Pope Alexander III

Pope Alexander III
Alexander III
Papacy began September 7, 1159
Papacy ended August 30, 1181
Predecessor Adrian IV
Successor Lucius III
Personal details
Birth name Rolando or Orlando
Born c. 1100/1105
Siena, Italy, Holy Roman Empire
Died August 30, 1181(1181-08-30) (aged 76–81)
Civita Castellana, Papal States, Holy Roman Empire
Other Popes named Alexander

Pope Alexander III (c. 1100/1105 – August 30, 1181), born Rolando (or Orlando) of Siena, was Pope from 1159 to 1181. He is noted in history for laying the foundation stone for the Notre Dame de Paris.


Church career

He was born in Siena. From 14th century he is referred to as a member of the aristocratic family of Bandinelli but this is not proven.[1] For a long time, scholars believed him to be identical with the twelfth-century canon lawyer and theologian, Master Roland of Bologna, who composed the "Stroma" or "Summa Rolandi" – one of the earliest commentaries on the Decretum of Gratian – and the "Sententiae Rolandi", a sentence collection displaying the influence of Pierre Abélard.[2]

In October 1150, Pope Eugene III (1145–1153) created him cardinal deacon of the Title of Santi Cosma e Damiano; later he became cardinal priest of the Title of St Mark. In 1153, he became papal chancellor, and was the leader of the cardinals opposed to Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–1190). He negotiated the Treaty of Benevento, restoring peaceful relations between Rome and the Kingdom of Sicily.

On September 7, 1159, he was chosen the successor of Pope Adrian IV (1154–1159), a minority of the cardinals, however, elected the cardinal priest Octavian, who assumed the name of Victor IV (1159–1164) and became the German emperor's antipope. The situation was critical for Alexander III, because as many chronicles of the time (maybe exaggerations) Barbarossa's antipope counted with the approval of most kingdoms of Europe, except the Kingdom of Portugal, Sicily and Spain. However, in 1161 the King Géza II of Hungary signed an agreement and recognised Alexander III as the rightful pope and declared that the supreme spiritual leader was the only one who could excersice the Rights of Investiture.[3] This meant that Alexander's legitimation was gaining strength, as soon it proved the fact that other monarchs as the King of France and the king Henry II of England recognized his authority.

However, this antipope dispute between Alexander III and Victor IV, and the successors of the second: antipope Paschal III (1164–68) and antipope Calixtus III (1168–1178), (who had the imperial support) continued until the defeat of Legnano (1176), when Barbarossa finally (in the Peace of Venice 1177) recognized Alexander III as pope. On March 12, 1178, Alexander III returned to Rome, which he had been compelled to leave twice: the first time from 1162, when he was sent into a Campanian exile by Oddone Frangipane following his brief arrest and detainment, until November 23, 1165; and again in 1167. The first period he spent in France, the latter chiefly in Gaeta, Benevento, Anagni, and Venice.

Political aspects

Frederick Barbarossa submits to the authority of Pope Alexander III (fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, by Spinello Aretino).

Alexander III was the first pope known to have paid direct attention to missionary activities east of the Baltic Sea. In 1165, his close friend, Eskil, the Archbishop of Lund, appointed a Benedictine monk Fulco as a bishop in Estonia. In 1171, he became the first pope to address the situation of the Church in Finland, with Finns allegedly harassing the priests and relying only on God in time of war.[4]

In March 1179, Alexander III held the Third Council of the Lateran, one of the most important mediaeval church councils, reckoned by the Roman Church as the eleventh ecumenical council; its acts embodied several of the Pope's proposals for the betterment of the condition of the Church, among them the law requiring that no one could be elected pope without the votes of two-thirds of the cardinals. The rule was altered slightly in 1996 but, in 2007, returned to the 1179 rule. This synod marked the summit of Alexander III's power.

Besides checkmating Barbarossa, he had humbled Henry II of England for the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, to whom he was unusually close. In 1172 he confirmed the position of Henry as Lord of Ireland. He had confirmed the right of Afonso I of Portugal to the crown, and even as a fugitive had enjoyed the favour and protection of Louis VII of France. Nevertheless, soon after the close of the synod the Roman republic forced Alexander III to leave the city, which he never re-entered; and on September 29, 1179, some nobles set up the antipope Innocent III (1179–1180). By the judicious use of money, however, Alexander III got him into his power, so that he was deposed in January, 1180. In 1181, Alexander III excommunicated William I of Scotland and put the kingdom under an interdict.

He died at Civita Castellana on August 30, 1181.

In popular culture

Alexander is a character in Jean Anouilh's play Becket. In the 1964 film adaptation he was portrayed by Italian actor Paolo Stoppa.

Alexander III is mentioned in Umberto Eco's book Baudolino.


  1. ^ Maleczek, W. (1984). Papst und Kardinalskolleg von 1191 bis 1216. Wien. p. 233 note 168. ISBN 3700106602. 
  2. ^ See Noonan, John T. (1977). "Who was Rolandus?". In Pennington, Kenneth; Somerville, Robert. Law, Church, and Society: Essays in Honor of Stephan Kuttner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 21–48. ISBN 0812277260.  Weigand, Rudolph (1980). "Magister Rolandus und Papst Alexander III". Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 149: 3–44.  Reprinted in idem, Glossatoren des Dekrets Gratians [Goldbach: Keip, 1997], pp. 73* –114* , ISBN 3805102720.
  3. ^ Bodri Ferenc: Lukács érsek és kora. Kossuth, 2003
  4. ^ Letter by Pope Alexander III to the Archbishop of Uppsala. In Latin. Hosted by the National Archive of Finland. See [1] and Diplomatarium Fennicum from the menu.


  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Pope Alexander III" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Myriam Soria Audebert, "Pontifical Propaganda during the Schisms: Alexander III to the reconquest of Church Unity," in Convaincre et persuader: Communication et propagande aux XII et XIIIe siècles. Ed. par Martin Aurell. Poitiers: Université de Poitiers-centre d'études supérieures de civilisation médiévale, 2007,
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Adrian IV
Succeeded by
Lucius III

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