From the commencement of his reign Innocent III had purposed to assemble an ecumenical council, but only towards the end of his pontificate could he realize this project, by the Bull of 19 April, 1213. The assembly was to take place in November, 1215. The council did in fact meet on 11 November, and its sessions were prolonged until the end of the month. The long interval between the convocation and the opening of the council as well as the prestige of the reigning pontiff, were responsible for the very large number of bishops who attended it, it is commonly cited in canon law as "the General Council of Lateran", without further qualification, or again, as "the Great Council". Innocent III found himself on this occasion surrounded by seventy-one patriarchs and metropolitans, including the Patriarchs of Constantinople and of Jerusalem, four hundred and twelve bishops, and nine hundred abbots and priors. The Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria were represented by delegates. Envoys appeared from Emperor Frederick II, from Henry Latin Emperor of Constantinople, from the Kings of France, England, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus, and Jerusalem, and from other princes. The pope himself opened the council with an allocution the lofty views of which surpassed the orator's power of expression. He had desired, said the pope, to celebrate this Pasch before he died. He declared himself ready to drink the chalice of the Passion for the defence of the Catholic Faith, for the succour of the Holy Land, and to establish the liberty of the Church. After this discourse, followed by moral exhortation, the pope presented to the council seventy decrees or canons, already formulated, on the most important points of dogmatic and moral theology. Dogmas were defined points of discipline were decided, measures were drawn up against heretics, and, finally, the conditions of the next crusade were regulated.
The fathers of the council did little more than approve the seventy decrees presented to them; this approbation, nevertheless, sufficed to impart to the acts thus formulated and promulgated the value of ecumenical decrees. Most of them are somewhat lengthy and are divided into chapters. The following are the most important:
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