Emperor Henry III is dead. The realm is now in the hands of his widow, Agnes of Poitou who rules on behalf of the six-year-old king Henry IV. Agnes is no Theophanu and no Adelheid. Not that she is incompetent, she just isn’t absolutely brilliant, and absolutely brilliant is the baseline necessary to manage this fragile situation.
The relationship between the central imperial power and the magnates has flipped, and instead of all-powerful emperors, the dukes, counts and bishops do what they like. And Henry III’s bête noire, Godfrey the Bearded is more powerful than ever.
The laity calls for a church that is more like the church of the apostles, pious and dedicated to the poor. They demand an end to simony and the licentiousness of priests.
And the papacy asserts its independence. Not that they necessarily intend to throw off the imperial yoke, but the reformers need protectors against the Roman aristocracy that literally used popes as footstools and ATMs.
All this culminates in a situation where the young king Henry IV sees no other way to escape from his opponents than by jumping into the cold and fast flowing River Rhine, choosing death over captivity..
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30 second summary
Finding a more controversial German ruler in the Middle Ages will be difficult. His enemies called him a debauched, spoiled brat who would rape and even murder his enemies. He himself had been subject to assassination plots ever since he was a mere 7 years old.
He became king at the age of 6 and saw the central power crumbling under his mother’s ineffective rule. Age 12 he is being abducted in a coup d’etat and finds that his mother does not fight for him, even sides with his enemies. When he assumes direct rule his magnates still do as they please with the imperial purse.
When he tries to establish a new territorial power base around the silver mines in Goslar that he finds himself fighting a bloody and remorseless war against the Saxons.
Meanwhile the papacy in Rome is on the rise, asking itself what they need an emperor for, even concluding that the emperor is no different to any mere king who is to wash the pope’s feet.
A terrible miscalculation leaves him kneeling in the snow before Pope Gregory VII. Once he is up again the wars over the Investiture start that will last in some way until 1250.
Episode 30 – Three Roads to Canossa
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 30: The Three Roads to Canossa
First up apologies for missing last week. I had to deal with a long-anticipated family issue that took me back home to Germany and left little or no time to work on the podcast. I am actually at the airport right now writing up this episode.
The enforced break had however a positive side. I could spend a bit more time on thinking about the structure of our narrative. And that is important since the time period we are entering right now is extremely complex. And what makes it worse is that events between 1056 and 1125 go bang, bang, bang, with important strands of the narrative happening in parallel before violently intersecting, and occasionally looping back on themselves. There is a confusing array of characters and locations, erratic behaviours and theological disputes, it is genuine playwright’s nightmare.
What is needed is a framework. And that framework – which I made up entirely out of thin air -, breaks the story down in three different main historical trends,
- The first one is the conflict between the imperial central authority and the German magnates.
- And second strand is the church reform, specifically the rise of lay piety that demanded priests, monks and bishops to lead exemplary lives.
- And finally, the third strand is the expansion of the papacy from being just the most senior bishop into a role as the universal leader of Christendom
These narrative strands are nothing new. They have featured in our story before, in particular the first two. But in the second half of the 11th century each one of them is on speed.
- Let’s take imperial central power first. The emperors since Henry II have aggressively expanded central imperial power and created institutions, mainly by using the Imperial Church System. Henry II, Konrad II and Henry III were all competent rulers, each in their own way, who acceded to the throne at the height of their abilities. They could each build on the previous ruler’s achievements, pulling the realm kicking and screaming towards statehood. None of them were popular with the great families of the realm, the Babenberger, the Ezzonen, the Welf and the Hezeliner. And all three were called tyrants by their magnates. In 1056, the crown goes to a 6-year-old and his foreign mother. It is payback time!
- Church reform had gone on for a while. Why it suddenly became all-encompassing is disputed. Some believe it was the predominantly driven by fear of the Second Coming of Christ around the Millennium. Other, like myself believe the improvement in economic circumstances created room for self-actualisation, which in the 11th century meant religion. Whatever brought it about, it was a huge movement. And it was not just an intellectual movement but a popular one too. As we will see urban populations will go on the barricades asking for simonistic bishops to be replaced. Burghers and knights join the congregations of monks as lay brothers. What people cared more about than anything else was the route to heaven. Priests, monks, bishops were to chaperone the faithful along that route. To be a good guide and to administer effective sacraments and prayers that will be heard by the saints and angels, the churchman must not be tainted with sin. The people craved for Religious leaders who lived like the early apostles, dedicated to God, without material desires.
- Meanwhile in Rome the fortunes of the papacy are turning for the better, creating the third major historical trend. The city aristocracy who had literally used the popes as footstools and ATMs lost control when Henry III became the pope-maker in 1046. The new German popes, in particular Leo IX and Victor II saw their role in reforming the church, not in pleasing some city mafioso. They wanted to get away from being just the bishop of Rome who would occasionally arbitrate broader church issues brought to him. They wanted the papacy to be proactive and to be universal.to that aim they reorganised the church, creating a college of cardinals. The cardinals would fan out across the world requesting better behaviour from monks, the removal of simonistic priests and obedience to Rome. The pope was to actively guide Christendom anywhere in the world. This did not automatically mean conflict with the emperor. Leo IX and Victor II were members of the Imperial Church system who saw themselves as partners of the emperor. They needed the sharp swords the emperor would to keep the Roman aristocracy down. In the middle of the 11th century new powers appeared in Italy who could provide the necessary security, whilst simultaneously imperial power in Italy declined. And that meant the popes needed nee allies.
These three strands, conflict between imperial authority and magnates, the church reform movement and the ascend of the papacy are not separate. They constantly intersect. Emperors using the church reform movement to control the magnates, popes using emperors to gain control over national churches etc. It is on these intersections that the great historic turning points come. And finally at Canossa all three lines of development come together in an explosive cocktail that created one of the unique features of Western European history, the separation between spiritual and secular power.
Ok. Enough theorising. Let’s get into the meat of today’s episode and put the new framework to the test. I hope it works because this is going to be messy. In this first part, the focus is on the conflict between imperial central power and the magnates.
Last episode emperor Henry III died in 1056 at the age of just 39. At the start of his reign, Henry III was the most powerful of the early German monarchs. He presided over a coherent political entity where he could maintain peace and order by edict. He directly controlled the three southern duchies, accepted vows of vassalage from the dukes of Poland and Bohemia as well as the king of Hungary, expanded royal power around the precious silver mines of Goslar and removed Godfrey the Bearded as duke of Upper Lothringia. His crowning glory was the council of Sutri, where Henry III removed three popes and replaced them with a string of reform minded serious German popes. In 1046 Henry III controls all three of the historic strands of the 11th century we had just discussed.
But after his imperial coronation in 1046 things began to fall apart. The Hungarians had thrown off their king, a king that Henry III had put above them. Henry’s insistence of revenge for this feckless former king Peter of Hungary resulted in an endless and unwinnable war in the east. The cost of this war was borne mainly by the Bavarians and Carinthians who stood up against their overlord when they could no longer bear it. Seeing the Hungarians gaining the upper hand was not lost on the Poles and Bohemians, who began asserting their independence again. Bottom line was that in the 1050s the situation in the southeast had become extremely fraught. Disaster was only avoided because the rebellious dukes of Bavaria and Carinthia conveniently died.
After the rebellion of the Bavarians and Carinthians, Henry III had become ever more suspicious of his magnates. He made first his sons and then his wife duke of Bavaria. In the charters of this period only his wife and pope Victor II are mentioned as advisors to the emperor. That suggests the magnates were excluded from one of their main roles, being advisors to the ruler. As we have heard many times before, the magnates cannot function unless they have access to the king. They are the senior managers who tell the troops that they will go and take their concerns, achievements, ideas etc. up to the 23rd floor. If the troops find out their senior manager no longer has a boardroom pass, they no longer follow him.
Even worse for the magnates, the people that surrounded Henry III towards the end of his reign were mostly Ministeriales. Ministeriales are these unfree knights, i.e., peasants with a skill for violence who have been given a knight’s training but remain serfs. Imagine how a haughty Babenberger or Welf, whose family goes back to Charlemagne or even Clovis feels about being pushed aside by some slave.
Whilst this sense of exclusion was painful for the Bavarians, Swabians and Franconians, the Saxon nobles had moved on from there. They had been excluded from the imperial favour for such a long time, they did not believe the Salian dynasty would ever let them back into their ancestral rights and privileges.. The magnates had been plotting behind closed doors for decades. Remember the assassination attempt at Henry III? In 1057 the Saxon dukes even considered murdering the 7-year-old king Henry IV since “he is likely to follow his father in lifestyle and character”. That is tough talk in a world where the murder of children of the highest aristocracy was frowned upon.
The situation in the West was no better. Unseating Godfrey as duke had not stabilised the situation in Lothringia. Au contraire, it created a vacuum that attracted new powers from both inside and outside the empire. Namely the fiercely ambitious and competent counts of Flanders expanded their territory into the empire.
And even Godfrey landed on his feat when he married Beatrix, widow of the margrave of Tuscany. That gave him de facto control over a vast territory that stretched from coast to coast in Northern Italy, from Mantua to Florence and Lucca. Effectively nobody could go from Germany to Rome or vice versa without Godfrey’s say-so. Moreover, thanks to his connections in Lothringia and with the Counts of Flanders, Godfrey was the only person who could engineer peace of the Western frontier.
Henry III may have had premonitions that he may no be for this world for much longer or had realised that some conflicts could not be won. In his last years he tried to find a compromise with his opponents.
Just before his death, he reconciled with Godfrey the Bearded. He released Godfrey’s wife and stepdaughter who he had been imprisoned in Germany. He might even have promised him to get his old ducal title back, something that happened 9 years later.
This must have been an exceedingly painful moment for Henry III. Henry’s entire policy was about curtailing his largest vassals power. But after 16 years of war, Godfrey had become even more powerful than he would have been, had Henry let things go earlier in his reign. Godfrey controlled both the Western and the Southern border of the empire. As we will see, he will become one of those powers that protect the popes against the Roman aristocracy, making him the maker and protector of popes and a leader of the church reform project. This role would pass on to his stepdaughter, the mighty Mathilda, margrave of Tuscany and shield of the papacy.
When Henry III succumbed on October 5th, 1056 at Bodfeld, an imperial Pfalz in the Harz mountains, he left this giant mess to his son, the six-year old Henry IV and the boy’s mother, Agnes of Poitou.
To say it right away, Agnes of Poitou is no Theophanu and certainly no Adelheid. That is not to say she is terribly incompetent; she just isn’t absolutely brilliant. And given the situation I have just described, absolutely brilliant is the baseline for a successful reign.
Luckily for the first year and a half Agnes and little Henry IV can rely on the wise council of pope Victor II, the last pope installed by Henry III. Victor II was originally the bishop of Eichstaett, a former member of the imperial chancery, and one of Henry III’s closest advisors.
Pope Victor II knew where all the bodies were buried and guided the regency successfully through the first few years. He managed the complex process of the pacification of Lothringia, including the peace agreement with Flanders. He strengthened the authority of the young king by elevating him onto the throne of Charlemagne in Aachen, a ceremony rarely performed by a pope in person. Then he soothed the bruised egos of the Bavarian nobles by giving them the opportunity to formally elect the young king. In exchange the Bavarians recognised the empress as duke of Bavaria.
This dialled the situation almost back to the beginning of the 11th century, i.e., the power structure before Henry II. The imperial government was acting in consort and upon advice from the magnates who in turn swore fealty to the imperial ruler. A great sigh of relief went through the ranks of the dukes, counts and nobles. As they saw it, the tyranny of the last three emperors was over.
