Post-classical history

Gregory VII (d. 1085)

Pope (1073-1085). Originally named Hildebrand, he was born probably about 1015 into a Tuscan family; he became a prominent figure at the papal court from about 1050 and archdeacon of Rome in 1059. He was elected pope in April 1073.

Gregory was a vigorous proponent of ecclesiastical reform, an opponent of the control of the church by the laity and of abuses such as simony and clerical marriage. His opposition to lay interference in church affairs led to the commencement of the Investiture Contest, the papal dispute with the Holy Roman Empire that was to dominate the politics of Christendom for the next two centuries, and Gregory’s ideas concerning papal authority were to be immensely influential under his successors.

Gregory’s importance in the context of the crusade was fourfold. First, in 1073-1074 he proposed a military expedition intended to subdue the unruly Normans of southern Italy (with whom he was then in dispute), and then go on to assist the Byzantine Empire against the Saljūq Turks; Gregory proposed to lead this enterprise in person. Toward the end of 1074, he developed this plan further, with the intention of ultimately proceeding on to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but although he attempted to enlist the support of a number of Western princes for this expedition, the response was lukewarm, and it never actually took place. The failure to offer any direct spiritual reward to participants may have discouraged recruitment. However, it is probable that knowledge of this plan underlay Urban II’s successful call to crusade in 1095. Furthermore, Gregory’s hope that by successfully assisting the Byzantine Empire he would restore the unity of the universal church under papal leadership also served as a model for Urban’s enterprise.

Second, Gregory’s pontificate saw significant developments in Christian ideas about both warfare and the role of the laity within the Christian commonwealth. From the start of his pontificate he encouraged the Pataria, a primarily lay movement for religious reform at Milan, to fight the supporters of simony and other enemies of the church, if that should be necessary. Much more important, however, were the consequences of the breach with the empire, which led to Gregory excommunicating the king of Germany, Henry IV, first in 1076, and then (after a period of reconciliation) once again in 1080.

The first time he probably intended only to suspend Henry from office, hoping that there would be a peaceful settlement to the dispute, albeit on his own terms, but in 1080 he declared Henry definitively and irrevocably deposed and replaced by his German rival, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, duke of Swabia. This crisis led to open war between papal and imperial supporters, during which Gregory preached not just the legitimacy but the positive duty of all good Christians to oppose forcibly the enemies of the church and therefore of Christ. He appealed to the laity to act as the militia Sancti Petri (“soldiers of St. Peter”) in fighting the church’s battles against those who sought to destroy or pollute it. By doing so, in a proper spirit of righteousness, laymen would also be ensuring their own salvation. In the later part of his pontificate Gregory claimed that by fighting in the church’s cause, laymen would secure absolution for their sins. Indeed, on occasion Gregory praised those who died fighting for righteousness as martyrs. He thus directly anticipated several key ideas in the First Crusade. Throughout his pontificate Gregory also showed a vigorous concern for the general spiritual welfare of the laity, not least by refining and developing the concept of penance, a concept that also underlay Urban’s preaching in 1095-1096. Gregory saw the role of the laity within the church as being to act where directed under papal instruction, thus anticipating how later popes saw their function in the crusades.

Gregory’s ideas about warfare were extremely controversial, primarily because after 1080 he was promoting a holy war against fellow Christians. Pro-imperial propagandists offered extended and often very effective criticism of a pope whose policies, they argued, were leading to the shedding of Christian blood. Gregory’s intransigence undoubtedly alienated some of his more moderate supporters, including a number of the cardinals, who deserted him and went over to the imperialist antipope Clement III in 1084. However, his supporters, notably Bishop Anselm II of Lucca and the circle of reformers at the court of Gregory’s lay ally Countess Mathilda of Tuscany, justified and expanded Gregory’s ideas concerning the righteousness of Christian warfare, and helped to prepare the climate of opinion for the crusade.

Third, there was Gregory’s interest in Sicily and Spain, where the frontiers of Christendom were already expanding before 1095. He encouraged Count Roger I of Sicily in his campaign against the Muslims on that island, which he argued should be conducted in a spirit of penitence. He similarly promoted the campaign of Duke Robert Guiscard (leader of the south Italian Normans) against Byzantium in 1081 within the parameters of Christian just war theory: participants should display a sense of penitence and true faith. Here again Gregory anticipated the ideas of the First Crusade. While there is little evidence for Gregory directly encouraging Christian campaigns against the Muslims in Spain, he was concerned to vindicate claims for papal authority over the Spanish kingdoms, whose rulers he argued should be direct vassals of St. Peter (i.e., of the pope). He thus played a part in developing papal interest in Spain, which was to lead to the encouragement by later popes of military campaigns there against Islam and ultimately to the incorporation of the Reconquest in Iberia within the overall concept of the crusade. Gregory thus played an essential part in developing and publicizing a concept of Christian warfare that was to find its full expression in the crusade.

Pope Gregory VII.

Pope Gregory VII.

Finally, Gregory forcefully developed papal claims to supreme authority within Christendom. These claims were far from generally accepted, and indeed in 1084 Gregory was forced to abandon Rome to Henry IV and take refuge with the Normans of southern Italy, where he died (25 May 1085). Later popes, however, went a long way to transform these claims into reality: Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade was an important step along this road, displaying the pope as the true leader of Christendom. Yet Gregory VII had anticipated many of the ideas of the later crusade, and his proposed expedition in 1074 might be considered as a first draft for the one that actually took place in 1096. It was Urban who linked the idea for an expedition to Jerusalem with the spiritual benefit for the laity that Gregory suggested could be obtained by fighting on behalf of the church, but without the ideological developments during the pontificate of Gregory, the First Crusade would probably not have occurred, and certainly not when, and with the ideas, that it did.

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