THE LIFE AND TIMES OF POPE GREGORY VII
THE ROAD TO CANOSSA,
FEBRUARY 14, 1O76-JANUARY 28, 1O77
14-22, 1076—Henry IV excommunicated
In the first week of Lent in the year 1076 the Roman Synod was assembled under the presidency of the Pope in the Church of St. John Lateran. The bishops, who numbered 110, had come some from France and Central or Southern Italy, while a large concourse of clerics, abbots, monks and laymen filled the church. No prelates from Germany or Lombardy had responded to the summons of the Holy See.
At the opening of the first session, immediately after the singing of the hymn, Veni, Creator, the Pope was about to pronounce the preliminary discourse when Roland entered with a companion, and presented the letters of the King and the bishops to Gregory, with an appropriate speech. His words at once aroused a tumult, swords were drawn, and Gregory had to interpose his own person to save the King’s ambassador.
Paul of Bernried supplies the miraculous element in this scene, and states gravely that the synod were considering a new-laid egg, upon which a black serpent rose, as it were, in high relief, and coiled round the smooth shell, but it had struck on what seemed a shield, and recoiled writhing. This was interpreted by the Pope as follows : “The egg was the Church; the serpent, the emblem of evil, stood for Henry, who should strike his head against the Church”, and so forth. The speech put into the Pope’s mouth by Paul of Bernried is weak, and crowded with biblical quotations. The anecdote of the egg is paralleled by Beno’s story, that the seat upon which Gregory sat to deliver sentence upon the King (whom Beno’s sympathies paint as innocent, and friendly to the Pope) broke asunder!
The Pope’s answer to Henry was threefold : He forbade him to govern Germany and Italy, dispensed all his subjects from the oath of allegiance they had taken to him, and forbade every one to obey him as a king.
Finally, the King was excommunicated. Gregory considered Henry’s action from two standpoints : Henry as a ruler had risen against St. Peter, and was therefore forbidden to govern his kingdom; as a Christian he had made himself unworthy of fellowship with the Church, and received excommunication. Another ground is given by Gregory for this excommunication, viz. Henry’s disobedience in continuing to hold intercourse with excommunicated persons, his “many sins”, and his contempt for the advice the Pope had given him. The King’s mother, the Empress Agnes, was among the audience, and heard sentence passed upon her son.
One might have expected the definite deposition of Henry IV after Gregory’s embassy to the King, which had said that the King deserved to lose his kingdom irrevocably for his horrenda scelera; but Gregory did not carry out the programme indicated in his embassy in its entirety. It is possible that he may have suspected that Henry’s enemies had overstated their case against him, and had carried their accusations too far, and that he had listened to baseless slanders.
The February synod excommunicated, with Henry IV, Siegfried of Mayence and the bishops who had of their own free-will concurred in the proceedings of Worms. They were suspended from their episcopal functions, interdicted from the Holy Eucharist, except in the hour of death and after due penance. Those who assented from weakness and compulsion were allowed time to make their peace with the Holy See. The bishops of Lombardy who had ratified at Piacenza the Decree of Worms were suspended from their episcopal functions and severed from the communion of the Church, like Siegfried of Mayence and those bishops who had signed, of their own free-will, the Worms document. As Hefele remarks, there was no compulsion in the case of the Lombardian bishops : they had not come under the influence of the King.
It is noteworthy, in this connection, that whereas the majority of the German bishops made their peace with the Holy See in the course of the summer, the Lombard bishops remained firm in their opposition. They replied to the censures of the February synod by an assembly in Pavia, in which the Pope was condemned in the harshest terms.
In the Register, after we are informed that the Worms prelates were censured at the February synod, the text of Gregory’s excommunication of the King is given under the heading : Excommuncatio Henrici regis Teutonicorum. The form of the speech is original, and could have had no precedent, as hitherto no reigning prince in such a position as Henry IV’s had ever been excommunicated.
The King’s messengers appear to have been ill-treated by the Roman mob after the synod. Henry IV, writing to Altwin, Bishop of Brixen, complains that the Pope treated them cruelly, imprisoned them, caused them to suffer cold, hunger, thirst and cruel blows, and made them a spectacle to the people as they were led through the streets of Rome. The Empress Agnes, however, says that the messengers were attacked by the Romans, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that the Pope was innocent and unaware of the “rough justice” of the Romans, especially as it is admitted by Henrician writers, as well as by his own partisans, that he saved the life of Roland at the synod.
Shortly after the council the Pope wrote an encyclical, in which the bishops who attended the Diet of Worms are not anathematized directly, but are stigmatized as “schismatics”, “those who blaspheme the name of the Lord in Blessed Peter”. At the close of this document reference is made to the King of Germany, whom “Blessed Peter” (that is to say, Gregory himself, who here, and elsewhere, identifies himself with the prince of the Apostles, in his official capacity) has anathematized.
Fruitless negotiations between the Holy See and the Normans
The mandates of Gregory were to promulgate themselves, they were unsupported by any strong temporal forces. The Pope, indeed, was master in Rome, and might depend, perhaps, on his firm ally, the Countess Matilda; he might possibly, as a last resource, summon the Normans; but it was not to these secular powers that he trusted, but to the spiritual terrors of the papal threats, “the incomparable powers” of the Pope as the “earthly Peter”.
