10 Most Influential Catholic Popes from the Middle Ages

The most famous popes from medieval times.

Seen as the apostolic successors to Saint Peter, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and the first bishop of Rome, the Catholic Popes wielded a tremendous amount of power throughout the Middle Ages. Image: Some of the most famous popes from medieval times (L-R): Leo III, Alexander III, Gregory VII, Innocent III, Gregory the Great, and Leo I.

In the Middle Ages, the Church was of the greatest importance. The Pope, also known as the Bishop of Rome, was seen as the “supreme pontiff.” This period was also defined by many instances of power struggle between the papacy and many European kings and emperors. There were some that distinguished themselves brilliantly during their reign as the head of the Catholic Church.

From the Catholic pope who dissolved the famous warrior-monk order the Knights Templar to the pope who was able to convince Attila the Hun from laying waste to Rome, World History Edu presents the 10 most famous Catholic Popes from the Middle Ages.

RELATED: Were the Middle Ages as dark as some historians describe the period?

Note: Also known as the medieval era, the Middle Ages refer to a 1000-year period that spanned from the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century to around the 15th century.

Pope Urban II (reign: 1088 – 1099)

Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont

Serving as pope of the Catholic Church from 1088 to 1099, Pope Urban II is most remembered for his speech at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 which spurred many Western Christians, nobles and kings to take up arms for the conquest of the Holy Land. Ultimately, the Christian forces of the First Crusade were victorious and successfully captured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099. Image: Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont

Occupying the topmost position of our compilation is Pope Urban II. Without Urban’s famous speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095, the movement of the Crusades may never have happened.

Urban’s speech, one of the most influential of Middle Ages, was made in the wake of the Turks’ threat to invade the Byzantine Empire and conquer Constantinople after already seizing Jerusalem, which was by then seen as the center of the world.

It was Urban’s fervent call for action, including assurances of God’s forgiveness and eternal rewards for the would-be crusaders, which launched the First Crusade (1096-1099). From the perspective of Western Christendom, the First Crusade yielded positive results as Jerusalem was restored into the Christian fold.

Urban also received wide acclaim for his determination in settling disputes between Western Christendom and the Byzantine Empire. The Great Schism (also known as the Schism of 1054) had fractured European Christendom into two denominations – the Roman Catholic headed by the Pope in Rome and Eastern Orthodox headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Furthermore, Urban’s hoped to use the Crusade to boost his standing as the undisputed leader of Christendom in Western Rome.

Did you know?

  • Hailing from the noble family of Châtillon-sur-Marne in France, Urban II was also known as Odo of Châtillon.
  • Pope Urban II was a product of Pope Gregory VII’s reformist camp.
  • Jerusalem was captured by Western forces in mid-July 1099. What this means is that Urban II did not live to hear of the capture of the Holy City as the pope passed away that same month.
  • About eight centuries after his passing, he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. His feast day is on July 29.

Pope Leo I (reign: 440 – 461)

Pope Saint Leo

Pope Leo I is best known for his bravery when he approached and successfully convinced the fierce warlord, Atilla the Huns, from invading Rome in 452. Some accounts state that Leo had to heavily bribe the warlord with many chests of gold and other treasures.

Pope Leo the Great, as he was popularly known, succeeded Pope Sixtus III (reign: 432 – 440) in 440. A major highlight of St. Leo’s life was his masterful rendering of Christology in his book “St.Leo’s Epistle to Flavian: The Tome of St. Leo.” The book became so influential that it was the inspiration for the Council of Chalcedon which was attended by approximately 520 people.

Leo also played a part in convincing Atilla the Hun not to invade Rome. However, historians have not been able to discover precisely how Leo intervened to achieve that positive outcome. Some scholars say that Attila,  the fierce warlord and leader of the Hunnic Empire, was moved by the humility and piety of Leo. It is also likely that Attila’s army was starved off necessary supplies, hence the warlord’s decision to withdraw from Italy.

