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Medieval Papacy Reached The Apogee of Its Power and Influence Under Innocent III Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

Under Innocent III, the state of the papacy and papal authority changed dramatically and emerged to form what some historians describe as a ‘papal monarchy”. One could argue that during Innocent’s reign of 1198-1216, the medieval papacy was at the peak of its power in terms of military strength, control over Rome, international political power and moral influence. Innocent III’s own writings reflect this point of view, as he makes clear that he views his position as one of unquestionable, divine endowed authority. However when considering this question of whether the papacy was indeed at its height under Innocent, the gap between theological theory and political reality must be considered, as well as Innocent’s reign in relation to his predecessors and successors which may lead historians to inflate their opinion of this period in papal history, due to the decline of the papacy that occurred under Innocent IV.

Innocent III international involvement is greater than any of the popes before or after him, during his reign he interfered in almost every kingdom in Europe2, however this does not provide evidence for him actually wielding any power as he was regularly ignored by monarchs such as by King John of England. In England, King John defied the pope by making Hubert Walter chancellor after Innocent had ordered him to release him from office after he began building a church in Lambeth. He also defied him and caused England to be put under interdict in 1205, when John refused to comply with the decree that tax from the clergy should be paid in a lump sum by each diocese.

Therefore one could draw the conclusion from this that the papacy had to operate out of good will or else it was ignored, such as when he was forced to back off from the situation in Germany in 1208. However despite England and other examples such as France in 1200 having to be put under interdict for obedience, eventually Innocent III did get his way and his authority was respected, as in 1213 John wrote the ‘Charter of Submission’. In this charter he recognized the pope’s power when he wrote ‘we have pledged and sworn our fealty henceforth to our lord aforesaid, Pope Innocent III3’. The reasons behind John finally succumbing to the pope are due to the widespread effects of the interdict and the influence of the pope himself on the Church in England and the life of the clergy, an issue which will be discussed later. Therefore the pope Innocent III does appear to hold substantial international power, despite initial defiance, he ultimately got his way despite the geographical limitations straining communication.

One must consider that the medieval papacy throughout the middle ages lacked the bureaucracy, financial resources and political apparatus to effectively be an international authority body, Chaney points out that despite this, Innocent III unlike popes before him, was successful in having international influence despite the fact that a message from Rome to England could take up to a month and was regularly ignored as many letters were regarded as forgeries.

Therefore Innocent III did wield a great deal of authority, Munro argues that the monarchs of Europe were his vassals, a view clearly shared by Innocent himself when he wrote ‘Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendour of its dignity from the pontifical authority..’. This view is further substantiated by numerous examples of leaders all over Europe seeking out his guidance and even placing their countries under papal rule such as in Hungary and Poland. Philip Augustus, arguably the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, was disciplined by the pope for violating the marriage sacrament, Sancho of Portugal was forced to place his country under papal over lordship and he made Alfonso of Leon break off the marriage with his niece. The most famous example of the pope’s international intervention is acting as arbiter in the dispute over the election between Otto and Philip.

One could argue that under Pope Innocent III, the medieval papacy reached its peak of military power and as papal power was dependent on military strength this would render his reign very powerful. Innocent had strong international allies as well as having his own armies of mercenaries, employed troops and loyal military service of barons of the Papal States. He also had the power to call whole nations to arms. However one must question the pope’s actual military strength as he relied heavily on his international allies rather than his independent power, exemplified by the handing over of the Papal States to Marquis Azzo VI of Este. However, unlike popes before him, Innocent’s interest in crusading more than those before him may be significant proof that he did indeed hold secure military power. The Albigensian crusade itself however counters this view of the pope having great military power as it became a war of conquest and spiralled into a massacre when the abbot of Citeaux; Arnold Amaury, encouraged troops to commit murder.

On entry

into the papacy in 1198, Innocent’s views on his position as pope were made very clear, he saw

himself as the ‘vicar of Christ’ and therefore a moral authority to all Christians .He appears to have exercised moral authority as leaders approached him for guidance such as Francis of Assisi in 1210. However, one must question the gap between theory and reality, although he believed this to be true, to what extent is it demonstrated throughout his time as pope, and was it greater than other popes during the Middle Ages? To answer this question one must consider the pope’s influence in the everyday running of the church by the clergy.

Using England as an example, it is clear that Innocent exercised a vast influence as during the interdict, Englishmen were deprived of the sacraments of the church as bodies were not buried and marriages were not solemnised in churches. As Binns puts it ‘his weapons may be spiritual but they were uncommonly effective9 The clergy were greatly upset by this and as a result John had to make peace with the pope, one could argue as Chaney does that this shows the strength of the ultimate hold of papal doctrine on the church10, even if not over the individual leader. Innocent himself had no doubts over his control over the church, writing ‘so extensive is the authority of the apostolic see that nothing can reasonably be determined in all the affairs of the church except by its authority11’. However one could argue that despite having influence, this is all theoretical power and that this does not show Innocent to be as powerful as many historians inflate his image to be.