It is not surprising, however, to find that in the early months of 1076 negotiations took place for the purpose of reconciling Robert Guiscard and his brother Roger of Sicily to the Holy See. Gregory orders Arnold, Bishop of Acerenza, to go to Count Roger, who “begs to be blessed and absolved by the Holy See”, and if he promises obedience and does penance, to absolve him. If Robert Guiscard also consents “to obey the Holy Roman Church as a son should obey his mother”, Gregory, for his own part, is ready to absolve him from excommunication.
The negotiations failed, as had all similar attempts in the preceding year. Gisulfo of Salerno proved to be an unsurmountable obstacle in the way of reconciliation.
Immediately after Easter, the bishops and abbots of Lombardy assembled at Pavia, under the presidency of Guibert, Archbishop of Ravenna, anathematized Gregory VII and declared their allegiance to Henry IV. A complete schism was formed, and seemed to be irremediable.
Meanwhile, the Duchess Beatrice, the mother of the Countess Matilda, and a firm ally of Gregory VII, died on April 18, 1076. Beatrice, who was a cousin of the Emperor Henry III, had, as we have said, married, firstly, the Margrave Boniface of Tuscany, who was murdered in the year 1052; secondly, Godfrey (the Bearded) of Lorraine. As Beatrice and Godfrey were related in the fourth degree of consanguinity, the marriage must have been considered invalid at the time; but no steps were taken about the matter. Godfrey the Hunchback—son of Godfrey the Bearded, and husband of the Countess Matilda—was assassinated not long before the death of the Duchess Beatrice (it is said by the emissaries of Robert, Count of Flanders), and in him Henry IV lost a devoted adherent and an experienced soldier, who had fought with him in his campaign against the Saxons.
The King convokes the second Diet of Worms
The excommunication of the King of Germany, the fact that he was cut off from all fellowship with the Church, and to be avoided by all Christian subjects, made a deep impression. When the news of the excommunication spread abroad, says Bonitho, “the whole world of Rome shook and trembled”. It is true that to many distant and outlying districts the news must have been slow in penetrating, for as late as 1077 the Archbishop of Cambray declared himself uncertain as to Henry’s fate, but Henry’s position became gradually more and more isolated. The direct consequence of the excommunication of a prince was that subordinates, officials, soldiers, etc., were obliged to desert the excommunicated person, so that such a sentence in time became ipso facto one of deposition.
After his defiance of the Pope at Worms, Henry went to Goslar, where he busied himself with the exile of the Saxon hostages to the most distant parts of the kingdom, the imprisonment of all suspected persons, and the construction of numerous fortified castles. From Goslar he proceeded to Cologne in the beginning of March, as he was anxious to settle the matter of the nomination of his creature, Hildalf (or Hildorf), as Archbishop. In spite of the strong opposition of the clergy and people, he refused to alter the choice he had made, and arranged that Hildalf should be consecrated by William, Bishop of Utrecht. The King kept Easter at Utrecht, and there he presented his young son and heir, Conrad, with the Duchy of Lorraine, vacant by the death of Duke Godfrey. It was here, on March 27, that he heard the sentence of the Pope. His first impression was that of dismay, but he soon recovered, and declared he would revenge himself. At once he ordered Bibo, Bishop of Toul, who was staying at the court, to declare, during the solemn Mass in the cathedral, before all the people, that the excommunication was invalid. The Bishop dared not execute this order, and, though attached to Henry, he secretly withdrew from the city with the Bishop of Verdun, who shared his fears and anxieties.
In William of Utrecht fidelity to the King was combined with a fierce hatred of the Pope, and he it was who took the place of the Bishop of Toul, and made the declaration requested by Henry IV. He even went further. At every opportunity he broke forth against the Pope, whom he called “the perjurer, the adulterer and the false apostle”, and declared him excommunicated, not by himself alone, but by all the bishops of Germany.
If he had hoped for the King’s favor in return for his zeal and services he was deceived. Henry met William’s request for a bishopric for his nephew with a refusal. So greatly was the Bishop chagrined, that he separated himself from the King’s party, without, however, going over to the Pope’s side. He died in April of the same year. That the people of Utrecht were not well disposed towards Gregory is shown by the fact that they gave the excommunicated Bishop honorable burial.
He had died under the ban, and Bishop Henry of Lüttich, who had retracted his share in the Diet of Worms, asked the Pope’s advice as to the prayers that were used for the soul of the departed Bishop. Gregory’s answer proves that he was not fully informed as to William of Utrecht’s share in forcing his reluctant colleagues to subscribe to the letter of the bishops. He suggested that William’s consent at Worms might have been due to pressure, and on this false hypothesis he allowed masses and prayers to be said for his soul.
Gregory VII had expected Henry to lead the royal army into the plains of Lombardy, and accordingly assembled troops, and in concert with the Countess Matilda organized a plan of resistance. Henry’s only reply was to summon another council at Worms, like that of the preceding year. Besides a general invitation to the bishops of his realm, he addressed a special letter to Bishop Altwin of Brixen, in which he reiterated his conviction that “Hildebrand” was an intruder, who “took possession of the Papacy and of royal authority contrary to the will of God”.
