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History of the Papacy

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History of the Papacy
Famously, the pope is never wrong. Or is he? The history of the papacy has been marked by the different popes' claims of religious superiority over the Eastern Orthodox Church and their wish to dominate the Christian world. How did they set about doing this though? Let's find out!

The Papacy Definitions in World History

Below are some important terms we need to know before we learn more.

Key termDefinition
PapacyThe position and power of the pope - head of the Catholic church.
Papal supremacy

The doctrine by which the pope should have supreme power over the church because he is God’s representative on earth.

Ex CathedraLiterally means 'from the chair' as in from a place of authority. The idea of the pope speaking as the authority of the Catholic Church was used to justify papal infallibility.
Papal infallibility The pope can make decisions about religious matters without being challenged because he is considered to share in Christ's divine authority which he initially shared with Saint Peter. As heir to Saint Peter, the pope is also thought to share in this divine authority.
Apostolic successionThis Christian doctrine claims that Bishops make up a continuous line of succession which goes back to the Apostles chosen by Jesus Christ. As a result of the doctrine, the Catholic Church argued that the pope must be a successor to Saint Peter who acted as the first Bishop of Rome (or Pope) in the 1st century.
ArianismThis sect of Christianity was started by the Egyptian priest Arius. It believed that Jesus, the Son, had a beginning and thus should be considered subordinate to God, the Father.
QuartodecimansRefers to early Christians, largely in the churches of Asia Minor and Jerusalem, who celebrated Passover on the 14th of the first month of the Jewish calendar (Nisan), rather than specifically on a Sunday.This disagreement over the timing of Passover led to the Quartodeciman controversy when Pope Victor I attempted to excommunicate the Quartodecimans - an action that was largely ignored.
Jewish PassoverThe Jewish Passover, also called Pesach, is a major Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, which occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan.
Schism of 1054The Great Schism of 1054 was the breakup of the Christian church into two sections—the Western and the Eastern sections. These two sections were to turn into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

An Outline of the History of the Papacy

There have been over 260 popes since the establishment of the papacy in the first century. The pontificate of most popes lasts between a year and a decade, but the length of each pope's rule can range from just 13 days (Pope Urban VII) to over 31 years (Pope Pius IX).


The reign of a pope

We don't have time to go over every single pope (that might take a while), but below is a timeline of important popes and events.

List of Popes

Dates of pontificatePopeSignificant event
32 - 37 ADSt. PeterSt. Peter's pontificate established the papacy.
189 - 199 ADPope Victor IPope Victor attempted to ex-communicate the Quartodecimans in the Quartodeciam controversy.
311-314 AD

Pope Miltiades

The Edict of Milan was issued by Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius in 314 AD, agreeing to tolerate Christianity.
336 - 382 ADPope Damasus IChristianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire through the Edict of Thessalonica.
401 - 410 ADPope Innocent IRome was invaded by Visigoths. Pope Innocent I attempted to negotiate peace but failed.
440-461 ADLeo the Great Rome was threatened by Attila the Hun and Gaiseric the Vandal. Pope Leo the Great protected the city through negotiation.
468 - 483 ADPope SimpliciusRome fell in 476 AD.
590 - 604 AD Pope Gregory IPope Gregory I broadened the influence of the church by sending missionaries to England.
1088 - 1095 ADPope Urban IIThe First Crusade began.
1119-1124 ADPope Calixtus IIRoman Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed upon the Concordat of Worms, which solidified the separate powers of the Church and the Emperor.

The Rise of Papal Power

The rise of papal power can be traced all the way back to Jesus Christ. In the final chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus made an appearance and, according to Catholic doctrine, established Peter's supreme leadership over the Christian Church. As a result, the Catholic Church has claimed that, in line with the doctrine of Apostolic succession, the Pope should have supreme jurisdiction over the whole Christian world.

History of the Papacy Pope Gregory VII Illustration StudySmarterIllustriation of Pope Gregory VII, WIkimedia Commons

It is important to note that for the first three centuries of the Christian Church there was no single pope, and many priests were named popes in places other than Rome (e.g. Alexandria and Antioch). It was only after 150 AD that Rome would have a single Pope. In 1073, Pope Gregory VII also restricted the use of the term pope to the Bishop of Rome.

The doctrine of papal supremacy was first created in the 6th century after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, establishing the pope as a symbol of continuity and authority in the West.

History of the Papacy Map of the Western Roman Empire StudySmarterThe Western Roman Empire in 395 AD (highlighted in red), Wikimedia Commons

Roman Empire

Beginning in 27BC and falling in 476BC, the Roman Empire grew from a republic to an expansive empire. At its peak, the Roman Empire encompassed land all across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Western Roman Empire included lands surrounding the Mediterranean all the way to present-day England.

The Early Christian era

During the 1st century (30-130) the recognition of Rome as a centre for Christianity laid the foundation for the establishment of papal power. In his book, Against Heresies (189), the Greek Bishop Iranaeus argued that

For with this Church [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition. 1

Further, in 195 CE Pope Victor I tried to excommunicate the Quartodecimans for observing Easter on the 14th of Nisan (Hebrew for ‘first fruits’), the day of the Jewish Passover - this practice was mostly concentrated in Asia Minor. Other bishops, including Iranaeus, criticised the idea of excommunication and Victor backed down. However, this demonstrated the emboldened papacy, and the practice of observing Easter on a Sunday has prevailed to the present day.


