Constance, died a few months after, leaving a 3-year-old son, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, under papal guardianship. Although Innocent took his duties as guardian with great seriousness and defended Frederick's rights as king of Sicily, it was clearly in the interest of the papacy permanently to sever the connection between Sicily and the empire. Accordingly, between the years 1198 and 1209, he sought to influence imperial politics by arbitrating between the rival claimants to the imperial succession: Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick, both of them adult relations of Henry VI.

Unable to enforce his claim to arbitrate and later disappointed in the attitude of his own candidate, Otto IV, whom he had crowned emperor after Philip's death, Innocent then compounded the woes of Germany by declaring Otto deposed and finally, in 1213, by throwing his support to the candidacy of Frederick of Hohenstaufen. In return, Frederick pledged not to reunite the German and Sicilian kingdoms, a pledge which he broke in the years after Innocent's death. At the battle of Bouvines in 1214 Frederick was able to make good his claim to be emperor.

Schism, Heresy, and the Crusade

Just as Innocent's imperial policy failed to achieve its ultimate goal, so did his attempts to recover the holy places in Palestine, to revivify the crusading movement, and to bring it once more under papal leadership. His efforts did indeed bring about the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), but the crusade escaped his control and was diverted into attacking the Christian city of Byzantium, culminating in its capture and the establishment for some decades of a Latin Eastern Empire. The resulting bitterness in the Eastern Orthodox Churches did much to perpetuate the schism between them and the Latin Church, which Innocent himself had longed to terminate.

Comparably questionable results attended Innocent's inauguration of a crusade against the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. Fought with great ferocity and benefiting primarily the northern French nobles and the French monarchy, it succeeded, indeed, in ending the aristocratic protection upon which the survival of the heresy had so largely depended, but it did so at the cost of degrading still further an already degraded crusading ideal.

Ecclesiastical Government

Innocent's sponsorship of the mendicant friars, who set an example of dedicated poverty and preached the Gospel to the poor and neglected, possibly did more to contain the growth of heresy than did his espousal of more violent methods. Here, as with his ecclesiastical government in general, a more positive judgment is appropriate.

He gave immense impetus to the development of canon law (his Compilation tertia, issued in 1210, was the first officially promulgated collection of papal laws) and displayed vigor and industry in supervising the administration of the local churches and the centralization of the Church in Rome. These things helped no doubt to spawn the excessive legalism and papal centralization of the later Middle Ages, but they also helped to retard the growth of royal and aristocratic control over the local and national clergy that also became a problem in the later Middle Ages.

Fourth Lateran Council

Regarded by Roman Catholics as an ecumenical council, preceded by 2 years of preparation, and assembled in November 1215 at the Lateran basilica, the Fourth Lateran Council was attended by over 400 bishops, twice as many abbots and priors, and representatives of many secular rulers. So constituted, it was perhaps the greatest of medieval assemblies. Its decrees began with a profession of faith, which, by defining the doctrine of transubstantiation, closed the long medieval dispute about the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist.

The Council then endeavored to establish the procedures to be followed in dealing with heresy, requiring all bishops in whose sees the presence of heresy was suspected to hold there an annual inquisition. Another decree, by requiring that all adults confess their sins at least once annually to their own parish priests, buttressed this attempt to establish the responsibility of the local clergy for the elimination of local heresy.

Of related importance were further decrees requiring bishops to ensure the adequate proclamation of the Gospel by appointing suitable priests as diocesan preachers and requiring that an adequately endowed position be set aside at all cathedral and metropolitan churches to support a master charged with the instruction of the diocesan clergy. This last provision was an important one at the time, given the absence of seminaries. Other decrees forbade the foundation of new religious orders; required episcopal supervision and visitation of existing monasteries; sought to eliminate practices by which ecclesiastical positions could become in fact if not in theory hereditary; tried to curtail the trade in relics and the spread of superstitions surrounding them; and attempted by a whole series of disciplinary and administrative regulations to eliminate existing corruptions, to prevent new ones, and to foster a general improvement in the quality of religious life. Of critical importance were those decrees which required the holding of annual provincial councils and which sought to withdraw the clergy from involvement in activities pertaining to secular government.

On July 16, 1216, not long after the close of the Council which was his greatest achievement and a fitting summation to a distinguished career, Innocent suddenly died. Had the reforming legislation of the Fourth Lateran Council been implemented in the years after Innocent's death, many of the corruptions which were to bring the later medieval clergy into disrepute would have been curtailed. Even so, the Council's decrees helped mold the life of the Church for centuries to come.