The King’s summons received but little attention; of the three bishops who, by the King’s command, were to accuse the Pope, one only, Ebbo of Naumburg-Zeitz, was present at Worms. We have mentioned the sudden death of William, Bishop of Utrecht; and Altwin, Bishop of Brixen, was held prisoner, on his way to Worms, by Hartmann, Count of Dillingen. One single accuser was insufficient, and the question had to be deferred to another assembly convoked at Mayence (June 29, 1076).
Meantime, the Pope’s excommunication of Henry was the opportunity of the Saxon princes; on every side of the King sprang up a growing hostility, conspiracy or desertion. Bishop Hermann of Metz had surreptitiously released some of the Saxon chieftains entrusted to his charge, and began to take the foremost place among the partisans of Gregory in Germany. The King, it was said, had threatened revenge by marching upon Metz, but had been obliged to abandon this measure. Udo, Archbishop of Treves, and his suffragans, Theodoric and Hermann, had already made their peace with the Holy See, shortly after the February synod. The Pope contented himself with allowing the three prelates to choose their own penance, and to perform it in their own dioceses without journeying to Rome. Udo therefore remained in Germany, and received the papal absolution from the legate at Tribur in October.
The assembly at Mayence was considerably larger than the second assembly at Worms. No attempt was made by it to name a successor to Gregory VII. The leaders of the opposition to Henry held aloof and maintained a menacing neutrality. The King’s strongest hold upon the disaffected Saxons was that he still held some of their leaders as hostages. Now some of the greater nobles, following the example of the Bishop of Metz, liberated the Saxon prisoners whom the King had confided to their charge. Thus Hermann of Salm, uncle of Duke Magnus, and many other nobles, were able to regain their country. The King’s policy now began to be wild and vacillating. He determined to set the remaining Saxon hostages at liberty. To the Bishops of Magdeburg, Meiseburg and Meissen, to Duke Magnus and the Palatine Frederick, and other Saxon and Thuringian nobles, he offered their liberty on promise of fidelity. Before they left their guardians Henry earnestly begged them to aid him in the pacification of Saxony. This they promised willingly, regarding these promises as extorted from them during their captivity, and hence null and void. They were brought to Metz to receive their freedom from Henry in person; but even in this he failed, for the prisoners escaped in the confusion resultant upon a fray in the city between the Bishop of Bamberg and a rival Churchman.
The King decided to lead an army into Saxony, attacking it from the west on the side of Bohemia. He took with him only a very small body of men from Germany, and recruiting a small army in Bohemia, with the assistance of Duke Wratislas, waited for the arrival of the troops of Otto of Nordheim and other lately-released hostages who had sworn fidelity in the marches of Meissen. Otto, however, had fallen from the King’s side, and refused to come to his assistance, and a retreat was inevitable for the King and his army. Within six months the authority so ably consolidated by Henry IV in 1075 had melted away.
Gregory's letters to Bishop Hermann of Metz (1076 and 1080)
Gregory, meantime, neglected none of his own weapons of warfare, and from this point of view it is interesting to examine the correspondence carried on during this year between Germany and the Holy See. He addressed himself both to the Churchmen and to the lay people. In a letter to Henry, Bishop of Trent, Gregory assures him that before the Feast of St. Peter (June 29) he will make known to all the faithful the reasons which placed him under the necessity of excommunicating the King.
In an undated letter (probably written in April 1076) Gregory mentions that people begged of him to make peace with the King of Germany, and at the end of July he addresses a manifesto to all Christians in the Roman Empire, reiterating his accusations against the King and expressing his wish for his repentance. Another undated letter was sent, probably in August, to Germany in answer to the reproaches as to his excommunication of the King, which had been criticized as overhasty and unconsidered. Gregory reverts in this letter to his former affection for Henry, the care with which, even when a deacon, he had warned his youth, and had continued his warning in mature age. In spite of Henry’s fair words and messages the King had returned evil for good, and “lifted up his heel against St. Peter”, and had caused nearly all the bishops of Germany and Italy to “apostatize”. When gentle measures had failed with him, Gregory was forced to try the sharper method of excommunication. The letter concludes with an expression of Gregory’s willingness to receive back the King, if penitent, to the communion of the Church.
That Gregory’s action was not entirely satisfactory even to his party is proved by his letter to Hermann, Bishop of Metz, who had pressed him for an explanation. The Pope’s letter was short, and not, apparently, satisfactory to the inquiring Bishop, for later, in 1080, Bishop Hermann repeated his question. Gregory’s second and very full letter also was not destined to set the Bishop’s mind at rest, for even after the Pope’s death we find the Bishop referring his difficulty twice to the Archbishop of Salzburg!
The two letters to Bishop Hermann may be considered together; they both attempt to answer the assertion of Henry’s supporters that the Pope had no power to excommunicate the King.
The Pope wrote that “though their folly deserved it not, he would condescend to answer”. What was his answer? A fiction of the forged Decretals, an extract from a charge delivered by St. Peter to Clement of Rome; the deposition of Childeric of France by Pope Zacharias, and certain sentences of Gregory the Great, intended to protect the estates of the Church, and anathematizing all, even kings, who should usurp them; and finally the example of St. Ambrose of Milan and Theodosius the Great. No single conclusive passage is given from the New Testament in favor of Gregory’s hierocratic power of deposition which he claimed for the Papacy, and the instances chosen from the early history of the Church have no real bearing whatever upon the case. They are, historically, valueless as precedents for Gregory’s step.
