Did Innocent III attempt too much and accomplish too little?
Following the death of pope Celestine III on the 8th January 1198, a man by the name of Lothar di Conti was elected to replace him later that same day. For his papal name, he chose Innocent III. Throughout a pontificate that lasted for 18 years, this pope faced numerous challenges ranging from his Church, to Europe and even the Middle East. This has led one to question how one man could possibly believe that he was able to tackle so many issues and succeed in most, if not all of them. His challenges were numerous. To start with, Innocent faced the challenge in appointing a successor to Henry VI, the deceased Holy Roman Emperor. He also had to deal with rebellious monarchs such as John of England and Phillip II of France. The pope also had to find a way to limit or suppress heresy which was spreading throughout Europe. There were also issues needing addressed in his own Church. Above all of those was the crucial issue of launching a crusade to regain Jerusalem, which had fallen back into Muslim hands. To finish, Innocent also had to chair the Fourth Lateran Council in order to reform the church for not only his time, but for many years to come. With all those issues in mind, Innocent had a lot on his papal plate. Following the death of the German King Henry VI a year before Innocent began his papacy, two key figures emerged staking their claims to succeed him: Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick. Neither were direct heirs to the throne: Philip was Henry’s brother and Otto had no family ties with the King whatsoever. On top of that, there was a legitimate ruler in the form of Henry’s two year old son, Frederick, who was placed under the ward of Innocent when his mother, Constance, died. Innocent saw this as a perfect opportunity to influence the Empire into appointing an Emperor willing to accept the sovereignty of the Church. As Helena Tillmann points out, a cooperative emperor was vital for the Church since “the emperorship was a counterweight against any power on Italian soil which might be tempted to bring Rome and its bishop under its control” (1980, p103). Innocent had to be careful in his appointment, for as she goes on to stress, “the imperial protector must not be so strong in Italy as to become, by right or in actual fact, the pope’s master”(1980, p103). Thus, Innocent had to make sure that the new emperor would promise not to invade any territories under papal control and act as a defender of the Church. He initially supported Philip’s cause. As Philip had been excommunicated by Celestine III, the pope empowered the duke’s envoy, the Bishop of Sutri, to absolve Philip if he swore to obey all Church mandates (Sayers, 1994, p53). Unfortunately for Innocent, the Bishop absolved Philip without the oath being sworn (Sayers, 1994, p53). Thus, after being crowned German king in March 1198, the Staufen announced his intention to reclaim Sicily for the empire (Tillmann, 1980, p110). Innocent subsequently shifted his support to Otto of Brunswick instead, claiming that it was the duty of the Church to “anoint, consecrate and crown” the Emperor based on its judgement of the candidate’s character (New Advent, n.d). Based on Innocent’s judgement, Otto was the ideal choice. In 1208, Philip was murdered, clearing the way for Otto to be the undisputed king of Germany and, subsequently, Holy Roman Emperor. Innocent’s hopes of having a cooperative papal vassal was dashed when Otto, like his predecessor, turned on the Church and invaded Sicily two years later, leading to his excommunication (Tillmann, 1980, p145). At this stage, one may think that Innocent’s
handling of electing an “ideal” Emperor was a failure. However, the pope had a final card in his hand: the young prince Frederick. Innocent, famed for his skills as a lawmaker and negotiator, noticed the increasing dissent amongst the German nobility regarding Otto’s rule and used this to his advantage, making a case for Frederick to take his destined place as king of Germany (Sayers, 1994, p64). In the words of Tillmann: “every single ecclesiastical prince was now faced with the decision between the pope and the emperor, and now no longer only suspension and excommunication are at stake, but office and title” (1980, p148). In December 1212, following an imperial election in Nuremburg, Frederick was elected the new Emperor. He promised the pope that he would accept all of the rights and privileges that the princes and clergy of northern Italy were entitled to (Sayers, 1994, p64). Although this issue took 14 years to conclude, one could argue that Innocent was successful in crowning a Holy Roman Emperor who was willing to accept the independence and spiritual authority of the Church. In fact, some have gone so far as to argue that it was Innocent himself who “succeeded” Henry VI (Morris, 1989, p420).
Fig 1: Innocent III's fresco in Subiaco, Italy. Here, the pope is depicted holding a papal bull (just out of the picture), emphasising his role as a lawmaker (Encylopedia.com, n.d).
