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Pope Innocent III,  1161 - 1198 - 1216 (55)


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Pope Innocent III, Subiaco


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Guess which photo was chosen for the cover of this book ?



Contemporary fresco portrait (early 1200s) by Magister Conxolus, located half way between the upper and lower churches of the Monastery of Saint Benedict (called Sacro Speco) near Subiaco.  The Pope is holding the bull with which he presented some revenue to the Monastery in 1203.


Innocent III (born in Anagni one year after Genghis Khan), was an all powerful Pope for 18 years at a time of weak European monarchies (Link to Chronology Entry).  Amongst other things he gave his seal of approval to the new mendicant friar orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, and was instrumental in the launch of the 4th Crusade (which got diverted and destroyed Constantinople) and the (Albigensian) Crusade against the Cathars.  He also banned the hitherto thriving trade in relics.


Innocent III also did the 4th Lateran Council (12th Ecumenical Council) in 1215 (the same year that King John of England got Magna Cartered) . Those present included Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 800 abbots (guess who was powerful in 1215!) the Primate of the Maronites, and St. Dominic (St Francis obviously had better things to do). The Council issued an enlarged creed against the Cathar Albigensians (Firmiter Credimus), condemned the Trinitarian errors of Abbot Joachim, and published 70 important reformatory decrees. Amongst these was a mandatory code of dress / badges for Jews and Muslims (to ensure that there was no "damnable mixing") - a rule which the Spanish refused to implement despite direct orders from successive Popes.   This, the most important council of the Middle Ages, marked the high tide of church and papal power.


Earlier, in England, there had been a practice run for the Henry VIII epic 300 years later, when King John refused to accept Innocent III's appointee Stephen Langton (1050 - 1128 (78)) as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Langton waited patiently in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny in the centre of Chablis country in Burgundy, whilst John seized all the possessions of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, and in 1208 Innocent retaliated by imposing an interdict.  This meant that priests were ordered to go on strike - they were not allowed (officially anyway) to conduct any church services, hear confessions or administer any sacraments including death rites (imagine what impact that had on a medieval society).  A year later Innocent stepped up the pressure further and excommunicated John, one of whose responses was to turn on the English Cistercian monasteries with a vengeance and impose crippling levies.  It took four years to resolve the standoff, after which the priests went back to work and Langton was allowed back in to England - but some Cistercian monasteries never recovered. 


Archbishop Langton soon became one of the leaders of the baronial group (including the Head of the Knights Templar in England) which forced the King to sign Magna Carta in 1215 - John must have known he was right in the first place!  Undeterred by previous experiences, the King immediately appealed to his old mate the Pope to annul the agreement as it had been signed under duress, and Innocent obliged - absolute rulers share the common value of the survival of the species.  In an ironic reversal of fortune for the Langton family, John also persuaded Innocent to overrule the appointment of Stephen's brother Simon Langton to the Archbishopric of York in favour of Walter de Gray.


Ten year's later, in 1225, John's 18 year old son, King Henry III, was persuaded by Archbishop (of Canterbury) Stephen Langton to reissue a slightly modified Magna Carta, which became the one embedded in English law.




The Piazza Innocenzo Terzo in Anagni, with west side of the N-S axis Duomo in the background.  Four Popes were born in Anagni in the 1100s / 1200s (and the only English Pope, Hadrian IV, also died there in 1159).  The Papal statue overlooking Innocent's Piazza is the last of these, Boniface VIII - he got quite a reputation for putting statues of himself in piazzas or at the gates of large towns.



Innocent III died of the fever in Perugia in 1216 aged 55.  He was buried in the Perugia Duomo, but in 1892 his remains were re-interred in this tomb in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome.  The tomb is over the entrance to what is now the postcard and momento shop (to the right of the ciborium above), and sadly not many people register who they are walking under as they go in to purchase their memorabilia.


*  This story gives a fascinating insight into real-politik in the Middle Ages ...... as Chris Lowney writes in his excellent book "A Vanished World", " (King) Fernando's motives for refusing to adorn the Jews with humiliating badges were plainly self serving.  No lofty human rights rhetoric elevates his correspondence with Papal authorities, nor does he protest that stigmatized dress would fundamentally demean the Jews.  The monarch's brand of religious tolerance features no paean to cultural diversity and issues no idyllic appeal for interfaith dialogue.  Indeed, one senses that he might willingly enough have subjected Jews to the humiliation had he been certain of preserving their tax revenues and commercial savvy."



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