This satisfaction with the new imperial governmental structure went so far that the magnates awarded Agnes the right to designate the new king, should the young king Henry IV unexpectedly die. That was not improbably since his younger brother Konrad had died in 1055. By passing the right to make a king to Agnes, the magnates got the best of both worlds. On the one hand the risk of an interregnum and civil war was materially reduced if only one person chooses and on the other, this person, Agnes was happy to run the empire along traditional lines.
That honeymoon period came to an end when pope Victor II died in 1057. Having lost the wise council of the former bishop of Eichstaett, Agnes weaknesses began to shine through.
Her biggest problems were less the decisions she took but the decisions she did not take or delegated. Despite her long period as Henry III closest confidante and advisor, she failed to grasp the consequences of her actions. She lost the initiative and ended up dragged along by events, rather than shaping them.
The first thing she failed to do was taking direct control of the southern duchies. Carinthia had been vacant for a while, but instead of taking it over directly, she gave it to a member of the powerful Ezzonen clan. Then Swabia became vacant in 1057. And as with Carinthia, the royal family could not take direct control. The duchy went to Rudolf of Rheinfelden. Rudolf of Rheinfelden would not just get Swabia but also the administration of Burgundy, which until then was under direct royal control. Rudolf of Rheinfelden even married Henry IV’s sister Mathilda who he may have abducted against her or at least her mother’s will, which forced the royal family’s hand. Mathilda died shortly afterwards, but Rheinfelden had by now become a seriously powerful player in the South-West.
Making Rheinfelden duke of Swabia irritated the increasingly powerful counts of Zaehringen who had built a power-base on the upper Rhine and into German speaking Switzerland. Berthold of Zaehringen claimed that he had been promised the duchy by Henry III and he even produced a ring as proof. True or not, Agnes felt she had to at least compensate Zaehringen, so he gave him the duchy of Carinthia after the aforementioned Ezzonian duke had died.
And even Bavaria could not be kept in royal hands for long. Conflict with the Hungarians continued, despite or maybe because the imperial government finally agreed a reconciliation with King Andreas. Andrea’s son was married to another sister of Henry IV which should have brought the war to an end. But no, king Andreas was toppled by his brother Bela and Henry IV brand-new brother-in-law showed up in Germany with no kingdom. Imperial honour demanded that fighting resumed and Bela’s offer of peace was rejected. It is basically a re-run of the wars over King Peter. Neither Agnes nor her now 10-year-old son were the right people to fight this war. Hence Agnes had to appoint a new duke of Bavaria, Otto of Northeim. Otto of Northeim was a Saxon noble deeply connected with the Saxon magnates that just recently plotted to have little Henry run through with a lance. In one way the deal with Northeim worked. King Bela of Hungary capitulated, and the imperial candidate was installed as the new king.
But that is a modest consolation price for handing all three southern duchies to men, we will find out later will become the most dangerous enemies of the emperor Henry IV.
As the lay magnates were enjoying this fresh air of freedom and opportunity, the spiritual lords did not want to miss out either. Archbishop Anno of Cologne was one of the most rapacious. Anno was a bit of a new man, coming from a more modest background than his peers amongst the great archbishoprics of the realm. And that meant he was out to get even bigger. His main target was the land held by the descendants of count Ezzo north of Cologne. The Ezzonen as they were called were one of the great magnate families regularly being elevated to dukes of Bavaria or Carinthia and were hereditary counts palatinate with possessions along the Rhine and Ruhr valley. When Anno comes on the stage, tensions were already running high between bishops and counts. God knows who provoked who, but in 1060 the Count Palatinate Henry plundered the episcopal lands and besieged Cologne itself. Anno seems to have set up his defences well and the count had to retreat. Anno followed him and locked him into his castle at Cochem. Count Henry, scion of one of the most powerful families in the land and a man who not too long ago was seen as a potential king should the Salian house die out, could not get his head round being beaten by some country parson with a fancy hat. He went mad, like completely mad and decapitated his wife. Before he could go after his son, the castle guards opened the gate and let Anno’s troops in. Count Henry’s little son survived and became a vassal of the church of Cologne. With that the archbishop of Cologne took over from one of the richest and most powerful magnates in the land. The archbishopric of Cologne is to this day the richest diocese in the world. As I said, the spiritual lords were having a ball too.
Whilst Anno of Cologne was riding high, another archbishop, Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen, had a much rougher time under the new regime. You remember, Adalbert was the ally of Henry III who tried to keep the Saxons down and build an ecclesiastical super-diocese that stretched from Lapland to Leipzig. With his sponsor gone, world domination had to be suspended.
We are now in 1061, five years after Emperor Henry III had died and it is clear, Agnes is not really in charge. Actually, nobody is really in charge. The magnates do what they want. Even the abbess of Gandersheim, a Salian princess, found herself humiliated in a court case before the papal legate.
But that alone is not enough yet to explain the dramatic events of 1062, an event I remember vividly as a story from my schooldays, and a story that again involves Anno, Archbishop of Cologne.
As I said, the really dramatic events usually take place when two or more strands of the narrative come together. And so it is here.
Let us first take a look at what happened on church reform in these last five years.
In 1059 Humbert of Silva Candida, the most radical of the reformist thinkers published his three books against the Simoniacs. His argument was as simple as it was radical. Any lay involvement in the election of priests, bishops, abbots, canons etc. Was a form of simony, even if no money changed hands. And furthermore any act by a priest culpable of the sin of simony was invalid. So if a simonistic bishop would ordain a priest, even if that happened gratis, the ordination was invalid. Any sacrament given by that priest would also be null and void.
That would obviously create complete havoc. But on the other hand, something needed to be done. Bans on simony had been issued since the council of Nicaea in the 4th century but to no avail.
At the Lateran synod in 1059 pope Nicolas II decided to take a staged approach, quote:
“We decree that there should be no mercy for the simoniacs to protect their indignity, and we condemn them according to the sanctions of the canons and the decrees of the holy fathers, and we declare with apostolic authority that they should be deposed. About those who were ordained by simoniacs not for money but freely, since this question has now been debated for a very long time, we remove every knot of doubt, so that we permit no one henceforth to hesitate over this decree.
Since the poisonous calamity of the simoniac heresy has until now grown up to such an extent that hardly any church can be found that is not corrupted in some part by this disease, we permit those who have been freely ordained already by simoniacs to remain in their orders, according not to the censure of justice but to the perspective of mercy, unless perhaps some fault from their life stands against them according to the canons. There is such a multitude of these people that since we are not able to enforce the rigour of canonical vigour upon them, it is necessary that we incline our spirit for the moment to the zeal of pious condescension. We do this on condition, however, that by the authority of the Apostles Peter and Paul we absolutely forbid that any of our successors should ever take this permission of ours as a rule for themselves or anyone else, since the authority of the ancient fathers did not promulgate this by command or concession, but the great necessity of the time extorted it from us by permission.” (End quote)
Bottom line is that Simonists will be prosecuted, but not if there are too many of them.
Papal decrees and theological treatises against church corruption did not remain behind the thick walls of the Lateran palace. The rise in lay piety drive calls to have well trained and well-behaved priests. This popular movement flipped into street violence in the largest city in Western Europe at the time, Milan.
Milan had been a hotbed of revolt all the way back to the time of Konrad II. This time it is the lowest classes, the Pataria, or rag collectors, who stand up and demand the canons and bishop live a saintlier life. They object to the senior clergy being married and having received their benefices against payment of cash. They worry that all their prayers are worthless and the doors to heaven will be barred to them. They may also be rebelling against the older grievances of overbearing Capitani families keeping a tight grip on all levers of city politics.
The Pataria expel their quite obviously simonistic archbishop and his licentious canons. The popes send legates to negotiate a settlement. These papal legates sympathised with the urban poor and their call for change, which so matched their own mindset. And so the archbishop stayed out for years. The Pataria and the reform wing of the papacy remained allies for most of what is to come. The bishop and his party looked for help to the emperor.
This is the beginning of the split in the Italian communes between the papal party and the imperial party that we would later know as the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.
With church reform getting another boost, let’s take a look at how the papacy as an organisation had feared these last five years.
As I mentioned before pope Victor II, the last pope appointed by emperor Henry III had died in July 1057. His death put the modernisers amongst the cardinals into a panic. With the emperor just a 7-year-old boy, who will protect the papacy from sliding back into the hands of the Roman aristocracy? In their distress they decided to elect someone quickly. The person they elected was Frederick, abbot of the great monastery of Monte Cassino. Frederick took the name of Stephen IX.
Why him? Well, Stephen IX was not only the abbot of Montecassino, he was also the brother of Godfrey the Bearded. And Godfrey, thanks to his successful marriage, controlled central Italy from Mantua to Florence. He was close enough and had enough lances to keep the Roman aristocracy at bay.
So far so good, but what about the imperial court? The last five popes had been appointed by emperor Henry III and the emperor was the de facto leader of the church and greatest sponsor of the church reform movement. Keeping this in mind, a delegation of cardinals, including the Cardinal deacon Hildebrand travelled to the imperial court to receive retroactive consent for their unauthorised election. Consent was granted, even though Stephen IX could not possibly have been Agnes’ choice. He was too close to Godfrey the Bearded and her husband’s personal dislike of the house of Verdun had extended to this amendable monk and key adviser to pope Leo IX.. Henry III had allegedly tried to have Frederick killed when he last came to Rome in 1055, which is why the future pope Stephen IX had to flee behind the walls of the monastery of Monte Cassino.
By the time of the papacy of Stephen IX the college of cardinals had become not only very powerful, but also increasingly dominated by three men. These three men were
- Humbert of Silva Candida, the radical antisimonist,
- St. Peter Damian, overall moderate and thoughtful, though rabid homophobe, and
- Hildebrand, cardinal priest of St. Paul outside the Walls.
We talked about the first two extensively in the last episode. Now it is time to talk about Hildebrand. This is really worth it, because he will simply dominate the story from here on.
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. He may have joined a monastery upon reaching maturity, though that is not confirmed, nor is clear where he would have become 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.
Stephen died within just 8 months of his election. This time the Roman aristocrats did not let it slip. Within 5 days of the pope’s death, the Romans elected Benedict X, an old school pope. Benedict X was a creature of the counts of Tusculum or Theaphylacts who had ruled the holy city and the papacy for centuries before emperor Henry III had put a stop to this.
But times had moved on too far to put the genie back in the bottle. The majority of the reform minded cardinals left Rome and travelled to Florence, the capital of Godfrey the Bearded. There they met up with Hildebrand and Humbert of Silva Candida who took charge.
The cardinals elevated the local bishop of Florence as pope Nicolas II. Godfrey the Bearded provided the muscle that pushed Benedict X out and brought Nicolas II into the city of Rome in January 1059. This time the delegation to empress Agnes did not ask for consent, but just for confirmation. The right to appoint a pope is rapidly sliding from the hands of the imperial court.
In May 1059 a great synod takes place in the palace of the Lateran that will have wide ranging consequences. The synod is led by the three most prominent reformers, Humbert of Silva Candida, Pietro Damiano and Hildebrand. The synod did not just condemn simony, as we have already heard in this episode, it also created the process by which popes have been elected ever since.
Nicolas II decreed that the pope is no longer appointed by the emperor or elevated by simple acclamation by the citizens of Rome, but should be elected by the cardinals, specifically the cardinal bishops, i.e., those cardinals that are bishops at the same time. The emperor was no longer directly involved in the selection of the pope though quote “due regard should be given to Henry, currently king and by God’s will future emperor”. The people and nobles of Rome are called upon to give an acclamation but are not given choice.
