7

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Just Say No

It took a conqueror to seize a kingdom. Kings, however, if they were weak, and especially if they were children, might be captured with altogether greater ease. Even the very highest ranking of them – even future emperors. Eighty years had passed since the abduction of the infant Otto III in 984 – and now, once again, the Reich was ruled by a child. Henry IV, son and namesake of the great emperor who had done so much to implant the cause of reform in Rome, had been crowned king back in 1056, when he was only five years old. Self-reliant and sharp-witted he may have been – but not even the most precocious boy could hope to stamp his authority at such a tender age. Just as Duke William, throughout his minority, had found himself powerless to prevent the steady collapse of order within Normandy, so was the infant Henry, for all his talents, bound to remain the toy of those who had the keeping of him. Control the king and take control of the kingdom: so it seemed to the more unscrupulous among the great lords of theReich. Henry, for as long as he remained under age, at any rate, could hardly help but rank as a likely candidate for a kidnapping.

So it was, in the spring of 1062, when the Archbishop of Cologne came gliding down the Rhine in a particularly handsome galley and docked at the island palace of Kaiserswerth, where the court had been celebrating Easter, the king’s guardians should have been fully on their guard. But they were not. A serious lapse: for Henry himself – impulsive, mercurial and twelve years old – was just the boy to jump at the chance of exploring a state-of-the-art showboat. No sooner had he stepped on board, however, than all the oars began to beat, “and he was immediately propelled out into the middle of the river with a quite remarkable speed.”1 The young king, despite not being able to swim, boldly jumped overboard: an attempt at escape that would have left him drowned had one of the archbishop’s accomplices not dived in after him, and hauled him back to safety. To captivity as well. Rowed upriver to Cologne, where he discovered that even the Holy Lance, that most awesome of all his possessions, had been filched, Henry found himself the impotent cipher of his abductors: a whole swaggering gang of dukes and prelates. Hardly the experience, in short, to bolster his faith much in either princes or bishops.

Henry IV’s Reich

Yet though the scandal of his abduction had been traumatic for the young king himself, it was even more so for his mother. Agnes of Aquitaine, pious and conscientious, had been ruling on Henry’s behalf ever since her husband’s death: a challenging responsibility for a woman, certainly, but not wholly without precedent, even so. If Theophanu, that formidable and glamorous guardian of the infant Otto III, continued to serve as the most celebrated model of a queenly regent, then she was far from the only one. Great lords, with their predilection for hunting, feuding and fighting, were much given to dying before their heirs had come of age. Grandmothers, widows and aunts: any or all might be called upon to step into the breach. Indeed, at one point, back in 985, there had been so many women in Christendom ruling on behalf of under-age wards that they had all met up at a special summit, to swap dynastic gossip and formulate marriage plans for their charges. Such displays of female influence might have lacked the honest masculine impact of a sword blow or a lance punch, but they could be just as effective. Agnes herself, in the course of her regency, had provided a particularly striking demonstration of how a woman could succeed where even a mighty warrior had failed: for one of the great things that she had achieved for her son was to secure for him the stalwart backing of a prince who, only a few years previously, had been an inveterate rebel against her husband.

Duke Godfrey, “the Bearded,” as he was known, had presented a double menace to Henry III: both in his own right, as a great landowner in Lorraine, along the western frontier of the Reich, and by virtue of a brilliant marriage that had brought him an even more impressive swath of land in northern Italy. Godfrey was the second husband of the raven-haired and beauteous Lady Beatrice: her first, a notably ruthless warlord by the name of Boniface, had hacked out a lordship that included much of Tuscany and extended all the way northwards to the foothills of the Alps. This formidable dowry was rendered all the more alarming, in Henry III’s considered opinion, by the fact that Beatrice was his own cousin, and a descendant of Henry the Fowler, no less. Rather than grant Godfrey the continued possession of such a catch, the emperor had opted instead to invade Tuscany, seize Beatrice and Matilda, her one surviving child by Boniface, and cart both mother and daughter back to a gilded confinement in the Rhineland. Yet Agnes, in the wake of her husband’s death, had sought a different approach. Duke Godfrey himself had been “restored to the king’s grace, and to peace.”2 His right to Tuscany had been officially acknowledged. Beatrice and the eleven-year-old Matilda had been released. From that moment on, presiding over his Tuscan lordship from his principal stronghold, an ancient, dilapidated, but increasingly vibrant town named Florence, Godfrey had provided Agnes’s regime with its most loyal bulwark. Fitting, then, perhaps, that the dynasty itself should have taken its title, not from Florence, nor from any other lowland town filled with antique ruins and sleek merchants, but rather from an altogether more bristling and impregnable fortress, Count Boniface’s original base, a castle perched high on a remote and mountainous rock: Canossa.

Yet not all the empress’s gambles had paid off to similar effect.

Nearer to home, her policy of building up the power of ambitious princes had tended to result in an ominous fragmenting of the royal power base. Sponsorship did not always result in gratitude. Come the great crisis of Agnes’s regency, and even a prominent kinsman of the infant king, the formidably blue-blooded Duke Rudolf of Swabia, had shown himself perfectly content to turn his back upon the empress – despite the fact that it was she who had originally raised him to the eminence of his dukedom.3 Other favourites had behaved even more shabbily. Prominent among the lords directly responsible for Henry’s abduction, for instance, had been a second prince who owed a dukedom to the empress: a count from Northeim, in lower Saxony, by the name of Otto, appointed only six months previously to the rule of Bavaria. Justifying their treachery, Duke Otto and his fellow conspirators had shown a particularly fine line in hypocrisy. Agnes, they charged, despite every appearance to the contrary, was in truth a giddy creature of whim and sensuality – so much so that all her rule of the kingdom had been governed by nothing more elevated than “her private passions.”4 A particularly vicious libel: for it had served to cast all the empress’s attempts at diplomacy as the merest feminine teasing and seduction. Such was the kind of mud that any powerful lady might expect to have flung at her – but for the devout Agnes, it was a particular agony. In the wake of her son’s kidnapping, and the signal failure of the great lords of the Reich to rally to her support, the empress had been left to wring her hands over the ruin of more than merely her political authority. Something infinitely precious had been dragged through the mire too: her reputation for pious living. A terrible blow – so terrible, indeed, that the despairing Agnes judged that it could only have been a punishment delivered upon her for her sins by the Almighty.

For the next three years, an irresolute and anguished figure, the empress would haunt the scenes of her humiliation, torn between anxiety for her son and “a yearning to renounce the world.”5 For as long as Henry remained legally her charge, she could not bring herself to abandon the court altogether – but then, shortly after Easter in 1065, at a splendid ceremony in Worms, a sword was belted around the young king’s waist, and at last he ranked as a man. Almost his first action after coming of age, a pointed demonstration of muscle flexing, was to dismiss as his principal adviser the same man whose ship had borne him away three years previously: the Archbishop of Cologne. It was gratifying in the extreme for Agnes to witness the disgrace of the man who had brought about her own downfall – but proof as well that Henry no longer had any need of her. So it was, obeying the promptings of her own hag-ridden conscience, that she finally took to the road. “The knowledge of my sins terrifies me,” she had confessed three years earlier, “more than any ghost, more than any vision.”6That autumn, one among the great multitude of pilgrims seeking to cast aside their old lives, to ready themselves for the hour of judgement, to secure a new beginning, she entered Rome. Humbly, as befitted a penitent, she approached the tombs of the apostles on a broken-down nag, dressed in clothes of the roughest grey sack-cloth, and “clutching not a sceptre but a psalter.”7 Yet in one respect, at least, the empress remained an empress still. Seeking spiritual comfort, she did not bother to scout around for it. Instead, imperious in her very humility, Agnes went directly to St. Peter’s and summoned a cardinal.

And not just any cardinal. In 1065, with the formidable Humbert having died four years earlier, the man chosen by the empress to serve as her confessor ranked as perhaps the most intellectually dazzling of all the leaders of the Roman Church. Originally raised to the cardinalate back in the winter of 1057, at the prompting of the inevitable Hildebrand, Peter Damian had brought qualities to the papal cause that were very much his own. Less steely than the archdeacon, less awesomely focused and competent, he was also far bolder in the flights of his imagination, more creative, more brilliant. Indeed, rare was the innovation so radical that he could not take it to some provocative new extreme. Well, then, might Hildebrand have pushed for his promotion: for Peter, with his genius for thinking the unthinkable, was ideally qualified to serve as the outrider of reform. Sure enough, with papal ministers struggling to convince other churches that the Bishop of Rome did indeed possess a universal lordship over them, the new cardinal had gone straight for the jugular: anyone who denied it, he had declared flatly, was a heretic.8 A most portentous doctrine: for it had promised to the Pope an authority such as not even a Caesar had presumed to claim. To his ministers too, of course – and they, at any rate, had already shown themselves perfectly happy to muscle in on imperial prerogatives. In 1059, moving to usurp a power that Henry III had always jealously maintained as his own, the cardinals had laid claim to a truly momentous dignity: the right to choose a pope. Peter, letting joyous rip, had responded to this decree with an exuberant immodesty. He and his fellow cardinals, he proclaimed, were nothing less than “the spiritual senators of the universal Church.” Here was a stirring allusion: for once, back in ancient times, it was a Senate formed of the wisest and noblest of the Roman people that had guided its city to the mastery of the world. Now, Peter argued, it was the duty of the cardinals to aim at a yet greater feat of conquest. “For this is the endeavour to which they should devote all their talents: the subjugation of the entire human race to the laws of the one true emperor – Christ.”9

It was just the kind of clarion call that Hildebrand had surely been hoping that Peter would sound. Yet the author himself, for all his outward show of self-confidence, was inwardly racked by anguish and self-doubt. Meeting with Agnes in the candle-washed shadows of St. Peter’s, hearing her confession, encouraging her in her resolve to retire to a convent, he could see in the troubled empress only a reflection of his own inner turmoil. The cardinal too, though a prince of the Church, knew what it was to fear greatness. All the opportunities that high rank had brought him, all the glory, the power, the fame, appeared to him in truth only the most devilish temptations. Upon Hildebrand, indeed, he had bestowed the nickname – not altogether a jesting one – of “my holy Satan.”10 Peter could hardly neglect his duties as a cardinal, nor scorn his responsibilities to the Christian people; and yet he dreaded, all the same, what the fruits of such a lordship might be. Deep within his heart, no less devoutly than any heretic, he believed that it was in wild places without churches and hectoring archdeacons, out in forests, in swamps, in caves, that the surest hope of redemption lay. Arrayed in all the splendid robes of his office, Peter yearned only to be wearing filthy rags. Surrounded by the swirl and clamour of the Roman crowds, he longed for solitude. Pacing palaces, he dreamed of the rocky and unadorned cave in which, before becoming a cardinal, it had been his calling for many years to live. “You purify the hidden places of the soul,” Peter had fondly saluted his cell. “You wash away the squalor of sin. You cause men’s souls to shine with the brightness of an angel.”11

And once, kneeling on the bare rock of his cave, lost in an ecstasy of tears and prayer, Peter had been granted a glimpse of Christ Himself. Like Adémar, he had witnessed his Saviour “pierced through with nails, and hanging from a cross.”12 Unlike Adémar, however, he had been so close to the terrifying spectacle that he had been able to crane his neck upwards and raise his parted lips to the wounds. To drink the blood of God! There was nothing in all the universe that could possibly taste sweeter. What, in comparison, could the entire fallen world appear except a realm of dust and distraction and shadow? No wonder, then, that Peter, in his yearning to free himself from the bonds of the earthly, should have fretted that all his obligations as a leader of the Christian people, oppressive as they were, might be serving to keep him an exile from the City of God. For he knew, none better, what it was to be an outcast, and deprived of the hope of love.

Born in Ravenna in 1007, the last of a large and impoverished clutch of siblings, all his childhood had been one wretched sequence of rejections. His mother, slumping into post-natal depression, had refused to feed him; then she and her husband both, while Peter was still a baby, had abruptly died; brought up by one of his brothers, the young orphan had been starved, and beaten, and at length sent out to work as a swineherd. One day, guarding the pigs, he had come across a gold coin glinting in the mud – and for a brief moment, visions of everything that he could buy with it had served to dazzle the famished and shivering boy. But then, setting his thoughts against such ephemeral pleasures, Peter had steeled himself to answer a profounder need: going to a priest, he had handed over his precious coin, and paid for a Mass to be said for the soul of his father. More than food and more than clothes, what Peter had been missing were the parents he could never have. No wonder, then, all his life, that he should have longed with such desperation to behold the face of God: his Father in heaven. No wonder either that he should always have taken it for granted that, to do so, he would have to suffer.

In which, of course, he was not alone. Growing up in Ravenna, Peter would sometimes have glimpsed, out in the swamps that stretched beyond the city, the disciples of St. Romuald, stooped dots set amid a mosquito haze. The memory never left him. Redeemed from servitude by a second brother, given an education, and emerging from it as the most brilliant teacher of his day, Peter had nevertheless flinched from taking the road that might have led to further advancement – and so it was, during or shortly after the fateful year 1033, that he had opted instead to follow the path of Romuald. From that moment on, never quite able to shake off a leaden sense that the end days remained imminent, he had imagined God sitting over him in unblinking judgement. Not a pleasure, but the experiencing of it would be a torment. Even finding himself the object of others’ generosity was sufficient to induce dizzy spells, and a feeling that hungry worms were seething in his guts. “In all conscience,” he cried out, after having had a vase forced on him by an admirer, “I would have preferred to be struck down with leprosy than bear the wound inflicted by this gift!”13

Yet by a sombre irony, it was the very eloquence with which Peter expressed his yearning to be free of all earthly distractions that doomed him to his celebrity. Whatever other pleasures he felt able to give up, he could never quite abandon his addiction to firing off letters, to offering commentary, to self-promotion. Certainly, as Peter well knew, there were other hermits whose austerities were far worthier of fame than his own. One of them, a neighbour from his days as a hermit, was a particular hero. Dominic – “Metal Corset Man,”14 as he was known to his admirers – had bound his limbs as well as his stomach with bands of iron; stood upright all day while reciting psalm after psalm after psalm; and flogged himself until his whole emaciated body was left “as bruised as barley in a mortar.” That heaven approved of these feats appeared indisputable, for every so often a previously unheard-of miracle had been known to stamp itself upon Dominic’s brow, and hands, and feet: “the stigmata of Jesus Christ.”15 Never theless, there were many, even among the ranks of the reformers, who confessed themselves revolted by such extremes of self-mortification – and who found in Peter himself a model far worthier of emulation. What served to prick their consciences were not the regular floggings that he was forever urging upon them but his very public struggle against appetites with which all could identify.

And hunger, perhaps, especially. Indeed, to Peter, who could remember full well what it was to starve, fasting was, if anything, an even greater ordeal than a scourging, and food the object of all his intensest hostility and desire. Not for him the gracious tolerance of lordly overeating that had been shown by Abbot Odilo. Mercilessly, Peter excoriated the rich for their grossness: for the pendulous folds of their paunches, for the violent flush of their crimson cheeks, for the embarrassing manner in which they were given “to belching and breaking wind.”16 Hildebrand himself, noted ascetic though he was, had duly been shamed into giving up leeks and onions. Great lords were not so readily embarrassed – but even among their ranks, a growing enthusiasm for reform had begun to menace the old easygoing admiration for a spreading belly. Obesity was passing out of fashion. It was a sign of the times, for instance, that Duke Rudolf’s brother, the Bishop of Worms, a man who had long been celebrated for his prodigious bulk, should have found himself regarded, “not with wonder, but with revulsion.”17

Yet gluttony, though it might increasingly provoke ridicule, hardly threatened bishops with revolution. There were other appetites, however, to which flesh was also heir – and which, over recent decades, had come to strike many as a corrosive menace to the proper ordering of the very world. Already, this same startling conviction had set whole cities to totter. In 1057, for instance, priests had found themselves being boycotted, openly assaulted and even threatened with death, all in the streets of Milan. A development fit to send shock waves throughout Christendom: for not only was the city perhaps the largest in the whole of the Latin West, a rare example of an ancient settlement that had actually burst its Roman walls, complete with hospitals, public baths and even pavements, but its archbishop was so fantastically grand that it was all he could do not to look down his nose at the Pope.

What on earth, then, could possibly have provoked such a crisis in so venerable and self-satisfied a church? It was a measure of the seriousness with which this question was taken in Rome that one of the two legates sent to investigate it had been none other than the highflying bishop who, three years later, would move into the Lateran as Pope Alexander II. The other had been Peter Damian. Arriving in Milan, the two legates had found the city convulsed by running street battles. On one side were henchmen of the archbishop, an old crony of Henry III by the name of Guy; on the other, insurrectionists from the countryside and the poorer quarters of town. “Patarenes,” their enemies called them: a deliberate sneer, derived from the name of the local rag market. Yet though class tensions in the city undoubtedly were violent, it was not issues of poverty that obsessed the Patarenes. Rather, what had originally set them at the throats of Guy and his clergy was a custom so hallowed by tradition that for centuries no one in Milan had thought so much as to raise an eyebrow at it. A custom that had permitted priests to marry, to live openly with their wives – and to have sex.

This was a red rag to Peter, of course. Perhaps, even had the Patarenes not been rampaging around the troubled city, forcing priests at knife point to swear oaths of chastity, he would still have looked favourably on their demands; for the taking down of the Archbishop of Milan a peg or two had long been an ambition of papal strategists. Nevertheless, the notion that a priest – a priest! – might feel himself justified in pawing at a concubine’s flesh, in stimulating “the pleasure that scratches the itch within,”18 and then in handling at a holy Mass the body and blood of Christ Himself, was naturally fit to throw Peter into apoplexies. To be sure, he had never had any intention of condoning the Patarenes’ thuggery. Violence filled him with horror: he had always regarded Leo IX’s war-making as an abomination, and in Milan it had been his aim to rebuild “with great discretion whatever he found there in a state of ruin.”19 But when it came to expressing the disgust he felt at the very notion of a married priest, discretion was hardly an option – for if a vase or a leek or an onion were a hellish temptation, then how much more so was a woman. Unlike a pot or vegetable, after all, she might take an active interest in being handled by a man. “Titbits of the devil, refuse of paradise, slime that fouls minds, blade that slays souls, wolfsbane of drinkers, poison of table companions, the stuff of sin, the occasion of death.” Such vehemence was hardly surprising. To Peter, in terror of exile from God’s presence as he was, it made no more sense for a priest to lie with a woman than for a fasting hermit to move into a kitchen. The seductions of a concubine, the perfumes of a pie: both, as a matter of the utmost urgency, had to be kept at bay. No wonder, then, in addressing the wives of priests, that Peter should have been roused to what even for him were spectacular heights of excoriation. “Yes, it is you I address, you harem of the ancient enemy, hoopoes, screech-owls, night owls, she-wolves, horse leeches.” And so on, and so on, and so on. “Whores, harlots, kissing-mouths, sloughs for fat pigs, couches for unclean spirits, nymphs, sirens, bloodsucking witches.”20 Brutal language indeed. Yet in the sheer violence of Peter’s revulsion was the measure of his ultimate dread – which was not of women, nor even of sex, but of the coming of the hour of judgement.