Turning from historical instances, Gregory, using his favorite argument a fortiori, demands: “Why is the King alone excepted from that universal flock committed to St. Peter? If the Pope may judge spiritual persons, how much more must seculars give an account of their evil deeds before his tribunal? Think they that the royal exceeds the episcopal dignity, the former the invention of human pride, the latter of divine holiness; the former ever coveting vainglory, the latter aspiring after heavenly life?” “The glory of a king”, St. Ambrose says, “compared to that of a bishop is as lead is to gold”. Constantine the Great took his seat below the lowest bishop, “for he knew that God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”.
It will be seen that instead of answering the Bishop of Metz’s question, or stating that, as a possible standpoint, the King was excommunicated as any other private person might be, and that the political consequences of the excommunication of a ruling prince were not the concern of the Pope, Gregory utters a series of reflections, such as those upon the nothingness of the royal dignity and the wickedness of princes, which have no bearing upon the point at issue.
A third letter to the German people commanded them, if the King did not immediately repent, to dismiss his excommunicated advisers, and admit that the Church was not subject to him as his servant, but superior as a mistress, and to forsake those usages which had been established in the spirit of pride against the liberty of the Holy Church (the investiture), to proceed at once to the election of a new sovereign, and one approved by the Pope. The Empress Agnes, the Pope believes, will give her consent to this when Henry is deposed. As Henry had made no attempt to reconcile himself with the Pope, the Pope considered the possibility of setting up a king in his stead. On October 31 Gregory insisted that it was high time for Henry to repent, if he did not wish to lose all.
Diet of Tribur
But before this date an attempt was made in Germany to solve the difficulty. Henry IV appeared in October at Oppenheim, while the princes assembled at the neighboring town of Tribur, on the 16th of that month. Hither came Rudolph of Suabia, Welf of Bavaria, the bishops of Henry’s and of the papal party, which was steadily increasing its adherents. Already at Ulm, where the assembly at Tribur had been agreed upon, Otto, Bishop of Constance, had made his peace with the Holy See, and Siegfried, Archbishop of Mayence, had done the same, and henceforth cut himself entirely adrift from Henry IV. The Bishops of Strasburg, Liege, Munster and Utrecht obtained easier absolution, some of them having, from the beginning, shown their disapproval of the King’s policy.
It is unfortunate that the only detailed account of the Diet of Tribur is from the unveracious Lambert of Hersfeld, whose object was to show that to remedy the state of Germany only one course remained, which was to elect another king. Lambert is responsible for the statement that Henry offered abject submission to the Diet, and that he had to accept the hard terms that they chose to impose. The whole affair, he writes, was to be reserved for the Pope’s decision, who was to hold a council at Augsburg on the Feast of the Purification in the ensuing year. In the meantime, if the King was not absolved from the ban of excommunication before the full year expired from the date of his sentence, he forfeited irrevocably all right and title to the throne, and his subjects were released from their allegiance. He must dismiss all whom the Pope had excommunicated, disband his army, and retire to Spires with the Bishop of Verdun and some chosen servants, who, in the opinion of the princes, were not under sentence of excommunication. At Spires the King was to live as a private individual, he was never to enter a church, never to interfere in the government of Germany, not to wear any distinctive sign of royalty, and this was to continue until the final sentence should have been pronounced at the Synod of Augsburg. He was to deliver the city of Worms to its bishop, and to disband its garrison. Worms was to swear fealty to its bishop, and give him hostages, so that the bishop need fear no revolt or treason in the town so faithful to Henry IV.
Lambert of Hersfeld is the only authority for the number of obligations which Henry was obliged to take upon himself, and his testimony cannot be accepted in its entirety, as he was biassed by his wish to blacken Henry’s character and set the conduct of the princes in the best light. The princes are bound by no obligations, according to him; but if Henry IV broke even one of his promises, they are to be justified in taking what steps they please, without waiting for the Pope’s decision!
Still further to justify the princes, Lambert even goes so far as to invent a “law of the Empire” providing for the special case of the King’s losing his crown, in the event of his excommunication lasting over a year!
The Promissio and the King's edict
Henry, after the Diet of Tribur, left for Spires; the Bishops of Bamberg, Basle, Lausanne, Osnaburg and Naumburg-Zeitz, with the Archbishop of Cologne, were left to make their peace with the Holy See.
Putting upon one side that accumulation of promises by which Lambert of Hersfeld declared that Henry IV was bound, we get the real results of the Diet of Tribur in two documents wrung from the King by the princes, the Promissio and the edict. Ekkehard is correct in saying that the King resolved on a journey to Rome, to make his peace with the Pope, as the result of the diet, and the Annales Yburgenses assert that the princes threatened to revolt unless the King became reconciled with the Pope.
There is no doubt as to the authenticity of the Promissio; and only the latter part of the superscription, Promissio Henrici regis quam fecit Hildebrando papae, qui et Gregorius, dates from a later period.
There is no mention of the excommunication, but the King declares his willingness to give satisfaction for any imminutio of the papal dignity arising from his actions; that is to say, he repudiates the results of the first Diet of Worms, and recognizes Gregory as legitimate head of the Church. He also promises obedience to the Pope in ecclesiastical matters.
