Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich
Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich


Early Centuries: Shadows of Martyrdom

In Roman Catholicism, the papacy, the position held by the pope as the head of the Catholic Church, traces its history from Peter to the present day. During the initial three centuries of the Christian era, many of Peter’s successors as bishops of Rome were relatively unknown figures, often facing martyrdom in periods of persecution.

Rise to Influence: Constantine’s Era

The bishops of Rome held no temporal power during the Early Church until Constantine’s era. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the medieval papacy underwent influence from Italy’s temporal rulers, categorized as the Ostrogothic Papacy, Byzantine Papacy, and Frankish Papacy. Gradually, the papacy secured territorial claims, forming the Papal States on the peninsula. Subsequently, powerful Roman families replaced neighboring sovereigns during the Saeculum obscurum, the Crescentii era, and the Tusculan Papacy.

Challenges with Empires: East-West Schism

From 1048 to 1257, the papacy encountered escalating conflicts with the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, leading to the East-West Schism, which divided the Roman and Eastern Churches. Between 1257 and 1377, popes, despite being the bishops of Rome, resided in Viterbo, Orvieto, Perugia, and later Avignon. The return to Rome after the Avignon Papacy marked the Western Schism, splitting the Western Church between two, and at times, three competing papal claimants.

Renaissance Glory and Opposition

The Renaissance Papacy distinguished itself through artistic and architectural patronage, active involvement in European power politics, and resistance against theological challenges to papal authority. Following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformation Papacy and Baroque Papacy guided the Catholic Church through the Counter-Reformation.

Wealth Expropriation and Shifting Territories

During the Age of Revolution, popes witnessed the church’s largest wealth expropriation, notably during the French Revolution and subsequent upheavals in Europe. The Roman Question, stemming from Italian unification, led to the loss of the Papal States and the establishment of Vatican City.


493 AD
Theodoric the Great
Ostrogothic Papacy
537 AD
Mosaic of Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great
Byzantine Papacy
590-604 AD
Pope Gregory I
Pope Gregory I asserts papal primacy
756 AD
Pepin III
Start of Papal States through Pepin III's donation of land to Pope Stephen
904-1048 AD
Pope John XII
'Saeculum Obscurum' were popes were controlled by the Theophylacti
1048-1257 AD
Otto the Great
Conflict between popes and the Holy Roman Empire
1096 AD
Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, given a late Gothic setting in this illumination from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer, of c 1474 (Bibliothèque nationale)
Council of Clermont and cry for First Crusade
The papal palace of Orvieto
The wandering popes
1309-1377 AD
Avignon Papcay
Avignon Papacy
1378-1417 AD
Habemus Papam at the Council of Constance
Western Schism


Saint Symmachus

Saint Symmachus

The Context of Papal Elections (483–498)

The Ostrogothic Papacy, spanning from 493 to 537, witnessed the first papal election in March 483 without a Western Roman emperor. Though not directly appointed by the Ostrogothic King, the papacy was notably influenced by the Ostrogothic Kingdom. Theodoric the Great and his successors, Athalaric and Theodahad, played a pivotal role in the selection and administration of popes during this period.

The First Schism and Triumph of Pope Symmachus (498–514)

The influence of the Ostrogoths became evident in the first schism on November 22, 498, resulting in the election of two popes. Pope Symmachus (498–514) triumphed over Antipope Laurentius, marking the first recorded instance of simony in papal history. Symmachus also introduced the practice of popes naming their successors, which persisted until discord arose in 530, leading to the unpopular choice in 532 of John II, the first to rename himself upon succession.

Theodoric’s Tolerance and Influence

Theodoric, while maintaining tolerance toward the Catholic Church and avoiding interference in dogmatic matters, exerted a significant influence on papal affairs. Although he remained neutral towards the pope, his impact on the papacy’s dynamics was considerable.

Transition to Byzantine Papacy (537–752)

The Ostrogothic Papacy era concluded with Justinian I’s reconquest of Italy during the Gothic War, marking the initiation of the Byzantine Papacy (537–752). Justinian’s influence extended to the deposition of pro-Gothic Pope Silverius (536–537) and the appointment of Pope Vigilius (537–555).


Imperial Approval and Papal Consecration

During the Byzantine Papacy, spanning 537 to 752, popes needed approval from Byzantine Emperors for episcopal consecration. Many popes were chosen from Byzantine regions, and Justinian I’s restoration of imperial rule in Italy led to the emperors appointing popes, continuing through the Exarchate of Ravenna.

Theological Conflicts and Cultural Shifts

Except for Pope Martin I, popes didn’t challenge Byzantine monarchs’ authority in confirming the bishop’s election. However, theological conflicts, including monotheism and iconoclasm, were common. Greek popes from Byzantine regions replaced Roman nobles, creating a cultural “melting pot” in Rome.

Miniature of Gregory the Great writing, in a 12th-century copy of his Dialogues, British Library, London.

Miniature of Gregory the Great writing, in a 12th-century copy of his Dialogues, British Library, London.

Pope Gregory I: Asserting Papal Primacy

Pope Gregory I (590–604) played a pivotal role in establishing papal primacy within the local jurisdiction. He initiated missionary efforts in northern Europe, rejecting universal jurisdiction for any bishop but asserting canonical privileges for the Roman see from the Council of Sardica.

Duchy of Rome in the Exarchate of Ravenna

The Duchy of Rome, part of the Exarchate of Ravenna, was an imperial district ruled by a dux. The exarchate included districts around Ravenna and the Duchy of Rome, where the pope led opposition to the Lombards. Pope Gregory II received support from the Lombard King Liutprand in maintaining control.

