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3. Holy Roman Empire |
Rising imperial power creates a deadly clash of emperor vs. pope

Holy Roman Empire is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 70, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

When penitent Henry IV stood barefoot in the snow for three days to seek Pope Gregory VII’s absolution, the showdown seemed at hand, but it was far from it

Holy Roman Empire - Rising imperial power creates a deadly clash of emperor vs. pope

Holy Roman Empire - Rising imperial power creates a deadly clash of emperor vs. pope
Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, has his hunting party interrupted by an envoy from the dying Conrad, King of the East Franks, urging Henry to take his throne. First king of the German Ottonian dynasty, Henry did not go to Rome to be crowned, so was never styled “emperor.”

Charlemagne’s empire disintegrated after his death. “It is difficult to exaggerate the horror and confusion of the dark age that followed its collapse,” writes British historian Charles Dawson in The Making of Europe. Through the ninth century, seven kings ruled in their great predecessor’s western territories, eight over the vanished empire’s eastern lands. In reality, however, regional warlords freely battled each other while Viking and Magyar pagans wreaked havoc. Then, in the year 918, came an astonishing event. Conrad I, king of the East Franks, made a crucial decision as he lay dying. For seven years, he had fought the Saxons to the north. Calling his brother to his deathbed, the Frankish monarch made a startling suggestion: his crown should go to Henry, Duke of Saxony. A union between Christian adversaries would best enable their peoples to survive and prosper.

And so it was done. An ancient legend relates that the Frankish envoy found this inveterate foe of his people hunting with his falcons deep in the Harz Mountains. “God save you, Henry of Saxony,” said the messenger, kneeling before the formidable duke. “I come to announce the death of King Conrad and to tell you that the nobles [at his suggestion] have elected you to succeed him as king of the Germans.” In Famous Men of the Middle Ages, American authors John Haaren and A. B. Poland describe Henry’s reaction. “For a moment the duke was speechless with amazement. Then he exclaimed: ‘Elected me king? I cannot believe it.

I am a Saxon, and King Conrad was a Frank and a bitter enemy to me.’” The tough warlord then reportedly begged heaven’s help in leading the new folk.

Although this tale may be romanticized in detail, Henry I did found the Germanic kingdom that would later develop into the Holy Roman Empire (a title based on territories held in Italy by Germanic rulers). That new imperium, along with the emerging kingdoms of France and Britain, would preserve European Christendom while the papacy at Rome endured the darkest, most chaotic years in its entire history. (See sidebar, page 78.) As the papacy recovered, however, Germanic emperors would vie with popes, at times brutally, for control of the church within their own lands.

Henry I, known as the Fowler, was descended from Wittekind, the pagan leader who had so fiercely resisted Charlemagne. Christianity long sat lightly on the Saxons. For two generations after their enforced conversion, many warriors fought sporadically to restore their pagan rites. Even so, says Henry’s monk-biographer in The Three Books of the Deeds of the Saxons, the king succeeded in uniting his subjects as “one people in the Christian faith, even as we see them today.”

Unity was sorely needed. The forty or so Germanic tribes of antiquity had evolved into a handful of dukedoms, whose hereditary leaders began to select kings from within their own ranks. Royalty and nobility alike struggled incessantly with neighbors for land, their armed bands pillaging helpless farmers. Simultaneously, the peasantry suffered from pagan marauding of indescribable savagery. From this lethal turmoil slowly evolved a new military hierarchy. It is commonly called feudalism, though the term itself was not coined until the eighteenth century, long after medieval civilization had disappeared, and many twentieth-century historians argued that the system was so varied and unsystematic that there was really no system at all.

Whatever its merits, feudal theory discerns an overarching pattern throughout much of Medieval Europe. Besides kings who ruled kingdoms and dukes who ruled dukedoms, there were counts who ruled counties. In frontier lands threatened by barbarian invaders, the counties became known as “marks.” In England they were called “marches”–the “Welsh Marches” to the west, the “Scottish marches” to the north. In Europe a mark was ruled by a “graf,” and out of the term “mark-graf” came the title “margrave,” or “marquis.”