In the second paragraph Henry declares : “As to the graver accusations formulated against me in reference to my conduct towards this See and towards your Holiness, I shall prove my innocence at any opportune moment. I will refute them by God’s assistance, or I will spontaneously submit to the penance I shall have deserved”.
What were the “graver charges” of which Henry speaks, which were attributed to him by rumor? The only possible explanation is that Henry had been accused of connivance at, if not of participation in, Cenci’s attack upon the Pope’s person. That such an accusation is baseless is shown by the fact that, at the time of Cenci’s attack, there were strained relations truly, but there was no open breach, between the King and the Papacy; and later, in Henry’s letter from Worms, he cautions the Romans to depose the Pope, but not to shed his blood. Even the Pope does not appear to have thought at this date that Henry was guilty of aiding or abetting Cenci; and it is only later, in 1080, when strife broke out afresh between them, that he appears to lean to this opinion. The last section of the Promissio contains the following strange appeal to Gregory : “It is also advisable that your Holiness should pay attention to the reports that have been circulated about you, and which cause scandal in the Church; purify the conscience of the Church from this stumbling-block, thus securing, by your wisdom, universal peace, both for the Church and for the kingdom”.
That Henry should have dared to address such a remonstrance to the Pope at such a moment seems at first sight so unprecedented as to cause us to look upon this paragraph with suspicion. It seems, however, clear that Henry, while recognizing the Pope, and taking no notice of the frivolous charges brought against him, was firm on one point, and we are reminded of the accusations of the influence and intimacy of a mulier aliena brought forward by the bishops at Worms. The name of the lady is not mentioned in either this or the letter from Worms; but Henry is anxious that Gregory should prove the falsity of these reports, for the good of both Church and State.
While the Promissio was addressed to the Pope, the King’s edict was addressed to the King’s subjects. In this edict Henry speaks in royal style, and offers “the glorious expression of his good-will” to his people. He suggests that he has been led into his breach with the Pope by some one’s advice or influence, a statement which is belied by Henry’s very independent letter to Gregory after the Diet at Worms, and concludes by cautioning all those who have been excommunicated by the Pope to take the necessary steps to gain their absolution.
Both the Promissio and the edict give the impression that they were forced from the King by the pressure of his nobles. They are hardly mentioned by the chroniclers, for those who were partisans of Henry were not anxious to bring them into prominence when war broke out anew between the King and the Papacy. Those opposed to the King, especially those of the party of Rudolph of Suabia, could make little use of them; what they wanted was a document embodying many promises made by the King, which he was afterwards to treacherously deny and repudiate.
According to the chronicler Berthold, Udo, Archbishop of Treves, was charged with conveying the King’s letter to the Pope. The Pope would not read it except in the presence of the ambassadors deputed by the Assembly of Tribur. On hearing the letter, the ambassadors exclaimed and protested that it was not the same as the one which had been composed at Tribur; they declared that important modifications had been introduced. The Archbishop of Treves, after first defending the authenticity of the document, was obliged to admit that it had been tampered with; he protested, however, that he did not know the author of the interpolations!
Berthold is notoriously unveracious; the double role he assigns to Udo is not in harmony with the Archbishop’s open and loyal character, and finally, Gregory makes no mention in his correspondence about such a falsification of the King’s letter, which must, if true, have been commented upon by him. He merely says that he has colluctationes with the King’s messenger.
The princes, independently of Henry, had begged the Pope to come in person to Germany and act as arbiter at Augsburg, and Gregory welcomed this proposal. It was to Henry IV’s interest to receive absolution in a personal interview with the Pope, independently of accepting the Pope as arbiter between him and the princes of Augsburg. To this, however, Gregory would not agree.
The Pope leaves for Germany
As appears from two interesting letters written at the close of the year 1076, the Pope had decided to undertake the journey into Germany, and the princes had, of their own free-will, offered him an escort. Great changes had taken place since the pontificate of Leo IX, who travelled with safety, without an escort, where he pleased, but now the hostile feelings of Northern Italy towards Gregory rendered a strong guard essential if he were to pass through it in safety. His letters show that the Pope was ready to brave even martyrdom in attempting this journey to Augsburg, and all his advisers and friends, with the exception of Matilda, sought to dissuade him from such a step. We do not know what grounds they had to fear such evil consequences, but the political condition of Northern Italy was always unfavorable to Gregory, and others may have feared a political or diplomatic failure for him. In December, too, Robert Guiscard had taken possession of Salerno, and Gisulfo, the only ally in Italy upon whom the Pope could rely, was at the conqueror's mercy; and it might have occurred to Robert Guiscard to make an attack upon Rome during Gregory’s absence.
In spite of all difficulties in his way, Gregory left Rome after Christmas, and reached Mantua on January 8. The escort, however, was not ready to meet him, and Gregory turned aside and took up his abode in Canossa, a strong castle belonging to his devoted friend the Countess Matilda, to await it.
Meantime, the news that Henry had left Spires had entirely altered the views of the princes, who foresaw that when Henry was freed from the sentence of excommunication the Diet of Augsburg would sink into insignificance. The escort, therefore, they deliberately withheld, now the Pope was no longer a useful tool to them. It must be admitted, at the outset, that the princes’ object was, not the reform, but the deposition of the King; they had wished to humiliate him by means of the Pope, and then to induce the Pope to set them free from their allegiance. All their schemes were shattered by Henry’s sudden journey into Italy. The attitude of chroniclers who were opposed to Henry IV confirms the theory that the absence of the escort was deliberate. Lambert of Hersfeld, usually so full of information, is entirely silent, and other chroniclers have invented a tissue of fabrications to explain its absence. The princes, it appears from one of Gregory’s letters, informed him that there were “difficulties” in the way of sending the escort.
