The Great Popes through History: An Encyclopedia, ed. Frank J. Coppa

(2 volumes Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002) 1.113-122


Pope Alexander III

Kenneth Pennington

Alexander III was a Tuscan, born in Siena, named Rolandus, the son of Rainucci. Sienese tradition has assigned him to the Bandinelli family. If this attribution is correct, his family had been active in the political life of Siena since the eleventh century. But his filiation with the Bandinelli may be a later tradition; there is no contemporary evidence for the connection. More importantly, Alexander’s biography has recently undergone radical changes under the scalpel of modern scholarship. Historians had long thought that he had studied canon law and touted him as the first great jurist-pope of the high Middle Ages by attributing a Stroma iuris on Gratian’s Decretum to his pen. John T. Noonan and Rudolf Weigand have definitively proven that the Rolandus who wrote the legal treatise was not the Rolandus who later became pope. Recently scholars have determined that the same Rolandus who wrote the Stroma also composed a theological treatise, the Sententie Rodlandi Bononiensis magistri, Rolandus son of Rainucci cannot be credited as the author of any legal or theological work. He was, nonetheless, most probably a learned theologian who taught for a while at Bologna (before ca. 1142). The canonist Huguccio (C.2 q.6 c.31: “et Alexandro tertio Bononie residente in cathedra magistrali in divina pagina ante appellatum eius.”) and the abbot of Mont Saint Michel, Robert de Torigny noted that Rolandus taught theology in Bologna. Since Rolandus has left no known works, we cannot judge the depth and breadth of his education in his formative years. Since, however, he taught at Bologna, we might assume that he was a student there.
His biographer, Boso, said nothing about his education but asserted that he achieved great fame in the church of Pisa. Pisan documents record a “Rolandus” (among others) who was a canon in the cathedral chapter between 1142 and 1147. He attracted the attention of Pope Eugenius III who most likely met Rolandus when he stayed in Pisa during the month of October in 1148. Eugenius summoned him to Rome in the same year and quickly raised him to the cardinalate, first as cardinal deacon of Saints Comas and Damian (1150), and a short time later cardinal priest of St. Mark (1151). His rapid rise through the ranks of the papal curia culminated with Eugenius’ appointing him chancellor of the Roman church in 1153, an office that he held through the pontificates of Anatasius IV (1154) and Hadrian IV (1154-1159). Boso’s description of Rolandus’ character and learning rings true and helps to explain his success in Rome: “he is a man of letters, fluent with polished eloquence , a prudent, kind, patient, merciful, gentle, sober, chaste man.” Arnulf of Lisieux, who became his staunch supporter and who very likely knew Rolandus during his stay in Italy studying law, described him as possessing “the perfection of knowledge and of all virtues” (letter 28) .
During the years 1148 to 1159, Rolandus played a role in the diplomatic negotiations between the papacy and secular monarchies. In 1153 he took part in a legation of seven cardinals who negotiated the terms of an imperial-papal treaty at Constance. Shortly afterwards, in May 1153, he was rewarded with the chancellorship, an officer of the curia responsible for the diplomatic correspondence of the papacy. In 1156 Rolandus concluded a treaty at Benevento with King William I of Sicily in 1156. The treaty established an alliance with the Normans and granted the king of Sicily a number of ecclesiastical rights. In Apulia and Calabria, the king recognized the right to appeal to Rome and the pope’s right to authorize an episcopal deposition or translation; on the island of Sicily, on the contrary, these rights were exercised only with the consent of the king. William took the feudal oath to the pope and promised an annual tribute in coin or gold and silver. Rolandus revealed himself to be pragmatic, cautious, and prudent when dealing with secular princes. In contrast, Thomas Becket described the rights granted to the Norman kings as “tyrannous usurpation.”
