It was a great misfortune for Christianity that an interval of chaos and weakness separated the pontificate of Leo IX from that of one of the strongest popes in the history of the Church.
Hildebrand is a German name, and suggests a German lineage; Gregory’s contemporaries interpreted it to mean Hellbrand, pure flame. He was born of lowly parentage in the hamlet of Sovano in the marshes of Tuscany (1023?). He was educated in the convent of St. Mary on the Aventine at Rome, and entered the Benedictine order. When Pope Gregory VI was deposed and banished to Germany in 1046 Hildebrand accompanied him as chaplain; during that year in Cologne he learned much about Germany that helped him in his later struggle with Henry IV. Soon after his return to Rome he was made a cardinal subdeacon by Leo IX, and was appointed administrator of the Papal States and at the same time legate to France; we may judge from this remarkable elevation of a youth of twenty-five the reputation that he had so soon acquired for political and diplomatic ability. Popes Victor II (1055-7) and Stephen IX (1057-8) continued to employ him in high capacities. In 1059 Nicholas II became Pope largely through Hildebrand’s influence; and the indispensable monk, not yet a priest, was made papal chancellor.
It was at his urging that Nicholas and the Lateran Council of 1057 issued an edict transferring the election of the pope to the College of Cardinals; by that one stroke Hildebrand proposed to rescue the papacy from Roman nobles and German emperors. Already the young ecclesiastical statesman had formulated a far-reaching policy. To secure the papacy from German domination he closed his eyes to the swashbuckling raids of the Normans in southern Italy, recognized their expropriations, and approved their ambitions, in return for a pledge of military protection. In 1073, after serving eight popes for twenty-five years, Hildebrand himself was raised to the papacy. He resisted, preferring to rule behind the throne; but cardinals, clergy, and people cried out, “St. Peter wills Hildebrand to be Pope!” He was ordained priest, was consecrated Pope, and took the honored name of Gregory.
He was small of stature, homely of feature, keen of eye, proud of spirit, strong of will, sure of the truth, and confident of victory. Four purposes inspired him: to complete Leo’s reform of clerical morals, to end lay investiture, to unify all Europe in one church and one republic headed by the papacy, and to lead a Christian army to the East to reclaim the Holy Land from the Turks. Early in 1074 he wrote to the counts of Burgundy and Savoy, and to the Emperor Henry IV, begging them to raise funds and troops for a crusade which he proposed to lead in person. The counts were not moved, and Henry was too insecure on his throne to think of a crusade.
The Lateran Council of 1059, under Nicholas II and Hildebrand, had excommunicated any priest who kept a wife or a concubine, and had forbidden Christians to attend the Mass of a priest known to keep a woman in his house. Reluctant to break up the families of their clergy, many bishops in Lombardy refused to promulgate these decrees, and prominent clerics in Tuscany defended clerical marriage as both moral and canonical. The legislation could not be enforced, and the idea that clergymen living in “sin” could not administer valid sacraments was so enthusiastically taken up by heretical preachers that the papal appeal to the congregations was withdrawn.78 When Hildebrand became Gregory VII (1073) he attacked the problem with uncompromising determination. A synod in 1074 renewed the decrees of 1059; Gregory sent these to all the bishops of Europe with a stern command to promulgate and enforce them; and absolved the laity from obedience to priests who disregarded them. The reaction was again violent. Many priests declared that they would abandon their calling rather than their wives; others deprecated the decrees as making unreasonable demands on human nature, and predicted that their enforcement would promote secret promiscuity. Bishop Otto of Constance openly favored and protected his married clergy. Gregory excommunicated him, and absolved his flock from obedience to him. In 1075 Gregory took the further step of commanding the dukes of Swabia and Carinthia, and other princes, to use force, if necessary, in keeping recalcitrant clergy from performing priestly functions. Several German princes obeyed him; and many priests unwilling to dismiss their wives were deprived of their parishes.79 Gregory was to die without victory; but Urban II, Paschal II, and Calixtus II reaffirmed and executed his decrees. The Council of the Lateran in 1215 under Innocent III issued a final condemnation, and clerical marriage slowly disappeared.