And in expressing it, he spoke for multitudes. From the rag-pickers of Milan, with their riots against married priests, to great aristocrats such as Duke Godfrey and the Lady Beatrice, both of whom had piously sworn to forgo a marital bed, it was evident that chastity had become a pressing – indeed a consuming – issue for whole swaths of the Christian people. “Now, at the end of the ages, when men are multiplied beyond number, is the time of continence.”21 Maybe – and yet the sense of urgency with which this view had come to be sanctioned by reformers such as Peter, often in the face of furious opposition from their fellow priests, was something startling, nevertheless. A papal legate, had he come across campaigners such as the Patarenes only twenty years previously, would surely have sawn off his leg rather than look sympathetically on their cause. Back in the first decades of the new millennium, any obsession with chastity on the part of the poor, even more than vegetarianism or a taste for living in forests, had been regarded by the Church with the blackest suspicion. “They affect a profound distaste for sex,” Adémar said of the heretics in Aquitaine. True, he had gone on to insist, in a manner meant to be reassuring, that in private they indulged “in every kind of orgy” – but this had been only another example of his being economical with the truth.22 For Adémar to have acknowledged the appalling reality, that heretics were indeed capable of keeping themselves chaste, even as priests were cheerfully rutting with their wives, would have been, quite simply, insupportable. For what then would have served to distinguish the priesthood from the great mass of Christian people? What then would have served to mark the Church out as the ultimate bastion on earth of the celestial? What, indeed, people would surely have begun to ask, was the point of it at all?

It was all the more fortunate, then, that once again – as with every other gauntlet flung down by heresy – there had been dauntless warriors of God on hand to meet the challenge. Monks, unlike priests, had always been expected to live as virgins. Chastity, no less than poverty, was one of the defining marks of their separation from the fallen world. Even so, during the approach to the Millennium, it had begun to serve an even profounder purpose. Just as in the woods and trackless wilds where heretics were prone to roam, so in famous monasteries such as Cluny, virginity had become the mark of men who dared compare themselves to the hosts of heaven. Never to have sex, never even “to eject semen by rubbing the penis, just as snot is blown out of the nose,”23 was a sacrifice that fitted a monk to rank with a martyr. So, at any rate, it had boldly been declared at Cluny – where, for a decade, scribes had set themselves to producing a whole dossier of documents designed to push the argument. And when had they begun this task? Anno Domini 999. A telling date, no doubt. Certainly, there would have been no one at Cluny unaware of the role that virgins were destined to play at the end of time, before the throne of Christ, the Lamb. For it was their songs which St. John, in the book of his revelation, had foretold were to sound from heaven. “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever He goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless.”24 So St. John had written.

The passage of the decades, and the failure of the Lamb to materialise, had not in any way served to diminish the potency of Cluny’s spotless state. Just the opposite, in fact. The chastity of its monks remained easily the most awesome marker of the monastery’s holiness. Of its independence from the outside world as well. Not for the warrior virgins of Cluny the tangle of earthly commitments that offspring would have brought. No place for mewling bastards within their sacred walls. A relief to the monks themselves, no doubt – and to their neighbours, certainly, a mighty comfort. To great lords, those hard-nosed and calculating men, it offered a specific reassurance: that donations to the monastery, and especially donations of land, would not end up being turned against them by ambitious monks out to father dynasties of their own. To others, men and women fretful at the prospect of Christ’s return, and who might once have been tempted to embrace chastity themselves, and the path of heresy, in an attempt to prepare for the hour of judgement, it offered a profounder consolation: that they were justified, after all, in putting their faith in men of God. Yet if the monks of Cluny were correct, and a virgin was indeed worthy to rank beside a martyr, then so too was the converse: that a priest who slept with a woman was barely a priest at all.

And what then of that supreme mystery, the awful power entrusted to him to mediate between heaven and earth, by transforming, at a holy Mass, bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ? “Dog shit,”25 according to the Patarenes, was all that the touch of a married priest was worth. Such language was a bit strong, perhaps, even for Peter – but he could sympathise with the sentiment, nevertheless.26 Just as simony always tended to be defined by reformers as a kind of leprosy or pestilence or rottenness, so the marriage bed of a priest was invariably represented as a stew of filth. On occasion, indeed, angels had been known to materialise and make the point literally. Peter, writing to Hildebrand shortly before leaving on his mission to Milan, had described one particularly spectacular miracle: the public shaming of a priest whose reputation had always been irreproachable until that moment. Even as he was celebrating Mass, it was reported, an angel had appeared before the full view of the church and set to scrubbing him down, before finishing by emptying the bucket of by now grimy black water over his head. The priest, spluttering and sobbing, had thereupon confessed to the stunned congregation that he had slept with a servant girl only the night before. One slip, one single surrender to his lusts – and all had been ruined.

No wonder that many priests, bewildered by the sudden sea change in public opinion, one that sought to condemn their wives as whores and their own physical needs as a menace to the cosmos, found the new demands being placed upon them insupportable. “In every struggle with titillating pleasure,” was Peter’s own tip, “try to meditate on the grave”27 – either that or hurry off to Mass. Advice kindly offered, no doubt – but not entirely adequate, even so, to the frailties of every priest. There were many, it seemed, who needed to be hectored, even menaced, rather than simply encouraged. This was why, even as reformers sought to combine their great campaign against simony with a no less ambitious insistence that priests live as chastely as monks, there were some who looked to harness their supporters among the Christian people to a policy of active intimidation. Peter, that committed pacifist, was not one of them, of course; but there were others who argued with no less passionate a sense of righteousness that desperate circumstances might indeed require desperate measures. The stakes were cosmically high. Could there be anything more important, in the final count, than the readying of God’s Church for the coming of the end days?

One episode, in particular, served to illustrate the kind of value judgement that its leaders were increasingly opting to make. In 1065, a knight from Milan by the name of Erlembald, a pious man much given to charitable works and pilgrimages, arrived in Rome and paid a call on Hildebrand. He was troubled and in need of spiritual guidance. Should he join a monastery, he asked the archdeacon, as he had originally been planning to do – or should he accept a very different calling, a summons just recently received from the Patarenes, to fashion them into an authentic fighting force and lead them as their generalissimo? Hildebrand’s answer was not long in coming. It took the form – a whole year before the granting of a similar standard to Duke William of Normandy – of a papal banner. Returning to the Patarenes beneath the fluttering of this “battle flag of St. Peter’s,”28 Erlembald duly threw himself into the brutal business of scouring simony and priestly unchastity from Milan for good: the first-ever knight to have received a formal papal blessing. Whether as a consequence of this or not, victory marked all his efforts. “He subdued the city by the sword and also by gold, and by many and diverse oaths; none of the nobles could withstand him.”29 Indeed, by 1071, such was the scale of Erlembald’s success that the wretched Archbishop Guy, holed up in his cathedral, and in increasingly poor health, had resolved on a clandestine resignation.

Spies in Milan, however, keeping track of his intentions, were soon bringing news of all his plans to Rome; and Hildebrand moved quickly to capitalise. Sending both funds and instructions to the Patarene captain, he ordered his protégé to prepare a coup. By August, when the sick and weary archbishop finally breathed his last, Erlembald was primed. The Patarenes, backed by the presence of a papal legate, pushed for the election of a successor, a young clerk by the name of Atto; and on 6 January 1072, he was duly chosen. Erlembald, escorting the new archbishop to his palace amid a fearsome clattering of hoofs and glimmering of mail, sat him down there to celebrate his elevation with a sumptuous banquet. Yet the Patarenes, for all the speed and ruthlessness of their actions, had overstepped a fateful bound. Momentous forces – more momentous than even Hildebrand could imagine – were being set in train. The attempt to enthrone Atto, far from healing the fissures in Milan, was doomed only to widen them – and indeed to precipitate a crisis so devastating, so unexpected and so wholly without precedent that it would end up racking the whole span of Christendom and transforming it for all time.

That a Patarene nominee as archbishop was a direct threat to the Church establishment in Milan went without saying – but it was also, and far more ominously, a slap in the face for Henry IV. The young king had not forgotten that it was his father, almost three decades previously, who had invested Guy with his staff and ring of office. Indeed, shortly before his death, the failing archbishop had returned them both to the imperial court, together with a proposal that the emissary to whom they had been entrusted, a deacon by the name of Godfrey, be invested with them in turn. King Henry, who was by now in his early twenties, and positively itching to throw his weight around in Italy, had needed no second encouragement. Godfrey had duly been graced with Guy’s staff and ring – and packed off back to Milan. An abortive mission, it might have been thought: for no sooner had he arrived in town to claim his throne than he was being hunted down by Erlembald’s heavies, chased into a lonely fortress, and put under siege.

Even amid all Godfrey’s humiliations, however, there was one thing at least left to bring a smile to his lips: that though he might be mired in impotence, so too was his rival, Atto. Erlembald’s grip on Milan had proved less secure than he had trusted: for on the very day of his nominee’s election, indeed even as he sat down at the formal banquet to celebrate it, he and his Patarene bodyguards had suddenly found themselves being ambushed. A mob whipped up by the local clergy had burst into the archbishop’s palace, chased Atto into his bedroom, and beaten him black and blue. Even the papal legate had suffered the mortification of being stripped of all his clothes. Although Erlembald had quickly succeeded in restoring order, it had not been soon enough to prevent Atto from swearing to his captors that he would “never again intervene in the bishopric.”30 Such an oath could not readily be dismissed. Milan, as a result, had found herself stuck with two archbishops – neither one of whom was able to take up his office.

A shocking state of affairs, to be sure – and yet barely hinting at the full scale of the crisis yet to come. In the summer of 1072, Pope Alexander II, at a formal synod of the Roman Church, pronounced that Atto was not bound by the oath he had given his assailants – and was therefore the rightful Archbishop of Milan. A few months later, in early 1073, Henry IV leaned on the bishops of Lombardy to stand as Godfrey’s patrons at his consecration. Alexander’s response was to excommunicate not only Godfrey himself, not only the Lombard bishops, but, just for good measure, some of Henry’s own closest advisers. Only once they had all been dismissed, the Pope declared, would he re-establish contact with the king: until that moment, he was to be regarded as “outside the communion of the Church.”31 Almost without anyone quite understanding how it had happened, papacy and empire, those twin pillars of Christendom, were at open loggerheads.

Less than three decades had passed since Henry III, descending upon the shrine of the apostles, had dismissed three popes at a stroke, and set about laying the foundations for the great project of reform. In that time, though much had been attempted and achieved by the reformers, it had never been any part of their intention to humiliate the youthful Caesar. Just the opposite, in fact: Henry had always been the focus of their very highest hopes. Born of two exemplary parents, he had also been entrusted at his christening to the care of Abbot Hugh of Cluny, who had raised him dripping from the font, and been named his “spiritual father”32 – so that the youthful king was triply a child of reform. Even once Henry had come of age, a vague feeling of responsibility, even of condescension, continued to characterise how reformers such as Hildebrand regarded him. On several occasions, indeed, ordering the Empress Agnes out of her cloistered retirement, they had dispatched her on the gruelling journey back across the Alps, so determined had they been to keep a watchful eye on her son.

Other missions, those considered too embarrassing or awkward for a woman to handle, they had entrusted to Peter Damian. Although Peter was old by now, and reluctant to leave his hermitage, he had undertaken them willingly enough: for he had always disapproved of sending Agnes, his spiritual ward, back to the scenes of her earthly greatness. In 1069, for instance, he had made the trek to the imperial court on a particularly delicate matter. Henry, bored of his new wife, the Lady Bertha, and complaining of her lack of sex appeal, had abruptly announced that he wished to divorce her. Peter, summoning all his considerable reserves of authority, had alternately menaced and wooed the young Caesar into backing down: the first time that a papal reformer had ever succeeded in imposing his will upon a king. “If you are really determined in this matter,” Henry sighed, with a crashing lack of graciousness, “then I suppose I must brace myself to shoulder as best I can a burden that I cannot shed.”33 Yet Peter himself, despite the undoubted scale of his triumph, had very deliberately refrained from making a song and dance about it. Bridges had not been burned. Lines of communication had been left open. Proof had been offered that the king and the papacy, even when tensions were running high, were not necessarily doomed to conflict.

But this was already, amid the gathering mood of crisis, a lesson well on the way to being lost. Peter, the leader among the reformers who had always been best qualified to teach it, was fading fast. He died in 1072, just a few months before the Empress Agnes, despairing of persuading her son to listen to her, gave pious backing to the excommunication of his advisers. A few weeks later, in April 1073, Alexander too was dead. The people of Rome, rather than wait for the cardinals to nominate a successor, were soon taking the law into their own hands. They knew precisely whom they wanted as their new pope: “Hildebrand for bishop!”34 Even as Alexander was being laid to rest in the Lateran, the cry went up across the whole city.

“Like the raging of the east wind, which buffets with violent blasts,”35 Peter Damian had once described the inimitable archdeacon. Now, swept up from Alexander’s funeral amid the unanimous cheering of the Roman people, carried out of the basilica despite all his own modest protests, universally hailed by the name of Gregory, Hildebrand was borne from the Lateran past open fields, past blossom-heavy orchards, past crumbling ruins, down into the very heart of the Holy City itself, where, in an ancient church filled with relics of St. Peter, he was formally installed upon the throne of the Prince of the Apostles.

The far-distant King Henry might not have given his nod – but the people certainly had.

At a fateful moment for Christendom, Hildebrand had been installed as Pope.

So Fearful a Weight

“See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”36 So the voice of God, it was recorded in Holy Scripture, had once addressed a Jewish priest by the name of Jeremiah. The verse was a particular favourite of the new pope’s – as well it might have been. Though the ancient prophet, rather like Gregory VII himself, had lived at a time of wrenching and alarming change, not even the most appalling calamities had been able to shake his conviction that it was the Almighty Himself who had summoned him to his mission: to confound the wicked, and to admonish kings, and to shepherd a confused and wandering people. In short, to be right.

What better model could there be for a man such as Gregory? True, his protests as he was hauled from the Lateran to his enthronement had been more than merely the display of false modesty that was expected of any candidate for a bishopric: “We are a sinner and unequal to the bearing of so fearful a weight.” A heartfelt confession, certainly. Yet rather than betraying any great crisis of confidence, it had in truth trumpeted the very opposite: an invincible sense of purpose, of calling, of destiny. Gregory VII was Hildebrand still. If indeed he did sometimes feel that his shoulders might buckle beneath the burden that he could feel, Atlas-like, laid upon them, then who could wonder at that? To the new pope, and to all the supporters of reform, it appeared self-evident that the forces of good were everywhere being menaced by those of evil, in the great cosmic struggle that was destined to climax with the hour of judgement, and the final coming of God’s kingdom. There could be no doubting, then, either the urgency or the gravity of Gregory’s task. “For to our small self, the care and oversight of all the churches have been committed.”37

Small, perhaps – but formidably well qualified. Not since the age of Constantine had there been a man enthroned in Rome who could boast a more detailed knowledge of the various lands and limits of the world. Indeed, as Gregory pointed out with relish, “the law of the Roman pontiffs has governed more princedoms than ever that of the Caesars did”38 – so that a legate, bringing letters and reports to the Lateran, might be as likely to come galloping from Hungary, or Poland, or the distant kingdoms of the Northmen, as from anywhere within the ancient heartlands of Christendom. Although the new pope was thoroughly Roman in everything except his birth, his habit of thinking was nevertheless a global one. Whether it was the King of England, or the Abbot of Cluny, or the generalissimo of the Patarenes, Gregory had long been in the habit of regarding even the most celebrated men of the age as his agents. Of humble birth he might have been, and impeccably austere in all his personal habits – and yet an imperial cast of mind came to him no less naturally for that. Processing past the haughty monuments of an ancient and vanished empire, he showed no compunction in displaying himself to the Roman people arrayed in the traditional crown and robes of a Caesar: the first pope ever to flaunt such insignia in public. In private, seeking to order his thoughts about the destiny that God had entrusted to him, Gregory dared to go even further. To an unpublished memorandum, he confided a series of awesome convictions: “that the Roman pontiff alone is by right called ‘universal’”; “that all princes kiss the feet of the pope alone”; “that he is permitted to depose emperors.”39 Assertions so vaunting that even the author shrank from stating them aloud.

The baptism of Vladimir, the prince of Kiev, was a momentous marker of the influence of Constantinople on the Rus warlords of the Wild East. Stupefied by the wealth and beauty of Miklagard, “the Great City,” many found themselves torn between the desire to emulate its sophistication and an ambition to loot it. (Bridgeman Art Library)

Olaf Haraldsson: brutal, domineering—and the patron saint of the Northmen. (Werner Forman Archive)

Harold Goodwinsson publicly pledges loyalty to his rival for the throne of England, Duke William of Normandy. Although the swearing of oaths was regarded by good Christians as a fearsome thing, Harold had a reputation for taking the matter less seriously, perhaps, than he might have done. (akg-images/Erich Lessing)

It was the death of Harold that doomed the English cause in the wake of Hastings—for it left William effectively unopposed as king. Exactly how Harold died is unclear. The famous image in the Bayeux Tapestry, which appears to show him with an arrow in the eye, was almost certainly re-stitched at some point in the eighteenth century. The original, to judge from an engraving of the Tapestry published in 1733, showed not an arrow, but a spear. (akg-images/Erich Lessing)

Five years after Hastings, a no less decisive battle was fought at the opposite end of Christendom. The defeat of a Byzantine emperor and his army at Manzikert left the Asian heartlands of the empire open to the scything incursions of Turkish cavalry. Towns that had been Roman for more than a thousand years were soon being lost to Constantinople for good. (Werner Forman Archive)

Henry IV, King of the German Reich and—from 1084—Emperor of the West. “Such were the turns of his fortune,” as one admirer put it, “that it would be impossible for me to describe them, and for you to read about them, without tears.” (akg-images)

In the great struggle between Emperor and Pope, Henry IV might pose as a Caesar— but Gregory VII reigned as the heir of a saint. Not just any saint, either: for Rome’s first bishop had been none other than Saint Peter, the “rock” on which the Church had been built. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” Christ had told him, “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Here was a fearsome authority—and one that Gregory had not the slightest hesitation in claiming as his own. (Werner Forman Archive)

A papal throne in the Lateran. It is said that when Gregory pronounced his sentence of excommunication against Henry, his throne miraculously cracked in two. (Vatican Museum)

A view of the Rhine and the town of Tribur, as seen from the hill of Oppenheim. Back in the autumn of 1076, the great river constituted the dividing line between Henry and a menacing assembly of German princes, summoned to Tribur to debate their king’s possible deposition. It was Henry’s determination to keep hold of his crown, even at the cost of accepting mortifying peace terms, which set in motion the events that would lead him to Canossa. (Author photo)

A contrite Henry IV begs his godfather, Abbot Hugh of Cluny, and his second-cousin, the Countess Matilda, to intercede on his behalf with Gregory VII at Canossa. The illustration is from a biography of Matilda. Had it been from a biography of Henry, the scene would no doubt have been given a somewhat different spin. (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

Canossa. The ruined state of the castle only compounds the sense of bleakness and isolation. Even in September, when this photograph was taken, the winds can be violent and icy. (Author photo)

Alexius Comnenus, who succeeded to the throne of Constantinople in 1081, at a time when the Byzantine Empire appeared on the verge of utter collapse. His deft deployment of bribes to Henry IV, and a facility for stirring up revolts against his Norman enemies, enabled Alexius to haul his empire back from the very brink. (AKG London)

The seeming ruin of all Gregory’s ambitions. In the top panel, Henry IV is shown sitting in triumph, following his coronation as emperor by the antipope Clement III, while on the right Gregory is being expelled from Rome. In the bottom panel, the exiled pontiff is shown lying on his deathbed.

