Nicholas Breakspear is the only Englishman to become Pope. He was born in the early years of the 12th century on a farm at Abbots Langley, close to the present roadway between Abbots Langley and Bedmond. There was a Breakspear Farm on the site until the early 1960s.
His father, Robert, worked at St Albans Abbey, and so young Nicholas was able to attend the Abbey School. He wanted to stay there and to become a priest, but the abbot decided that he was not ready for such a life, so he went to Arles, in France. Here he continued his studies, and eventually he entered the monastery of St Rufus, near Avignon. He was said to be 'an elegant person, pleasant in countenance, prudent in speech and of regular obedience as well as a most exact observer of discipline.'
When the old abbot died in 1137, Nicholas Breakespeare was elected as the new abbot. But his firm hand was resented and the brethren petitioned the Pope to remove him. In 1150, the Pope solved the problem by calling him to the Vatican, and making him Cardinal Bishop of Albano, near Rome. The Scandinavian countries then started to petition to have an archbishop of their own, and Nicholas was sent to Norway, where he successfully reformed both church and state laws.
He returned to Rome with his reputation much enhanced, but within a few months the then Pope Anastasius IV had died. Nicholas was unanimously elected Pope on 15 December 1154. He took the title of Pope Adrian IV with the words 'The Lord has long since placed me between the hammer and the anvil, and now He must Himself support the burden that He has placed upon me, for I cannot carry it.'
His reign began badly. The people of Rome disliked him and as a result of the ensuing disturbance, Pope Adrian IV placed the city under a form of martial law. This compelled the people to make peace with him.
But things got worse. He became involved in troubles between William, King of Sicily, and Frederick Barbarossa, who was ambitious to become emperor of Italy. In the manner of the politics of those days, the Pope first supported Frederick and then William. The final result was that the Pope made peace with William in return for an oath of allegiance to His Holiness. This was coupled with payment of a yearly tribute by the king and a promise of protection.
Strengthened by this alliance, Adrian returned to Rome, where the people discreetly welcomed him. But Adrian and Frederick were, as a result, at odds with each other. Frederick arrested a Swedish archbishop and Adrian sent a letter of protest to Frederick, who was by now crowned emperor.
Frederick and his nobles were scandalised; they alleged that the letter implied that the Pope was the feudal lord of the empire. Said Adriati's envoy: 'From whom does the emperor hold the empire, if not from the Pope?' There was uproar. Frederick sent a curt note to Adrian that he held the empire from God alone.
The situation now left Adrian and Frederick opposed in their roles as Emperor and Pope, with the Englishman planning to excommunicate the Emperor and place himself at the head of their combined armies. But Pope Adrian IV, Nicholas Breakspear, died suddenly - and whether he was poisoned or he died from quinsy was undecided by his biographers. His death, in 1159, ended what was a unique situation. Never before nor since has there been an Englishman on the papal throne.