The calling of the Lateran Council in 1215 is the most decisive piece of evidence in securing the view that Innocent wielded moral influence over the church, being arguably one of the most important councils of the Western church. It was widely attended with representatives from all over the world and by 400 bishops, 800 abbots as well as priors, clergy and laity. This council decided on many issues such as the entry into the crusade and reforming the church on issues such as the restricting of indulgencies12. Munro argues that the council shows the strength of the pope and papal power at its peak as the council was highly regarded as an authoritative force such as the fixing of transubstantiation as a dogma.

To any pope throughout this period, securing one’s power base in Rome and the papal states was of utmost importance and an aspiration of all popes14, one could argue that Innocent III failed in securing this power as Rome was run by a senator elected by the people and he was also forced to flee Rome on two occasions during his reign. However, despite this, Innocent managed to secure some power in Rome as unlike popes before him, he gained the right to choose the senator and he swore loyalty to the pope by oath. Therefore one must question Innocent’s power over Rome and whether it really demonstrates the papacy at the peak of its power as throughout his reign, he never seems to have gained a firm grip on Rome.

With regards to the Papal States, Barraclough argues that Innocent III came nearest of all the popes to ‘realizing the theory of papal theocracy held by Nicholas I and Gregory VII15’ .However despite this, Barraclough also argues that there were limitations to his success and at best he ‘half succeeded’. During his reign, he more than doubled the papal lands through his policy of recuperation on accession. However his power over the Papal States was weak at best, Sayers argues that in Sicily, despite Innocent having taken to opportunity to gain power the result of Innocent’s rule in Sicily was chaos and caused a collapse of the government built up by the Norman kings16. However one could argue that this was due to the apparatus available to him rather than weakness in the papacy itself. One must consider when casting a judgement over Innocent’s power in the Papal States, what he had inherited. On accession, papal power in the Papal States was weak, Henry had power over Sicily and Papal States were held by German counts as well as the papal treasury being depleted. Therefore one must consider his power in the context of what he had to work with, leading to the judgement that he did indeed exert a great deal of power.

When one considers the question as to whether the papacy reached its peak under Innocent III, from the evidence available, it appears that historians have over inflated and exaggerated the power the papacy actually held during this period as Innocent’s letters provide a wealth of evidence to draw from. Therefore although Innocent III held more power than many of his predecessors, it appears that due to the decline of the papacy under Innocent IV, this has led historians to regard Innocent III’s reign more highly that it possibly deserves. One must consider the gradual gain in power of the papacy as a process and one that can not be solely attributed to one pope, as Chaney points out, the rise in papal power had begun long before Innocent had come to power17, a fact ignored by historians.

However, Innocent’s power should not be diminished in history due to the possible faults of historians, he undeniably held a great deal of power and influence in a range of fields and therefore it does seem fair to argue that under him, the papacy did reach the apogee of its power during the middle ages .In terms of moral influence, one is inclined to agree with the view that ‘as the spiritual sovereign of Latin Christendom, he had no rival18’. However, one must still consider that despite this accolade, that is not to say that he did not have areas of great weakness such as in Sicily and that although coming close to, he did not fully achieve the aims of him and those before him in securing Rome and the Papal states. Alternatively, one could argue in his defence that this was due to the resources available to him and that the power he did secure in spite of these limitations shows Innocent III as being very powerful and shows the papacy at the peak of its power.


1 Walter Ullman A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London 1972)p209

2 L.Elliott Binns Innocent III (Great Britain 1931) p68

3 Charter of Submission from the King of England, 1213 in Thatcher and McNeal A Sourcebook for Medieval History (New York 1905)

4 C.R Cheney. ‘England and the Roman Curia under Innocent III’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Volume XVIII Number 2 1967) p172

5 Carlton Munro The Middle Ages 395-1272 (New York 1921)

6 Letter to the prefect Acerbius and the Nobles of Tuscany 1198 in Thatcher and McNeal A Sourcebook for Medieval History (New York 1905)

7 Carlton Munro Carlton Munro The Middle Ages 395-1272 (New York 1921)

8 Jane Sayer Innocent III Leader of Europe 1198-1216 (London 1994) p172

9 L.Elliott Binns Innocent III (Great Britain 1931) p110

10 C.R Cheney. ‘England and the Roman Curia under Innocent III’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Volume XVIII Number 2 1967) p182

11 quoted in Geoffrey Barraclough The Medieval Papacy (Great Britain 1968)

12 Carlton Munro Carlton Munro The Middle Ages 395-1272 (New York 1921)

13 Carlton Munro Carlton Munro The Middle Ages 395-1272 (New York 1921)

14 Jane Sayer Innocent III Leader of Europe 1198-1216 (London 1994)p52

15 Geoffrey Barraclough The Medieval Papacy (Great Britain 1968) p113

16 Jane Sayer Innocent III Leader of Europe 1198-1216 (London 1994)p52

17 C.R Cheney. ‘England and the Roman Curia under Innocent III’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Volume XVIII Number 2 1967) p174

18 Carlton Munro The Middle Ages 395-1272 (New York 1921)

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