The most dramatic diplomatic mission in which Cardinal Rolandus participated was a legation to the imperial diet of Besançon in October, 1157. Frederick Barbarossa called the diet to hear papal complaints about his treatment of Archbishop and Primate of Scandinavia, Eskil of Lund. The emperor had captured Eskil, a vociferous foe of imperial pretensions, on his return from Rome and had resisted papal requests to free him. Pope Hadrian sent Rolandus and Bernard, cardinal priest of St. Clement, with a letter for Frederick. Some historians have described Rolandus as the leader of the “anti-imperial, pro-Sicilian” faction of the curia at this time. It is unlikely, however, that Hadrian would have sent a legate known to be inimical to the emperor to Besançon. Rahewin, Frederick’s court historian, described the two legates as being “distinguished for their wealth, their maturity of view, and their influence, and surpassing in authority almost all others in the Roman church.” The imperial chancellor, Rainald of Dassel, read Hadrian’s letter to the assembly in German. At a crucial passage, Rainald translated Hadrian’s words as “ but if the emperor had received still greater fiefs (beneficia) from us (the pope) . . . we would have rejoiced.” The assembly erupted. One of the cardinals responded by saying: “if our Lord Pope does not confer the empire on the emperor, who does?” This comment has often been attributed to Rolandus, but he rarely demonstrated an inclination to confront issues or persons so directly. Frederick immediately issued a letter that asserted his power derived from God, not the pope. Hadrian wrote a second letter in which he disputed Rainald’s translation of “beneficium.” “Beneficium,” he stated, “means gifts or benefits, not fiefs.” Even if Rolandus were not responsible for the challenging statements at Besançon, his presence at that tumultuous meeting probably permanently damaged his relationship with the emperor. Significantly, Rolandus was not sent back to Frederick by Hadrian with another letter explaining that the pope did not mean “fiefs” when he wrote “beneficia” but “favors.”
When Hadrian IV died on 1 September 1159 a split between the pro-imperial cardinals and those cardinals who had supported Hadrian’s policy to use the Norman Kingdom of Sicily as a counterweight to imperial ambitions resulted in a contested election. Rolandus was elected by the majority of cardinals. A lesser number of cardinals elected Octavian, cardinal priest of St. Cecilia. Octavian was consecrated as Pope Victor IV at the imperial abbey of Farfa. When he compared the two candidates, Arnulf of Lisieux noted caustically that if one would have taken away Octavian’s noble lineage, he would not have dared aspire to the papal throne. Rolandus was consecrated as Pope Alexander III at Ninfa. Frederick Barbarossa sent an encyclical to all European bishops asking them to assemble at Pavia. He announced with sorrow that although the pope and emperor were the two heads and two beginnings by which the whole world was ruled, two popes had been elected and consecrated after the death of Hadrian. Papal decretals and ecclesiastical statutes dictated that when schism erupted within the church, the emperor should choose between them, according to the opinion and counsel of the orthodox. Frederick invited Alexander and his cardinals, but Alexander refused since, as he wrote to the emperor, only the pope may convene a council. The council commenced in February 1160. Pavia became a council of German and Italian prelates, in which Alexander was excommunicated and Victor acclaimed as the rightful pope.
A diplomatic campaign ensued in which Alexander and Victor wooed the other European monarchs. In October, 1160 King Henry II of England, Louis VII of France, together with bishops from England, France, and Spain, met at Beauvais. The assembly gave its allegiance to Alexander. Frederick continued to support Victor. Because of imperial strength in Italy and the long duration of the schism, Alexander was forced to reside outside of Rome for a large part of his pontificate. The schism persisted for eighteen years, but it would be the last until the Great Schism of 1378. Frederick’s successors, especially Frederick II, used other means to oppose papal authority.
Frederick’s opposition was not the only reason that Alexander could not reside in Rome for most of his pontificate. Like most of the Italian communes, the people of Rome began to rebel against ecclesiastical rule in the twelfth century. Popes Eugenius III and Hadrian IV dealt with a Roman populace that, under the leadership of Arnold of Brescia, challenged the legitimacy of papal governance in the city. Although Hadrian had, with the help of Frederick Barbarossa, temporarily quelled Roman ambitions for self-rule and arranged for the arrest and execution of Arnold in 1155, the city had new opportunities under the schism. Alexander resided in Rome during the second year of his pontificate but after losing most of the Papal States to imperial forces, he sought refuge in the Kingdom of Sicily, among the Normans whom he had supported as cardinal-legate. In 1162, he and his entourage sailed to France in four galleys provided by William I of Sicily. Delayed by a shipwreck shortly after departing from Terracina, he finally arrived in France and established his curia in Sens from 1163 to 1165. He returned to Rome in 1165 but could not prevent Victor’s successor, Paschal III, from being consecrated at Rome in July, 1167 in the presence of the emperor. Alexander retreated to Norman Benevento. During the next ten years he moved among the papal strongholds of Southern Italy: Anagni, Palestrina, Ferentino, Tusculum, and Veroli. He finally returned to Rome in 1178, but even after having concluded a peace with Frederick, he was forced out of the city shortly after the Third Lateran Council had been held in March 1179, and spent his last two years moving among cities that remained loyal to him in the Papal States: Cività Castellana in the North and Tusculum in the South. When his body was brought back to Rome for burial in August, 1181, Sigebert of Gembloux reported that the people of Rome threw rocks and mud at his funeral cortege. Not until the pontificate of Clement III (1187-1191) did the pope reside regularly again in Rome.
