Nicholas Breakspear is elected Pope - the only Englishman ever

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The Observer First Published

Nicholas Breakspear is elected Pope - the only Englishman ever

The 4th of December 1154 AD

The only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear, was pontiff between 1154 and 1159.

Nicholas was born in 1100 at Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire . Breakspear’s father Robert was a clerk who later became a monk at St Albans Abbey in the same county, but the son was refused a place there when he applied, supposedly being told to continue his studies and become a more worthy candidate.

After studies at Merton Priory Nicholas went to France, spending some time in St Denis and other foundations before joining the Augustinian Abbey of St Rufus in Avignon in 1130. Here he was elected abbot in 1137. As abbot his strictness eventually led to complaints directly to Pope Eugenius III, but this only helped his continued rise, the Pope seeing his capabilities and making him Cardinal Bishop of Albano in 1146.

Between 1152 and 1154 Cardinal Breakspear was in Scandinavia as papal legate, reorganizing the church, facilitating the collection of “Peter’s Pence”, and earning more fame as “Apostle of the North.” By the time he returned to Rome in 1154 Eugenius had died and been replaced by Anastasius IV, who at ninety was bound to have a short tenure.

When Anastasius died on December 2nd that same year, Nicholas Breakspear was hastily and unanimously elected Pope, on December 4th, taking the name Adrian IV.

His papacy was less successful than his career before it. Adrian squandered the chance to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. He backed the Byzantines in a war they lost with the Normans in Sicily. His Papal Bull granting Henry II of England dominion over Ireland has had repercussions since it was granted. And he was in conflict with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I almost from the day in 1155 when Adrian crowned him to 1st September 1159, when the only English Pope died.

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