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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Walk To Canossa

Updated: May 15, 2022

"I deny to King Henry, son of the Emperor Henry, who with unheard-of pride has risen up against your church, the government of the whole kingdom of the Germans and of Italy; I absolve all Christians from the bond of any oath that they have made or shall make to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king."

Pope Gregory VII upon excommunicating Emperor Henry IV, February 1076

Canossa is situated in the foothills of the northern end of the Apennine Mountains. It overlooks the great river floodplains of northern Italy between the Apennines and the Swiss Alps. Winters can be harsh through this region, and it is believed that the winter of 1076-1077 was one of the harshest remembered. Yet the German Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, decided that he needed to cross the Alps in the midst of a brutal winter and journey to Canossa. The castle was owned by Matilda of Tuscany, Countess of Canossa, a powerful and important woman in her own right and a force to be reckoned with. Upon her invitation, she was hosting Pope Gregory VII, who himself was traveling north to Germany to meet with Henry. Henry felt that it would be expedient to meet with the pope before the highest official in the church reached Henry's realm.

Matilda of Canossa

On January 25, 1077, Henry IV arrived at the citadel of Canossa. A blizzard engulfed the castle, and Henry, reportedly, stood at the gates in bare feet and dressed in shabby woolen garments, the hallmark of a penitent seeking forgiveness. And indeed Henry had come to Canossa to seek reconciliation with the pope. Pope Gregory VII kept the emperor waiting in the cold for three days until, in Gregory's own words, "all those about us were moved to compassion at his plight and interceded for him with tears and prayers."

This seeming humiliation of the emperor at the hands of a pope was the culmination of tensions that had brewing between secular and papal authority over the course of the 11th century. When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the papacy in 800 CE, religious and secular authority became entangled. From the view of Charlemagne and successive emperors, this symbolic crowning legitimized their ultimate authority over their lands. From the viewpoint of the papacy, it symbolized that the emperor's authority came directly from God through the pope's mediation. This meant that the church was greater than the emperor, but at the time, the papacy was too weak to wield much power or influence the affairs of state. In most cases, the pope relied on the power of the state to survive.

Ruins of the fortress at Canossa

After Charlemagne's Frankish empire fragmented, the mantle of emperor subsequently passed to the German territories. This fragmentation allowed local lords to become powerful, weakening the authority of kings and emperors. Yet kings required a loyal nobility to raise armies to combat the rising threat of raiders such as the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. When Otto I became Holy Roman Emperor in 962 BCE, he established his authority over his kingdom. He asserted his rights to create new fiefdoms and install handpicked lords within his territories. He extended that claim to be able to install members of the church from priests to bishops. Otto I and his successors appointed personal or political allies to positions of authority within the church through the process known as lay investiture.

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor

By this means, the emperors gained control over church offices, but more importantly, they gained control over the associated property and estates held by the church. This meant not only churches but cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and other religious institutions. It wasn't just the emperors but dukes, barons, earls, and other nobility that exerted control over church appointments. The right to lay investiture superseded the rights of popes and archbishops to make those decisions. Lay investiture reinforced the superiority of secular authority, in the form of the emperor, over the papacy.

When Henry III ascended the throne as Holy Roman Emperor in 1016, the supremacy of the secular realm over the church was at its zenith. Henry III was known for his piety as well as his willingness to intervene in church matters. Up to this time, there had been no standard procedure in electing the pope. Popes were often appointed by their predecessors or placed there by the military might of individual rulers. More often than not, there would be rival candidates for the papal office. Such a situation occurred in 1046, and Henry III stepped in to settle the dispute between three rival popes. He did so by deposing all of them and selecting his own German bishop, who became Clement II. Henry would go on and hand-pick the next three popes.

Pope Gregory VII

By the early 11th century, some sought to strengthen the church. This reform movement, centered at the monastery at Cluny in France, wanted to separate the church from secular influences. They targeted such practices as lay investiture and simony (the selling of church offices). Several popes, even those selected by Henry III himself, worked to codify canon law, papal decrees, and scriptures. They began to assert the papacy's role as the sole judge of religious doctrine. These efforts would solidify the schism between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church of Byzantium. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II (one of Henry III's hand-picked popes) decided to reform the papal selection process. He outlawed all secular influence on the election of popes and turned it over to a committee of seven bishops. This committee would later turn into the College of Cardinals that still elect a pope today.

The struggle between church and state came to a head when a German bishop named Hildebrand was elected Pope Gregory VII. Gregory was a strong-minded reformer, and the changes he implemented have become known as the Gregorian Reforms. Among these was the assertion that papal power was universal. He declared in 1075 that the "church's immortal soul was superior to the mortal body of the state." From this authority, he stated that the pope could "reject bishops and kings if they were unfit for office." In other words, it was the pope who could depose emperors and not the other way around.

Henry IV

Henry III died in 1056, leaving the throne to his young son. During Henry IV's minority, the local German lords, especially in Saxony and northern Italy, challenged the imperial authority. When he fully assumed the throne, Henry IV fought to create a strong central monarchy. Pope Gregory's reforms, Henry felt, undermined his attempts to quell his rebellious lords. In 1075, Henry IV tried to install a bishop in Milan, and Gregory threatened him with ex-communication. Henry responded with a harshly worded rebuke that began: "Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand [Gregory], at present not pope but false monk." He assembled a group of friendly bishops and other clergymen at the German city of Worms, and there they renounced any allegiance to the pope. As Henry maneuvered to appear as the preeminent force in Europe, Pope Gregory threatened to hold an election for a new king. Ultimately, in 1076, the pope excommunicated the emperor.

This created a massive problem for Henry IV. Ex-communication meant that everyone in Henry's realm was free from their fidelity to the emperor and their feudal obligations. From dukes to petty lords, the German nobility began seizing lands, building fortifications, and creating their own fiefdoms to assert their own local authority. Henry struggled against these challenges to his rule, and therefore he had to make a decision.

That decision was to cross the Swiss Alps during the harshest winter in memory and to meet with the pope at the fortress of Canossa. After waiting in a blizzard for three days, he finally gained an audience with Pope Gregory. He sought the pope's forgiveness and swore his obedience to the church and papal authority. Gregory accepted his contrition and lifted the ex-communication.

Henry IV and his son, Henry V

It is hard to say who won out in this contest of wills between emperor and pope. For Henry IV, he regained his legitimacy and quelled the German territories' brewing civil war. For Pope Gregory, he had demonstrated the supremacy of papal authority. Yet the dispute over investiture did not get resolved on the wintery slopes of Canossa. It wouldn't be until 1122, under Henry V, that the question of investiture will be settled. The Concordat of Worms would eliminate lay investiture for good and establish the church's authority to select their own clergy. The emperor could still convey secular powers and property upon church appointees, but he no longer influenced religious matters. From this point onward, there was a change in the relationship between church and state.

The investiture conflict was representative of the growing division between the secular realm and the religious one. Yet the battle between Henry and Gregory had more far-reaching consequences. The prolonged fight over investiture weakened the authority of the emperor. The German nobility grew stronger at the expense of the imperial crown. Now clergy and their properties would be tied to local principalities rather than the emperor. Dukes and minor kings consolidated their power even further. In the end, this left Germany fragmented, and this prevented unification under a single, strong monarch as what was happening in France and England. Germany would remain this way until the 19th century under Bismarck.


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