If the Holy Roman Empire was not enough, the pope also had to convince the other royal powers throughout Europe that they too were servants of the Church. Innocent based his claim of authority on Genesis 1:16, arguing that just as God made the sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night, so too it was the Church’s duty to “rule the souls” while the monarchies “ruled the bodies” (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d). As the soul was immortal, contrary to the body, the pope argued that the Church had authority over the monarchies. A big centre of conflict involved Kings John of England and Phillip II of France, who had been fighting each other since 1202. When Innocent intervened, Phillip argued that it was none of his business (Tillmann, 1980, p25). The pope refuted by arguing that he was simply observing ratione peccati, meaning that while Innocent had no say in the military or legal aspects of the conflict, he did have jurisdiction over the sins
committed by the kings (Tillmann, 1980, p25). Although the war continued until Phillip won in 1214, Innocent was able to use the conflict to his advantage. This is best seen when he appointed Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207, which led to a chain reaction of events between King John, who opposed the appointment, and the pope. First, John expelled all of the Canterbury monks after refusing to accept Langton as the new Archbishop (Morris, 1989, p420). Innocent responded by placing an interdict on his kingdom (Morris, 1989, p420). When John retaliated by confiscating all possessions belonging to the clergy, Innocent did more than just excommunicate him from the Church; the pope used John’s conflict with Phillip II to his advantage and permitted the French king to invade England (Morris, 1989, p420). To avoid this conflict, John conceded England as a papal fief to the Church, therefore submitting to Innocent’s authority (Sayers, 1994, p85). On his part, Innocent aided John by annulling the Magna Carta in 1215 which allowed John to regain some of his lost power (Sayers, 1994, p85). Innocent was also able to restrain King Phillip II. In 1196, Phillip married Agnes of Merania. There was a problem, however: Phillip was already married to another woman Ingeborg of Denmark. Thus, when Phillip refused to exile Agnes and take back Ingeborg as his wife, Innocent placed an interdict on his kingdom which included the prohibition of ceremonies such as baptism and the last rites (Sayers, 1994, p80). In the words of Jane Sayers, “such was the papacy’s power to bring a king to his knees” (1994, p80). Although Phillip initially rejected Innocent’s order, he eventually gave in and reconciled with Ingeborg in 1213 as a result of pressure both from the pope and from his people who wanted the interdict lifted (New Advent, n.d). From these two respective cases, one could argue that Innocent would be content with the results: he was able to save a marriage from annulment and gain a strong papal fief in the form of John’s England. The only downside would be the fact that his rift with Phillip denied him a powerful ally when it came to launching a crusade against the heretics in Languedoc. Innocent was not afraid to use force if diplomacy proved to be ineffective. The French region of Languedoc, consisting of heretics, demonstrated the pope’s willingness to draw the sword if need be. Innocent has been described as the “initiator” of countering heresy as it was during his papacy that violence began to be used as a repellent to the heretics’ influence (Lambert, 1977, p95). Innocent had a two-sided approach to countering heresy. If a heretic strayed from the path of the Church but asked for guidance, then the pope was willing to make arrangements for their way of life to merge with orthodox doctrine (Lambert, 1977, p96). However, for those unwilling to submit to Church demands, Innocent changed his tone, claiming “the perverters of our souls have become also the destroyers of our flesh” (quoted in Tyerman, 2006, p583). In an 1198 letter to the Archbishop of Auch, Innocent said: “they may not appeal from your judgements, and if necessary, you may cause the princes and people to suppress them with the sword” (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d). The Albigensian crusade, called in 1209 after the assassination of a papal legate, raged on for a further 20 years. Although many heretics were massacred (including Christians based on a legate’s estimation of 20,000 dead at the sack of Beziers alone (Tyerman, 2006, p592)), the French nobility began to care more about the acquisition of land rather than their Godly duty, leading Innocent to complain that “their protectors and defenders…are more dangerous than the heretics themselves” (quoted in Tyerman, 2006, p592). Future popes also struggled to call crusades on
heretics, as any crusade perceived to be an attack on a monarch meant losing an ally against Emperor Frederick II, who was at odds with the papacy for the majority of his reign (Lambert, 1977, pp105-106). Essentially, one could argue that Innocent’s objective was achieved but he was unable to prevent the nobility from taking matters into their own hands for the sake of conquest.
Fig 2: A mosaic dated 1213 depicting a captive Byzantine about to be executed by the crusaders in Constantinople. The Fourth Crusade was a disaster for Innocent III (Lowe, n.d).
