Pope Innocent III

Not to be confused with Antipope Innocent III.
Innocent III
Papacy began 8 January 1198
Papacy ended 16 July 1216
Predecessor Celestine III
Successor Honorius III
Ordination 21 February 1198
Consecration 22 February 1198
Created Cardinal September 1190
by Clement III
Personal details
Birth name Lotario de' Conti di Segni
Born 1160 or 1161
Gavignano, Papal States, Holy Roman Empire
Died 16 July 1216 (aged 55-56)
Perugia, Papal States, Holy Roman Empire
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Other popes named Innocent
Papal styles of
Pope Innocent III
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style None

Pope Innocent III (Latin: Innocentius III; 1160 or 1161 – 16 July 1216) reigned from 8 January 1198 to his death. His birth name was Lotario dei Conti di Segni, sometimes anglicised to Lothar of Segni.

Pope Innocent was one of the most powerful and influential popes. He exerted a wide influence over the Christian states of Europe, claiming supremacy over all of Europe's kings. Pope Innocent was central in supporting the Catholic Church's reforms of ecclesiastical affairs through his decretals and the Fourth Lateran Council. This resulted in a considerable refinement of Western canon law. Pope Innocent is notable for using interdict and other censures to compel princes to obey his decisions, although these measures were not uniformly successful. Innocent called for Christian crusades against Muslim Spain and the Holy Land, as well as the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in southern France.

One of Pope Innocent's most critical decisions was organizing the Fourth Crusade. Originally intended to attack Jerusalem through Egypt, a series of unforeseen circumstances led the crusaders to Constantinople, where they ultimately sacked the city in 1204. Although the attack went against his explicit orders, Innocent reluctantly accepted this result, seeing it as the will of God to reunite the Latin and Orthodox Churches, but instead, it poisoned relations between the two churches.[1]


Early life

Lotario de' Conti was born in Gavignano, near Anagni.[2] His father was Count Trasimund of Segni and was a member of a famous house, Conti, which produced nine Popes, including Gregory IX, Alexander IV and Innocent XIII. Lotario was the nephew of Pope Clement III; his mother, Claricia Scotti (Romani de Scotti), was from the same noble Roman family.[3]

Lotario received his early education in Rome, probably at the Benedictine Abbey of St Andrea al Celio, under Peter Ismael;[4] he studied theology in Paris under the theologians Peter of Poitiers, Melior of Pisa, and Peter of Corbeil,[5] and (possibly) jurisprudence in Bologna, according to the Gesta (between 1187 and 1189).[6] As Pope, Lotario was to play a major role in the shaping of canon law through conciliar canons and decretal letters.[2]

Shortly after the death of Alexander III (30 August 1181) Lotario returned to Rome and held various ecclesiastical offices during the short reigns of Lucius III, Urban III, Gregory VIII, and Clement III, reaching the rank of Cardinal-Deacon in 1190. He subscribed the papal bulls between 7 December 1190 and 4 November 1197.

As a cardinal, Lotario wrote De miseria humanae conditionis (On the Misery of the Human Condition).[7] The work was very popular for centuries, surviving in more than 700 manuscripts.[8] Although he never returned to the complementary work he intended to write, On the Dignity of Human Nature, Bartolomeo Facio (1400–1457) took up the task writing De excellentia ac praestantia hominis.[9]

Election to the Papacy

Main article: Papal election, 1198

Celestine III died on 8 January 1198. Before his death he had urged the College of Cardinals to elect Giovanni di San Paolo as his successor, but Lotario de' Conti was elected pope in the ruins of the ancient Septizodium, near the Circus Maximus in Rome after only two ballots on the very day on which Celestine III died. He was only thirty-seven years old at the time.[2] He took the name Innocent III, maybe as a reference to his predecessor Innocent II (1130-1143), who had succeeded in asserting the Papacy's authority over the emperor (in contrast with Celestine III's recent policy).[10]