Struggles for Control and Diplomacy

In 728, King Liutprand took the Castle of Sutri, but Pope Gregory II regained it through diplomacy. The popes acknowledged imperial authority despite Lombard’s threats. In 738, Lombard Duke Transamund of Spoleto captured the Castle of Gallese, prompting Pope Gregory III to secure its return through negotiation.


The "Donation of Pepin" (756): Pepin the Short grants the territories of Ravenna to Pope Stephen II

The “Donation of Pepin” (756): Pepin the Short grants the territories of Ravenna to Pope Stephen II

Papal Diplomacy Amid Lombard Threats

In 751, Aistulf’s aggression towards Rome prompted Pope Stephen II to embark on an unprecedented journey north, seeking aid from Frankish king Pepin III. This marked the beginning of Frankish influence over the Papacy.

Pepin’s Intervention and the Donation of Pepin

In 754 and 756, Pepin III thwarted Lombard’s advances, reclaiming territory but bypassing its Byzantine owner. The Donation of Pepin in 756 bestowed central Italy upon the pope, creating the Papal States and intertwining secular power with papal succession.

Leo III’s Alpine Escape and Charlemagne’s Support

After being physically attacked in Rome, Pope Leo III sought refuge with Charlemagne in 799. The unexpected crowning of Charlemagne as emperor on Christmas Day 800 solidified the intertwining of papal and Frankish interests.

Frankish Intervention in Papal Elections

Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious, influenced papal elections, demanding papal loyalty. Popes were required to swear allegiance to the Frankish Emperor, and their consecration depended on the Emperor’s approval.

Struggles in Papal Succession

Pope Gregory IV’s delayed consecration and the intervention of Emperor Louis showcased the delicate balance of power. Pope Sergius II’s consecration faced challenges from Emperor Lothair I, highlighting the intricate web of alliances in papal affairs.


Saeculum Obscurum and Theophylacti Influence

The era from Pope Sergius III (904) to Pope John XII (964) is termed Saeculum obscurum, a “dark age” marked by the dominance of the powerful and corrupt Theophylacti family over the papacy.

Emperor’s Challenge and Papal Conflicts (1048–1257)

From 1048 to 1257, papal history saw persistent conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor. The Investiture Controversy, sparked by disputes over appointing bishops, and Henry III’s intervention in 1048 set the stage for ongoing clashes.

East–West Schism and Crusades

Divisions between East and West culminated in the East-West Schism and the Crusades. Pope Urban II’s Council of Clermont (1096) aimed for reunion and support for the Byzantines. His rallying cry became the catalyst for the First Crusade.

Evolution in Papal Selection Process

During this period, Pope Nicholas II’s In nomine Domini (1059) restricted papal suffrage to the College of Cardinals, setting the stage for modern papal conclave procedures. Cardinal Hildebrand, later Gregory VII, played a pivotal role in driving these reforms.


Residency Flexibility in Papal Office

The pope, though the bishop of Rome, faced no obligation to stay there, a departure from historical norms when cardinals were mandated to reside in Rome. In the thirteenth century, political turmoil in Italy compelled the papal court to relocate, causing a significant shift in the dynamics of the Roman Curia.

Wandering Papal Court: Changing Residences

During the thirteenth century, the papal court, seeking stability, moved across various cities—Viterbo, Orvieto, and Perugia. These relocations included the transfer of the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals, which convened in the city of the last pope’s demise for papal elections.

Benefits and Risks for Host Cities

While host cities gained prestige and economic benefits, permitting the pope to overstay posed risks. Municipal authorities risked absorption into the administration of the Papal States, a delicate balance between privilege and potential subjugation.

Aristocratic Challenges in Rome

Aristocratic factions within Rome posed challenges, prompting papal exile, even from Italy, for extended periods. Eamon Duffy notes that Rome’s aristocracy dominated the skyline with fortified war towers, making the city an insecure base for stable papal governance. The papal palaces at Viterbo and Orvieto became preferred sanctuaries, reflecting the complexities of governing in Rome during this era.

French Papal Residence in Avignon (1309–1378)

During this era, seven French popes resided in Avignon, starting with Pope Clement V in 1309. The consecutive pontiffs included Pope John XXII, Pope Benedict XII, Pope Clement VI, Pope Innocent VI, Pope Urban V, and Pope Gregory XI. The French King held control over the papacy during this period.

Return to Rome and the Western Schism (1378–1417)

In 1378, Pope Gregory XI moved the papal residence back to Rome, ending the Avignon Papacy. However, this sparked the Western Schism, a challenging period from 1378 to 1417. Catholic scholars refer to it as “the great controversy of the antipopes” or “the second great schism.”

End of Schism and the Election of Pope Martin V

The Council of Constance in 1417 marked the resolution of the Western Schism. It brought an end to the division within the Catholic Church, as parties aligned with various claimants to the papal office. The council deposed the Pisan antipope, John XXIII, and saw the voluntary resignation of the Roman pope, Gregory XII. The field was finally cleared, leading to the election of Pope Martin V in November 1417.


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Source: (Cambridge University Press, 2020)


  • Buttler, S., Dahlgren, N., & Hess, D. (1997). Jesus, Peter & the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy. Santa Barbara: Queenship. ISBN 978-1-882972-54-8

  • Cambridge University Press. (2020). Rome and the Invention of the Papacy: The Liber Pontificalis [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, November 26). History of the papacy. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation

  • Rendina, C. (2002). The Popes: Histories and Secrets. Seven Locks Press. 978-1-931643-13-9

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