October 31, 2001
Pope Innocent III is regarded as the founder of the Papal State. Innocent was effective in firmly establishing the Papal State because he broke the mold his predecessors had created. For centuries, papal claims to the lands of Central Italy had always been defended by citing the ancient authorities, the Donation of Constantine and the Donation of Pepin. And for centuries the papacy was ineffective at maintaining its control of this important region. Innocent III applied a much more pragmatic approach to the problem, as he was wont to do. In most cases secular leaders of Innocent’s time were persuaded not by claims of legal precedent but by force of arms. Therefore, Innocent’s response to secular encroachment on papal lands was predominantly military in nature. The events relating to the Papal State under Innocent’s papacy take shape in two stages: an early stage focused on papal rights in Sicily and a later stage focused on Northern Italy and Germany.
Innocent’s control of the Papal State began a few hundred miles to the south in Sicily with a woman named Constance. Constance was the widow to the papacy’s arch-nemesis Emperor Henry VI and mother to Henry’s son Frederick II. Constance was the acting regent of Sicily during her son’s minority. Her rule there was focused on one goal, to ensure Frederick’s succession to Sicily’s throne. She was pressed by Markward von Anweiler who was claiming that he had the proper rights to rule Sicily. She expelled Markward from Sicily and she built up political ties with the papacy. She died in 1198 and in her will she named Innocent III as guardian to her young son in a bid for protection of his rights from Markward. With this move she made plain the inviolability of Frederick’s Sicilian kingdom.
Markward saw this as his opportune moment to take Sicily. He expressed his claim to the regency of Sicily as a result of the death of both of Frederick’s parents. In October 1199 Markward and his army invaded Sicily, confirming Innocent’s fears. Innocent was worried that Markward, who was on cordial terms with Philip of Swabia (the leading contender for the imperial crown), would submit Sicily to the rule of the empire and the papacy would again be surrounded north and south by imperial lands. Innocent’s answer was to declare a crusade to recover Sicily from Markward who was labeled as an enemy against the Christian people. The leader of Innocent’s crusade was Walter of Brienne, a French knight and son-in-law to King Tancred of Sicily, who had taken crusader vows and was promised control of the county of Lecce in return for his aid against Markward and for his acknowledgment of Frederick as the rightful king of Sicily. This incident set the groundwork for Innocent’s policies dealing with secular leaders who insisted on encroaching upon papal authority and lands. Innocent was willing to go to great lengths, even to the point of using spiritual sanctions, indeed even to the point of calling for a crusade, to achieve his secular political goals.
The next test of Innocent’s political prowess came with the contested imperial election. In 1201 Innocent supported the claims of the Welf Otto of Brunswick for the imperial crown over those of Duke Philip of Swabia. By 1208 Philip and Innocent had reconciled enough that they were able to draft an agreement that ensured the security of the Papal State but only a few months later Philip was murdered and the pope’s choice of emperor was now uncontested. In a show of gratitude for the pope’s support Otto issued a diploma in March 1209 at Speyer that renounced any imperial claims to central Italy. Yet, Otto’s compliance with the papacy was short lived as two years later he invaded northern Italy in October 1210. Within a year, Innocent excommunicated Otto and authorized papal legates to depose bishops loyal to him. Innocent now played his trump card, the young Frederick II. After inciting animosity against Otto in Germany, Innocent was able to get the German nobles to agree to elect the young Frederick as the true emperor. One of Frederick’s first acts as the new emperor was to issue the Golden Bull of Eger on 12 July 1213 which reaffirmed Otto’s promises made at Speyer to leave inviolate the Papal State. To make complete his victory, Innocent enlisted the military might of the King of France, Philip Augustus, to destroy the excommunicated Otto’s power. On July 27, 1214 Philip Augustus defeated Otto at Bouvines. With the opposition neatly removed, Frederick was crowned at Aachen in July of 1215. From Innocent’s perspective his campaign against any aggression directed towards the Papal State and papal authority in Italy was complete; his protégé was the new emperor and he had removed all serious threats to papal authority in central Italy. Innocent could never have foreseen the problems that Frederick II would cause for his successors.
Innocent’s efforts were not only international in scope. In central Italy, he used his powerful family ties to secure his control in the Campagna (the area south of Rome) and within Rome itself. He also increased the amount of tribute paid by the cities in the Papal State, thereby providing him with increased fiscal freedom. His efforts within central Italy solidified when in 1207 the parliament of Viterbo recognized the existence of a new political unit, the Papal State, and thus confirming the secular role of the papacy.
Historians often say that Pope Innocent III was a realist, and his efforts to maintain control of the Papal State certainly show that to be true. Innocent’s efforts were not remarkably innovative and, unbeknownst to him, he did not leave his successor in much of an improved political position. What he did do was empower successor popes with a tested and proven effective means of defending their rights against militant aggressors; a legacy that proved useful in the centuries to come.
Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Morris, Colin. The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.