Gregory VIII

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(21 Oct.–17 Dec. 1187)

On the day following Urban III's death the cardinals at Ferrara, after considering two other names, elected Alberto de Morra, chancellor of the Roman church since 1178, as his successor. An elderly man, born c.1110 at Benevento, he had earlier been a canon regular at Laon and then professor of law at Bologna. Hadrian IV promoted him cardinal deacon of S. Adriano late in 1156, and cardinal priest of S. Lorenzo in Lucina on 14 Mar. 1158. Alexander III employed him on missions to England, Dalmatia, and Portugal; on the first (1171–3) he had the important responsibility of reconciling Henry II (1154–89) after the murder of Thomas Becket (29 Dec. 1170). Alexander made him chancellor of the Roman church in 1178, and as such is thought to have been the author of the Forma Dicendi, which was influential in shaping the rhythmic prose of curial documents, called, in his honour, the cursus gregorianus.

His abilities and experience apart, what determined the curia's choice was its disenchantment with Urban's disastrous policy of confrontation with Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–90). Alberto was known to enjoy the emperor's confidence, and warmly received the embassy he had sent to Urban. Later he wrote to him and his son Henry (Emperor Henry VI: 1191–7) in conciliatory terms, addressing Henry as ‘emperor elect’ in spite of Urban's having declined to crown him. He also rebuked Folmar, whom Urban had consecrated to the see of Trier in spite of Frederick's having invested another candidate, for his severity towards his rival's supporters. These and similar moves swiftly created an atmosphere of détente; the emperor lifted the virtual house arrest he had imposed on Urban and the curia, and instructed the Roman consul Leone de Monumento and the governor of Tuscany that Gregory was to travel and be received wherever he wished, with a military escort provided; clearly the pope's return to Rome was envisaged.

Devout and humble-minded, Alberto founded a monastery at Benevento shortly before his election; its statutes reveal him as a reformer concerned for austerity and evangelical simplicity. As pope he declared that it was not for the clergy to take up arms but to devote themselves to alms-giving and praising God; he forbade their indulgence in extravagant clothes and gaming. He also tried to reform the curia by referring appeals brought to it on minor matters to bishops and archdeacons. But his chief preoccupation during his hectic 57-day pontificate was the preparation for a fresh crusade. The news of the Christian disaster at Hattin in Galilee (4 July 1187), soon followed by reports of Saladin's capture of Jerusalem (2 Oct.), shocked the entire west. Even before his coronation Gregory proclaimed a crusade, and soon dispatched legates to Germany, France, Denmark, even Poland, to preach it. In his eyes the catastrophes in the Holy Land were God's punishment for the sins of Christians, and he demanded penitential dress and deportment from all taking part in the crusade.

In mid-Nov. he left Ferrara, moving south via Modena and Parma. Pausing at Lucca, he ordered Antipope Victor IV's tomb to be broken open and his remains thrown out of the church. On 10 Dec. he reached Pisa, hoping to reconcile it with its rival Genoa so that both seaports could cooperate with the crusade, but fell ill and died on 17 Dec. He had been making for Rome, for decades hostile to the papacy, but death came too soon, and he was buried in the Duomo at Pisa.


Subjects: Christianity.

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