Further Reading

Some source materials on Innocent III are in Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England, 1198-1216, edited by C. R. Cheney and W. H. Semple (1953). For biographical studies see E. F. Jacob, "Innocent III," in J. B. Bury, ed., Cambridge Medieval History (8 vols., 1913-1936); L. Elliott-Binns, Innocent III (1931); and Charles Edward Smith, Innocent III: Church Defender (1951). For general background see Margaret Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1500 (1925; 3d ed. 1934); Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (1964); and Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (1968). □

Innocent III

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Innocent iii



Secular Interventions.

Innocent III was born Lothario de Segni to a noble family and was educated at Paris and Bologna. As a young cleric, he rose through the ranks of the papal service, becoming a cardinal in 1190 and being elevated to the papacy in 1198 upon the death of Celestine III. It is interesting to note that Innocent was not yet ordained a priest at the time of his election. His strength lay in his ability to intervene effectively in secular affairs, and it has been suggested that no pope in the entire medieval era had a greater impact on the period in which he lived. Innocent reduced the size of the papal curia (the court or administrative body), wresting it from the grasp of Italian secular politics. He also was able to restore papal territories that had been lost over time to the Holy Roman Empire. Interventions in several conflicts over disputed succession to the German throne were also among the accomplishments of Innocent. Examples of involvement in major European church and state politics include his interaction with the emerging kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula, the struggle for the conversion of eastern Europe to Christianity, and settlement of political disputes involving Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Above all, he sought to extend the powers of the bishop of Rome. Innocent was the first pope to employ the title "Vicar of Christ," which implies the ability to act as Christ's representative on earth. This is certainly a testament to the broad extent of his ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Major Achievements.

Another matter concerning spiritual and temporal powers which drew considerable attention during his reign was Innocent's intervention in the issue of the succession of the archbishop of Canterbury in England. After declaring the election of 1205 invalid, Innocent placed his own candidate, Stephen Langton, in office after overriding separate decisions about candidacies by both the local bishops and King John. John's failure to cooperate in the matter resulted in the entire kingdom of England being placed under an interdict which limited reception of the sacraments by all of the English people. Irreconcilable positions between crown and church resulted in the king's excommunication (just prior to his capitulation in 1211). After a series of political twists involving Innocent's revocation of Magna Carta, John finally took the position of accepting the pope as his overlord. Possibly the crowning achievement of Innocent's pontificate was the fact that he presided over the Lateran Council of 1215. This massive gathering of clergy made major reforms to the medieval church, possibly marking it as the most important council of the entire Middle Ages. Nearly every bishop from the Catholic territories, some 25 churchmen from the Latin East (including Maronite bishops), representatives of canons from every cathedral chapter, the heads of the major religious orders, as well as secular representatives of the major kingdoms attended. Literally thousands of participants were summoned to the council. Most of the seventy or so decrees that were drafted by Innocent and his curia were not debated, but presented to the church. The majority of these decrees (or canons) involved pastoral care and the reform of the clergy, including their careful education by the bishops. There were also several crusades during his tenure, including the failed Third Crusade and the successful campaign against the Albigensian (Cathar) heretics. Innocent's approval of the Franciscan and Dominican orders of friars proved to be of major significance to the growth of ministry and education for the church in the centuries to follow.


Brenda Bolton, Innocent III: Studies on Papal Authority and Pastoral Care (Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995).

John C. Moore, Pope Innocent III (1160/61–1216): To Root Up and to Plant (Leiden, Netherlands; Boston: Brill, 2003).

—, ed., Pope Innocent III and His World (Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999).

James Powell, ed., Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994).

Jane Sayers, Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1198–1216 (New York: Longman, 1994).

Innocent III

views updated Jun 27 2018

Innocent III (1161–1216). Pope from 8 Jan. 1198. Innocent's pontificate is often held to be the zenith of papal power, and certainly the pope's training as a lawyer made him much in demand as arbitrator or judge. In 1208 Innocent put England under an interdict, and four years later excommunicated John, absolved his subjects from their allegiance, and handed the kingdom to the king of France. John capitulated. He made England a fief of the papacy, after which Innocent supported John, even against Langton over the Magna Carta. Innocent gave approval to the Franciscan rule and summoned the fourth Lateran council, but he also launched the campaign against the Albigensians, and the disastrous fourth crusade.

Innocent III

views updated Jun 11 2018

Innocent III (1161–1216) Pope (1198–1216), b. Lotario di Segni. He stressed moderation; increased papal control over civil matters; and established the courts of Inquisition. During his papacy, transubstantiation became part of Communion dogma. He allowed the Franciscan and Dominican orders to form and backed the crusade against the Albigenses.