Alexander’s inability to control Rome and the Papal States was due to his conflict with Frederick. Although he attempted to support the cities of Lombardy, he had neither the power nor the resources to render effective assistance. Frederick and his popes ruled central and Northern Italy. From 1164, the Lombard League resisted imperial ambitions with greater and greater success. Finally in May, 1176, Frederick’s army was decisively defeated at the battle of Legnano, and the emperor was forced to conclude a peace with the league and the pope. Alexander and Frederick met in Venice in July, 1177. They concluded a treaty on 1 August, 1177 in which the emperor recognized Alexander as pope and Frederick’s excommunication was raised. Schismatic bishops and cardinals were pardoned. Even the anti-pope Callixtus III was eventually appointed by Alexander to the governorship of Benevento in 1178. Obduracy was not part of Alexander’s makeup.
This aspect of Alexander’s character may shed some light on his relationship with Thomas Becket. Historians have generally disapproved if not condemned Alexander’s refusal to support Becket in his conflict with Henry II, king of England and lord of Angevin lands in France. However, as some historians have correctly shown, Becket’s position on the contested legal issues of the dispute were not clearly supported by contemporary canon law. Furthermore, Alexander’s experience dictated that secular rulers were to be persuaded, not confronted. His experiences as a legate had, perhaps, taught him the virtues of compromise. Alexander advised Becket in 1165 while Thomas was in exile that he should “not act hastily or rashly . . . regain the favor and goodwill of the illustrious English king . . . the Lord will grant better times.” Probably, the pope never had second thoughts about the advice that he had given to the archbishop. Further, the Becket Controversy, a centerpiece of English historiography of the twelfth century, may not have seemed as important from the perspective of Rome. Although he lived through the events, Boso, Alexander’s biographer, did not even mention Becket’s dispute with Henry until Becket’s death. Then the crucial issue was whether Henry had been responsible for the archbishop’s murder. Alexander satisfied himself quickly that Henry was not guilty. Immediately afterwards, he endorsed Henry’s conquest of Ireland and congratulated the king for conquering that barbarous nation. He also ordered the kings and princes of Ireland to honor their oaths to the conqueror. By the end of his reign, in spite of a pontificate wracked with turmoil, Alexander had a series of diplomatic successes with European monarchs. He maintained his claims to overlordship in the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1169 he reached a concordat with Bela, the king of Hungary that protected the rights of the pope in the translations and depositions of bishops. The provisions were very similar to those worked out by Alexander when, as cardinal, he negotiated the Treaty of Benevento. In 1179, he confirmed Alfonso I as king of Portugal in return for tribute.
Alexander may have been a moderate, but he was also reformer. His program can be most clearly seen in the canons of the two most important councils that he presided over during his pontificate, the Council of Tours in 1163 and the Third Lateran Council of 1179 (Introduction and Latin edition). The pope called a council at Tours shortly after he arrived in France and summoned clergy and prelates from England, France, Italy, and Spain. The conciliar canons dealt with the unlawful division of ecclesiastical benefices, clerical usury, lay possession of tithes, prosecution of heretics in Southern France, simony, and a ban on monks studying medicine and law after they have taken religious vows. The only mention of the schism was a condemnation of all measures and actions established by Pope Victor and his supporters. Although the Council of Tours took place in France at a time when the church was in schism, Alexander made it clear that it should be considered a general council of the church. And it was. All of its canons were incorporated into the canonical collections of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.
The Third Lateran Council (Tanner Translation) marked the end of Alexander’s pontificate, the triumph over his adversaries, and the culmination of twelfth-century papal conciliar activity. The bishop of Assisi, Master Rufinus, one of the most important jurists of the 1170's, addressed the opening assembly of the Third Lateran Council on March 5th:
The great pontiff, namely the highest patriarch, presiding over <the Blessed Roman church>, who recently rose from the ocean of raging waves of persecution like a serene sun . . . illuminates not only the present church but the entire world with his worthy brilliance of shining splendor.
