The story of Nicholas Breakspear


abbeyHertfordshire has played its part in papal affairs. In the 12th century, a young boy from Abbots Langley near St Albans, called Nicholas, lived 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 marks the 850th anniversary of Nicholas Breakspear’s death. It is not known whether he died of Quinsy (abscess on tonsils) or if he was poisoned.

Nicholas was born in the early 1100’s. His father worked at St Albans Benedictine Abbey so Nicholas was allowed to attend school there. He wanted to become a priest but ironically was refused by the Abbott, Paul of Caen, who didn’t consider him able enough!

breakspear-place-of-birthWith his strong spirit, Nicholas 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. He successfully became elected as their prior, then Abbot.

However, Nicholas, a disciplinarian, wanted the monks to strictly adhere to the rule of the monastery. This was resented by the monks, who consequently complained to Pope Eugenius III. The pope sensed that Satan might have a hand in all this and summoned Nicholas to the Vatican as he felt Nicholas was capable of greater things. Nicholas became Cardinal Bishop of Albano, near Rome. He was eventually sent to war-torn Scandinavia to organize the church. ‘The Apostle of the North’ did this successfully and was welcomed back to Rome with great honour and respect.

On December 5th 1954, Nicholas Breakspear was unanimously elected Pope Adrian IV. Unfortunately, he was disliked by the people of Rome but worse still, he got into dispute with the King of Sicily and Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick wanted to become Emperor of Italy but was angered by Pope Adrian for making peace with the King of Sicily.  Furthermore, as Frederick

intended to assume the government of Rome, Pope Adrian 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.

popes-roadHertfordshire has many places and roads named after Nicholas Breakspear e.g. Popes Road, Breakspear Way and Adrian Road.  The Nicholas Breakspear Catholic College, St Albans has a mission statement ‘Everything we say and everything we do should be based on the Gospel values of Truth, Justice, Peace and Love.’ It is said that they have an excellent Catholic ethos and Religious Education department so maybe there is another English pope in the making…..

This post has also been published in the Independent Catholic News

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Maria Larmer lives in St Albans and is married with four children. She works as a Freelance Writer, English Language Teacher and Teaching Assistant. She has lived in Auckland, New Zealand for 9 years and prior to that in France, Germany, Austria, Edinburgh, London and Ireland. Her diary-writing has featured on 'The Wild Geese' Channel 4 and Radio Verulam. She has written for Hertfordshire Life magazine, Go Camping magazine, Camping magazine, The Catholic Times, St Albans & Harpenden Review, New Zealand Times, The New Beacon, My Weekly and various websites. She can be contacted on