The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Author: T. F. Tout  | Date: A.D. 1208

Innocent III Exalts the Papal Power

A.D. 1208


Under Pope Innocent III the example of Gregory VII (Hildebrand) was followed, with the result of still further strengthening and extending the pontifical sway. When Innocent became pope (1198), the holy see was engaged in a desperate contest for supremacy with the Hohenstaufen rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry VI, son of Frederick Barbarossa, had but recently died, leaving his wife Constance, heiress of the kingdom of Naples or the "Two Sicilies," and a son, Frederick—afterward Frederick II—born in 1194, to be dealt with by the Pope.

While the imperial power under the Hohenstaufens was making head against the papal authority, Italy was overrun in parts by German subjects of the emperors, and in two expeditions (1194 and 1197) Henry VI recovered the Two Sicilies from the usurper Tancred of Lecce. In his dealings with the Sicilies Innocent therefore had to reckon with the German influence which played an important part in the new settlement of the kingdom. His triumphs in this field, as well as in his conflicts with Philip Augustus of France, Otto IV of Germany, and King John of England, and in the war which he made upon heretics, are set forth in the following article in their historical order, and the cumulative growth of his supremacy forms a subject of increasing interest to the end.

After the great emperors came the great Pope. Within four months of the death of Henry VI, Celestine III had been succeeded by Innocent III, under whom the visions of Gregory VII and Alexander III at last became accomplished facts, the papal authority attained its highest point of influence, and the empire, raised to such heights by Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI, was reduced to a condition of dependence upon it.

The new Pope had been Lothaire of Segni, a member of the noble Roman house of Conti, who had studied law and theology at Paris and Bologna, and had at an early age won for himself a many-sided reputation as a jurist, a politician, and as a writer. The favor of his uncle, Clement III, had made him cardinal before he was thirty, but under Celestine III he kept in the background, disliked by the Pope, and himself suspicious of the timid and temporizing old man. But on Celestine’s death on January 8, 1198, Lothaire, though still only thirty-seven years of age, was at once hailed as his most fitting successor, as the strong man who could win for the Church all the advantages that she might hope to gain from the death of Henry VI. Nor did Innocent’s pontificate belie the promise of his early career.

Innocent III possessed a majestic and noble appearance, an unblemished private character, popular manners, a disposition prone to sudden fits of anger and melancholy, and a fierce and indomitable will. He brought to his exalted position the clearly formulated theories of the canonists as to the nature of the papal power, as well as the overweening ambition, the high courage, the keen intelligence and the perseverance and energy necessary to turn the theories of the schools into matters of everyday importance.

His enunciations of the papal doctrine put claims that Hildebrand himself had hardly ventured to advance, in the clearest and most definite light. The Pope was no mere successor of Peter, the vicegerent of man. "The Roman pontiff," he wrote, "is the vicar, not of man, but of God himself." "The Lord gave Peter the rule not only of the Universal Church, but also the rule of the whole world." "The Lord Jesus Christ has set up one ruler over all things as his universal vicar, and as all things in heaven, earth, and hell bow the knee to Christ, so should all obey Christ’s vicar, that there be one flock and one shepherd." "No king can reign rightly unless he devoutly serve Christ’s vicar." "Princes have power in earth, priests have also power in heaven. Princes reign over the body, priests over the soul. As much as the soul is worthier than the body, so much worthier is the priesthood than the monarchy." "The Sacerdotium is the sun, the Regnum the moon. Kings rule over their respective kingdoms, but Peter rules over the whole earth. The Sacerdotium came by divine creation, the Regnum by man’s cunning."

In these unrestricted claims to rule over church and state alike we seem to be back again in the anarchy of the eleventh century. And it was not against the feeble feudal princes of the days of Hildebrand that Innocent III had to contend, but against strong national kings, like Philip of France and John of England. It is significant of the change of the times, that Innocent sees his chief antagonist, not so much in the empire as in the limited localized power of the national kings. When Richard of England had yielded before Henry VI, the national state gave way before the universal authority of the lord of the world. But Innocent claimed that he alone was lord of the world. The empire was but a German or Italian kingdom, ruling over its limited sphere. Only in the papacy was the old Roman tradition of universal monarchy rightly upheld.

Filled with these ambitions of universal monarchy, Innocent’s survey took in both the smallest and the greatest of European affairs. Primarily his work was that of an ecclesiastical statesman, and intrenched far upon the authority of the State. We shall see him restoring the papal authority in Rome and in the Patrimony,1

building up the machinery of papal absolutism, protecting the infant King of Sicily, cherishing the municipal freedom of Italy, making and unmaking kings and emperors at his will, forcing the fiercest of the western sovereigns to acknowledge his feudal supremacy, and the greatest of the kings of France to reform his private life at his commands, giving his orders to the petty monarchs of Spain and Hungary, and promulgating the law of the Church Universal before the assembled prelates of Christendom in the Lateran Council.

