Innocent IV, Pope

Kenneth Pennington

Pontificate, June 25, 1243, to Dec. 7, 1254; b. Sinibaldo dei Fieschi in Genoa, c. 1180-1090; d. Naples. He was born into one of the most powerful noble families in Northwestern Italy. His father Hugh, Count of Lavagna, was the first to carry the name Fieschi, which was bestowed on him because he held the imperial office that controlled the fiscal affairs of the emperor. Pope Adrian V (1276 ) was Sinibaldo's nephew and had exercised much influence in the Roman curia before he became pope (Cardinal Ottobono Fieschi). Innocent studied law at Parma where Obizo, his uncle, was bishop. Obizo made his nephew a canon in the cathedral chapter of Parma. By 1213 he was in Bologna where he continued his studies. He is called a master (magister) and a papal subdeacon in a letter of Pope Honorius III of 1223. The title would indicate that he had earned a degree in law. There is no evidence that Sinibaldo taught at Bologna, but a short teaching career cannot be completely excluded. His expansive commentary on the Decretals of Gregory IX (see below) might have begun as lectures in Bologna. He left the schools permanently in 1226 when he became an auditor of the papal Curia. When Ugolino of Ostia was elected pope and took the name Gregory IX, the new pope immediately recognized Sinibaldo's talents. He appointed him Vice-Chancellor of the Roman church in 1227 and immediately after elevated him to the cardinalate as cardinal priest of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Gregory appointed him the governor of the March, a region of the Papal States In 1234 in 1234. Since he continued to sign many papal letters with the other cardinals, he must have remained in Rome during most of his governorship.

The relationship between the pope and the emperor deteriorated dramatically during the time that Innocent worked in the Curia. From 1238 Frederick began to claim sovereignty over central Italy and Rome itself. Gregory called a general council to meet in Rome. Its purpose was to deal with the Emperor Frederick II. Any chance of reconciliation between Gregory and the Frederick was dealt a severe blow when on May 3, 1241 Frederick captured a large number of prelates, including two cardinals, sailing from Genoa to Rome to participate in a council. Afterwards the emperor held them captive on the island of Giglio off the coast of Tuscany. When Gregory died in August, 1241, the College of Cardinals elected a new pope immediately, but the ailing pope, Celestine IV, died after a pontificate of only 15 days. The political situation was perilous. Emperor Frederick was excommunicated, the two cardinals were still imperial prisoners, and the cardinals were deeply divided over how to deal with the emperor. A vacancy of almost 18 months ensued. Finally in June, 1243 the cardinals elected Sinibaldo pope. He took the name Innocent IV.

Although Sinibaldo's decision to name himself after the most dominating pope of the thirteenth century (Innocent III) might have given Frederick pause, the emperor greeted Innocent's election with enthusiasm. He immediately began negotiations to conclude peace with the Roman church. A treaty was drafted in 1244 in which Frederick agreed to abandon the Papal States. Frederick and Innocent met in the Lateran Palace during Holy Week to confirm the agreement publically. However, Innocent did not trust the emperor and fled Italy to Lyon, a French city just within the borders of the Empire. He never returned to Italy until after Frederick's death.

The First Ecumenical Council of Lyon 1245

When Innocent arrived in Lyon he immediately called for a general council. Lyon was subject to the Empire. Nonetheless, Innocent was secure there and could deal with Frederick without being threatened by his military power. He could depend upon King Louis IX of France to protect him. The prelates of the Northern European countries would have free entry into the city without the danger of imperial capture or detention. The council was convoked on 26 June 1245 and remained convened until 17 July. 150 prelates came from France, Italy, and Spain. The Latin emperor of Constantinople and other laymen were also in attendance. In his opening sermon he announced an agenda that went far beyond his conflict with the emperor. He described the vices of the clergy in detail and spoke of the "insolence of the Moslems" and the dangerous situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. He lamented the schism with the Greek church in the East and the successes of the Greek schismatics who were intent on regaining control of Constantinople. He noted ferocity of the Tatars in Eastern Europe. Finally he expressed his grief that the emperor was a persecutor of the church.