The key feudal values were land and personal loyalty. Lords allotted fiefs of territory among the lower aristocracy. At the local level, farmers enjoyed the use of their fields in exchange for providing food and other benefits to the increasingly heavily armed knights. Some peasants remained legally free sharecroppers, others became rent-paying serfs tied to their farms, but everyone except outright slaves had some property rights.1 The warrior vows of fidelity to a liege lord, undertaken with impressive solemnity, were considered sacred, the basis of the community’s survival when enemies appeared.

But courage was not just for warriors. A constant battle also raged within every individual, noble or commoner. Each Christian was seen as conducting his own life-and-death struggle between good and evil, between committed loyalty to Jesus Christ, or the path of self and Satan. Just as the peasantry looked to knights for protection in worldly conflicts, the embattled Christian turned to specialists in heavenly warfare, the priests and monks, whose weapons consisted of the holy sacraments and exceptionally disciplined prayer. The consequences of temporal conflict with marauders were temporary; the consequences of the spiritual conflict were eternal. So two medieval hierarchies, secular and sacred, would mature roughly in parallel, the knight in his manor beside the priest in his parish, the duke or count beside the bishop, the emperor at the secular pinnacle, the pope at the spiritual, with all professing submission to Jesus Christ.

The primary scriptural basis for this division between secular and spiritual–in medieval parlance, the two swords–was, Christ’s injunction to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). As long as the religious and worldly authorities cooperated, the principle was workable. But strife within Christendom remained painfully common. Churchmen blamed it on individual sinfulness, especially the greedy and egotistical feuds of secular lords. Yet the papacy itself suffered glaringly from its own sinful misbehaviors.

The unlearned Henry the Fowler, by vigorous campaigning and dynastic marriage-making, added Swabia, Bavaria and Lorraine to his Saxon—Frankish kingdom. He bought nine years of peace with the Magyars by returning a captive Magyar prince and by paying an annual tribute, using the nine years to add cavalry units to his army. When he cut off the tribute, his cavalry defeated the predictable Magyar attack. Henry I died in 936, and his work of expansion and unification was mightily reinforced by his twenty-year-old son, known to history as Otto the Great. Like Charlemagne, he would be crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor.2

Otto I’s view of his responsibilities considerably exceeded that of his father. “He was fully penetrated with the sense of his divine mission,” writes the British historian Thomas Frederick Tout in The Empire and the Papacy, and was “filled with the high ideals of kingcraft.” Thus he had himself crowned and anointed in Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen. But his religion was deeper than kingcraft. In the whirlwind of familial wars, one of them against his brother who plotted his murder, a crucial battle turned against him. He flung himself on his knees, begging God to protect his followers. A nearly miraculous victory followed, and Otto’s faith became deeply personal.

He added to his realm Slavic Bohemia, which would one day become the Czech Republic, and in 955 he so thoroughly thrashed the Magyars at the Lechfeld in Bavaria that they never invaded German lands again. As his territories grew, he lavished lands upon the church, in part so bishops would have the resources to carry out their religious duties. But the prince-bishops who ruled these powerful sees exercised civil as well as ecclesiastical authority. Otto found them far more controllable than feudal lords, less likely to rise in rebellion, while their celibacy made it legally impossible for them to form competing dynasties. Like Charlemagne, he also brought to his court the best theological and legal minds of his time.

Since the prince-bishops reported to the king, not to Rome, Otto had created what amounted to a state-controlled church, independent of the papacy, a reality that he made explicit in the ordination and investiture ceremony. When a bishop took office, the king played the dominant role, handing the candidate a signet ring that bestowed the authority to legally undertake secular duties, and the crosier, the ornate staff based on the shepherd’s crook that recognized the bishop’s spiritual pastorate over his people. The “glebe” also came from the king, a lump of earth that conveyed authority over church-owned land.

While few reformers disputed that the bishops were properly vassals of the secular ruler in right of their fiefs, Otto’s actions raised the question of where spiritual authority lay. Within the Roman Empire, bishops had been selected by the people of their sees, with prominent families playing the most notable part in the process. In medieval times, those prominent families had become royal and ducal, so they assumed the right to invest the bishop with the spiritual symbols of ring and staff. The pope’s involvement in investing ecclesiastical authorities was represented solely by the pallium, a white woolen stole worn over the neck by archbishops (formally called metropolitan bishops because they exercise supervision over fellow bishops). This garment had to come from Rome.

