The history of the church is not the history of the papacy. The Christian church was more than its institutional framework, and, even as an institution, the church was more than the papacy. Yet to relegate the papacy to a side-show would be to distort grossly the nature of the church in the high Middle Ages. If any medieval pope dominated the church in the age in which he lived, it was Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). The period at the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth century tested the advances and reforms of the previous century. There were new challenges and new responses, but these were in the context of a reformed papacy, new religious orders, an increasingly urban population and, in the chair of St Peter, the commanding figure of Innocent III.
His immediate predecessors were in continuing conflict with the German emperor. Although peace had been arranged with Frederick Barbarossa in 1177, the next decades saw disputes, particularly about imperial territorial claims in central Italy, settled in 1189 to the benefit of the papacy. The major problem of the possible union of Sicily and Germany arose and would dominate the political issues of the first years of Innocent’s pontificate. Also, Jerusalem, held since 1099 by Latin Christians, fell in 1187 to the remarkable Saracen leader, Saladin, and the Christian West called for a third crusade, a second crusade having failed in 1147 to recapture the crusader state of Edessa. The Third Crusade (1189-92), although led by the great kings of Europe (Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England and Philip Augustus of France), failed to recapture Jerusalem, although they secured a ninety-mile coastal strip from Tyre to Jaffa for the kingdom of Jerusalem. Innocent’s immediate predecessor, Celestine III (1191-98), a defender of Peter Abelard at Sens and, indeed, a friend of Thomas Becket, died at the age of ninety-two, having failed on his deathbed to arrange his abdication and the appointment of his favourite cardinal. Instead on the very day of his death the cardinals elected Cardinal Lothario de Segni, who took the name Innocent.