Nevertheless, the many-sided Pontiff had not less near to his heart the spiritual and intellectual than the political direction of the universe. He had the utmost zeal for the extension of the kingdom of Christ. The affair of the crusade was, as we shall see, ever his most pressing care, and it was his bitterest grief that all his efforts to rouse the Christian world for the recovery of Jerusalem fell on deaf ears. He was strenuous in upholding orthodoxy against the daring heretics of Southern France. He was sympathetic and considerate to great religious teachers, like Francis and Dominic, from whose work he had the wisdom to anticipate the revival of the inner life of the Church. As many-sided as strong, and successful as he was strong, Innocent III represents it worthily and adequately.

Even before Innocent had attained the chair of Peter, the worst dangers that had so long beset the successors of Alexander III were over. After the death of Henry VI, the Sicilian and the German crowns were separated, and the strong anti-imperial reaction that burst out all over Italy against the oppressive ministers of Henry VI was allowed to run its full course. The danger was not so much of despotism as of anarchy, and Innocent, like Hildebrand, knew how to turn confusion to the advantage of hierarchy.

No real effort was made to obtain for the little Frederick the crowns of both Germany and Sicily. While Philip of Swabia, her brother-in-law, hurried to Germany to maintain, if he could, the unity of the Hohenstaufen empire, Constance was quite content to secure her son’s succession in Naples and Sicily by renewing the homage due to the Pope.

Having thus obtained the indispensable papal confirmation, Constance ruled in Naples as a national queen in the name of the little Frederick. She drove away the German bandits, who had made the name of her husband a terror to her subjects. Markwald of Anweiler left his Apulian fiefs2

for Romagna. But the Pope joined with Constance in hostility to the Germans. Without Innocent’s strong and constant support she could hardly have carried out her policy. Recognizing in the renewal of the old papal protection the best hopes for the independence of Sicily, Constance, on her death in 1198, called on Innocent III to act as the guardian of her son. Innocent loyally took up her work, and struggled with all his might to preserve the kingdom of Frederick against his many enemies. But the contest was a long and a fierce one.

No sooner was Constance dead than the Germans came back to their prey. The fierce Markwald, driven from Romagna by the papal triumph, claimed the regency and the custody of the King. The Saracens and Greeks of Sicily, still numerous and active, joined the Germans. Walter, Bishop of Troja, Chancellor of Sicily, weaved deep plots against his master and his overlord. But the general support of the Church gave Innocent a strong weapon. Roffrid, Abbot of Monte Casino, a tried friend of Henry VI, declared for Innocent against Markwald, who in revenge besieged the great monastery, until a summer storm drove him baffled from its walls. But the purchased support of Pisa gave Markwald the command of the Sea, and Innocent had too many schemes on foot and too little military power at his command to be able to make easy headway against him.

At last Innocent had reluctant recourse to Count Walter of Brienne, the French husband of Tancred’s daughter Albina, and now a claimant for the hereditary fiefs of Tancred, Lecce, and Taranto, from which, despite Henry VI’s promise, he had long been driven. For almost the first time in Italian history, Frenchmen were thus called in to drive out the Germans. But it was then as afterward a dangerous experiment. Walter of Brienne and his small French following invaded Apulia, and fought hard against Diepold of Acerra, another of King Henry’s Germans. Meanwhile Markwald, now in open alliance with the Bishop of Troja, made himself master of Sicily and regent of the young King. His death in 1202 removed the most dangerous enemy of both Innocent and Frederick. But the war dragged on for years in Apulia, especially after Diepold had slain Walter of Brienne. The turbulent feudal barons of Apulia and Sicily profited by this long reign of anarchy to establish themselves on a permanent basis. At last Innocent sent his own brother, Richard, Count of Segni, to root out the last of the Germans. So successful was he that, in 1208, the Pope himself visited the kingdom of his ward, and arranged for its future government by native lords, helped by his brother, who now received a rich Apulian fief. It was Innocent’s glory that he had secured for Frederick the whole Norman inheritance. It was amid such storms and troubles that the young Frederick grew up to manhood.