On the same day that Gregory VII died, the Muslim city of Toledo opened its gates to the Christian king of Leon, Alfonso VI. “We rejoice with a most joyful heart,” as Gregory’s successor, Urban II, would put it, “and we give great thanks to God, as is worthy, because in our time He has deigned to give such a victory to the Christian people.” (Corbis)

Urban II consecrates the high altar of the colossal new church at Cluny. The Pope stands on the left and Abbot Hugh, with his monks, on the right. (Art Archive)

Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Here, amid the darkness that would precede the light of the Second Coming, Antichrist was fated to manifest himself, enthroned in sanguinary glory. In 1099, when Jerusalem fell to the warriors of the First Crusade, the bloodshed on the Temple Mount was especially terrible. (Corbis)

And yet in truth, for all the unhesitating sternness with which Gregory was prepared to upbraid the pretensions of uppity princes, his concern was not with the ordering of their kingdoms, still less with any madcap attempt to refound the Roman Empire, but rather with a project that he saw as incalculably more important. Just as the monks of Cluny had laboured to make of their monastery a bulwark of the celestial set amid the woods and fields of Burgundy, so it was the gigantic ambition of Gregory to see the universal Church transfigured in an identical manner, in every princedom, in every town, in every village. For only then, once it had been freed for good from the cankered touch of grasping kings, and brought to shimmer with a radiant and unspotted purity, would it properly be able to serve the Christian people as a vision on earth of the City of God. Despite his crown and robes, it was no worldly power to which Gregory laid claim, but one infinitely greater. No wonder, then, that his admirers were agog. “You are endeavouring things more awesome than our weakness can imagine,” wrote one abbot in a letter of congratulation to the new pope. “Like an eagle you soar above all lower things, and your eyes are fixed upon the brightness of the sun itself.”40

Not that Gregory could afford to turn his gaze entirely from earthly matters. That he had inherited a crisis in the papacy’s relations with Henry IV went without saying – as too did the pressing need to resolve it. Indeed, for so long as the king refused to dismiss his excommunicated advisers, the new pope felt himself unable even to write to the imperial court, and inform it of his election. Nevertheless, supremely conscious as he was of his global responsibilities, Gregory could not permit the breach with Henry IV to monopolise all his attention. The Reich was not the sum of Christendom. To the east, there lay another Christian empire – and in 1073, even as Gregory was being enthroned as the Bishop of Rome, he feared that a literally fiendish danger was menacing the Second Rome. “For everything has been laid waste, almost to the very walls of Constantinople.”41 News so shocking as to seem barely believable – and yet every traveller returning from overseas had confirmed it. What could be stirring there, then, in the East, if not the armies of very hell? The Devil, so Gregory himself suspected, was openly showing his hand – and with the goal, a chillingly genocidal one, of putting the Christian people to slaughter “like cattle.”42

Certainly, the portents that had heralded the original brewing of the crisis in Byzantium, many decades previously, had indeed seemed infernal. In the winter of 1016, dragons had swooped in over Armenia, on the easternmost limit of the empire, “vomiting fire upon Christ’s faithful,” and volumes of the Holy Scriptures had begun to tremble. Yet the simultaneous appearance there of Muslim horsemen “armed with bows and wearing their hair long like women”43 – “Turks,” as they called themselves – had initially provoked no undue alarm among the Byzantines. Barbarians had been testing their empire for centuries, after all, and yet still it triumphantly endured, as was clearly the will of God. Nevertheless, as the decades went by, and the Turks did not drift away, but instead seemed only to swell in numbers and power, an increasingly larcenous presence on the eastern frontier, so there were those in Constantinople who had at last deigned to feel some anxiety. In 1068, one of them had been crowned Basileus. Three years later, reversing the traditional Byzantine policy of avoiding pitched combat at all costs, he had gathered together all the reserves he could muster, marched with them directly into the badlands of the East, and set about hunting down the barbarians. In August 1071, on a plain overlooked by a fortress named Manzikert, the imperial task force had at last caught up with its quarry, forced a battle – and been annihilated. The Basileus himself, taken captive, had ended up on his face before a Turkish warlord, as a leather slipper pressed down upon his neck.

Meanwhile, with “the sinews of the Roman Empire,”44 its armed forces, ripped and shredded beyond all hope of repair, the victors had immediately begun fanning out from the killing fields of Manzikert to claim their spoils. Roads which for a thousand years and more had served the cause of Roman greatness now stretched open and defenceless all the way westwards to the sea. As rival factions in Constantinople, with a near-criminal irresponsibility, devoted themselves to scrapping over what remained of the stricken empire, so the Turks had been left to range across its Asian heartlands virtually as they pleased. “I am the destroyer of towers and churches,”45 the invaders liked to boast. Not that they confined themselves to merely wanton destruction. Even as they trampled down ancient cities, and stabled their horses in famous monasteries, they made sure to enslave all the Christians they could, and drive the remainder into headlong flight. Refugees, flooding into Constantinople, only added to the mounting sense there of a cataclysm without precedent. “Illustrious personages, nobles, chiefs, women of position, all wandered in begging their bread.”46 No wonder, then, that the sense of confusion, and of a whole world turned upside down, should have served to feed rumours of an imminent cosmic doom – and to sow panic as far afield as the Lateran.

And even if the turmoil in the East did not portend the coming of Antichrist, what then? Would the threat to Christendom be rendered any less real? Here were questions which Gregory, with his unrivalled array of international contacts, was uniquely well placed to ponder. Not for him the limited horizons of a mere king. In the summer of 1073, even as he was struggling to make sense of the appalling reports from Byzantium, telling news was brought to him of the sufferings of Christians in another one-time stronghold of the faith. North Africa, where St. Augustine had written his great book on the City of God, had been under Saracen rule for many centuries; and now the local emir had imprisoned the leader of the church there, and beaten him, “as though he were a criminal.”47 Gregory, writing to the unhappy archbishop, sought to console him by floating the cheery prospect that God might soon “condescend to look upon the African church, which has been toiling for such a long while, buffeted by the waves of various troubles.”48 A pious hope – but little more than that. In truth, as Gregory well knew, the African church was dying on its feet. Of the two hundred bishoprics and more that it had once boasted, a mere five remained. Food for thought indeed. After all, if the Africans, the very countrymen of St. Augustine, could end up lost so utterly to Christendom that barely a Christian remained among them, then who was to say that the same terrible fate might not one day befall the people whom Gregory freely described as “our brothers – those who hold the empire beyond the sea in Constantinople”?

Indeed, in his bleakest moments, he would confess to a dread that the Church, far from being brought by his leadership to a triumphant and universal purity, might instead “perish altogether in our times.”49 To wallow in despair, however, was hardly Gregory’s style. Even as he marked how many of Christendom’s frontiers were bleeding, so also could he point to others that bore certain witness to God’s continuing favour and protection. Barely twenty years had passed since Leo IX’s promotion of Humbert to the archbishopric of Sicily: an appointment that at the time had appeared less a statement of intent than the expression of a pipedream. Certainly, not even the most militant optimist in Leo’s train, not even Hildebrand himself, would have dared to imagine back in 1050 that he might live to see the restoration of the Great Mosque of Palermo, where for more than two centuries the Saracens had been performing their unspeakable rites, to its original function as a cathedral.

Yet in 1072, only the year before Hildebrand’s elevation to the papacy, that was precisely what had happened. Grown men had sobbed, invisible choirs of angels had sung and a mysterious beam of light had illumined the altar. It was a fittingly miraculous way to mark a seeming miracle: the restoration to Christendom of a metropolis so stupefyingly vast that it could boast a quarter of a million inhabitants, 500 mosques and no fewer than 150 butchers. Nor was it only the Cross that now rose above Palermo. For the new and fretful pope, there was an additional cause for satisfaction. Planted on the battlements, token of the city’s subjection to the Roman Church as well as to Christ, there billowed a flag with the familiar insignia of St. Peter: a papal banner.

It went without saying, of course, that such a victory could only ever have been won at the point of a sword. The corsairs of Sicily had always been brutal, yet even they had found themselves unable to compete for sheer ruthlessness with the new warlords on the Italian scene. Palermo’s fall had effectively set the seal on a second Norman conquest. Indeed, the invasion of wealthy islands was becoming quite a speciality of Christendom’s “shock troops.”50 Even erstwhile enemies might be brought to a grudging respect for what the Normans themselves, with a becoming lack of modesty, liked to vaunt as their own exceptional “boldness and prowess.”51 Back in 1059, for instance, it had been former associates of Leo IX, the Pope defeated at Civitate, who had first dangled the prize of Sicily before a man they had always previously execrated.

Robert Guiscard, the most notorious of the Norman freebooters as he was also the most powerful, had long since crossed the shadowy divide that marked out banditry from lordship. Desperate as the reformers were for some authentic muscle, and with Guiscard himself not averse to being graced with a touch of respectability, the way had duly been opened for a spectacular rapprochement. The Normans of southern Italy, amid much papal nose-holding, had been welcomed in from the cold. Their chief, in exchange for acknowledging himself a vassal of the Holy Father, had been formally invested with the dukedom of the lands he had already filched – “and in future, with the help of God and St. Peter, of Sicily too.”52

Not that the new duke of Apulia had ever needed a licence to go on the attack against anyone. Even without the stamp of papal approval, Guiscard would doubtless still have cast a greedy eye on the island – and the conquest of Sicily, when it duly came, had hardly been a venture such as Peter Damian, let alone Adalbert or Alcuin, would have thought to bless. Indeed, on occasion, it had been literally written in blood: for in 1068, after one particular victory, Norman scribes had broadcast their triumph by dipping their pens into the viscera of the slaughtered Saracens, and then dispatching the resulting accounts to Palermo via captured messenger pigeons. Yet if shows of calculated savagery such as this had undoubtedly played a key role in undermining Saracen morale, then the Normans themselves never doubted that all their victories derived ultimately from a power even mightier than themselves. In Sicily, at any rate, they could reckon themselves on the side of the angels. Guiscard, camped outside Palermo, had ringingly condemned the city as a lair of demons: “an enemy to God.”53

His brother, Roger, the very youngest of the Hauteville clan, and the Norman leader who had committed himself most wholeheartedly to the winning of Sicily, was even more forthright in describing as his only motivation “a desire to exalt the Holy Faith.”54That this had been no hypocritical affectation, but rather a pious statement of the truth, had been evident in the indisputable proofs of divine favour that had accompanied all his exploits: great cities captured against the odds, battles won with the assistance of saints mounted on blinding white horses, the fluttering above Roger’s own head of an unearthly standard adorned with the Cross. To be sure, the rewards he ended up reaping had hardly been confined to the dimension of the spiritual: for his progress, from penniless youngest son to Count of Sicily, had been only marginally less spectacular than that of Guiscard himself.

Yet still, amid all his triumphs, Roger never forgot what he owed to his celestial patrons, and to St. Peter in particular. A cut of the loot was regularly forwarded to Rome. In 1063, Alexander II had even taken a delivery of camels, plundered from a Saracen baggage train. In exchange, as well as the inevitable banner, the Holy Father had granted Roger and his men something even more precious: “absolution for their sins.”55 A momentous innovation: for never before had a pope thought to bestow such a personal benediction upon warriors who had spilled the blood of heathens. Tentatively, but no less portentously for that, the papacy was groping its way towards a notion that the defeated Saracens, ironically, would have recognised well enough: that wars, if conducted to win back territory lost to infidels, might not only be justified, but even, perhaps, be regarded as a positive duty, one owed by the faithful to God.

A philosophy for which Gregory himself, it might have been thought, would have had a peculiar sympathy. And so, to a degree, he did. Nevertheless, as he listened anxiously to travellers’ reports from the eastern front, and pondered his response, there was one thing he knew for certain: that he had no intention of entrusting the redemption of a tottering Byzantium to Guiscard and his crew. The Pope, unlike his predecessor, had persisted in regarding the Norman adventurers in Italy as bandits and terrorists. It was not enough that the Duke of Apulia, far from rallying to the support of his Christian brothers of Constantinople, had coolly taken advantage of the buildup to the Manzikert campaign to grab their last remaining outposts in Italy for himself. Even worse, Gregory darkly suspected him of plotting a push northwards – into papal territory. Initial attempts to smooth things over between the Pope and the Norman captain quickly petered out when Guiscard flatly refused to trust an offer of safe conduct. By the early months of 1074, Gregory had so lost patience with his menacing vassals that he had begun to rank them alongside the Turks as enemies of Christendom. In March, the breakdown in relations between Pope and duke was sealed by the latter’s excommunication. Yet while this drastic step had undoubtedly been prompted by Gregory’s determination not to be taken for a ride by Guiscard, so also did it reflect something far profounder: a fearsome struggle within himself.

The English and the Milanese, perhaps, would have laughed hollowly at the notion – but Gregory himself never doubted that he was above all a man of peace. His wide-eyed relish for battle standards had always tended to outrun the dictates of his private conscience. No matter how justified he might feel in making blood-curdling appeals to the judgement of the sword, the grim realities of warfare never ceased at the same time to haunt and trouble him. The same hardnosed politician who had urged Erlembald not to abandon the profession of arms also sternly affirmed that to be a knight was by its very nature to exist in a state of sin. The same seasoned strategist who had recognised more clearly than anyone that a threat to Constantinople was a threat to the whole of Christendom, and indeed had begun actively planning a military expedition to meet the peril, flinched from facing up to what such a mission might actually require. Gregory’s true wish was not for brutal and battle-hardened warriors such as Guiscard’s Normans, but for would-be martyrs. “For as Christ laid down His life for us, so should we lay down our own lives for our brothers.”56 An injunction that came from the heart: for Gregory, whose courage was no less steely than his will, had every intention of riding at the head of his projected task force in person. Nor did Constantinople represent the limit of his ambitions, by any means. His ultimate hope, after repulsing the Turks, was to lead the armies of Christendom onwards, until at last they had reached that most fateful of all destinations: “the sepulchre of the Lord.”57

And if there sounded something oddly familiar about this plan, then perhaps that was no coincidence. Jerusalem, after a lull of several decades, had begun to glimmer tantalisingly again on the horizon of many people’s dreamings. So too a dread – or anticipation – of the end of the world. In 1054, for instance, some three thousand pilgrims had set off for the Holy Land, prompted by the sudden and fearsome blazing of a mysterious star;58 ten years later, and an even larger expedition, twelve thousand in all, it was claimed, had repeated the journey, crosses sewn on to their cloaks, “deceived by a certain vulgar opinion that the day of Judgement was at hand.”59Vulgar, perhaps; but not only the poor and credulous had made the journey: bishops, and archbishops, and great princes had gone along too. Indeed, prophecies of the end time had lately been circulating around the very summit of the Christian world. In Italy especially, among opponents of reform, great play had begun to be made once again of that hoary figure of fantasy, the last Roman emperor – and naturally enough, it was Henry IV whom they looked to cast in the role.

Times, however, had changed; and the heir of the Caesars was no longer alone in claiming the rule of Christendom. “Dux et pontifex,” “general” as well as “pontiff,”60 was what Gregory aspired to be. And something more besides? Certainly, amid all the troubles of the age, the Pope’s plan to lead an army to the Holy Sepulchre could hardly help but appear a pointed trampling on imperial toes. What earthly kings, and Henry IV especially, would make of Gregory’s ambitions, only time would tell. Gregory himself, however, as he prepared for the great challenges that lay ahead of him, could afford to feel sternly unconcerned. He was, after all, the heir of St. Peter. The Almighty was on his side.

“It does not escape us,” he wrote a year after his accession, “how diverse are men’s opinions and judgements concerning us – for some, pointing to identical cases and actions, will think us cruel, others unduly mild. To all of them, however, we can give no truer or more appropriate answer than that of the Apostle: ‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.’”61 All the world, so Gregory believed, had been given into his hands. To him been entrusted the fateful task of reordering it – nor, in the final reckoning, was there anyone entitled to stand in his path.

The Road to Canossa

“That he is permitted to depose emperors.” Perhaps it was just as well that Gregory chose to keep this particular proposition from the youthful Caesar. Henry IV, as befitted the heir of Constantine and Charlemagne, was hardly the man to accept that he could be deposed by anyone. King of the various princedoms of Germany, he also laid claim to the rule of Italy – Rome included. Yet it is doubtful that Henry, even had he been alerted to the new pope’s pretensions, would have been able to do much about them. Not straight away, at any rate. There was way too much already on the royal plate. Far from being in any position to contemplate a campaign in Italy, Henry was locked into a desperate struggle to maintain his authority within Germany itself. War, having already plunged the empire of Constantinople into chaos, had come as well, in the summer of 1073, to the empire of the West.

It was no race of pagans that had brought about this sudden calamity, however, no breed of savage invaders from beyond the frontiers of Christendom, but rather a people who ever since the time of Otto the Great had appeared the very wellspring of imperial greatness: none other than the Saxons. Yet Otto’s own dynasty had long since passed away; and its replacement in 1024 by a line of Rhineland kings, sprung from the opposite end of the Reich, had led many in Saxony to feel increasingly exploited and oppressed. Even during the triumphant reign of Henry III, the local princes had been growing fractious; and some of them, during the troubled years of his son’s minority, had actively plotted to do away with the infant king. Mistrust had bred mistrust in turn; and the adult Henry, with that same blend of suspiciousness and obstinacy that marked so many of his dealings, had disdained to mollify the restless Saxons. Instead, taking a leaf out of the Norman book, he had set himself to securing his hold on the dukedom in the most up-to-date manner possible: by raising castles. A threat to the local nobility, of course – but also to the entire Saxon people. As in France, as in England, so in Saxony, the battlements suddenly sprouting up on “high hills and wild places”62 appeared to the locals an inversion of all that they held most precious: forbidding and sinister threats to their ancient liberties.