Reassertion of Papal power

As pope, Innocent III began with a very wide sense of his responsibility and of his authority. The Muslim recapture of Jerusalem in 1187 was to him a divine judgment on the moral lapses of Christian princes. He was also determined to protect what he called "the liberty of the Church" from inroads by secular princes. This determination meant, among other things, that princes should not be involved in the selection of bishops, and it was focused especially on the "patrimonium" of the papacy, the section of central Italy claimed by the popes and later called the Papal States. The patrimonium was routinely threatened by Hohenstaufen German kings who, as Roman emperors, claimed it for themselves. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI expected to be succeeded by his infant son Frederick as king of Sicily, king of the Germans, and Roman Emperor, a combination that would have brought Germany, Italy, and Sicily under a single ruler and left the patrimonium exceedingly vulnerable.[2]

The early death of Henry VI left his 4-year-old son Frederick II as king. Henry VI’s widow Constance of Sicily ruled over Sicily for her young son before he reached the age of majority. She was as eager to remove German power from the kingdom of Sicily as was Innocent III. Before her death in 1198, she named Innocent as guardian of the young Frederick until he reached his maturity. In exchange, Innocent was also able to recover papal rights in Sicily that had been surrendered decades earlier to King William I of Sicily by Pope Adrian IV. The Pope invested the young Frederick II as King of Sicily in November 1198. He also later induced Frederick II to marry the widow of King Emeric of Hungary in 1209.[2]

In 1209, Francis of Assisi led his first eleven followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious Order, which was ultimately granted.[11] Upon entry to Rome, the brothers encountered Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had in his company Giovanni di San Paolo, the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina. The Cardinal, who was the confessor of Pope Innocent III, was immediately sympathetic to Francis and agreed to represent Francis to the pope. Reluctantly, Pope Innocent agreed to meet with Francis and the brothers the next day. After several days, the pope agreed to admit the group informally, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance. The group was tonsured.[12] This was important in part because it recognized Church authority and prevented his following from possible accusations of heresy, as had happened to the Waldensians decades earlier. Though Pope Innocent initially had his doubts, following a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome, thus the 'home church' of all Christendom), he decided to endorse Francis' Order. This occurred, according to tradition, on April 16, 1210, and constituted the official founding of the Franciscan Order. The group, then the "Lesser Brothers" (Order of Friars Minor also known as the Franciscan Order), preached on the streets and had no possessions. They were centered in Porziuncola, and preached first in Umbria, before expanding throughout Italy.

Involvement in Imperial elections

Papal power was based on more than scriptures. The popes acquired large amounts of land, and bishops and clergy were, in theory, agents of papal programs. Pope Innocent III’s increased involvement in Imperial elections took historically documented form when he called the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 during which time he beckoned about 1200 bishops, abbots and nobles from around Europe to assist in either tweaking current laws or creating new ones to further influence the masses in supporting the Pope as the universal authority of the Empire.

In order to define fundamental doctrines, the council reviewed the nature of the Eucharist, the ordered annual confession of sins, and prescribed detailed procedures for the election of bishops. The council also mandated a strict lifestyle for clergy, banning their participation in judicial procedures involving extremely painful punishments by which the accused would either atone for their sins or prove themselves innocent of often frivolous charges. One doctrine that confirmed the “power over the spirit” theory was the implementation by the council mandating that Jews wear special identifying markings on their clothing – a sign of the increased hostility felt by Christians towards Jews in the region.[13]

Another tool Innocent III used to attempt to gain universal authority and have more involvement in Imperial elections was letters he wrote to power brokers in the region. The most explicit one concerns the theory of the sun and the moon.

