Nicholas Breakspear – the only English Pope

Not far from where I used to live until recently, in the small Hertfordshire village of Abbots Langley stands St Lawrence Church. The small church is located just off the high street and like many small parish churches is rich in history that is all but forgotten by many.

Inside the church, a tablet on the south wall notes the Parish as the birthplace of England’s first and only Pope, Nicholas Breakspear, who became Pope Adrian IV.

Remembering Nicholas Breakspear

A number of roads in the village are named in is honour including Pope’s Road, Breakspear Road, and Adrian Close. Nearby is the Breakspeare School, in Gallows Hill Lane.

Nicholas Breakspear is thought to have been born in Bedmond in Abbots Langley around the year 1100. It is said that he began his education at Abbey School in St Albans. His father was a monk at St Albans Abbey and although assuming that his son would follow in his footsteps, Nicholas was rejected by the Abbey due to his young age and lack of education.

Reverend Dr Anders Bergquist, who was interviewed by the BBC’s The One Show in 2010, said: “Robert abandoned his son when he became a monk at St Albans.

“The young lad would beg and do odd jobs around the monastery. Robert found this so embarrassing that he got the Abbot of St Albans to do an exclusion order to keep Nicholas away from the monastery.”

Standing on a hill St Albans Abbey overlooks the old Roman city.

Although he was refused entry to the monastery, Nicholas travelled to France to continue his education, supposedly studying law in Arles and joining the cloister of St Rufus monastery. Shortly after joining he was made a canon Provence.

He was obviously a gifted boy and soon found himself climbing the ranks before Nicholas was then appointed as abbot. During his time as abbot, he caught the attention of Pope Eugene III. Nicholas was subsequently appointed Cardinal Bishop of Albano in 1149.

He was tasked with a number of high profile jobs but the church such as converting areas of Norway and Denmark to Christianity. It is said that he formed cathedral schools in Norway before travelling to Sweden where he was acclaimed by the local people, some even calling him a Saint.

Nicholas returned to Rome in 1154, following the death of Pope Anastasius IV where he was elected Pope on December 3, 1154, taking the name Adrian IV. He remains the only Englishman to ever become pope.

One of his most important achievements for Catholics as pope was establishing the principle that serfs (agricultural labourers) could freely and lawfully marry without the consent of their lords.

Additionally, another notable event during his tour was when he supposedly granted Henry II the papal bull Laudabiliter , which is thought to have authorised Henry II to invade Ireland. This did not happen for another 14 years and scholars are uncertain as to whether this is entirely true but it is at least theoretically possible.

Nicholas died in Anagni, Italy in 1159. His cause of death is uncertain, some literature claiming that he died due to swallowing a fly, being poisoned or perhaps the most likely case, he died due to quinsy, a complication of tonsillitis.

The bench marks the supposed spot where the only English Pope was born in a barn.

Just by the main road that runs through Bedmond village you can find the little bench which is situated where it is believed Nicholas Breakspear was born which has a little plaque which says as much.

If you’d like to have a look around the magnificent old Roman City of St Albans and of course the wonderful Abbey along with many other things then from the comfort of home you can view one of my virtual video tours. My new St Albans 360 degree Virtual Video Tour

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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