Decretal Letters of Pope Innocent III touching on Church and State

"Venerabilem fratrem nostrum"

To Berthold, noble man and duke of Zähringen

We have received with kindness our venerable brother, Eberhard, the archbishop of Salzburg, and Eberhard, abbot of Salmansweiler, together with the Marchese of the Eastern March, who were sent to us as nuncios by certain princes. We granted them a gracious audience. We had the letter carefully read that certain princes had sent to us, and we have noted all the contents in them. Among other things, these princes have noted in this letter to us that they objected principally that our venerable brother, the bishop of Palestrina, legate of the Apostolic See, exercised the office of an elector or of judge in the election of the emperor. They assert that if he acted as an elector, he inserted his sickle into the field of another. If he participated in the election he took away dignity from the princes. If he acted as a judge of the election, he proceeded illegally since the other party was absent. The opposing party had not been summoned and could not, therefore, be judged contumacious.

Truly we owe justice to every person because of our obligation to exercise our apostolic office. Just as we do not want our justice to be usurped by others, we do not wish to take away the right of the princes. We recognize, as we must, the princes' right and power to elect the king and afterward to raise him to emperor, which is known to belong to them by law and ancient custom. This is especially true since the Apostolic See bestowed this right and power on them when the pope translated Roman imperium in the person of the great Charles from the Greeks to the Germans.

The princes should recognize as they do (and have in our presence) that the right and authority of examining the person elected king and of promoting him to the imperial office pertains to us, since we anoint, consecrate and crown him. It is regularly and generally observed that the person who places his hands upon a candidate may examine him. There if the princes would elect a sacrilegious, excommunicated, tyrannical, fatuous, and heretical, even a pagan, person not in discord but unanimously, ought we anoint, consecrate and crown a man of this sort? Of course not.

Therefore, we respond to the objection of the princes by stating that our legate, the bishop of Palestrina, by approving our most beloved son in Christ, Otto, to be king and by reproving Phillip the duke of Swabia, did not exercise the office of elector as alleged by some of the princes in their letters to us, since he did not elect anyone or have anyone elected, and, consequently, did not participate in the election in any way. He did not usurp or infringe upon the rights of the princes. The bishop was not a judge of the person, since he was led to confirm or to deny the election of both. He was, in fact, an officer of the papal court(1) who declared that the person of the duke was unworthy and the person of the king suitable for receiving the imperial office. He did not make his decision based on the worthiness of the electors but on the suitability of the elected. Many of those who had the power of electing the king and elevating him to emperor by right and by custom consented to Otto. The supporters of Phillip presumed to elect him with the other electors having been absent and having ignored their rights. It is clear that they unlawfully held their election, since it is a principle of law that an election can be held invalid more on account of the rights of one having been ignored than because of the opposition of many.(2) Whence, because they deserve to lose their privilege who abuse their power, it does not seem to be without merit that an injury of this sort not withstanding the others could exercise their rights.

Since Phillip ought not accept the crown and the anointing at that place and from that person and since Otto received the crown and anointing at Aachen from our venerable brother the archbishop of Cologne, we consider and name Otto not Phillip king, as justice demands. In reproving Duke Phillip of Swabia because of manifest defects of person, we did not accuse him with manifest proofs but we condemned him with manifest proofs, since condemnations, not accusations, require manifest proofs.

Furthermore, when the wishes of the princes are divided, we can favor one of the parties after admonishing them and waiting for the results, especially when both parties ask us for unction, consecration, and coronation. We have this authority by law and example. If the princes do not or will not reach a decision after warning them and waiting for their decision, should the Apostolic See suffer the consequences of not having an advocate and a defender because of their fault?

The princes know and your highness is not unmindful that when Lothair and Conrad were elected in discord, the Roman pontiff crowned Lothair. Conrad then returned to the pope's grace.(3) . . .

The manifest defects of the duke of Swabia are his public excommunication, open perjury, and widely known persecution that his forebearers and he himself inflicted on the Apostolic See and other churches. Pope Celestine III of blessed memory, our predecessor, publically and solemnly excommunicated him while he was in Tuscany because of his invasion and destruction of the Patrimony of St Peter, even though Phillip had been often admonished to desist. . . .