But a bishopric offered power and a luxurious life. Soon some sees were being auctioned to the highest bidder in the practice known as “simony,”3 and a return on the investment was expected. Cluniac reformers and many other devout Christians came to deplore the practice, and doubtless looked to Rome to reform it. Kings naturally defended this important source of income and political influence. In any case, the papacy was in no condition to reform anything for decades to come. In fact, the pope of the day, John XII, was appealing to Otto I for help. It was when Otto responded, and knelt before the pope to receive the imperial crown on February 22, 962, that the Holy Roman Empire was restored.

Crowned with his father was Otto II as co-regent king of Germany and Italy, who six years later became co-regent emperor. Four years after that, he married the Byzantine princess Theophano. His father died a year later. A warrior worthy of his parentage, Otto II suppressed revolts in Bavaria, Lorraine and Bohemia, fended off the West Franks by marching almost to the walls of Paris, claimed suzerainty over Poland, then invaded southern Italy to oust the Muslims and acquire from them the former Byzantine lands that were supposed to come as his wife’s dowry. That endeavor failed. The Christian army was ambushed and scattered in a Calabrian valley. In an epic escape, Otto made it to the coast, swam to a passing vessel, then jumped ship and swam to shore before the vessel entered a Muslim port. While planning another offensive, Otto II died of an overdose of medicine given to him to combat a fever. He was twenty-eight. His son, Otto III, was three years old.

Of the three Ottos, the third was the most unusual. His Byzantine mother, an intelligent and politically effective regent, raised him in an atmosphere of exceptional religious idealism, and imbued in him the conviction that he was born to be the theocratic monarch of a sacred empire. The child-sovereign was eleven when his mother died, and historian Tout notes that he was thereafter educated entirely by bishops under the rising influence of the Cluniac movement. (See chapter 1.) Thus, from time to time throughout his short life, he would shed his royal finery, abandon his gold dinner plates, and dress in a rough cloak to visit secluded holy men and shrines.

At sixteen, Otto III crossed the Alps, responding to yet another papal cry for help when Pope John XV sought protection against the Roman mobs in general, and against antipope Boniface VII in particular, who had just starved to death his predecessor. John died before his rescuers arrived, so Otto appointed as his successor, the first German pope: Bruno, aged twenty-four, his own cousin and also a Cluniac sympathizer. Bruno became Pope Gregory V, and began the urgently needed papal reform. However, he died just three years later, and the squalor continued at Rome.

Upon his death, Otto turned to a remarkable monk, Gerbert of Aurillac, a gifted mathematician, born to poverty in Spain, who had crossed the Pyrenees as a young man and found service with the Capet family. The Capetians, who were the counts of Paris, made him archbishop of Reims. In 987, prodded by Gerbert, Hugh Capet persuaded the French nobility to name him king of the West Franks. Hugh’s descendants, filtering down through two dynasties, the Valois and the Bourbons, would rule France until the revolution in 1789. However, once safely enthroned, the ungrateful Hugh had Gerbert fired as archbishop, so he sought work with Otto III, and was warmly received–so warmly that on the death of Gregory V, Otto saw Gerbert made Pope Sylvester II.

The king’s own aspirations were mushrooming alarmingly. Still influenced by his dead mother, he introduced Byzantine titles, eunuchs and elaborately rigid ceremonial to his court. His German nobles had to twist their rough tongues around the alien intricacies of Greek. Rome must become the capital of a new Western empire, Otto decreed, where seven clerics (a mystical number) would consecrate the emperor and elect each new pope. From this sacred and eternal city, operating in intimate partnership, emperor and pope would reform the world.

None of this particularly enthused the German nobility. Then Otto and Pope Sylvester made a move that distinctly disenchanted them. He created native archbishoprics for Hungary, land of the Magyars, and for Poland. From the Christian viewpoint, this made sense. It deeply embedded Latin Christianity in two important emerging nations. But it infuriated the Germans, especially their ecclesiastics. For generations, iron-fisted Teutonic nobles had been expanding eastward, consolidating their victories by appointing German bishops over the Magyar and Slav Christians. Now their young sovereign was not only aping the preposterous manners of the effete Greeks, but also undermining the political strength of his own people along their eastern border. Most of the German church thereupon rebelled against Sylvester, refusing to attend his councils.