In Central and Northern Italy, Innocent III was more speedily successful than in the South. On Philip of Swabia’s return to Germany, Tuscany and the domains of the Countess Matilda fell away from their foreign lord, and invoked the protection of the Church. The Tuscan cities formed themselves into a new league under papal protection. Only Pisa, proud of her sea power, wealth, and trade, held aloof from the combination. It seemed as if, after a century of delays, the papacy was going to enjoy the inheritance of Matilda,3

and Innocent eagerly set himself to work to provide for its administration. In the north the Pope maintained friendly relations with the rival communities of the Lombard plain. But his most immediate and brilliant triumph was in establishing his authority over Rome and the Patrimony of St. Peter. On his accession he found his lands just throwing off the yoke of the German garrisons that had kept them in subjection during Henry VI’s lifetime. He saw within the city power divided between the praefectus urbis, the delegate of the Emperor, and the summus senator, the mouthpiece of the Roman commune.

Within a month the prefect ceased to be an Imperial officer, and became the servant of the papacy, bound to it by fealty oaths, and receiving from it his office. Within a year the senator also had become the papal nominee, and the whole municipality was controlled by the Pope. No less complete was Innocent’s triumph over the nobility of the Campagua. He drove Conrad of Urslingen back to Germany, and restored Spoleto to papal rule. He chased Markwald from Romagna and the March of Ancona to Apulia, and exercised sovereign rights even in the most remote regions that acknowledged him as lord. If it was no very real sway that Innocent wielded, it at least allowed the town leagues and the rustic nobility to go on in their own way, and made it possible for Italy to work out ifs own destinies. More powerful and more feared in Italy than any of his predecessors, Innocent could contentedly watch the anti-imperial reaction extending over the Alps and desolating Germany by civil war.

Despite the precautions taken by Henry VI, it was soon clear that the German princes would not accept the hereditary rule of a child of three. Philip of Swabia abandoned his Italian domains and hurried to Germany, anxious to do his best for his nephew. But he soon perceived that Frederick’s chances were hopeless, and that it was all that he could do to prevent the undisputed election of a Guelf. He was favored by the absence of the two elder sons of Henry the Lion. Henry of Brunswick the eldest, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, was away on a crusade, and was loyal to the Hohenstaufen, since his happy marriage with Agnes. The next son Otto, born at Argenton during his father’s first exile, had never seen much of Germany. Brought up at his uncle Richard of Anjou’s court, Otto had received many marks of Richard’s favor, and looked up to the chivalrous, adventurous King as an ideal of a warrior prince. Richard had made him Earl of Yorkshire, and had invested him in 1196 with the country of Poitou, that he might learn war and statecraft in the same rude school in which Richard had first acquainted himself with arms and politics. Even now Otto was not more than seventeen years of age. Richard himself, as the new vassal of the Empire for Arles and England, was duly summoned to the electoral diet, but his representatives impolitically urged the claims of Count Henry, who was ruled ineligible on account of his absence. Thus it was that when the German magnates at last met for the election on the 8th of March, 1198, at Muehlhausen, their choice fell on Philip the Arabian, who took the title of Philip II.

Many of the magnates had absented themselves from the diet at Muehlhausen, and an irreconcilable band of partisans refused to be bound by its decisions. Richard of England now worked actively for Otto, his favorite nephew, and found support both in the old allies of the Angevins in the Lower Rhineland and the ancient supporters of the house of Guelf. Germany was thus divided into two parties, who completely ignored each other’s acts. Three months after the diet of Muehlhausen, another diet met at Cologne and chose Otto of Brunswick as King of the Romans. Three days afterward the young prince was crowned at Aachen.

A ten-years’ civil war between Philip II and Otto IV now devastated the Germany that Barbarossa and Henry VI had left so prosperous. The majority of the princes remained firm to Philip, who also had the support of the strong and homogeneous official class of ministeriales that had been the best helpers of his father and brother. Nevertheless, Otto had enough of a party to carry on the struggle. On his side was Cologne, the great mart of Lower Germany, so important from its close trading relations with England, and now gradually shaking itself free of its archbishops. The friendship of Canute of Denmark and the Guelf tradition combined to give him his earliest and greatest success in the North. It was the interest of the baronage to prolong a struggle which secured their own independence at the expense of the central authority. Both parties looked for outside help. Otto, besides his Danish friends, relied on his uncle Richard, and, after his death, on his uncle John. Philip formed a league with his namesake Philip of France. But distant princes could do but little to determine the result of the contest. It was of more moment that both appealed to Innocent III, and that the Pope willingly accepted the position of arbiter. "The settlement of this matter," he declared, "belongs to the apostolic see, mainly because it was the apostolic see that transferred the Empire from the East to the West, and ultimately because the same see confers the Imperial crown."

