In The Footsteps Of Nicholas Breakspear
Pope Adrian IV, the Pope from England 1100-1159
by Marguerite Cook
Jesus said to Peter, “Do you love me?”
Peter replied, “Lord you know everything; you know I love you.” (John 21:15-17)
By the M1 motorway in Hertfordshire stands a large modern office block called Breakspear Park, and the road the office block stands on is called Breakspear Way. This is the area in England where Nicholas Breakspear was born and spent his childhood.
Nicholas was born c1100, and is the only Englishman, so far, to have held the high ecclesiastical position of Pope. A plaque marks the birthplace of Nicholas Breakspear close to the pretty village of Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire.
In and around Abbots Langley there are reminders of the residents pride and esteem, of the local boy who became Pope. There are roads in Abbots Langley which are called Popes Road, Adrian Road and Breakspear Road. There were buildings called Breakspear College and Breakspear Farm. The tributes past and present are ongoing. In nearby St. Albans city, the Catholic school is proudly called Nicholas Breakspear School.
Thirty-five years before Nicholas Breakspear was born, the Normans had invaded England from France. The English people suddenly found themselves ruled by the French speaking Normans, who built castles, churches and monasteries. Nicholas, as a boy in Abbots Langley, attended the local Saxon church. Abbots Langley was mentioned in the Doomsday Book as having a priest.
In 1154 a lovely new church was built and dedicated to St. Lawrence. Inside this nice-looking church is a plaque in honour of Pope Adrian IV, dated 1924.
Nearby is the Catholic church of Abbots Langley called St. Saviour which was built in 1963. It is an attractive church, which has an impressive frontage. Inside there is a large bust of Pope Adrian IV. It was in 1928 that the Salvatorian Fathers said the first public Mass since the Reformation. This returned the Catholic Church to where 800 years before Nicholas Breakspear had been born.
The village of Abbots Langley is only a few miles from the ancient city of St. Albans. St. Albans Abbey, with its shrine, is the oldest place of Christian worship in Britain. St. Alban is venerated as the proto-martyr of Britain. Alban, a Roman citizen, lived in the 3rd century in Verulamium, which is now called St. Albans. He was converted to Christianity by a priest whom he hid from persecution, and helped escape by giving him his own clothes. Alban was then arrested and beheaded by the Romans for being a Christian. Christianity was proscribed throughout the Roman Empire and punishable by death.
In 1077 the Normans started building a huge Abbey church in St. Albans, which became the largest church in England at that time. They built it using local 600 year old Roman bricks, and the Abbey church was dedicated in 1115. St. Alban had been revered in France as well as England.
To the young Nicholas Breakspear this brand new Abbey must have looked magnificent as it rose from the ancient city. St. Albans Abbey was looked after by Benedictine monks, and it gained a reputation as a fine seat of learning. Nicholas’ father, named Robert, was a clerk at the Abbey, and when free of worldly responsibilities became a monk there. Nicholas was a pupil at the Abbey school, and when of age he asked the Abbot if he could become a monk. The wise Norman Abbot was Richard d’Albina (1097-1119). Abbot Richard told Nicholas with religious instinct, “To wait awhile”, and remain in the Abbey school.
God said to Abram, “Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s house for a country which I shall show you.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
In time Nicholas Breakspear left his beloved St. Albans and went to France. In France he joined the monastery of St. Rufus near Avignon. Nicholas shone; he was a wise, disciplined and elegant person. In 1137 Nicholas Breakspear was elected Abbot of St. Rufus monastery. It was then he came to the attention of Pope Blessed Eugenius III who called him to Rome. Nicholas Breakspear was made Cardinal Bishop of Albano, near Rome, and then was made Papal Legate. As Papal Legate, Nicholas did marvellous work. He was called the Apostle of the North, as he reconciled the differences between Scandinavian Monarchs, and he achieved a lasting peace.
On the death of Pope Anastasius IV, Nicholas Breakspear was unanimously elected Pope on December 4th 1154. Father James Martin SJ, in his book My Life With The Saints; suggests that the saints we love may be already praying for us, before we come to know and pray to them. Nicholas Breakspear loved the heroic St. Alban. It has been written that he chose the name Pope Adrian in recognition of the generosity shown by Pope Adrian I (C700-795) in canonising St. Alban, and granting privileges to the Abbey. Pope Adrian IV reigned as Pope for a brief four years, which were years filled with turmoil. There were threats of war and instability. Through all the problems it was said Pope Adrian IV was kind and just, acting with dignity and strength.
Pope Adrian IV died on September 1st 1159. Recently when my husband and I visited Rome, we both felt pride and sadness as we looked at the tomb of this holy man. Pope Adrian IV was buried a long way from home. His body lies in the crypt of St. Peters Basilica. There is a plaque above the tomb with the inscription ‘Hadrianus Papa IIII’.
Pope Adrian IV during his life looked back on his schooldays in St. Albans Abbey with affection. As Pope he made the Abbey, England’s premier Abbey, a position it held for over 300 years. Today in the Abbey there is an attractive medieval altar screen which contains a statue of Pope Adrian IV. The statue looks down on the tomb of his devout father, Robert, who is buried with early abbots.
St. Albans Abbey has become a cathedral. The Cathedral is a beautiful building, which in 2006 was given a lovely stained glass window by St. Columba’s RC College of St. Albans. Our Lady stands on the right hand side of the window with a crown above her head, and hands about to join in prayer. It is a stunning window which was crafted by Caroline Benyon. The sun shines through the stained glass window scattering blue rays, which dance on the floor where the young Nicholas Breakspear used to tread.
Our Lady’s prayer, ‘The Magnificat’, describes the life of Nicholas Breakspear, the humble lad from Abbots Langley who became Pope.
“The Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name.”
“He has used the power of his arm. He has routed the arrogant of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones, and raised high the lowly.” (Luke 1:46-56)