Saint Pope Leo

Pope Leo (reign: 440-461) is also best known for his work “The Tome of Leo”. In that work, which in so many ways had a tremendous influence on the Council of Chalcedon, the pope maintained that Jesus Christ had both human and divine features. Image: Italian Renaissance Raphael’s painting – The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila – depicts Pope Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with Atilla the Hun outside Rome

Did you know…?

  • Pope Benedict XVI reportedly described Leo’s tenure in office as “the most important in the Church’s history.”
  • Pope Leo is one of two popes to have the epithet “the Great” attached to his name. The other is Gregory I.
    Leo I is said to be the first pope to be called “the Great.”
  • He was buried at the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, making him the first Catholic Pope to earn that honor.
  • Saint Leo’s feast day in the Catholic Church is November 10. In addition to being venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church, Leo is also honored in the Episcopal Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Church of England.

Pope Alexander II (reign: 1061-1073)

Next up on the list of famous popes from the middle ages is Pope Alexander II. He was given the name Anselmo at birth. From a noble parentage in Milan, he is identified as one of the first Catholic Popes to voice out his opinions about the mistreatment of Jews in 1065.

After becoming a Pope in 1061, he adopted the name Alexander II and served the papacy until his death in 1073. Alexander II was reputed as the first Pope elected entirely by the College of Cardinals without interference from the Holy Roman Emperor.

Pope Alexander II garnered some acclaim by championing ideas regarding the purpose of knightly classes in Christendom. Turning his attention to Spain, he helped push the agenda of the Crusade of the Barbastro (1064) against the Moors in 1064. This crusade was an international expedition aimed at taking the city of Barbastro in Spain.

Pope Alexander II died in early 1073 in Rome and was succeeded by Pope Gregory VII.

Did you know?

  • Alexander II’s nomination as head of the Catholic Church was met with opposition by the German Courts which preferred Peter Cadalus, the Bishop of Parma, instead.
  • This Milan-born head of the Catholic Church is best known for authorizing the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. That event saw William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, defeat Anglo-Saxon English King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings on October 14.

Pope Gregory the Great (reign: 590 – 604)

Pope Saint Gregory the Great

Also known as Saint Gregory the Great, Pope Gregory was in his early 50s when he was elected as the patriarch of Rome. He is acclaimed as the second pope to be honored with the sobriquet “the Great”. The other is Leo I, also known as Saint Leo. Like Pope Leo I, Gregory the Great was of the view that papacy’s ruling should not be subject to appeal. Image: Saint Gregory the Great by José de Ribera

Another name we found worthy to be placed on this list is Gregory the Great. Raised in Rome, Pope Gregory was said to be related to two past popes, Felix III and Agapitus I. It is also said that by age 30, he had started working as the chief administrative official of Rome.

In 590, Gregory was elected pope, succeeding Pelagius II. His straightforward and firm personality was widely admired. As part of his efforts to root out corruption, he sacked unworthy priests from office and abhorred bribery in all forms.

According to some accounts, Gregory emptied the papal treasury to care for persecuted Jews and help victims of famine and plague. Not surprisingly, he was deeply involved in missions, and he became the first pope to send an important missionary outreach outside Italy to Britain in 596.

In Pope Gregory’s book Pastoral Care,” he expounded on the responsibilities of a bishop. He further described them as physicians whose primary goal was to preach and ensure discipline among the clergy.

After his death on March 12, 604, he was succeeded by Sabinian.

Pope Gregory the Great’s achievements

  • He is best known for setting up the Gregorian mission (also known as the Augustinian mission) which set out to convert the pagan population of Anglo-Saxon (i.e. England) to Christianity. The mission was headed by a monk called Augustine of Canterbury, who later become the first Archbishop of Canterbury. By the middle of the 7th century, large parts of what is now England had converted to Christianity.
  • For his very impactful dialogues – The Dialogues of Gregory the Great – he is referred to as Saint Gregory the Dialogist by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Gregory the Great is often mentioned in regards to the Gregorian Chant: a monophonic, liturgical song in Latin.
  • It took just a few years after his death in 604 for him to be canonized. He is venerated as a saint in almost all major Christian denominations, including Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. His feast day in the Latin Church falls on September 3. He is generally revered as the patron saint of students, singers, teachers, musicians.
  • According to the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, Saint Gregory was the “last good pope”.

