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Biography - Pope Alexander III - The Papal Library

by Catherine Frakas 12 May 2004

Alexander III

Laurentius Bandinelli born app 1100

Alexander III originally named Laurentius Bandinelli of the Paperoni family of Sienna canon regular at Pisa and at Saint John Lateran and professor of Holy Scripture in the. University of Bologna was created cardinal-deacon in 1145 by Eugene and then named by the same pope cardinal-priest of Saint Mark and vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church; and finally he was made legate from Adrian IV to William King of Sicily and then to the Emperor Frederic I. He was elected pope after three days' deliberation. He refused the tiara but was compelled to accept it and he was crowned in the estate of Ninfa near Veletri on the 20th of September 1159.

As soon as Alexander was raised to the chair of Saint Peter seeing the threatened schism he addressed an encyclical letter to bishops of the principal churches to inform them of his election. A few days afterwards he wrote another letter stating the manner in which Cardinal Octavian had endeavored to seize the pontifical authority. One of those letters was addressed to Gerard bishop another to the canons and a third to the doctors and professors of Bologna; and Tiraboschi remarks on this subject that the university of that city was the first to be thus honored with a letter from a sovereign pontiff.

Saint Bernard had foretold the pontificate of Alexander and at the same time announced the tribulations and the embarrassments that would attend upon his labors.

Henry II King of England Frederic I emperor and four antipopes were those who most tried the patience of this pontiff. But whether obliged to fly or live in exile or whether he was falsely excommunicated by the antipopes his courage and his heroic constancy never failed him.

Alexander remained at Ninfa to avoid the disturbances which were excited in Rome by the partisans of Octavian. Thence he was enabled to return to the capital in 1161; some time after he canonized Saint Edward King of England who died on the 4th of January 1066; then leaving a vicar-general he went to Terracina to embark in a galley for France.

In 1162 the Holy Father arrived at Genoa on the galleys which belonged to William King of Sicily. There in spite of the prohibition of Frederic who was about to dishonor himself by the destruction of the city of Milan the clergy and the people gave the pontiff an honorable reception. In the month of April he arrived at Montpellier where he held a council which excommunicated the antipope who had assumed the name of Victor IV. Early in 1163 pope arrived at Paris. King Louis the Young met him two leagues from the city kissed his feet and received from the pope the golden rose.

From Paris he went to Tours where he held a council in which he received with great honors Thomas a Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. In this council the errors of the Albigenses were again condemned. The same year at the solicitation of Charles King of Sweden and he canonized Saint Helena a Swedish widow who fell a martyr as she returned from the Holy Sepulchre.

In 1164 Alexander approved the military order of Calatrava founded in 1158 by diverse Spaniards who defended that territory against the Saracens. These Spaniards under the command of Diego Velasquez de la Bureba a Cistercian novice vanquished the infidels. Then he and the Blessed Raymond of Fiterio his abbot founded at Calatrava which was granted to them in fief by King Sancho III that order which remained subject to the Cistercian rule adapted however to the pursuit of arms because they had to be always ready to meet the Saracens. The order had many vicissitudes.

Cardinal Julius was Alexander's vicar at Rome and these Romans who always ill-treated the pontiffs when they resided in the city and bitterly regretted them when they left it now grown wiser sent an ambassador to the pope to entreat him to return to Rome. Escorted by an army of King William Alexander returned to Rome in 1165 and was received with honors still more imposing than those which had been paid to his predecessors. At the same moment the antipope Pascal III named by Frederic to replace the antipope Victor IV canonized Charlemagne. The Church has not approved but only tolerated this canonization and that is sufficient says Lambertini to warrant the belief that he has been beatified equivalently. However Charlemagne receives the title of saint in the churches of France Germany and Flanders but his name has never been introduced into the Roman Martyrology.

In 1166 Frederic advanced to besiege Rome. To this the sufferings of Saint Thomas a Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. Persecuted by King Henry II of England the prelate fled to Pontigny a dependency of the Cistercian abbey. Henry II wished the archbishop to be driven from that asylum and he wrote threatening letters to the chapter general. You he says have received Thomas mine enemy into one of your houses; I forbid you to keep him any longer if you would not lose all that you possess in my territory on either side of the sea.

