Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was arguably at its strongest. From the fifth century onwards, huge names dominated the papacy, among them are the only two popes who have been honored with the sobriquet “the Great”. One pope ruled for only two months but achieved more than some did in twenty years.
Within this list are popes who were famous not for the good, but for the bad and the downright ugly — including a Catholic pope who oversaw the execution of numerous Templar knights. However their reigns went, these ten Catholic popes all had one thing in common: they were, by far, the most interesting popes of the Middle Ages.
1. The Catholic Pope Who Halted the Huns: Pope Leo I (440-61)
The first Catholic pope on this list was not really known as Pope Leo I, but rather as Pope Leo the Great. He is part of the reason why twelve more popes have also taken on the papal name Leo. But just what exactly made him “the Great?”
Upon the death of Pope Sixtus III (432-440), Leo was elected as the next Pope. Leo is perhaps most famous for two major events during his reign: the first was the publication of The Tome of Leo, a huge work on Christology (the study of Christ), which argued that Jesus Christ was the hypostatic union of two natures, both divine and human, united together in one person. This work formed the basis for the Council of Chalcedon, which was attended by over 500 European bishops.
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The second event which is associated with Leo’s reign (and probably why we know him as Leo the Great) was his confrontation with Attila the Hun. Throughout the 440s and early 450s, Attila’s forces had been plundering Europe, pillaging and destroying locations wherever they went. By 452, his forces had reached Rome.
Why Attila turned around and left Rome is up for debate, but it unquestionably involved something to do with Pope Leo I. The most popular version of the tale is that Leo met with Attila, and persuaded him to settle over the Danube (coincidentally, Hungary, where the Huns eventually settled). Another theory is that the Pope paid off Attila, asking him to turn away from Rome and pillage elsewhere.
Superstition may have also played a role in Attila turning away from Rome; Leo I will have likely reminded him of the Gothic leader Alaric’s fate in 410, how he died almost immediately after he sacked Rome. However Leo worded his communications with Attila, it worked, and Attila turned away from Rome and did not attack the city. This alone was not only a huge relief for the papacy, but for the people of Rome as a whole. Their city survived another day, thanks to the efforts of Pope Leo the Great — a Catholic pope who certainly deserved his title.
2. The Pope Who Converted the English: Pope Gregory I (590-604)
The second Catholic pope on this list is the only other pope in the history of the papacy to be known as “the Great”. Gregory was elected as pope upon the death of his predecessor, Pelagius II (579-90), and was already around 50 years old when he became Pope.
Six years after he became Pope, he was responsible for one of the first Catholic missions (known as the Gregorian Mission), in which he sent Catholic missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England, in an attempt to convert the pagan population to Christianity. The first missions had some initial successes: After landing in Kent in 597, Æthelbehrt, King of Kent, converted to Christianity and he permitted the missionaries to preach in his capital of Canterbury, where they used the Church of Saint Martin for services. Years after Gregory’s death, when the missions finally finished in 653, almost the whole of southern Britain had been converted to Christianity.
Yet it was not just his missionary work that he was known for — his theological practices and arguments against the Donatist heresy in North Africa also cemented his place as a great pope. So much so, that even the sixteenth century Protestant reformer John Calvin referred to Gregory as the “last good Pope”. Even when he died in 604, Gregory was so popular that he was canonised immediately after his death by popular acclaim.
3. Crowner of Kings: Pope Leo III (795-816)
Another Catholic pope called Leo also makes this list of most interesting popes from the Middle Ages, principally for his positive relationship with one of the most famous rulers of all time: Emperor Charlemagne.
Pope Leo III was elected on the 26th December 795, following the death of his predecessor, Pope Adrian I (772-95). However, his reign got off to a rocky start, thanks to jealous members of Adrian’s family, who accused him of all manner of things, including being an Arab, and thus not fit to be Pope. In April 799, while on a solemn procession through the streets of Rome, Leo was attacked by a group including Adrian’s nephew, who attempted to blind him and cut out his tongue (an act which would have forced him to resign). Fortunately, they failed, only knocking him unconscious, and he was transported to Charlemagne’s court in Paderborn to recover.
While there, the Charlemagne and Leo became good friends, and when Leo returned to Rome in November 799, he faced a range of accusations, including perjury, adultery, and simony. This brought about a dilemma: Who could put the Pope — God’s representative on Earth — on trial? The Byzantine Emperor at the time (Irene) was a woman, so that was out of the question, as the natural choice would have been the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire.