Henry’s greatest castle, a stronghold raised at the foot of the Harz mountains, where Christendom’s most lucrative gold mines were to be found, was regarded with particular hatred: for its walls and towers appeared all too grimly suited to the fell situation in which they had been raised. Indeed, at the very onset of the insurrection, when the Saxon rebels sought to trap Henry there, they found it an impossible task, so dense was the forest surrounding the Harzburg. “No matter all the efforts of the besiegers, they could not prevent the comings and goings of those who were shut in.”63 Henry, fleeing the castle without supplies, and relying on a huntsman to guide him through the trackless wilds, reached safety at last only after having travelled through bogs and briars for three whole days.

It was a common fantasy, no doubt, among the oppressed everywhere to see a castle-builder forced into humiliating flight. That the Harzburg and every other royal stronghold be levelled, that the onward march of military innovation be reversed, and that the “tyranny” which it facilitated be kept at bay: such were the demands of the Saxon rebels. Yet, for all the indignant talk of fortifications spreading across “every hill and mountain, so as to threaten Saxony with ruin,”64 an excess of castle-building on its own could hardly serve to sanction treason against an anointed king. Other justifications too were urgently needed. So it was that the insurgents, dredging up memories of Henry’s scandalous attempt to secure a divorce, fell to accusing him of a whole host of sinister practices: incest, groping abbesses, and hints of even worse. Such charges, in an age which had witnessed even the saintly Agnes accused of nymphomania, might easily have been dismissed as the common currency of political abuse – except that Henry, like his mother before him, was finding himself acutely vulnerable to muck-raking.

For just as under the empress, so now under the king, the most venomous gossip of all was being whispered by princes. The movers and shakers of the Reich, having developed a taste for insubordination during Henry’s minority, were finding it hard to kick the habit. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that the leader of the rebellious Saxons should have been Otto of Northeim: the same duke who, back in the days of Agnes’s regency, had featured so prominently in the kidnapping at Kaiserswerth. True, Otto was a Saxon himself; but even among the princes of the Rhineland there was no lack of would-be jackals. Far from backing their lord against the rebels, the southern dukes were widely suspected of plotting his deposition. The greatest of them all, Rudolf of Swabia, was an object of particular royal suspicion. Already, in 1072, both Agnes and Henry’s godfather, Abbot Hugh of Cluny, had been called upon to patch up relations between the king and his most powerful vassal. Then, at Christmas-time in 1073, trouble had flared up again. A court insider, tipping off Rudolf that Henry was plotting his assassination, had insisted on proving his claim by undergoing trial by combat. Only the unexpected abduction of the accuser “by a terrible demon,” just a few days before the duel was due to be fought, had served to exonerate the king.65 Or had it? There were many who remained unconvinced. The charges against Henry – that he was a tyrant, a murderer, an enthusiast for every kind of vice – continued to swirl.

Self-evidently, then, with the Saxons still up in arms against him, and the southern princes manoeuvring to stab him in the back, it was hardly the time to be picking a fight with the Pope. There would be opportunity enough to do that, Henry judged, and to slap the uppity Gregory down for good, once the Reich had been successfully pacified. So it was that, rather than risk the slightest papal sanction being granted to his enemies’ slurs, he brought himself to grovel – even going so far as to acknowledge that he might possibly have backed the wrong horse in Milan. “Full of pleasantness and obedience,”66 a delighted Gregory described the royal tone to Erlembald. The likelier alternative, that the king might be stringing him along and playing for time, appeared not to have crossed the papal mind.

And time, sure enough, was what Henry had won for himself. In February 1074, amid the snow and ice of winter, he signed up to what appeared a humiliating peace, agreeing by its terms to demolish all his castles, and to restore Otto of Northeim to the full warmth of the royal favour. In truth, however, the king had gained far more than he had lost. Any prospect of a coalition between the ever-slippery Otto and the southern princes had now been successfully stymied. Even more promisingly, a wedge had been driven between the duke and the frustrated mass of the Saxon peasantry. In March, taking the law into their own hands, a great army of the “vulgus” – “the common people” – stormed the Harzburg, then began tearing it to pieces block by block. Even the royal chapel was burned to the ground. Finally, in a climactic desecration, the grave of Henry’s stillborn eldest son was dug up, and his tiny bones slung out amid the cinders and rubble. News of this outrage, not surprisingly, inspired widespread horror among the great. The southern dukes might mistrust the king powerfully, but they detested rioting peasants even more. The flattening of the Harzburg, ironically enough, spelled disaster for the Saxon cause. In the summer of 1075, Rudolf and a host of other lords at last submitted to joining Henry in a full-scale expedition against the rebels. On 9 June, amid the nightmarish swirling of a dust-storm, the Saxons were routed, and the wretched “vulgus” put satisfyingly to the sword. By the autumn, Henry’s mastery of Saxony was sufficiently complete for him to order his castles there to be rebuilt. Even the most fractious of the princes appeared ready to bow their necks to the royal yoke. So it was, for instance, that the royal lieutenant installed in the Harzburg, and compelled to supervise its wholesale restoration, was none other than the captain who had led the initial assault on the castle: that inveterate turncoat and survivor, Duke Otto of Northeim.

Finally, after all the many setbacks and frustrations that had previously served to hobble him so grievously, it seemed that the young king was on the verge of securing what he had always regarded as his birthright: the chance to rule as his great father had done. Even as stone-masons and workmen returned to the Harzburg, and the great lords of the Reich hurried obediently to celebrate Christmas at the royal table, Henry was looking to set the seal on his victory. Some work still remained to be done, of course. Not everyone who had thought to challenge the royal authority over the years had yet been put sufficiently in his place. Indeed, dukes such as Rudolf and Otto might be overweening, but they were neither of them half so officious, nor half so condescending, as the jumped-up Tuscan monk who sat in the Lateran. To Henry, the son of a Caesar who had forced three papal abdications in the space of a week, the notion that any bishop, even a bishop of Rome, might pose as the leader of Christendom was grotesque and insufferable. He had affected to listen politely to Gregory’s fantastical scheme for an expedition to Constantinople, but it was with no little satisfaction that he tracked its ultimate abortion. Gregory himself, far from leading the warriors of Christendom to the Holy Sepulchre, had been left with nothing to show for all his plans except a lingering taint of failure and scandal. A salutary demonstration, Henry could reflect contentedly, that the duties of a Caesar were not easily usurped by anyone – the heir of St. Peter included.

A point only emphasised by the peculiarly glaring contrast between the papal debacle and his own spectacular triumph. It was back in June 1074, exactly a year before Henry himself would lead the flower of the Reich to victory over the rebel Saxons, that Gregory had embarked on his expedition. First stop: a rendezvous with its somewhat improbable chief supporter. “My most beloved and loving daughter,”67 Gregory was in the habit of addressing the Lady Matilda of Tuscany. For the Pope, there was no embarrassment in acknowledging his obligations to a woman who was not yet thirty. Though Matilda’s stepfather, Duke Godfrey the Bearded, had died back in 1069, her mother, the Countess Beatrice, had succeeded admirably in keeping all the broad dominions of the House of Canossa to herself – and in grooming her only child to inherit their rule. Spirited, beautiful and blonde, Matilda was hardly a typical lieutenant of reform – and yet already she had proved herself a most invaluable one. Raised by her chaste and devout mother to believe passionately in everything that the new pope stood for, she had not hesitated to offer him an army of thirty thousand knights, nor to commit to accompanying his proposed expedition herself. Gregory, far from trying to dissuade her, had been so enthused by her “sisterly aid”68 that he had set about recruiting the venerable Empress Agnes to the venture as well. Soon enough, the Countess Beatrice had signed up too. Gregory’s opponents, however, rather than quaking in their boots at this impressive show of female backing, had responded with hilarity. Guiscard’s Normans, in particular, had been loud in their derision. Perhaps, had Gregory succeeded in crushing them before embarking for Constantinople, as had been his intention, the mockery would have been silenced – but he had not. Only a fortnight into the campaign, news had reached Beatrice and Matilda of an insurrection back in Tuscany. With their forced withdrawal, Gregory had found himself with little choice but to abandon the whole expedition. Then, once back in Rome, he had fallen ill. The Holy Sepulchre had been left to seem a very long way off indeed.

Nor, a year and more on from the fiasco, had the damage been wholly repaired. Taunts that the rule of the Church had been handed over to a gaggle of women were widespread. Lurid allegations too of “a most appalling scandal.” To many bishops in particular, fed up as they were with hectoring demands from Rome that they impose a monkish lifestyle upon their priests, Gregory’s warm relationship with Matilda appeared the rankest hypocrisy. What was it, they charged, if not “intimacy and cohabitation with a strange woman”?69 Palpably unfair – but then again, as Henry himself knew all too well, innuendo hardly had to be true for it to be damaging. In the Reich especially, where bishops tended to be even haughtier than elsewhere in Christendom, and even more toweringly conscious of their own dignity, there were plenty who had developed an active stake in thinking the worst of the new pope. “The man is a menace!” sniffed one archbishop. “He presumes to boss us around as though we were his bailiffs!”70 Others, recoiling from Gregory’s brusque demands that priests be obliged to abandon their wives, demanded to know whether he planned to staff the Church with angels. Such a show of sarcasm had absolutely zero effect on Gregory himself. Indeed, by 1075, his prescriptions against married priests, and simony too, were attaining a whole new level of peremptoriness. In February, four bishops were suspended for disobedience. Then, in July, one of them, a particularly inveterate simonist, was deposed. Finally, as the year drew to its close, Gregory unleashed against the sullen and recalcitrant imperial Church the reformers’ most devastating weapon of all. “We have heard,” he wrote in an open letter to King Henry’s subjects, “that certain of the bishops who dwell in your parts either condone, or fail to take notice of, the keeping of women by priests.” Such men, rebels against the authority of St. Peter, he now summoned to the court of popular opinion. “We charge you,” Gregory instructed the peoples of the Reich, “in no way to obey these bishops.”71

This papal gambit appeared dangerous and perverse, irresponsible and criminal to the outraged bishops themselves. To Henry IV as well – for naturally, at a time when he had only just succeeded in stamping out the bushfires of rebellion in Saxony, the last thing he wanted to see imported north of the Alps was anything resembling the Patarenes. It was the role and the duty of his bishops, after all, to serve him as his principal ministers: only destabilise them, and the entire Reich risked being set to totter. Even that, however, was not the deadliest threat posed by Gregory’s determination to bring the imperial Church to heel: for always, rumbling beneath the royal feet as it had done ever since the crisis first erupted in Milan, there waited a potentially even more explosive danger. For all Henry’s show of temporary contrition, the row over who had the right to invest the city’s archbishop – whether king or Pope – had still not been resolved; and in February, growing impatient, Gregory had sought to force the issue, and impose his candidate for good, by taking a fatal step. By the decree of a formal synod of the Roman Church, “the King’s right to confer bishoprics from that moment on was openly prohibited”:72 a measure targeted at Milan, to be sure, but with potentially devastating implications for royal authority across the whole span of the Reich. After all, without the right to invest bishops, how would Henry nominate his ministers, impose his authority, administer the kingdom? What future for the empire then? Gregory might not have intended it, but his attempt to win a battle threatened him with out-and-out war.

It was a far-reaching miscalculation. Lulled into a false sense of security by the young king’s seeming tractability, Gregory had fatally misjudged the royal temper. In truth, Henry’s policy of appeasement towards the papacy had only ever been a temporary expedient. His invariable instinct, whenever forced into a corner, was to come out fighting. By the autumn, with the Saxons defeated at last, Henry had successfully punched his way out of one – and could devote all his energies to escaping the other. Fortunately for him, much had changed to his advantage over the previous few months. Firstly, back in late March, the cathedral in Milan had been swept by a terrible fire: a disaster interpreted by most Milanese as a judgement on the Patarenes. A few weeks later, and any lingering doubts that God had turned decisively against Erlembald were dispelled when the papal captain was ambushed and cut down, his supporters among the clergy mutilated, and his remaining supporters driven into exile. By early autumn, with the Saxons crushed and Milan swept clear of Gregory’s supporters, Henry felt ready to move at last. Ignoring the rival claims of Atto and Godfrey to the bishopric, he coolly nominated a third candidate: a deacon who had travelled in his train to the Saxon wars, by the name of Tedald. Nor was that the limit, by any means, of Henry’s provocations. For almost three years, he had found himself being pressed by Gregory to dismiss the advisers excommunicated by Alexander II – and had prevaricated. Now, in a pointed rubbing of salt into the papal wounds, he opted to dispatch one of them to Milan, to serve Tedald as his enforcer. A bullish and defiant assertion of royal authority, to be sure – but it was also, in the context of the gathering crisis, yet one further miscalculation. Though the Pope had badly underestimated the king, it would soon become clear that the king had underestimated the Pope even more.

On New Year’s Day 1076, as Henry sat in royal splendour surrounded by the great princes of the Reich, seemingly the master of all he surveyed, three cloaked and breathless envoys were ushered into his presence. Barely three weeks it had taken them to ride the winter roads from Rome to Saxony: a telling measure of how urgent their mission was. Along with a letter from Gregory, written in a tone more of sorrow than of anger, they bore a verbal message for the king: one sterner, more prescriptive, altogether more threatening. Either Henry was to acknowledge all his offences, the Pope had decreed, and do penance for them – or else “not only would he be excommunicated until he had made due restitution, but he would also be deprived of his entire dignity as king without hope of recovery.”73 Such an ultimatum spoke loudly of Gregory’s courage, his sense of conviction, and his invincible self-confidence: for by now he had a far better understanding of his adversary’s character. Throwing down the gauntlet as he had done, he would have anticipated the likely response. A response that, sure enough, was not slow in coming.

A mere thirty years had passed since Henry III, at the Synod of Sutri, had laid on a masterclass in the art of removing troublesome popes. Now, determined to show himself a chip off the old block, his son aimed to reprise the coup. Three weeks into the new year, a full two-thirds of the Reich’s bishops assembled in splendid conference at Worms. Their mission was one about which Henry made absolutely no bones: to ensure the disposal of the Pope. The bishops’ solution? To insist that Gregory’s elevation had been merely as the favourite of the Roman mob, rather than as the choice of Henry and the cardinals – and that as a result he was no pope at all. A neat manoeuvre – and one with which Henry was naturally delighted. Just to spice things up a bit, however, he made sure that some additional allegations were thrown in for good measure: that Gregory had repeatedly perjured himself; that he had treated the imperial bishops like slaves; that he had been carrying on with the Lady Matilda. All was then set down, and dispatched by envoy to the man now referred to dismissively by the imperial bishops as “Hildebrand.” Henry himself was even ruder. “Let another sit upon St. Peter’s throne,” he proclaimed ringingly, “one who will not cloak violence with a pretence of religion, but will teach the pure doctrine of St. Peter. I, Henry, by God’s grace king, with all our bishops say to you: come down, come down!”74

But Gregory did not come down. Instead, no sooner had he received Henry’s invitation to abdicate than he prepared to order the gates of hell unbarred and swung open wide, ready to receive the obdurate king. In the very church in which he had first been hailed as Pope, before a full assembly of the Roman Church, and in the presence of the relics of St. Peter, he ordered the letter from Worms to be read out – and the howls of horror which it provoked were terrible to hear. One week later, when Gregory formally confirmed the awful sentence of excommunication against the king, the throne of St. Peter, it is said, split suddenly in two. A wonder fit to chill the blood: for one half of Christendom was indeed now sundered from the other. The terms of Gregory’s anathema were dreadful and unparalleled. “I take from King Henry, son of the Emperor Henry, who has risen against the Church with unheard-of pride, the government of the entire kingdom of the Germans and of the Italians. And I absolve the Christian people from any oath that they have taken, or shall take, to him. And I forbid anyone to serve him as king.”75 A deposition that, once pronounced, echoed terrifyingly across Christendom. Indeed, nervousness as to what they might have brought down upon themselves and upon the Reich immediately began to afflict Henry’s bishops with serious second thoughts. At Easter, when the king summoned them to denounce “Hildebrand” to the Christian people, only one, William of Utrecht, was bold enough to do so – and his cathedral was promptly struck by lightning. One week later, and he was afflicted with excruciating stomach cramps. One month later, and he was dead. William’s fellow bishops, rather than persist in their support for a king who was so clearly accursed, now increasingly began to fall away. Many of them, anxious for their own souls, hurried to make their peace with Gregory – who, for his part, was diplomatically quick to welcome them back into the fold. Henry, having been cheered on all the way in the declaration of war that he had made at Worms, now found himself being abandoned on the very field of battle.

Nor was it only the bishops who were proving fair-weather friends. The great lords of the Reich, who back at Christmas had seemed so cowed, so dutiful, so loyal, had in truth merely been biding their time. Like their brother princes of the Church, they had tracked “the great disasters that plagued the commonwealth”76 with much show of pious consternation but also with not a little smacking of their lips, for upheaval spelled opportunity for them. Sure enough, by the summer, the embers of Saxon resentment were blazing back into open flames. In August – in infallible proof that the wind had changed – Otto of Northeim opted to jump ship yet again. Even more ominously, as Henry struggled and failed to contain the renewed rebellion, the southern princes were also preparing themselves to show their hand. In September, Duke Rudolf and a host of formidable allies sent out a summons to the nobility of the entire Reich, inviting them to the town of Tribur, on the east bank of the Rhine, there to attempt, as they put it, “to bring a close to the various misfortunes that for many years had disturbed the peace of the Church.”77 Or, to put it more plainly: to discuss the possible deposition of the king. Every lord who travelled to Tribur understood the potential stakes. So too did the king himself. Weakened as he was by the sequence of calamities that had overwhelmed him since Easter, he knew full well that he had no hope of preventing the assembly by force. Instead, mustering what few supporters he could still count upon, he limped his way to the town of Oppenheim, directly opposite the great gathering of princes, on the far bank of the Rhine – and there, like a wounded lion, kept a beady but impotent watch upon those who might think to attempt to dispatch him.

And certainly, the peril was very great. On 16 October, a letter from Gregory was read out by his legate to the assembled princes, in which the Pope for the first time broached the possibility of electing a new king, should Henry continue unregenerate. The Saxon leaders, however, and not a few of the southern dukes, were already set upon his deposition; and for a whole week they sought to force their case upon their peers. To a majority of the princes, though, such a step was simply too drastic to countenance – and Henry, sensing a chance to save his skin, even at a ferocious cost, duly signalled his willingness to bow his neck before the man he now referred to, once again, as “the lord Pope Gregory.”78 For ten days, envoys from the rival camps were ferried back and forth across the Rhine – until in due course a shaky compromise had been hammered out. The details of it, for Henry, were mortifying. He was required to swear an oath of obedience to Gregory; to revoke the sentence of Worms; to banish his excommunicated advisers once and for all. One term, however, more than any other, appeared particularly ominous: for the Pope, Henry’s enemies had insisted, was to be invited to an assembly at Augsburg, there to sit in judgement on the king, to consider whether to grant him absolution,and to listen to the Saxons and the southern dukes press for his deposition. A Damocles’ sword indeed. And yet, despite it all, Henry had secured his primary objective, and foiled that of his foes. For the while, at any rate, he remained the king.