Other letters that Innocent III sent during this attempt to mandate and secure the papal proprietor as the universal authority by demeaning and attempting to minimize the authority of the emperors were written under the title “Papal Policies”:

One of the most direct public notices of the universal authority of the pope came in Innocent III’s “Papal Decree on the choice of a German King, 1201". It was his opportunity to force the acceptance of his decree amidst a chaotic election of three men for emperor:

It is the business of the pope to look after the interests of the Roman empire, since the empire derives its origin and its final authority from the papacy; its origin, because it was originally transferred from Greece by and for the sake of the papacy...its final authority, because the emperor is raised to his position by the pope who blesses him, crowns him and invests him with the empire....Therefore, since three persons have lately been elected king by different parties, namely the youth [Frederick, son of Henry VI], Philip [of Hohenstaufen, brother of Henry VI], and Otto [of Brunswick, of the Welf family], so also three things must be taken into account in regard to each one, namely: the legality, the suitability and the expediency of his election......Far be it from us that we should defer to man rather than to God, or that we should fear the countenance of the powerful....On the foregoing grounds, then, we decide that the youth should not at present be given the empire; we utterly reject Philip for his manifest unfitness and we order his usurpation to be resisted by all....since Otto is not only himself devoted to the church, but comes from devout ancestors on both sides.....therefore we decree that he ought to be accepted and supported as king, and ought to be given the crown of empire, after the rights of the Roman church have been secured.[14]

Feudal power over Europe

During the reign of Pope Innocent III, the papacy was at the height of its powers. He was considered to be the most powerful person in Europe at the time.[15] His papacy asserted the absolute spiritual authority of his office, while still respecting the temporal authority of kings.

After the death of Emperor Henry VI, who had recently also conquered the Kingdom of Sicily, the succession became disputed: as Henry's son Frederick was still a small child, the partisans of the Staufen dynasty elected Henry’s brother, Philip, Duke of Swabia, king in March 1198, whereas the princes opposed to the Staufen dynasty elected Otto, Duke of Brunswick, of the House of Welf. King Philip II of France supported Philip's claim, whereas King Richard of England supported his nephew Otto.[16]

Pope Innocent was determined to prevent the continued unification of Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire under one monarch[17] and seized the opportunity to extend his influence. In 1201, the pope openly espoused the side of Otto IV, whose family had always been opposed to the house of Hohenstaufen.[18] Otto himself also seemed willing to grant any demands that Innocent would make. The confusion in the Empire allowed Innocent to drive out the imperial feudal lords from Ancona, Spoleto and Perugia, who had been installed by Emperor Henry VI.[19] On 3 July 1201, the papal legate, Cardinal-Bishop Guido of Palestrina announced to the people, in the cathedral of Cologne, that Otto IV had been approved by the pope as Roman king and threatened with excommunication all those who refused to acknowledge him. At the same time, Innocent encouraged the cities in Tuscany to form a league, called the League of San Genesio against German imperial interests in Italy, and they placed themselves under Innocent’s protection.[19]

In May 1202, Innocent issued the decree "Venerabilem", addressed to the Duke of Zähringen, in which he explained the relation he considered the Empire to stand to the papacy. This decree, which has become famous, was afterwards embodied in the "Corpus Juris Canonici",[20] contained the following major items:

John of England signs Magna Carta. Illustration from Cassell's History of England (1902)

Despite papal support, Otto could not oust his rival Philip until the latter was murdered in a private feud. His rule now undisputed, Otto reneged on his earlier promises and now set his sights on reestablishing Imperial power in Italy and claiming even the Kingdom of Sicily. Given the papal interest to keep Germany and Sicily apart, Innocent now supported his ward, King Frederick of Sicily, to resist Otto's advances and restore the Staufen dynasty to the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick was duly elected by the Staufen partisans.

The conflict was decided by the Battle of Bouvines on 27 July 1214, which pitted Otto, allied to King John of England against Philip II Augustus. Otto was defeated by the French and thereafter lost all influence. He died on 19 May 1218, leaving Frederick II the undisputed emperor. Meanwhile, King John was forced to acknowledge the Pope as his feudal lord and accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.[21]

Innocent III played further roles in the politics of Norway,[22] France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain and England.[21] In return for King John's submission to his authority, Pope Innocent III declared the Magna Carta annulled, though many English Barons did not accept this action.

