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After reading the title of my paper, you may well have wondered whether anything worth while or useful can still be said about the mediaeval papacy. Your apprehension would certainly be justified, if I were concerned merely with its history, but of recent years the institution has not been so much the subject of purely narrative treatment as of the underlying principles and aims. And here so great a variety of views has been set forth that an outsider might well feel somewhat perplexed by the contradictory views propounded. Why does the mediaeval papacy evoke such divergent interpretations?
It would seem that in the assessment of the forces prevalent on the eve of the Reformation too little attention has been paid to the determined steps which a number of cardinals initiated in 1511 when they took it upon themselves to convoke a general council at Pisa. The cardinals and the ensuing council have never had a good press. In fact there seems a unanimous condemnation of their initiative: they were labelled schismatics paradoxically because they tried to prevent a schism; they had proved themselves, so it was alleged, as mere instruments of French expansionist policy and had acted against the interests of papacy and Church prompted as they were by personal considerations and animosity against Julius II. It seems almost ‘heretical’ to question this general verdict.
On Saturday, 4 December 1154, eight hundred years ago, Nicholas Breakspear was elected pope. On the following day he was enthroned and crowned at St Peter's, Rome. Adrian IV was the only ‘pontifex natione Anglicus’ who has assumed the tiara.