Saint Nicholas I, surnamed the Great, deserved the title by his virtues, comparable to those of Saint Gregory and Saint Leo. He was a Roman, and son of Theodore of the Conti family. He was made cardinal-deacon by Leo IV. Notwithstanding the resistance which he manifested, he was elected and consecrated pope on the 24th of April, 858, in presence of Louis II, who held the new pope's stirrup as he mounted his horse to go to take the possession. He was the first pope crowned with the papal tiara. The coronation took place at Saint John Lateran, but the custom had prevailed that the pope should be crowned at Saint Peter's, and that he should go to Saint John Lateran to take possession. A few days after those ceremonies, Louis II left Rome for a neighboring place called Tor di Quinto. The pope, accompanied by all the Roman nobles, paid a visit to the prince at that place. On the arrival of the pontiff, Louis dismounted from his own horse, took the pope's bridle, and conducted His Holiness to Tor di Quinto, where a magnificent banquet was prepared. The same honors were paid by Louis II to Nicholas when he returned to Rome.
The pope at this time commenced that series of great achievements by which his name and pontificate were made illustrious.
With admirable constancy he defended Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, whom Bardanes, uncle of the Emperor Michael, and governing in his name, had deposed on a charge of high treason. Bardanes had named, in place of the deposed Ignatius, the eunuch Photius, a man of corrupt morals, whom Nicholas deemed it his duty to excommunicate in a council in the year 863.
In 866 Nicholas required of Lothaire that he should take back his wife, Queen Tielberge, and dismiss his concubine Waldrade. But subsequently Lothaire took back the concubine, abandoning and ill-treating his lawful wife. In one of the seven councils which he celebrated at Rome, Nicholas extinguished the reviving sect of the Theopaschites. He says himself in the seventh of his letters, published by Labbe, that they maintained that Jesus Christ, on the cross, suffered in his divinity.
The Bulgarians were converted in 861. Nicholas sent to them, in 866, his legates, among whom was distinguished Formosus, Bishop of Porto, who became pope in 891. For their instruction he gave them one hundred and six replies to as many questions asked by Michael, king of the Bulgarians.
On the subject of the divorce of Lothaire, Fleury notices a letter which Nicholas wrote to Adventius, Bishop of Mainz, in which the pope seems to authorize bishops to disobey princes whom they do not consider legitimate.
"You say that you are subject to the prince because the apostle says: 'Obey the king, as being set over you.' You are right; but be sure that these kings and princes are genuine. See whether they act uprightly, govern their subjects well, for what is he good for who is bad in himself? See whether they are princes justly; otherwise we must rather hold them as tyrants than kings, and resist, rather than by obeying them place ourselves under the necessity of favoring their vices. Be subject to the king as being above all by his virtues, not by his vices, and obey him for God's sake, as the apostle says, and not against God."
Fleury adds: "Pope Nicholas forgot that the king, or rather emperor, whom Saint Peter ordered Christians to obey, was Nero; and that he says immediately after, 'Slaves, obey your masters, not only those who are good, but the froward also.' Moreover, the pope makes bishops judges whether princes are legitimate or tyrants; and not only bishops but all their subjects, for the reason he cites in general." Fleury frequently censures Nicholas.
Nicholas governed the Church nine years, six months, and twenty days.
In various ordinations he created sixty-five bishops, seven priests, and four deacons. The eighth general council, assembled in Constantinople in 870, calls Nicholas the new Elias, the new Phineas (Phineas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, was the third high priest of the Jews), new Daniel, and new Martin. Anastasius, in the preface to that same council, calls Nicholas a "heavenly man" and an "earthly angel." He showed great munificence in the restoration of the churches of Rome. All authors agree that he was enthusiastically beloved by the poor, because he had said that there should not be one of them in Rome that had not shared in his bounty. Nicholas was also respected on account of the just severity with which he enforced ecclesiastical discipline. He died on the 13th of November, 867, and was interred before the doors of Saint Peter.
This biographical data is from "The Lives and Times of the Popes" by The Chevalier Artaud De Montor. Published by The Catholic Publication Society of New York in ten volumes in 1911. The pictures, included in the volumes, were reproduced from " Effigies Pontificum Romanorum Dominici Basae."