The political situation in Eastern Europe and Asia had concerned Innocent for some time. He viewed the expansion of the Mongol empire and the invasion of Eastern Europe by the Tatars with interest and misgiving. In April 1245 the pope sent Giovanni Da Pian Del Carpini on an extraordinary mission. He was to travel into the Mongol empire and seek out the great khan. Carpini's long journey was the first papal attempt to contact distant non-Christian rulers and fit in well with Innocent's convictions. In his great legal commentary he had established that the pope had jurisdiction over non-Christians and could punish them for violating the law of nature. He also believed that if non-Christians did not permit Christian missionaries into their lands and permitted them to preach, the pope could call for a just war against them. Innocent established an political and intellectual framework for Christian missionary efforts for centuries to come.

When Innocent convened Council, he also summoned Frederick II. He had excommunicated him once again immediately before the Council opened. The emperor did not attend but sent his legate Thaddeus of Suessa. The Council charged Frederick with a variety of crimes. Thaddeus put up an effective defense of his lord but could not prevent the Council from deposing the emperor. Innocent called upon the German princes to elect a new emperor and some of them responded by electing Henry Raspe, Landgrave of Thuringia. Unfortunately, Henry died on Feb. 17, 1247. The princes then selected William, the Count of Holland in his place. King Louis IX of France tried to mediate a settlement of what had become a scandalous spectacle. Innocent responded by renewing Frederick's excommunication in April 1248. This unseemly and disastrous situation was resolved on Dec. 13, 1250 when Frederick died. Innocent was able to reassert papal authority in Central Italy. Although he died before he could bestow the crown of the Kingdom of Sicily on a secular ruler who would not endanger the Papal States, his successors negotiated with many different candidates. Finally Pope Urban IV (1261-1264) finally granted the crown to the brother of Louis IX of France, Charles of Anjou. The French ruled Southern Italy until the fifteenth century. Never again did the empire seriously threaten the papacy and papal power in central Italy. The result was the political fragmentation of central and southern Europe that would last until the nineteenth century.

In spite of Innocent's announced agenda for reform, the Council of Lyon enacted no major legislation that dealt with the pastoral life of the church or the reform of the clergy. For the first time in the conciliar history of the medieval Christian church, political affairs completely overwhelmed spiritual concerns. The new canons did contain much that was important for the regulation of the church's judicial system. Innocent immediately published the twenty-two conciliar canons promulgated at Lyon on 25 August 1245 and sent them to the schools in Bologna and Paris. He expanded this small collection of canons in 1246 and further in 1253 with other decretals. The last version of the collection was known as the Novels (Novellae). All these canons and decretals dealt with legal procedure and ecclesiastical administration.


Innocent was one of the most influential jurists of the Middle Ages. He wrote a massive commentary on the Decretals of Gregory IX, Commentaria super libros quinque decretalium, that was cited by every jurist from his immediate contemporaries to Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century. He probably began writing his commentary long before he became pope and continued revising it up to the time of his death. He also wrote a commentary on the constitutions of the First Council of Lyon and on the additional decretals that were added to the constitutions in 1246 and 1253. The work was widely distributed in manuscripts and printed in a number of editions between 1477 and 1570.

Innocent emphasized papal authority and power in his commentary. His great predecessor, Pope Innocent III, had established the foundations of papal authority within the church and over secular affairs. Innocent IV expanded and refined Innocent III's legislation in significant ways. He claimed that the pope could choose between two imperial candidates, could depose the emperor (a power he exercised at Lyon), and could exercise imperial jurisdiction when the imperial throne was vacant. Although he granted non-Christian princes the right to hold legitimate political power, he tempered that right by asserting that they must permit Christain missionaries to preach in their realms (see above). In his commentary on the bull of deposition that he had promulgated at the Council of Lyon (Ad apostolicae dignitatis apicem Liber sextus 2.14.2), Innocent made remarkable claims for papal authority. The pope did not need the council to make the deposition of the emperor valid, because only the pope, not the council, has fulness of power. Innocent asserted that Christ had the power and authority to depose or condemn emperors by natural right (ius naturale). He concluded that the pope had the same authority since he held the office of the vicar of Christ, and it would be absurd if after the death of St. Peter human beings were left without the governance of one person (regimen unius personae). Few popes in the Middle Ages made a more powerful argument for the legitimacy and justness of papal monarchy.

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