So much royal territory had been given to the prince-bishops and to the monasteries that Otto’s family held relatively little land of its own. In need of funding, the royal youngster returned to Germany, hoping to reestablish harmony. Strange stories came with him. He sought guidance, said one account, by entering the crypt under Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, and gazing in contemplation upon the imperial cadaver still seated on a throne with scepter in hand. The Germans remained disenchanted. So crossing the Alps for the last time, Otto tried settling again in Rome, only to find he wasn’t wanted there either. The city’s ever-fickle mob had little love for Germans and they set about driving him out.

His dreams collapsing, he appealed again for help from Germany, meanwhile visiting Romuald, a miracle-working hermit who dwelt in the swamps near Ravenna, with whom he was said to have shared in self-mortifications and scourging. But no help came. Returning to Rome, he was beset by a sharp fever, probably smallpox, and died in 1002 at twenty-two, leaving no children. Within a year, Pope Sylvester II followed his emperor to the grave.4

Another cousin of Otto’s succeeded him as Henry II, put down the customary rebellion of the nobility, suppressed revolts in both Bohemia and Poland, intervened in Italy where the wrangles and bedlam around the papacy continued, supported the German bishops against the dominant power of the Cluniac movement, and died childless in 1024 after reigning as emperor for ten years. (He and his wife, Cunigunde of Luxembourg, were said to have taken a vow of chastity. The church canonized them both.)

The German monarchy now passed to descendants of Otto I through the female line.5 Conrad II, elected king by his fellow magnates, added the kingdom of Burgundy to the empire, but his most significant contribution to the German kingdom came through his marriage to Gisela of Swabia, a widowed duchess and his distant cousin. She was a strong-minded and intensely Christian woman, and when the marriage produced a son named Henry, his parents supplied him with a more thorough formal education than any previous German monarch. Like the three Ottos, the young Henry grew up believing his kingship to be a sacred obligation, dedicating himself to establishing greater peace for the common people. With the death of his father in 1039 he became king of Germany, and seven years later was crowned Emperor Henry III. Although this sovereign determinedly backed the cause of church reform, the great showdown between the empire and the papacy began to unfold during his reign.

Henry was not universally popular. His reforming efforts against married prelates and simony antagonized some German bishops upon whose influence royal authority depended, and his high taxes annoyed practically everyone. Yet Henry’s determined support provided immense prestige for the Cluniac reforms, and he validated his theology in his personal life, preaching to a synod in southern Germany, for instance, clad in the drab garb of a penitent. So when his empress, Agnes of Poitou, and Abbot Hugh of Cluny urged Henry to intervene in the endless imbroglio at Rome, he complied. Three popes were currently trying to reign at once, an intolerable scandal. Respecting the canonical principle that no king may judge the bishop of Rome, Henry summoned a synod. It directed Pope Sylvester III to a monastery, accepted the resignation of Pope Gregory VI for simony, and expelled Pope Benedict IX to his native Tusculum.6 Henry then orchestrated the nomination of the next four popes, achieving the zenith of imperial power over the papacy. One of these, however, gave evidence that the long era of papal degradation was about to come to an end.

This was Leo IX, a strong-minded German who initiated his ministry with an unprecedented tour of his scattered flock, traveling north and west to Germany and France, then down to southern Italy, his garments varying from monkish homespun to majestic robes as occasion demanded. He drew to Rome a competent team of young reformers who worked swift and sweeping changes in the papal administration. Safer roads meant that papal envoys (usually called legates) could move more freely abroad, enabling the papacy to routinely intervene in such matters as church property squabbles, previously settled by regional bishops. Education of the clergy advanced. Married priests came under increasingly intense condemnation. All this was backed by Henry, but it strengthened the papacy as a rival to his own imperial authority within the church. Moreover, Leo first warred, and then allied with the rising Norman presence in southern Italy, furnishing the papacy with a military power that could oppose that of the empire. Leo died a broken man (see chapter 9), but his alliance with the Normans would change the balance of political power within the empire.

Germany itself was teetering toward disorder when Henry III died in 1056 at age thirty-eight. Henry IV was not quite six when his father died and his mother Agnes assumed the regency. Also an enthusiast for church reform, she failed to quell unruly nobles and zealous bishops who seized on the royal minority as their chance to reduce imperial authority. In a particularly catastrophic error, Agnes allowed strategically important German lands to slip from royal control into the hands of potentially unfriendly dukes. And while secular lords warred endlessly over their various interests, the church was developing greater internal order, sharpening the religious sword while the secular blade grew blunt.