While the accusations remained, Charlemagne knew that Christendom remained unsettled, so he decided to make the journey to Rome. He arrived in November 800, and remarkably on Leo’s trial on the 23rd of December, the assembly accepted Leo’s claim that he was innocent and cleared his name. To reward Charlemagne for his friendship and willingness to stand in at the trial, Leo crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor — the first ruler to hold this title — on the 25th of December 800.
He created the Holy Roman Emperor due to the lack of Byzantine involvement in the Catholic church, and saw Charlemagne fit to take on the role. Ultimately, the Holy Roman Empire would play a part in European history for just over 1000 years, only coming to a formal end in 1806. Leo III’s involvement in its creation and thus its legacy cannot be underestimated, hence his deserved position as one of the most interesting medieval Catholic popes.
4. The Mosaic Maker: Pope Paschal I (817-24)
One of the more obscure Catholic popes on this list, Paschal I is a name that does not crop up very often when discussing papal history. Paschal’s reign was characterized by his desire to build, and transform Rome into a seat of power, as well as his desire to acknowledge its rich history. Paschal himself was born in Rome, and he took great pride in the city of his birth. However, it was also assumed that Paschal wanted to build Rome into a great seat of power to glorify it in comparison to the Eastern Orthodox Church — with whom relations were strained.
Yet this only played into Paschal’s hands; he offered shelter in Rome to Byzantine monks, artists, and builders who were fleeing Constantinople — which ultimately rewarded Paschal with his own team of loyal mosaic creators. Some of the churches which these artists decorated included Saint Zeno Chapel in the Church of Santa Prassede.
Without Paschal’s initiative to decorate the churches as he saw fit, and to provide refuge for fleeing artists and monks, Rome would likely not look the same today. Therefore, Paschal I deserves a place on this list; not for his papal legislation, nor for his charitable acts, but instead for his contribution to the artistic development of medieval Rome.
5. The Traveling Pope: Pope Leo IX (1049-54)
No list of interesting Catholic popes from the Middle Ages — or any era in fact — would be complete without the inclusion of Leo IX. It seems to be a theme that if you were a Catholic pope named Leo in the Middle Ages, then you’d have a pretty good chance of being an interesting historical figure!
Prior to Leo’s appointment as Pope, the papacy had generally been a Roman institution: Leo made it an international one. He spent his time traveling around Italy, France, and Germany, preaching sermons to huge crowds, more so than any other Pope had done before him. However, he also oversaw one of the most significant events in the history of the Catholic Church: The Great Schism of 1054.
For centuries, the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches had been growing apart, and eventually things came to a head, and they began to split. This was all down to differences that went back for hundreds of years, Greek vs Roman, Byzantine vs Norman — and unfortunately for Leo, he was the Pope when they split. However, he did not live long enough to see the final results, as he died, aged just 51, on the 19th of April 1054.
6. The Excommunicator: Pope Gregory VII (1073-85)
Just shy of two decades after Leo IX’s death, Gregory VII is the next Catholic pope to make this list. And the reason Pope Gregory VII makes this list is because of his relationship with Henry IV, who was both King of Germany (1054-1105) and Holy Roman Emperor (1084-1105). Unlike Pope Leo III’s positive relationship with Charlemagne, Gregory’s relationship was very different — he excommunicated Henry IV three times.
As a result, Henry IV appointed the antipope Clement III to oppose Gregory on his behalf — a messy situation for the papacy two decades after the Great Schism. Despite both Gregory and Henry’s insistence on excommunicating one another, neither really came out of the situation a winner — Gregory VII’s extensive use of papal powers and the costs of the excommunications made him an unpopular Catholic pope in Rome.
Gregory had also appealed for help from his neighbor in Sicily — Robert Guiscard — who responded and sacked Rome in 1084, putting an end to Clement III’s tenure as antipope, and ensuring that Henry IV retreated. Although Gregory was restored as pope later the same year, he never regained the trust of the Roman people, and sadly died in exile a year later.
7. The Pope Who Started a Holy War: Pope Urban II (1088-99)
Arguably the most recognizable name on this list of interesting Catholic popes is Pope Urban II, the man who was responsible for changing the course of European history forever by calling the First Crusade.
In March 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos called for help from his European brethren in order to deal with the Seljuk Turk Muslim raids into Christian Byzantine lands. Urban II called the Council of Clermont in November of that year, and he was met with a rapturous response when he encouraged Christians to take up arms against the Muslims and help their Byzantine brothers defeat the Seljuk Turks.
And what would these crusaders be granted for this? Urban promised them that they would be rewarded with forgiveness of all of their sins, should they die while on the crusade.