Since, therefore, we cannot be moved from our course, but rather we shall firmly persist in our decision, and since you have often stated in your letters that we ought nevertheless to favor the Duke, we warn your highness and exhort the Lord through Apostolic letters that, just as you are confident of our grace and we hope for your devotion, you should withdraw your loyalty from Duke Phillip, not withstanding your oath to him, which, if you have sworn it to him for reason of the kingdom, since he has been found unworthy of obtaining the imperial office, an oath of this sort should not be observed.

Written at the Lateran ca. 26 March, 1202

Text based on the edition of Friedrich Kempf, Regestum Innocentii III papae super negotio Romani imperii (Miscellanea Historiae Pontificiae, 12; Rome: 1947) No. 62, pp. 166-175 and E. Friedberg, Corpus iuris canonici (Leipzig 1881, reprinted 1959) col. 79-82
 Translated by K. Pennington

Political Background of Novit

"Novit ille qui nichil ignorat"

To the Archbishops and bishops of France

He knows, Who is ignorant of nothing, Who is the Examiner of all hearts and Who has knowledge of all secrets, that we love our most beloved son in Christ, Phillip, the illustrious king of the Franks, who is pure of heart, is of good conscience, and whose faith is not feigned. We aspire to increase and augment his honor in all ways and regard the exaltation of the kingdom of the Franks as the elevation of the Apostolic See itself, since that kingdom, blessed by God, has always been steadfast in its devotion to the papacy. The kingdom has never retreated from its devotion to the Apostolic See, although sometimes from various sides troubles are introduced by evil angels. We, nevertheless, who know the snares of Satan well, will strive to avoid his traps and believe that the king will not permit himself to be seduced by Satan's deceitfulness.

May no one presume to think that we wish to diminish or disturb the jurisdiction and power of the king since he ought not to impede or restrict out jurisdiction and power. Since we cannot exercise our jurisdiction to its fullest extent, why would we wish to usurp the jurisdiction of another? The Lord said in the Gospels:

"If your brother shall offend you, go and complain to him in private. If he listens to you, you will gain a brother. If he does not listen to you, bring one or two more persons with you. In the testimony of two or three witnesses, one can find truth.(4) And if he does not heed them, tell the church. If he does not listen to the church, consider him a heathen and a publican." [Matthew 18.15-17]

Therefore the king of England has stated and is prepared to demonstrate fully that the king of the Franks has sinned against him. He has proceeded against the king of the Franks according to the rules of the Gospel. Because he has not accomplished his purpose in any way, he now tells the church. How, then, can we, who are called to govern the universal church by celestial ordination, respect the divine command if we may not proceed according to Gospel? Unless, perhaps, the king of the Franks may present sufficient evidence to the contrary to us or to our legate. We do not wish to judge a case of feudal law that pertains to the king, unless, perhaps, it is exempt from the king's jurisdiction by a special privilege or a contrary custom that deviates from the ius commune (common law). But we may judge a sin that pertains to our jurisdiction without a doubt, and which we can and ought to exercise over anyone.

Consequently your royal highness should not think it injurious if he subjects himself to Apostolic judgment, since the glorious Emperor Valentinian said to the suffragans of the of the church in Milan:(5)

Elect a man to the pontifical see to whom we, who govern the empire, may sincerely submit ourselves and receive his commands as medicines, when we, as men sin.

We humbly omit what the Emperor Theodosius ordained(6) and Charles, ancestor of Phillip, the present king of the Franks, confirmed(7) that:

"If anyone has a complaint or a petition . . . let him be sent to the bishop,"

since we depend on divine law rather than human constitutions, because our power arises not from man but from God.

No man of reason cannot know that it is our duty to correct any Christian for any whatsoever mortal sin. If the sinner rejects our correction, we may compel him through ecclesiastical sanctions. The pages of the New and Old Testaments attest to our authority to correct our subjects.  When the Lord thundered through the Prophet:

"Complain and never cease, raise your voice as if it were a mighty horn, announcing their sins to my people" [Isaiah 58.1]  .  .  .

