Welcome to Hertfordshire, the English county immediately to the north of London. Our tour stop today is Abbots Langley, a village situated in-between three prominent towns in the area. There’s Watford to the south, St. Albans to the north east, and Hemel Hempstead to the north west. Abbots Langley is just inside the north eastern corner of the M25 motorway that surrounds Britain’s capital.
If it weren’t for one man, this village would be much like many of the other villages in England – quiet, peaceful, and nothing much ever happens there. But Nicholas Breakspear makes Abbots Langley a much more fascinating place, and most of this episode will be taken up with his life story.
The village first comes to our attention in 1045 when Ethelwine the Black and his wife Wynfelda gave ‘Langelei’, which means ‘long clearing’, to the abbey of St. Albans. Not long after that came the Norman Invasion of 1066, and then the Domesday survey of 1086 where we can see there were nineteen households.
It was not long after the Domesday survey was completed, around the year 1100, that Nicholas Breakspear was born in Abbots Langley. His family was poor, but he was a bright, studious young man who wanted to become a monk. This may well have been a combination of devotion and a desire to learn, since monasteries were the only places one could get an education in those days.
So Nicholas travelled to the abbey of St. Albans, where he stayed for a few years to study and serve the monks. At the end of that time, he requested that he be admitted into holy orders, but they refused the request.
Saddened but undaunted, Nicholas headed south and crossed the English channel, which was then friendly territory under the control of England. He then entered France, which was at that point a relatively small kingdom surrounding Paris. Paris was already a centre of learning and a great place for a young man to grow. Nicholas settled into the Abbey of St. Denis for several years, where it seems he was one of the brightest and best of students, not just studious but also eloquent. After some time, he repeated the request to become a monk, but St. Denis also refused.
He headed down to the Mediterranean coast, to the Germanic-held region of Arles. Here was Avignon and the abbey of St. Rufus. After a few years in the abbey, Nicholas finally achieved his dream and became one of the Augustinian canons there. He was firmly dedicated to the principles of the order, particularly around common ownership, community service and the well-ordered governing structure.
This, then, was the life to which Nicholas gave himself. It seems he enamoured himself to the other canons at St. Rufus, since when Abbot William died in 1137, Nicholas was unanimously elected as the new abbot.
Over the next few years the canons would come to regret their decision, as Nicholas began to impose Augustinian rule on them more firmly than they were used to. They had liked him before, but now they began to grow uncomfortable, and around 1145 it grew too much to bear.
They wrote a letter to the Pope setting out their complaints, and then a party from the abbey set out for Rome so that he could address the issue. This included Nicholas Breakspear, who wanted to address his side of the argument. After more than a decade at St. Rufus’s it must have been amazing to go out into the world again, and more than that – to see Rome itself! The most powerful city in Europe!
The current Pope was Eugene III, fairly new to the job. He quite liked Nicholas, but was careful in his intervention to try to broker peace and goodwill between the offended parties. Placated for now, they returned to Avignon.
But it wasn’t to last. Soon the complaints rang out again, and they returned to Rome in mid-1146. This time Eugene sent the canons home, but kept Nicholas behind. He had other plans for the Englishman. There were two typical routes for a career in the church: either reaching a high office in a monastery – which Nicholas had already achieved – or rising up through the ranks of priest, bishop and archbishop potentially all the way to becoming Pope. Now Nicholas was set on that second career ladder as he was appointed Cardinal and Bishop of Albano, which is a Catholic diocese to the south-east of Rome.
Nicholas continued to impress whomever he met, showing great knowledge of Latin and French as well as his native English. Eugene decided to use this knowledge of English to his advantage, and in 1152 sent him on a mission to Scandinavia.
Cardinal Breakspear in Scandinavia
Generally each country had its own Archbishop to oversee the church, although if a country was fairly new to Christianity it would be looked after by another country’s Archbishop. Denmark, Norway and Sweden had recently been taken out from the Archbishopric of Hamburg, Germany, and placed under the Archbishopric of Lund, Denmark. Norway and Sweden weren’t happy about this, and wanted their own Archbishops.
Eugene was quite pleased with the idea, so he sent Nicholas up to the Scandinavian kingdoms to organise the best solution. Nicholas was a sensible choice due to the historical connection between England and Scandinavia, as well as the similarity of language and culture.
Cardinal Breakspear headed off to Norway via England, and it’s quite likely he got in touch with his family at this point. It must have been quite incredible to go home in such a different position to when he had left.
