St Gregory II, pope from 715 to 731, stood forth as a powerful defender of Roman authority against the encroachments of both the Byzantine Emperor Leo III and the Lombard King Liutprand.
His early career, however, had suggested a capable civil servant and academic rather than an outstanding leader of the Church.
Born into a rich Roman family around 669, and ordained sub-deacon by Pope Sergius I, Gregory held the posts of treasurer and librarian in the Church of Rome.
Not until 710, when Pope Constantine chose him as theological adviser at a conference in Constantinople, did Gregory attain any prominence.
Yet the scholarship, wisdom and strength of purpose he showed in this position immediately marked him out as papabile. Gregory duly became the first Roman pontiff to be elected after seven successive popes of Greek or Syrian background.
His contention with Leo III began when the emperor imposed harsh new taxes on the Romans, theoretically to pay for their defence from the Lombards.
The pope’s resistance to this imposition proved so effective that Leo ordered his arrest; the Roman militia, however, prevented this.
Then in 726 the Emperor, persuaded that sacred images were proving an obstacle to the conversion of Muslims and Jews, launched a campaign to destroy them.
This movement, known as Iconoclasm, encountered fierce resistance in Italy, with Gregory at its head. “The dogmas of the Church,” he informed Leo, “are the concern not of emperors but of the bishops, and they need to be defined with exactitude.”
“No pope,” Eamon Duffy observes, “had ever addressed an emperor in tones as defiant as those used by Gregory.” Indeed, in defending the rights of the Church the pontiff did not scruple to indulge in personal attack.
“You have no right to issue dogmatic constitutions,” he told Leo. “You have not the right mind for dogmas; your mind is too coarse and material.”
Meanwhile, King Liutprand took advantage of the division between pope and emperor to attempt to unite the whole of Italy under Lombard rule.
By 729 he was besieging Rome. Gregory, though, had strengthened the city’s fortifications, and was able to frustrate the invader.
Liutprand even gave up the province of Sutri, some 30 miles north of Rome, to the papacy, thus initiating the process by which popes became temporal as well as spiritual rulers.
Gregory also proved a great missionary pope. In 718 he sent St Boniface, a Devon man, to preach the Gospel in wild Germanic regions, where the Roman legions had failed to penetrate. Boniface did a great deal better with the Word of Christ, before being murdered in Frisia in 754.
In Rome, Gregory showed himself especially hospitable to English pilgrims, establishing a church, a school and a cemetery for them.