That we can and ought to compel obedience is clear from what the Lord said to the Prophet who was one of the priests of Anathoth:

"Behold, I have placed you over nations and over kingdoms to root up and to pull down, to overthrow and lay in ruins, to build and plant anew" [Jeremiah 1.10]

There is no doubt that to "root up and to pull down, to overthrow and lay in ruins" are all mortal sins. Therefore, when the Lord gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Blessed Peter, he said to him:

Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earh shall be loosed in heaven [Matthew 16.19]

Truly no one doubts that the Lord binds every mortal sin in heaven.  Consequently, that Peter may imitate the judgment of the Lord, he ought to bind those things on earth that are known to have been bound in heaven .  .  .   Perhaps it might be argued that kings ought to be treated differently from other Christians.  Yet it is written in divine law:

You shall judge the great as you would the humble; you shall not judge according to a person's status [Cf. Deuteronomy 1.17]

 which blessed James affirmed when he said:

If you say to him who is dressed in fine garments, "you should sit here well," and to a poor person, "you stand there" or "you sit at my feet on a footstool" <you become judges with evil thoughts> [James 2.3]

We may proceed in this way against any criminal sin and we shall call the sinner back from error to truth, from vice to virtue, especially when he has sinned against peace, which is the bond of love.   .   .   . Furthermore, when anyone lays legitimate sanctions of law upon a person, the other person may use the same sanctions against the first, as the wise man might say: "Obey the law that you have made!"  .   .   .  When the kings had concluded a peace treaty and both had sworn to uphold the pact, which, nevertheless, was not upheld for the stipulated length of time, can we not intervene in a case where a oath has been sworn?  Oaths belong without a doubt to the judgment of the church, in order to reestablish peace treaties that have been broken.

Written at the Lateran, April 1204
 Innocent III, Pope. Die Register Innocenz' III. 7: 7. Pontifikatsjahr, 1204/1205, Texte und Indices. Ed. Othmar Hageneder, Andrea Sommerlechner, with the collaboration of Christoph Egger and Rainer Murauer. Publikationen des Historischen Instituts beim Österreichischen Kulturinstitut in Rom. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997, No. 43(42), p. 72-76
Translated by K. Pennington

Political Background of Magna Carta
Magna Carta (Yale Law School Translation)

Magna Carta (Manuscript and Translation)

"Etsi Karissimus in Christo filius noster Johannes"

Innocent, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to all the faithful of Christ who will read this letter, greeting and apostolic benediction.

John, the king of England, our dearest and illustrious son in Christ, has greatly offended God and church, and we have excommunicated him and placed his kingdom under ecclesiastical interdict.  Under the inspiration of Him who does not wish the death of a sinner but a conversion that the sinner may live, has now had a change of heart.  He has humbly rendered satisfaction to God and the Church.  He has granted his kingdom and that of Ireland to  blessed Peter and the Roman church.  He has received it back from us as a fief [feudum] having promised us a tribute of one thousand marks each year.  He has taken the oath of fealty to us.  .  .  . And even wishing to please omnipotent God more has also taken the sign of the living cross and is making magnificient preparations to go to the aid of the Holy Land.  But Satan, who is always envious of good deeds,  has stirred up the barons of England against him with his deceitful strategems.   .   .   .   These vassals conspired against their lord and swore oaths publically against him.  They joined with his enemies and others and presumed to wage war against him. They occupied and ravaged his lands and captured the city of London, the chief seat of the kingdom.    The king appealed to our court and informed them that he would grant them justice before us, to whom this case belongs by reason of feudal lordship [ratione dominii pertinebat].  They completely refused to submit.   Consequently John was compelled by force and fear, that would cause the most reasonable of men to fail [vir constantissimus], to enter an agreement with them that was not only vile and base, but  illegal and iniquitous.  This agreement diminished and derogated his rights together with his honor.  Because the Lord has said to us through the prophet:

I have placed you over nations and over kingdoms to root up and to pull down, to overthrow and lay in ruins, to build and plant anew" [Jeremiah 1.10]

and also through another prophet:

Destroy the conspiracies of impiety and relieve those torments that wear the people down [Isaiah 58.6]

.   .   .   With the counsel of our brothers the cardinals, we completely reject and condemn this agreement (Magna Carta) and order under the penalty of excommunication that the king should not obey it and that the barons with their accomplices should not ask that it be obeyed.  .   .   .We declare that the charter and all things connected to it is null and void forever.
Written at Agnani, August 24, 1215, in the eighteenth year of our pontificate

Latin text taken from Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III Concerning England (1198-1216), edited and translated by C.R. Cheney and W.H. Semple (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1953), pp. 212-216

Translated by K. Pennington

"Per venerabilem"

