This article was written by Michael Andrews-Reading for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
Amersham and Dante
When I was researching material for my Brief History & Guide to St. Mary’s Church in Amersham a couple of years ago, I accessed a wealth of material from a number of sources regarding the former Rectors of the parish. One of these, a certain Octavian, was previously unknown from published sources (e.g. the original mounted List of Rectors in the church, the potted biographies in Lipscomb’s Buckinghamshire etc). According to the Registers of Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln (within which Diocese the parish was anciently located), Octavian was appointed Rector of Amersham in the fourth year of the Bishop’s administration (i.e. about 1238). He was inducted by proxy, and is described in the relevant Order as a sub-deacon and chamberlain to the Pope (then Gregory IX r. 1227-1241). From this one can assume that he was resident in Italy, and that the appointment to Amersham was a commercial one only, designed to bolster Octavian’s finances; even in those days, Amersham was clearly a wealthy living. No doubt deputies officiated at services, and it is unlikely that Octavian as Rector even visited the parish (or England, for that matter).
Three years later, the Bishop issued a further licence for the appointment of the Archdeacon of London as Rector of Amersham, in plurality (showing that at the time, non-resident Rectors using the parish for solely financial motives were the norm!). Witnesses deposed that Octavian, described as Archdeacon of Bologna, had been advanced to that Bishopric, thus vacating his living in England.
Who then was this Octavian? According to Kohl’s Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexicon (1997), Band XII, he was born in about 1214 at Mugello, Tuscany, as Ottaviano degli Ubaldini. His family had held important feudal estates in the area for many years, and were active in the civic life of Florence and Bologna; their 13th century villa at Mugello still stands. Educated in Law at the University of Bologna, he served that city as Archdeacon and also acted as secretary to Pope Gregory IX. On the 12th of June 1240 he was given the administration of the See of Bologna, and subsequently was installed as Bishop. His early patron’s successor, Pope Innocent IV, elevated him to the Cardinalate on the 28th of May 1244, as a Cardinal-Deacon of Santa Maria in Via Lata. Over the following years he acquired a significant influence within the Curia. Towards the end of his career, he was a member of the committee of the Sacred College which elected Gregory X in 1271, ending the longest interregnum in papal history.
Noted for his attachment to the Imperial party – he once famously said “If there is such a thing as a soul, I would give mine a thousand-fold for the Ghibellines” – Octavian became a prominent statesman, serving as Papal Legate to Lombardy and Romagna in 1247 and 1251, and legate to King Manfred of Sicily. His administration was characterised by a thirst for power and money, and a determination to promote the interests of his family (his nephew Ruggiero became Archbishop of Pisa). Cardinal degli Ubaldini died in March 1272/3. I believe there is a portrait of him in the Uffizi collection. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame, however, is a literary portrait, thanks to Dante Alighieri, who in his Inferno (Canto X), places the Cardinal as one of the heretics in the Sixth Circle of Hell – so far a unique distinction for a Rector of Amersham.