Soon, a challenge was being boldly articulated. Why should emperors and kings–habitually violent, often uneducated, and rarely even faithful to their wives, let alone celibate–have the right to appoint bishops, whose sacred role was central to the well-being of the church? Hadn’t the venerable church fathers explained that the primary interest of worldly rulers was worldly, not heavenly?7 Didn’t the Bible clearly state that the leadership of the church, and responsibility for its welfare, lay with the apostle Peter, whose successor was the pope in Rome?

These contentions led to action. Popes Stephen IX and Nicholas II assumed office with no reference to the emperor. Then in 1059, Nicholas II convened a synod at the Lateran Palace that revolutionized the papal election process. Future popes must henceforth be elected solely by the cardinals,8 with strong preference for a Roman candidate. The role of royalty in papal selection was reduced to a vague right to be consulted–after the fact. The Nicholas formula, with modest modifications, became permanent and survives to this day.9 The same synod, attended by one hundred thirteen bishops, specifically forbade investiture of any church officials by secular rulers.

That last provision was incendiary. The German monarchy, dependent for its very survival on its prince-bishops and abbots, could scarcely accept any prohibition against investiture by laymen. In retaliation, the empress Agnes sought to oust Nicholas by backing the election of a rival pontiff, but her plan failed for lack of military support. Who, after all, wanted to take on the Normans? The Germans regarded the upstarts’ principalities in Italy as illegitimate and dangerous, but what could they do about them?

Meanwhile, Henry IV, the monarch who would have to contend with this amazingly revived papacy, was growing up. Archbishop Anno of Cologne became regent for the boy-king. Although Anno would be sainted soon after his death, he did not impress his contemporaries as spectacularly devout. Medieval chroniclers relate how he had gained the regency. A former soldier, he invited the twelve-year-old Henry to tour his superbly equipped barge, then seized him and pressured Agnes to retire. The prince, outstandingly athletic, reportedly jumped into the Rhine to escape. Caught and dragged back, he never did warm to the stern archbishop. Still, Anno fought for the king’s rights. He agreed to recognize the new pope Alexander II only in exchange for a promise that his royal charge would be crowned emperor.

As Henry IV grew older and more rebellious, he was transferred to the care of Adalbert, archbishop of Bremen, who courted the favor of his royal ward by letting him run wild. The opportunistic Henry took control of his kingdom at age sixteen, girded himself with his knight’s sword, and set out after his old intimidator Anno, intent on running him through, so it was said, but his mother and Adalbert restrained him.

Meanwhile at Rome, two other figures were rising to prominence in the administration of Pope Alexander II. One was a brilliant and outspoken monk named Hildebrand, who embraced a view of the papacy as unassailable. The authority of the pope, he said, was universal, overriding emperors, kings, dukes, everyone in Christendom. The steadfast ally of both Pope Alexander and Hildebrand was Matilda, countess of Tuscany. Again and again, against Romans, Normans and Germans, she would risk her strategically located province to provide vital defense for the emerging papal power. An immensely wealthy heiress, left fatherless and brotherless at age six, she had learned to fight with sword and ax, and personally led an army of knights whose battle cry was “For Saint Peter and Matilda.” Upon her death, the countess’s will added these fertile lands to the papal states that spread through central Italy.

Like Matilda, Hildebrand was also a Tuscan, born on a marshy stretch of the Italian coast, seventy-five miles north of Rome. According to the unverifiable traditions that are still so common in this era, he was the son of a village carpenter, but John Gratian, then an influential abbot in Rome, enabled the youngster to join the papal Schola Cantorum (school for choristers).10 The boy had a feeble voice and was short and ungainly, but his eyes glittered with intelligence and determination. Gratian bought the papacy and became Gregory VI, and was one of the three deposed in the cleanup directed by Henry III. Young Hildebrand loyally followed his uncle into exile.

When John Gratian died, Hildebrand is thought to have visited Cluny, served in Rome as archdeacon, been a legate to France at age thirty, and returned to Rome to supervise, among other things, the hiring of mercenary troops. Here the record becomes more sturdy. When Alexander II died in 1073, clerics and laity alike all but compelled Hildebrand to accept the chair of St. Peter. Honoring Gregory the Great and his own uncle, he took the name Gregory VII. He would become the most aggressive pope of the Middle Ages.

