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Pope Nicholas Breakspear: From farmhouse to Vatican

PUBLISHED: 14:05 24 July 2010 | UPDATED: 16:14 20 February 2013

Pope Hadrian IV

Pope Hadrian IV

Hertfordshire has played its part in papal affairs, as Maria Larmer discovers as she looks at the rise, and sudden fall, of pope Nicholas Breakspear

BACK in the 12th century, a young boy from Abbotts Langley, called Nicholas, lived life 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 marked the 850th anniversary of Nicholas Breakspear's death although it is not known whether he died of Quinsy - abscess on tonsils - or if he was poisoned.


His early life
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 was refused by the Abbott, Paul of Caen, who didn't consider him able enough.
But Nicholas was not to be deterred and with his strong spirit he collected - 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 an Augustinian Monastery, St Rufus, near Avignon, and successfully became elected as their prior and then Abbott.


Satan at work
Nicholas, a disciplinarian, wanted the monks to strictly adhere to the rule of the monastery but this was resented by the monks, who consequently complained to Pope Eugenius III. The pope sensed Satan might have a hand in all this and summoned Nicholas to the Vatican as he felt the young Abbott was capable of great things. And he was proved right - Nicholas became Cardinal Bishop of Albano, near Rome, and was eventually sent to war-torn Scandinavia to organise the church. Later named The Apostle of the North, he succeeded and was welcomed back to Rome with great honour and respect.


An unpopular pope
On December 5, 1154, Nicholas Breakspear was unanimously elected Pope Adrian IV but the controversy that had plagued him did not stop there and he was disliked by the people of Rome. Not only that, he got into dispute with the King of Sicily, and Frederick Barbarossa, who wanted to become Emperor of Italy, was angered by Pope Adrian for making peace with the King of Sicily. This was not helped by the fact that Frederick intended to assume the government of Rome and Pope Adrian therefore wanted to excommunicate him.
Pope Adrian died suddenly before this sentence was passed. The real cause of his death is still in question.
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 IIII, was placed on his tomb.

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