Nor, even though the assembly at Augsburg had been set for February, the anniversary of his excommunication, and a date that by now was only three months away, had he been left altogether without freedom of manoeuvre. First, Henry dispatched an urgent letter to Gregory, pleading to be allowed to come to Rome for his absolution, where it could be granted to him in cloistered privacy. Next, when this request was bluntly refused, he settled upon a desperate expedient. Knowing that Gregory, if he were to make Augsburg for February, would have to travel throughout the winter, Henry resolved to do the same. His plan: to head southwards, cross the Alps, and look to meet the Pope, not in Augsburg, but in Italy. “For as the anniversary of the King’s excommunication drew steadily nearer, so he knew that he had no choice but to be absolved before that date. Otherwise, by the sentence of the princes who would sit together in judgement on him, his cause would be fatally doomed, and his kingdom lost for ever.”79

So it was, shortly after Christmas, in the very dead of winter, that Henry began his ascent of the Alps. Ahead of him, icy and deep buried in snow, there wound the road that would lead him, in due course, to Italy, and the gates of Canossa.

Everything Turned Upside Down

Early in the summer of 1076, as the full horror of the crisis afflicting Christendom was starting to dawn on people, the Abbot of Cluny had been confronted by a terrifying apparition. William of Utrecht, the same bishop who only one month previously had dared to condemn Gregory as a false pope from the very pulpit of his cathedral, had materialised suddenly before Hugh, licked all about by fire. “I am dead,” the bishop had cried out in agony, “dead, and deep buried in hell!,”80 before vanishing as mysteriously as he had appeared. Sure enough, a few days later, grim confirmation of the vision’s tidings had been brought to Cluny. The Bishop of Utrecht was indeed no more.

Prompted by this alarming experience, Abbot Hugh had dutifully set himself to the task of redeeming his godson from the prospect of a similarly infernal fate. In early November, crossing into the Reich, he had selflessly put his own prospects of salvation into jeopardy by meeting with the excommunicated king, and urging him to hold true to his chosen course of penitence. Then, heading on southwards, Hugh had journeyed to Rome, where he had sought absolution for his dealings with Henry from the Pope himself. Gregory had granted it readily enough. Relations between the two men had long been close. “We walk by the same way,” as Gregory would later express it, “by the same mind, and by the same spirit.”81 Indeed, aside from his much-loved spiritual daughter, the Countess Matilda, Hugh was the only person to whom the sternly self-disciplined pontiff ever thought to confess his private anxieties. It was telling, no doubt that what he most admired in the abbot were precisely those qualities of compassion and emollience that he so often felt obliged, by virtue of all his responsibilities as the shepherd of the Christian people, to guard against in himself. Hugh’s attempts at peacemaking, though initially brushed aside, were certainly not begrudged. Leaving Rome that icy December on his fateful attempt to reach Augsburg, and his rendezvous with the German princes, the Pope made sure to keep the Abbot of Cluny by his side. Soon afterwards, crossing into Tuscany, he was joined by the Lady Matilda. So it was, in the new year, as the startling news was brought to the papal party of Henry’s crossing of the Alps, that Gregory, amid all the panic of his hurried doubling back to Canossa, found himself bolstered by the companionship of the two people upon whose support he had always most depended. Their advice, at this supreme crisis-point of his life, was unhesitating. Both, before Henry’s arrival at the gates of Matilda’s stronghold, had met with the king and promised to plead his cause. Both duly kept their word. Both, as Gregory sat by his window and stared out at the royal supplicant shivering in the snow below him, vigorously urged the course of mercy.

As well they might have done. For Matilda, though she remained unstintingly loyal to the Holy Father, the benefits of securing the friendship of Henry, her overlord and second-cousin, were obvious – not least because, with the death of her mother the previous year, she now ruled alone as the protectress of her lands. Hugh, meanwhile, in his concern to see his godson redeemed from the yawning jaws of hell, felt little call to consider what impact Henry’s absolution might have upon Gregory’s plans and hopes for the reordering of the fallen world. The monks of Cluny, after all, were already as close to an angelic state as it was possible for flesh and blood to be. Far from labouring to bring the remainder of humanity to share in their own miraculous condition, their instinct had always been instead to man the ramparts of their abbey. Whereas Gregory did not hesitate to charge seasoned warriors such as Erlembald to fight for the cause of reform from their saddles, Hugh would invariably urge the opposite course upon them, and encourage any penitent knight to swap his mail coat for a cowl. Indeed, the glamour and mystique of Cluny’s name being what it was, even dukes, on occasion, had been known to abandon their princedoms for the abbey’s cloisters. “The shepherds flee, as do the dogs who are the protectors of their flocks,” Gregory, in naked frustration, had once raged at Hugh. “Only take or receive a duke into the quiet of Cluny, and you will be leaving a hundred thousand Christians without a guardian!”82 Even though the Pope knew both himself and the abbot to be allies in a common struggle, there were times, desolating times, when he feared that they might be pulling in opposite directions. At such moments, the knowledge of how alone he was with all his responsibilities would bear down on him in a peculiarly crushing manner. “For we bear a huge weight not only of spiritual but also of temporal concerns; and we daily fear our falling under the impending burden, for in this world we can in no way find means of help and support.”83 Such was the bleak confession that Gregory had made to Hugh back in 1074, during the very first year of his papacy. He might well have repeated it, and with even more justice, at Canossa.

Certainly, his delay in calling Henry in from the cold was not, as his critics would subsequently allege, the expression of a stiff-necked arrogance, but rather of irresolution, perplexity and self-doubt. Gregory, that man of iron certitude, did not know what to do. The king’s manoeuvre had comprehensively outflanked him. As a result, he found himself confronted by an agonising dilemma. Absolve Henry, Gregory knew, and all the confidence that the German princes had placed in him would inevitably be betrayed. Refuse to show the humbled king mercy, however, and he would be betraying the duty that he owed to the Almighty Himself: to serve Him as the channel of His forgiveness and grace. Such a consideration, in the end, had to be reckoned paramount. So it was, on the third day of Henry’s penitence, that the Holy Father duly gave the guards on the gates the nod. The king was admitted into the castle at last, blessed with a kiss, and invited to Mass. Yet all along, in the back of Gregory’s mind, the dread would have lurked that he was being fooled, that he had been outsmarted, that his adversary had triumphed.

An anxiety, it seems, that was gnawing at Henry too. Entering his cousin’s stronghold, his stomach was knotted up. When he and Gregory sat down together to mark their reconciliation with a meal, the occasion was not a success. No blame for this could possibly have been attached to the standard of fare on offer: for the Lady Matilda was heir to a long line of gourmands, and the balsamic vinegar of Canossa, in particular, was internationally renowned. Both Pope and king, however, showed precious little appetite. Gregory, as ascetic as ever, contented himself with the odd nibble at a herb or two; while Henry as well, despite his three days of penance, ate barely a mouthful. His discomfort, perhaps, was only to be expected. Feasts, which should properly have been rituals for bringing home to his subjects the full scale of his royal dignity and power, had all too often ended up emphasising the very opposite. Back when he was young, his guests had regularly amused themselves by having punch-ups over the seatingarrangements. On one notorious occasion, indeed, two bishops had brought in rival gangs of heavies to help decide which of them should have the precedence. On another, a group of monks, indignant at Henry’s gifting of their monastery to the Archbishop of Cologne, had gatecrashed the royal hall and vandalised the dinner table, in full view of all the court. Unsurprisingly, then, any hint of awkwardness at a meal tended not to bring out the best in the king. Now that he had secured what he wanted from Gregory, he certainly had no wish to linger any longer than he had to at the scene of his humiliation. After one further summit with the Pope, held near by at a second of Matilda’s strongholds, Henry was off. By April, after a hurried tour of northern Italy, he was back in theReich.

Where, already, Gregory’s dark forebodings about how the German princes might respond to his absolution of the king were proving themselves all too justified. Henry’s enemies, brought the news of Canossa, had reacted to it with astonishment and consternation. Barely a month after receiving Gregory’s half-defiant, half-apologetic justification of his decision, the rebel princes had met in grim-faced assembly in Franconia, in the town of Forcheim. There, rather than wait for Gregory himself to arrive in Germany, as had previously been their intention, they had briskly set about delivering a judgement of their own. On 13 March, they had formally agreed that Henry, no matter what might have been decided on the topic at Canossa, should remain well and truly deposed.84 Then, two days later, and in the wake of a patently predetermined vote, the election had been announced of a new king: Duke Rudolf of Swabia. A fateful step: for although, over the course of the centuries, there had often been anti-popes, never before had there been an anointed anti-Caesar. The insurgency within Henry’s kingdom was fast becoming something intractable. What had previously been spasmodic rumblings were by now coming to shake the very fabric of the Reich. The threat was not merely of dynastic feuding, such as had perennially afflicted it, but of a far more total form of conflict: civil war of a remorselessness such as no Christian realm had ever endured before.

Not that this was immediately apparent to Henry. Reinvigorated by the success of his gambit at Canossa, he came strutting back across the Alps aglow with self-confidence, and spitting disdain for his upstart challenger. Most of the southern princes, shrinking from the course of open treason, reluctantly shuffled in behind him; Swabia, Rudolf’s own dukedom, was invaded and laid waste; Rudolf himself, abandoning his attempt to tour the Reich in a serene and stately manner, as befitted a king, was sent scampering for Saxony. Once arrived in that hotbed of rebellion, however, he and his supporters succeeded in hunkering down so impregnably that Henry, despite repeated efforts, found it impossible to shift them. The result was a stalemate – and an increasingly bloody one too. Battle after battle was fought – and every one indecisive. Armies composed primarily not of mail-clad horsemen but rather of conscripted foot-soldiers, merchants and billhook-carrying peasants, provided both kings with sufficient spear-fodder to keep returning to the killing-fields. Warfare on such a scale appeared to the Germans themselves something unprecedented and terrifying; and so, inevitably – for the habit of anticipating apocalypse was by now deeply ingrained in the Christian people – there were many who saw in it a foretaste of the end days. The Saxons, even as they fought in the name of a cause dusted down from books of pagan history – what had been termed by the ancients “libertas,” or “liberty”— simultaneously never doubted that they ranked as the sword-arms of heaven. Henry, in their fervent opinion, had been deposed both justly and irrevocably, as “an open enemy of the Church.” To die in the cause of their nation’s freedom was therefore to die as martyrs for Christ as well. Gregory’s own legates to Saxony, riding in Rudolf’s train and offering his warriors their blessing, had repeatedly confirmed as much. Henry, one of them had stated baldly, was “a limb of Antichrist.”85

A pronouncement for which Rudolf was, of course, most grateful. Nevertheless, as he struggled desperately to extend his writ beyond the limits of Saxony, he could have done with a little more cheerleading from the Holy Father himself. Not that he was alone in feeling disappointment on that particular score. Henry too, in the wake of Canossa, regarded papal backing as his right: fit reward for his penance. Both kings, taking it for granted that the Almighty was on their side, duly pressed for a papal condemnation of the other; but Gregory, tempering his natural decisiveness for once, sought to maintain a severe neutrality. He certainly was anguished by the slaughter in Germany, and desperate to see it brought to an end, yet his principal concern remained, as it had ever been, the securing of the freedom of the Church. If Henry was clearly less to be trusted on that score than Rudolf, then so also did he seem the likelier to prevail as the ultimate victor: a consideration fit to inspire even Gregory to a course of wait and see.

And yet the conclusion that most men would have drawn from this – that there were inevitable limitations set upon what any pope might hope to achieve in a world swayed by the sword – was one that he still disdained to draw. Combustible, scorching, volcanic: Gregory remained what he had ever been. Even as a baby, it was said, unearthly sparks had flickered across his swaddling clothes; and as an adult too, not only had a miraculous halo of flames been known on occasion to illumine his head, but before ever being raised to the throne of St. Peter, he had been granted a vision of his future, one spectacularly lit by fire. For he had dreamed a famous dream: “a prophecy of papal excellence and power, that flames came out of his mouth and set the whole world ablaze.” To Gregory’s enemies, impious as they were, this had appeared a clear portent of the destruction that he was fated to unleash upon the Christian people; but his supporters had known better. “For doubtless,” as one of them put it, “the fire had been that same fire cast upon the earth by the Lord Jesus Christ: a kindling eagerly to be desired.”86

Nor, even as Germany burned, did Gregory himself ever pause to doubt this. Unremittingly, with a persistence and an energy that appeared even to his bitterest opponents something prodigious, he stuck to the task of re-forging the entire Christian world upon the anvil of his will. Not a region of Christendom but its customs, if they appeared to Gregory to flout those of the Roman Church, might provoke a lordly scolding. Informed, for instance, that there was a fashion on Sardinia for priests to sport luxuriant beards, he did not hesitate to lecture the local authorities in the most peremptory manner: “we charge you,” he wrote sternly, “that you should make and compel all the clergy under your power to shave.”87 Such a close attention to details of personal grooming might, perhaps, have been thought to lie beneath the papal dignity – but Gregory knew otherwise. What else was his mission, after all, if not to restore wholeness to a fractured world, from the top to the very bottom? No possible effort, then, in the pursuit of such an awesome goal, could properly be spared him. Nothing for it, in the final reckoning, but to impose a uniform obedience upon the Church wherever it was found, and at every level. For only then could it be rendered truly universal.

And the best way of securing this desirable end? To Gregory, a man with a proven taste for thinking big, the solution had seemed self-evident enough. Surely, he had mused, heaven’s purpose would best be served if all the various realms of Christendom were to become the personal property of St. Peter, and his earthly vicar – himself. Never a man to duck a challenge, he had duly dusted down the Donation of Constantine, and written to various princes, floating the startling suggestion that they might like to sign over their kingdoms “to the holy Roman church.”88 Yet even Gregory, never a man to sell his own expectations short, seems to have appreciated that the idea, by and large, was a non-starter. A few months after Canossa, for instance, addressing the various kings of Spain, he had no sooner asserted that the entire peninsula belonged to St. Peter than he was hurriedly acknowledging that, “to be sure, both the misfortunes of past times and a certain negligence of our predecessors have hitherto obscured this.”89 Which was putting it mildly. Indeed, in sober truth, rulers needed to be either very pious, like the Countess Matilda, or else very hungry for legitimacy, like Robert Guiscard, to become vassals of St. Peter. Even Gregory himself, though he remained indomitably convinced of the papacy’s entitlements, was not wholly oblivious to this. He may have been unbending in his aspirations – but in his methods often much less so. After all, as the Norman battle line had so potently demonstrated at Hastings, there was no shame in a tactical withdrawal, so long as it served the cause of an ultimate victory. When the Conqueror himself, for instance, invited by a pushy legate to become a vassal of St. Peter, responded with a diplomatic snort, Gregory opted not to force the issue. William was, compared with Henry, a model partner of the Roman Church; why, then, risk the alienation of a king who was capable of serving “as a standard of righteousness and a pattern of obedience to all the princes of the earth”?90

For Gregory, then, as for any general engaged in a war on multiple fronts, strategy was not merely a matter of clinging on to positions, no matter what, but also of judging which lines could legitimately be abandoned, in the cause of securing a lesser advantage. Certainly, as the bruising events leading up to Canossa had demonstrated, he was hardly afraid to go head to head with kings; and yet Gregory was sensitive as well to the advantages that might be gained from conciliation. In Spain, for instance, as in England, he ended up opting not to push his luck: for the King of León, no less than William the Conqueror, was a man who combined great devotion to the Roman Church with an imperious and iron-forged temper. Indeed, such was the fearsome reputation of Alfonso VI that he was darkly rumoured to have been guilty of fratricide, no less: for in 1072, ascending the throne, it had been in succession to his brother, murdered in a crime that – officially, at any rate – had never been solved. With a second brother incarcerated for life, and one of his cousins falling mysteriously off a cliff, such a king was clearly a man whose interests it might be perilous to cross – nor did Gregory choose to. Indeed, aside from a brief spat provoked by Alfonso’s choice of an unsuitable wife, relations between Pope and king grew so cordial that in 1079, only two years after the rebuff of his attempt to lay claim to Spain for St. Peter, Gregory could hail his correspondent for his “exalted humility and faithful obedience.”91 Slightly over the top, it might have been thought – except that, from the perspective of Rome, it did not appear so at all. Alfonso might not have acknowledged himself a vassal of the papacy – but as a patron of reform, at any rate, he was fit to rank alongside any prince in Christendom. No matter that the Spaniards, harking back to the glory days when Toledo had been the holy city of the Visigoths rather than a Saracen capital, still clung to outmoded and heretical rituals – Alfonso had cheerfully abolished them all. In 1080, by swingeing royal decree, the Roman form of Mass was imposed upon his entire kingdom. Alfonso himself, in a dramatic gesture, drop-kicked a Visigothic service-book into a bonfire. This was precisely the kind of robust leadership that Gregory had always valued in a king.

