(26 Nov. 579–7 Feb. 590)
Born in Rome, son of a Goth named Unigild, he was elected when the siege of the city by the Lombards was at its height. Because of the crisis he was ordained immediately, probably in Aug. 579, without waiting for the imperial mandate indispensable since the Byzantine conquest of Italy; his reign was officially dated from its arrival in late November.
He at once dispatched his deacon Gregory to Constantinople as apocrisiarius and to beg for military aid. Hard pressed by the Persian war, Emperor Tiberius II (578–82) could spare only a few troops, but advised the Roman delegation to bribe the Lombard dukes and seek help from the Frankish king. In Oct. 580, therefore, Pelagius appealed to Aunarius, bishop of Auxerre; as neighbours sharing the orthodox faith, he pleaded, Providence had singled out the Franks to be Rome's and Italy's protectors. His appeal fell on deaf ears, and four years later he had to write to Gregory in Constantinople describing Italy's plight and urging him to bestir the emperor. In 585, however, Smaragdus, imperial exarch in Ravenna, arranged an armistice with the Lombards which lasted until 589. Pelagius took advantage of the reopening of access to northern Italy to correspond with Elijah, bishop of Aquileia (now at Grado), and the bishops of Istria, whose sees had renounced communion with Rome in disgust at its condemnation of the Three Chapters, in an attempt to end the schism. Although he was assisted by Gregory, now back from Constantinople, his efforts were fruitless despite the irenical tone and impressive theological content of his letters. He then got Smaragdus to use force to bring about a reconciliation, but he too was unsuccessful.
Under Pelagius the conversion of the Visigoths in Spain, under King Reccared (586–601), was proclaimed at the third council of Toledo (589). His reign also saw the beginning of a long controversy over the title ‘ecumenical patriarch’, used by bishops of Constantinople from the late 5th century, originally with the meaning ‘supreme within his own patriarchate’. When Patriarch John IV assumed it at a synod held in 588, Pelagius refused to endorse the acts since the title seemed to infringe papal supremacy, and called on his nuncio Gregory to break off communion with John until he repudiated it. In Rome he was an active builder and restorer; it was probably he who raised the presbytery of St Peter's so that the high altar was directly above the shrine of the Apostle, and he reconstructed S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura, where his portrait can be seen in contemporary mosaic on the triumphal arch. When plague began ravaging Rome as a result of flooding caused by an overflow of the Tiber in Nov. 589, he was one of its first victims. He was buried in the portico of St Peter's.
PL 72: 703–60ACO iv/2, 105–36JW i. 137–40LP i. 309–11 (Davis 1: 63)Caspar ii. 353–74DCB iv. 298–301 (J. Barmby)DACL xiii. 1222–4 (H. Leclercq)DTC xii. 669–75 (É. Amann)Histoire, iii. 446–50 (C. Sotinel)Levillain ii. 1148–9 (C. Sotinel)NCE xi. 60 (J. Chapin)Seppelt i. 293–6JR 166–8, 225–30