Rufinus delivered his sermon in the church of St. John in the Lateran to over three hundred bishops, a greater number of abbots, twenty-one cardinals, and laymen from all over Christendom. There was even a small group of Waldensians from Lyon. The twenty-seven conciliar canons dealt with a wide range of topics. Canons regulated the elections of bishops and stipulated the age necessary to be a bishop. The curia was definitively established as being the last court of appeal in ecclesiastical law. Licet de evitanda determined the rules that should govern future papal elections. Alexander did not want another schism like that after his election to be repeated. Henceforth, a valid papal election required that two-thirds of the cardinals must have voted for the successful candidate. This rule has governed papal elections to the present day. Heresy had become an even greater concern within the church than it had been at the Council of Tours. In Sicut ait beatus Leo, Alexander named the heretics who presented a danger to the church, Albigensians, Cathers, and Paterines, and expanded the categories of persons who could be punished for heresy to include those who defended or harbored them. As at Tours, benefices were a concern. Canon five forbade dividing benefices in half. A cleric must be given an adequate stipend to live on. Canons three and eight ordained that if a benefice were vacant for more than six months, the right to bestow it was transferred to the next highest authority. These canons were an attempt to prevent bishops and chapters from profiting from the income of unoccupied benefices. Other canons dealt with simony, celibacy of the clergy, and commercial relationships with Moslems and Jews. The canons of the Third Lateran Council were immediately included in collections of canon law and incorporated into theological summae of Peter the Chanter, Alan of Lille, Peter of Poitiers, and Thomas of Chobham.
The decretal letters of Alexander represent the most lasting legacy of his pontificate. In spite of a pontificate that was peripatetic, chaotic, and confused, his chancellery produced thousands of letters sent to those who remained loyal to him. Not surprisingly, his registers of letters have been lost. We do know, however, that his letters were enregistered in four volumes at the curia. Of the letters that have survived the overwhelming majority have been preserved from canonical collections or from the archives of recipients. Although over seven hundred of his decretal letters survive in canonical collections, these represent only a small part of his correspondence. It is remarkable, however, that 470 of these 700 decretals found a permanent place in the law of the church, the Corpus iuris canonici. That is more than any other medieval pope except for Innocent III (1198-1216).
Alexander’s total correspondence must have been formidable, but we shall never know how many letters were issued during his pontificate. Some idea of the problem that his chancellery must have faced can be had from one example. Bishop Arnulf of Lisieux collected 141 of his letters written between 1144 and 1181. Eight of them were addressed to three of Alexander’s predecessors, forty-one to Alexander. All the letters requested answers. Although Arnulf was trained in law and had an interest in the judicial system, the amount of correspondence cannot be attributed to his individual interests.
Alexander’s decretal legislation made significant contributions to all areas of law, but especially to three: appeals, procedure, and marriage. During Alexander’s pontificate, the Roman curia became the accepted court of last resort and was flooded with cases. The number of cases appealed to Rome reached such proportions that Alexander issued decretals that tried to define and limit the circumstances under which appeals could be made from episcopal courts to the curia. The importance of Alexander’s pontificate in shaping the whole system of appeals can be seen from the contents of title 28 in the Decretals of Gregory IX: almost half of the 73 decretals that Raymond of Peñafort placed under de appellationibus were Alexander III’s. These decretals stressed that the pope exercised jurisdictional primacy within the church, that an appeal to the pope could, in most cases, bring local proceedings to a halt, and that even the decisions of judges-delegate whose letters granted them final authority, “non obstantibus appellationibus” (not withstanding appeals) could be appealed for a number of different reasons.
The procedural system taken from Roman law and adapted by the jurists of the twelfth century, called the ordo iudiciarius, was accepted as the only proper mode of proof in Alexander’s decretals. His letter repeatedly stated that clerics and ecclesiastical institutions could only be judged by using the ordo iudiciarius. No other systems of proof were legitimate in canon law.
The law of marriage underwent fundamental changes during the twelfth century, and Alexander’s decretals were primarily responsible for moving the canon law of marriage in new directions. The freely given mutual consent of the man and woman became the cornerstone of a valid marriage, replacing parental consent as a key element of marriage law. The right of a person to consent to marriage became a benchmark of law in the twelfth century. The importance of intercourse was diminished, although a consummated marriage continued to have a stronger legal basis than an unconsummated one. From Alexander’s pontificate on, Rome became court of last resort and increasing evolved as the arbiter of disputes among Christian princes. The pope also became the supreme judge of marital cases in Christendom. At the beginning of the twelfth century, local episcopal synods were still rendering decisions in marriage disputes within the noble families of Europe. By the end of the century, Pope Innocent III insisted that all issues of law involving marriages fell under the jurisdiction of the pope, whether the litigants be of noble families or not. This change would have a profound effect on the future relations between the papacy and European rulers.