For, although he was a man of God, the Holy Father was hardly unseasoned in the ways of the world. As a leader himself with a whole lifetime of diplomatic manoeuvrings to his credit, Gregory had few illusions as to the character of the warlords with whom he was obliged, as Pope, to deal. Nevertheless, this did not mean, of course, that the inevitable compromises which were forced upon him as a result necessarily sat easily with his conscience. That the universal Church remained dependent on the support of often murderous princes never ceased to frustrate and pain him. Several years into his papacy, indeed, and sometimes, in his darker moods, Gregory would find himself brought to question the very basis of worldly power. “For who does not know,” he raged bitterly on one occasion, “that kings and dukes derive their origin from men ignorant of God, murderers who raised themselves above their former equals by means of pride, plunder and treachery, urged on all the while by the Devil, who is the prince of this world?”92

A startling question – and one that only a man of humble origins, perhaps, would ever have thought to ask. To Gregory himself, a man who had toiled all his life to secure the Church as a bulwark against the legions of “the ancient enemy,”93 suspicion of the Devil’s cunning was only natural: a spur to ever more urgent labours. Yet even as he could reflect with satisfaction on the sheer global reach of all his efforts, and on how an immense sway of the earth’s scattered peoples, from the Swedes to the Irish, had been successfully urged to a common obedience, Gregory was increasingly conscious of a satanic and gathering darkness. It was all well and good for him to summon princes on the world’s edge to acknowledge the universal authority of “St. Peter and his vicars, among whom divine providence has appointed that our lot should be numbered”94 – and yet what if, even as he did so, the most hellish menace of all were lurking within Christendom’s heartlands? What, indeed, if the advance guard of Antichrist were already massing to assail the throne of St. Peter itself? This, by the seventh year of his papacy, was the monstrous possibility by which Gregory found himself increasingly shadowed. “And truly,” he reflected, “it can be held no wonder – for the nearer the time of Antichrist approaches, so the more violently does he strive to destroy the Christian religion.”95

Back in late 1077, as Henry’s pious and venerable mother lay dying, what had most consoled her was the conviction that her son and her spiritual father, the two men to whom she had devoted so much of her life, were reconciled at last, and that Christendom’s great breach was repaired for good. Perhaps, then, it was just as well that the Empress Agnes had passed away when she did. Despite the kiss of forgiveness that Gregory had bestowed upon Henry at Canossa, and for all the spirit of compromise that had characterised their mutual dealings in its immediate wake, both had remained wedded to positions that neither man could possibly concede: positions that were, in the ultimate reckoning, irreconcilable. Henry, alert at last to the full revolutionary implications of Gregory’s policies, was resolved never to surrender his right of investiture; just as Gregory, thunderously convinced of his divine vocation, remained no less committed to stripping it away for good. Small wonder, then, that the tensions which had seemed so dramatically eased at Canossa had soon begun to escalate again. In the autumn of 1078, Gregory, making all too clear what had hitherto been left diplomatically opaque, had issued a fateful decree: “that no priest may receive investiture of a bishopric, abbey, or church from the hand of an emperor or king.”96 Henry’s response was to invest two archbishops that very same Christmas. A year and more on, and still there had been no royal climbdown. Why, indeed, should there have been? Henry had every reason to feel confident. In Saxony, Rudolf’s support was showing signs of splintering at last. Certainly, there was not the remotest prospect now of the anti-king making a breakout from his increasingly beleaguered power base. Henry could consider himself as secure upon his throne as he had been since the body-blow of his excommunication. No wonder, then, called upon formally for the first time to abandon his right of investiture, that he had opted to call Gregory’s bluff.

And no wonder either, Gregory being Gregory, that the Pope had likewise refused to budge. The challenge, it seemed to the outraged pontiff, was only incidentally to himself: for Henry was trampling on the very purposes of God. Early in 1080, shortly before a synod was due to be held in Rome, the Virgin Mary had duly appeared to Gregory in a vision, and reassured him of heaven’s backing for the dreadful steps that it was now his clear and pressing duty, as the leader of the universal Church, to take. Sure enough, on 7 March, the Pope greeted the assembled delegates to his council with a mighty groan, and then, his words tumbling out from him in an anguished torrent, pronounced that Henry was once again “justly cast down from the dignity of the kingship because of his pride, disobedience and falsehood.”97 The show of neutrality that Gregory had maintained with such rigorous forbearance since Forcheim was abandoned at last. All the weight of his authority, and all the invisible legions of God that he had no reason to doubt were his to command, he now committed to the support of Rudolf. Everything that he had ever laboured to achieve, in short, was being gambled on a single proposition: that it lay within his power to destroy Henry for good. That same Easter, in the awful setting of St. Peter’s, Gregory did not hesitate to make explicit the full, terrifying scale of what was now at stake between him and his adversary. “For let it be known to all of you,” he pronounced, “that if he does not recover his senses by the feast of St. Peter, he will die or be deposed. If this fails to happen, I ought no more to be believed.”98

Gregory, though, was unwilling to trust his fortunes entirely to the protection of the apostle. That summer, looking to secure an earthly shield for himself in addition to his celestial one, he took a deep breath, swallowed his scruples, and agreed to meet with Robert Guiscard. The Duke of Apulia, who had responded to his excommunication back in 1074 by seizing Amalfi and menacing Benevento, was now formally absolved, and reconfirmed as a papal vassal. A humiliating climbdown for Gregory, to be sure – but an unavoidable one as well. Sure enough, late that June, right in the midst of his negotiations with the Norman duke, ominous news arrived from Germany. Henry, it was reported, repeating his tactics of four years earlier, had responded to Gregory’s deposition of him by summoning a council of his bishops, and leaning on them to depose Gregory in turn. A whole array of crimes had been laid at the door of “Hildebrand”: warmongering, of course, and the inevitable simony, but also, and more originally, a taste for pornographic floor shows.

Nor was that the worst. Henry had also taken a further and still more threatening step. A new pope had been nominated: the Archbishop of Ravenna, a distant relative of the Countess Matilda by the name of Guibert. Not surprisingly, then, on the feast day of St. Peter, 29 June, Gregory’s supporters waited with bated breath for this impostor to be struck down along with Henry; but nothing happened. Not only did the two men remain resolutely alive and flourishing, but it seemed to many, as summer turned to autumn, that the Almighty had adopted a policy of actively backing the anathematised king. On 15 October, for instance, as the Lady Matilda set out along the road to Ravenna in an attempt to kidnap her upstart relative, she and her army of knights were ambushed and so severely mauled that they had no choice but to retreat ignominiously to a nearby bolt hole.

Simultaneously, in Saxony, by the side of a swollen river south of Merseburg, an even worse calamity was befalling Gregory’s cause. Rudolf of Swabia, meeting Henry in yet another savage but indecisive battle, had his sword-hand hacked clean off, and within a matter of hours had bled to death. A maiming as just as it was awful, it appeared to his foes: for the fatal blow had been delivered to the hand with which the anti-king had once sworn to be Henry’s vassal. Gregory’s prophecy, “that in this year the false king would die,”99 now appeared all too grimly ironic. God had indeed delivered a judgement, it seemed – but it was not Henry who had been found wanting.

And even Gregory himself, who naturally scorned to share in this analysis, had been left by Rudolf’s death feeling perhaps just a mea sure of perplexity at the mysterious workings of the Almighty, and looking anxiously to the north. No matter that the Saxons remained as obdurately unpacified as they had ever been: they had also been left exhausted and leaderless, and Henry could afford to ignore them at last. The road to Rome lay open so, come the spring, he took it. By May, he and his army were camped out before the city’s gates. There, however, much to Henry’s frustration, they found themselves obliged to halt. No matter that the would-be emperor had made sure to bring Guibert with him, in anticipation of a coronation in St. Peter’s: what he had neglected to bring were sufficient troops to intimidate the Romans, who had no desire for a swap of bishops. “Instead of candles, they met the king with spears; instead of singing clergy, with armed warriors; instead of anthems of praise, with reproaches; instead of applause, with sobs.”100 Gregory, gazing out at his enemy’s camp from the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo, a brooding stronghold just across from St. Peter’s, could afford to breathe a huge sigh of relief. By June, as the Roman marshlands shimmered pestilentially in the heat, the royal army had begun packing up its bags.

But for how long would Henry be gone? And if he did return in the new year, and in sufficient force to cow the Romans – what then? Although Gregory was buoyed by the solid backing of his flock, he could hardly help but reflect on the disappointing lack of support he had received from those better qualified, perhaps, to draw their swords in his defence. True, the Countess Matilda, ever loyal, ever valiant, had refused to submit to her royal cousin; but the effective limit of her resistance had been to hunker down in her Apennine strongholds, while being systematically despoiled of all her lowland possessions. Indeed, there was only one captain in Italy truly qualified to blunt the threat posed by Henry: that very same prince whose backing it had cost Gregory so much nose-holding to secure only the previous year. Robert Guiscard, however, despite all the increasingly frantic appeals sent to him from the Lateran, had shown a marked disinclination to rally to his overlord’s cause: for his concern, as it had ever been, was ultimately with no one’s prospects save his own. The Duke of Apulia had always been a man to follow his dreams – and these, by the summer of 1081, had attained a truly grandiose dimension. Rather than marching to combat Henry, Guiscard had instead been preoccupied with his most glamorous and spectacular stunt yet: nothing less than an invasion of the Byzantine Empire.

An ambitious project, certainly – but not a wholly vainglorious one, even so. Seven years had passed since the failure of Gregory’s planned expedition to Constantinople, and still the fortunes of the New Rome remained firmly locked in a downward spiral: “the Empire was almost at its last gasp.”101 Even as the Turks continued with their dismemberment of its Asian provinces, so a fresh wave of invaders, the inveterately savage Pechenegs, had arrived to darken the northern frontiers, while in the capital itself the treasury and barracks alike were almost bare. Indeed, to the demoralised Byzantines, it appeared “that no other state in living memory had plumbed such depths of misery.”102 Their ruin appeared almost total.

Yet Guiscard, even as his nostrils were flaring hungrily at the scent of blood borne to him from across the Adriatic, had fretted as well that the opportunity might be slipping him by to make a kill.

In Constantinople, after a wearying turnover of emperors in which no fewer than seven pretenders had laid claim to the throne in barely twenty years, a young general had recently come to power in the wake of yet another coup. Alexius Comnenus, however, unlike his predecessors, was a man of formidable political and military talents: an emperor who, given half a chance, might even succeed in setting the empire back on its feet. Guiscard, resolved not to give Alexius any chance at all, had duly struck as hard and fast as he could. In June, having crossed the Adriatic, he placed the Albanian coastal stronghold of Durazzo under siege. In October, attacked by a Byzantine relief force led by the Basileus himself, and including in its ranks a sizeable contingent of English Varangians, all of them naturally eager for vengeance on the compatriots of their conqueror, he won a crushing victory. The English, having taken sanctuary in a church, were reduced efficiently and satisfyingly to ashes after Robert had their refuge set on fire. Shortly afterwards, Durazzo itself was betrayed into his hands. It appeared that the Normans were on the brink of yet another conquest.

But Alexius was not finished yet. Reverting to time-honoured Byzantine strategy, he frantically dredged up what few reserves of treasure were still left to him – and dispatched them to Henry. “And so it was that he incited the German king to enmity against Robert.”103 Simultaneously, he set about fostering a revolt in Apulia – and to such effect that Guiscard, faced with the prospect of losing his power base, had little alternative but to abandon all his dreams of winning Constantinople and hurry back to Italy. For the next two years, preoccupied as he was with stamping out the flames of insurrection in his own dukedom, he would have no reserves spare to send to Gregory – and this despite the fact that Henry, subsidised by Byzantine gold, was by now a permanent presence in Italy, a standing menace to the Normans as well as to the Pope. It was true that Rome herself, protected by her ancient walls, continued to defy all his attempts to take her, blockades and assaults alike; but by 1083, after three years of intermittent siege, the pressure was starting to tell. Then abruptly, on 3 June, a calamity. A breach was made in the fortifications that encircled the Vatican, across the Tiber from the rest of the city; Henry’s forces flooded through the gap; St. Peter’s cathedral was captured. Gregory, standing on the battlements of Sant’Angelo, had to watch in impotent horror as his great enemy took possession of the holiest shrine in Christendom: the last resting place of the Prince of the Apostles.

This was a seemingly decisive moment: for there appeared nothing now to stop Henry from being crowned emperor. Yet the king, despite his capture of St. Peter’s, and despite having Guibert on hand to do the imperial honours, still hesitated. No matter the vituperations of his pet bishops, it was Gregory, in the opinion of the vast mass of the Christian people, and of the Romans above all, who remained the one true Pope. Accordingly, rather than force through a coronation that his enemies would be able to dismiss as illegitimate, and in the hope of taking full possession of a still defiant Rome, Henry sought compromise.

As before, the man entrusted with attempting to negotiate this was that instinctive peacemaker, the Abbot of Cluny: for Hugh, amid all the convulsions and calamities that had followed Canossa, had somehow succeeded in keeping a foot still in both camps.104Indeed, ever since 1080, when Gregory had written to him to ask if there was anyone he could recommend for the cardinalate, there had been a permanent touch of Cluny at the papal court: for the nominated candidate, a Frenchman by the name of Odo, had been the abbey’s number two, its “major prior.” But in 1083, as opposed to 1077, Hugh’s attempts at conciliation were doomed to failure: Gregory sent him packing. Only a few months on, however, as Henry’s noose around Rome continued to tighten, and a succession of well-directed bribes began to sap the city’s resistance at last, even Gregory had begun to suspect that the writing might be on the wall. By the autumn, it was the Pope who was hoping to open negotiations. Yet still the two sides remained as far apart as ever. That November, when Odo was sent by Gregory to explore terms, Henry was so enraged by what he saw as the continuing inflexibility of the papal bottom line that he briefly had the cardinal flung into prison.

Soon enough, however, and the royal blood pressure had begun to drop; and come the new year, Henry could afford positively to relax. What had previously been a trickle of defections from the ranks of Gregory’s supporters was fast becoming a flood. Deacons, papal officials, even the odd cardinal: all were crossing over to Henry’s side. Even more significantly, a majority of the Roman people were finally prepared to abandon their bishop as well. On 21 March 1084, a group of them unbolted the gates of their city – and Henry, after four years of waiting, rode into his ancient capital at last. Nor was he alone in laying claim to a much-anticipated inheritance. After all, with Gregory still bottled up in the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Lateran had been left standing vacant: the ideal opportunity, then, for a new tenant to move in. So it was, a bare three days after Henry’s entry into Rome, that Guibert adopted the name Clement III and was formally enthroned as Pope. Shortly afterwards, over Easter, it was Henry’s turn to be graced with the very grandest of promotions. Flanked by the Holy Lance, that ancient relic of awful power, he was first anointed by Clement, and then, the following day, crowned emperor: the heir of Charlemagne, of Otto the Great, of his own father. Rome, after a wait of many decades, could hail a consecrated Caesar once again.

But not for long. Even as Henry, resolved to finish off Gregory once and for all, was settling down to the siege of the Castel Sant’Angelo, disturbing news was brought to him from the south. Robert Guiscard and his brother, Count Roger of Sicily, were on the march at long last. The new emperor, having obtained the coronation that he had come to Rome to secure, opted not to hang around. His escape, and the Anti-pope’s too, proved to have been just in the nick of time. A bare three days after their hurried exit from the capital, and Norman outriders were clattering up to the city walls. The Romans, gazing out in horror at the immense army descending upon them, one that included not only a great shock force of knights but even Saracens levied from Sicily, kept their gates firmly barred, and writhed in indecision. Abandoned by their emperor, and all too conscious of the Hautevilles’ fearsome reputation, they feared the worst – as well they might have done. For Guiscard was already growing impatient. After three days of waiting, he duly led a night-time assault, and smashed his way into the city. Gregory, sprung from the Castel Sant’Angelo, was led in triumph to the Lateran – but even as he celebrated his release with a sumptuous Mass of thanksgiving, his Norman liberators were already fleecing his flock down to the very bones. Finally, after three terrible days, the despairing Romans attempted a fightback – only to end up being slaughtered as well as robbed. Gregory, gazing out from the Lateran, had to endure the sight of his entire beloved city up in flames. Never before had the capital of Christendom endured so brutal, so destructive, and so complete a sack. The most terrible atrocities of all, it was reported, were committed by Count Roger’s Saracens.

Such was the fate that Gregory, the heir of St. Peter, had brought down upon the last resting place of the apostle: to be ransacked by infidels. As the smoke began to drift away at last, and the blood on the streets to dry, it was perfectly evident, even to the Pope himself, that his position in the ruined city had been rendered untenable: for the curses and clenched fists of the people who had once been his firmest supporters would make it impossible for him to continue in Rome without the protection of the Hautevilles. Accordingly, when Guiscard left at the end of July, he had little choice but to set out with him. No less than Pope Leo after Civitate, Gregory was now effectively a prisoner of the Normans. Indeed, if anything, his failure appeared even more total than Leo’s had been. Everything that he had ever fought for seemed in a state of ruin. His great adversary, crowned in triumph emperor, still sat on the throne of the Reich. Back in Rome, no sooner had Gregory left the city than the weasel Clement was slipping back into the Lateran. Gregory himself, set up by Guiscard in quarters just south of Amalfi, knew in his heart of hearts that he had been left much diminished and humiliated. Grimly, in a letter addressed simply “To the faithful,” he sought to make sense of it all. “Ever since by God’s providence mother church set me upon the apostolic throne,” he assured the Christian people, “deeply unworthy and, as God is my witness, unwilling though I was, my greatest concern has been that holy church, the bride of Christ, our lady and mother, should return to her true glory, and stand free, chaste and catholic. But because this entirely displeased the ancient enemy, he has armed his members against us, in order to turn everything upside down.”105 Certainly, that same winter, falling suddenly and mortally sick, Gregory had no doubt that the world did indeed lie in the shadow of Antichrist. No other explanation for the calamities that had befallen him and his great cause appeared possible. “I have loved righteousness,” he declared on 25 May, “and I have hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.”106 They were the last words that he would ever speak.

However, the shadow of Antichrist was not nearly so spreading as Gregory, lying on his deathbed, had darkly thought. Time would show that his pontificate, far from having led to the ruin of the Church’s libertas, its freedom, had served instead to entrench it, and much else, beyond all prospect of reversal. The great mass of the Christian people, despite – or perhaps because of – the unprecedented upheavals of the previous decade, remained no less committed to the cause of reform than they had ever been; as did many of the foremost leaders of the Church, whether cardinals, bishops or abbots; and still, in the courts of great princes across Christendom, Gregory’s inimitable blend of lecturing and encouragement continued to reverberate. Even in the Reich itself, where Henry’s triumph appeared complete, the reality was somewhat different. The cause of reform in Germany, as Cardinal Odo had discovered when he arrived there late in 1084 as Gregory’s legate, had put down deep roots indeed. “What else is talked about even in the women’s spinning-rooms and the artisans’ workshops?”107 one monk, hostile to Gregory, had exclaimed back in 1075. A decade on, and the talk had grown even louder.

So the calamities which had marked the end of the most momentous pontificate for many centuries had not served to herald the coming of Antichrist. On the contrary, much that Gregory had laboured so titanically and tumultuously to secure would more than survive his passing. As a reassurance of this, had he only been brought the news of it by some supernatural vision or angelic messenger, the dying Pope could have pointed to a signal triumph: proof that the Almighty was indeed still smiling upon Christendom. For on 25 May 1085, the very day of Gregory’s death, Christian arms had secured a glorious and much yearned-for conquest. Gates closed to them for many centuries had been opened at last. A holy city had been restored to the universal Church. Once again, as it had done long before, a cross stood planted in triumph upon the rocky battlements of Toledo.

Deus Vult

On 18 October 1095, as dawn broke over the halls and towers of Cluny, a sense of bustle, of excitement even, was already palpable across the great monastery. A guest was shortly expected – and not just any guest. Indeed, such was the abbey’s aura of holiness, and such its pedigree too, that it took a truly exceptional class of visitor to put those who trod its carpeted flagstones in the shade. The angelic monks of Cluny, who numbered dukes and penitent bishops among their ranks, were rarely outshone. Not that they would have felt, as they tracked the preparations of the abbey servants, and stole an occasional glance towards the road on the eastern horizon, that there was any infringement of their dignity in the offing. Just the opposite, in fact. The man the brethren were waiting to greet was no stranger to their cloisters. Once, indeed, he had been their “major prior.” Now, more than any Cluniac before him, he offered living proof of the heights that might be attained by an old boy of the abbey.

