An Old Etonian, Norwich served in the Royal Navy, studied languages at Oxford, joined the British Foreign Service and then left it to become a writer. Norwich has done it all – he's been the host of a radio game show, the writer and narrator of 30 television documentaries on historical subjects, and the author of travel books (a genre the British seem to own) as well as a half-dozen quite distinguished histories set in medieval times. Norwich is an old – and skillful – hand at historical story-telling.
The Popes, as "Absolute Monarchs" tells us, were at one time simply nominated and pushed into office by a powerful ruler or a wealthy family. Not until 1059 did a Pope propound a decree which placed the selection of the Papal office squarely in the hands of the cardinals – who were, of course, themselves selected by the Pope.
When the naming of the Pope had been largely the prerogative of wealthy Italian families such as the Medicis, the Borgias, and the Tusculums, the latter family was able to name three successive Popes starting in 1012. A problem arose for the Tusculums. None of the men the family backed as Pope was even a member of the clergy. They were all laymen.
This did not prove a problem for the well-connected Tusculums. Each time that the situation arose the family spent a (presumably) busy day having their man tonsured (head hair close-cropped), ordained a priest, consecrated as Bishop of Rome, and then enthroned as the Pope. The Tusculums were clearly experts at job advancement.
This is not a book which will contribute much to anyone’s theological knowledge. There’s very little theology in it, which is probably justified by the fact that the earlier Popes had few theological interests. When they held convocations of their clergy it was usually to discuss matters such as priestly celibacy – a sticky question at a time when Papal grandchildren were playing in the gardens of the Vatican.
Norwich tells a tale of how the power of the Papacy waxed and waned according to circumstances and the abilities of successive Papal figures, some of whom were dedicated masters at their job and performed towering achievements – such as defending Rome from barbarians, suppressing heresies, providing the administration for a growing church, and fighting off charlatan “anti-popes” claiming the office They had to rule over a frequently rebellious clergy.