With that the imperial prerogative established with Louis the Pious, upheld by all four Ottonian emperors and most explicitly exercised by Henry III seems to have been cancelled. In hindsight we know that this is what happened.
However, it is not clear whether this was the intention of the bishops meeting in the basilica of the Lateran in 1059. The main concern of Hildebrand, Humbert and Peter Damian was not to throw off the yoke of imperial octroys, but to maintain the momentum of the church reform. Most specifically they wanted to keep the Roman mafia aristocracy and the anti-reform minded northern Italian bishops out of the selection process. It is about making sure no Benedict X could ever be legally elected again.
Preventing the election of an old school pope by papal decree is all nice and dandy, but in the world of 11th century power politics, swords count more than quills. This was not lost the inner circle of church reformers and Hildebrand in particular. For now, they have Godfrey the Bearded as the protector of the reform papacy. But who comes after him? He had no sons, and his stepdaughter Mathilda was a mere woman. Well, they did not know that this Mathilda would turn into the Mathilda of Tuscany.
Hence, they needed insurance should the Roman aristocrats rise up, should the emperor turn against the reform or Godfrey the bearded die. And there were some rough looking fellows happy to provide exactly that kind of insurance, the Normans.
The Normans had kept expanding their territory in southern Italy after the battle of Civitate, where they had beaten and captured pope Leo IX. These guys had the strength of arms, but no further legitimacy. And that gave Hildebrand an idea. He offered the two leaders of the Normans, Richard of Aversa and Robert Guiscard to make them honourable men by awarding them titles in the name of the pope in exchange for military support against the Roman aristocracy and even the emperors.
That was a sweet deal for both sides. The papacy did not give away anything since they did not really have a claim to be the overlord of Sicily and southern Italy in the first place. For the Normans it was even better since they would have to fight the Romans and the emperors anyway since they had stolen their land, and now they were soldiers of St. Peter and get a free ticket to heaven.
The only one who looses was the imperial court, namely empress Agnes. And what did Agnes do? Well, this time she does something, but let us see whether it was a smart move.
Meanwhile in Rome pope Nicolas II died and the cardinals get a chance to road test their brand new system for papal elections. They elevated the bishop Anselm of Lucca to be Pope, who took the name of Alexander II. Anselm was well known at the imperial court, had been invested as bishop of Lucca by Henry III and had come to Germany several times as papal legate. So he was not an anti-imperial candidate per se.
The problem was that the cardinal electors as per the rules established in 1059 had not asked the empress for approval or even confirmation. And that was when she decided to finally do something. After years of passivity she finally moves, and what a move that was.
She received a delegation of Roman aristocrats and Northern Italian bishops who were concerned about constant papal meddling in their affairs. There were more than a few bishops and canons who did not like being asked by some pesky papal legates who the father of all these kids were who run round the episcopal palace. This alliance of anti-reform, conservative forces suggested the bishop Cadalus of Parma as the new pope. Agnes agreed and appointed him as pope Honorius III.
We now have a papal schism, and a bad one at that. Previously schisms did not matter that much since the pope was mostly acting as bishop of Rome and had little influence in say Reims or Trier or Canterbury. But now, after 15 years of proactive popes and cardinal legates driving reform in every realm in Christendom, now it matters who is the correct pope.
And the schism was blamed on Agnes, with some justification. And what makes it even worse for her is that her pope was with the bad guys! The Roman mafia aristocracy and corrupt bishops is not exactly the kind of company a devout empress and widow of the great protector of church reform should keep.
The military situation for Cadulus as pope was not entirely hopeless since he could rely on support amongst northern Italian bishops and the leaders in Rome. Hildebrand, by now archdeacon of the papacy, aka prime minister, created a papal militia, which over time turned into the papal armies of the 15th and 16th century. His opponents will later claim that he led the troops himself yielding the sword.
But irrespective of military success or failure, the campaign was a PR disaster of epic proportions. The empire looked bad, like really, really bad. This is not just about power politics; this is a fight over access to heaven and eternal life. The emperor had gone from being the natural leader of the progressive reform movement to being the champion of the reactionary forces. How could that be squared with the emperor as the representative of Christ on earth, a notion that the last three emperors had set out so clearly.
When Agnes realised what she had done, she froze. Her entire background was in the church reform movement. Her grandfather had founded the abbey of Cluny after all. She took to her bed, pulled the duvet over her face and left all government activity to her advisers.
Something needed to be done. It was clear that Agnes of Poitou was past her sell-by date, and she needed to be neutralised before any more damage could be done.
In April 1062 the court stayed at the imperial palace of Kaiserswerth, today a part of Duesseldorf. The palace stands right by the Rhine River and at the end of the feast Archbishop Anno of Cologne invited the 12-year-old king Henry IV to check out his new luxury boat that was moored in the centre of the stream. As soon as young Henry came on board, Archbishop Anno of Cologne gave the order to raise the anchor, Anno’s soldiers surrounded the young king, and the rowers began pulling away towards the city of Cologne 20 miles upstream. Henry IV realised he was being abducted and jumped overboard. Unlike his ancestor Otto II Henry could not swim. He would have almost certainly have drowned in the cold and fast flowing river that day, had not count Ekbert jumped after him and dragged him out.
Anno and his co-conspirators made it to Cologne and formed a new imperial government. The new government put an end to the schism of Cadulus. But it was too late. The imperial reputation was broken. The church reform movement looked to the popes and cardinals to bring about change. Anno of Cologne may have chaired the initial synod that ended the schism, but he soon found himself on the back benches. Alexander II and Hildebrand were now in charge. From now on, no medieval emperor will ever have the influence over the church that Henry III had in 1046.
And Kaiserswerth had another effect. The young Henry IV will never forget how he was betrayed by his magnates. He would never believe that the dukes, counts and bishops of his realm would give him advice that was anything but driven by self-interest. Henry IV rely on a small group of often lower status Ministeriales and the senior nobles had their boardroom passes cancelled.
And Henry IV retained a deep hatred for the hijacking Archbishop Anno of Cologne. March 29, 1065 Henry IV celebrated his Schwertleite at the cathedral of Worms, a ceremony that declared him formally an adult. As soon as he had been girded with a sword, he pulled it to go after Anno of Cologne. Only his mother’s quick intervention saved the archbishop’s life.
Next week we will see how this impulsive young man deals with the next chapter in the escalating conflict. Tensions in Saxony flare up into outright war. Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg gained the young king’s confidence and established a rapacious regime that stripped the imperial treasury bare. Magnates are feuding with each other, and the peace and order Henry III had still maintained is crumbling. To top it off, Henry IV goes full teenager and wants a divorce, whilst the most aggressive and most politically astute of the reformers, Hildebrand becomes pope as Gregor VII.
I hope I see you then and if you enjoy the history of the Germans, spread the word, on social media, on your podcast app, on my website or even old school, by talking to people.
Episode 31 – The (second) Saxon War
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 31 The (second) Saxon War
I think I have to apologise for last weeks oversized episode. I am trying to keep the length to 25-30 minutes with a tolerance up to 35 minutes. 43 minutes was definitely too long. The problem came about because we reached one of these moments of high drama when the three strands of the Investiture Controversy come together. The struggle between imperial power and the magnates, the popular movement demanding church reform and the expanding role and conception of the papacy.
Today’s job should be a touch easier because we will predominantly focus on the first of these three, the escalating tensions between the young king Henry IV. and his Saxon barons. I say should, because it is not that simple.
One of the problems are the sources. Up until now most of the sources, be it Widukind, Liudprand of Cremona, Thietmar of Merseburg, Wipo, Hermann of Reichenau etc were usually supportive of the emperors but not excessively biased. Some had to be taken with a grain of salt as they skipped bits or put their favourite ruler into a better light. But they did not as a rule make things up. The chroniclers we have for the second half of the 11th century are different. Since the controversy between emperor and pope goes to the heart of people’s identity and beliefs, there is no neutral or semi neutral observer.
The main sources, namely Bruno who wrote the Book of the Saxon Wars and Lambert of Hersfeld whose annals provide a detailed account of Henry IV. reign are both heavily biased against the emperor. And when I say biased, I really mean biased. Bruno in particular accuses Henry IV. of all sorts of all sorts of treachery and licentiousness up to the rape of nuns, incest with his sister and premeditated murder. Henry IV. much less effective PR machine retaliates with accusations of papal love affairs with Matilda of Tuscany etc.
As for the protagonists themselves we have a register of 387 letters and notes written by pope Gregory VII between 1073 and 1084, whilst we have just 8 letters from Henry IV, and it can be assumed that whilst Gregory likely dictated them himself whilst Henry’s are the work of his chancery.
With almost all the sources painting a negative picture of Henry IV. and a big black hole where his own PR machine should be left historians with a serious dilemma. It is hard to dismiss the accusations entirely, since one of the consistent demands of Henry IV.’s enemies was for him to be subjected to an enquiry into his “crimes”. They would not have done that if he had had been whiter than white. But how much of that are we to believe? And if we do not believe it, what was he like instead?
In the 19th century German historians tried to dismiss the notion of Henry IV. as a debauched and incompetent ruler. Modern historians like Gerd Althoff have concluded that there was something, even to Bruno’s accusations and attribute at least some of the difficulties in his reign to his personality. Stefan Weinfurther highlights the unwillingness of Henry IV. to adhere to the traditional methods of imperial rule and conflict resolution as a major contributing factor to his failures.
Well, I will try to stay as close to the current consensus as I can, but with the sources as they are, I am likely to fall for my own biases as we go through this story. Apologies in advance. All angry comments please DM me, if you like what you hear, feel free to put it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
With this let’s get into the story. Henry IV. had begun his personal rule in 1065 after he had been declared an adult at the ripe old age of 15. But as was the case with Otto III 70 years earlier, the transition to personal rule was not like flicking a switch. It was a gradual process whereby the dominant figures during the regency are gradually phased out and new advisors are phased in.
As we heard last week, imperial power had been receding under the regency of Agnes of Poitou. But once Anno of Cologne had abducted the young king and created a new government, things became nearly anarchic. Archbishop Anno of Cologne and his co-conspirators could not retain control unchallenged. They had to concede a role to their archenemy, Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen. That does not stop regular conspiracies aimed at removing Anno and/or Adalbert. It seems that all that the magnates cared about was to expand their personal power as quickly as possible, presumably thinking that once the king would get a handle on the levers of state, the party would be over.
We have little evidence about the rapaciousness of the secular lords, but there are some juicy stories about our two archbishops. Our friend Anno was accused of putting his family members into the plum bishoprics all across the country, and indeed one of his brothers became archbishop of Magdeburg, a cousin became bishop of Halberstadt and another was earmarked to become archbishop of Trier. That latter one did not make it though. The people of Trier were sufficiently irritated about not having any say in the matter who their bishop should be that they captured the pretender upon arrival and had him thrown down from the highest cliff.
Adalbert was no better. He tried to take over some of the most storied and richest imperial monasteries like Malmedi and Kornelimuenster. When he tried to take over Lorsch, south of Frankfurt, he had to contend with a bunch of very angry monks. They, quite understandably, argued that they cannot see any reason why the church of Hamburg, 550km north would be a suitable spiritual overlord.
With the government split right down the middle, imperial policy effectively seized to function. After the debacle of the papal schism that Agnes had created, a journey to Rome and a lavish coronation would have been paramount to restore imperial prestige. As part of the settlement of the schism, pope Alexander II was happy to crown young Henry IV. He might also have hoped to entice the emperor into a campaign against the Normans who had become a little too full of themselves after helping to end the schism.
