Hildebrand was born sometime between 1020 and 1025 in Tuscany. We know practically nothing about his family. He himself said that he grew up in the bosom of the Roman church, which suggests he grew up in the Lateran palace and was destined for a church career from his very first years. we do not know for a fact whether he joined a monastery upon reaching maturity though it would fit with his papal name, since Gregory the Great had also been a monk.
He first becomes noticed when he acts as chaplain to pope Gregory VI, the pope who famously bought the papacy from Benedict IX for cold hard cash. Hildebrand follows Gregory VI into exile in Cologne. In 1049 Hildebrand returns to Rome as a member of pope Leo IX’s entourage. Hildebrand seems to have made himself useful in Leo’s broad restructuring program that created the college of Cardinals and the role of papal Legate. Hildebrand was one of the few Romans within Leo IX’s inner circle which must have come in useful for this German pope. As Leo IX undertook extensive journeys to France and Germany asserting control over the local bishops, it was Hildebrand’s job to keep control of the city of Rome.
In 1054 we find Hildebrand as a papal legate in France and Germany, harassing bishops for their licentious lifestyle and heretic convictions. He is still technically only a subdeacon but gets into fights with bishops and archbishops. When Leo IX died, he rushed to Rome to ensure the Roman aristocracy does not usurp the throne of St. Peter. He strongly supports the next pope, Victor II, again an appointment by Henry III. Hildebrand actually meets Henry III and retains a huge amount of respect for the emperor. Victor II makes Hildebrand his chancellor, in charge of finances and documentation. By the time the papacy moved from Victor II to Stephen IX, Hildebrand was already one of, if not the dominating figure in the college of cardinals. Hildebrand star keeps rising during the papacies of Stephen IX (1057-1058), Nicolas II (1059-1061) and Alexander II (1061 – 1073).
On the 21st of April 1073, Pope Alexander II died unexpectedly in the palace of the Lateran. The next day as the pope’s body is laid out in the basilica of the Lateran, the people call for Hildebrand to be made pope. As the funeral cortege winds through the city f Rome, the calls grow louder and louder. And when they reach the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, the place where Saint Peter was kept in chain before his martyrdom the masses sweep the archdeacon into the church and enthrone him there and then.
A few minor hitches in that process. First, Hildebrand despite 35 years of service to the papal court had not yet been ordained a priest, something that had to be done at double speed.. And second, the Papacy had just established that the pope should be elected by the college of Cardinals not raised by public acclaim. That was conveniently forgotten in the melee outside SAN Pietro in Vincoli.
When Hildebrand is coming to, he finds himself on the papal throne. That cannot have been much of a surprise for the now roughly 55-year old. His position inside the church had grown and grown these last 20 years and his modest title belied his actual position. Peter Damian used to joke that some people came to Rome to meet the Lord Pope, but most went to see the pope’s lord, Hildebrand.
Hildebrand takes the papal name of Gregory VII, which must be the wickedest joke of the 11th century. The previous bearer of this papal name had been Gregory VI, the only pope ever proven to have actually paid cold hard cash to get the job, and Hildebrand’s first boss who he accompanied into exile. When Gregory VI had been the symbol of the corruption of the church, his pupil, Gregory VII will become synonymous with the fight against the buying and selling of holy offices.
I have complained many times before that we hardly ever find anything resembling a political manifesto from any of the emperors or popes that have so far featured on the podcast. Historians are forced to deduce their intentions from their actions, rather than measuring their actions against their intentions. Gregory VII is in this, as in so many other things, the great exception.
Gregory filed a register of letters and other documents he deemed important to the library of the Vatican. This register contains a very unusual note, known today as the Dictatus Papae. What its purpose was is unclear. It is not dated , it was definitely not a letter and it was not made public during his lifetime. It may have been a note to structure a collection of canon law, Gregory wanted compiled. Or it was what it sounds and looks like, a political manifesto, outlining the fundamental concepts underpinning Gregory’s papacy.
It contains 27 statements of fact, or of facts as Gregory saw them, which I quote here in the translation by Ernest F. Henderson, 1919:
- That the Roman church was founded by God alone.
- That the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.
- That he alone can depose or reinstate bishops.
- That, in a council his legate, even if a lower grade, is above all bishops, and can pass sentence of deposition against them.
- That the pope may depose the absent.
- That, among other things, we ought not to remain in the same house with those excommunicated by him.
- That for him alone is it lawful, according to the needs of the time, to make new laws, to assemble together new congregations, to make an abbey of a canonry; and, on the other hand, to divide a rich bishopric and unite the poor ones.
- That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
- That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
- That his name alone shall be spoken in the churches.
- That this is the only name in the world.
- That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
- That he may be permitted to transfer bishops if need be.
- That he has power to ordain a clerk of any church he may wish.
- That he who is ordained by him may preside over another church, but may not hold a subordinate position; and that such a one may not receive a higher grade from any bishop.
- That no synod shall be called a general one without his order.
- That no chapter and no book shall be considered canonical without his authority.
- That a sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one; and that he himself, alone of all, may retract it.
- That he himself may be judged by no one.
- That no one shall dare to condemn one who appeals to the apostolic chair.
- That to the latter should be referred the more important cases of every church.
- That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness.
- That the Roman pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter; St. Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As is contained in the decrees of St. Symmachus the pope.
- That, by his command and consent, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.
- That he may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a synod.
- That he who is not at peace with the Roman church shall not be considered catholic.
- That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.
I will not get into the debate about what of these statements has already been canonical law before Gregory has put them on paper here or whether he had made them up entirely. Nor can I really give you a steer, which parts are derived from known fakes like the Constantine donation and the papal decretals and imperial laws made up by the so-called Pseudo Isidore in the 9th century.
In the end it does not matter whether these statements are canonical or not, what matters is that Gregory believed these maxims to be true and that it was his job to enforce them across the whole of Christendom. Whatever the cost.
And so, he got to work.
What he does and how he does it would go far beyond the space available here. Check out episodes 32 and following which are all about Gregory VII.