The Papacy of Innocent III
Pope Innocent III (1198 - 1216)
Pope Innocent III (1198 - 1216)


Laura McGuffog, Dickson College 2008



Pope Innocent the III is regarded as the most influential pope of the Middle Ages as he was able to successfully deal with the problems that faced his papacy. Innocent worked tirelessly towards diminishing the gap between state and church and amassing papal power. He addressed the threat of heresy and paganism through the crusades and by developing the church’s internal administration. Even after his death, Innocent’s III teachings continued to shape and direct the Church, as his work was preserved within the doctrines of the Fourth Lateran Council. Under Innocent III the Roman Catholic Church rose to become one of Europe’s leading political powers. His reign became an archetype for his successors; exemplifying what could be achieved should a pope choose to rule as Christ’s vicar, second only to God.


Before the reign of Innocent III, the papacy had rarely become involved within the political affairs of the Christendom. Innocent III was determined however to bridge the divide between church and state, confident that as pope he had been awarded both the apostolic powers of Peter and... the temporal power of the Roman emperors (Packard, Sidney R. 1927). When Emperor Henry VI died in 1197 Innocent III seized the opportunity to assert his right to confer the imperial throne.


It is the business of the pope to look after the interests of the Roman empire, since the empire derives its origin and its final authority from the papacy… the emperor is raised to his position by the pope who blesses him, crowns him, and invests him with the empire.... (Halsall, Paul 1998).


Innocent III continued to impose his authority over the principalities of Europe throughout his reign. England in particular was targeted as its ruler, King John, failed to acknowledge Innocent’s III entitlement to direct all ecclesiastical clauses. In an effort to exert his dominance, Innocent III excommunicated England’s king and placed the country under interdict. His will prevailed in 1213, when King John issued a formal charter of submission:


… we wish it be known to all of you that we offer and freely yield to… the Holy Roman Church our mother, and to our lord pope Innocent III… the whole kingdom of England and… Ireland… and now, receiving back these kingdoms… as a feudatory vassal… (Halsall, Paul 1998).


The strong leadership and political maneuvering of Pope Innocent III, firmly established the papacy’s right to dictate the temporal concerns of Europe. For the first time in its history, the church fell under the rule of a Pope whose authority resided over both spiritual and secular affairs.


During the crusades the recovery of the Holy Land from the hands of the ‘infidels’, became one of the main priorities of the papacy. As a man who saw himself as more of a papal monarch than a spiritual leader, Innocent III adopted the crusading movement with a zeal that had rarely been present within previous pontiffs. Through his attempts to regain the Holy Land, Innocent III was able to extend the Christian frontiers and expand on his own influence and power. His first crusade, the fourth, ended in near disaster however when his troops, lured by promises of wealth, turned their attention away from Jerusalem and began to attack the city of Constantinople. The city was severely weakened, and although this was not what Innocent III had desired, the Pope was still able to take advantage of the situation, by forcing the empire to adopt Latin orthodoxy and denounce their essentially Greek practices. A period of unity was created within the Christendom, which was to last throughout Innocent’s III reign.


Innocent III also worked tirelessly towards expelling pagans and heretics from Christian land. To the pope, pagans and heretics were no different or better than the foreign infidels;


We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy that raises itself against the holy, orthodox, and catholic faith… while they have different faces, they are nevertheless bound to each other by their tails… (Epinions.com 2003).


The crusade
Cathars are expelled
Cathars are expelled
, initiated in 1208, endeavored to rid the south of France of Cathar heresy and subdue rebellious catholic nobles. Innocent III pressed heavily upon his subjects the need to eradicate the threat of heresy;


You shall exercise the rigor of the ecclesiastical power against them and all those who have made themselves suspected by associating with them… if necessary, you may cause the princes and people to suppress them with the sword. (Halsall, Paul 1998).


The mission was deemed a success as the region was essentially brought under the control of the French king for the next twenty years. The crusade also helped to enforce papal power within France, as the French king henceforth acknowledged his role as the Pope’s vassal. Heresy in any form was deemed by the pope as open opposition towards the Christian faith. As the leader of the Christendom, Innocent III saw it as his duty to oust all resistance and unite his empire, regardless of the cost involved.


Unlike many papal leaders, Innocent III was willing to address the corruption and faults present within his church and clergy. When approached by St. Francis Assisi and St. Dominic, the founders of the mendicant orders, Innocent III not only sanctioned their work and teachings, he greatly encouraged them. The pope also approved several smaller religious orders, such as the Hospitallers of the Holy Ghost and the Trinitarians, as he recognized the potential within these sects to combat the vice that had infected the clergy. Innocent III realised that internal weakness within the church would lead to external weakness that could be exploited by the church’s enemies;


... to eradicate paganism for good, internal changes within the Catholic church itself would also have to take place. (Epinions.com 2003).


Innocent III focused on centralising the ecclesiastical administration within Rome, by reducing the independent jurisdictions that were held by the bishops. His knowledge of Canon law allowed him to successfully carry out the majority of his policies; Innocent III introduced systems that awarded the pope the right to patronage both sees and benefices, generating greater authority for both himself and for future pontiffs. The result of Innocent’s III efforts was a more dogmatic and orthodox church. Its newly adopted teachings and ideals appealed to the people of Europe, helping to secure both their faith and participation. The church as a whole was strengthened and Innocent’s III personal desire for power was served.


Aside from Innocent’s impressive political maneuvering, one of the greatest achievements of his pontificate was the summoning of the Fourth Lateran Council. Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem and Constantinople, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 800 abbots (Fletcher, Adrian 2008) attended the council, held on November the eleventh in 1215. The sheer number of officials who responded to Innocent’s III papal bull is an indication of the power and influence he had gained within the Christendom. Headed by the pope, the council addressed all matters of church doctrine and dogma which up until this point had remained remarkably undefined. (Everything2. 2002). The council allowed Innocent to exert his authority over ecclesiastical proceedings and as well as political; a four-year peace was imposed upon the Christendom, as its energy was to be directed solely towards the crusades. A precarious unity was created within Europe, a unity that Innocent III was determined to maintain;


… advised by the holy council, we strictly command that they do not presume to do such things in the future, but conform themselves as obedient children to the Holy Roman Church, their mother… If anyone shall presume to act contrary to this, let him be excommunicated and deposed… (Epinions.com 2003).


As the largest and most successful such gathering in the Middle Ages, the Fourth Lateran council was by no means a small feat. It helped to not only promote the idea of the church as an administration, but also to also strengthen Innocent’s III position as pope.


The efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to advance and reform during the High Middle Ages were met with both resistance and heavy opposition. Pope Innocent’s III ability to overcome this internal and external conflict has earned him the title of the most successful pope of the Middle Ages. Innocent III brought vast change to the church; his ambition to create a papal monarchy gained for the papacy a degree of secular power it had never before seen. His efforts to rid the Christendom of paganism and regain the Holy Land helped to unify and simultaneously fortify Europe under the Christian faith. Innocent’s III spiritual and administrative reforms, as defined within the Fourth Lateran council, preserved and further established the church’s ruling and position within the Papal States. During his reign, the church’s strength grew and the papacy emerged as a political force. Within Pope Innocent III Europe gained a true papal monarch, a leader whose authority transcended both religious and political boundaries.
Laura McGuffog, Dickson College 2008




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