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The Thrilling Tale of the “Great” Pope You’ve Never Heard Of

The Thrilling Tale of the “Great” Pope You’ve Never Heard Of

Peter Paul Rubens

Brantly Millegan - published on 11/20/13

Most people are familiar with St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great, and some are honoring John Paul II with the title - but have you even heard of Pope St. Nicholas the Great?

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Pope John Paul II is one of the most beloved pope of modern times, with his devotees increasingly referring to him as “John Paul the Great”. There’s a high school and a university with the name, as well as books and holy cards. There are even homilies from Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington D.C. archived on the Vatican’s website that use the title.

The title is quite the honor and should not be taken lightly. Of the 266 men who have ruled from the throne of St. Peter, only three of them have “Great” attached to the end of their names. All three lived in the first millenium, and all three lived within just a few centuries of each other. That’s right: until John Paul II, no pope in the last 1100 years of the Church merited the high honor.

You’ve probably heard of Pope St. Leo the Great and Pope St. Gregory the Great, but, amazingly, the third one is a pope most people have not even heard of: Pope St. Nicholas the Great – and his story has an important lesson for our day.

The Great Marriage Controversy – of the 9th Century

The first thing to know about St. Nicholas the Great is he’s not the historical basis of Santa Claus and he didn’t slap Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea. That’s St. Nicholas of Myra who lived five hundred years earlier and was a bishop in modern-day Turkey.

Pope St. Nicholas the Great, rather, was born in Rome to a respected family in the year 800, the same year Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor. He received a good education and was known for his piety but did not enter Holy Orders until he was in his 40s. Nonetheless, within about ten years he was elected pope with the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II. He reigned as the bishop of Rome for just nine years until his death – but those nine years were packed full with extraordinary drama.

The most intense controversy of his pontificate began when King Lothair II of Lotharingia and his wife Teutberga realized they were unable to have children, which of course meant Lothair II had no sons to take his throne when he died. Convinced it was because his wife was barren, Lothair sought an annulment so he could marry his mistress Waldrada. But Teutberga’s brother Hucbert, a lay-abbot, took up her cause. Teutberga’s inculpability was proven after she passed a trial by water, so Lothair took her back, at least temporarily.

Keep reading on the next page

But Lothair kept pursuing an annulment, which he was eventually able to convince his local clergymen to grant. The bishops of France convened a synod and confirmed the annulment despite the fact that it did not meet the requirements of ecclesiastical law. Another synod was held in France on the matter a year later and was attended by papal legates sent by Pope Nicholas, but they were bribed by King Lothair II and supported the annulment. Teutberga appealed her case to Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, and the case was eventually brought to Nicholas himself in Rome.

Two archbishops from Germany were sent with the support of Emperor Louis II to argue the case in favor of the annulment. Nicholas not only ruled the annulment invalid, but he also condemned and deposed the two archbishops.

Angered by the decision, King Lothair II sent his army to Rome and laid siege to the city, demanding that Pope Nicholas grant him the annulment. Despite being confined to the old St. Peter’s Basilica as a prisoner for two days without food, Nicholas refused to budge. When it became clear that the annulment was a lost cause and that he was obviously risking excommunication by his actions, Lothair reconciled himself with Nicholas, withdrew his armies, and took back his wife Teutberga. Emperor Louis II ordered the two deposed archbishops to return to their homes. All of Pope Nicholas’ decisions stood.

Not an Unfamiliar Story

If it all sounds familiar, it’s because it is: a very similar situation precipitated the Anglican schism in the 16th century. But whereas Lothair II ultimately accepted the authority of the pope, King Henry VIII decided to go the route of creating his own religion, one that would conveniently allow him to divorce his wife as he wanted.

Can you imagine if something like this happened today? Local bishops upholding an illegitimate annulment, the pope’s legates being bribed, the pope overturning all of it and deposing archbishops, the disgruntled leader of a major world power sending an army to lay siege to Rome and imprison the pope – the media would be having a field day. The New York Times would be declaring the end of the Catholic Church, the Huffington Post would be blasting the pope’s backward stance on marriage, and CNN experts would be talking about whether the next pope would be a liberal and bring the Church up-to-date. And that’s all on top of the doctrinal confusion that such disunity among bishops would cause and the fear that such intense persecution of the Holy Father could bring to Catholics worldwide.

Yet the Church survived, and instead of being remembered as a conservative gadfly, Pope Nicholas came out of it all with two of the highest honors possible: sainthood and the exclusive title “Great”, marking him as one of the best popes ever.

Brantly Milleganis Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Editor of Second Nature and Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. He is finishing up a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and will begin working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is

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