In March, 1201, Innocent issued his decision. "We pronounce," he declared, "Philip unworthy of empire, and absolve all who have taken oaths of fealty to him as king. Inasmuch as our dearest son in Christ, Otto, is industrious, discreet, strong, and constant, himself devoted to the Church and descended on each side from a devout stock, we, by the authority of St. Peter, receive him as king, and will in due course bestow upon him the imperial crown." The grateful Otto promised in return to maintain all the possessions and privileges of the Roman Church, including the inheritance of the countess Matilda.

Philip of Swabia still held his own, and the extravagance of the papal claim led to many of the bishops as well as the lay magnates of Germany joining in a declaration that no former pope had ever presumed to interfere in an imperial election. But the swords of his German followers were a stronger argument in favor of Philip’s claims than the protests of his supporters against papal assumptions. As time went on, the Hohenstaufen slowly got the better of the Guelfs. With the falling away of the North, Otto’s cause became distinctly the losing one. In 1206, Otto was defeated outside the walls of Cologne, and the great trading city was forced to transfer its obedience to his rival. In 1207 Philip became so strong that Innocent was constrained to reconsider his position and suggested to Otto the propriety of renouncing his claims. But in June, 1208, Philip was treacherously murdered at Bamberg by his faithless vassal, Otto of Wittelsbach, to whom he had refused his daughter’s hand. It was no political crime, but a deed of private vengeance. It secured, however, the position of Otto, for the ministeriales now transferred their allegiance to him, and there was no Hohenstaufen candidate ready to oppose him. Otto, moreover, did not scruple to undergo a fresh election which secured for him universal recognition in Germany. By marrying Beatrice, Philip of Swabia’s daughter, he sought to unite the rival houses, while he conciliated Innocent by describing himself as King "by the grace of God and the Pope." Next year he crossed the Alps to Italy, and bound himself by oath, not only to allow the papacy the privileges that he had already granted, but to grant complete freedom of ecclesiastical elections, and to support the Pope in his struggle against heresy. In October, 1209, he was crowned Emperor at Rome. After ten years of waiting, Innocent, already master of Italy, had procured for his dependent both the German kingdom and the Roman Empire.

Despite his preoccupation with Italy and Germany, the early years of Innocent’s pontificate saw him busily engaged in upholding the papal authority and the moral order of the Church in every country in Europe. No consideration of the immediate interests of the Roman see ever prevented him from maintaining his principles even against powerful sovereigns who could do much to help forward his general plans. The most conspicuous instance of this was Innocent’s famous quarrel with Philip Augustus of France, when to vindicate a simple principle of Christian morals he did not hesitate to abandon the alliance of the "eldest son of the Church" at a time when the fortunes of the papacy were everywhere doubtful. Philip’s first wife, Isabella of Hainault, the mother of the future Louis VIII, had died in 1190, just before her husband had started on his crusade. In 1193 Philip negotiated a second marriage with Ingeborg, the sister of Canute VI, the powerful King of Denmark, hoping to obtain from his Danish brother-in-law substantial help against England and the Empire. Philip did not get the expected political advantages from the new connection, and at once took a strong dislike to the lady. On the day after the marriage Philip refused to have anything more to do with his bride. Within three months, he persuaded a synod of complaisant French bishops of Compiegne to pronounce the marriage void by reason of a remote kinship that existed between the two parties.

Ingeborg was young, timid, friendless, helpless, and utterly ignorant of the French tongue, but King Canute took up her cause, and, from her retreat in a French convent, she appealed to Rome against the wickedness of the French King and clergy. Celestine III proved her friend, and finding protestations of no avail, he finally quashed the sentence of the French bishops and declared her the lawful wife of the French King. But Philip persisted in his repudiation of Ingeborg, and Celestine contented himself with remonstrances and warnings that were utterly disregarded. In 1196 Philip found a fresh wife in Agnes,, a lady of the powerful house of Andechs-Meran, whose authority was great in Thuringia, and whose Alpine lordships soon developed into the country of Tyrol.

Innocent at once proved a stronger champion of Ingeborg than the weak and aged Celestine. He forthwith warned Philip and the French bishops that they had no right to put asunder those whom God had joined together. "Recall your lawful wife," he wrote to Philip, "and then we will hear all that you can righteously urge. If you do not do this, no power shall move us to right or left, until justice be done." A papal legate was now sent to France, threatening excommunication and interdict, were Ingeborg not immediately reinstated in her place. For a few months the Pope hesitated, moved, no doubt, by his Italian and German troubles, and fearful lest his action against a Christian prince should delay the hoped-for crusade. But he gradually turned the leaders of the French clergy from their support of Philip, and at last, in February, 1200, an interdict was pronounced forbidding the public celebration of the rites of the Church in the whole lands that owed obedience to the King of France.

