Pope Nicholas I served as the pontiff between the years of April 24, 858 A.D. and his death in 867 A.D. Also known as Nicholas the Great, he has been widely admired for his ability to consolidate the authority of the papacy, to influence marriages between princes and kings throughout Western Europe, and to elevate the Catholic Church to a leading position in Western Christendom. Nicholas pushed the idea that the pontiff should be the earthly overlord of everyone in Christendom (including royalty) where morals and faith were concerned.
Brief History and Background on Pope St. Nicholas I
Pope St. Nicholas I Early Career and Election
Nicholas was born to an important father the Defensor Theodore of Rome. Because of his family’s fame he obtained fantastic education and became known for his benevolence, knowledge, piety, and eloquence. His early age service to the church saw Pope Sergius II appoint him as sub deacon while Pope Leo IV made him deacon.
April 24th of 858 A.D. witnessed the election of Nicholas to the papacy and his consecration in Emperor Louis’ presence within the old St. Peter’s Basilica. After Nicholas hosted a farewell banquet for the emperor a few days later the pontiff then attended Louis in camp outside of Rome. In the presence of the nobility of Rome the emperor led the pope’s horse for a distance acting out submission in a critical early sign of things to come.
Pope St. Nicholas I Papacy Highlights
The people of Western Europe had become both spiritually and morally exhausted in the political chaos created by the Viking and Islamic invasions and raids. The arrival of a supremely confident pontiff in Nicholas I brought certainty, hope, and comfort to the common people and even to the nobility.
Among many activities that he pursued as pope, Nicholas I cooperated with the military forces of Western Emperor Louis II as well as Byzantine armies to halt the advance of the Muslim assaults in the south of Italy at least temporarily. Pope Nicholas also improved the fortifications of Ostia against additional Muslim incursions in the future. Nicholas was also famous for personally involving himself in the affairs of state marriages of the royalty across Western Christendom.
Pope St. Nicholas I Enduring Legacy
Pope St. Nicholas left a difficult to imitate legacy for the Catholic Church. When the Archbishop John of Ravenna was ruthlessly oppressing the Papal States’ inhabitants, imprisoning priests illegally, and extorting money from bishops under his authority, Pope Nicholas excommunicated the archbishop and personally investigated and redressed all grievances in the Papal States after going to see how matters stood for himself in Ravenna.
Pope Nicholas I also engaged in diplomatic relations with the Bulgarians in a competition with the Eastern Church (Orthodox) to try to win them over to the Western Church (Catholicism). Boris dispatched his embassy to the pope containing 106 questions on the discipline and teachings of the Catholic Church in August of 866 A.D. The pope answered them all in detail and dispatched a Papal legate the Bishop Formosus (who would become Pope Formosus).
The final decision of the Bulgarians as to which church they would follow came after the death of Pope Nicholas. His successor Pope Adrian II would not agree to the request of King Boris to have either Marinus or Formosus become Bulgarian archbishop so Boris considered the Byzantines and the Orthodox Church. In the end, Boris accepted the Eastern imperial and church offered arrangement. Greek priests arrived to teach Eastern Orthodox Christianity to Bulgaria (and eventually the other Slavic nations followed Bulgaria’s lead).
Pope St. Nicholas I Quick Facts
– Born – 820 A.D., in Rome, Italy
– Birth Name – Nicolaus
– Died – November 13, 867 A.D.
– How he died
Pope Nicholas I died of natural causes at the age of 47 years old on November 13, 867 A.D. in the city of Rome. The church elected Pope Adrian II to succeed him. From the 1600’s the Catholic Church has honored Nicholas I as a saint with a feast day of November 13.
– Papacy began – April 24, 858 A.D.
– Papacy ended – November 13, 867 A.D.
– Successor – Pope Adrian II
Interesting Facts About Pope St. Nicholas I
Nicholas I was infused with his belief in the defense of the law of God and Christian morality.
Pope Nicholas I would not annul the marriage of King Lothair II (of Lotharingia) to his wife Teutberga even under threat of military force.
It was under the papacy of Pope Nicholas that the long-close relationship with the Eastern Empire in Constantinople began to go bad thanks to the pontiff’s supporting the former Constantinople Patriarch Ignatios over his replacement Photius I.
Pope St. Nicholas I dispatched a letter to Bulgaria ordering them to burn all books seized from Islamic forces as they were considered blasphemous and dangerous.
Pope Nicholas I has forever been remembered by his near-contemporaries and posterity as Nicholas the Great.