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Nicholas II - Beset By Turmoil

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Fresco of Nicholas IIThe Romans did not have a chance to take the late Pope Stephen's advice about waiting for Hildebrand before holding an election. When news of Stephen's death arrived, Gregory, count of Tusculum, and other lords swarmed into the city with their men-at-arms and took over the election. In vain the cardinals protested; in vain St. Peter Damian lifted his voice. In spite of the cardinals, a tumultuous mob proclaimed John, bishop of Velletri, pope. He was enthroned as Benedict X. But the election was not uncontested.

Even at Rome in the Trastevere district, a group refused to acknowledge Benedict. St. Peter Damian and the cardinals fled North. And on his way back from France, the man was coming for whose arrival Pope Stephen had wished the Romans to wait, Cardinal Hildebrand. When Hildebrand learned that the house of Theophylactus was once more trying to get control of the papacy, he acted swiftly. First he secured the support of Duke Godfrey and of the German court. Then he held a meeting with the cardinals at Siena at which Gerard of Burgundy, bishop of Florence, was named pope-elect. Duke Godfrey and Wibert, the imperial chancellor, mobilized at Sutri. Then after Gerard held a council which declared Benedict deposed, the army marched on Rome.

A little fighting sent Benedict and his barons flying. Then a great assembly gathered at the Lateran to investigate the election of Benedict. The council declared the election invalid and deposed Benedict. Gerard was elected and enthroned as Nicholas II. Gerard was born in Burgundy, and like his predecessor he had been a canon at Liege. While bishop of Florence he had made a reputation as a reform prelate. As pope he lived up to this reputation. The main blow struck for reform by Nicholas was the promulgation of new papal election decrees at a synod held at Rome in 1059. According to these decrees the pope should be elected by the cardinal-bishops. The rest of the clergy and the laity of Rome had the right to acclaim the election. The pope should normally be a member of the Roman clergy, but in case of necessity could come from outside Rome. The election, if possible, was to be held at Rome; but if necessary, it could be held elsewhere.

The pope- elect was to wield full authority even if he could not reach Rome. Imperial control was limited to a personal right granted by the pope to confirm papal elections. These decrees, an important move toward papal independence, were bitterly resented by the German court, and a papal legate, sent to smooth matters over, was turned away. A German synod dared to condemn the decrees and declare Nicholas II deposed. But Nicholas could ignore the angry clamor, for he had two strong supports in Duke Godfrey and the Normans. Nicholas had secured the aid of the Normans at Melfi in 1059. At a meeting there, the Pope agreed to recognize Robert Guiscard as duke of Apulia, and the Normans agreed to supply the strong arms Nicholas needed to seize Benedict and maintain his independence.

In his short pontificate Nicholas did much. He renewed the election decrees in 1061. He condemned Berengarius, a Frenchman who denied transubstantiation. He fostered reform by means of energetic legates; and he made Hildebrand, reform's greatest champion, archdeacon of the Roman church.

Nicholas II died at Florence in July 1061.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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