When Constantine I became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 312, he attributed this victory to the Christian God and went on to issue the Edict of Milan with Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius. The Edict mandated the toleration of the Christian faith within the Roman Empire, ending decades of prosecution against Christians.

The First Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 AD by Constantine I to solve a disagreement between St. Alexander of Alexandria and Arius, who had differing ideas about the Being of Christ. This Council, which met in Nicea (in present day Turkey) was the first official meeting of Christian bishops.

What was the disagreement about?

St AlexanderArius
  • Believed that the Son had been begotten by the Father from his own being and thus had no beginning
  • Believed that the Son was made out of nothing and thus had a beginning, making him subordinate to the Father
  • This stance is known as Arianism.

This disagreement to a divide in the church and the rise of the followers of Arius and Arianism. To counteract Arianism, the Kingdom of Thessalonica declared Nicene Christianity, based on the Nicene Creed, in 380 CE. They named Nicene Christianity ‘Catholic Christianity’.

In the Western Roman Empire this led to an increase in papal power because the Emperor gave a lot more power to the Bishop of Rome, whereas in the East, the Church was highly subordinate to royal power (the power of the Monarch).

The First Phase of Papal Supremacy

During the first phase of papal supremacy, the Catholic Church continued to solidify the pope's right to rule not only over the church but over emperors.

Byzantine Papacy

The Western Roman Empire experienced military, financial and political collapse between 276 and 476. This was mainly because of continuous invasion from Germanic tribes, like the Goths, which continued to erode the territories and strength of the Western Empire. For example, in 410 Visigoth King Alaric successfully sacked (pillaged) Rome. This meant that the Pope was increasingly dependent on the Eastern Roman Emperor.

As a result, the period from 537 to 752 became the Byzantine Papacy because, during this period, the Popes of the Western Roman Empire could only act under the approval of the Byzantine Emperor.

Justinian I (Byzantine Emperor) conquered the Italian peninsula in the Gothic war of 535-554 and appointed the next three popes. This practice would be continued by later Eastern Emperors until it was delegated to the Exarchate of Ravenna in 584. This was a group of Italian lords who dominated church appointments. During this period the Pope needed explicit approval from the Byzantine monarch to have his election validated.

Pope Gregory I

Pope Gregory I (590-604) was instrumental in increasing the power of the pope. He was the first major figure to argue that because Roman papal succession can be traced back to the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome should be considered the prime representative of God on earth and thus the supreme leader of Christendom.

History of the Papacy Illustration of Pope Gregory I StudySmarterPope Gregory I, Wikimedia CommonsGregory faced a particular challenge from the Lombards, a Germanic tribe that moved to Italy in the 6th century. Though Gregory did believe he was part of a Christian federation headed by the Byzantine Emperor, he turned his attention toward the Lombards in an attempt to secure more freedom for the West. He encouraged the initially pagan Lombards to convert to Catholic Christianity rather than Arian Christianity.


A religion that practices polytheism (worshipping multiple gods).

Pope Gregory I continued the groundwork laid by his predecessor, Pope Leo I (reigned 440-461), who argued that because the Papacy inherits the full powers of St Peter (the founder of the Roman Catholic Church) there could be no appeal of a decision made by the Pope.

Frankish Papacy

During the 8th century, the Western Church came under financial pressure from the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who attempted to restore the decreasing Byzantine fortunes by imposing increased taxes on his Italian subjects, whilst providing limited support against the Lombards. This drove the Western Church to find a new protector.

Pope Stephen II asked Pippin the Younger of the Frankish Kingdom for protection against the Lombards and marked the historical transition from the Byzantine Papacy to the Frankish Papacy, in which the Pope became increasingly dependent on the Frankish King.

In 754 Stephen II formally crowned Pippin as the first Carolingian king of the Franks, after which Pippin marched with his army to central Italy in order to restore papal authority against the Lombards. The King also issued the Donation of Pippin in 756, which established the Papal States (a series of territories in the Italian peninsula under the direct control of the Pope).

By supporting Pippin and the Carolingian Dynasty, the Pope advanced papal supremacy. In 769 a council regulating elections decided that the Pope’s election would be moved from the jurisdiction of the Byzantine to that of the Frankish monarch. The Frankish-Papal alliance was further strengthened when Pope Leo II (796-816) crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800. This set a precedent under which the Pope had to approve the Roman monarch before he could be crowned.

The Second Phase of Papal Supremacy

The second phase of the rise of papal supremacy took place between the 11 and 13th century.

The Investiture Controversy

Pope Gregory VII instigated a pointed attack (after 1075) on a traditional practice that had been established during the Byzantine and Frankish Papacy - the Emperor controlling church appointments. This attack led to civil and ecclesiastical (church) strife in Italy and Germany where the church and state fought over whether the pope or monarch should appoint bishops, abbots and other church officials.

