Pope Gregory VIII: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who says you need a lifetime to accomplish something big? In this lesson, we'll examine the life and career of Pope Gregory VIII, and see what he was able to do during his 57-day reign as Pope.

Pope Gregory VIII

The papacy is a lifelong responsibility. Popes are elected to this holy office until their death, giving most of them enough time to complete some major ecclesiastic goals. Unfortunately, not all popes get quite as much time as others.

Pope Gregory VIII was the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church for only 57 days before catching a fever then dying. 57 days may not be a lot of time to some people, but to Pope Gregory VIII it was like a lifetime in office.

Pope Gregory VIII
Pope Gregory VIII

Early Life and Career

Pope Gregory VIII was born under the name Alberto de Morra around 1105 CE. His family belonged to the nobility, giving Morra educational opportunities as a child, which eventually led him to become a monk. It's unclear if he originally belonged to the Cistercian or Benedictine Orders, but around age 20 he joined the Norbertine Order.

After distinguishing himself in the church and acting as a professor of canon law in Bologna, he was named a cardinal-deacon in 1156. This put him directly in contact with the Pope, and Morra later travelled across Europe teaching canon law on the Pope's behalf.

Soon, Morra became an internationally recognized representative for Pope Alexander III. It was Morra who crowned Alfonso II, King of Portugal, presented an offer of reconciliation to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (formally excommunicated by the Pope), and investigated the murder of Thomas Becket in England.

Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa submits himself to Pope Alexander III
Barbarossa

From there, Morra was promoted to Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, where he mediated succession crises and other political matters. In this time he also completed the stylus Gregorianus, codifying the grammatical and punctuation rules used in papal acts, as well as a compilation of past papal acts called a Forma Dicendi.

In 1187, Morra was elected pope and took the name of Gregory VIII, in honor of Pope Gregory VII who had reformed the Church in the 11th century. Morra was roughly 82 at the time of his election.

Morra as Pope

As Pope, Gregory VIII immediately got to work. His long career traveling throughout Europe as a papal advisor had made him a number of political allies, and he quickly restored the relationship that the papacy once shared with many European kings. Most significant of these was Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor who had received news of his reconciliation with the Church from Morra.

Gregory VIII's other major action was to respond to events happening in the Middle East. The European kings and the papacy had been working together in a series of military campaigns to reclaim the Holy Lands collectively called the Crusades.

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