Pope Innocent III (reign: 1198 – 1216)

The most famous popes from medieval times.

At the time of Pope Innocent III’s election in 1198, the papacy was at its peak in terms of the sheer influence and power it wielded. Reigning from 1198 to 1216, Innocent III called for the Fourth Crusade, which ultimately did not go as plan and culminated in the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Our list of popes from the medieval era would be incomplete without adding the reverential Pope Innocent III. Many historians consider him as one of the most influential popes in the history of papacy and arguably, the most powerful of his time.

He wielded immense influence across western Europe in many regards. Innocent III became famous at the peak of the medieval era when Western Christendom was going through a renaissance of culture, art and territorial expansion.

Innocent campaigned vigorously for the start of the Fourth Crusade in 1202. From the perspective of the pontiff, the crusade, which witnessed the sacking of Constantinople in April 1204, did not go exactly as planned. This was the reason why Innocent excommunicated some of the military leaders of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). The sacking of the Byzantine capital caused further cracks in the relationship between Western Christendom and Eastern Christendom.

Regardless, Innocent III was an integral part of the Crusades which helped to refine the institution in both Spain and the Holy Land. He also played a great role in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) against Catharism in Southern France.

Innocent entered into a number of bitter conflicts with many emperors and kings in Europe. The pope tried as much as possible to impose his will on those European monarchs. A case in point was the rift between Innocent and John of England, which resulted in the excommunication of the English monarch in 1209.

After his death on July 16, 1216, he was succeeded by Honorius III.

Pope Gregory VII (reign: 1073 – 1085)

Pope Saint Gregory VII

Pope Gregory VII is praised for his efforts in rooting out corruption, including simony, which is the sale of positions, roles or property of the Church. Image: Pope Saint Gregory VII

Sixth on our list is Pope Gregory VII. Born Hildebrand of Sovana in southern Italy, this pope’s name is synonymous with the Papal reforms that marked the 11th century. In 1073, Hildebrand was elected Pope, not in the traditional way; instead, he was acclaimed by the people of Rome.

Fiery and zealous, he is known to have challenged the view of King Henry IV of Germany regarding the Pope’s supremacy in appointing bishops. As a result of the political rivalry between the Pope and Henry IV, the latter was excommunicated three times.

This is what led to the famed Walk to Canossa; a very interesting episode that adds to the excitement of the medieval era. The Walk to Canossa was Henry’s barefooted walk to Pope Gregory VII in Canossa to ask for the pope’s pardon.

Gregory is considered one of the most influential when it came to the reforms he introduced. He rigorously advocated for the removal of church traditions such as simony (i.e. the sale of positions, roles or property of the Church), and enforcing practices like clerical celibacy. He was also praised for his dedication to rooting out corruption in the Church.

However, he was criticized by some for his quick use of papal supremacy.

Gregory spent his later years in exile at the Italian city of Salerno. After his death in 1085, he was succeeded by Victor III.

In 1728, Pope Gregory VII was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII.

Pope Alexander III (reign: 1159 – 1181)

Pope Alexander III

Catholic Pope Alexander III

Roland, as he was named at birth, was part of the group of Cardinals who dreaded the strength of the Holy Roman Empire. As a result, he formed an alliance with the Normans (the Vikings who lived in northern France) in 1156.

He supported the Northern Crusades – Christian military campaigns against the pagan Finnic, Baltic and West Slavic peoples. In those areas he even sanctioned the force conversion of pagans to Christianity.

Alexander III supported papal authority with all his heart in the over 20 years he reign as a pope. The Pope was infamous for his conflict with Frederick Barbarossa who was determined to harm Alexander for betraying him and leading him into confinement in a Sultan’s court in Armenia.