Naturally, thousands of men were hugely enthusiastic about the crusade, but the reality was different. Although they eventually recovered Jerusalem for Christendom in 1099, the journeys had been brutal, and thousands had lost their lives to war, famine, and disease along the way. Urban II died before the news had reached him that the Christians had taken Jerusalem, so he never lived to see the final outcome.
However, it is clear that Urban’s place on this list is cemented — crusades would go on in the Holy Land until the late thirteenth century, though few would achieve as much as the First Crusade did in 1096.
8. Pope Gregory VIII (1187)
Very few Catholic popes have achieved as much as Gregory VIII did in such a short period of time: he was only the pope from the 21st of October 1187 to the 17th of December of that same year — less than two months! However, Gregory’s death was not exactly untimely — records suggest that he was born anytime between 1100 to 1105, so he was likely aged somewhere between 82-87 years old when he died.
However, in those two months, he restored the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor. His dealings with the Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, before he had become a Catholic pope ensured that the Church and Holy Roman Empire were once again on good terms.
Furthermore, Gregory had witnessed the shocking crusader defeat at the Horns of Hattin by Saladin’s forces on the 4th of July 1187, and when he became pope, he called for the Third Crusade in response. This crusade was arguably the most successful of all of the crusades, although Gregory, unfortunately, died before he could see the final result: It was this crusade that involved the likes of Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip II of France, and Frederick Barbarossa.
In December, Gregory traveled to Pisa, stopping at Lucca to remove the antipope Victor IV’s remains from his tomb so they could be thrown out of the church. However, when Gregory reached Pisa, he had contracted a fever and he died on the 17th of December 1187.
To achieve so much in such a short space of time while an octogenarian is a testament to Gregory’s character and work ethic, and it is exactly why he deserves a space on this list of most interesting Catholic popes from the Middle Ages.
9. The Pope Who Caused a Lot of Problems: Pope Innocent III (1198-1216)
When people are asked to name a Catholic pope from the Middle Ages, they will likely name one of two: if they do not name Urban II, then chances are they will name Pope Innocent III.
Upon his election, Innocent III inherited the seat that was deemed the most powerful in Europe at the time, making him the most powerful man in Europe. Like his predecessors, Urban II and Gregory VIII, Innocent was gripped by crusading fever, and after witnessing the successes of the Third Crusade, he called for the Fourth Crusade in 1202.
The Fourth Crusade would last until 1204, and it ended in the sack of Constantinople — which unfortunately went against what Innocent had ordered. As a result, he excommunicated the crusaders who had taken part. However, he also realized that the Fourth Crusade had been a minor success, and thus took credit for it, citing it as God’s will that he should reunite the Latin and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This was not the case, though, as the Fourth Crusade simply increased the hostility between the two Churches.
Innocent was also renowned for his conflicts with kings — partly stemming from his support of piece of medieval philosophy: The Sun and Moon Allegory. According to this allegory, Innocent saw himself as the Sun (the spiritual power, and the only source of his own light) and European emperors and kings as the Moon (the secular powers, who merely reflect the Sun’s light and hold no value without the Sun).
One such king whom Innocent III clashed with was King John of England (1199-1216). In 1205, the two clashed over a disputed election regarding the see of Canterbury, and by 1208 Innocent had laid a papal interdict on England and Wales, demanding that all Church services were to be suspended for six years. A year later, John was excommunicated.
In 1215 however, John appealed to Innocent, arguing that he had been forced to sign the Magna Carta — shockingly, Innocent agreed with him, declaring the document null and void, and triggering a civil war in England. Innocent did not live to see the outcome of what he was partly responsible for, as he died suddenly on July 16th 1216.
10. The Catholic Pope Who Destroyed the Templars: Pope Clement V (1305-14)
Pope Clement V does not generally come to mind when discussing great Catholic popes, but he certainly fits the bill for most interesting Catholic popes.
Clement was elected in 1305, and from his very first day as Pope, he had an agenda against the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order formed during the Crusades. Due to their high level of influence, particularly in France, King Philip IV of France had a huge dislike of them — and it was clear that Clement V (also a Frenchman) did not like them either. On the 13th of October 1307, hundreds of members of the Knights Templar were arrested in France, on charges ranging from sodomy to adultery, to simony and perjury. By the 22nd of November, Clement had issued a papal bull that instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest any Templars and seize all their assets.
During the years that followed, Clement moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, beginning the period known as the Avignon Papacy, which lasted until 1376.
The Templar trials went on until 1314 when the Grand Master was executed by burning. Clement V’s reputation was all but destroyed by now, and he died shortly afterward on the 20th of April 1314. It was said that when he died, a thunderstorm arose, and lightning struck the Church where his body was being held. It caused a fire and burned his body beyond redemption. His remains were buried in Uzeste, near where he was born.