Innocent called the Fourth Crusade, which was diverted to Constantinople. The pope excommunicated the Crusaders who attacked Christian cities, but was unable to halt or overturn their actions. Erroneously, he felt that the Latin presence would bring about a reconciliation between the Eastern and Western Churches. Innocent also ordered an Albigensian Crusade, which successfully subdued the Cathar heresy in France.[23]

Crusades and suppression of heresy

Innocent launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars.

Innocent III was a vigorous opponent of religious dissent, perceived as heresy, and undertook campaigns against it. At the beginning of his pontificate, he focused on the Albigenses, also known as the Cathars, a sect that had become widespread in southwestern France, then under the control of local princes, such as the Counts of Toulouse. The Cathars rejected the authority and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and what they viewed in it as corrupt.

In 1199, Innocent III condemned the public preaching of heretical teachers. Two Cistercian monks were sent to dispute the teachings of the Cathars and to reassert papal authority.

The murder of Pierre de Castelnau — Innocent's legate — in 1208, by unknown assailants commonly believed to be friends of Count Raymond of Toulouse (who was not a Cathar), caused Innocent to change his methods from words to weapons. Innocent called upon King Philip II Augustus of France to suppress the Albigenses. Under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester, a campaign was launched. The Albigensian Crusade, which led to the slaughter of approximately 20,000[24] men, women and children, Cathar and Catholic alike[24] and brought the region firmly under the control of the king of France. It was directed not only against heretical Christians, but also the nobility of Toulouse and vassals of the Crown of Aragon. King Peter II of Aragon was directly involved in the conflict, and was killed in the course of the Battle of Muret in 1213. The conflict largely ended with the Treaty of Paris of 1229, in which the integration of the Occitan territory in the French crown was agreed upon. Military action ceased in 1255.

In parallel to the crusade the Catholic clergy launched a vilifying campaign against the heretics, associating them with abominable practices and sodomy as there was a concern that the populace of Provence and Northern Italy had started sympathizing with the Cathar victims of the crusade because of their moral purity.[25]

Burning of the Waldensians. Toulouse in the 13th century.

Innocent also decreed the Fourth Crusade of 1198, intended to recapture the Holy Land.

Pope Innocent III spent a majority of his tenure as Pope (1198-1216) preparing for a great crusade on the Holy Land. His first attempt was the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) which he decreed in 1198.[26][27] Unlike past popes, Innocent III displayed interest in leading the crusade himself, rather than simply instigating it and allowing secular leaders to organize the expedition according to their own aspirations.[24]

Innocent III’s first order of business in preaching the crusade was to send missionaries to every Catholic state to endorse the campaign. Innocent III sent Peter of Capua to the kings France and England with specific instructions to convince them to settle their differences. As a result, in 1199, Innocent was successful in forging a truce of five years between the two nations. The intent of the truce between the kings was not to allow them to lead the crusade, but rather to improve the likelihood that they would provide assistance. For the army’s leadership, Innocent aimed his pleas at the knights and nobles of Europe.[24] The pleadings were successful in France, where many lords answered the pope’s call, including the army’s two eventual leaders, Theobald of Champagne and Boniface, marquis of Montferrat. Innocent III’s calls to action were not received with as much enthusiasm in England or Germany. For this reason, the Fourth Crusade became mainly a French affair.[28]