Initially his papal authority was not recognized by many European monarchs, except monarchs from Castile, Aragon, Portugal and Sicily. Many European monarchs supported the Victor IV, Frederick I Barbarossa’s antipope. As a result, Alexander had to take up residence outside Rome.

Following Barbarossa’s loss at the Battle of Legnano in May 1176, Alexander was finally recognized by Barbarossa with the Peace of Venice of 1177. A year later, the pope made his return to Rome.

In return for recognizing him as emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Manuel I Komnenos offered to end the Great Schism. However, Pope Alexander III turned down the Byzantine Emperor’s offer. Manuel also offered to provide Alexander with political and financial support in order to regain his authority in Italy.

It was Alexander III who canonized Thomas Becket, the English nobleman and Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s said that Becket was murdered (on December 29, 1170) by supporters of Henry II of England. The English monarch and Becket had been at each other’s throat over the rights and privileges of the Church.

In 1161, the pope canonized Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon English. This was said to be Alexander’s way of showing his appreciation to Henry II for his support.

Pope Alexander III died on August 30 1181. He was succeeded by Lucius III.

Did you know?

  • Pope Alexander III came from and aristocratic family named Bandinelli.
  • The pope was also credited with the elevation of 68 Cardinals in about 15 councils. Two of those cardinals – Urban III and Clement III – later became popes.
  • He was responsible for the canonization of a number of saints, including Bernard of Clairvaux.
  • Alexander III reigned for more than two decades, making him one of the longest-reigning Catholic Popes since Adrian I in the 8th century.

Pope Leo III (reign: 795 – 816)

Pope Saint Leo III

Pope ascended the throne of the papacy a day after Christmas in 795. His predecessor was the famous Pope Adrian I. He developed a very friendly tie with Emperor Charlemagne, one of the most powerful and impactful rulers of Europe in the Middle Ages. He is one of the few popes to have a reign that spanned more than two decades. Pope Leo III was canonized by Pope Clement X in 1673. Image: Pope Saint Leo III

Another compelling pope who made our list is Leo III. Prior to election in 795, he served as a cardinal priest at St. Susanna.

Perhaps the shiniest legacy of Leo was his establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and his desire to achieve a single harmonious society governed by a single authority.

In the late 790s, Leo’s reputation was hit with a series of accusations of fornication and perjury. It was alleged by some of his detractors that he was an Arab and therefore should never have been elected as pope. For a while, family members and supporters of his predecessor attacked him physically and verbally, including accusations of adultery and corruption.

With dwindling support in Italy, Leo was saved kind courtesy to the trip Charlemagne made to Rome in 800. Leo swore an oath to clear his name of all those allegations leveled against him. He was subsequently exonerated of all those charges.

The Coronation of Charlemagne by Italian Renaissance painter Raphael

The Coronation of Charlemagne by Italian Renaissance painter Raphael

Pope Leo III remained forever grateful to Charlemagne for the support he showed him. The Pope went on to crown Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in December of that year. In a way, Leo was designating the Holy Roman Empire as a backer of the papacy.

In addition to being known as crowner of kings and emperors, Leo was a gifted arbitrator of disputes; he settled a number of dispute between the archbishops of York and Canterbury.

Leo served in the papacy for over two decades until his death at age 66. He was succeeded by Pope Stephen IV.

Pope Clement V (reign: 1305 – 1314)

Born Raymond Bertrand de Got in Villandraut, France, Pope Clement V succeeded Pope Benedict XI in 1305. Prior to becoming pope, he served as the Archbishop of Bordeaux. The first of the Avignon popes, Clement V struggled to shake off influence from the French Crown. He infamously abolished the Templars in 1312.

Whenever the name Pope Clement V is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the Knights Templar, a group of warrior-knights tasked to protect the Holy Land during the Crusades.

It’s said that he had a strong dislike of the Knights Templar. On November 22, 1307, Pope Clement V issued a papal bull which ordered the arrest of many members of the Knights Templar across Europe. The Templars were arrested on the charges of sodomy, adultery, religious and financial corruption.