Henry had left Spires, and now carried out the programme suggested in his Promissio. In October he had recognized Gregory as the legitimate Pope, and it was still necessary for him to offer a devota satisfactio for his policy at the Diet of Worms. In leaving Germany for Italy, his intention was to do penance and win his absolution before the Diet of Augsburg. His messengers had failed in inducing the Pope to agree to give him an audience at Rome, but he wished to try the effect of a personal interview. He had not bound himself in the Promissio to await the Pope’s decision in Germany; the place and nature of his submission were still undefined, and he knew that if he made his act of submission for the Decree of Worms, absolution could not be refused him. Hardly had he left Spires, when the princes foresaw that his move would checkmate his opponents, and attempts were made to stop his entry into Italy. Henry, however, succeeded in reaching Italian soil after a long and dangerous journey, of which Lambert gives this detailed and somewhat romantic account.
With difficulty Henry had collected from his friends and followers sufficient money to defray the expenses of the journey across the Alps, of which the passes were guarded by the dukes of Bavaria and Carinthia. He started on his journey with his wife and their infant son Conrad and one faithful servant, and turned aside into Burgundy. According to Berthold, it was at Besancon that he was joined by his wife and son. At Besancon Count William of Burgundy, his mother’s cousin, entertained him with courtesy, and here he passed Christmas with something approaching to royal state. From Besancon he crossed the Rhone at Geneva, and advanced to the foot of Mont Cenis. Here he was met by Adelaide, Marchioness of Susa, his mother-in-law, and her son Amadeus, who gave him a favorable reception, but demanded the cession of five rich bishoprics in Italy as the price of his free passage through her dominions. Finally, Henry ceded to her instead a rich district which he possessed in Burgundy. The King now began to cross the Alps.
“The winter”, writes Lambert, “was very severe; the mountains they must cross were nearly lost to view, and seemed to disappear in the clouds; the cold was intense, and there had been heavy falls of snow, so that neither men nor horses could advance in the narrow roads alongside precipices without running the greatest risks. Nevertheless, they could not delay, for the anniversary of the King’s excommunication was drawing near, and the King knew, according to the decision of the princes, that if he were not absolved before this first anniversary, his cause would be irrevocably ruined, and that he would lose his kingdom ... Accordingly they enlisted the help of some peasants accustomed to the perilous passes of the Alps, who consented, on receipt of payment, to precede the King and his escort, and cut a passage for them along the edge of the precipices through the snow. By the help of these guides, and after surmounting the greatest difficulties and hardships, they reached the summit of the mountains; but it was impossible to advance further : glaciers covered the other side which they had to descend, and how could they venture upon that polished surface? To escape this imminent danger the men were obliged either to crawl upon their hands and knees, or to be carried upon the shoulders of their guides, but even then they could not avoid a great many falls, and frequently rolled down the steep inclines. They only completed the descent after having thus many times risked their lives. As for the Queen and the women attached to her service, they were placed on a kind of sledge made of oxhide, and the guides dragged them the whole way. Some of the horses were hauled along the pass by means of machines, others were dragged with their feet tied; but many died, or were lamed, and very few reached their journey’s end in safety”.
No sooner was the King’s unexpected arrival made known in Italy than the bishops and nobles assembled in great numbers to meet him, and within a few days he had a large army at his disposal. One reason for his popularity was the belief that he had crossed the Alps to depose the Pope. Henry, however, had to admit that he could not now plunge into this new warfare, and that his only object was to free himself from the sentence of excommunication.
The King does penance before the Castle of Canossa
To Canossa, before Henry appeared, had come many of the nobles and prelates who had been included under the ban of excommunication, with bare feet and in the garb of penitents. The bishops were shut up in solitary cells, with but a small supply of food, till the evening; the penance of the laity was apportioned to their age and strength. After this ordeal of some days they were called before the Pope and received absolution, with a mild rebuke and repeated injunctions to hold no communion with their master till he should be reconciled to the Holy See.
Canossa is planted on the summit of a craggy hill, a spur of the Apennines as they descend on the plain of the Po, about twenty miles south-east of Parma. It is now entirely deserted, and every tradition of the great scene which it witnessed has perished. But its situation and the outline of its ruins agree with the notices in the contemporary chronicles. It stands on a rock of a white or ashy tint, which probably gave it the name of Canossa, as the ruddy color of the crags of a neighboring fortress, also belonging to the Countess, is perpetuated in the name of Rossina. Alba Canossa is the designation given to it by Donizo, who puts into the mouth of the castle a long panegyric on the family of Matilda, and a proud remonstrance with the neighboring Mantua : Sum petra non lignum. Nuda silex well describes its bare, stony eminence. The only habitations near the place are a few cottages gathered round a church at the foot of the hill. It is not possible to ascertain distinctly where the chapel stood within the castle, where the absolution took place. Indeed, the space is so narrow on the crest of the rock that it is difficult to imagine how the Countess and her illustrious guest could have found room. But the triple wall mentioned by Lambert can easily be traced.