The problem of investiture seemed simpler than that of clerical marriage. Assuming, as kings and popes agreed, that Christ had established the Church, it seemed clear that her bishops and abbots should be chosen by churchmen rather than by laymen; and surely it was scandalous that a king should not only appoint bishops, but (as in Germany) invest them with the episcopal staff and ring—sacred symbols of spiritual power. But to the kings an opposite conclusion was equally evident. Admitting, as most German bishops and abbots would have done, that they had been invested by the king with lands, revenues, and secular responsibilities, it seemed meet and just, by feudal law, that these prelates—at least the bishops—should owe their appointment and temporal allegiance to the king, as they had done without demurrer under Constantine and Charlemagne. If they were released from such subordination and loyalty half the land of Germany—which had by this time been granted to bishoprics and monasteries80—would escape control by the state, and their due and wonted service to it. The German bishops, and many Lombard bishops of German origin and appointment, suspected that Gregory was seeking to end their relative ecclesiastical autonomy, and subordinate them completely to the Roman see. Gregory was willing that the bishops should continue their feudal obligations to the king,81 but unwilling that they should surrender the lands they had received by royal grant;82 by the law of the Church the property of the Church was inalienable. Gregory complained that lay appointment had begotten most of the simony, worldliness, and immorality that had appeared in the German and French episcopates. He felt that the bishops must be brought under the papal authority, or else the Western, like the Eastern, Church would become a subservient appendage to the state.
Behind this historic conflict lay the question of papacy versus empire: which should unify and govern Europe? The German emperors claimed that their power was also divine, as being a necessity of social order; had not St. Paul said that “the powers that be are ordained by God”? Were they not, according to the popes themselves, the heirs of the Empire of Rome? They stood for the freedom of the part as Gregory stood for the unity and order of the whole. Privately they resented—so long before the Reformation—the flow of gold in fees and Peter’s pence from Germany to Italy;83 and they saw in the papal policy an effort of Latin Rome to renew its ancient control over what Italy scorned as the barbarian Teutonic North. They freely admitted the supremacy of the Church in spiritual matters, but asserted a like supremacy for the state in temporal or earthly affairs. To Gregory this seemed a disorderly dualism; spiritual considerations, he felt, should dominate material concerns, as the sun dominates the moon;84 the state should be subordinate to the Church—the City of Man to the City of God—in all matters involving doctrine, education, morals, justice, or ecclesiastical organization. Had not the kings of France and the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire implicitly admitted that the spiritual was the source and sovereign of the temporal power by accepting archiepiscopal or papal anointment or consecration? The Church, as a divine institution, merited, universal authority; the pope, as the vicegerent of God, had the right and duty to depose bad kings, and to confirm or reject the choice made of rulers by men or circumstance.85 “Who,” asked Gregory, in a passionate epistle to Bishop Hermann of Metz, “is ignorant that kings and princes had their origin in those who, ignorant of God, and covering themselves with pride, violence, and perfidy, in fact nearly every crime … claimed to rule over their peers—i.e., men—in blind lust and intolerable arrogance?”86 Looking upon the political division, chaos, and wars of Europe, it seemed to Gregory that the only escape from that age-old misery was a world order in which these states should surrender something of their jealous sovereignty, and acknowledge the pope as their feudal suzerain, the majestic head of a universal, or at least a European, Christian Republic.
The first step toward this end was the liberation of the papacy from German control. The second was to bring all bishops under the authority of the papal see, at least to this degree, that the bishop should be chosen by the clergy and people of the diocese under the auspices of a bishop nominated by the pope or the metropolitan, and that the election should be valid only when confirmed by the archbishop or the pope.87 Gregory began with a letter (1073) to the bishop of Châlons, in which he threatened to excommunicate King Philip Augustus of France for selling bishoprics. In 1074 he sent a general letter to the French episcopate calling upon them to denounce the crimes of the King to his face, and to discontinue all religious services in France should Philip refuse to reform.88 Lay investiture continued there nevertheless, but the French bishops proceeded with caution, and left the issue to be fought out in Germany.