Equally the Northern Italian bishops wanted their king to come and sort out the Pataria uprisings in Milan and other cities. I mentioned this popular movement last week. The citizens of Milan and elsewhere had requested a clean-up of their diocese where literally all priests had paid for their offices and the canons lived in luxury with their wives and children. When the archbishop refused he was thrown out and lacked the military resources to get back in. What did not help the bishop was that the Pataria enjoyed the support of at least parts of the papal administration.
Basically, it was high time to go down to Rome. Twice did the imperial army muster in Augsburg, and twice did they ultimately decide not to go. Squabbling amongst the magnates was the main reason.
Even though Henry IV had nominally become the effective sole ruler of the kingdom in 1065, he was shown in 1066 that his power was for naught when his magnates gang up on him. The one thing that changed upon Henry’s maturity was that power shifted away from Anno of Cologne to Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen. Adalbert had no difficulty in convincing the king that Anno did not have any interest in his well-being. As we heard before, Henry IV. never forgave Anno the hijacking in Kaiserswerth. One of the few things that most historians agree is that this event caused a massive trauma in Henry IV. Having been held at sword point by his barons aboard the vessel was one thing but watching his own mother failing to come to his aid, even siding with Anno over time must have created a sense of abandonment. And most of his resentment was directed at the architect of the coup, Anno of Cologne. Based on the mantra that my enemies enemies are my friends, Adalbert became Henry IV. Go-to person.
The anti-Henry propaganda machine accused Adalbert of spoiling the child-king, telling him that he could do whatever he desired, as long as he manages to get absolution on his deathbed. According to the super biased chronicler Bruno, Henry IV maintained 2-3 mistresses at any time and had ordered all the pretty girls to be brought to him, if necessary, by force.
I would not doubt that a sixteen-year-old with no parental supervision would indulge himself in bad behaviour. And I can also see that Adalbert would not admonish the young king too severely for transgressions since he was his only political asset.
However, I doubt it needed all that for Henry IV. to support Adalbert against the hated archbishop Anno of Cologne. Adalbert had been a close associate of his father and was supporting a strong central imperial power. Anno and his associates represented the powers that wanted to expand the baronial prerogatives at the expense of the empire.
In 1066 it came to a showdown in Trebur. There the magnates had come together in one of these now regular conspiracies and decided to put an ultimatum to the young king: Either he gives up on archbishop Adalbert, or he will be deposed as king.
Henry IV. and some of his followers raced to Trebur to confront the princes. To give you an idea how precarious the position of the king already was, let me tell you the story about what happened the day before that meeting. This is the story as it was told by Lampert of Hersfeld, the other main chronicler and opponent of the Salian policies.
According to him, the king stayed not in his own royal palace at Trebur, but in a nearby village that belonged to the abbey of Hersfeld. It seems there was nothing there to feed the royal party and the peasants refused to hand over the goods. A bloody fight between the royal soldiers and the local population ensued. In the fight either a peasant or -shame of shames- a dancing girl felled the count Werner who commanded the royal bodyguard. Werner was brought before the king. And whilst he lay on the ground in mortal agony, the bishops present refused the dying man the last rites, until he handed back an estate he had received from the king but which the abbot of Hersfeld claimed was his.
All this happened in front of the king. His man was lying there, and the churchmen refused him the last sacraments until some money issue was settled. And not just any money issue, but the reversal of a donation the king had made himself. And why was his man lying there. Because the abbey of Hersfeld had refused to feed the royal troops, something they were obliged to as an imperial abbey. Nothing shows more clearly the powerlessness of the young king and nothing explains better his deep-seated animosity to his magnates.
Not much has to be said about the fate of Adalbert of Bremen. A king who cannot feed his men and protect his wounded soldiers cannot decide who should be his main advisor. Adalbert was to go, or more precisely to run back to Hamburg protected by the few soldiers the impecunious king could spare.
A few weeks later Henry IV falls severely ill. So severely ill the doctors give him up and the magnates begin discussion about who should succeed the king. But he recovers and by Pentecost he is back in health.
No chronicler says it, but my sense is that it is right after the meeting in Trebur and his recovery when Henry IV. decides that enough is enough. No longer can an emperor rely on oaths of fealty from his dukes and counts, nor can he rely on the support from the Imperial Church as his father had been able to. A new form of royal administration is required.
It is around now, 1066 that Henry IV. begins his major castle building project around Goslar. His father had already begun the process of creating a coherent royal territory around the silver mines in the Harz mountains. This is a different concept to the 10th century imperial duchies which were administrated through assemblies and vows of fealty. Not here. These royal lands around Goslar will be administrated by Ministeriales, unfree men trained in war and administration. Mighty castles are built on the tops of mountains and, instead of enfeoffing it to loyal men of noble descent, he manned it with his Ministeriales. He put the administration of the royal territory not into the hands of a count as would have been the case 50 years earlier but appoints a governor (Prefectus) who could be hired and fired at will.
The largest and most important of these new castles was the Harzburg, not far from the imperial residence in Goslar. Harzburg was not only one of the largest castles built in the 11th century, rivalling Fulk of Anjou’s mighty constructions, it was also designed as an imperial residence and administrative centre. Nothing indicates more clearly the change of times than the fact that the emperors are leaving their indefensible palaces on the plains and move behind 10-metre-high walls on mountaintops. The Harzburg contained an imperial palace as well as a monastery. Henry IV had his brother Konrad who had died very young as well as his first son buried in this richly decorated chapel. He also transferred the imperial regalia, i.e., the imperial crown, the Holy Lance etc. onto the Harzburg.
The Harzburg was designed by one of Henry IV. closest confidants, a man that would be by his side for a long time, bishop Benno of Osnabrueck. Benno came from a family of Ministeriales, i.e., was not a free man. He joined the clergy and got an education in Strasburg and Reichenau before joining the career path through the imperial chancery. He was made bishop of Osnabrueck in 1068. He was a smart and effective administrator and, above all, a gifted architect. He not only built the Harzburg and other castles, but he was also the architect of the final remodelling of the astounding Speyer Cathedral. He was also a brutal taskmaster who had labourers beaten if they failed to work hard enough.
Back to the castles. They were designed to project royal power. But they were nothing new, not even in Saxony. The nobles of Saxony had engaged in the construction of mountaintop castles decades before Henry IV. started his building program. As I said before, the construction of castles is a clear indicator of deteriorating central power. And since the last years of Henry III and then even more under the regency, central power had declined and castles have risen in unison. And you may have noticed that the names of people have changed. Otto of Northeim, Rudolf of Rheinfelden are all named after their main possessions, aka their castles. Up until then major aristocrats were referenced by their ancestry, the Ezzone Konrad or the Konradiner Eberhard etc. If that was not distinctive enough, they were named after their title, margrave Eckehard of Meissen, duke Godfrey the Bearded. Some made it even easier, by calling themselves just Welf I, II, II or IV. But from now on, aristocrats are referred to first and foremost by the name of their main castle, rather than their family or title. What this castle-building also means is that the model of peace by edict of Henry III had ended, making the life of the peasants in the empire just that little bit harder.
Whilst the walls of the Harzburg and other fortifications are going up, the empire is shaken by a sequence of scandals that further undermine the imperial reputation.
The first one is entirely of Henry IV. making and concerns his marriage. Long ago, when Henry IV. was a child, his father had engaged him to marry Bertha, daughter of the Count of Savoy. That seems a rather odd choice, since as future emperor he should get married to a byzantine princess or absent that, at least the daughter of a king, not a mere count. Bertha’s family had however one key asset, which will become important as we go further, and that was the alpine pass of Mont Cenis. This pass, south of Mont Blanc was of major strategic importance as the connecting road between France and Italy. As the empire already controlled all other Alpine passes, Mont Cenis was the missing link that made sure no other power could get into Italy. In principle the emperor should not need the Count of Savoy for that since Mont Cenis was in Burgundy and Henry was already king of Burgundy. But Burgundy was a kingdom very much in principle, in practice Mont Cenis was held by the count of Savoy. And the count’s price for the pass was to become grandpa of an emperor.
To make sure Bertha was at least brought up to an imperial standard, she was delivered aged 6 to the imperial court where she grew up in the household of Henry’s mother, the empress Agnes of Poitou.
In 1066, shortly after Adalbert had been sent packing and the king had recovered from his illness it was deemed time for Henry IV to finally marry little Bertha as had been agreed all these years ago.
By 1069 Henry IV. wants a divorce. At the Reichstag in Worms he stands up and declares that he simply “does not think he and his wife are a good match”. He says that he is simply tired of pretending that the relationship was ok., when it was not. He does not accuse her of anything, that would warrant a divorce. But he, be it by fate or divine order, cannot be in a marital relationship with her. He therefore asks for the grace of God to be released from these chains. He hopes that she would find a happier life in another marriage and if needed, he would swear that the marriage had never beenconsummated..
This strikes me as a very modern grounds for a divorce. The fact that two people just simply are not meant to be together. But an 11th century royal marriage is not an agreement between two adults looking for fulfilment and happiness. It is a political contract, and that meant, liking each other is not a requirement. The pope sends Peter Damian up to Germany to explain these simple facts to the young king and he accepts the verdict. Henry and Bertha will from then on have a strong relationship where she will stand by him even in the most challenging moments and be more loyal than his own mother was. The couple had 5 children.
Step back. What was that. Henry IV. asks for a divorce because he does not think a relationship is possible and wants her to be happy with someone else. And then -when forced- fulfils the marriage and things turn out ok.
I am going out on a limb here, but it seems as if the most obvious point is completely overlooked by most historians Bertha and Henry have grown up together since they were five. They have grown up in a super tense environment where empress Agnes was clearly out of her depth most of the time. His older sisters have been sent away to become abbesses or have died early. It is not impossible that Henry and Berth felt more like siblings than marital partners. That would explain his insistence on her being blameless and his wish that she would be happy with someone else. It would also explain why the couple could maintain a relationship of trust and friendship despite his attempt at divorce.
That was scandal number one. Now for the second one which involves the recently appointed duke Otto of Northeim. Otto was a Saxon noble of the highest rank. He was put in as duke of Bavaria by Agnes in 1061, which is an odd choice to start with.
As we have heard before the Saxon nobles had been on a roll with attempts at the life of the Salians. The brother of the duke of Saxony may have tried to murder Emperor Henry III in 1048 and in 1057 the Saxon nobles conspired to have Henny IV. killed, a child of 7 at the time. There is no indication that Otto of Northeim was involved, but it is unlikely the Saxons kept him in the dark. The attempt on Henry’s life was foiled as allies of the king encountered the Saxon contingent by chance outside the royal palace and killed them.
Northeim then appears again as a co-conspirator in the coup at Keiserswerth, something that cannot have endeared him to Henry IV.
In 1069 a mysterious event happens. At a stay on one of Otto of Northeim’s estates, one of Henry’s ministeriales is ambushed and killed. Things are being investigated, but nothing comes of it. Since life is cheap and ministeriales are still serfs, nobody ascribes much significance to that event.
In 1070, a certain Enigo, a thug of ill repute, claims publicly that Otto of Northeim had tried to hire him to murder the king. Otto of Northeim strenuously denies the claim. In classic 11th century fashion, when it is one man’s word against another’s, the resolution has to be through trial by combat. Otto of Northeim initially accepts the ruling but does then not appear on the set dates in Goslar to fight for his honour. Under the circumstances Otto could demand a judgement in default, which the Saxon nobles assembled as the jury granted. Otto of Northeim was stripped of the duchy of Bavaria, all other fiefs and of his allodial possessions. Northeim is also declared an outlaw.