Philip Augustus held out fiercely for a time, declaring that he would rather lose half his lands than be separated from Agnes. Meanwhile he used pressure on his bishops to make them disregard the interdict, and vigorously intrigued with the cardinals, seeking to build up a French party in the papal curia. Innocent so far showed complacency that the legate he sent to France was the King’s kinsman, Octavin, Cardinal-bishop of Ostia, who was anxious to make Philip’s humiliation as light as possible. His labors were eased by the partial submission of Philip, who in September visited Ingeborg, and promised to take her again as his wife, and so gave an excuse to end the interdict. Philip still claimed that his marriage should be dissolved; though here again he suddenly abandoned a suit which he probably saw was hopeless. The death of Agnes of Meran in July, 1201, made a complete reconciliation less difficult. Next year the Pope legitimated the children of Agnes and Philip, on the ground that the sentence of divorce, pronounced by the French bishops, gave the King reasonable grounds for entering in good faith on his union with her. Ingeborg was still refused the rights of a queen, and constantly besought the Pope to have pity on her forlorn condition. The Pope was now forced to content himself with remonstrances. Philip declared that a baleful charm separated him from Ingeborg, and again begged the Pope to divorce him from a union based on sorcery and witchcraft.

The growing need of the French alliance now somewhat slackened the early zeal of Innocent for the cause of the Queen. But no real cordiality was possible as long as the strained relations of Ingeborg and Philip continued. At last, in 1213, in the very crisis of his fortunes, Philip completed his tardy reconciliation with his wife, after they had been separated for twenty years. Henceforth Philip was the most active ally of the papacy.

While thus dealing with Philip of France, Innocent enjoyed easier triumphs over the lesser kings of Europe. It was his ambition to break through the traditional limits that separated the church from the state, and to bind as many as he could of the kings of Europe to the papacy by ties of political vassalage. The time-honored feudal superiority of the popes over the Norman kingdom of Sicily had been the first precedent for this most unecclesiastical of all papal aggressions. Already others of the smaller kingdoms of Europe, conspicuous among which was Portugal, had followed the example of the Normans in becoming vassals of the holy see. Under Innocent at least three states supplemented ecclesiastical by political dependence on the papacy. Sancho, King of Portugal, who had striven to repudiate the former submission of Alfonso I, was in the end forced to accept the papal suzerainty. Peter, King of Aragon, went in 1204 to Rome and was solemnly crowned king by Innocent. Afterward Peter deposited his crown on the high altar of St. Peter’s and condescended to receive the investiture of his kingdom from the Pope, holding it as a perpetual fief of the holy see, and promising tribute to Innocent and his successors. In 1213 a greater monarch than the struggling Christian kings of the Iberian peninsula was forced, after a long struggle, to make an even more abject submission.

The long strife of Innocent with John of Anjou, about the disputed election to the see of Canterbury, was fought with the same weapons which the Pope had already employed against the King of France. But John held out longer. Interdict was followed by excommunication and threatened deposition. At last the English King surrendered his crown to the papal agent Pandulf, and, like Peter of Aragon, received it back as a vassal of the papacy, bound by an annual tribute.

Nor were these the only kings that sought the support of the great Pope. The schismatic princes of the East vied in ardor with the Catholic princes of the West in their quest of Innocent’s favor. King Leo of Armenia begged for his protection. The Bulgarian prince John besought the Pope to grant him a royal crown. Innocent posed as a mediator in Hungary between the two brothers, Emeric and Andrew, who were struggling for the crown. Canute of Denmark, zealous for his sister’s honor, was his humble suppliant. Poland was equally obedient. The Duke of Bohemia accepted the papal reproof for allying himself with Philip of Swabia.

