The Achievements of Pope Gregory I.

Lauren George, Dickson College, 2008

Gregory the Great

Among his list of titles, Pope Gregory I is most commonly known as ‘Gregory the Great’. The reason for his ‘greatness’ (other than O’Donnell’s claim that it is to distinguish him from the Gregory’s of Nyssa and Nazianzen) can be drawn from the writings of Bede, which in turn has led to writings of praise from other accomplished authors. Born in approximately 540 A.D. and descending from a religious and noble background, Gregory’s pontificate spanned fourteen years until his death in the year 604 A.D, and has been commended ever since. In accordance with Bede’s statement that “…Gregory’s sole concern was to save souls” [1] , his greatest achievement during his papacy was the conversion of the English people; in effect saving them from the falsehoods of pagan worship. Gregory was head of the Roman apostolic see at the time of Roman warfare and hardship, and whilst continuing to administer the church he also put an immense amount of effort into fighting off the Lombards. Throughout his papacy, although plagued with illness [2], Gregory earned such a name for himself that he was canonized upon his death.

Before dedicating himself to life as a monk, Gregory was employed in the administration of Rome. As Gregory’s father Gordian had been a nobleman himself, it would have been likely for Gregory to follow in his footsteps and earn employment as a magistrate and a prefect of the city of Rome [3]. Without other knowledge of his activities at this time, we can assume that Gregory worked in the administration of his city until around the time he was in his early thirties. It was then, in approximately 574 that according to Kevin Knight it was “after long prayer and inward struggle” that “… Gregory decided to abandon everything and become a monk.” [4]. Upon becoming a monk and devoting himself to his religion, Gregory used both his own amassed wealth, as well as that of his family, to finance the creation of seven monasteries. He turned six Sicilian estates, as well as his own family’s home into monasteries [5]. The monastery created out of his own Caelian Hill mansion became that of St. Andrews and was where Gregory resided and practised being a monk. According to Knight, Gregory resided happily for three years within the monastery practising his religion. In Bede’s work, he is noted as saying how hard it had been to leave the simple, prayer-filled life of the monastery for his role as pope,

"My pastoral responsibilities now compel me to have dealings with worldly men, and after the unclouded beauty of my former peace, it seems that my mind is bespattered with the mire of daily affairs. … So when I compare what I now endure with what I have lost, and when I weigh that loss, my burden seems greater than ever." [6]

Before becoming pope however, Gregory was called upon by Pelagius the third, the pope at the time, to provide himself for duties to the church and was made one of the seven deacons of Rome [7]. Much against his wills, Gregory was then sent by Pelagius to Constantinople’s imperial court as an ambassador to the Byzantine Empire [8]. Gregory’s posting apparently lasted six years, when he returned to Rome in 585.

Pope Pelagius III left Rome in a state of turmoil upon his death in 590, which was somewhat resolved by the actions of Gregory. The city was continually exposed to the threat of barbarian invasion at the hands of the Lombards when Gregory was unanimously chosen to succeed Pelagius [9]. It was the emperor’s role to organise the city’s defences, but according to Dowley, Gregory was still forced to assist due to inadequacies of Emperor Maurice. Dowley writes that Pope Gregory,

“… provisioned the city and provided for its defence, sent orders to generals in the field, negotiated with the Lombards and finally concluded peace without the Emperor’s authorization”.

This claim is furthered by Baum’s reports that the truce Gregory organised with the Lombards was finalised in 593 [10].

Whilst helping to overcome Barbarian invasion, Gregory was also providing administration work for the estates of the church, and was strengthening the churches in Gaul and Spain. Gregory wrote several significant books on his religion throughout his papacy, which “did much to form the minds of the men of the dark ages[11]. His writings included ‘The Pastoral Office’, which was meant as a reference for future rulers of the church as to how they should live and how they should advise their followers, as well as forty ‘Homilies’ on the gospel, ‘Morals’ on the book of Job, four books of ‘Dialogue’, and the ‘Synodical Book’, which also dealt with the administration of the church. The vast extent of administrative and written work he completed during this timeframe contributed to Gregory’s successes as pope.

The Christian conversion of the English people was undeniably Pope Gregory’s greatest accomplishment. Gregory’s interest in the people of the English nation was sparked before his papacy, somewhere between 585 and 590 A.D. Bede records this in Chapter One of his second book when he states that before becoming pope, Gregory was walking through a market when he saw a number of boys for sale. The boys were unusual in appearance, as they had “fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair” (p.119), which in turn led to Gregory’s curiosity. Unsure of their ethnic background, Gregory was informed that the slave boys were Angles. Gregory, somewhat famously exclaimed that they should in fact be referred to as ‘angels’, and was intent that they should be exposed to the divinity of the Christian religion, rather than the falsity of their own pagan beliefs. When Gregory had asked Pope Pelagius III if he himself could convert the Angles, he was not permitted, and his intentions were put on hold. It was not until the year 597 A.D. that Augustine and other missionaries landed on the English island of Thanet, at the orders of Pope Gregory I [12]. Within a few years the British people had accepted the faith, and Gregory’s dreams became a reality. With the Angles, Saxons and Jutes converted; Augustine was consecrated bishop and sent the pallium by Gregory I. Although it was not physically Gregory who converted the English (due to his duties to the Roman Church), it was something that he had organised and had every intention of doing himself.

Pope Gregory I’s accomplishments during his thirteen-year reign as pontiff earned him the title ‘Gregory the Great’. Gregory’s commitment and perseverance to his daily tasks, even throughout chronicled bouts of gout and fever, means that he has continued to be held in high regard, long after his followers had passed into the afterlife. Gregory’s conversion of the English people, although not deserving of his ‘Great’ title on it’s own, was a large achievement for the Christian faith. His passion and care for his followers, displayed by the amount of work he put in to fighting off the Lombards, whilst still looking after the faith of his people however, proves that he is not undeserving of the title. The impact Gregory had on the men of the dark ages, as well as the influence he was likely to have had on the generations to come, has resulted in a title that assures his achievements will never be forgotten.

Baum, Wilhelm 2001, Maurice (582-602 A.D.) [ON-LINE],, Date of Access: 30.05.08

Bede 1990 Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Victoria, Australia

Dowley, Dr. T. 1977 The History of Christianity, Anzea Books, N.S.W, Australia

Encarta 05 encyclopedia [CD-ROM] 2005, Microsoft, Redmond, WA.

Knight, Kevin 2008, Pope St. Gregory I (“the Great”) [ON-LINE],, Date of Access: 12.03.08

O’Donnell, James J., The Holiness of Gregory [ON-LINE],, Date of Access: 14.05.08

St. Emiliana [ON-LINE],,
Date of Access: 17.15.08

St. Gregory I, The Great [ON-LINE],, Date of Access: 14.05.08
  1. ^ p.101
  2. ^ Bede, p.101
  3. ^ Dowley, 1977 p. 195
  4. ^ Knight, Pope St. Gregory I (“the Great”)
  5. ^ St. Gregory I, The Great
  6. ^ Bede, p. 99
  7. ^ Knight, Pope St. Gregory I (“the Great”)
  8. ^ St. Gregory I, The Great
  9. ^ St. Gregory I, The Great
  10. ^ Baum, 2001
  11. ^ St. Gregory I, The Great
  12. ^ Bede, p. 119