Born in Rome around 520, Pelagius was the son of Winigild, most likely an Ostrogoth. He succeeded Pope Benedict I months after the latter’s death. At that time, the Lombards from north of the Alps had gone as far as to blockade Rome and most of the main roads leading from Rome into the empire. It was tradition that a pope, once elected, would await permission from the empire’s seat in Constantinople before being consecrated. This blockade prevented those from Rome from sending word of the pope’s election and from receiving permission to consecrate. Pelagius was consecrated without permission of the emperor. The Lombards may have been bribed or they changed their minds, but they moved back some from the city soon after.
When it was safe, Pelagius nominated a deacon, Gregory, his nuncio to represent him in Constantinople. He wished to apologize for the irregularity and to ask for help in protecting the peninsula from the Lombards. Emperor Tiberius was busy in his war with the Persians and had no time for Gregory and his assistants. Nor did he have money to send to them for help. Eventually he sent an imperial representative to Ravenna, the capital of Italy, with a small contingent of military men. This was hardly enough to protect the people against the Lombards.
Pelagius next wrote to the bishop of Auxerre, in what is now France. He told the bishop that it was the duty of the Franks, as Christians, to save Italy from the “deadly race” of the Lombards. He also sent word to Gregory, in Constantinople, to persuade Tiberius to approve Pelagius’s appeal and to grant the Franks subsidies. The emperor did grant those subsidies and the Franks invaded northern Italy. It seemed to be working until the Franks withdrew. It is assumed that the Lombards bribed them. Thus they could attack again and did. Pelagius then appealed, again, now to the new emperor, Maurice. The imperial representative finally negotiated a peace settlement in 585.
Despite the warring over the Lombards was foremost in his mind, Pelagius had to fight the schism of the Three Chapters which had spread to northern Italy. The bishop of Milan who had broken with Rome returned to communion with the papal see in 581. And although Pelagius tried to negotiate an end, it did not come until twenty years after his death.
A conflict arose in Constantinople over a term used to define the patriarch, the “Ecumenical Patriarch”. Pelagius determined that the term implied a superiority over the pope. The ensuing argument was a contributing factor to the eventual split between the East and West in 1054.
What good things happened during the reign of Pelagius II? The Arian Christian Visigoths of Spain finally accepted Catholicism. The pope, himself, conducted various works of piety, adorning the Shrine of St. Peter and ordering the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. He also turned his home into a hospital for the poor.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest plagues known to Europe, second only to the Black Plague, hit Italy at the end of the 580s. The few hospitals could not take care of the crowds and Europe lost half its population, including Pope Pelagius II. He was buried at St. Peter’s.