In February, 1075, a synod of Italian bishops at Rome, under the lead of Gregory, issued decrees against simony, clerical marriage, and lay investiture. With strange precipitance, Gregory at once excommunicated for simony five bishops who were councilors of Henry IV; he suspended the bishops of Pavia and Turin, deposed the bishop of Piacenza, and ordered Bishop Hermann of Bamberg to come to Rome to clear himself from charges of simony. When Hermann tried to bribe the papal tribunal Gregory unceremoniously deposed him. He politely asked Henry to nominate a fit successor for the Bamberg see; Henry not only nominated a court favorite, but invested him with episcopal ring and staff without waiting for papal approval—a procedure accordant with custom, but openly defiant of the Roman synod’s decree. As if to make still clearer his rejection of Gregory’s demands, Henry appointed bishops to the sees of Milan, Fermo, and Spoleto—almost under the nose of the Pope—and kept in his favor the excommunicated councilors.
In December, 1075, Gregory sent Henry a letter of remonstrance, and commissioned the bearers to add an oral message threatening to excommunicate the King should he continue to ignore the Roman synod’s decrees. Henry summoned a council of German bishops to Worms (January 24, 1076); twenty-four came, some stayed away. Before this assembly Hugh, a Roman cardinal, accused Gregory of licentiousness, cruelty, and witchcraft, and of obtaining the papacy by bribery and violence; and he reminded the bishops that the custom of centuries required, for the election of any pope, the consent of the German emperor—which Gregory had not asked. The Emperor, emboldened by his recent suppression of a Saxon revolt, proposed the deposition of the Pope; all bishops present signed the decree; a council of Lombard bishops at Piacenza approved it; and Henry sent it to Gregory with a choice superscription: “Henry, King not by usurpation but by God’s ordinance, to Hildebrand, not Pope but false monk.”89 The message was delivered to Gregory at a synod in Rome (February 21, 1076); the 110 bishops there present, all from Italy and Gaul, wished to kill the messenger, but Gregory protected him. The synod excommunicated the bishops who had signed the Worms decree; and the Pope launched upon the Emperor a triple sentence of excommunication, anathema, and deposition, and released Henry’s subjects from their oaths of obedience (February 22, 1076). Henry countered by persuading the bishop of Utrecht to anathematize Gregory—“the perjured monk”—from the pulpit of the cathedral. All Europe was shocked by the papal deposition of an emperor, and still more by the imperial deposition, and episcopal cursing, of a pope. The religious sentiment proved stronger than the national, and public support rapidly deserted the Emperor. Saxony resumed its revolt; and when Henry summoned the bishops and nobles of his realm to councils at Worms and Mainz his call was almost universally ignored. On the contrary the German aristocracy, seeing in the situation a chance to strengthen their feudal power against the King, met at Tribur (October 16, 1076), approved the excommunication of the Emperor, and declared that should he not obtain absolution from the Pope by February 22, 1077, they would name a successor to his throne. It was arranged between the nobles and the papal legates at Tribur that a diet should be held at Augsburg on February 2, 1077, under the presidency of the Pope, to settle the affairs of the Church and the kingdom.
