Jacques (James) Pantaléon, as he was originally known, was born toward the end of the twelfth century (perhaps in 1185) as the son of a shoemaker at Troyes. After attending the cathedral school of Notre-Dame-aux-Nonnains in Troyes, he studied canon law in Paris and became a canon of Laon in 1223. Around 1242 he was appointed archdean of Campine (Liège) and three years later attended the First Council of Lyons. Pope Innocent IV, probably recognizing his diplomatic qualities on this occasion, sent him as legate to Poland, Prussia, and Pomerania in 1247. During this legation he held a synod at Breslau (mod. Wroskaw, Poland) in 1248, where he restored the ecclesiastical discipline of the clergy and mediated a peace between the Teutonic Order and its rebellious Prussian vassals.
Three years later Innocent IV sent Pantaléon to Germany (1251), where his task was to strengthen the position of William of Holland, the papal candidate for the throne, against King Conrad IV. Elected bishop of Verdun in 1253, Pantaléon was appointed by Pope Alexander IV as Latin patriarch of Jerusalem on 9 April 1255 and as legate to the kingdom of Jerusalem on 7 December of the same year. After his arrival at Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in June 1256, Pantaléon was confronted with the so-called War of St. Sabas between the Venetians and the Genoese for economic hegemony over Acre, a conflict that developed into a general civil war in the kingdom of Jerusalem. His attempts to negotiate a peace between the conflicting parties failed during the following years. As a consequence Thomas Agni, bishop of Bethlehem, was appointed as legate by the pope in 1259. Probably because he rejected this appointment, Pantaléon returned to the papal court at Viterbo in late 1260 or early 1261.
After the death of Alexander IV (25 May 1261), a conclave, composed of only eight cardinals, surprisingly elected Pantaléon as pope on 29 August 1261, probably as a compromise candidate. He was consecrated on 4 September and assumed the name Urban IV. Urban strengthened his position in the church by nominating fourteen new cardinals, among them several Frenchmen.
The main task of the newly elected pontiff was a solution to the problem of the succession to the kingdom of Sicily, as he was determined to end the rule of the Staufen dynasty in southern Italy. The possibility of an intervention by King Henry III of England in favor of the papacy, a project favored by Urban’s predecessor, became increasingly improbable. From 1258 onward, Manfred, the Staufen king of Sicily, was able to stabilize his rule and extend his influence into central and northern Italy. Although Manfred tried to come to an agreement with the pope in 1262, Urban never took the offers of the king into serious consideration. Instead, the pope started negotiations (as early as 1261) with the royal family of France, and despite some initial reservations on the part of King Louis IX, Urban offered the Sicilian crown in 1262 to Louis’s younger brother Charles, the ambitious count of Provence and Anjou. The result of these negotiations was a treaty (17 June 1263), by which Charles of Anjou was invested with the kingdom of Sicily, in return for an annual tribute of 10,000 ounces of gold, a lump sum of 50,000 marks sterling, and explicit agreement not to accept any imperial dignity. However, as a consequence of the election of Charles as senator of Rome in summer 1263 and the military pressure of Manfred, Urban was forced to accept some modifications of the draft treaty in favor of the French prince. Although the pope’s death on 2 October 1264 (probably at Deruta between Orvieto and Perugia) prevented him from seeing the downfall of the hated Staufen dynasty, the final conquest of southern Italy by Charles I of Anjou in 1265-1266 was mainly the result of Urban’s diplomatic abilities.
The Sicilian question also overshadowed the other problems of Urban’s pontificate. He initially supported the efforts of Baldwin II, titular Latin emperor of Constantinople, who since 1262 had been attempting to organize a military campaign for the reconquest of his lost capital. However, the pope changed his mind completely when he got wind of an alliance between Baldwin II and Manfred of Sicily. The Latin emperor supported the Staufen case at the court of Louis IX in 1263 and tried to undermine the negotiations of Urban with Charles of Anjou. After initial hesitation, the pope intensified relations with Baldwin’s mortal enemy, the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, and sent envoys to Constantinople in summer 1263 to negotiate the union between the Latin and Greek churches. Because of his sudden death, these negotiations came to a standstill and were then broken off by his successor Clement IV.
In the kingdom of Jerusalem, Urban especially favored the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, perhaps with the purpose giving it a future central role in the administration of Outremer. In 1263 or 1264 he received also an envoy from the Mongol Ilkhan of Persia, Hülegü, who proposed a united action by Latins and Mongols against the Mamlūks. The pope’s death meant that this project, too, was not pursued.
Despite the brevity of his pontificate, Urban IV can be considered as one of the most important popes in history. As the first French pope of the thirteenth century, he prepared the ground for the close alliance between the French Crown and the papacy, which had as a short-term consequence the establishment of the Angevin dynasty in southern Italy and as a long-term effect the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the papacy under the influence of the French monarchy during the fourteenth century, with all its dramatic consequences.