Henry, on hearing that the Pope had taken refuge in Canossa, went to Reggio, where he left part of his escort, notably the bishops of Lombardy, and advanced towards Canossa accompanied by the Marchioness Adelaide, Amadeus Azzo, Marquess of Este, and a few servants.
Having arrived within a short distance from Canossa, the King sent for the Countess Matilda and Hugh, Abbot of Cluny, who were then with Gregory, to come and confer with him, probably seeking their influence and mediation with the Pope. Then, in the penitent’s garb of wool, and barefoot, the King appeared before the walls of the fortress. He had laid aside every mark of royalty, and, fasting, he awaited the pleasure of the Pope for three days. The severity of the penance was enhanced by the coldness of the season. Bonitho speaks of it as a “very bitter” winter, and says that the King waited in the courtyard amid snow and ice. Even in the presence of Gregory there were loud murmurs against his pride and inhumanity. At last, owing to the intercession of the Countess Matilda and Hugh, Abbot of Cluny, the Pope relented, and admitted Henry to his presence. Henry promised, by word of mouth, to amend his life, and gave a written promise, which Gregory refers to as “The oath of Henry, King of the Germans”. The official document of January 28 begins with the words Ego Henricus rex, and closes with adjuvabo, and is witnessed by the Bishops Humbert of Praeneste and Gerald of Ostia, two cardinals, Romani, Peter and Conon, two Romani diaconi, Gregory and Bernard, and the sub-deacon Humbert on the Pope’s side; and upon the King’s by the Bishops of Vercelli and Osnaburg, the Abbot of Cluny and many noblemen. The document is more remarkable for its omissions than for its contents; there is no reference to Gregory’s assumptions of the February synod of 1076, and Henry does not recognize the Pope’s right to depose him and free his subjects from their allegiance. There is no word of the question of investiture; all the document amounts to is that the King will set no obstacle in the way of the Pope, if the Pope desires to journey into Germany; and that he, the King, will abide by the Pope’s decision as arbiter. That Gregory was still contemplating this journey into Germany is proved by a letter (R. IV. 12), where he remarks that, in spite of the King’s absolution, the real point at issue is still in suspenso.
Henry took no steps at Canossa, as he had suggested in his Promissio of October of 1076, to clear himself from certain grave charges that were brought against him, and his scrupulus scandali about the Pope in the same document is also left untouched and undiscussed.
Henry, having submitted as penitent to the Pope, was now absolved, practically unconditionally. He thus gained his object, freedom from the sentence of excommunication; he had submitted as a Churchman, and had made no effort to induce Gregory to remove the contradictio regiminis or give back his subjects to their allegiance, since, according to Henry’s views, these were not in the Pope’s power either to grant or to dispose of.
Mistaken opinions of historians as to the importance of Henry's penance at Canossa
The unconditional absolution of the King was not to the taste of the historians inimical to Henry. Bruno, therefore, and Lambert invent a conditional absolution. Lambert relates all the conditions necessary for the King to fulfill. He was to appear in the place and at the time which the Pontiff should name to answer the charges of his subjects before the Pope himself, if it should please him to preside in person at the trial. If he should repel these charges, he was to receive his kingdom back from the hands of the Pope. If found guilty, he was practically to resign his kingdom, and pledge himself never to attempt to seek revenge for his deposition. Till that time he was to assume none of the insignia of royalty, to perform no public act, to appropriate no part of the royal revenue which was not necessary for the maintenance of himself and of his attendants; all his subjects were to be held released from their oath of allegiance; he was to banish for ever from his court the Bishop of Bamberg and the Count of Cosheim, with his other evil advisers; if he should recover his kingdom he must henceforward rule according to the counsel of the Pope, and correct whatever was contrary to the ecclesiastical laws. On these conditions the Pope granted absolution, with the further provision that, in case of any prevarication on the part of the King on any of these articles, the absolution was null and void, and in that case the princes of the Empire were released from all their oaths, and might immediately proceed to the election of another king. Naturally, Henry does not fulfill these conditions, and, according to Lambert, again falls under sentence of excommunication.
After absolution in due form, Henry received Holy Communion, to show that he was fully reconciled to the Church. That he did so is attested by two Italian writers on the papal side, Bonitho and Donizo, and by the author of De Unitate Ecclesiae.
If Henry had refused to receive the Sacraments, Gregory must have mentioned the fact in his letter to the Germans, whereas he says that the King was received in communionis gratiam, et seminio sanctae matris ecclesiae. In his address at the council in 1080 there is no hint that any painful or disturbing incident had occurred at Canossa. But two writers, Berthold and Lambert of Hersfeld, both biassed by their partisanship of Rudolph of Suabia, chose to represent Henry, for their own purposes, as refusing the Sacraments. Berthold simply states that the Pope found new causes of suspicion in the King’s refusal, but Lambert’s lengthy and detailed anecdote deserves closer scrutiny.