In July 1152 he landed in Norway. Having resolved some arguments between the sons of the former king of Norway, he got on with his main work in the country. Nidaros (modern day Trondheim) was made the new Archbishopric, the central home of Norwegian Christianity, which it still is today for Norwegian Catholics. The many Norwegian islands such as Shetland, the Western Isles, the Orkneys, the Isle of Man, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland were also covered by the new Archbishop of Nidaros.
The Norwegian Christians fell in love with Nicholas, so much so that they got him to reform their government despite it being beyond his official powers. He also reformed the church and pushed out a lot of the old Danish pagan practices that had been creeping in. He became one of the most honoured foreigners to visit Norway, and was made a national Saint.
Nicholas’s next stop was Sweden. Sweden’s main issue was that two regions both wanted to have the Archbishopric, – the Swedes’ choice was Upsala, and the Gotlanders’ choice was Skara. Nobody could agree, and ultimately the Cardinal decided not to decide, thinking it would be better for Sweden not to have an Archbishopric than for the country to tear itself apart.
Instead he went on to Denmark where Eskill, Archbishop of Lund, was unhappy about losing Norway. I suspect that keeping Sweden under Eskill’s oversight helped to ease some of his frustration.
Nicholas also arranged to send missionaries into the unconverted region of Finland, and had catechisms (rote questions and answers that would explain the church practices) written for Sweden and Norway.
The Cardinal returned to Rome in 1154 after completing his mission, where he gained the title “The Apostle of the North”. When he returned he found that Eugene had died. The new Pope was Anastasius IV who was happy with Nicholas’s work in Scandinavia. However, he didn’t like that no Swedish Archbishop had been appointed.
But in December 1154 Anastasius died. The Cardinals met then as they do today in the cathedral of St. Peter, to be locked away until they unanimously decided who the next Pope should be. They selected Nicholas. And so he became Adrian IV. Pope. The only English Pope there has ever been.
Arnold of Brescia and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa
There were a couple of big issues that Adrian had to deal with right away. The first was Arnold of Brescia, a reformer who believed the church should not hold any wealth, possessions or temporal power. The people of Rome quite liked him, especially as they were under the rule of the church and not a secular lord. Arnold had set up the Commune of Rome, his ideal for Rome’s future governance, which was a republic led by a senate. He demanded that the Pope recognise the senate’s authority and give up power over the people.
Adrian certainly did not agree with Arnold about how Rome should be ruled, and his response was fierce. For the start of Holy Week (that is, Easter – the most important time of year for Christians), he issued an interdict over the whole city.
Suddenly churches were closed. There was no more communion; baptisms and marriages were carried out in very private ceremonies and not in the church; religious statues and icons were covered over; a dying man would receive the bare minimum in last rites. The peoples’ very souls were in danger. And of course there would be no Easter masses or celebrations. Merchants who would normally make a fortune on these occasions would also lose out.
In response, the people and clergy behaved exactly as the Pope wished. They forced the senate to give themselves up to him. Adrian drove them out of the city, and lifted the interdict.
With one issue resolved as he wished, Adrian moved on to the next: Emperor Frederick Barbarossa the king of Germany. He wanted to restore the power of the Holy Roman Emperors, whose title his family line retained.
Frederick was moving towards Rome, his goal being to have the Pope crown him Emperor and have his authority recognised. One of his first moves was to have Arnold of Brescia arrested and handed over to Adrian’s nephew Cardinal Boso. When Arnold was returned to Rome, the Pope had him executed without trial.
Now Adrian and Frederick could make a deal – the Emperor would pay homage to the church and Rome, and the Pope would crown him Holy Roman Emperor in St. Peter’s church. To ensure the deal was set, Adrian himself set out to meet the man.
On 9 June 1155 Frederick Barbarossa came out to meet the Papal party, bowed, and offered to assist him from his horse. But the Emperor had deliberately missed an ancient custom: to hold the Pope’s stirrup as he dismounted. Adrian waited. Frederick waited. It seemed to go on for hours.
Adrian broke the stalemate. He dismounted and took his place on the chair provided, where Frederick kissed his feet as per custom. At this point the Pope was to give the Emperor the ‘kiss of peace’. Now the Pope took his turn to break custom, and refused the kiss. He said that unless he was given the right honour by the Emperor, then he would not give the right honour to the Emperor. With that the Pope departed.