According to the chronicler Bruno, this was all a plot by Henry IV. to strip Northeim of his possessions. Bruno even alleges that Northeim would have been killed on the king’s orders even if he had won the trial by combat. I find in particular the latter hard to believe. The trial would have taken place in full view of the Saxon nobles and if Henry would have wanted to pull a stunt like this, his reputation would have suffered immeasurable damage. That in combination with the string of assassination attempts by Saxon nobles and the mysterious death of his ministeriales the year before makes it likely that there was something to this allegation.
Guilty or not, Otto finds support from other Saxon nobles, including from Magnus, son of the duke of Saxony in his fight with the king. But he failed to bring the whole of the duchy behind him and had to submit to the emperor after a year of fighting. Henry IV. imprisons him and Magnus. Otto of Northeim is released in 1072 and some of his inherited lands are returned to him, minus the chunk henry wanted to keep. Magnus, who after his father’s death had become the duke of Saxony, is kept longer, presumably as insurance against another Saxon uprising.
After Northeim’s fall, the duchy of Bavaria had been given to Welf IV upon recommendation of Rudolf of Rheinfelden, the powerful duke of Swabia. Over the years Rheinfelden and the duke of Carinthia, Berthold of Zaehringen had mended their relationship that had been strained when Rheinfelden was made duke of Swabia, a role Zaehringen thought was his. That now created a major political block in the south where Rheinfelden could rely on support from both the duke of Carinthia and his old friend Welf IV the newly appointed duke of Bavaria.
In 1072 Henry IV. accused Rheinfelden and his two dukes of a conspiracy against him. The three dukes, he claims, have tried to assassinate him and make Rheinfelden king. Lampert and Bruno, as one would expect, declare that this was again a plot by the king to bring down another of his magnates. Egon Boshof brings up a theory that blames Henry’s concerns down to the reform of the monastery of St. Blasien, which affected imperial prerogatives.
Again, who knows what went on. Maybe Henry Iv. looked at the comparatively easy win over Otto of Northeim and thought, hey this is a brilliant tool to break the power of his magnates. Or Rheinfelden looked at the events in Saxony and thought to himself, time to strike now before this king gets ever more powerful. Or it was indeed a misunderstanding over the indeed gorgeous monastery of St. Blasien.
Anyway, this time Henry IV. does not succeed in deposing Rheinfelden or the other two dukes. In 1073 they sign some sort of “let’s forget about all that and be friends again” agreement.
That came just in time, because events are now accelerating.
In the summer of 1073, the Saxon had enough of Henry’s castles. What had fuelled the flames was that Henry, cash strapped as he was, did not pay the ministeriales who manned the castles. The ministeriales hence forced the local peasants to bring food to them, and if they failed to do so, would see their villages burned and wives and daughters raped. At least that is the story told by the biased chroniclers Bruno and Lambert. It may also be that the villages belonging to the castles were obliged to bring the produce by law and custom, as was the case with the castles the mighty Saxon lords had built. The only difference was that the soldiers manning Henry’s castles weren’t Saxons, but from elsewhere, possibly Swabia.
In June of 1073 the magnates of Saxony, including the bishops of Magdeburg, Halberstadt, Hildesheim, as well as Hermann Billung, uncle of the incarcerated duke Magnus of Saxony and Otto of Northeim appear before the emperor in Goslar demanding an audience to discuss the castle building program.
Henry IV. does not grant an audience. In fact, he leaves the Saxon magnates stand outside the castle whilst he is playing dice with is mates inside. This is often seen as an unnecessary insult that justifies the upcoming rebellion and put Henry IV. in the wrong. On the other hand, imperial dignity required that the king would not yield to such explicit demands. Henry IV. remembered what happened when he rushed to Trebur in 1066 when the princes met to discuss the fate of Archbishop Adalbert, an experience he was not too keen to repeat. Henry also had been assembling an army for a campaign against Poland, which he believed he could use to suppress any Saxon uprising.
The Saxon magnates are now infuriated to the max. A month later they meet at Hoetensleben for an assembly. There Otto of Northeim gives his famous speech, which I will try to translate here. Thanks, by the way to deepl.com whose free translation service has become a lifesaver for this podcast. Here is Otto of Northeim:
“ The calamities and disgraces that our king has brought upon each one of you for a long time are great and unbearable, but what he still intends to do, if the Almighty God permits him, is even greater and more severe. Strong castles he has erected, as you know, numerous in places already firm by nature, and has placed in them a great multitude of his vassals, and abundantly provided with weapons of all kinds. These castles are not erected against the heathen, who have completely devastated our land where it borders theirs, but in the midst of our country, where no one ever thought of making war against him; he has fortified them with such great effort, and what they mean for this land some of you have already experienced, and if God’s mercy and your bravery do not intervene, you will soon all experience it. They take your possessions by force and hide them in their castles; they abuse your wives and daughters for their pleasure when they please; they demand your servants and your cattle, and all that they like, for their service; yes, they even force you yourselves to bear every burden, however odious, on your free shoulders. But when I imagine in my thoughts what is still waiting for us, then everything that you are now enduring still seems to me to be bearable. For when he will have built his castles in our whole country at his discretion and will have equipped them with armed warriors and all other necessities, then he will no longer plunder your possessions one by one, but he will snatch from you all that you possess with one blow, will give your goods to strangers, and will make you yourselves, you freeborn men, oblige unknown men as servants. And all this, you brave men, will you let it happen to you? Is it not better to fall in brave fight than to live a miserable and ignominious life, being made a shameful mockery by these people.
Even Serfs who are bought for money do not endure the unreasonable commands of their masters, and you, who were born free, should patiently endure servitude? Perhaps you, as Christians, are afraid to violate the oath with which you have paid homage to the king. Indeed, to the king you have sworn. As long as he was a king to me and acted royally, I also kept the oath I swore to him freely and faithfully; but after he ceased to be a king, the one to whom I had to keep loyalty was no longer there. So not against the king, but against the unjust robber of my freedom; not against the fatherland, but for the fatherland, and for freedom, which no good man surrenders other than with his life at the same time, I take up arms, and I demand of you that you also take them up. Awake, therefore, and preserve for your children the inheritance which your fathers have left you; beware lest through your carelessness or slothfulness you yourselves and your children become serfs of strangers” (end quote)
Now before you go and thing that here is the first outburst of genuine German nationalism, I have to stop you there. When Northeim talks of “patria” or “fatherland” he talks about Saxony, not Germany. And when he talks about freedom, he is not talking about human rights, but ancestral privileges, the Freedoms as they will be later called.
But rousing the speech is nevertheless and the Saxons raise an army and head towards the Harzburg, where Henry IV. had gone to hold out while his agents bring over the army initially meant for the Poland campaign to defeat these obnoxious Saxons once and for all. The Saxons set up camp on an opposite hill and sent their demands to the king. He was to dismantle all his castles in Saxony and dismiss his false councillors.
The Harzburg was almost impregnable, so the Saxons blockaded the castle’s food supplies whilst throwing large stones down on the fortifications from a new structure built on the opposite hill.
Henry’s hope of support from the army readied for the war in Poland was quickly dashed. The mighty princes shared many of the views Otto of Northeim had articulated in his speech. They could see that if Henry were to prevail in Saxony, he would proceed to build similar castles in Bavaria, Swabia and anywhere else in the country. Rudolf of Rheinfelden and the two Southern dukes also had not forgotten that Henry had tried to nail them just a year earlier. So, the princes withdrew their troops. Some magnates led by the archbishop of Mainz even began negotiations with Otto of Northeim, allegedly offering him the crown.
Henry IV. fled the Harzburg and set up camp in Worms. There he managed to gather some bishops for an attempt to make a military move on Saxony, but his support was far too weak.
On February 2nd, 1074 he signed the peace of Gerstungen, which cannot be described as anything but a complete capitulation. In a near full assembly of the great bishops and princes of the realm, Henry IV. conceded the demolition of all his castles, dismissed his councillors and gave full amnesty to all the rebels.
Henry IV. withdrew the garrison of the Harzburg and immediately the Saxons stormed in. The Saxon troops it is important to note were not just aristocratic knights but comprised a lot of free or half free peasants. These guys were the first through the gate and began the demolition work. In the peace agreement it was specifically stated that the demolition of the Harzburg should be gentle, respecting the imperial chapel on the site. Well, that did not happen. The Saxon commanders could not stop their enraged mob who tore down the chapel, stole the relics and horror of horrors pulled the remains of the Salian princes buried there out of their coffins and threw them in the ditch like vile garbage.
This profound insult to the honour not just of Henry IV. but the realm as a whole led to one of these sudden mood swings that will punctuate the story of the Investiture Controversy.
The Saxon nobles apologised immediately and promised a thorough investigation and harsh punishment for the perpetrators. But that was not enough. The mighty princes, who did not treat their peasants any different to the way henry IV. had the neighbours of the Harzburg suddenly realised that these Saxon armies contained an unsettlingly large contingent of free peasants. And in 1073/1074 there had already been uprisings in major cities, namely worms and Cologne where the bishops had to run for their lives. Our old friend Anno of Cologne was one of them. He only managed to get out because one of his supporters had just put a door into the city walls near his house. This “hole of Anno” can still be seen in Cologne.
Given the choice between supporting a potentially overbearing emperor or a rabble-rousing Saxon, many of the Southern dukes, namely Rudolf of Rheinfelden took the side of Henry IV. Henry IV. could finally muster his army to bring the Saxons to heel. The two sides met at the Unstrut river on June 9, 1075.
What ensued was one of the bloodiest and painful battles of the 11th century. Though in principle it was Saxons against the rest of the kingdom, in reality many families were split. Fathers were fighting sons; brothers were killing each other in the melee. The unity of the kingdom created at the battle king Henry the Fowler had fought against the Hungarians nearby in 934 was trampled into the dust on that early summers day.
Henry IV. prevailed in the brutal fighting. After the battle his troops were let loose across Saxony, murdering and pillaging wherever they went. On October 25th, 1075 the Saxon barons conceded an unconditional surrender.
After a decade of humiliation and defeat, Henry IV. had finally regained the position his father and grandfather had held. The magnates of the land recognised him as his overlord and the Saxons, who had plotted to kill him since he was a child were utterly defeated. Finally, he should now be able to go to Rome and take what had been his since birth, the imperial crown.
That is not what is going to happen. Next week we will find out how it comes that within a mere 18 months Henry IV. will find himself utterly friendless about to lose it all kneeling barefoot in the snow outside the inner gate of the castle of Canossa. I hope you will join us again.
Episode 32 – Hildebrand, Not Pope but False Monk
Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 32: Hildebrand, Not Pope but False Monk.
Before we start, I want to let you know that there is something to celebrate. It is now almost exactly a year since I started working on the History of the Germans. The first episodes came out on January 14th and you response, dear listeners, far exceeded my expectations. Right now, more than 1500 of you tune in every week and download well over 3000 episodes. The podcast has reached its 25,000 pretty much as I speak.
When I started, I said I would take the narrative all the way up to the year 1990. As you can imagine, that was one of those promises that were under the premise that it would ultimately make sense to do that. With that much interest amongst you, it makes a lot of sense and so the Podcast will become a permanent feature in my life, and hopefully in yours.
Podcasting as it happens is a lot of work. I spend roughly 2 to 2.5 full working days on each episode, spread across the week. Most of that is spent on research. For instance I draw on 6 books on the Salians, 3 books on the papacy and 4 books on medieval ages in general plus two contemporary chroniclers and the letters of Pope Gregory VII for this episode. Wriiting, recording and editing takes another 8-10 hours in total per week. I am not complaining – this is what I call fun. The only thing I do complain about is the endless building work outside my window that you may hear from time to time in the background.
