Innocent IV

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Innocent IV

Pope Innocent IV (c. 1185-1254), whose pontificate extended from June 25, 1243, to December 7, 1254, is chiefly remembered for his disputes with Emperor Frederick II and as the author of a commentary on the decretals of Pope Gregory IX.

Early Life

Born Sinibaldo dei Fieschi in Genoa, Italy, sometime between 1180 and 1190, Pope Innocent IV was a member of a powerful Italian noble family. Innocent IV's father, Hugh, the count of Lavagna, received the Fieschi name for his service to the emperor as controller of fiscal affairs. A nephew of Innocent IV would become Pope Adrian V in 1276.

Innocent studied law in Parma, where his uncle was a bishop. Innocent continued his studies in Bologna, and later references to him by Pope Honorius III suggest that he may have earned a law degree in that city. Innocent may also have taught in Bologna, but no definite evidence of that has been uncovered. Further speculation is that Innocent began work on the Decretals of Gregory IX while he was at Bologna.

In 1226 the future pope left school to become an auditor of the papal Curia. After Gregory IX became pope, Innocent was appointed vice-chancellor of the Roman church in 1227, and soon thereafter he became a cardinal. In 1234, Gregory appointed Innocent governor of the March, in the Papal States. But Innocent apparently remained in Rome during his governorship, because his signature appears on many papal letters from that time. In 1235 he was named Bishop of Albenga and legate of Northern Italy.

Elevated to Papacy

While Innocent was working in the Curia, relations between the emperor and the pope began to disintegrate. By 1238, Emperor Frederick II had begun claiming sovereignty over central Italy and even Rome. In response, the pope called a general council. Frederick seized two cardinals who were on their way to Rome to attend the council and held them captive on an island off the coast of Tuscany.

Pope Gregory IX died in 1241, and the College of Cardinals immediately convened to elect a new pope. But the new pope, Celestine IV, died after a reign of only fifteen days. Meanwhile, the two cardinals were still held prisoner by the emperor, and Frederick was excommunicated. The College of Cardinals could not agree on how to deal with the emperor, and the papacy remained vacant for nearly 18 months until June 1243, when the cardinals elected Innocent pope. On his elevation, Innocent took the name Innocent IV.

Prior to being elected pope, Innocent IV had been a friend of Frederick II, and the emperor sent messengers to Rome with congratulations and peace overtures. But Innocent refused to receive the messengers.

Negotiations with Frederick

Two months after his investiture, Innocent sent two legates to try to convince Frederick to release the two cardinals. He also asked his legates to find out what compensation Frederick was prepared to make for the harm he had caused the Church. If Frederick denied any wrongdoing, the legates were instructed to propose settling the matter before a council of kings, prelates, and secular princes. On March 31, 1244, Frederick promised to accede to most of the demands of the Curia, including restoration of the Papal States, release of the cardinals, and the granting of amnesty to allies of the pope. The apparent restoration of peace could not have been more timely—the Mongols were threatening Eastern Europe and in 1244 the Muslims captured Jerusalem.

But peace remained elusive. Frederick was slow to honor his promises, and he still refused to release the cardinals. He also secretly incited civil disorder in Rome. About the time that a formal signing of the negotiated treaty between Frederick and the Church was scheduled, Innocent, mistrusting his adversary, fled Italy.

Exile in Lyons

The pope initially traveled to Sutri, Italy, and then made his way in disguise over the mountains to Civiavecchia, where a fleet was waiting to take him to Genoa. By October 1244, he was in Burgundy, and by December he had reached Lyons, France.

Upon arriving in Lyons, Innocent called a general council, the 13th ecumenical, which was convened in 1245. Although Lyons was within Frederick's empire, the pope enjoyed the protection of the French king there, so was not threatened by Frederick. Lyons also was easily accessible to many prelates without risking capture by Frederick.