For two days Frederick debated the dilemma. He wanted to be equal with the Pope, but he wanted the Pope to crown him. And he could not have both. In the end, he decided a little bit of inequality might be acceptable, especially since he’d marched all the way to Rome for this. In the end he capitulated.
The next time they met, protocol was followed on both sides. The Emperor was now able to enter Rome, where he was crowned on 18 June.
But the people were not as happy as the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope. Perhaps still angered about Arnold of Brescia’s treatment, they rioted. Frederick led his men against them, driving them back across the Tiber and saving the Pope’s life. 1,000 citizens were killed, and 200 taken prisoner. The prisoners were handed back to the Pope, who was feeling merciful and freed them. This was a mistake. Again the people tried to attack the Pope, and his life was saved by the Duke of Bavaria.
Under the summer heat, and facing increasing hostility from the Roman people, Frederick Barbarossa left Rome. But it would not be the last time he visited Italy.
Adrian, England and Ireland
In England the news of Adrian’s ascension to the Papacy had reached King Henry II. Henry himself had been crowned just months before Adrian became Pope. Regardless that Nicholas Breakspear had been poor and insignificant, Adrian IV was the most powerful man in Europe. Henry, the inferior man now, sent a delegation to Rome to honour and celebrate the new Pope.
Amongst the delegation was Robert, abbot of St. Albans, which you’ll recall had rejected Nicholas Breakspear’s request to become a monk. Robert was able to talk privately with Adrian, and claimed the reason St. Albans had rejected him becoming a monk was clearly because God had better plans. He then got Adrian to take St. Albans out of the control of the Bishop of Lichfield, who was apparently behaving badly towards the abbey. From then on, St. Albans would be directly under Rome.
Now, Henry also had further business with the Pope, and in 1156 he managed to persuade Adrian that it would be beneficial for England to conquer Ireland. Henry quite liked the Emerald Isle, and as we’ve seen in earlier blog posts he decided to take it for himself. Adrian was the Pope who granted him permission. Papal sanctions meant there was really nothing the Irish could do to protest. And of course Henry could do it under the pretext of reforming the Irish church to Adrian’s desire; the Irish church was much more under the control of abbots and monasteries rather than bishops and archbishops.
Anyway, we know the history of how the invasion of Ireland played out many years later in 1171: Richard Strongbow becoming King of Leinster, his submission to Henry, other Irish kings also submitting. And all the trouble that caused for the next 800 years or so.
The Irish naturally weren’t happy about this, and they believed that the Pope had been misled by Henry and the English church into permitting the invasion. A later Pope, John XXII, let the Irish know that they had to put up with Henry because it was Adrian’s directive. And since Adrian was the representative of God on Earth, there was nothing the Irish could do about it. I suspect the Irish might have a different opinion on that.
William II of Sicily
Elsewhere in Europe, the south of the Italian peninsula was in dispute with Rome. The Normans had conquered the land in the late 11th Century, and disputed that any Pope or Emperor had any power over them. William II was the new King of Sicily and ruled the area, and after he’d been crowned he wrote to Adrian to ask for some papal privileges his father had held before him
Adrian refused, on the grounds that William, unlike his father, hadn’t asked for permission before being crowned. The King was angry and declared war on the papacy. In response the Pope threatened excommunication – meaning he would have no access to the church or holy sacraments, and go to hell when he died. This was considered a terrible punishment. William didn’t seem to care much. He marched his army north, conquering many places, and the cities soon found that whether or not they surrendered to William, he might just destroy them anyway.
In May 1156 after much war and diplomatic wrangling, Adrian found himself at Beneventum with an army, but surrounded by his enemy. There was no way out of this one, and he was forced to negotiate. First, he asked William to spare the lives of all the nobles who supported the Pope. William did, since this would allow the negotiations to get under way. Second Adrian proposed to William peace terms. Terms which William had, earlier in the war, proposed to him.
Eventually everything was agreed. William would get the crowns of Sicily and Apulia, be absolved of the excommunication, and be lord and prince of a load of other places in Italy. Now the book I’ve read portrays Adrian as a very clever negotiator who had got his way and managed to get a great Italian ruler under his thumb. But I read this very differently. Adrian had been forced to submit to William, to give into the demands. What else could he have done under the circumstances?
Ultimately, Adrian gained an ally in the King of Sicily, and this would be very useful to the Papacy in later years.