Alexander’s pontificate marked the apogee of papal power and authority in the twelfth century. In extraordinarily difficult circumstances he laid the foundations for a centralized church, a pan-European canon law, and an efficient papal bureaucracy. His successors may have pointed the papacy in directions that he might not have approved, but they owed much to his perseverance and ability.

Primary Sources: The most important source for Alexander’s pontificate, Boso’s Life of Alexander has been translated into English by G.M. Ellis, Boso’s Life of Alexander III (Totowa, New Jersey: 1973); the original Latin text can be found in Le Liber Pontificalis: Texte, introduction et commentaire, ed. L. Duchesne (Bibliothèque Écoles Francaises d’Athènes et de Rome; Paris: 1955, originally published in 1886-1892) 2.397-446. Alexander’s Letters: Migne, Patrilogia latina 200.69-1320. Additional letters are printed in Epistolae pontificum Romanorum ineditae, ed. S. Löwenfeld (Leipzig: 1885) 149-209. Recueil des historiens des Gauls et de la France (Paris: 1878) 15.744-977. The various volumes of the Papsturkunden series also contain letters of Alexander.
Secondary Sources: Almost all the general treatments of Alexander’s pontificate have considered him to be a learned lawyer and theologian and have tried to interpret his pontificate through his writings. In particular, since Rolandus, the author of the Sententiae, studied with Abelard, historians have tried to understand how Alexander shaped his actions as pope to his intellectal roots. The following books and articles have many virtues, but all are misleading in characterizing Alexander’s educational background and intellectual framework: Fliche-Martin, Histoire de l’Eglise depuis les origines jusqu’á nos jours, 9: Du premier Concile du Lateran à l’avènement d’Innocent III (Paris: 1953) pt. 2.50-188, written by Raymonde Foreville and Jean Rousset de Pina. Hans Wolter’s chapter in Die mittelalterliche Kirche, 2: Vom kirchliche Hochmittelalter bis zum Vorabend der Reformation, published in Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte, ed. Hubert Jedin (Vol. 3; Freiburg, Basel, Wien: 1968) 67-143. Marcel Pacaut, Alexander III: Étude sur la conception du pouvoir pontifical dans sa pensée et dans son œuvre (L’Église et l’État au Moyen Age 9; Paris: 1956) and idem “Alexandre III,” Dictionnaire historique de la Papauté, ed. Philippe Levillain (Paris: 1994), whose article, in spite of its publication date, still does not take Noonan’s and Weigand’s research into account. Marshall Baldwin, Alexander III and the Twelfth Century (The Popes through History 3; Glenn Rock 1968) has the merit of being in English. Older literature in various languages can be found in the bibliographies of these works. The first extensive history of Alexander to take currect research into account is Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani in his superb chapter “Évolutions ecclésiologiques: Le pontifcat d’Alexandre III,” in Histoire du Christianisme des origines à nos jours, 5: Apogée de la papauté et expansion de la Chrétienté (1054-1254), ed. André Vauchez et al. (<Paris>: 1993) 223-229.
The articles by Noonan and Weigand have redefined the historiography of Alexander’s life: John T. Noonan, “Who was Rolandus?” Law, Church, and Society: Essays in Honor of Stephan Kuttner, ed. Kenneth Pennington and Robert Somerville (Philadelphia: 1977) 21-48. Rudolf Weigand, “Magister Rolandus und Papst Alexander III.” Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 149 (1980) 3-44 and Weigand’s "Glossen des Magister Rolandus zum Dekret Gratians.” Miscellanea Rolando Bandinelli, Papa Alessandro III, ed. Filippo Liotta. (Accademia senese degli intronati. Siena: 1986) 391-423. Several other essays in this volume are important reevaluations of Alexander or contributions to his biography: James A. Brundage, "Marriage and sexuality in the Decretals of pope Alexander III," 57-83. Charles Duggan, “Decretals of Alexander III to England,” 85-151. Raymonde Foreville, “Alexandre III et la canonisation des Saints,” 217-236. Antonio García y García, “Alejandro III y los reinos ibéricos,” 237-257. Walter Ullmann, “Alexander III and the Conquest of Ireland: A Note on the Background,” 369-387. For his conciliar activity, see Robert Somerville, Pope Alexander III and the Council of Tours (Publications of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies; Berkeley-Los Angeles: 1977) and Raymonde Foreville, Latran I, II, III et Latran IV (Histoire des conciles œcuméniques 6; Paris: 1965).