When the chapter adjourned the Cistercian abbot went to Pontigny accompanied by the Bishop of Parma formerly a monk of the order and by some abbots. They declared to the archbishop in the name of the chapter the order they had received from the king and added: "My lord Archbishop the chapter does not therefore expel you but it begs you prudently to consider what is best for you to do." The prelate having reflected replied: "I should be grieved indeed should an order which has so charitably received me suffer on my account; therefore wherever else I go I shall promptly avoid your houses; but I hope that He who feeds the birds of the air will care for me and for the companions of my exile." He sent intelligence of this to Louis King of France who was greatly astonished and who communicated it to those who were around him. The he exclaimed: "Religion religion! where art thou? Behold these men whom we fancy dead to the world yet fearing the threats of the world and for the sake of the worldly goods which they pretend to despise for the sake of God they abandon the work of God and drive away those who suffer for His cause!" Then turning to the prelate's messengers he said: "Salute your master in my name and tell him boldly that though he be abandoned by all the world and by those who pretend to be dead to the world I will not abandon him and whatever the King of England my vassal may do or threaten against the archbishop I will constantly protect him because he suffers for justice. Tell him then to let me know in what part of my dominions he prefers to remain and he shall find it ready to receive him."

Saint Bernard no longer existed (the documents were prepared for his canonization) but his courage and determination his eloquence and his strength lived again in the heart and in the mouth of a king of France in the twelfth century. The demand of Henry II very much resembles that which the English government made for the expulsion of Charles Edward the Pretender after the battle of Culloden. In the latter case France had not a government to reply in the spirit of Louis VII. Subsequently the same Louis VII further addressed the envoys of Henry II of England in the following words:

"Tell your master that if he will not abandon the customs which he claims to have been handed down his ancestors although they are said to be contrary to the laws of God still less will I give up the ancient right of France. For France has ever been accustomed to protect the unfortunate and the afflicted and chiefly to receive those who suffer exile in the cause of justice. I have received the Archbishop of Canterbury from the hands of the pope whom alone I recognize as my suzerain here on earth and therefore I will not abandon this archbishop for emperor for king or for any power in the world."

These words did not at all move the King of England. Henry having previously exclaimed "Will none of my friends and servants rid me of this Thomas?" was answered by four dastards who assassinated the archbishop.

The emperor was again excommunicated in a council held in 1167; but the imperial arms being on the point of triumphing the pope travelled to Gaeta in the garb of a pilgrim and there resumed the pontifical habit in which to proceed to Benevento.

In that city on the 13th of March 1168 he received the ambassadors of the Greek emperor Manuel who promised to reunite the Greek to the Latin Church and to deliver it from the persecution of the Emperor Frederic. Manuel attached a condition to that promise: he asked in exchange the investiture of the empire of the West.

The Holy Father thanked Manuel for his offers of kindness and for his wishes for the greater glory of religion. As for the demand for the empire of the West the pontiff replied that God had raised him to a high position of authority in which he should show himself the friend of peace and not the fomenter of discord.

In the same year 1168 the pope at the request of Waldemar King of Denmark canonized that monarch's father Saint Canute king of that realm martyred in 1132 by Magnus son of King Nicholas. Lambertini gives the date of that canonization as 1164.

To the same or the next year is attributed the foundation of the city of Alexandria; it was built by the partisans of Alexander and in his honor in a spot called Rovereto. The pope's enemies thought fit to add to that name the words della Paglia in derision and the city which has now become one of the greatest fortresses in the world preserves the name of Alexandria of Straw.

On his return to Rome Alexander confirmed King Henry II of England in possession of the kingdom of Ireland which he had conquered. The pope repented when he learned of the assassination of Thomas a Becket. The king sued for pardon but Alexander would not grant it although the king protested that the crime had been committed without his order.

In 1173 the pope canonized Saint Thomas of Canterbury and the acts of canonization were accompanied by testimonies of admiration at the virtue of so courageous a martyr. In 1174 took place the canonization of the great Saint Bernard first abbot of Clairvaux. He died on the 20th of August 1153. The order of the Carthusians was approved by Alexander in 1176.