First Council of Lyons

At the opening of the general council on June 26, 1245, Innocent outlined his agenda, which far exceeded his concerns about Frederick. Besides his problems with the emperor, he also hoped to address problems with the clergy and difficulties with the Muslims. When the meeting opened, three patriarchs and about 150 bishops were in attendance. Also present was the Latin emperor of Constantinople. But many church leaders had been prevented from attending either by the invasions of the Tartars in the east, the Muslim incursions in Jerusalem, or intimidation by Frederick.

Innocent was particularly concerned with the Tartars, and he sent a papal envoy to the ruler of the Mongol empire. By this time, Innocent had ruled that the pope held authority over non-Christians and could punish them if they violated the laws of nature. Innocent also decreed that non-Christians were obligated to permit Christian missionaries to visit them. If they refused, Innocent believed that the pope could call for a war against them. Innocent's policy would influence future missionary endeavors by the Church for centuries to come.

Shortly before the Council at Lyons convened, Innocent once again excommunicated Frederick. During the council, he summoned Frederick to Lyons. The emperor did not show up, but instead sent his legate Thaddeus of Suessa. Although Thaddeus argued strongly in defense of Frederick, the council nevertheless ordered the emperor deposed, calling for the German princes to elect a new emperor. Some of the princes responded, and Henry Raspe, Landgrave of Thuringia, was elected emperor. When Frederick heard of his deposition, he reportedly placed a crown on his head and challenged the pope to knock it off.

But Henry died shortly thereafter, and the princes elected William, the Count of Holland, in his place. But most of the princes had abstained from voting and neither Henry nor William received wide recognition. They were too weak to challenge Frederick's son and ally, Conrad.

Innocent attempted to mount a crusade against Frederick, but his ally King Louis IX of France, the only monarch powerful enough to confront Frederick, was unwilling to sign up for such an undertaking. Instead, the French king attempted to mediate a settlement.

Last Acts

In 1248 Innocent renewed Frederick's excommunication. With Frederick's death at the end of 1250, Innocent was once again in a position to exert his authority in central Italy. Innocent set out for Rome from Lyons on April 19, 1251, arriving there in October 1253.

Following Frederick's death, Innocent campaigned for the deposition of his heirs. Innocent offered the crown of Sicily, which he controlled, to Richard of Cornwall and later to Charles of Anjou. But since Conrad's half brother Manfred still held power in Sicily, there were no takers. After Manfred submitted to the papacy, Innocent made his way into Naples in 1254. But Manfred revolted and defeated the papal army at Foggia.


Innocent's commentary on the Decretals of Gregory IX was cited by almost every jurist from his contemporaries to those of the seventeenth century. Innocent is also remembered for his commentary of the First Council of Lyon.

Following precedents set by Innocent III, Innocent IV extended papal authority in the church and over secular matters. Innocent IV held that the pope could chose between two imperial candidates, depose an emperor, and exercise imperial authority when the throne was empty. As noted, although he permitted non-Christian rulers to hold power, he held that those rulers must permit Christian missionaries to proselytize in their countries.

Innocent IV believed that since Christ had the power to depose emperors, the pope held the same authority as the vicar of Christ. Innocent IV attempted to exert his influence over several potentates besides Frederick. In England, he extended his protection to Henry III against the lay and church nobility. In Austria, he confirmed the son of King Wenzel as duke and later mediated between him and the king of Hungary. In Portugal, he appointed Alfonso III as administrator of the kingdom.

His continual fighting with Frederick led to the neglect of the internal affairs of the Church, thus Italy was left desolate. Taxation by the Church increased, which prompted loud complaints from the populace. Church abuses were overlooked as the pope remained preoccupied with his struggle with the emperor.

Innocent IV, severely ill with pleurisy, died in Naples on December 7, 1254, and was buried in a tomb at the Basilica of Santa Restituta in Naples.


Brecher, Joseph S., Popes Through the Ages, Neff-Kane, 1980.


"First Council of Lyons (1245)," Eternal Word Television Network, (February 2003).

Pennington, Kenneth, "Innocent IV, Pope," (February 2003).

"Pope Innocent IV," Catholic Forum, (February 2003).

"Pope Innocent IV," New Advent, (February 2003). □