The Fourth Crusade was an expensive endeavor. Innocent III chose to raise funds by doing something previously unheard of in popes. He forced the entire clergy under his leadership to give one fortieth of their income in support of the Crusade. This marked the first time a pope ever imposed a direct tax on his clerical subjects. The pope faced many difficulties with collecting this tax, including corruption of his own officials and disregard of his subjects in England. He continued in his attempt to garner funds for his crusade by sending envoys to King John of England and King Philip of France. Both men pledged to contribute one fortieth of their own salaries to the campaign. John also declared that the tax would be collected throughout England as well. The other source of funds for the crusade was the crusaders themselves. Innocent declared that those who took the vow to become crusaders but could no longer perform the tasks that they had promised to complete, could be released of their oaths by a contribution of funds to the original cause. The pope put Archbishop Hubert Walter in charge of collecting these dues.[24][29]

At the onset of the crusade, the intended destination was Egypt, as the Christians and Muslims were under a truce at the time.[28] An agreement was made between the French Crusaders and the Venetians. The Venetians would supply vessels and supplies for the crusaders and in return, the crusaders would pay 85,000 marks (£200,000).[30] Innocent gave his approval of this agreement under two conditions: a representative of the pope must accompany the crusade, and the attack of any other Christians was strictly forbidden. The French failed to raise sufficient funds for payment of the Venetians. As a result, the Crusaders diverted the crusade to the Christian city of Zara at the will of the Venetians to subsidize the debt. This diversion was adopted without the consent of Innocent III, who threatened excommunication to any who took part in the attack. A majority of the French ignored the threat and attacked Zara, and were excommunicated by Innocent III, but soon were forgiven so as to continue the crusade. A second diversion then occurred when the crusaders decided to conquer Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. This diversion was taken without any knowledge by Innocent III, and he did not learn of it until after the city had been captured.[31]

Innocent viewed the capture of Constantinople as a way to reunite the schismatic Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches. His goal was to install the Latin (Western) ideals into the main center of the Greek (Eastern) Church. He saw the invasion as a way of making the Greek Church submit to the views of those that occupied their city. His tactics ultimately failed due to the significant differences between the two churches. The crusade did lead to the start of the Latin Empire’s rule of Constantinople, which lasted for the next sixty years.[32]

Fourth Council of the Lateran

On 15 November 1215 Innocent opened the Fourth Lateran Council, considered the most important church council of the Middle Ages. By its conclusion it issued seventy reformatory decrees. Among other things, it encouraged creating schools and holding clergy to a higher standard than the laity. It also forbade clergymen to participate in the practice of the judicial ordeal, effectively banning its use.

At the Fourth Lateran Council, Innocent III and his prelates legislated against subordination of Christians to Jews. Canon 69 forbade "that Jews be given preferment in public office since this offers them the pretext to vent their wrath against the Christians."[33] Canon 69 assumes that Jews blaspheme Christ, and therefore, as it would be "too absurd for a blasphemer of Christ to exercise power over Christians",[34] Jews should not be appointed to public offices.

Death and legacy

Innocent III honored by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Council had set the beginning of the Fifth Crusade for 1217, under the direct leadership of the Church. After the Council, in the spring of 1216, Innocent moved to northern Italy in an attempt to reconcile the maritime cities of Pisa and Genoa by removing the excommunication cast over Pisa by his predecessor Celestine III and concluding a pact with Genoa.[35]

Innocent III, however, died suddenly at Perugia[2] on 16 July 1216. He was buried in the cathedral of Perugia, where his body remained until Pope Leo XIII had it transferred to the Lateran in December 1891.

Innocent III was believed to be in purgatory on the very day he died. He is said to have appeared to St. Lutgarda in her monastery at Aywieres in Brabant. Engulfed in flames, he declared to her, “I am Pope Innocent”. He continued to explain that he was in purgatory for three faults which had caused him to arrive in this state. Innocent asked St. Lutgarda to come to his assistance, saying, “Alas! It is terrible; and will last for centuries if you do not come to my assistance. In the name of Mary, who has obtained for me the favour of appealing to you, help me!” At that moment he disappeared and St. Lutgarda informed her sisters of what she had seen.[36]


His Latin works include De miseria humanae conditionis, a tract on asceticism that Innocent III wrote before becoming pope, and De sacro altaris mysterio, a description and exegesis of the liturgy.