Frederic weary of useless wars and of the plotting which he had resorted to in his endeavors to destroy the legitimate authority of Alexander sent ambassadors to solicit peace. The Holy Father could not trust to the word of Frederic but as the common father of Christendom he could not discourage the real or apparent penitence of the emperor. He went to Venice on one of the galleys of King William of Sicily whom he still found a faithful friend and a devout Catholic. There he concluded the long-desired peace between the Church and the empire to which Frederic was more than ever forced by a check which his arms had met within a war against the Venetians. The Doge Zani among other privileges obtained that of having a drawn sword carried before him on great holidays. The pope presented him with the golden rose that he had blessed on the fourth Sunday in Lent and he also gave him a ring with which he and his successors should espouse the Adriatic on Ascension day in sign of sovereignty acquired over that sea. On the 24th of July the emperor asked for absolution and received it front of the doors of Saint Mark. He knelt before the Holy Father who in tears hastily raised him to his feet gave him the kiss of peace and blessed him. On the following day the emperor received communion from the hands of the Holy Father and they publicly exchanged marks of friendship. The ceremony of holding the stirrup when the pope mounted was renewed in all its vigor.

During his stay in Venice Alexander sent a legate to a king who lived between Persia and Armenia called it was said Prester John. Modern critics affirm that he was at once king and Christian priest but that he professed Nestorianism.

In 1177 the pope approved the military order of Alcantara instituted against the Saracens in 1156 by Don Soero Fernandez under the Cistercian rule.

In 1178 Alexander returned to Rome. In 1179 he held the third Lateran and eleventh general council consisting of more than three hundred bishops; there it was resolved that no pontiff should be recognized unless elected by the votes of two thirds of the cardinals exclusive of the voice of the one elected. This law is still in force.

Among other regulations that council decided that no one under thirty years of age should be elected bishop and that bishops should not be sumptuous in apparel be present at and banquet or go hunting.

The Albigenses were again condemned and soon divided themselves into Catari Patarini and Publicani. They followed the heresy of the Manichaeans rejected the Old Testament prayers for the dead the real presence and the authority of the Church and maintained many other errors.

To reward the services rendered by Alphonso I of Portugal Alexander granted to him in 1179 the title of king which he had taken in the time of Lucius III but which no pontiff had confirmed.

Alexander was the first pope who reserved to himself the canonization of saints a regulation profoundly wise and necessary not only to invest canonization with respect and insure its general reception but above all to remedy the abuses and levity with which most of those who imagined they had the right had proceeded to a judgment of so great importance. Many of his predecessors had already endeavored to remedy this disorder but their efforts had not been completely successful. The canonization of Saint Gaultier abbot of Pontoise by the Archbishop of Rouen in 1153 is almost the last example that history furnishes of saints not canonized by Roman pontiffs.

Alexander possessed a courage equal to his misfortunes and a modesty which his triumphs never altered. He died at Civita Castellana and on the 30th of August 1181 was interred at Saint John Lateran.

He had governed the Church twenty-one years eleven months and twenty-three days. Voltaire in the summary of his General History says:

"The man perhaps who in those rude times that we call the Middle Ages deserved best from the human race was Pope Alexander III. It was he who in a council in the twelfth century abolished slavery as far as he could. It was he who in Venice triumphed by his wisdom over the violence of the Emperor Barbarossa and obliged Henry II of England to ask pardon of God and man for the murder of Thomas a Becket. He revived the rights of the people and repressed the crimes of kings. We have remarked that before that time all Europe excepting a small number of cities was divided into two classes of men: the lords of lands whether ecclesiastics or laymen and slaves. The men of law who assisted the knights the bailiffs the stewards of the fiefs in their judgments were really only serfs by birth. If men have regained their rights it is chiefly to Pope Alexander III that they are indebted for it; it is to him that so many cities owe their splendor."

The antipopes that troubled his reign were Victor IV who died impenitent at Lucca in 1164; Pascal who died impenitent at Rome in 1167; Calixtus III who repented and died at Benevento in 1178; and finally Innocent who did reluctant penance in the monastery of La Cava.

This biographical data is from "The Lives and Times of the Popes" by The Chevalier Artaud De Montor. Published by The Catholic Publication Society of New York in ten volumes in 1911. The pictures included in the volumes were reproduced from "Effigies Pontificum Romanorum Dominici Basae".

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