Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1159, died Pope Adrian IV.

Nicholas Breakspear, as was his original name, was the only Englishman to become pope.

Breakspear was the son of a priest, an unusual but not bizarre parentage in the days of an unmarried clergy. His father had joined the priesthood as soon as he had been widowed. Nicholas applied to join his father’s monastery but was turned down on the grounds of insufficient learning. Unperturbed by this refusal, Breakspear left for France where he became a monk in the cloister of St Rufus, near Arles, and progressed through the ranks of the friary being elected abbot in 1137.

As abbot, Breakspear infuriated the local rulers by his insistence of the church’s authority over temporal matters. The pope received a series of complaints and, being conscious of the need for the church to exert a measure of political control, appointed Breakspear a Cardinal. Breakspear’s assignment was to reorganise the hierarchy of Scandinavia, ensuring that there were sufficient bishops in place at important political centres. He was so successful in this mission that he received the plaudits of the pope and the College of Cardinals and when Pope Eugenius III died, Breakspear was elected pope as Adrian IV.

One of the factors, which influenced Adrian’s election, was the disorder within Rome and its dependencies.  Rome was subjugated by the anticlerical Arnold of Brescia and Southern Italy was dominated by a ruler known as ‘William the Bad’. Adrian’s solution was to make an alliance with Barbarossa, whom he crowned as Emperor Frederick I, in return for military favours against the papal enemies. Adrian infuriated the Romans and the Senate with his alliance to a Teutonic emperor. He was obliged to leave the city for his own safety, and take the extraordinary step of placing Rome under an interdict.

Adrian is said to have signed the Papal Bull Laudabiliter, granting the Lordship of Ireland to Henry II, although it is widely believed that the document was forged by Henry’s secretary. Adrian used his political skills to attempt a settlement between the Western and Eastern churches but died before any agreement could be reached.

There is a long-standing anecdote about another British occupant of the papal chair, the alleged Pope John VIII. It is said that John was in fact a woman, Joan, and that she disguised herself as a monk in order to meet her paramour, a genuine monk, and that she contrived her way to becoming a Cardinal and was elected Pope. This account has the subject matter for speculation and romantic literature. Pope Joan’s existence has been denied vehemently by legitimate raconteurs, denied more vehemently still by historians and denied more vehemently yet by the Catholic Church.

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