Childhood & Early Years
Pope Innocent III was born as Lotario de' Conti in 1160-1161 in Gavignano Castle, located in Campagna di Roma, Italy. Both his parents, Count Trasimund of Segni and Claricia Scotti, were of noble birth. He had at least one brother called Richard Conti.
Born into house of Conti di Segni, which had produced nine popes, Lotario was probably destined to join the church from his early childhood. A very sensitive child, he was deeply moved when Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred by followers of Henry II, King of England, in 1170.
He received his early education in Rome, possibly at the Benedictine abbey of St Andrea al Celio. In late 1170s, he joined the University of Paris, where he studied theology under renowned theologians like Peter of Poitiers and Peter of Corbeil. Later he also studied jurisprudence at Bologna.
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Possibly in 1181, Lotario de’ Conti returned to Italy and joined the church, holding various ecclesiastical offices, rising quickly through the church ranks, possibly under the influence of his uncle, Clement III, who became the pope in 1187. In 1190, he became the Cardinal Deacon of St. Sergius and Bacchus.
In 1191, Pope Clement III passed away and was succeeded by his rival, Celestine III. With that Lotario’s rapid progress through the church ranks came to a halt. For the next seven years, he did not receive any important commission and instead devoted himself chiefly to meditation and literary works.
Sometime between late 1194 and April 1195, he began writing his first treaty, ‘De Miseria Condicionis Humane’ (On the wretchedness of the human condition). It would be followed by two more, ‘De missarum mysteriis’ (On the Mysteries of the Mass), and ‘De quadripartita specie nuptiarum’ (On Four Types of Marriage).
On 8 January 1198, Celestine III passed away and on the very night of his death, contrary to his will, the cardinals elected Lotario de' Conti as the new Pope. He was then only thirty-seven years old and his confirmation as a priest in the church was not yet complete.
He believed that Pope was the representative of God on earth and therefore should play an important role in temporal matters as well. Consequently, on becoming Pope, he took the name ‘Innocent III’ after his predecessor, Innocent II, who successfully asserted papal authority over kings and emperors.
On 21 February 1198, he was ordained as a priest and was consecrated as Bishop of Rome on 22nd, the feast day of St. Peter’s Chair. Thereafter, he concentrated on solving multiple problems faced by the church and followed up on reforms that were started by Pope Gregory VII.
To drive home his idea of papal superiority, he fashioned a striking image, depicting the sun, which represented the Pope and the moon, which represented the princes. He explained that all power came from God; but just as the moon received light from the sun, royals get their greatness from the Pope.
To assert his authority over royalty, he placed canon law above civil laws, thus limiting their powers. To further subjugate them, he used excommunication (which barred an individual from taking advantages of the services of a church) and interdict (which involved stopping all religious activities in a country) as his tools.
To protect the liberty of the church from secular interference, he decreed that the royalty should not involve themselves in the appointment of clerics, especially bishops. He was also determined to protect and expand the patrimony of St. Peters, routinely claimed by Holy Roman Emperors.
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Soon after becoming the Pope, he began to send papal legates to the Italian cities, demanding their allegiance. In a very short time, many cities, near and far, submitted to the papal lordship, thus enlarging the area of its influence.
He got his chance to recover papal rights in Sicily, when in 1198 he was named as the guardian of Frederick II by his widowed mother, Queen Constance of Sicily. A vigorous opponent of religious heresy, he also sent representatives to France to deal with Cathars, whom he considered heretics.
In 1198, Pope Innocent III issued the papal bull, ‘Post miserabile’, thereby giving a call for Crusade to free the holy lands of Palestine and Jerusalem, sending emissaries to different Christian countries to free their resources. Unlike other popes, he also intended to lead the Crusade, but it never materialized.
The ‘Fourth Crusade’, which took place between 1202 and 1204, was a failure. However, he was successful in other spheres, driving out the imperial feudal lords from Ancona, Spoleto and Perugia in 1201.
In 1201, he supported Otto IV in his bid to ascend the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in return for his promise to restore papal land. But when in 1208 Otto became the emperor, he went back on his promise, prompting Innocent to excommunicate him.
In 1202, Pope Innocent III established the Pope’s right to evaluate imperial candidates in a contested election through a decretal letter, ‘Per venerabilem’ (Through Our Venerable Brother). Although the claim was without precedent, it became part of canon law very quickly.
In 1207, Pope Innocent III appointed Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury, bypassing the candidates of both King John of England and the local churches. Thus, he took away the right of election from local churches.
In 1209, Pope Innocent III excommunicated King John for his refusal to accept Langton as Archbishop. Later however, a deal was struck and England became a papal fief in 1213. Meanwhile in 1210, he excommunicated Otto IV and permitted St. Francis of Assisi to recruit brothers.
In November 1215, he inaugurated the Fourth Lateran Council, which is now considered the most important church council of the Middle Age. Attended by 71 patriarchs and metropolitans, 412 bishops, 900 abbots and priors, the Council issued seventy reformatory decrees.