At my current run-rate of 5 years per episode, I still have 183 episodes to g0, including this one and the last episode will air on December 4, 2025. We will see whether my German urge for punctuality will prevail or whether 20 years of living in Britain had san impact on delivery against promises..
But in any event, it will be a long run. And I need to make this economically viable, if not for the sake of my sanity and my marriage. Since I hate advertising breaks in podcasts I and I am terrible at pretending a mattrass of online course has changed my life, the only way to finance this endeavour is by relying on your generosity.
I have set up a Patreon page where you can become a supporter of the podcast by making a monthly contribution. As a patron you get, first and foremost, my heartfelt gratitude, plus access to occasional bonus episodes on German Art, architecture or whatever else comes to my head. You can become a Patron for £2/$3 a month, the cost of a cappuccino. Those of you who feel the History of the Germans Podcast is worth supporting and have the funds please go to my website historyofthegermans.com and you can find the link under support the show, or go directly to patreon.com/historyofthegermans.
Special thanks go to Kraig, Donald and Margreatha who have already signed up.
Now let us get back to our story.
Last week we spent most of our time following one of the three strands of the story of the investiture controversy – the tension between expanding imperial central power and the magnates. In 1075 Henry IV. had managed to gain the upper hand in the conflict with the Saxons. This came about, not because of a sudden emergence of support for the imperial idea, but because the magnates feared an uprising of the lower classes more than an overbearing ruler. We will leave our young king in the splendour of his achievement and catch up with events in Rome, following the second strand in our narrative, the rise of the papacy.
You may remember that the papacy’s fortune had begun improving with pope Leo IX (1049-1054). Over the following 20 years the papacy had grown even more in stature and when pope Alexander II died in 1073 the Holy See had reached a position that it never occupied before.
Firstly, the papacy had got out of the chokehold of the Roman aristocracy. We heard two episodes ago that the last attempt by the Theobhylacts to put one of theirs on the throne of Saint Peter in 1059, had been foiled by an alliance of the reform-oriented cardinals under the leadership of Hildebrand and the support of Godfrey the Bearded.
Godfrey was called upon again in 1062/63 to help pope Alexander II gain access to the holy city that the local aristocrats held on behalf of Cadalus, the antipope installed by empress Agnes.
Godfrey the bearded died in 1069 and was succeeded in his Italian possessions by his stepdaughter Mathilda of Tuscany. If Godfrey was a staunch supporter of the reform movement, Mathilda was even more committed. The papacy could call upon her almost as if she was a vassal of the church. Why she was so committed to the papacy in general and Hildebrand in particular has kept tongues wagging for centuries, but we should remember that she mostly continued her stepfather’s policies.
Having more or less unlimited recourse on the power of Tuscany was not the only military capability of the Holy See. During the fighting between the supporters of Alexander II and the antipope Cadalus the papacy created its own military capability. Pope Leo IX may well have been the first pope to lead an army into battle, but his army consisted entirely of troops of his supporters, not papal troops. The units Hildebrand created in 1062/63 were papal armies. His detractors would later claim that he had led these troops into war, sword in hand, which was in contravention of canon law.
The next stone on the papal chessboard were the Normans. As of 1073 they had been loyal vassals of the pope, helping out when needed. Otherwise, they had been busy conquering the rest of Southern Italy and the island of Sicily. In 1072 when Robert Giuscard and his next brother, Roger, another fruit of the inexhaustible loins of Tancred of Hauteville, entered Palermo, a city of 50,000 inhabitants, larger than Rome, London, Florence, Naples or Genua and in Italy only surpassed by Milan in wealth and splendour. Under count and later king Roger of Sicily the island and its capital Palermo experienced a golden age. Roger, whose actual Norman forces may have numbered just a few hundred had to be a tolerant ruler who created a state where Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox Christian and Latin Christian communities lived in relative harmony, not something his feudal overlord the Pope much appreciated.
With the Normans not quite as reliable as the rulers of Tuscany, the Popes would not have minded an occasional imperial journey to Rome as a counterweight. In particular Alexander II offered an imperial coronation several times, but it never happened.
The popes, who a hundred years earlier served literally as the footstools of the Crescenti rulers of Rome have found a degree of political and military independence, never seen before.
In that context it is no surprise that the way a pope is chosen also changed.After the five popes between 1046 and 1058 been directly appointed by the emperor, the 1059 the Lateran Synod established that the pope should be elected by the Cardinals with some, not further defined involvement of the emperor. Imperial involvement in the subsequent elections dwindled to naught. And when empress Agnes tried to appoint her own pope, it ended with the schism of Cadalus, a massive loss of confidence in the imperial religious policy and her losing the regency. When the bishops meet at a synod in mantua to bring the schism to an end, archbishop Anno of Cologne initially presided over proceedings as the representative of the emperor. But he was soon relegated to the back benches thanks to Hildebrand insisting that the emperor has no longer any say in the choice of who should be pope.
Bottom line 1: The papacy has become an independent political, not just spiritual entity with its own military capability.
What gave the papacy the next push up the ladder was that it assumed the leadership in the church reform movement.
The church reform had started as a grass roots movement. Pious monks, disgusted by the worldly mores of the rich and powerful abbeys had formed communities in remote places like Cluny, Gorze or Moyenmoutier. They wanted to live according to the rule of St. Benedict, focused on praying and doing good works for a reward in heaven. Their efforts were recognised by noble lords, the duke of Aquitaine amongst them, who wanted these holy monks to pray for their souls in the afterlife. So they gave donations to the monks or asked them to set up a new priory or monastery on their lands. In the next step, the emperors, namely Henry II and Henry III embraced the movement and began to roll out reform in the mighty imperial abbeys of Reichenau, Corvey, Fulda etc.
At the same time the urban and rural population who had little interaction with the monks on their remote abbeys, demanded that the priest who administered their sacraments to live up to his billing. That meant initially that the priest should have been chosen for merit, rather than for the amount of kickback he offered the local bishop. But more and more the laity was upset by the fact that most priests, canons and deacons were married or had congress with women. Celibacy had been an ideal and monks and bishops were expected to live celibate since the early times of the church. But ordinary priests were not. I understand that there is no watertight theological reason for celibacy in the clergy, and it is not required for priests in other Christian denominations. But in the first half of the 11th century the demand for a higher standard in pastoral care in Western Europe became associated with celibacy. My non-theogical view is that if monks, the most effective communicators with divine, lived in celibacy, than being celibate clearly improved efficacy of the sacraments. And hence the city dwellers and peasants wanted access to the same quality of religious rites as the aristocrats who had their monks.
The education and moral standards of the priests was the responsibility of the bishops. Henry II and Henry III enthusiastically encouraged their bishops to improve the standards of their clergy.
By 1046 when Henry III deposed three popes at the council of Sutri, he was the undisputed leader of the church reform movement. He appointed competent bishops who raised the standards of the clergy and pushed through the reform of the monasteries. And finally, he appointed competent popes.
Leo IX and Victor II got the papacy involved in the work of church reform for the first time. They saw themselves as partners of the emperor in this great endeavour and focused on the parts of the world the emperor had difficulty to reach. In particular the French bishops came in for a drubbing. Simony was rife in France, since investiture of bishops was one of the few sources of income for the king.
The popes travelled endlessly; a level of touristic activity not seen again until Pope John Paul II’s popemobile tours. Leo IX for instance crossed the alps 6 times in the 5 years of his pontificate, holding synods in France, Germany and Italy. The same goes for his successor Victor II. Almost as important as the papal presence North of the Alps was the activity of papal legates, usually prominent cardinals like Pietro Damiano, the later popes Stephen IX, Nicolas II. Alexander IiI and Hreggoryg Vi. The legates would call and preside over Synods, where again bishops were investigated and condemned for simony or other forms of corruption or misdemeanour. Legates would be sent even to adjudicate in major political issues, like the attempt of Henry IV. to get a divorce.
Within a span of maybe 20 years, the papacy goes from being almost invisible in the debate over the most important issue of its day to being everywhere.
Even the intellectual epicentre of the church reform shifts. Was the theological underpinning of the reform movement initially devised by the abbots of Cluny, Gorze etc., it is now the college of cardinal and the annual synods in Rome that set the tone. St. Peter Damian, Humbert of Silva candida and others who came to Rome from all over Europe form a new centre that sets the dogma.
At the same time, the imperial leadership role diminishes under the regency of empress Agnes. Rapacious bishops like Anno of Cologne and Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen do not add much to the imperial reputation. That reputation completely crumbles when Agnes sides with the conservative forces, the Northern Italian bishops and the Roman Aristocracy, appointing the bishop Cadalus as antipope Honorius III. Even though Anno of Cologne reverses the policy, it is too late to keep the imperial power in the lead.
Some hope is pinned on young Henry IV to step into his father’s footsteps. But that crumbles quickly. Henry IV. is likely a religious man, because everybody in the 11th century was. But he showed no particular enthusiasm for the cleaning up of the clergy. And there is even a question whether he could or should have done that, since his bishops, who he relied upon for soldiers and food, felt increasingly harassed by the pope and looked to the emperor for help, an emperor who until 1075 was extremely weak himself.
Bottom line 2: the papacy now leads the church reform movement
Not only has the papacy become a self-determining political organisation, and the leader of the largest popular movement of its time, it has also become universal.
Before 1046 the papacy operated predominantly in Italy and in relation to its neighbours, the emperor and the king of France. Yes, there would be interactions with far flung lands, like when king Canute came from rainy England or pope Sylvester II sent a crown for the coronation of the king of Hungary. But these actions were responsive, rather than proactive.
After 1046, the papacy got busy collecting oaths of fealty from kings and rulers all over Western Europe.
It started off with Pope Nicolas II enfeoffing the Normans Robert Guiscard as duke of Apulia and Richard of Aversa as duke of Capua. Moreover, the popes also granted these Normans the island of Sicily and the parts of Southern Italy still ruled by the Byzantines. That is a ballsy move on behalf of the pope, since it suggests the papacy was the feudal overlord of Southern Italy. Even the Constantine Donation, which we know and many people at the time knew was a fake, did not extend to Southern Italy and certainly not to Sicily. But where there is no plaintiff, there is no judge. The emperor in Constantinnople, whose lands these had been before the Muslim and Norman conquest had no standing in Rome any more as the break between the Eastern and the Western church had become permanent in 1054. And the emperor Henry IV. who would be next in line with a claim, well he had other things on his mind.
In 1068 the king of Aragon in Spain came on pilgrimage to Rome and gave his kingdom in the hands of the pope to receive it back as a fief. As usual, he did this only in part out of piety. What he got in exchange was papal support that turned the kings’ wars with the Muslim Emirs into a sort of pre-crusade type endeavour.
One of the great political tools the papacy used were papal banners. These were to be carried into battle as signs that the apostles Peter and Paul were fighting on the side of the flagbearer. That was most valuable to those whose claims to their conquests were weakest. One of these pretenders was William the Conqueror, whose claim to the English throne was, how can I say that most politely, a stretch. Pope Alexander II, upon insistence of Hildebrand gave William the banner and his endorsement. William enjoyed a reputation as a supporter of Church reform, whilst the old regime in England was seen as simonistic and insufficiently focused on enforcing celibacy amongst the clergy.
The reach of the papacy did not stop at England’s shore. In a few years pope Gregory will write letters of advice and admonishment to the great King of Ireland, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa and even the ruler of what is now Morocco.
In just 30 years the papacy’s ambition has grown from being the bishop of Rome to being the universal ruler of all Christendom. In doing so the papacy had simply stepped into a void that the emperors since Otto the great have left wide open.
