He was the son of Count Trasimund of Segni and nephew of Pope Clement III, born at Anagni, Italy. His father was a member of the famous house of Conti, from which nine popes, including Gregory IX, Alexander IV and Innocent XIII have sprung; his mother, Claricia, belonged to the noble Roman family of Scotti.
After the death of Pope Alexander III he returned to Rome and held offices during the short reigns of Lucius III, Urban III, Gregory VIII, and Clement III, reaching the rank of Cardinal-Deacon in 1190. During the reign of Pope Celestine III (1191-1198), a member of the House of Orsini, enemies of the counts of Segni, he left Rome to live in Anagni.
Celestine III died in 1198 from complications of syphilis. On the day he was buried Lotario de Conti was elected pope and took the name of Innocent III. The imperial throne had become vacant by the death of Henry VI in 1197, and no successor had as yet been located. Innocent took advantage of this vacuum to lessen Germany influence in Italy - his first act was the restoration of the papal power in Rome. The Prefect of Rome, who reigned over the city as the emperor's representative swore allegiance to Innocent. He demanded the restoration of the Romagna and the March of Ancona to the Church from Mark of Anweiler, and used papal troops to bring this about. In a similar way the Duchies of Spoleto, Assisi and Sora were taken from the German, Conrad von Uerslingen.
The pope made use of the weakness of Frederick II (who was four) to reassert papal power in Sicily, and acknowledged Frederick II as king only after the surrender of the privileges of the Four Chapters, which William I of Sicily had previously extorted from Pope Adrian IV. The pope then invested Frederick II as King of Sicily in November, 1198. He also induced the young king to marry the widow of King Emeric of Hungary in 1209.
After the death of the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI in 1197 the Ghibellines and the Guelfs had elected different emperors - Philip of Swabia and Otto of Wittelsbach. In 1201 the pope openly supported Otto IV, announcing that Otto had been approved as Roman king and threatened with excommunication all those who refused to acknowledge him.
Innocent III made clear to the German princes by the Decree Venerabilem in May, 1202, how he considered the relationship between the empire and the Papacy. This decree was afterwards embodied in the Corpus Juris Canonici. The chief points of the decree were: The right to decide whether a king is worthy of the imperial crown belongs to the pope; In case of a double election they must ask the pope to arbitrate or announce in favour of one of the claimants.
Innocent changed his mind and declared in favour of Philip in 1207, and sent cardinals to Germany to induce Otto to renounce his claims to the throne. Otto murdered Philip on 21 June, 1208 and at the Diet of Frankfurt, 11 November, 1208, Otto was acknowledged as king and the pope invited him to Rome to receive the imperial crown. He was crowned emperor in Rome, 4 October, 1209. Before his coronation Otto promised to leave the Church in possession of Spoleto and Ancona and to grant the freedom of ecclesiastical elections; unlimited right of appeal to the pope and the exclusive competency of the hierarchy in spiritual matters; he also promised to assist in the destruction of heresy (the stipulation of Neuss, repeated at Speyer, 1209).
But soon after he had been crowned Otto seized Ancona, Spoleto and other property of the Church, giving it to some of his vassals. He also invaded the Kingdom of Sicily. Otto was excommunicated on 18 November, 1210.
The pope managed to get most of the princes to renounced the excommunicated emperor and elect in his place Frederick II of Sicily, at the Diet of Nuremberg in September, 1211. Frederick made the same promises as Otto IV and his election was ratified by Innocent and he was crowned at Aachen on 12 July, 1215.
Otto allied with England (he was nephew of John 'Sansterre' of England) to fight Philip Augustus of France, but he was defeated in the Battle of Bouvines in Belgium, 27 July, 1214. Then he lost all influence (and died on May 19, 1218), leaving Frederick II, the undisputed emperor.
Innocent played a further role in the politics of France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain and especially England.
Innocent was a strenuous opponent of heresy. He had the Papal States cleared of the Manichean heretics. And under the leadership of Simon de Montfort a campaign was started against the Albigenses. The Church also took on the organisational role of the Crusades. They were to be launched against heretics at the direction of the Pontiff and were to be used to impose the rule of the Church on the unbeliever. This was a prelude to the legitimisation of the Inquisition in 1233. Heresy was to be punished for the spiritual good of the individual as well as for the preservation of the Church.
Innocent started the Fourth Crusade, which the Venetians re-directed into the sacking of Zara in 1202 and Constantinople in 1204. This was a great blow to the unity of the Church and played a role in the Great Schism. Innocent excommunicated the Venetians in return.
He also summoned the Fourth Lateran Council (12th ecumenical council), in November, 1215. It decided on a general crusade to the Holy Land (the Fifth Crusade, as well as issuing seventy reformatory decrees.
Pope Celestine III
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Pope Honorius III