Nicholas Breakspear was born around 1100 in Hertfordshire, England. He bears the distinction of being the only pope of English origin. It is assumed that Nicholas did not have a lot of schooling as a child. His parents were of humble origin.
As a relatively young man, Nicholas went to school in Arles, France where he studied law. Once finished, he travelled to Avignon to the monastery of St Ruf. Here he became a canon regular, then the abbot. He was, apparently, a strict disciplinarian.
Around 1148, Abbot Nicholas attended the Council at Reims. He apparently got the attention of Pope Eugene III, who invited the abbot to Rome. Monks at St. Ruf wrote to Pope Eugene complaining of their abbot’s rules. Once there, the abbot became a papal legate to appease the monks. He then went to Catalonia, in Spain, ostensibly to reorganize the Cistercians there. It is here that the Reconquista was in full swing. The Spanish attempted to reclaim land from Al-Andalus, the Moorish governor. Nicholas should not have been a warrior but he was present at the siege of Lieida in the summer of 1149. Interestingly, the Bishop of Albano asked Nicholas to use St. Ruf Abbey as a blueprint for the religious houses that Ramon Berenguer, Count of Barcelona, established once the land was taken back from the Moors.
Once his work was done in Spain, Nicholas returned to Rome and was sent by Pope Anastasius IV as legate to Scandinavia in 1151. A civil war had broken out in Norway. Nicholas reorganized the Church in Norway, both the clerics and the schools. His work there led to his going to Sweden. He was much acclaimed by the people there. His chroniclers called him a saint and talked about his “diplomatic triumph”.
In December 1154, Nicholas returned to Rome shortly after the death of Anastasius IV. He was quickly elected Pope, possibly based on the request of the recently deceased Pope. Attaining the throne of Peter was not what Nicholas wanted. He was in the right place at the right time. The politics in Rome were still antagonistic. Nicholas, taking the name Adrian IV, could not even complete the coronation services.
Pope Adrian had major issues during his reign. His major issue was Emperor Frederik Barbarossa, which started poorly and went downhill from there. Barbarossa came south to Rome to be crowned emperor. This was done on 18 June 1155. Then he promptly left. The imperial army clashed with Romans and then sacked Spoleto. Adrian was insulted and afraid of the emperor. He escaped to Viterbo, where he stayed for some time. Relations between the two powers diminished.
Adrian planned an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Manuel wanted to push Byzantine influence back into Southern Italy. However, he could not due to the Norman occupation, now under control of William I. William was excommunicated for invading Papal patrimony. However, he defeated Manuel in battle. This way, he had the power to force Adrian to accept the Treaty of Benevento. The emperor was alienated by Adrian’s forced acceptance. He saw it as a repudiation of the treaty between the emperor and the Holy See.
Meanwhile, Arnold of Brescia, who had been running the commune in Rome, was expelled amid threats of interdict. He was soon captured, tried and executed. It was 1157 and it was finally safe for Adrian to return to Rome.
Despite the fact that Pope Adrian had spent most of his adult life outside of England, he treated his home country well. He showered St. Albans Abbey with privileges. He pushed the policies of Henry II. And in 1158, it is said, he wrote a papal bull granting Henry permission to invade Ireland. However, since Henry did not invade for another fourteen years, it is doubtful that the bull was ever written by Adrian.
In his over four years of papacy, he spent little time in Rome, traveling throughout the Papal Patrimony, trying to avoid the emperor and building summer palaces to escape to.
Adrian IV died of a throat infection at the beginning of September 1159. He was buried at St. Peters. In attendance were three imperial ambassadors with bribe money to get a pro-imperial man elected.
He was remembered as a small handsome man, mild and kindly in bearing, of high character and learning. He was famous as a preacher and renowned for his fine voice.