On this day, December 20, 1046, Emperor Henry III calls the Council of Sutri that removes a total of 3 popes. The next time this happens is in 1417 at the Council of Constance.
The run-up to the council is quite unremarkable. King Henry III had planned to cruise down to Rome, get crowned emperor during the now traditional winter months and be back across the Alps before the malaria season starts in spring. That is what his predecessors Konrad II and Henry II had done. Neither of these had had any interest in getting embroiled in Roman affairs. They all remembered Otto III and how that had ended.
In November 1046 Henry III meets the current pope, Gregory VI in Piacenza to hammer out the details of the upcoming coronation. Things are fine and both pope and emperor treat each other with the respect their offices afford.
Sometime after this meeting Henry III has concerns. The more he hears about the way Gregory VI has been elevated to the throne of St. Peter, the more he wonders whether his coronation would be valid. Since 1012 the papacy was in the hand of the counts of Tusculum. Other than their predecessors as rulers of Rome, the Crescenti, the Tusculani did not appoint pet churchmen to be popes, but decided to do the job themselves. Benedict IX was the first of these soldier-popes, followed by his brother, John XIX. He was followed by Benedict IX, his nephew.
Benedict IX was quite young, probably 18 or 20 when he became the leader of Christianity. There are some chroniclers who claim he was only 12 when he was elevated, indulged in rape and murder and displayed homosexual tendencies, though all that is likely imperial propaganda. But even 20 is not really an age when one should become pope. I guess his personal conduct fell somewhat short of the moral demands the office is usually associated with.
Things get complicated for Benedict IX in 1044. A “new aristocracy” in Rome is emerging that challenges the traditional mafia oligarchy that had ruled the city since the 9th century. The upstarts throw Benedict IX out and bring in a new pope, Sylvester III. By 1045 Benedict IX is back. For reasons that are somewhat unclear Benedict IX decides that the papacy is not really for him, and he sells it to a gentleman called John Gratian for cold hard cash. That sale is not propaganda, that actually happened.
John Gratian takes the title of Gregory VI and it is this pope our friend Henry III encounters in November 1046 in Piacenza.
News trickle through that Gregory VI has paid to become pope, which constitute the sin of Simony. That causes a serious problem for Henry III. If Gregory VI had indeed acquired the papacy in such a crass manner, then what is any of the sacraments worth he will be conducting? Could he, Henry III be taking part in a sinful act if he had himself crowned by a pope whose foul act condemns him to eternal hellfire?
He is on theologically thin ice. And to say it in German “Wenn ich nicht mehr weiter weiss, gruende ich einen Arbeitskreis” which loosely translates as “if I am at a loss, I will form a taskforce”. That task force was the Council of Sutri in December 1046.The assembled bishops easily dismissed antipope Sylvester III as uncanonical. When Gregory VI admitted having bought the papacy in order to bring an end to the travesty that was the reign of Benedict IX, that argument did not cut it and Gregory VI resigned. Benedict IX did not even show up and was deposed in absentia. Henry III in one fell swoop deposed all three popes.
He now needed a new one. And this time it had to be a proper churchman who cleans up the mess the papacy has become. Henry III knew a lot of proper churchmen, all of whom were members of the German Imperial church. He first asked Adalbert archbishop of Bremen/Hamburg and eternal scorn of the Saxons but he refused. Bishop Suitger of Bamberg was more amenable and is made Pope Clement II on the spot. Clement II crowns Henry III and sends him back on his way home to avoid the Malaria. Unfortunately for Clement II, he has to stay behind in Rome where he dies of the disease within 10 months.
The next “volunteer” was Poppo, bishop of Brixen, who as Damasus II lasts just 30 days before being taken down by the Malaria. In 1048 Henry appoints his cousin, Bruno, bishop of Toul to become pope as Leo IX.
Leo IX lasts almost 5 years. These five years are a crucial time for the papacy and ultimately European history. He brings the papacy’s reputation back from the brink, establishes the College of Cardinals staffed with competent administrators and theologians. All that sets in motion a series of events that Norman Cantor described as “the first of the three world revolutions”.