Despite his vigor and his authority, Innocent’s constant interference with the internal concerns of every country in Europe did not pass unchallenged. Even the kings who invoked his intercession were constantly in conflict with him. Besides his great quarrels in Germany, France, and England, Innocent had many minor wars to wage against the princes of Europe. For five years the kingdom of Leon lay under interdict because its king Alfonso had married his cousin, Berengaria of Castile, in the hope of securing the peace between the two realms. It was only after the lady had borne five children to Alfonso that she voluntarily terminated the obnoxious union, and Innocent found it prudent, as in France, to legitimize the offspring of a marriage which he had denounced as incestuous. Not one of the princes of the peninsula was spared. Sancho of Navarre incurred interdict by reason of suspected dealings with the Saracens, while the marriage of his sister with Peter of Aragon, the vassal of the Pope, involved both kings in a contest with Innocent. Not only did the monarchs of Europe resent, so far as they were able, the Pope’s haughty policy; for the first time the peoples of their realms began to make common cause with them against the political aggressions of the papacy. The nobles of Aragon protested against King Peter’s submission to the papacy, declared that his surrender of their kingdom was invalid, and prevented the payment of the promised tribute. When John of England procured his Roman overlord’s condemnation of Magna Charta, the support of Rome was of no avail to prevent his indignant subjects combining to drive him from the throne, and did not even hinder Louis of France, the son of the papalist Philip II, from accepting their invitation to become English king in his stead. It was only by a repudiation of this policy, and by an acceptance of the Great Charter, that the papacy could secure the English throne for John’s young son, Henry III, and thus continue for a time its precarious overlordship over England.

For the moment Innocent’s iron policy crushed opposition, but in adding the new hostility of the national kings and the rising nations of Europe to the old hostility of the declining empire, Innocent was entering into a perilous course of conduct, which, within a century, was to prove fatal to one of the strongest of his successors. The more political the papal authority became, the more difficult it was to uphold its prestige as the source of law, of morality, of religion. Innocent himself did not lose sight of the higher ideal because he strove so firmly after more earthly aims. His successors were not always so able or so high-minded. And it was as the protectors of the people, not as the enemies of their political rights, that the great popes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had obtained their wonderful ascendency over the best minds of Europe.

The coronation of Otto IV did not end Innocent’s troubles with the Empire. It was soon followed by an open breach between the Pope and his nominee, from which ultimately developed something like a general European war, between a league of partisans of the Pope and a league of partisans of Otto. It was inevitable that Otto, as a crowned emperor, should look upon the papal power in a way very different from that in which he had regarded it when a faction leader struggling for the crown. Then the support of the Pope was indispensable. Now the autocracy of the Pope was to be feared. The Hohenstaufen ministeriales, who now surrounded the Guelfic Emperor, raised his ideals and modified his policy. Henry of Kalden, the old minister of Henry VI, was now his closest confidant, and under his direction it soon became Otto’s ambition to continue the policy of the Hohenstaufen. The great object of Henry VI had been the union of Sicily with the Empire. To the alarm and disgust of Innocent, his ancient dependent now strove to continue Henry VI’s policy by driving out Henry VI’s son from his Sicilian inheritance. Otto now established relations with Diepold and the other German adventurers, who still defied Frederick II and the Pope in Apulia. He soon claimed the inheritance of Matilda as well as the Sicilian monarchy. In August, 1210, he occupied Matilda’s Tuscan lands, and in November invaded Apulia, and prepared to despatch a Pisan fleet against Sicily. Innocent was moved to a terrible wrath. On hearing of the capture of Capua, and the revolt of Salerno and Naples, he excommunicated the Emperor and freed his subjects from their oaths of fealty to him. But, despite the threats of the Church, Otto conquered most of Apulia and was equally successful in reviving the Imperial authority in Northern Italy.

Innocent saw the power that he had built up so carefully in Italy crumbling rapidly away. In his despair he turned to France and Germany for help against the audacious Guelf. Philip Augustus, though still in bad odor at Rome through his persistent hostility to Ingeborg, was now an indispensable ally. He actively threw himself into the Pope’s policy, and French and papal agents combined to stir up disaffection against Otto in Germany. The haughty manners and the love of the young King for Englishmen and Saxons had already excited disaffection. It was believed that Otto wished to set up a centralized despotism of court officials, levying huge taxes on the model of the Angevin administrative system of his grandfathers and uncles. The bishops now took the lead in organizing a general defection from the absent Emperor. In September, 1211, a gathering of disaffected magnates, among whom were the newly made king Ottocar of Bohemia and the dukes of Austria and Bavaria, assembled at Nuremberg. They treated the papal sentence as the deposition of Otto, and pledged themselves to elect as their new king Frederick of Sicily, the sometime ward of the Pope. It was not altogether good news to the Pope that the German nobles had, in choosing the son of Henry VI, renewed the union of German and Sicily. But Innocent felt that the need of setting up an effective opposition to Otto was so pressing that he put out of sight the general in favor of the immediate interests of the Roman see. He accepted Frederick as emperor, only stipulating that he should renew his homage for the Sicilian crown, and consequently renounce an inalienable union between Sicily and the Empire. Frederick now left Sicily, repeated his submission to Innocent at Rome, and crossed the Alps for Germany.