Innocent III to the noble man, William of Montpellier

Your nobleness has humbly requested, via our venerable brother the archbishop of Arles, that we see fit to bestow on your sons a title of legitimacy so that the issue of their birth should not be a problem in their succeeding you. That the apostolic see has the plenitude of power in these matters seems clear from the fact that in various cases it has made legitimate not only naturally born sons but also those born of adultery, so that they may perform spiritual acts and thus be promoted to be bishops. Thus it is seems more believable and is reputed that the See has the power to legitimize children for secular functions, particularly if they recognize no power greater than the Roman pontiff, who has the power to legitimate, since greater care and authority is required in spiritual matters than secular ones and thus is seems that what is permissible in greater matters is lawful in lesser ones. Similarly, also, the same child seems able to be legitimized and elevated to the highest episcopal authority since he himself is freed from the power of his father. Besides this, even if a single bishop should knowingly ordain a servus of another as a priest, the ordainer is allowed to make satisfaction to the lord according to the canonical form that is binding; nevertheless, however, having been ordained, the servus evades the yoke of servitude. It seems strange that he who has been legitimized for the purpose of spiritual acts remains illegitimate with regard to secular actions. What is arranged in spiritual matters is consequently understood to be arranged in temporal matters. The apostolic see, moreover, is able to make this arrangement in the patrimony of St. Peter in which it exercises authority as the popes and power as the supremi principis. Since, therefore, authority seems to reside in the possession of the Roman Church not only in spiritual matters but in temporal ones as well, such that we may excuse the above matter of your sons, on account of yours and your progenitors’ merit, who have always persisted in devotion to the apostolic see, the archbishop humbly requested the same for your part.

He seemed, moreover, from this request, to draw on greater daring, because he was able to allege that not long before he was compelled to seek an example, and in favor of this petition today, that he said we ourselves had made in a similar case. Indeed, when, our dear son in Christ, Philip, illustrious king of the Franks, repudiated Ingeburga, our daughter in Christ, the illustrious queen of the Franks and took up with another soon after and having put above the son and daughter of another, and you similarly having excluded legitimate children placing others of another above them, from whom you placed those sons above: just as with the sons of the same king, thus with you it is believed to have been arranged through the benevolence of the apostolic see; especially when the greater necessity compelled it and you were more particularly subject to us. And so the king of the Franks, from this famous recollection, hereafter accepted the legitimate heir of the queen of the Franks, who he wished and believed to have succeeded him to the throne of the kingdom; in truth you, from your legitimate wife, do not have a male heir, who may succeed you both in our devotion and proper heredity. Since the above mentioned king subjected himself to us in spiritual matters, you must indeed subject yourself in temporal matters, since you possess part of you lands from the church of Magalonensis, which itself recognizes the temporality of the apostolic see; therefore the church of Magolonensis ….

Indeed, if the truth is examined more closely, the matter appears not similar but rather dissimilar. For the king himself had been judged to be separated from the aforementioned queen, of good memory, by the archbishop of Reims, (who was also) the legate of the apostolic see. Indeed, you, as it is said, have separated your wife from you by your own rashness. He also, before having been prohibited to marry another had become known to him had done so, from whom it was known to have been born a set of twins; but you, in contempt of the Church, have attempted to marry another, on account of the fact that that revenge exercised that sword against you according to ecclesiastical law. The king himself, moreover, held up as a defense against the marriage the impediment of affinity with the aforementioned queen and openly brought witnesses before the aforementioned bishop, the judgement of whom because it had been made null only because of the custom of the courts was not upheld, and we after the restitution of the aforementioned wife to him over (the judgement) of this venerable brother, our Octavius, bishop of Ostia, and our esteemed son John, cardinal priest of the holy titular church at Priscus (?), instructed the attorneys to assent. You have objected, as it is asserted, to nothing concerning your wife that would lead to a divorce. Since faithfulness to the marriage bed is one of the three virtues of marriage, this violation of the marriage bed would not, nevertheless, destroy the conjugal bond. Concerning the sons of the same queen, whether they were legitimate or not, as long as the question of affinity is pending, it can, not without merit, be doubted.




The king of France recognizes no temporal superior. Because of this he could submit himself to our judgement without injuring another’s right. It seemed to some that not as himself as a father to his children but rather as the prince that he could issue a dispensation to himself. You, however, know that you are subject to another and so you may not appeal to us, and not injure them, without first obtaining consent. Nor do you have the authority to grant such a dispensation yourself.

