Famous Medieval Popes

The medieval period in Europe was the time when Christianity became definitively established in the region and a well-organised Church with a Pope became Christianity’s most powerful temporal authority on Earth.

The Roman Catholic Church was based in Rome and had to face the many political, social and economic upheavals of the medieval period.

Successive Popes would sometimes side with powerful ruling elites of Europe, sometimes pit themselves against them and in some cases, force powerful monarchs to bow before them.

Papacy also saw disputes over the election of the Pope and more than once in the medieval period, multiple Popes were elected leading to internal feuds in the Church. Following are some of the most famous Popes of the era.

Pope Gregory I

Pope Gregory I was among the earliest Popes of the medieval era and one of the most influential. He ascended to Papacy in 590 and was originally associated with the monastic life. His monastic background was reflected in the reforms he undertook once he became Pope.

These included the foundation of a large number of monasteries, reforms to the style and content of the mass, charity measures for the sick and the poor, and the eradication of corrupt practices from amidst the ecclesiastical personalities.

The famous Gregorian chant which became the standard chant for nearly the entire Western Europe in time, is popularly associated with Gregory I. He died in 604 and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Pope Leo III

Pope Leo III ascended to Papacy in 795. This was a period when the Papacy in Rome had just wrested itself free of the Byzantine influence which had interfered with the Church for many centuries.

Leo III became Pope at a time when there was internal dissension in the Church and he was attached by his predecessor’s supporters in the streets of Rome.

Leo III most notable measure was to ally himself with the Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne.

Leo crowned Charlemagne as the Emperor in 800 and his move established the precedent that anyone seeking to gain the title of the Emperor would have to seek the Papacy’s consent. By forging alliance with a powerful political ally, Leo III also strengthened the Church.

Pope Nicholas I

Pope Nicholas I was one of the most influential Papal personalities of the medieval period. Unlike many of his predecessors who had squabbled over the top office of the Church for political and social gains, Nicholas sought to reestablish Papacy as the rightful leader of the Catholic Church. He ascended to the Papacy in 858 at a time when the might of the Carolingian Empire was on the decline.

During his reign as Pope, he frequently came in conflict with Emperor Lothair. Lothair wanted to have his marriage annulled to remarry but Nicholas effectively made this impossible by deposing all bribed ecclesiastical persons who sided with the Emperor.

The conflict with Lothair led to the siege of Rome where Nicholas was forced to come to terms with the Emperor. During his Papacy, he forced Church figures to bear themselves with more honesty and punished corrupt bishops by deposing them.

Pope Leo IX

Pope Leo IX assumed the Papal office in 1027 and launched an extensive series of reforms to prop up the Church’s moral authority reaching out of Rome to other parts of Europe as well.

Leo brought together a group of cardinals who were to serve him as advisers and became the precursor to the Sacred College of Cardinals that was established subsequently.

An important event of Leo’s Papacy was the break between the Eastern and the Western churches. The conflict began when Leo IX confronted Norman armies in southern Italy which traditionally fell within the domain of the Eastern Church.

This led to disagreements between the Papacy and the Patriarchate in Constantinople, resulting in the mutual excommunication of each other in 1054.

The schism definitely established the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as separate authorities with separate styles of liturgy and distinct differences in religious practices.

Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II ascended to the Papacy on 1088. He remained a monk and a prior before he became associated with Pope Gregory VII.

After Pope Gregory VII and his successor Victor II, Urban II was elected Pope and he vowed to continue the reforms Pope Gregory VII had begun.

These included the assertion of the Church as a political unit on its own against the might of the kings and Emperors in Europe, and the continued control of the Church over the appointment of bishops.

Apart from these reforms, the most remarkable step undertaken by Urban II during his Papacy was to launch the First Crusade against the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land.

Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenos had issued a call for help at the time and building on it, Urban II was successful in convincing a huge number of European knights and noblemen to head for the Holy Land and liberate it from Muslim invasion.

Pope Alexander III

Pope Alexander III assumed the Papal office in 1159. His reign as the Pope was marked by protracted political intrigues. Although he was elected Pope with the popular support of the cardinals, German imperial support went to anti-pope Victor IV who was succeeded by two further anti-popes.

During the reign of these three anti-popes, Alexander III position was unconfirmed although he was supported by many powerful kingdoms of Europe.

In time, after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was defeated, he agreed to accept Alexander III as Pope. Alexander III attended to strengthening the Church’s authority in regions east of the Baltic Sea.

Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocent III rose to Papacy in 1198 and within a few years, succeeded in placating the rival factions in Rome.

During his period in the Papal office, two major crusading campaigns were launched. One of these was the Fourth Crusade which ended up in Constantinople and the establishment of Latin states in the place of Byzantine Empire.

The second was the Albigensian crusade which Pope Innocent III launched and fiercely supported, resulting in the end of the Cathar heresy in southern France after the region was plundered by the northern barons.

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