Fifteen years had passed since Odo’s departure for Rome. In that time, he had proved himself the ablest, the shrewdest and the most committed of Gregory’s followers. For all his devotion to the memory of the great pope who had raised him to the cardinalate, however, Odo was a man of very different talents to his patron – and just as well. The time for blood and thunder had passed. With an anti-pope installed in the Lateran, and much of Christendom, in the wake of Gregory’s death, content to acknowledge Clement as the authentic heir of St. Peter, a touch of Cluniac cool was precisely what the beleaguered reformers had most needed. Like Abbot Hugh, whom Gregory, in rueful and half-envious admiration, had nicknamed “the smooth-talking tyrant,”108 Odo was a formidable conciliator: a born showman who combined exceptional persuasiveness with a steely measure of calculation, and who invariably came out a winner. So it was, back in 1085, after only five years as a cardinal, that he had been one of two heavyweight candidates to succeed Gregory, and continue the fight against Clement; and so it was too, after the election of his rival, that he had made sure to get on the new pope’s side, and be nominated as his successor. He had not had long to wait. Two years into the new pontificate, and the throne of St. Peter had been left vacant again. Odo had duly been elected to fill it. Taking the name Urban II, he had set himself to the great task of completing what Gregory had left undone – and, as a particular priority, to crushing the authority of Clement, the Anti-pope, once and for all.

Eight years down the road, and he was well on his way to success. A subtle reader of men’s ambitions, and a master of the well-directed concession, Urban had a taste for tactics that blended rigour with discretion. By sternly ring-fencing the fundamentals of reform, and by giving way on everything else, his accomplishment had been to consolidate Gregory’s achievements far more effectively than Gregory himself would ever have done. “Pedisequus,”109 his opponents sneeringly labelled him: a mere lackey, a body servant, scurrying along dutifully in the footsteps of his predecessor. This, however, was to confuse Urban’s show of equanimity with a lack of initiative or assertiveness. In reality, no less than Gregory had been, the new pope was of a lordly disposition. Indeed, if anything, the habits of lordliness came more naturally to him than they ever had to the humbly born Hildebrand: for Odo’s parents had been noble, and he had grown up informed by the restless attitudes and aspirations of the warrior class of France. Certainly, as befitted someone who had spent his earliest years in a castle, his familiarity with the cutting edge was far from confined to the business of the Church. More than any pope before him, Urban II had the measure of the new breed of knightly captain.

Indeed, perhaps, shared something of its ruthlessness himself. Just as the natural instinct of any castellan was to add to his own lands by hacking away at those of his rivals, so similarly, on the immeasurably vaster stage of Christendom, had Urban aimed to extend his authority by boxing in Henry and Clement as restrictively as he could. Remorselessly, he had worked to exploit every imperial humiliation, every imperial defeat – and there had recently been plenty of both. Rebellion in Bavaria, the continuing and implacable opposition of the Countess Matilda, and treachery from within the royal family itself: all, since the palmy days of Henry’s coronation, had served to cripple the emperor’s interests. Indeed, by 1095, so tightly were his enemies pressing in on him that the heir of Constantine and Charlemagne had ended up trapped in a tiny corner of western Lombardy, unable even to cross the Alps back into his homeland.

Urban, looking to rub this in, had duly summoned a council under Henry’s very nose, just south of Milan, in a field outside Piacenza: a city that, officially at any rate, lay within the Anti-pope’s home diocese of Ravenna. A steady succession of Clement’s former adherents, summoned from across Christendom, had publicly submitted themselves there to Urban’s authority. Henry’s second wife, a Kievan princess by the name of Eupraxia, and as unhappily married as Bertha had been, had also appeared at the council, following her abduction from imperial custody by agents of the Countess Matilda: sensationally, and to the delegates’ delighted horror, she had publicly accused her husband of hosting gang-rapes on her.110 Then, in a climactic triumph, Urban had met with Henry’s eldest son, Conrad, a long-term rebel against his father and widely rumoured to have been Eupraxia’s lover – and promised to crown him emperor. The young prince, in exchange, had signed up unreservedly to the reformers’ cause. Indeed, in an ostentatious display of submission to Urban’s purposes, Conrad had even served the pontiff as a groom, walking by the side of the papal mount and holding its bridle. Who, Urban might well have reflected, was the pedisequus now?

No wonder, then, following such a cavalcade of successes, that he had felt sufficiently confident of his grip on Italy to risk travelling on wards into southern France. Indeed, as his partisans delighted in pointing out, the fact that he had the freedom of much of Christendom, while the emperor remained humiliatingly penned up in Lombardy, was in itself yet another stunning boost to the Pope’s prestige. More were to follow almost daily over the course of Urban’s tour of France: for he had found himself being greeted there with an enthusiasm, a rapture even, that far exceeded even his own expectations. In part, no doubt, this reflected the fact that he was himself a Frenchman; and in part as well the meticulousness with which the visit had been planned. Yet something more was afoot. Not since Leo IX’s brief trip to Reims had a pope been seen north of the Alps – and during that half-century the affairs of Christendom had been convulsed from top to bottom. Now, with a Vicar of St. Peter actually treading French soil once again, the people of the various princedoms of the south, from Burgundy to Aquitaine, had been able to deliver their judgement on the developments of the past fifty years – and they were doing so with relish. Not only princes and abbots, either. Men and women who once, back in the shadow of the Millennium, might have flocked to see the relics of saints in fields, or else taken to the woods, there to attempt to live as the apostles had done, now gathered to glimpse the Pope. No wonder, over the half-century and more since 1033, that the peace movement had faded away, and heresy too: for both, in effect, had served their turn. The cause of those who had dreamed of a reordering of the fallen world, and demanded a cleansing of everything in human affairs that was most spotted and polluted, was now the cause of the Roman Church.

And Urban, taking the road that led to Cluny, and looking about him that October morning of 1095, would doubtless have marked in what he saw a blessed and mighty reassurance: that his life’s great mission, to tame what had been most savage, and to consecrate what had been most damnable, was one shared by the great mass of the Christian people. Indeed, unmistakable proofs of their efforts would have been observable to him along the entire course of his travels: for everywhere, in recent times, “places which were once the haunt of wild beasts and the lairs of robbers had come to resound to the name of God, and the veneration of the saints.”111 It was around Cluny, however, above all other places in France perhaps, that this great work of reclamation was most gloriously evident: for there the felling of woods, and the draining of marshes, and the settling of wastelands had been continuous for more than a century, so that to those who travelled past them the very fields appeared reformed. Yet they in turn could merely hint at the true wonder which still awaited the pilgrim; and even Urban himself, familiar as he was with the approach to his old abbey, would surely have reined in his horse as he breasted the eastern hill above Cluny and paused in stupefaction. For there below him was a sight unlike anything he had ever seen: a building better suited to serve as a symbol of his labours than any other in Christendom.

Abbot Hugh had ordered work begun on it some two decades previously. The need had been pressing: for while in heaven there was no limit to the number of angelic voices that might practicably be raised in praise of God, at Cluny, unfortunately, there had been. No longer was the church that had played host to the devotions of the abbey’s brethren back in the heroic decades before the Millennium remotely fit for purpose. Fifty monks, over the course of a century, had become two hundred and fifty – and still their ranks were swelling. Accordingly, rather than bow to the constraints set upon him, and settle for compromise or insufficiency or retreat, Abbot Hugh had boldly set himself to meet the challenge head on. A new church, its outline vaster than any church previously built, its half-completed roofs already towering over the old, and the ribs of its massive vault seeming to heave and reach for heaven, had begun to rise up from the valley.

True, the project still had a long way to go – but already, even as it stood, the great edifice was one fit to take the breath away. And Urban’s breath, perhaps, especially. For fifteen years previously, as he had set out from Cluny for Rome, there had been nothing but half-dug foundations to see where massive domes and towers now rose; and Urban too, during those fifteen years, had been engaged upon his own great labour of reconstruction. Between the universal Church that it was his duty, as the heir of St. Peter, to rebuild and improve and extend, and the church being raised at Cluny which was designed to serve as the “maior ecclesia,” or “principal church,” of Christendom, there was a difference, perhaps, only of degree. How telling it was that the Prince of the Apostles, that same celestial guardian to whom the Pope, as his earthly vicar, most naturally looked for assistance and protection, had been spotted performing the occasional maintenance check on the building works at Cluny. Urban and Abbot Hugh were men with a conjoined ambition. Their goal as architects was “a dwelling-place for mortals that would please the inhabitants of heaven.”112

To the Pope, then, entering the massive space that the builders had already completed, the experience could hardly help but be an inspiring one. An immense and exquisitely carved altar stood before him, radiant, overpowering even, with a sense of holiness. Above it there hung a metal dove, and inside the dove, placed within a golden dish, was kept the very body of Christ Himself: that same consecrated bread which, the scale of the new seating arrangements being what it was, could now be presented to the angelic monks in a single go. The setting too, lit by the wash of seven immense candles, was one of unprecedented beauty and magnificence: for whether it was the stonework of a second great altar situated beyond the first, or the delicate leafage which adorned the mighty capitals, or the ruby glimmer of the wax-painted frescoes on the distant walls, everything was designed to evoke for an awed sinner a sense of paradise. The shadow of the Last Judgement, which had haunted the imaginings of Cluny for the near two centuries of its existence, still appeared to its virgin brethren to lie dark across the world; and so it was, just as Odo and Odilo had done, that Hugh aimed to provide a haven from the gathering storm waves of that terrible day. “For we, who are placed upon the seas of this world, should always strive to avoid the currents of this life.”113

Yet in truth, as the very splendour of the maior ecclesia served to trumpet, the circumstances of the Christian people had changed immeasurably since the founding of the abbey. After all, back in the days when there had been nothing to see at Cluny but a ducal hunting lodge, it had seemed to many that Christendom itself was on the verge of being submerged utterly, lost for good beneath the flood tides of blood and fire which for so long, and with such ferocity, had been breaking against it. Indeed, as late as 972, one of the monastery’s own abbots, Odilo’s predecessor, had been kidnapped and held to ransom by Saracen bandits. A century on, however, and the heartlands of Christendom appeared secure once and for all against heathen appetites. Former breeding grounds of paganism had long since been won for the Cross. Along the fir-darkened tracks of the North Way, where offerings to Odin had lately been hung from the trees, pilgrims now journeyed to bow their heads before the tomb of the martyred St. Olaf; beside the Danube, Hungarians who still roamed its banks with tents or reeds for fashioning huts, just as their ancestors had always done, now dreaded to pitch a camp too far from a church, lest they be fined or else cursed by a saint. Indeed, a man might travel a thousand miles from Cluny, a thousand miles and even more, and still not pass the limits of Christendom.

To be sure, he would have needed to set out in the right direction first. Not all the one-time despoilers of the Church had been brought to repent of their depredations. If Cluny were indeed, as Urban pronounced, “the light of the world,”114 then so too, admittedly, did there remain certain benighted regions where its rays had failed to penetrate. Abbot Hugh himself, writing to a Saracen ruler in Spain, and pushing the argument that Mohammed had been an agent of the Devil, had found his letters being afforded a less than ecstatic reception.115 His missionaries too. Back in 1074, for instance, after a monk from Cluny had travelled to al-Andalus and offered to walk through fire if his audience would only abandon their heresy, the Saracens had contemptuously ducked the challenge. So the monk, in high dudgeon, “had shaken the dust from his feet, turned on his heels, and set off back for his monastery.”116

At least, though, as he trudged home across the Pyrenees, he had been able to console himself with the reflection that he, at any rate, was unlikely to have a run-in with Saracen bandits. The monks of Cluny might have failed to win them for Christ – but conversion, as the events of the past century had served robustly to demonstrate, was not the only way to counter the menace of the Saracens. The days when an abbot on his travels might be kidnapped by one of their war bands were long since gone. Indeed, to a startling degree, the boot was now on the other foot. In 1087, for instance, a war fleet led by Pisan adventurers had taken belated revenge for the sacking of their city eighty-odd years before by descending on an African port, stripping it bare and carting off the proceeds in triumph to fund a new cathedral. Then, in 1090, a further famous victory: the last outposts of Saracen rule in Sicily had surrendered to Count Roger. One year on, and it had been the turn of the corsairs of Malta to submit to Norman rule, and be comprehensively cleaned out. Along with the gold, hundreds of Christian captives had been set free from the pirates’ warehouses. The slave trade to Africa, that centuries-old drain upon the strength of Italy, had been left comprehensively spiked. It was not only Sicily and Malta that had been secured for Christendom, but the waters beyond them. The sea lanes of the Mediterranean were safe at last for Christian shipping – and for Christian merchants, and Christian money-making ventures, above all.

“God it is,” as Urban reflected in wonder, “in His wisdom and strength, who takes away princedoms, according to His desire, and transforms utterly the spirit of the times.”117 Christendom, which had once been bled almost to death, was starting to quicken at last. Blessed the poor might be – but riches too, if they could only be held to a proper purpose, were hardly to be scorned as instruments of heaven’s favour. The cathedral-builders of Pisa could certainly bear witness to that. So too, and even more gloriously, could Abbot Hugh himself. A church such as he had embarked upon, after all, needed to be paid for somehow. What a blessing it was, then, that the monks of Cluny had recently secured a patron well qualified to make up any shortfall. Indeed, so prodigious had been the sums on offer from him that Abbot Hugh, back in 1090, had travelled all the way to Burgos in far-away Spain to negotiate the handover in person. Alfonso VI, the fearsome King of León, had good cause to be generous to the famous monastery.

Spain: the Reconquista begins

Back at the darkest moment of his career, with his brother still firmly on the throne, and himself locked up in a dungeon, he had prayed to St. Peter for deliverance. That he had been set free almost immediately afterwards, and that his fortunes, from that moment on, had taken a quite spectacular upswing, Alfonso attributed entirely to the intercession with the apostle of the monks of Cluny. And who was Abbot Hugh to argue with that?

Perhaps, had Alfonso’s coffers been filled with treasure looted from fellow Christians, he might have hesitated, even so. Fortunately, however, there had been no need for any abbatial qualms. No less than the Hautevilles, the King of León was a man with a great facility for defeating Saracens – and for bleeding them dry. Over the course of only a few decades, the haughty predators of al-Andalus, like those of Sicily, had become, to their natural horror, the prey of their one-time victims. With the Caliphate an ever-fading memory, the great city of Córdoba still pockmarked with rubble and weeds, and the dominion it had once ruled shattered into a mosaic of petty kingdoms, the balance of power in the peninsula, for the first time since the original coming of the Saracens to Spain, had shifted decisively. True, it had taken most Christians a while to have their eyes fully opened to this: for the afterglow of the vanished Caliphate, like light from an exploded star, still illumined the scenes of its former greatness. Alfonso himself, however, had not been dazzled: for to the penetrating gaze of a natural pathologist he had brought an insider’s specialist knowledge. Though the courts of al-Andalus might still glitter, there was a weakness festering beneath their surface, which Alfonso, as a young man, had been able to detect and observe in person. Back in 1071, after his release from his brother’s dungeon, and before seizing the throne of León for himself, he had fled across the no man’s land that marked the limit of Christendom and sought refuge at a court inside al-Andalus. And not just any court but the one which had appeared to stand supreme, in the wake of Córdoba’s ruin, as the wealthiest and most luminous in all Spain: Toledo.

The memories of his term of exile there were to stay with Alfonso throughout his life. Devoted son of the Roman Church he might have been – but not all his militant piety could detract from his profound appreciation, and even love, of his enemies’ glamour. From clothes to calligraphy to concubines, his private tastes often veered towards the Saracen. Toledo too, learned, elegant and unabashedly luxurious, was destined always to hold a cherished place in his heart – and as something more than just the holy city of his ancestors. Yet Alfonso was no sentimentalist. If he was far from immune to the attractions of al-Andalus, then so too had he made a most profitable and incisive study of those strategies of extortion that had always been the dark side of Saracen greatness. Just as the Muslims, in the first flush of their own victories, had gloried in the number of Christians subjected to their yoke, and shrunk from any thought of converting them to Islam lest the tax base be impaired, so for an identical reason, had Alfonso held off from any grand policy of conquest. Rather than overthrow the various kings of al-Andalus, it had been his policy instead to humiliate and debilitate them by extorting regular payments of tribute. The heirs of the Umayyad Caliphate, proud Muslims one and all, had found themselves being treated, in effect, as the dhimmis of a Christian master.

Nor, such was Alfonso’s mood of confidence, had he shown the slightest compunction about rubbing Saracen noses in the role reversal. One of his agents, for instance, dropping in on the King of Granada, a city in the far south of al-Andalus, had been brutally upfront about his lord’s intentions. “Now that the Christians are strong and capable,” he had acknowledged cheerily, “they desire to take back what they have lost by force. This can only be achieved by weakening and encroaching on al-Andalus. In the long run, when it has neither men nor money, we will be able to recover it in its entirety without difficulty.”118

As evidence for this the Muslims had only to look at the sobering example of Toledo: for in due course, so anaemic had its regime ended up that its prince had been reduced to the desperate expedient of inviting in the King of León. The juiciest plum in the entire Iberian peninsula had simply dropped into Alfonso’s lap; the strategically vital heartlands extending all around it as well. Not a region of al-Andalus, from that moment on, but its flank had lain directly exposed to the iron-shod trampling of Christian horsemen. Well, then, from far afield, might Urban have hailed Toledo’s fall as a triumph for all Christendom. “We rejoice with a most joyful heart, and we give great thanks to God, as is worthy, because in our time He has deigned to give such a victory to the Christian people.”119 And to the monks of Cluny, perhaps, especially so. Certainly, it was hard not to see in the steady rumbling of treasure carts from Spain to Burgundy a mark of the inexorable and awful character of heaven’s judgement. For just as the Great Mosque in Córdoba, the only place of worship in western Europe that could possibly compare in size with the maior ecclesia, had been adorned with the loot of Santiago, so now, when Abbot Hugh paid his workmen, did he do so with Saracen gold.

Not that Cluny had profited from the winning of Toledo in terms of plunder alone. In 1086, one of its own brothers, a saintly but astute monk by the name of Bernard, had been appointed archbishop of the captured city. Abbot Hugh, writing to congratulate him, had urged Bernard never to forget that he was now a captain serving directly on Christendom’s front line. His responsibilities, therefore, were not merely to the Christian people, but to their enemies as well. “Do good, live irreproachably, be true to the highest moral standards, and your example will do more to inspire and convert the infidels than any number of sermons.”120 Here, of course, between Hugh and his more cynical patron, was revealed a telling divide. To Christians far removed from the peculiar multicultural circumstances of Spain, any notion of maintaining pagans in their faith, merely so that their wealth might be extorted from them more legitimately, was a monstrous one. What was their gold when compared with the potential harvest of their souls? Better by far, in Hugh’s opinion – and in Urban’s – that the flow of treasure from Spain be turned off altogether than that the great cause of cleansing, and purifying, and transforming humanity be compromised. War might be justified – but only if it were in the service of the reform of all the world.

