Innocent came from an important family, the counts of Segni, to which belonged also Gregory IX and Alexander IV. He was trained as a theologian and perhaps as a jurist, and under Celestine III (his uncle) he became (1190) a cardinal. At the time of his election as pope, Innocent seems already to have formed his ecclesiastico-political doctrine that since things of the spirit take preeminence over things of the body, and since the church rules the spirit and earthly monarchs rule the body, earthly monarchs must be in all things subject to the pope; the doctrine that the sphere of the church was limited had no real place in Innocent's idea. He set out immediately after his election to realize his ideal of the pope as ecclesiastical ruler of the world with some secular political power.Political Successes
In imperial affairs he was constantly active. He acknowledged as king of Sicily the future Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II after Frederick's mother, the Empress Constance, had accepted papal suzerainty over Sicily and given up certain ecclesiastical privileges; on Constance's death, Innocent accepted Frederick as his ward, a trust he faithfully executed, as even his enemies admitted. In Germany the dispute between Philip of Swabia and Otto IV was arbitrated by the pope in favor of Otto (1201). Later (1207–8) the pope favored Philip, but after Philip's murder, Innocent crowned Otto (1209) as emperor, only to excommunicate him (1210) and dictate the election of the papal ward, Frederick, as German king (1212). Frederick made elaborate promises (as had Otto) favorable to the Holy See.
Innocent's relations with England proceeded to the same political end, but this was hastened by a purely ecclesiastical quarrel over the election of an archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent set aside the two rival claimants and procured the election of Stephen Langton; King John, enraged at what he felt was unwarrantable interference by the pope and at the obduracy of the clergy in opposing the demands of the king, persecuted the church. As a result the pope laid England under the interdict, excommunicated John (1209), and even considered deposing him. The people and the barons supported the church, and John had to submit; he received England and Ireland in fief from the pope, promising annual tribute to the Holy See. Subsequently the pope stood by John after the barons coerced him into granting the Magna Carta, for Innocent declared it null as a forcibly exacted promise and also as a vassal's promise made without his overlord's knowledge. Pandulf became Innocent's legate in England.
Innocent was also the virtual overlord of Christian Spain, Scandinavia, Hungary, and the Latin East. Philip II of France remained independent of Innocent politically. On the moral question of Philip's divorce, however, Innocent forced the king to bow to the canon law.
The great failures of Innocent's policy were the Fourth Crusade (see Crusades) and the conduct of Italy. That crusade, proclaimed and blessed by Innocent, never went to the Holy Land, but attacked instead Christians on the island of Zara and in the Byzantine Empire. Innocent excommunicated the disobedient crusaders, but later accepted the fait accompli and tried to spread the Latin rite over the Latin Empire of Constantinople; in spite of a new Latin patriarchate, these efforts were futile, and the schism of East and West was only exacerbated.
In Italy, Innocent reclaimed the Patrimony of St. Peter (see Papal States), the duchy of Spoleto, the March of Ancona, and the Ravenna district; he was recognized as temporal overlord by Tuscany, but northern Italian cities were unruly and maintained their independence throughout Innocent's pontificate. Innocent initiated the Albigensian mission and the Albigensian Crusade (see under Albigenses); when he heard of the misbehavior of the crusaders of Simon de Montfort, he protested in vain. He supported the Teutonic Knights in the incursions along the Baltic.
Amid all his political activity Innocent was most energetic in the administration of the church. In this direction the triumph of his pontificate was the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), one of the greatest of councils. His was the original impetus behind St. Dominic's mission, and he provided the first approbation of the institute of St. Francis. Innocent's interest in law was ever active; thus as pope he constantly held court, with a good name for impartiality. He wrote extensively; his tract De contemptu mundi [on the contempt of this world] was widely read in the Middle Ages. Innocent's theories of the papal monarchy had a profound effect on the development of the papacy.