He well may have expected an immediate confrontation with young Henry IV over the archbishopric of Milan, one of the last western jurisdictions to resist papal oversight of its internal affairs. Both Henry and Gregory assumed they had the right to appoint its bishop.11 For whatever reason, the new pope, characteristically taking the initiative, wrote several times to the twenty-three-year-old monarch, initially in kindly terms. But the position assumed by this pontiff would become uncompromising indeed. The pope, in his view, exercised supreme spiritual power over the church, limited solely by his own conscience before God. Therefore, the temporal power invested in secular officials like Henry must give way before the papacy’s spiritual authority in the event of dispute. This power must apply not only to the empire, but to all Europe.12 Papal rulings were implicitly buttressed by the threat of excommunication in the event of noncompliance.

Gregory cannot be justly accused of singling out Henry IV. The king of France, for instance, also faced a serious threat of excommunication. Nor did Gregory ignore previously Christian countries now under Muslim control. Before his dispute with Henry IV reached complete rupture, he would try to mount the first crusade against the Muslims. Henry, the warrior-king of Germany, must have raised an eyebrow when he learned that this projected campaign, which was to involve fully fifty thousand troops, would be led by the unwarrior-like pope in person, accompanied by the empress Agnes and Countess Matilda. The pope’s plans, however, would fail to spark sufficient enthusiasm to be carried out.

Henry, facing another massive Saxon revolt, responded to the pope’s extraordinary claims in diplomatically submissive terms that would doubtless have bolstered Gregory’s confidence. However, compliance with the papal orders nowhere occurred. They were simply ignored. So in 1075, Gregory mounted a carefully prepared legal campaign, issuing a decree prohibiting lay investiture of bishops. He followed this with the Dictatus Papae. Among the twenty-seven claims of this memorandum (which may have been a speculative musing intended for internal consideration only) were the following: That the Roman church was founded by God alone. That only the Roman church is rightly called universal. That the Roman church has never erred, and never will. That the pope may be judged by no human being. And more controversially, that the pope’s name alone is to be cited in the diptychs (liturgical prayers for the church and its people). That only the pope may use imperial insignia [i.e., not the German emperor]. That all monarchs must kiss the foot of the pope, rendering such homage to no one else. That the pope has the right to depose emperors. That the pope may release the subjects of an unjust ruler from oaths of fealty to that ruler.

That very year, however, King Henry had finally amassed sufficient support among his nobles to crush the Saxons. He deliberately invested two German bishops, hoping that the German and Lombard churches would stand behind the concept of anointed royal investiture. On January 24, 1076, he convened twenty-six bishops in the council of Worms (Worms is a city on the Rhine, thirty miles southwest of Frankfurt). Led by a cardinal, they agreed to depose the pope for exceeding his authority. The letter Henry dispatched to Rome was addressed to “Hildebrand, no longer pope, but a false monk,” and climaxed with: “I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all my bishops say to thee: ‘Descend! Descend, thou ever accursed!’”

In the course of this confrontation, one Roman noble, an ally of Henry’s, seized the pope and carried him off to a fortified stronghold in the city. Gregory, suffering a deep but not fatal gash in the chest, was quickly rescued by loyal supporters. Throughout his ordeal, he displayed by all accounts a calm valor. He treated even his kidnapper kindly, and was equally gentle with the royal envoy who had to read out loud–to the synod in Rome–King Henry’s violent deposition order: “Ye [the people of Rome] are bidden to receive another pope from the king … for this man is no pope but a ravening wolf.” When angry Romans drew swords, Gregory personally shielded the messenger.

For King Henry himself, however, there was no papal forbearance. On February 22, 1076, Gregory declared before the assembled dignitaries of Rome: “I forbid anyone to serve him as king.” Thus, for the first time ever, a pope excommunicated–and in effect deposed–a reigning monarch. It was amazingly effective. Henry’s cause collapsed with shocking speed. His own mother, living as a penitent in Italy, sided with the pope, writing that her son “trusts in the words of fools.” The king’s stoutest supporter among the German aristocracy, Godfrey the Younger of Lorraine, was murdered. By Easter, the German bishops began deserting him in droves, each striving to make his peace with the pope. The Saxons rose again. The German dukes, their feudal obligations to Henry of null effect, invited the pope to preside over an assembly at Augsburg, scheduled for February 1077, to choose a new king.