Five years later, in 1312, Clement, who was under immense pressure from Philip IV of France, dissolved the Knights Templar. Many Templars were forced by inquisitors to confess to many sacrilegious and financial crimes. Some of those very absurd allegations leveled against the Templars included spitting at the cross, cat worshiping, naval kissing, and other forms of heretical acts. With the approval of Clement, many leaders of the Templars – including Jacques de Molay, 23rd Grand Master of the Knights Templar – were tried, found guilty, and then burnt at the stake.

By moving the papacy from Rome to Avignon in France, Clement V began the Avignon Papacy, which lasted for 67 years. The Avignon Papacy had arisen as result of bitter conflict between the Papacy and the French Crown.

Pope Clement V was accused of nepotism and was often criticized for his extravagance lifestyle. He served as pope until his death in April 20, 1314. He was succeeded by John XXII. However, Clement V’s reign is credited with introducing a lucrative papal tax which helped refill the coffers of the papacy.

Why did Pope Clement V agree to dissolve the Knights Templar?

Pope Clement V had been convinced by French king that the Templars were a bunch of heretics and miscreants who had outlived their usefulness. The Pope then proceeded to absolve the Templars of all their sins. As the pope was the supreme religious authority in the Medieval Europe, this meant that the accused Templars were clean from charges. However, the French king simply refused to back down as he owed the Templars a lot of money. His only recourse was to see the Templars wiped from existence.

The French king then proceeded to threaten the Catholic Pope: Either accept the dissolution of the Templars, or risk having a breakaway church of France which would be separate from Rome. Ultimately, Clement caved in to the pressure from the French king to have the order destroyed. This came came despite absolving the Templars of their sins. Therefore, Clement proceeded to abolish the Knights Templar in March 1312. This was a significant moment in the medieval era, considering the fact that Templars had served as champions of Christendom for more than two centuries.

It’s also been said that before the destruction of the Templars, Pope Clement V had wanted to unite the Knights Templar with the Knights Hospitaller. A combined order that would mount a robust offensive against the Muslims in order to recapture Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay rejected the Pope’s plan.

For giving in to the will of Philip IV of France, Clement V is sometimes described as a weak pope. However, there is no doubt his decision to have the Templars destroyed makes him a very impactful figure in medieval history.

Did you know…?

  • Pope Clement V was alluded to in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The Italian poet viewed Clement V as weak and nepotistic.
  • It’s worth mentioning that Clement V died a few weeks after Jacques de Molay’s execution. Similarly, Philip IV of France, another staunch opponent of Jacques de Molay, died that same year, on November 29. Some say that de Molay cursed the two men as he was burnt at the stake, vowing that he would see his accusers – i.e. the Pope and the French King – in judgement before God within a year.

Pope Nicholas I (reign: 858 – 867)

Another one of the most significant additions to the papacy in the medieval period was Pope Nicholas I (reign: 858-867). He promoted the supremacy of the papacy, claiming suzerainty over all Christians when it came to issues of faith and morals.

Pope Nicholas focused especially on advancing the tenets of Christian morality and the commandments of God. He was so intent on promoting marital discipline in the Church; he asked for the excommunication of a wife of who had left her husband’s home.

After passing away at the age of 67 on November 13, 867, he was succeeded by Pope Adrian II.

A supporter of the missionary role of the Church, he is venerated as a saint. His feast day is on November 13.

Read More: 10 Most Prominent Queens from the Medieval Era

Conclusion

Initially starting as propagators of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Roman pontiff’s role enlarged to include arbitration of disputes between Christian monarchs in the Middle Ages. They also worked assiduously to build closer ties among leaders of the different Christian denominations.

The secular and political influence of the papacy may have diminished in the last two centuries or so; however, in the middle Ages, the Catholic Pope was seen as one of the most powerful persons in all of Europe, as the position bestowed upon the holder vast powers an influence, politically and religiously.

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