King Henry IV of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor, knelt in the freezing cold screaming I am sorry, so sorry – mumbling mercy, mercy, penance, pardon as he wept real tears.
Who was he addressing and why? Why it’s Pope Gregory VII standing in the window of the Canossa fortress with his powerful benefactor Mathilda, Countess of Tuscany.
What had led the fiery 21-year-old emperor to petition the 52-year-old Pope in this way on a cold Jan 25, 1077?
Named Hildebrand at birth, Pope Gregory VII was the son of a Lombard carpenter. He had been a monk of Cluny as a boy where he learned about discipline, order, celibacy and centralized authority. He went on to serve as a minister or legate for 5 different popes. On April 10, 1073 upon the death of Pope Alexander II, the Cardinals chose him as Pope, though some said he had bought it with gold.
Equally fiery, Pope Gregory had some big reform ideas. He wanted to rid the Church of investiture, simony and married clergy. He almost succeeded. His feud with Henry IV is known as the “Investiture Feud”.
Investiture was the feudal practice of kings, princes, noblemen and strongman rulers appointing bishops, abbots and priests to ‘benefices’ or landed estates. Western Europe was awash with such ecclesiastical real estate holdings and had so fallen under control of numerous local rulers. There was no such thing as a nation or state in those days.
Compounding this was the practice called simony where bishops, abbots and priests bought their abbey or bishopric. Local rulers could be bought more easily than Popes. There were no nations or states yet as we now know them. Even the Papacy itself could be and was bought!
Thirdly, the absence of clerical celibacy. The majority of priests and bishops were married and had wife and children. This meant they needed to earn a living and simony or selling ecclesial power was a compelling way.
After the 5 previous popes had failed in these reform attempts, Gregory found significant support from Cardinals and lay benefactors. He simply banned these practices but went too far by also declaring that the Pope is above all other rulers – unique in the world. A nation-state that fused spiritual and temporal power in one person was his vision and a new and dangerous idea. Unfortunately, Gregory’s self-interest in this got the better of him.
Henry the IV simply ignored the ban and went on appointing and selling bishoprics and clergy positions. Pope Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry and all his subjects and noblemen, meaning that they were no longer under Henry’s control. This started a revolt and made Henry a marked man where anyone could walk up and kill him.
Hence he came to Italy to plea for forgiveness with a promise to comply with Gregory’s plan. After 3 days, Gregory finally admitted the humiliated and frozen Henry to the castle and forgave him. Henry was further humbled during Mass and realized the spiritual weapons Gregory wielded far outdid his armies and imperial power.
But Gregory’s victory was hollow. Henry returned to Germany, disposed of the rebellious subjects and gathered his military forces. He invaded Rome 4 times. Eventually, Gregory ended up a refugee in Castel Sant’ Angelo. Gregory was rescued by his Norman allies but exiled to Salerno where he died in 1085. His grand reforms having failed.
Today there are no statues of Gregory in Rome and he is all but forgotten. Nevertheless, Gregory changed the world forever – he buried the notion of a “Christian Republic”. The emergence of “states” and “nations” and formation of the papal chancellery that survives today are Gregory’s monuments.
But what of the lovely Mathilda. She went on to found many churches and win many battles helping to reestablish Urban II as Pope. Henry V named her Imperial Vicar and Vice Queen of Italy. She died in 1115 of gout. After her death, an aura of legend came to surround Matilda. Church historians gave her the character of a semi-nun, solely dedicated to contemplation and faith. Some argue, instead, that she was a woman of strong passions of both spiritual and carnal nature (indicated by her supposed affairs with Popes Gregory VII and Urban II).
Mathilda’s tombstone at St. Peter’s Basilica
And thus ended the great investiture feud.
(Adpated from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church by Malachi Martin c1981)