Gregory agreed, and with some difficulty, traversed the frozen Apennines as far as Mantua, a Lombard center east of Milan. At this crucial point, however, King Henry decided that he must surrender. The desperate sovereign crossed the Alps during an exceptionally bitter winter, his men frequently crawling down the icy slopes on hands and knees. Gregory, learning that his foe was in Italy, retreated to the countess Matilda’s mountain fortress at Canossa. (Matilda, incidentally, was a second cousin of Henry’s.) The king’s allies, still numerous in Lombardy, urged him to attack, but he refused. Instead, he appeared before the walls of Canossa clad only in the woolen garb of a penitent, barefoot in the snow.

This put Gregory in a quandary, as Henry well knew. If the pope absolved the king, the rebel German aristocrats would feel heavily betrayed. On the other hand, how can any priest refuse absolution to a repentant sinner? And if he did refuse it, how would that look to the church and the world? Henry shivered outside Canossa for three days (although some Catholic historians insist that his physical suffering has been romantically exaggerated). Inside the castle, Matilda so strenuously urged mercy for her cousin that Gregory grew irritated with her. Abbot Hugh of Cluny, Henry’s godfather, also petitioned for his forgiveness. On the fourth day, after Henry agreed to face a German assembly on all accusations brought by his nobles, Gregory relented. The castle gates opened. The king, it is said, wept with relief.

In principle, Canossa represented a papal victory. The most powerful ruler in Western Christendom had yielded to Rome. But Henry was free to rally his forces, and thereafter never did express the slightest remorse for defying the pope. With the Roman anathema lifted, German nobles and bishops flocked back to his banner. The pope could offer them neither troops nor money, and with the help of the increasingly influential merchants of the fast-growing towns along the Rhine, Henry reestablished his control of his territories. In full counterattack, he then appointed an antipope from Ravenna, who took the name Clement III. Gregory prophesied that his enemy would die within a year–but Henry failed to oblige. In the spring of 1082, he arrived with an army in the vicinity of Rome. He besieged the city three times, inflicting little damage and behaving with the utmost respect for the people. He finally took Rome in 1084, forcing Gregory to find refuge in Castel Sant’ Angelo. With the support of many cardinals, Henry formally deposed Gregory VII and enthroned Clement III, who in turn crowned his German patron as emperor.

Responding to Gregory’s appeals, the Norman Robert Guiscard marched on Rome with thirty thousand infantry and six thousand cavalry, drawn from southern Italy and Sicily, and including many Muslims. Henry retreated, while his Roman allies tried to hold out. Guiscard conducted vicious street battles and burned perhaps one-third of the city. Lines of women, including nuns, were marched with hands bound into the tents of the Norman soldiers and their Muslim allies. Slavery became the ultimate fate of thousands. Gregory, who must have been shattered by the abominable behavior of his uncontrollable ally, nonetheless accompanied Guiscard when he withdrew from the devastated city. To remain would have been suicidal. Despairing but defiant, the pope died the following spring in Salerno, uttering the famous words “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.” But he neither lived nor died in vain. In many men’s minds, the church stood independent, possibly even supreme. Never again would the bishop of Rome be considered the mere chaplain to a theocratic emperor.

Henry, beset by the usual succession conflicts, fared only marginally better. When his rebellious eldest son, Conrad, cornered him in northern Italy, he escaped and had his second son crowned co-monarch as Henry V. But this ungrateful whelp, conspiring with rebellious nobles, imprisoned his father and forced him to abdicate. Henry, elusive as ever, escaped again, and waged vigorous war against his treacherous heir until 1106, when death suddenly took him at the age of fifty-five.

The controversy surrounding the investiture of bishops would flare up sporadically well into the twelfth century, and occasionally even later. A compromise was first worked out in England and France, followed by Germany. Typically, the clerics of a cathedral chapter would elect a candidate for their bishopric. If the pope agreed, then his delegate (normally an archbishop) would invest the nominee with ring and staff. The new bishop would then vow loyalty to his king or emperor in right of his feudally held lands. But the underlying issue of supremacy between church and state remained unresolved, a conflict that would intensify with the emergence of powerfully integrated nations, above all France. Thus, the two swords, spiritual and secular, would continue to clash.

This is the end of the Holy Roman Empire category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 70, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Holy Roman Empire from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at