Barbarossa becomes the enemy
Adrian travelled around the Italian peninsula before returning to Rome in early 1157. During this time he met with Eskill, Archbishop of Lund, whom we met back when Cardinal Breakspear was in Scandinavia. The two were good friends.
As Eskill returned to Denmark following this meeting he was set upon by German knights and robbed of all his possessions, then held prisoner with a mighty ransom. When Adrian heard of this, he demanded that Frederick Barbarossa free his friend. But the Emperor refused.
Adrian sent an embassy to Germany, including Cardinal Roland, the future Pope Alexander III. They arrived at Besançon in October, where Frederick was holding a great party for the nobility from across Europe. Roland read out a letter from the Pope, but one of the words in the letter caused offence: He said that the Pope had conferred many benefits (“beneficia”) on the Emperor. But the Germanic nobles understood a specific meaning in the word ‘beneficia’. In feudal law, a ‘beneficium’ was a term relating to how a property was held, and implied that the Emperor was nothing more than the holder of a fiefdom granted by the Pope and very very subservient to him.
Frederick was fuming, and wrote back claiming the Pope was trying to start a war. Adrian responded by claiming he had not intended any offense, only meaning the general sense of the word. After some back and forth, the tension was eased. It was by now the start of 1158.
However, the Emperor had other issues with Italy that weren’t directly concerning the Pope, and this ramped the tensions right up again. Frederick had some ancestral land in northern Italy that he had inherited, and was using it as a bargaining tool with his relations. Meanwhile, the northern city states were fighting one another. One of the states that attacked his land was Lombardy, and the city of Milan.
So the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor marched on Milan, well over 100,000 men. The city soon fell to the siege.
That winter as the Emperor retreated to a winter home at Bologna the Milanese rebelled. He responded in force by utterly destroying the countryside around the city.
Frederick had decided to appoint Count Guido of Blandrada as Archbishop of Ravenna in November 1158, but Adrian refused the appointment. He gave as the reason that he really liked Guido and had some other promotion for him within Rome itself. The Emperor tried again, and the Pope refused once more. He also asked the Emperor to stop settling church disputes in the region of Lombardy that he had taken, as it wasn’t in his remit. Tensions between the two parties were ramping up.
Adrian prepared himself and his noble allies, now including the King of Sicily, to strengthen their fortifications against the Emperor. It was coming to the point of outright war. Adrian was ready to excommunicate the Emperor and go all in against him.
And then he died.
Whether poison or sickness or accident we don’t know for sure. But Frederick Barbarossa escaped. The whole history of Europe and indeed the world could have been completely changed if Adrian had lived on to fight the Holy Roman Emperor.
Nicholas Breakspear, the humble boy from Abbots Langley, was entombed as Pope Adrian IV in the church of St. Peter’s. His tomb made of red marble with a deer skull, the sign of St. Albans, and two roses representing England carved into it.
Aside from all the big events marking his life, Adrian also established a principle that serfs could marry freely without needing permission from their lord. One can imagine that his early life in England would make him sympathetic to the desires of the poor folk to marry of their own volition.
After his death, the church was split in two, with Alexander III set up as Pope in Rome supported by France, Spain, England, Sicily and non-German Italy, while Barbarossa and the Germanic people supported Octavian. But that is another story.
Abbots Langley after the Pope
Everything else in the village is relatively quiet compared with Nicholas Breakspear’s life. The plague came here just as it did elsewhere, and in the 1530s Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and brought monastic life at St. Albans to an end.
Sir Richard Lee, a military commander under Henry, paid for some land around St. Albans in the early 1540s which included Abbots Langley.
During the civil war, Hertfordshire was Parliamentarian, and the whole country struggled with hunger and starvation. But perhaps their Papal ancestor gave the village an independent spirit, as it did not agree with the forbidding nature of Puritanism.
Following this time, everything has been rather peaceful and eventless, just as one might expect from an English village. They are still proud of their connection to Adrian IV, and several roads are named after him. There is also a plaque marking the site of a farmhouse that is believed to be his birthplace.
Next week we visit Abbots Leigh in North Somerset.
- Place: [Abbot’s] Langley, Open Domesday
- Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian IV: Englishman and Pope, Alfred H. Tarleton, 1896 (Edition referenced is by Endeavor Press Ltd, 2016)
- Nicholas Breakspear: The only English Pope, Jon Welch, BBC News Online, 12 March 2013
- Abbots Langley Local History Society, ALLHS