In 972 when Otto the great died, he was the universal ruler of Christian Western Europe. Though technically he was not King of France or King of Burgundy, the rulers of these lands recognised him as the arbiter of their disputes and came to his assemblies. The same goes for the dukes of Poland and Bohemia. Hungary and Denmark were still mostly pagan, and England was a slaughterhouse of Viking invasions. In other words, there was a universal authority, and that was the emperor. His immediate successors, Otto II and Otto III tried to maintain that universal ambition. Otto III’s policy of a Renovatio Imperii was the most stringent expression of that idea.
But since Henry II’s reign from 1002-1024, imperial focus shifted towards expanding central authority within its own lands and its geographic zone of influence shrunk. France was on its own path since the Capetians had taken control. After Boleslav the Brave Poland could only be brought under imperial control for short periods. This goes even more for Hungary, now a Christian kingdom. Denmark and Norway were on a roll and did not recognise the emperor as their overlord. And let us not forget that Henry II waited 12 years before he went to Rome to be crowned. Konrad II and Henry III may have been quicker in going to Rome, but at that point the train had left the station. The empire was no longer universal.
A few years later, pope Gregory VII will write to the king of Hungary that if he took his kingdom as fief from the emperor, he would only be a regulus, a little king. The emperor is -said Gregory- no different from any other king who owes his rule to God and god’s representative on earth, the pope. The only way to true sovereignty was to receive the kingdom from the hand of the pope and swear fealty to him as the sole universal power in Christendom.
Now this is where we are on the 21st of April 1073, when 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 and was definitely not a letter. 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.
What is certain is that a number of these statements have not been in use for a long time, should they have ever been church law, and they go directly against the way the world had been run for nearly a thousand years. Let us go through a few:
The pope may depose and reinstate bishops? Without a synod and even when the bishop is absent? So far deposing a bishop was a very rare occurrence and happened if at all at a synod convened by the emperor.
The pope can transfer bishops? Didn’t we hear that transferring a bishop was impossible because the bishop was married to his diocese and when Otto II wanted his advisor to be elevated to be archbishop of Magdeburg he had to suppress the bishopric of Merseburg with the well known consequence of a lost battle in Italy and a pagan uprising in the east?
That the kings have to kiss the feet of the pope and that he can depose emperors (note the plural), and that he can absolve his subjects from their oath of fealty. More on that story later.
And then, my favourite: that the Roman Church has never erred; nor will it err to eternity; that a canonically ordained pope is undoubtably made a saint. Check out your books on rhetoric, you may find that an orator using the word “undoubtedly” is usually riddled with doubt.
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.
He sets out his stall in the synod of 1074 where he summarises the rules for the new reformed church as follows:
- Those who are guilty of the crime of fornication may not celebrate masses or minister at the altar in lesser orders.
- Those who have been promoted by the simoniac heresy, that is, with the intervention of money, to any rank or office of holy orders may no longer exercise any ministry in holy church.
- No one of the clergy shall receive the investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any lay person, male or female.
One of his main tools to implement these new rules were open letters to his bishops. These he would send either say to “all the bishops of France” or an individual bishop, however in copies so that his whole clergy would see them. In the letters he would name and shame an individual bishop for refusing or being slack in the implementation of these rules.
It tended to be a four-step process. First, he would outline the new rules. In the next letter he would admonish the bishop for lack of progress. Then in the third he would become threatening, ordering the bishop to come to Rome and account for himself. Like this letter to bishop Otto of Constance quote:
“O the impudence! O the unparalleled insolence! that a bishop should despise the decrees of the apostolic see, should set at naught the precepts of the holy fathers, and in truth should impose upon his subjects from his lofty place and from his episcopal chair things contrary to these precepts and opposed to the Christian faith! We accordingly command you by apostolic authority to present yourself at our next council in the first week of Lent, to answer canonically respecting both this disobedience and contempt of the apostolic see, and all the charges that have been laid against you.”
And as a final move, Gregory would depose the bishop and tell his congregation the following (quote):
“Accordingly, as we have already said, by apostolic authority we charge all of you, both greater and lesser, who stand by God and St. Peter, that if he is determined to continue in his obduracy you should show him neither respect nor obedience. Nor need you think this a danger to your souls. For if, as we have often said already, he is determined to resist apostolic precepts, we so absolve you by St. Peter’s authority from every yoke of subjection to him that, even if any of you is bound to him by the obligation of an oath, for so long as he is a rebel against God and the apostolic see you are bound to pay him no fealty.”
Gregory VII writes an enormous amount of letters, 387 of which are held in the papal registry alone. Thanks to a great visualisation by George Litchfield, we can see where they went. Most went to France in these first years. It is there where Gregory sees the biggest issues and the most obstinate bishops.
But Henry IV is also on his mind.
Already in 1073 he writes to his best mate, Mathilda of Tuscany as follows:
Quote “And as to the king: As you have learned from our former letters, it is our intention to send pious men to him, by whose admonitions and the help of God we may be able to bring him back to loyalty to his mother, the Holy Church of Rome, and give him detailed instructions as to the proper form of assuming the empire. But if, contrary to our hopes, he shall refuse to listen to us, we cannot and we ought not to turn aside from our mother, the Roman Church, which has cherished us and has often brought forth other children from the blood of her sons; so God protect us! And surely it is safer for us to resist him even unto death in defence of the truth and for our own welfare than to give way to his will by consenting to iniquity and so rush on to our own ruin.”
As far as linear history goes, this story of the ascent of the papacy is about as linear as it can get. Every step along the way the papacy gains in stature until it is now in the hands of a driven, almost fanatic pope hell bent on establishing his supremacy over the whole of the Roman world.
Whilst the king of France gets out of his way and the kings of Denmark, England, Hungary and Poland are either too weak or too far away to put up any resistance, the clash had to happen with the empire, and its still not crowned emperor in waiting, Henry IV.
From Henry’s perspective Gregory is very much off the reservation. Not being involved in papal elections is something that could irritate an imperial government, but it is certainly not the first time that the empire had let things in Rome slack a bit.
But a pope who runs round in Germany, admonishing and deposing bishops left right and centre. That is not on. And what is certainly not on is #3 of Gregory’s stated political objectives, that no laymen should be allowed to invest a bishop or abbot.
This would be the death nail in the Imperial Church system. The Imperial Church System is built on the idea that the king/emperor can appoint bishops and abbots, usually from his own chancery. In particular the emperor would invest the bishop or abbot into his worldly possessions, i.e., the lands and counties that had been granted to him by the emperors long ago. Thanks to that investiture the bishops in particular were obliged to provide the military and financial resources to support the regime. You may remember that already under emperor Otto II, 100 years earlier, nearly 2/3 of the imperial army in Italy was provided by the Imperial church. By now this number is in all likelihood even larger since church had received even more land and privileges from the intervening emperors.
I did say last episode that Henry IV had lost faith in the reliability of the Imperial Church system, which is not a surprise having watched Anno of Cologne plundering the imperial purse. But that does not mean he could afford to give up on it. His territorial power in Goslar was clearly no match for his enemies as we have seen. And reliance on his magnates was not really an option, since they did effectively what they wanted.
What is also noticeable is that this ban on lay investiture came a bit out of the blue. Yes, Humbert of Silva Candida had suggested it as far back as 1059 and it had sneaked into some papal decrees. But it had never been implemented. All the way into the 1070s did first Agnes and later Henry IV. invest bishops across the empire. All three of the last popes, including Gregory VII himself had been witnesses to imperial investitures during their time as papal legates to the imperial court, but none of them ever said a peep about it being uncanonical.
Things came to a head over the investiture of the archbishop of Milan. Milan had been internal turmoil since the days of the Valavassores uprising under Konrad II. It was the largest city in europe and the most economically advanced, which meant they were about 50 to 100 years ahead of their time when it came to social and political developments.
Since about 1057 the lower classes in Milan had demanded an improvement in the corrupt and licentious clergy of the city. Street gangs would harass clergymen they suspected of living with women or had acquired their office through the payment of bribes. Rioting became increasingly intense, and the rebels calling themselves the Pataria began to organise under the leadership of a member of the city nobility called Erlembald. Erlembald received a lot of support from the papacy, and even received a papal banner in his fight with the archbishop. This archbishop, Wido who had been exiled and was even at some point captured by the Pataria resigned in 1070, handing ove the reigns of the archbishopric to his deputy, Godfrey. Godfrey travelled to the imperial court for his investiture, as had been the tradition with archbishops of Milan for centuries. Whilst Godfrey received ring and staff from Henry IV., the Pataria raised one of their own, Atto to be archbishop. Atto received recognition from the pope and civil war in the city continued between the supporters of Atto and the papacy on one hand and Godfrey and the emperor on the other.
In one of his last acts, pope Alexander II, under guidance of the future Gregory VII, tried to put pressure on Henry IV by excommunicated some of his advisors. That excommunication lingered without much effect whilst the situation in Milan changed in favour of the imperial side. The Pataria suffered the loss of its leader, Erlembald in the fighting and after the city had burned down, the imperial party took control. They asked Henry IV for a new archbishop, even though Godfrey was still around. Henry IV agreed to this demand and appointed Tedald, one of the members of his chancery to be archbishop of Milan.
This is where Gregory loses it. In December 1075 he writes a letter to Henry IV admonishing him for his decisions in Milan as well as for retaining his advisors who had been excommunicated 2 years before. The letter is a not very veiled threat to excommunicate the king.
We are in step 3 of the Gregorian deposition process. Like with the bishop Otto fo Constance the process is, letter 1, information about the new rules, letter 2, call to implement, letter three, do it or else, and letter 4 deposition.
Henry IV sure had heard about this process. And he should know that Gregory was serious. For one, the letter was delivered by two papal legates who also brought a verbal message from the pope and were supposed to bring an account of the king’s informal response back to Rome.
And, Gregory VII had form in excommunicating kings. He had threatened to excommunicate King Henry I of France unless he took action on simony and had actually excommunicated the Norman leader Robert Giuscard, not for any spiritual failures, but for attacking papal land.
Henry’s reaction to the first two letters had been to play for time since, as you may remember, he was in the midst of getting his proverbial handed to him by the Saxons in 1073 and 1074. But when the third letter arrived in 1075, Henry IV had just won his great victory against the Saxons. No way is he going to yield to this rudeness.
He called a synod of the German bishops in Worms for the 24th of January, a mere month after the receipt of the letter. Despite the winter weather 26 bishops come to the synod, including the cardinal Hugo the White, who had fallen out with Gregory. Hugo who came up from Rome tells the synod that Gregory has gone completely out of control. He says the pope lives in the Lateran in sin with Mathilda of Tuscany a woman in her 20s who had been estranged from her husband and an acclaimed beauty . Moreover, at Christmas the prefect Censius, member of the Roman aristocracy had the pope apprehended, though Gregory managed to escape with the help of the populace.
It was the pope’s alleged hypocrisy that irritated the German bishops. These mighty prelates were tired of being harassed and harangued by the fanatic on the papal throne. No more did they want to be summoned to Rome to atone for things they believed were perfectly acceptable, like letting their canons get married or accepting financial obligations to the king upon investiture. And even more so if the pope himself failed to adhere to his own standards..
