Adrian, or Hadrian, as it was written in Latin, was a well beloved old man at the time of his election to the papacy. He is said to be somewhere between 72 and 80 at that point.
This pope was a native of Rome, son of Theodore, a Roman nobleman. He was well aware of the problems faced by Rome and the Papal States in the past 200 years. The previous popes had to put up with Lombard incursions into Italy, resulting in the occasional loss of large masses of land. As a titular tenant of Constantinople, the previous popes could not get support from the emperor, so, during the previous few papacies, attention had turned to the Franks for help. Adrian looked and acted like a heroic man. He was Roman, with a majestic stature. His obvious piety and the services the previous popes had done to help the city gave him a certain esteem. The Lombard associates in the town could not object harshly enough and he was elected.
Adrian began his reign 1 February, 772. His temporal policy was resistance to Lombard aggression. Three months earlier, Frankish king Carloman had died. He was joint king of the Franks with his brother, Charles. The two had been known for helping the pope. Carloman’s wife and sons moved into the Lombard territory and pleaded with the King Desiderius to aid their attempt to claim the crown. The king asked Adrian to rule on this and he did not. The king’s response was to invade papal territories and seize the Duchy of Pentapolis. Adrian turned for help to the remaining Frankish king, Charles. The Lombard lands were invaded by the Franks, Desiderius was overcome on his own home turf and banished to the Abbey of Coibre, in France. Adrian regained his lands, and then some.
Thus began the deep friendship of Adrian and Charles, whom we know as Charlemagne. Their friendship, akin to that of a father and son, lasted until Adrian’s death over 20 years later. In celebration, Adrian struck the first papal coin and began to date events by referring to Charles as early as 781.
These years were filled with Muslim activity. To control them, Adrian maintained the law that slaves should not be sold to Muslims. He actively encouraged Charlemagne to send troops to Spain, against the Muslims and to eliminate Muslim control.
On the east side of the Mediterranean, the remnants of the Roman Empire were still arguing about the iconoclast problem and the degree to which veneration of images was acceptable. Midway through his reign, 787, Adrian sent legates to the Seventh General Conference in Nicaea. The iconoclast problem was discussed. Most of the attendees seemed to acknowledge that the veneration was acceptable. The trouble began with poor translations which made the documents sound bad. Charlemagne and Adrian had to argue through them. To his credit, Charlemagne kept all Adrian’s letters and published them.
For the Church, Adrian elevated the English diocese of Litchfield to an archdiocese and gave the bishop his pellum. Adrian was financially well off and donated incredible amounts of money to improvements of some ancient aqueducts and churches. He conducted many ordinations of priests, bishops and installation of cardinals during his reign.
Pope Adrian reigned almost 24 years, dying 25 December, 795, making him the oldest pope. He was buried in St. Peter’s. An epitaph, said to have been written by Charlemagne, can still be seen there, referring to Adrian as the author’s beloved father. If nothing else, he certainly was father of a stable Papal States, which lasted 1200 years.