Henry retired to Speyer, defeated and almost entirely deserted. Believing that the proposed diet would confirm his deposition, he sent messengers to Rome, offering to come there and ask for absolution. Gregory replied that as he would soon leave for Augsburg he could not receive Henry at Rome. En route north, the Pope was entertained at Mantua by his friend and supporter Matilda, Countess of Tuscany. Here he learned that Henry had entered Italy. Fearing that the King would raise an army among the antipapal population of Lombardy, Gregory took refuge in Matilda’s fortified castle at Canossa, high in the Apennines near Reggio Emilia. There on January 25, 1077, at the height of one of the severest winters that Italy could recall, Henry, says Gregory’s report to the German princes,
came in person to Canossa … bringing with him only a small retinue…. He presented himself at the gate of the castle, barefoot and clad only in wretched woolen garments, beseeching us with fears to grant him absolution and forgiveness. This he continued to do for three days, while all those about us were moved to compassion at his plight, and interceded for him with tears and prayers…. At length we removed the excommunication from him, and received him again into the bosom of Holy Mother Church.90
Gregory hesitated so long through no hardness of heart. He had agreed to make no peace with Henry without consulting the German princes; and he knew that if Henry, forgiven, should rebel again, a second excommunication would have diminished effect, and might receive less support from the nobility; on the other hand the Christian world would have found it hard to understand why the Vicar of Christ should refuse forgiveness to so humble a penitent. The event was a spiritual triumph for Gregory, but a subtle diplomatic victory for Henry, who now automatically regained his throne. Gregory returned to Rome, and devoted himself for the next two years to ecclesiastical legislation chiefly aimed to enforce clerical celibacy. The German princes, however, proclaimed Rudolf of Swabia King of Germany (1077), and Henry’s strategy seemed to have failed. But now that he had freed himself from the papal ban he found fresh sympathy from a people not enamored of the nobility; a new army was recruited to defend him; and for two years the rival kings ravaged Germany in civil war. Gregory, after long vacillation, gave his support to Rudolf, excommunicated Henry a second time, forbade Christians to serve him, and offered absolution from their sins to all who should enlist under Rudolf’s flag (March, 1080).91
Henry acted precisely as before. He called a council of favorable nobles and bishops at Mainz; the council deposed Gregory; a council of bishops from Germany and northern Italy at Brixen confirmed the deposition, declared Archbishop Guibert of Ravenna Pope, and commissioned Henry to execute its decrees. The rival armies met on the banks of the Saale in Saxony (October 15, 1080); Henry was defeated, but Rudolf was killed. While the rebel nobles divided on the question of a successor to Rudolf, Henry entered Italy, marched unresisted through Lombardy, recruiting another army as he went, and laid siege to Rome. Gregory appealed to Robert Guiscard for help, but Robert was far away. The Pope appealed to William I, whose conquest of England he had sanctioned and helped, but William was not sure that he wanted Henry to lose this royal argument. The people of Rome defended the Pontiff bravely, but Henry was able to seize a large part of Rome, including St. Peter’s, and Gregory fled to the Castello Sant’ Angelo. A synod in the Lateran palace, at Henry’s command, deposed and excommunicated Gregory, and consecrated Guibert as Pope Clement III (March 24, 1084); and a week later Clement crowned Henry Emperor. For a year Henry was master of Rome.
But in 1085 Robert Guiscard, leaving his campaign against Byzantium, approached Rome at the head of 36,000 men. Henry had no army to resist such a force; he fled to Germany, Robert entered the capital, freed Gregory, sacked Rome, left half of it in ruins, and took Gregory to Monte Cassino; the populace of Rome was so infuriated against the Normans that the Pope, their ally, could not remain there in safety. Clement returned to Rome as apparent Pope. Gregory went on to Salerno, held another synod, excommunicated Henry again, and then broke down in body and spirit. “I have loved righteousness,” he said, “and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.” He was only sixty-two; but the nervous strain of his bitter controversies had worn him out; and his apparent defeat by the man whom he had forgiven at Canossa left him no will to live. There at Salerno, May 25, 1085, he died.
Perhaps he had loved righteousness too imperiously, and had hated iniquity too passionately; it is reserved to the philosopher, and forbidden to the man of action, to see elements of justice in the position of his enemy. Innocent III, a century later, would realize a large part of Gregory’s dream of a world united under the Vicar of Christ; but he would win in a more temperate spirit and with wiser diplomacy. And yet Innocent’s victory was made possible by Gregory’s defeat. Hildebrand had grasped higher than his reach, but he had for a decade raised the papacy to the greatest height and power that it had yet known. His uncompromising war against clerical marriage succeeded, and prepared for his successors a clergy whose undivided loyalty immeasurably strengthened the Church. His campaign against simony and lay investiture would win a tardy victory, but in the end his view would prevail, and the bishops of the Church would become the willing servitors of the papacy. His use of papal legates was destined to extend the power of the popes into every parish in Christendom. Through his initiative papal elections were now free from royal domination. They would soon give the Church an amazing succession of strong men; and ten years after Gregory’s death the kings and nobles of the world would acknowledge Urban II as the head of Europe in that synthesis of Christianity, feudalism, chivalry, and imperialism which we know as the Crusades.