As with many of his predecessors, Innocent had ambitions not only to call crusades against heretics in Europe, but also against Muslims in the Holy Land who had recaptured Jerusalem in 1187 under the leadership of Saladin. The pope had no problem attracting people to take up arms for the cross: although Urban II guaranteed remission from the penance of sin, there was still the possibility that God would not grant salvation to the dead. Innocent, however, granted an indulgence (a stronger assurance of salvation) to all who crusaded for God so long as they confessed all of their previous sins and promised not to commit any serious offences in the future (Bartlett, 1999, pp201-202). Innocent’s crusade did have a problem, however: money. A key player in the Fourth Crusade was the city of Venice, a prosperous city that in March 1201 agreed to suspend all of its economic activities in order to allow a workforce of 30,000 men to build enough ships to transport 20,000 soldiers, 9,000 squires and 4,500 knights over to Egypt (Phillips, 2004, p73). From Egypt, it was planned that the crusaders would march to Jerusalem and regain the Promised Land. To compensate Venice’s economic sacrifice, the crusaders would pay 85,000 silver marks (Phillips, 2004, p62). This, however, was not repaid in full. Frustrated with the broken contract, the Venetians transported the crusaders to the Croatian city of Zara – the city was captured in November 1202 much to Innocent’s dismay. The defining moment of the Crusade came in July 1203 when Constantinople – the centre of Byzantium – was attacked by the crusaders. By April 1204, the city was captured and thousands of Byzantine Christians were massacred. Innocent was devastated as can be seen in his July 1204 letter to his papal legate Peter of St. Marcellus when he asks “how, indeed, is the Greek church to be brought back into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See when she…detests the Latins more than dogs?” (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d) Although Tillmann argues that Innocent may have prevented the siege of Constantinople by taking a more severe approach
towards the crusaders (1980, p279), one can sympathize with the pope. Within the European continent, Innocent may have had more control of the situation but as the Crusade occurred further east he could only feebly rely on his legates to regulate the crusaders’ behaviour. Therefore, the Fourth Crusade can be concluded as being too much for Innocent to handle. Near the end of his papacy, Innocent presided over a council that is considered the most important gathering to have ever taken place in medieval history: the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Hundreds of clergy and laymen attended the council as well as, for the first time, lay representatives of royal figures such as Frederick II, Phillip II and John (the latter was under excommunication so officially did not exist (Sayers, 1994, p96)). The council had a large agenda: Innocent needed to reform the Church, sort out the mess in the Holy Land, launch a new crusade, establish new methods of countering heresy and introduce new requirements for laymen. Of the seventy decrees approved, a number deserve mentioning. For instance, regarding the problem of heresy, Canon 3 states that heretics were to be excommunicated and handed over to secular authorities for punishment (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d). To further drive the point home that heresy would not be tolerated, Innocent issued Canon 13, which outright forbid the establishment of new religious orders (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d). Innocent responded to the Fourth Crusade by taking advantage of the situation: through Canon 5, he established a new hierarchy where the Bishop of Rome – the pope – was first, followed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, who in turn was followed by Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem in that order (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d). The pope also took measures against his own clergy, for as Charles Edward Smith points out; simony – the buying and selling of church property – was a problem throughout medieval history (Smith, 1971, p51). The Archbishop of Naples, for instance, had over 20 churches in his ward (Smith, 1971, p54). The pope retaliated to such corruptors by issuing at least five different canons (14-18) that dictated the conduct of clergy. As well as prohibiting simony, the canons also ordered them to live celibate, alcohol-free lives and refrain from using the trial of ordeals in court cases (Innocent knew that evidence and reason were more telling of a person’s guilt rather than whether or not his hand could successfully heal from a hot iron rod (McAuley, 2006, p491)). Innocent also introduced a law (Canon 21) that stated all who had attained the “age of reason” were to confess all their sins at least once a year as well as attend the Eucharist, preferably during Easter (Medieval Sourcebook, n.d). Innocent took the council as a good time to call the Fifth Crusade, which would essentially do what the Fourth was meant to: regain Jerusalem via Egypt. Innocent did not live to see the launch of the crusade: he died in June 1216 while touring Italy promoting it. His successor, Honorius III, oversaw the launch of the crusade the following year. The Fourth Lateran Council, as can be seen, brought radical changes to all kinds of medieval affairs ranging from the Christian home to the Holy Land. When one takes into account the reforms passed by the council, it can be argued that Innocent was successful in getting what he wanted.
Fig 3: Innocent’s caricature in the House of Representatives, America. His skills as a judge and law maker are still admired hundreds of years after his death – even by secular governments as shown here (Architect of the Capitol, n.d)
Innocent’s papacy was a mixed bag of successes and failures. He attempted so much because as he was Christ’s representative on earth, he felt it was his duty to handle not only Church affairs, but secular affairs also. Unfortunately for the pontiff, this was where his failures predominately lay. He could not control armies; especially in the case of the Fourth Crusade so far away. That is not to say that he accomplished too little: he did, of course, gain England as a papal fief and establish Frederick as Holy Roman Empire. The Albigensian Crusade also succeeded in defeating heretics, albeit the pope was unable to control the ambitions of the territory-hungry nobles. It appears that in the issues of diplomacy and law, Innocent was successful. In the field of conquest, however, he was not. Thus, to conclude, the question is half-right: Innocent did attempt too much, but for a pope, his accomplishments are respectable.