His story is as follows : When Gregory was proceeding to celebrate the Eucharist, he called the King and his partisans to the altar, and lifting in his hands the consecrated Host, the Body of the Lord, he said : “I have been accused by thee and by thy partisans of having usurped the Apostolic See by simoniacal practices, and of having been guilty, both before and after my elevation to the Episcopate, of crimes which would disqualify me for my sacred office. I might justify myself by proof, and by the witness of those who have known me from my youth, and whose suffrages have raised me to the Apostolic See. Yet, in order not to appear to rely on the testimony of men rather than that of God, and to take from every one all pretext of scandal, by a rapid and prompt satisfaction, here is the Lord's Body, which I am going to receive; may It become for me the proof of my innocence, so that the All-powerful God may absolve me today from the crime of which I am accused if I am innocent, or strike me dead if I am guilty”.
He then received the Sacred Host. A pause ensued, he still stood unharmed. Then all the people shouted for joy, praising God and congratulating the Pope. Gregory, then turning to the King, said: “Do thou, my son, as I have done. The princes of the German Empire have accused thee of crimes heinous and capital, such as in justice should exclude thee, not only from the administration of public affairs, but from the communion of the Church, and all intercourse with the faithful, until thy dying day. They demand that the day and the place should be fixed to discuss the accusations brought against thee. But human judgments are liable to error; falsehood, set off by fine words, is listened to with pleasure; truth, without this artificial aid, meets with contempt. But I wish to assist thee, because thou hast implored my protection; act now according to my counsel. If thou art conscious of innocence, and persuaded that thy reputation is falsely attacked by calumny, by this course free the Church of God from scandal, and thyself from a long and doubtful trial. Take this part of the Body of our Lord, and if God avouches thy innocence thy accusers may cease to charge thee with crimes, and I shall become the advocate of thy cause, the assertor of thy innocence, thy nobles shall be reconciled to thee, the kingdom given back, and the tumult of civil war that desolated the Empire be stilled for ever”.
Henry, in his amazement, hesitated, and retired to consult with a few followers how he should escape this terrible ordeal. He then declared that he must first obtain the opinion of those princes who had adhered to his cause; that though this trial might be satisfactory to the few present in the Church, it would not have any effect upon the obstinate incredulity of his absent enemies. He adjured the Pope to reserve the whole question to a general council, in whose decision he would acquiesce. The Pope consented, and then condescended to receive the King at a banquet, treated him courteously, and gave him much good advice.
In the whole episode Lambert trusts to the credulity of his readers. Gregory here is simply made the mouthpiece of the princes, through which they express their dissatisfaction with Henry. Henry had, in October 1076, withdrawn all the charges he had made against the Pope, and yet Lambert makes the Pope address Henry as if the King still obstinately persisted in his standpoint of the Diet of Worms. Finally, Lambert puts into Henry’s mouth an earnest request for a general council, whereas the one object of his dangerous journey into Italy and his painful penance at Canossa was to render the General Council of Augsburg, with the Pope as arbiter, unnecessary.
Gregory had meantime announced to the Italian nobles the absolution of the King, while he himself wrote to the princes of the Empire, giving an account of Henry’s penance, and saying that he “desired to pass into their provinces at the earliest opportunity, in order to settle everything fully for the peace of the Church and the union of the kingdom, as we have long desired to do”.' Gregory’s triumph was by no means as complete as has been generally represented by historians, who have been misled by the picturesque accessories of the scene. The King’s absolution was actually a political checkmate to Gregory.
It is not true to say, with Milman, that “the triumph of sacerdotal Christianity, in the humiliation of the temporal power, was complete”; nor with Bryce, that “one scene in the yard of Countess Matilda’s castle, an imperial penitent standing barefoot and woollen-frocked in the snow, till the priest who sat within should absolve him, was enough to mark a decisive change and inflict an irretrievable disgrace on the crown so abused”.
There was actually no point in which Henry acceded to Gregory’s assumptions, and “the historical incident which, more than any other, has profoundly impressed the imagination of the Western world”, resolves itself into a simple act of penance to which no far-reaching political consequences could be attached, and which cannot be described as an “epoch-making” event in the struggle between the Papacy and the Empire. Of far more moment, far more decisive in the history of Gregory’s pontificate, was the February synod of 1076, for from this dated the beginning of his “hierocracy”.
The King’s penance, it is true, was a severe one, but his health does not appear to have suffered from it. As to the exterior form of it, the “humiliation” of the bare feet and woollen frock was customary at that time, and every penitent submitted to it. In 1074 Henry had presented himself in the same garb before the papal legates at Nuremberg. It should be remembered that Henry went to Canossa of his own free-will, uninvited by Gregory; the penance was his own unaided and free choice. He came and left the castle as King, without seeking from the Pope any new recognition or restitution of his royal dignity. What he had gained was that it was now possible for him to enter into normal relations with his subjects and with all Christians, who had avoided him since the ban.
Gregory’s apparent triumph thus vanishes, if we closely consider it. He had wished to be arbiter at the Diet of Augsburg; he is checked by the absence of the escort. As a priest he cannot refuse absolution to a sincere penitent, and Henry’s absolution overthrows the plans of his opponents. He delays, foreseeing, as a politician, the effect of the absolution upon the princes of the Empire, but in vain. His hand had been forced by the King, and his delay only caused an unfavorable impression among those of his party assembled at Canossa.
It is certain that the Pope himself felt no triumph. Doubtless he foresaw that the absolution of Henry was not to be the prelude to peace and reconciliation between the opponents, but to new difficulties and new struggles.
THE INTRUSION OF RUDOLPH OF SUABIA, JANUARY 29, IO77-FEBRUARY 27, IO78