Otto had already abandoned Italy to meet the threatened danger in the North. Misfortunes soon showered thick upon him. His Hohenstaufen wife, Beatrice, died, and her loss lessened his hold on Southern Germany. When Frederick appeared, Swabia and Bavaria were already eager to welcome the heir of the mighty southern line, and aid him against the audacious Saxon. The spiritual magnates flocked to the side of the friend and pupil of the Pope. In December, 1212, followed Frederick’s formal election and his coronation at Mainz by the archbishop Siegfried. Early in 1213 Henry of Kalden appeared at his court. Henceforward the important class of the ministeriales was divided. While some remained true to Otto, others gradually went back to the personal representative of Hohenstaufen.

Otto was now thrown back on Saxony and the Lower Rhineland. He again took up his quarters with the faithful citizens of Cologne, when he appealed for help to his uncle, John of England, still under the papal ban. With English help he united the princes of the Netherlands in a party of opposition to the Pope and the Hohenstaufen. Frederick answered by a closer and a more effective league with France. Even before his coronation he had met Louis, the son of Philip Augustus, at Vaucouleurs. All Europe seemed arming at the bidding of the Pope and Emperor.

John of England now hastily reconciled himself to Innocent, at the price of the independence of his kingdom. He thus became in a better position to aid his excommunicated nephew, and revenge the loss of Normandy and Anjou on Philip Augustus. His plan was now a twofold one. He himself summoned the barons of England to follow him in an attempt to recover his ancient lands on the Loire. Meanwhile, Otto and the Netherlandish lords were encouraged, by substantial English help, to carry out a combined attack on France from the north. The opposition of the English barons reduced to comparative insignificance the expedition to Poitou, but a very considerable army gathered together under Otto, and took up its position in the neighborhood of Tournai. Among the French King’s vassals, Ferrand, Count of Flanders, long hostile to his overlord Philip, and the Count of Boulogne fought strenuously on Otto’s side; while, of the Imperial vassals, the Count of Holland and Duke of Brabant (Lower Lorraine) were among Otto’s most active supporters. A considerable English contingent came also, headed by Otto’s bastard uncle, William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury. Philip himself commanded the chivalry of France, leaving his son Louis to fight against John in Poitou. On July 27th the decisive battle was fought at Bouvines, a few miles southwest of Tournai. The army of France and Church gained an overwhelming victory over the league which had incurred the papal ban, and Otto’s fortunes were utterly shattered. He soon lost all his hold over the Rhineland, and was forced to retreat to the ancient domains of his house in Saxony. His remaining friends made their peace with Philip and Frederick. The defection of the Wittelsbachers lost his last hold in the south of Germany, and the desertion of Valdemar of Denmark deprived him of a strong friend in the North. John withdrew from Continental politics to be beaten more decisively by his barons than he had been beaten in Poitou or at Bouvines.

Frederick II was now undisputed King of the Romans, and Innocent III had won another triumph. By the Golden Bull of Eger (July, 1213) Frederick had already renewed the concessions made by Otto to the Church, and promised obedience to the holy see. In 1216 he pledged himself to separate Sicily from the Empire, and establish his son Henry there as king, under the supremacy of the Church. But, like his other triumphs, Innocent’s victory over the Empire was purchased at no small cost. For the first time, a German national irritation at the aggressions of the papacy began to be distinctly felt. It found an adequate expression in the indignant verses of Walther von der Vogelweide, protesting against the priests who strove to upset the rights of the laity, and denouncing the greed and pride of the foreigners who profited by the humiliation of Germany.

Amid all the distractions of western politics, Innocent III ardently strove to revive the crusading spirit. He never succeeded in raising all Europe, as several of his predecessors had done. But after great efforts, and the eloquent preaching of Fulk of Neuilly he stirred up a fair amount of enthusiasm for the crusading cause, and, in 1204, a considerable crusading army, mainly French, mustered at Venice. It was the bitterest disappointment of Innocent’s life that the Fourth Crusade never reached Palestine, but was diverted to the conquest of the Greek empire. Yet the establishment of a Catholic Latin empire at Constantinople, at the expense of the Greek schismatics, was no small triumph. Not disheartened by his first failure, Innocent still urged upon Europe the need of the holy war. If no expedition against the Saracens of Syria marked the result of his efforts, his pontificate saw the extension of the crusading movement to other lands. Innocent preached the crusade against the Moors of Spain, and rejoiced in the news of the momentous victory of the Christians at Navas de Tolosa. He saw the beginnings of a fresh crusade against the obstinate heathen on the eastern shores of the Baltic.