The conflict came to a close in 1122 when Roman Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II signed the Concordat of Worms which separated royal and spiritual powers, giving the Emperor some limited powers in selecting bishops. The outcome was the legitimisation of the Pope’s claim to be the chief representative of God on earth.

The Crusades

Papal supremacy reached its height during the Crusades. Pope Urban II called for a crusade, or holy war, to recapture the Holy Land of Jerusalem and overturn Muslim domination in the Middle East in 1095. Urban’s call would lead to an extended period of religious conflict seen through the four crusades from 1095 to 1291.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Crusades greatly increased papal prestige during the 12th and 13th centuries as the Pope was seen as the protector of Christianity around the world.

History of the Papacy - Key takeaways

  • Papal supremacy refers to the doctrine by which the pope should have supreme power over the church because he is God’s representative on earth. This power should be unhindered by monarchs.

  • In the early Christian period, there was no single pope. It was only after 150 AD that the Bishop of Rome became the only pope, and in 1073 that Pope Gregory VI formally restricted the use of the term to the Bishop of Rome.

  • From the 6th to the 8th century, the pope was largely subordinate to the Byzantine Emperor in what was known as the Byzantine Papacy. From the 8th century, the Pope became more dependent on the Frankish Emperor (Frankish Papacy).

  • The Investiture Controversy was a disagreement between the Pope and Emperor as to whether one or the other should have the exclusive right to invest (appoint) church officials. This ended in a victory for the pope in 1122.

  • The Crusades initiated by Pope Urban II in 1095 further increased the power of the Pope as he was seen as the protector of Christianity worldwide.


  1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:2 (A.D. 189).

Frequently Asked Questions about History of the Papacy

St Peter, the apostle of Christ is considered to have been the first-ever pope.

The papacy began in the 1st century AD when Saint Peter and Paul created the apostolic see of Rome.

The papacy has experienced times of waning power and influence, for example during the Byzantine Papacy (276-476) but it has never fallen. The papacy is one of the most enduring institutions in the world and still ecists today.

Who might qualify as the greatest pope of all time is up to your interpretation. However, some notable popes that have left a mark in history include:

  • Pope St. Gregory I the Great (590-604) is known as one of the most empathetic and pastoral popes. He protected the faithful from bandits and sold church property to help feed the poor. He called himself “a servant of the servants of God”.
  • Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) was one of the most powerful men to ever take up the papacy though he was also arrogant, believing himself to be beneath God but above other humans.
  • Pope John Paul II (1976-2005) is known as one of the greatest popes of modern history. He supported the rights of women in his letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” and helped bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Saint Peter became the first pope after Jesus saw his leadership qualities and established him as the leader of the apostles after his death. This commenced the institution of the papacy.

Final History of the Papacy Quiz


What is Papal Supremacy?

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It is the idea that the Pope, as Christ’s true representative on Earth, should make decisions on religious matters without being challenged.

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What was the Byzantine Papacy?

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The Byzantine Papacy was the period  from 537-752 in which the Popes of the Western Roman Empire could only act under the approval of the Byzantine Emperor.

Show question


What was the Frankish Papacy?

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The Frankish Papacy was the period in the 8th Century in which the Pope was under the influence of the Frakish Kings.

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Which Pope was instrumental in establishing the doctrine of Papal supremacy?

  • Pope Urban II

  • Pope Gregory IX

  • Pope Gregory I

  • Pope Gregory VII

Show answer


 Pope Gregory VII

Show question


What was the Investiture Controversy?

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The Investiture Controversy was a conflict between the Pope and the Kings of Europe after 1075. The Pope argued that only he and senior church staff should be able to appoint church officials whereas the kings also wanted to have that right.

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When was Charlemagne crowned King? 

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Charlemagne was crowned king on Christmas Day, 800.

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 Why was Charlemagne’s crowning important for the Papacy?

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The Pope needed royal authority to support his own authority. The Byzantine Emperor was not particularly supportive of the Papacy at the time.

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What was Arianism?


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Arianism was a religious sect that argued that the Son had a beginning and thus should be considered subordinate to the Father.

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What was the Nicene Creed?


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 The Nicene Creed was the doctrine that the Son had been begotten by the Father from his own being and thus had no beginning.

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 When was the doctrine of Papal Supremacy first introduced?


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 The Doctrine of Papal Supremacy was first introduced in the 6th Century.

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When was the First Council of Nicaea convened?


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 The First Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 AD.

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 Which was the first kingdom to declare Nicene Christianity as its official religion?

Show answer


 The Kingdom of Thessalonica. 

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What was the Edict of Milan? 


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 The Edict mandated the toleration of the Christian faith within the Roman Empire, ending decades of prosecutions against Christians.

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How did Pope Victor I exercise Papal power?

Show answer


Pope Victor I was the first Pope to assert Papal authority. In 195 CE he excommunicated Quartodecimas for observing Easter on the 14th of Nisan (Hebrew for ‘first fruits’), the day of the Jewish passover.

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What was the Exarchate of Ravenna?

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 The Exarchate of Ravenna refers to the part of Italy under the command of the Byzantine emperor. The exarch was stationed at Ravenna.

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