Alarmingly, however, and despite the giddy hopes that had been roused by the capture of Toledo, it was already becoming evident, a mere decade on from that great victory, that the winning of Spain for Christ was not going entirely according to plan. Urban, during his stay at Cluny, would have heard, every morning without fail, the same psalm being chanted by the monks: a request to God for the King of León to continue victorious in battle. But God, for whatever reason, seemed for the moment to have stopped listening. The fortunes of war had recently turned against Alfonso. The fractious potentates of al-Andalus, desperate to find some way of reining in his ambitions, had found themselves reduced to taking the same desperate step that already, only a few decades previously had proved so fatal to the Caliphate: inviting in the Berbers. Still, as the King of Seville put it, better to run the risk of ending up a camel-herd than looking after pigs. Sure enough, steeled by their reinforcements from Africa, the princelings of al-Andalus had been able to bring Alfonso, at last, to defeat – and then promptly found their kingdoms being swallowed up by their erstwhile allies. For Alfonso himself, the second development had been scarcely less of a setback than the first. The Berbers, as hardy, ascetic and enthusiastic for jihad as ever, were altogether more formidable opponents than those with whom he had hitherto happily been toying. Although Toledo remained securely his, and although his centre just about held, the onward advance of Christian arms towards Gibraltar had been brought to a sudden and juddering halt. Unsurprisingly, then, back in Cluny, where there was a massive church still standing half completed, the news had been greeted with some alarm.

In papal circles as well. To Urban, as it had done previously to Gregory, a concern with the frontiers of Christendom, and the lands that lay beyond them, came instinctively. As how, indeed, could it not have done? Papal authority was nothing, after all, unless it were global. Such, at any rate, over the previous decades, was the presumption that Gregory and his supporters had come increasingly to take for granted. Now, in turn, the sheer scale of what they had dared – and of what they had achieved as well – had fortified Urban in a peculiarly vaunting notion: that the whole world might be his to shape. Not even all the energies he had devoted to smashing the authority of emperor and Anti-pope had served to distract him from keeping a lordly eye on broader horizons. So it was, for instance, back in 1089, that Urban had actively sought to promote colonisation within the ruins of Tarragona, a long-abandoned city just inside al-Andalus itself: for it was his hope to see erected there “a barrier and a bulwark to defend the Christian people.”121 So it was too, at the Council of Piacenza, that he had taken time out from parading Henry’s estranged queen to consult with diplomats from Constantinople. Spain, after all, was not the only front where Christian fortunes were directly menaced. Embattled Alfonso might be, but he was not half so embattled as the Basileus.

True, things did not appear quite as terminal for Alexius Comnenus as they had done at the start of his reign. The young emperor, clawing the fortunes of his people back from the very brink, had recovered well from his initial defeat at the hands of Robert Guiscard. Total ruin had been averted. It helped that Guiscard himself had died on campaign back in 1085, a bare two months after Gregory VII; and it had helped that the nomadic Pechenegs, whose talent for spreading mayhem was second to none, had been brought in 1091 to a resounding defeat. Even the Turks, those most menacing adversaries of all, had lately begun to show an encouraging taste for in-fighting. Alexius, tracking developments carefully from beyond the Bosphorus, had been positively itching to capitalise on their squabbling. With Turkish settlers digging in along the length of the Aegean coast, and one warlord even established inside Nicaea, within striking distance of the Queen of Cities herself, he was painfully aware that the opportunity for staging an imperial comeback in the East might soon have passed him by for good. Yet Alexius could not afford to take any risks. The raising of an army large enough to storm Nicaea, let alone attempt the recovery of the lost provinces beyond it, would require the stripping of every last reserve from the rest of the empire. The very survival of Constantinople would then be left hanging in the balance. A second Manzikert, and everything would be lost. And so it was, looking around for reinforcements that might offer him a reasonable prospect of success, while also remaining safely expendable, that Alexius’s gaze had turned towards the West.

Where Urban, brooding on the global scale of Christendom’s problems, had his own agenda. To be sure, no less than Alexius, he dreaded that Constantinople might fall: for he shared in the anguished conviction of the Basileus that the collapse of the eastern front was a mortal danger to the Christian people everywhere. Simultaneously, however, he would not have forgotten what it was that Gregory, twenty years before, had identified in the self-same crisis: the symptoms of a universal disorder, and the stirrings of Antichrist. Clearly, then, although the great labour of reforming the world had already come far, it still had a long way to go. Whether it was to be seen in the trampling down of a Christian frontier by infidel horsemen, or in the pretensions of an excommunicated Caesar, or in the sweaty fumblings of a priest with his concubine, shadow still persisted everywhere across the fallen world.

Indeed, if anything, in that summer of 1095, it appeared to be thickening and threatening a truly cosmic darkness – for the universe itself had been taken sick. Back in the spring, even as delegates from the Council of Piacenza were heading homewards, bright stars, “all crowded together and dense, like hail or snowflakes,” had begun to plummet earthwards. “A short while later a fiery way appeared in the heavens; and then after another short period half the sky turned the colour of blood.”122 Meanwhile, in France, along the very roads taken by the Pope, there were marks of famine to be seen everywhere, and reports of strange visions to be heard, and prophecies of fabulous wonders. “And this,” in the opinion of many, “was because already, in every nation, the evangelical trumpet was sounding the coming of the Just Judge.”123

Where better, then, amid such feverish expectations, for Urban to pause and take stock of things than in the holy abbey of Cluny? On 25 October, one week after his first sighting of Abbot Hugh’s stupefying church, the Pope formally dedicated its two great altars to the service of God. Simultaneously, in solemn and ringing tones, he confirmed the abbey in its status as a bridgehead of the celestial on earth. Not just the abbey either – for the new altars, awesomely charged with the supernatural as they were, appeared to Urban a source of light fit to radiate far beyond the bounds of the church itself. Far beyond the valley in which they stood as well, far beyond Burgundy, far beyond France. Any assemblage of brick and mortar, in short, provided that it took Cluny as its head and model, could be reckoned to share in the fearsome blaze of its purity. So, at any rate, Urban pronounced – as perhaps, with his responsibilities to the whole of Christendom, he was bound to do. For if, as the Holy Father devoutly believed, Cluny offered to those who approached it a reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem, then why should not all the beleaguered Christian people, no matter where they might be, share in at least some of its power?

Yet to cast Cluny in such a role did rather beg a further question: what of the earthly Jerusalem? Abbot Hugh’s church might be gloriously qualified to serve as a light to the world, yet not even the altars of the maior ecclesia could compare for sheer holiness with the spot where Christ Himself had hung upon a cross and then risen in triumph over death. To Urban, listening to his former brethren as they filled Christendom’s most majestic space with the strains of their angelic singing, this reflection could hardly help but appear a troubling one. If it were true that monasteries far and wide derived their sanctity from that of Cluny, then so likewise did the world itself take its character from the holy city that stood at its head; a holy city that for centuries had been positively leprous with the pollution of pagan rule. How, then, to a pope who had devoted his entire life to the heroic labour of setting Christendom upon a proper order, could the knowledge of this not serve as both a torment and a ferocious reproach? Great things had certainly been achieved over the previous decades; but Urban, praying before the altars of the maior ecclesia, would have known deep within his soul that the cause of reform could never truly be completed until the Holy Sepulchre had been wrested from Saracen control. “For if the head is diseased, then there is not a limb but will suffer pain from its ailing.”124 A great and terrible challenge – but not one, in the final reckoning, that Urban was prepared to duck.

And the time was fast approaching for him to demonstrate as much. A month after his dedication of the maior ecclesia, and Urban was presiding over his second council of the year: an even larger assembly of reform-minded bishops and abbots than Piacenza had seen. The setting was a potent one: the ancient town of Clermont, in the rugged heart of the Auvergne. Here, as the delegates to the council busied themselves with looking to the future of the Church, reminders of the past were all around them. Looming on the eastern horizon, for instance, there rose a great dome of volcanic rock, where a pagan temple still stood: a sobering memorial to a time when there had been no Christian people at all, but only worshippers of demons. Long and gruelling had been the task of reordering the world, and bringing it under the protection of Christ. In Clermont, as if to bear witness to the process by which Christendom had been fashioned, almost every church contained within its walls antique stonework, or columns, or sarcophagi.125 Nor was the labour of constructing a truly Christian order completed yet. Much still remained to be done – and Clermont could testify to this. Back in 958, the town had hosted the first assembly to be directed specifically against the predations of bullying lords; and although, since the millennial anniversary of Christ’s Resurrection, the Peace of God had faded as a mass movement, it had certainly not been forgotten. Violence continued endemic across much of France. Urban, with his background, knew this well enough. Accordingly, during the week of the Council of Clermont, he sought not only to resurrect the Peace, but to extend it throughout Christendom.

To all those without weapons, wherever and whoever they might be – whether women or peasants, merchants or monks – the full and fearsome protection of the Roman Church was now officially extended. Son of a French nobleman that he was, however, Urban made sure to appeal as well to the lords themselves, and the castellans, and their followers. To the old dream of the peace campaigners – that braggart knights might somehow be transfigured into warriors of Christ – he was preparing to add a novel and fateful twist. On 27 November, with the council drawing to a close, the Pope announced that he would do as the leaders of the Peace of God had done decades previously, and address an assembly of the Christian people in an open field. The number of those who gathered there in the mud and cold of the early Auvergnat winter was not large – perhaps no more than three or four hundred – but what they heard was fated to echo far beyond the limits of Clermont. No accurate record of Urban’s sermon was made; but as to the core of its message there could be no doubt. Listed as an official decree of the council, here was a startling and wholly electrifying formula for salvation: “If any man sets out from pure devotion, not for reputation or monetary gain, to liberate the Church of God at Jerusalem, his journey shall be reckoned in place of all penance.”126

Only a century before, contemplating how “infidels had won the ruling of the sacred places,” another Frenchman, a native of the Auvergne who had grown up not a hundred miles from Clermont, had despaired of Christian arms ever winning back the Holy Sepulchre. They were, so Gerbert of Aurillac had flatly declared, “too weak.”127 Certainly, by any objective standard, the ambition of securing Jerusalem for Christendom appeared no less impractical in 1095 than it had done back in the lifetime of the first French pope. To embark on a mission that would require the average lord to raise perhaps four or five times his annual income;128 to aim at the defeat of enemies who had already brought the oldest and most powerful state in Christendom to the very brink of ruin; and to attempt it all for the sake of a city that had not the slightest strategic or military value: here were considerations, it might have been thought, fit to weigh on the mind of any adventurer.

Perhaps even Urban himself, well aware as he would have been of how Gregory’s attempt to win the Holy Sepulchre had subsided into fiasco, was initially braced for a less than enthusiastic response. Certainly, it seemed never to have crossed his mind that the gauntlet which he had flung down with such gusto at Clermont, a challenge targeted squarely at the men of his own class, might prove irresistible as well to those who did not belong to the ranks of the nobility or the castellans. There were forces in play much greater than the Pope had ever appreciated – and now, despite all his reputation for prudence, it was he who had set them loose. The disciple and heir of Gregory he may have been – and yet still, even for Urban, the full scale of the recent changes in Christendom, and of the revolution in the affairs of the Christian people, appeared almost too great to grasp.

Deus vult!” the crowds had shouted at Clermont: “God wills it!”129 The utter conviction of this, spreading like wildfire wherever the Pope’s message was reported, spoke partly of excitement – and partly as well of sheer relief. To be cleansed, to be spotless, to be at one with the celestial host of the angels: here was a yearning that any man or woman might share. No longer, if it had ever been, was it confined to the ranks of monks, or of those who had sought, over the course of many decades now, and at the cost of unprecedented convulsions, to secure the reform of the Church. A warrior too, one at the service of his lord, and armed with weapons soon to be sticky with blood, might feel it – and feeling it, shiver with dread, knowing the crossroads before which he stood. “For which of the two paths was he to follow: that of the Gospels or of the world?”130

Such a question, even for those secure in the righteousness of their own cause, even for those fighting beneath a banner of St. Peter, had never been a simple one to answer. No matter, for instance, back in 1066, that William’s men had been following their duke to war against a usurper, and with the full blessing of the Pope himself: they had still been obliged, in the wake of the slaughter at Hastings, to undertake penance or else to remain filthy with the sin of murder. A great and excruciating tension, then: for it had set the desperation for salvation against the need – and perhaps the longing – to fight. Now, however, with a single sermon, a single ordinance, that tension appeared resolved. No wonder, then, as news of what had been decreed by Urban spread, that there should have been “a great stirring of heart throughout all the Frankish lands”131 – and far beyond. A whole new road to the City of God had suddenly opened up before the Christian people. The heroic labour of buttressing the world against Antichrist, and of preparing for the dreadful hour of Judgement, had all of a sudden become one in which the great mass of them could share. Not a pilgrim but he could know, as he set off for the Holy Sepulchre, that he was helping to set the universe to rights.

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.”132 Sure enough, five months after the Council of Clermont, and even as the Pope was celebrating Easter in central France, a mysterious cross mat erialised in the sky. Just as it had done many centuries before, during the fabled reign of the first Christian Caesar, now it struck those who saw it as a certain portent of victory. Yet as thousands upon thousands of pilgrims set to sewing the image of it upon their clothes, or branding it on their flesh, or, as Guiscard’s eldest son would do, ripping up their cloaks to fashion crosses out of the shredded fabric, they were preparing for war unprompted by any Constantine. The crusaders, as they would come to be known, followed no emperor.133 Henry, still an excommunicate, still cooped up haplessly in northern Italy, would hardly have deigned to set himself at the head of anything summoned by Urban – even had he not been impotent to do so. Alexius, informed to his consternation that “the whole of the West was on the march”134 and descending directly on Constantinople, worked hard to bribe and browbeat the leaders of the pilgrimage into a nominal obedience to himself – but hardly with the intention of leading them onwards to Jerusalem. Better than anyone else, he knew what such a venture would demand.

True, Alexius was careful not to wallow openly in pessimism. He even went so far as to float the odd rumour, hinting mysteriously that it was his destiny to lay down his crown before the Holy Sepulchre.135 Conspiratorial whisperings such as this, however, were intended exclusively for Western consumption. In reality, the beleaguered Basileus had not the slightest desire to play at being the last emperor. The preservation of Constantinople, not the liberation of Jerusalem, was his true responsibility. Fortunately, once the crusaders had all been transported across the Bosphorus, safely away from the Queen of Cities, it proved possible, albeit briefly, for the two ambitions to be squared. In June 1097, Nicaea was brought to capitulate, and the banner of the Second Rome fluttered once again over the birthplace of the Christian creed. Then, the following month, in a bloody and desperate struggle, the crusaders broke a formidable Turkish army in open battle. For the remainder of the year, even as they lumbered on their way through increasingly bleak and hostile territory, the Turks shrank from confronting them head on.

The following spring, taking full advantage of his enemies’ reverses, Alexius dispatched his brother-in-law to mop up in the crusaders’ wake. Then, in the summer, he led out a second army himself. By June, perhaps half of the territories lost to the Turks in the wake of Manzikert had been restored to imperial rule. Meanwhile, of the crusaders themselves, the news was grim in the extreme. Alexius, who had been pondering whether to join forces with them, was reliably informed by a deserter that the entire expedition stood on the verge of utter destruction. Accordingly, rather than risk his gains, the Basileus opted to consolidate them. He withdrew to Constantinople, leaving the crusaders to their fate.

A decision that had been, by all objective standards, the only rational one. The reports brought to Alexius that the crusade faced certain ruin were only marginally exaggerated. The odds against the winning of the Holy Sepulchre, always steep, had become, by the summer of 1098, astronomical. The Sultan of Baghdad, resolved to annihilate the invaders once and for all, had dispatched an immense army, “swarming everywhere from the mountains and along different roads like the sands of the sea.”136 Against this prodigious task force, the crusaders, who had numbered perhaps one hundred thousand the previous spring as they streamed towards Constantinople, could muster at best a threadbare twenty thousand – non-combatants included.137 Disease, starvation and casualties in battle; the loss of virtually the entire expedition’s supply of horses and mules, so that even dogs had ended up being employed as pack animals; the lack of anything approaching a unified leadership: all these factors, as the crusaders themselves freely acknowledged, should have spelled their doom. “For certainly, in my opinion,” as one contemporary put it, “what they went through was an ordeal without precedent. Never before had there been among the princes of the world men who exposed their bodies to such suffering, solely in the expectation of a celestial reward.”138

No wonder, then, when the ferociously outnumbered crusaders succeeded in yet again shattering the Turks upon their steel, when they continued to win famous cities long lost to Christendom, and when, on 7 June 1099, they finally arrived in triumph before the walls of Jerusalem, there were few among them who doubted that they had arrived as well at a turning point in the order of heaven and earth. No one could know for certain what wonders might follow their capture of the Holy Sepulchre – but merely to win it would rank as wonder enough. Ambition, greed and ingenuity: all these qualities, honed by the three long and terrible years of the pilgrimage, had served to bring the crusaders to the very brink of a miracle. Yet in the mingled sense of urgency and brutality that they had displayed, and in their conviction that there was nothing in the world that might not be changed and improved by their own labours, there lay the proof of a revolution long pre-dating their taking up of the Cross. For better and for worse, the previous century had seen Christendom, and the Christian people, transformed utterly. The arrival of the crusaders before the walls of the Holy City was merely a single – albeit the most spectacular – manifestation of a process which, since the convulsive period of theMillennium, had made of Europe something restless, and dynamic, and wholly new. Nor would it be the last.

A thousand years had passed now since an angel, parting the veil which conceals from mankind the plans of the Almighty for the future, had given to St. John a revelation of the last days. And the saint, writing it down, had recorded how a great battle was destined to be fought; and how the Beast, at its end, would be captured and thrown into a lake of fire. But before that could be brought about, and the world born anew, Christ Himself, “clad in a robe dipped in blood,” was destined to lead out the armies of heaven. “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”139

On 15 July, the crusaders finally broke into Jerusalem and took possession of the object of all their yearnings. The wine press was duly trodden: the streets were made to flow with blood. And at the end of it, when the slaughter was done, and the whole city drenched in gore, the triumphant warriors of Christ, weeping with joy and disbelief, assembled before the Sepulchre of the Saviour and knelt in an ecstasy of worship.

Meanwhile, on the Temple Mount, where it had been foretold that Antichrist would materialise at the end of days enthroned in fearsome and flame-lit glory, all was stillness. The slaughter upon the rock of the Temple had been especially terrible, and not a living thing had been left there to stir. Already, in the summer heat, the corpses were starting to reek.

Antichrist did not appear.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!