During most of the Middle Ages, many of the popes were not only Italian, but Roman, by birth. Pope Celestine III was no exception. Born Giacinto Bobone, in about 1106, he was a member of the Orsini family, one of the most influential, princely families Rome had. This family contributed five popes over the centuries.
As a young man, he was a student and friend of Peter Abelard (d 1142) and was a very close friend of St. Thomas a Beckett (d 1170) In 1144, Giacinto, a deacon, became a cardinal of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Considered an expert on Spain by the Roman curia, he was sent on two missions to that country in 1154-55 and 1172-75. Giacinto was an elderly cardinal in 1191 when Clement III died. He was elected pope on March 30. But the Roman citizens refused to let the rest of the ceremonies continue. They insisted that the pope and the emperor aid them in their vengeance attack on the town of Tusculum. The attackers knocked everything to the ground and leaving what was left to the wrath of the Romans, with the blessing of the emperor. Only then was Giacinto ordained a priest on 13 April, Holy Saturday, and consecrated a bishop the next day, Easter. Then he was named pope, taking the name, Celestine III.
Henry Hohestaufen, the new emperor since his father, Frederick Barbarossa, died, was in Rome for his expected coronation. He was crowned the day after Celestine’s coronation. The emperor then left Rome to fight for Sicily. Clement had recognized Tancred as King of Sicily, despite Henry’s wife’s claim. And Henry wanted the kingdom. Despite a large army, Henry lost and went back to Germany, leaving his wife, the empress, a prisoner. Pope Celestine caused her to be released.
In an attempt to deal with discord, Celestine sent Cinthius of St. Lorenzo to Denmark. The Bishop of Schleswig had been imprisoned. The King would not release him. Threats and interdicts did not work. The Bishop remained incarcerated until the reign of Pope Innocent III.
Meanwhile, the next year, Henry, now exercising as much cruelty as he wished, had King Richard of England kidnapped and held for ransom. It was a year before Celestine had Henry’s associates excommunicated and tried to get the ransom back. Celestine was prevented from excommunicating Henry by the cardinals. The following year, Tancred died and Henry crossed the Alps to take over his kingdom. He managed this time, by denying that Sicily was the vassal of the Pope, by deceiving the Pope and by denying Celestine restoration of the Papal States. However, Henry died before Celestine, after forcing the pope to acknowledge the infant Frederick as emperor and king of the Two Sicilies.
Henry was not Celestine’s only heartache. In Spain, Alfonso IX of Castile married his first cousin Theresa of Portugal. Celestine had it annulled. The countries were put under interdict for a while. Then Alfonso married a first cousin-once-removed. Ultimately, Alfonso was excommunicated for allying with the Almohad Caliphate in a war with Castile. A second excommunication occurred after the second marriage with an interdict on Leon.
Towards the end, Pope Celestine, nearly 92, wanted to resign and recommend a successor. The cardinals forbade that. He died 8 January 1198, having reigned six years.