But all these crusades were against pagans and infidels. Innocent made a much greater new departure when he proclaimed the first crusade directed against a Christian land. The Albigensian crusade succeeded in destroying the most dangerous and widespread popular heresy that Christianity had witnessed since the fall of the Roman Empire, and Innocent rejoiced that his times saw the Church purged of its worst blemish. But in extending the benefits of a crusade to Christians fighting against Christians, he handed on a precedent which was soon fatally abused by his successors. In crushing out the young national life of Southern France the papacy again set a people against itself. The denunciations of the German Minnesinger were reechoed in the complaints of the last of the Troubadours. Rome had ceased to do harm to Turks and Saracens, but had stirred up Christians to war against fellow-Christians. God and his saints abandon the greedy, the strife-loving, the unjust worldly Church. The picture is darkly colored by a partisan, but in every triumph of Innocent there lay the shadow of future trouble.

Crusades, even against heretics and infidels, are the work of earthly force rather than of spiritual influence. It was to build up the great outward corporation of the Church that all these labors of Innocent mainly tended. Even his additions to the canon law, his reforms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, dealt with the external rather than the internal life of the Church. The criticism of James of Vitry, that the Roman curia was so busy in secular affairs that it hardly turned a thought to spiritual things, is clearly applicable to much of Innocent’s activity. But the many-sided Pope did not ignore the religious wants of the Church. His crusade against heresy was no mere war against enemies of the wealth and power of the Church. The new tendencies that were to transform the spiritual life of the thirteenth century were not strange to him. He favored the early work of Dominic; he had personal dealings with Francis, and showed his sympathy with the early work of the poor man of Assisi. But it is as the conqueror and organizer rather than the priest or prophet that Innocent made his mark in the Church. It is significant that, with all his greatness, he never attained the honors of sanctity.

Toward the end of his life, Innocent held a general council in the basilica of St. John Lateran. A vast gathering of bishops heads of orders, and secular dignitaries gave brilliancy to the gathering and enhanced the glory of the Pontiff. Enthroned over more than four hundred bishops, the Pope proudly declared the law to the world. "Two things we have specially to heart," wrote Innocent, in summoning the assembly, "the deliverance of the Holy Land and the reform of the Church Universal." In its vast collection of seventy canons, the Lateran Council strove hard to carry out the Pope’s programme. It condemned the dying heresies of the Albigenses and the Cathari, and prescribed the methods and punishments of the unrepentant heretic. It strove to rekindle zeal for the crusade. It drew up a drastic scheme for reforming the internal life and discipline of the Church. It strove to elevate the morals and the learning of the clergy, to check their worldliness and covetousness, and to restrain them from abusing the authority of the Church through excess of zeal or more corrupt motives. It invited bishops to set up free schools to teach poor scholars grammar and theology. It forbade trial by battle and trial by ordeal. It subjected the existing monastic orders to stricter superintendence, and forbade the establishment of new monastic rules. It forbade superstitious practices and the worship of spurious or unauthorized relics.

The whole series of canons sought to regulate and ameliorate the influence of the Church on society. If many of the abuses aimed at were too deeply rooted to be overthrown by mere legislation, the attempt speaks well for the character and intelligence of Pope and council. All medieval lawmaking, civil and ecclesiastical alike, was but the promulgation of an ideal, rather than the issuing of precepts meant to be literally executed. But no more serious attempt at rooting out inveterate evils was ever made in the Middle Ages than in this council.

The formal enunciation of this lofty programme of reform brought Innocent’s pontificate to a glorious end. The Pontiff devoted what little remained of his life to hurrying on the preparations for the projected crusade, which was to set out 1217. But in the summer of 1216 Innocent died at Perugia, when only fifty-six years old. If not the greatest he was the most powerful of all the popes. For nearly twenty years the whole history of Europe groups itself round his doings.

1Peter’s Patrimony was an administrative division of the Papal States, situated in Central Italy northwest of the Roman Campagna.—ED.

2Apulia, a former duchy, was now a part of the Two Sicilies.

3Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, also ruler of a large part of Northern Italy, died about 1115, bequeathing her possessions to the papacy, which she had supported in its struggle with the Empire. The execution of her will had been prevented by the Imperial power.


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Chicago: T. F. Tout, "Innocent III Exalts the Papal Power," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024,

MLA: Tout, T. F. "Innocent III Exalts the Papal Power." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Tout, TF, 'Innocent III Exalts the Papal Power' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from