  1. Moore, John (2003). Pope Innocent III (1160/61-1216): To Root Up and to Plant. Leiden, Boston: Brill. pp. 102–134. ISBN 90 04 12925 1.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Catholic Encyclopedia: Pope Innocent III". Newadvent.org. 1910-10-01. Retrieved 2010-02-17.
  3. Jane Sayers, 'Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1199-1216' London 1994, p.16
  4. Jane Sayers, 'Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1199-1216' London 1994, p.17
  5. Jane Sayers, 'Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1199-1216' London 1994, p.18
  6. Jane Sayers, 'Innocent III: Leader of Europe 1199-1216' London 1994, p.21
  7. Innocentius III, Pope, 1160 or ... "Open Library". Open Library. Retrieved 2012-08-23. John C. Moore, "De Miseria Humanae Conditionis: A Speculum curiae? Catholic Historical Review 67 (1981), 553-564.
  8. "LOTARIO DEI CONTI DEI SEGNI [POPE INNOCENT III], De miseria humanae conditionis [On the Misery of Human Condition] In Latin, manuscript on parchment likely Italy, c. 1250" (PDF). LES ENLUMINURES, LTD. 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2011.
  9. The Cambridge history of Renaissance ... – Google Books. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2010-02-17.
  10. See Julien Théry-Astruc, "Introduction", in Innocent III et le Midi (Cahiers de Fanjeaux, 50), Toulouse, Privat, 2015, p.11-35, at p. 13-14.
  11. Chesterton (1924), pp. 107–108
  12. Galli(2002), pp. 74–80
  13. Civilization in the West,” Kishlansky, Geary, O’Brien, Volume A to 1500, Seventh Edition, page 277
  14. 1 2 Medieval Sourcebook: Innocent III: Letters on Papal Polices. Fordham.edu
  15. “Civilization in the West,” Kishlansky, Geary, O’Brien, Volume A to 1500, Seventh Edition, pg. 278
  16. Comyn, pg. 275
  17. Schulman, Jana, The rise of the medieval world, 500–1300, Greenwood, 2002, pg. 329
  18. Bryce, pg. 206
  19. 1 2 Comyn, pg. 277
  20. "Home". New Advent. Retrieved 2010-02-17.
  21. 1 2 Powell, James M. Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? Washington: Catholic University of American Press, 2nd ed., 1994. ISBN 0-8132-0783-5
  22. "Diplomatarium Norvegicum".
  23. "Pope Innocent III". Historymedren.about.com. Retrieved 2012-08-23.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 Cheney, Christopher R. (1976). Innocent III and England. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.
  25. Bogomilism Study.
  26. Packard, Sidney Raymond (1927). Europe and the Church under Innocent III. New York: H. Holt.
  27. Innocent III, Pope (1969). On the Misery of the Human Condition. De Miseria Humane Conditionis, trans. Donald Roy Howard. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  28. 1 2 Clayton, Joseph (1941). Pope Innocent III and His Times. Milwauke: Bruce Pub.
  29. Migne, Jacques Paul (1849–1855). Patrologia Latina. Vol. 214-217. Paris: S.I.
  30. Villhardouin, Geoffrey De (1908). Memoirs or Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Frank T. Marzials. London: J.M. Dent.
  31. Elliott-Binns, Leonard (1931). Innocent III. Hamden, Conn: Archon.
  32. Roscher, Helmut (1969). Papst Innocenz III. Und Die Kreuzzuge. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck U. Ruprecht.
  33. "Medieval Sourcebook: Twelfth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV 1215". Fordham.edu. Retrieved 2010-02-17.
  34. "Lateran 4 - 1215".
  35. "School of Theology". Sthweb.bu.edu. 2009-09-02. Archived from the original on July 3, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-17.
  36. Schouppe, Fr. F.X., Purgatory. TAN, 2005


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Innocent III

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Celestine III
Succeeded by
Honorius III

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