By this rationale, therefore, we granted the favor the aforementioned king had requested, in consideration of the fact that in both the Old and New Testaments, we possessed the fullness of power not only in the temporal matters of the patrimony of the church, but also in other regions, after examining certain cases. We do not want to prejudice another’s right nor do we wish to usurp for ourselves a power to which we have no right, for we are not ignorant of Christ’s saying "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s" (Luke 20:25). On account of this, having been asked to divide an inheritance between two men he asked, "Who made me a judge over you?" (Luke 12:14) In Deuteronomy, however, we find "If you find an ambiguity or difficulty in a judgement between blood and blood, cause and cause or leprosy and leprosy, and you perceive that the words of the judges within your gates vary, arise and go to that place where the Lord God shall choose, and going to the priests of Levi and the judge of the moment, inquire of them. They shall weigh the truth of the judgement and you shall do whatever they, who reside in that place whom He elected, say. They will teach you according to His law and you shall follow their judgement, leaning neither towards the left hand nor towards the right. He, moreover, who shall be proud and refuses to obey the order of the priest who ministers in that time to the Lord God, and refuses to obey the decree of the judge, shall die and (by this) you shall take the evil from Isreal." (Deuteronomy 17:8-12) Similarly, since "Deuteronomy" is interpreted as "second law", it was established from the force of the word that what is instituted there ought also to be followed in the New Testament. For the place which God selected is known to be the Apostolic See, which the Lord founded on himself as a corner stone …

Moreover, the Levitical priests are our brothers, who, by Levitical law, function as our co-judges in the execution of the priestly office. Indeed there exists above them a priest or judge to whom the Lord said to Peter, "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall also be bound in heaven and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 16:19). He is the vicar of the one who is an eternal priest according to the order of Melchisedech, a judge established by God over the living and the dead. Thus are three judgements are differentiated: the first between blood and blood, understood as being between civil matters, and the second is between cause and cause, which refers to both civil and ecclesiastical matters and the third is between leper and leper, that is, ecclesiastical matters. In these matters if there is a difficulty or ambiguity, they are referred to the judgement of the Apostolic See. If anyone, being prideful, holds this judgement in contempt, he shall be condemned to death in order to take away the evil from Isreal. That is, he shall be separated from the community of the faithful by a sentence of excommunication, as though he were dead. For Paul, explaining the fullness of ecclesiastical power (while) writing to the Corinthians, said, "Do you not know that we shall judge the angels? How much more the things of this world?" (1 Corinthians 6:3) Accordingly, the Apostolic See is accustomed to exercise the office of secular power sometimes and in some things by itself, and sometimes and in some matters, through others.

We therefore allowed the petition of the aforementioned king of the Franks with those sons, concerning whose legitimacy was doubted from the beginning because the Mosaic law as much as canon law detests the offshoot of adultery, as in the testament of the Lord: "A bastard and his offspring up to the tenth generation may not enter into the Church. Indeed canon law prohibits such persons from entering holy orders, and also in secular laws, not only are these men prevented from succeeding their fathers, but they are also kept from spiritual food. And so, we will not give our assent to your petition, though were it able to be done, both a lesser fault and a freer authority would be exhibited; we embrace you with arms of particular affection, and will tender to you any special favor which we may according to God’s will and our honor.

Written in 1202

Translated by Shannon Williamson


 The translations of  letters may be used in the classroom without asking my permission

© 1998  K. Pennington

Notes to the text of Venerabilem

1. Officer of the papal court: the Latin word is "denunciator." A "denunciator" was a Roman official who was responsible for bringing criminal charges against defendants in the late Empire. It is difficult to know what Innocent had in mind when he used this technical term taken from Roman law.

2. "cum explorati sit iuris quod electioni plus contemptus unius quam contradictio multorum obsistat": Innocent discusses the legal rights of "contempti" in 3 Comp. 1.6.13 (X 1.6.28) and his discussion in this decretal on episcopal elections is repeated here.

3. The election of Lothair of Supplinburg in 1125 was followed in 1127 by the election of Conrad of Hohenstaufen. Pope Innocent II crowned Lothair in 1133.

4. Matt. 18.15-17. The text "in ore duorum vel trium testium stet omne verbum" was a fundamental argument for medieval jurists that no one could be convicted of a crime with only one witness.

5. D.63 c.3

6. C.9 q.1 c.35

7. C.9 q.1 c.37