And so Henry IV in agreement with his bishops writes back to Gregory on January 24th, 1076 as follows:
Quote: “Henry, king not by force, but by the grace of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope, but false monk. S
You deserve such greeting for the disorder you created. There is no rank in the Church which you have not made to partake in shame instead of honour, in curse instead of blessing. For, to mention only a few, most important instances out of so many; you have dared to lay hands on the leaders of the holy Church, the Lord’s anointed – the archbishops, the bishops and priests; you have trampled them underfoot like slaves who do not know what their master is doing.; by crushing them have you endeared yourself to the commonest of people; you have regarded them all as ignorant, but yourself as omniscient. This knowledge, however, you have used not for edification but for destruction, so that we are justified in believing that St. Gregory, whose name you have arrogated to yourself, prophesied about you when he said, “The pride of him who has power becomes the greater the number of those who are subject to him, and he thinks that he himself can do more than all.”
And indeed we have endured all of this, being anxious to preserve the honour of the apostolic see; but you have understood our humility as fear, and therefore have not been afraid to rise up against the royal power given to us by God, daring to threaten to take it from us. As if we had received our kingdom from you! As if the kingdom and the dominion were in your hands and not in God’s!
And this, although our Lord Jesus Christ has called us to kingship, but has not called you to the priesthood. For you have ascended by the following steps. For by cunning, which the monastic profession abhors, have you obtained money; by money, favour; by the sword, the throne of peace. And from the throne of peace you have disturbed the peace by arming the subjects against those who rule over them; by teaching, that our bishops, called by God, are to be despised; by taken offices from priests and giving it laymen, by permitting them to depose or condemn those who had been ordained as teachers by the laying on of the bishops’ hands.
And you even laid hand on me, who, though unworthy to be among the anointed, yet have been anointed to the kingdom; on me, who, as the tradition of the holy fathers teaches, may not be deposed for any crime unless, God forbid, I have departed from the faith, on me who is subject to the judgment of God alone.
The wisdom of the holy fathers even left Julian, the Apostate, not to be tried by themselves, but left it to God alone, to judge and depose him. For even the true pope, Peter, exclaims, “Fear God, honor the King.”
But you, who do not fear God, dishonor Him in me whom He has appointed. Therefore St. Paul, when he spared no angel of heaven if he had preached otherwise, did not exempt even you who teach otherwise on earth. For he says, “If anyone, neither I nor an angel from heaven, preaches any other gospel than that which was preached to you, he will be condemned. You then, condemned by this curse and by the judgment of all our bishops and by our own, descend and renounce the apostolic chair which you have usurped. Let another ascend the throne of St. Peter, who shall not exercise violence under the guise of religion, but shall teach the sound doctrine of St. Peter. I, Henry, king by the grace of God, say to you, together with all our bishops, descend, descend or be damned forever.”
Translation by myself
This is the theological equivalent of parking tanks of the Vatican lawn.. Both sides are fighting for survival. Henry for his control of the Imperial church and hence the resources of the empire, Hildebrand for what he believes are the rights of the holy church and its leader, the bishop of Rome, and a bit about his own survival. I guess. In January 1076 a betting man would have put his money on the Panzerfahrer Heinrich who had the bishops and their resources on his side. But that will turn out a poor bet as we will see.
I know I wanted to get all the way to Canossa today, but that was not to be. This episode is already far too long. So, you will have to wait until next week. I hope you are going to join us again.
Episode 33 – Canoss aFinally
Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 33 – Canossa finally
It has taken a while but today we will finally get to that famous moment reproduced in thousands of German schoolbooks and maybe the only event of the Middle Ages most Germans have heard about.
Before we start a just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to James, Sean and Stefan who have already signed up.
Last week we ended with the famous letter of Henry IV to Pope Gregory VII that began with an insult: Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk and ended with a call for him to step down.
That letter arrived in February 1076 when Pope Gregory had convened bishops from near and far for his annual Lenten Synod in Rome. Gregory steps up to the altar and reads the letter of the king of the Romans. And then he reads another letter, sent by the German bishops making the same points and including the same insults that Henry IV had hurled at the holy father. And finally, he reads another letter sent by Henry IV to the people of Rome asking them to rise up against the false monk. Finally the imperial envoy addresses the congregation and demands the deposition of Gregory VII from the Synod. They promise that Henry IV will personally come to Rome at Pentecost and bring a new Pope.
10 out of 10 for Cujones, but not exactly mensa-level intelligent. Who will be at the Lenten Synod called by Pope Gregory VII? Wild guess, mostly people who support Gregory VII. The bishops and other prelates who are opposed to Gregory VII have declared him not pope but a false monk, which makes it unlikely they would put in an appearance.
No surprise then that the hostile audience erupts, and the royal envoys are lucky to get out alive. Allegedly they had to hide behind the billowing papal robes to avoid getting stabbed.
Gregory’s response was swift and unflinching.
First, he deposes Archbishop Siegfried of Mainz, the most senior German clergyman. Siegfried is excommunicated and suspended from all episcopal duties. He then lists all other bishops who he suspects of voluntarily supporting Henry IV and declares them equally suspended. The remaining bishops have until August 1 to declare allegiance to the pope by messenger or in person. Failure to do so means automatic suspension. And the bishops of Lombardy are suspended wholesale. To put that into perspective, Gregory has just dismissed 26 bishops out of ~45, some of whom were actually in prison at that point in time. I would call that bold.
As for Henry IV Gregory declares the followingLquote)
O holy Peter, prince of the apostles, mercifully incline your holy ears to us and hear me, your servant, whom you have nurtured from childhood and whom you have delivered to this day from the hand of the wicked, who have hated and hate me because of my fidelity to you.
You are my witness together with my Lady, the Mother of God, and your brother amongst all the saints, St. Paul, that your holy Roman Church has forced me against my will to be its leader; bear witness that I have not thought of ascending your throne by force, and that I would rather have ended my life as a pilgrim than to ascend your throne by worldly means for the sake of earthly glory.
And therefore, I believe that it is by your grace and not by my own deeds that it has pleased you and pleases you that all the Christian people, who are committed to you, obey me, your duly ordained representative on earth. And so to me has been given by your grace the power to bind and to loose in heaven and on earth.
Based on this holy commission, in the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the honour and safety of your Church, I deprive, by your power and authority, Henry the King, son of Henry the Emperor, who has risen up against your Church with outrageous insolence, of dominion over the whole realm of the Germans and over Italy.
And I release all Christians from the bonds of the oath they have taken or will take to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king. For it is fitting that he who seeks to diminish the honour of your church should himself forfeit the honour that was his due.
And since he has refused to obey us as a Christian, has not returned to the God whom he had forsaken, has consorted with the excommunicated, has committed manifold iniquities, has spurned my commandments which, as you testify, I gave him for his own salvation, has separated himself from your church and has strived to tear it asunder – I therefore bind him in your stead with the chain of the Anathema. And I bind him in such a way that people of all nations may know and have proof that you are Peter and that the Son of the living God has built his church on your rock, a rock the gates of hell cannot overpower.(end quote)
This is not the first time a ruler has been excommunicated. The first time was in 390 AD when bishop Ambrose of Milan banned the emperor Theodosius for the massacre of Thessaloniki. And after that, kings are being excommunicated in surprising regularity. French rulers tend to have attracted more excommunications than most, usually for sexual misdemeanours, but equally King Harold II of England, of Hastings fame and Duke Boleslav the Bold of Poland have been excommunicated. By 1076 Gregor VII himself had already threatened to excommunicate Phillip I of France and had in fact excommunicated Robert Guiscard.
So that was not a surprise and probably well within the range of outcomes Henry IV had expected.
What is different in this ban are two things. First, Gregory “deprives” Henry of “dominion over The realm of the Germans and Italy” and he follows it up with: “I release all Christians from the bonds of the oath they have taken or will take to him”. That had not happened before, ever. Because so far, the church had stuck to the words of Jesus reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.
In Gregory’s mind the concept of an all-powerful papacy that is owed obedience by everyone, a pope whose feet are to be kissed by kings and emperors and who can depose bishops, kings and emperors supersedes this quaint new testament notion.
Henry IV had no lofty concepts. He trusted in the language of spears and swords. Given the Roman populace was unwilling to rise up against Gregory, he decided that he would have to come down by himself to sort things out. He announced that he would raise an army and go down to Rome by Pentecost to receive the long overdue imperial coronation, be it from a chastened Gregory or another Pope.
If I had been a betting man in February 1076, I would have given Pope Gregory a maximum of 6 months in office. Pretty much everything was stacked against him.
- Just 30 years before, Henry’s father had deposed not just one, but three popes.
- Henry is riding high on a major victory against his internal enemies the Saxons.
- The German bishops have nothing good to say about Gregory who he had harangued and harassed them for years. And most of these had been members of the Royal chancery under either Henry III or Henry IV.
- In Italy the Lombard bishops would provide an imperial army free passage south.
- Matilda of Tuscany may be supportive of the papacy, but if the king would travel in the company of Matilda’s husband, Godfrey the Hunchback, some of her vassals may open their castles.
- And the Normans were no use right now as the relationship was a bit tense after they had began to nibble away at papal territory.
- No chance the French king would come to the pope’s aide since Gregory had been on the verge of excommunicating him as well.
- Only the German magnates could sway in their loyalty to the king if the king continued in his authoritarian manner. On the other hand, the magnates were the brothers and cousins of the bishops, so they would take their steer from them.
No chance then? Well, the reason I am not a betting man is because my bets never work, and this one would have also spectacularly failed.
That things may not go as planned became clear quite quickly when Henry received note of the ban in March in Goslar. Enraged he asks the bishop Pibo of Toul who happened to be there to excommunicate Gregory at mass the next morning. In the night Pibo of Toul and another bishop fled the royal palace and disappeared from court.
That is just a foretaste of what happens over the next 8 months. The German bishops change their mind, almost all of them, wholesale. Why that happened has been discussed amongst German historians for centuries, starting with Otto of Freising, the 12th century chronicler.
As ever so often, there is not one reason for such a rapid acceleration of the wheel of fortune.
The first issue was that the line of argument that Henry IV and the bishops had taken was flawed. They basically argued that Gregory had not been pope, because he had not been elected using the proper process. That “proper process” was established only very recently at the 1059 Lateran Synod which ruled that the pope should be elected by the cardinals, not by the population of Rome. Moreover this proper process had not been fully observed in the 2 previous elections either. Plus Gregory had been pope for three years already without anyone having made a fuzz about it.
And crucially, when the bishops looked at it in the cold hard light of the day, they realised that this argument could backfire quite badly. You see, Gregory even if his election may have been flawed, he had been properly ordained. And that situation applied to many of the bishops as well who had received their seats by appointment of the king rather than a free election by the cathedral canons. Some may have even given financial compensation to the king in one way or another that could now be seen as Simony. The bishops relied on the fact that they had been correctly ordained, which superseded any election flaws. The fear is that when the bishops establish a precedent that an incorrectly elected pope is no pope, where would they be?
What made this worse was that Henry IV had not been particularly good at choosing bishops who commanded the respect of their congregation. Some he pushed through against significant opposition amongst the cathedral chapter. Furthermore, Cities had grown both in wealth as well as in self-confidence. And as the merchants were getting richer they found the bishop’s haughtiness and lack of commercial dynamism chafing. At the same time the urban population in general demands a reform of the church. They want properly trained and morally upstanding clergymen looking after their souls. I already mentioned the uprising of the merchants of Cologne in 1074 and the Pataria expelling the archbishop of Milan. If you are a German bishop with a restless urban population, the last thing you want is that the pope appoints a new bishop who brings the city population behind him and expels you for good.
And then there is the simple point that o.k. you say Gregory is not pope. So, who is pope then? If this one is not pope, why did you not appoint a new one? Doesn’t that suggest you may want to reconcile with Gregory after all and where will I, the humble bishop of small Rhenish town, be then. I do not want to be the guy Gregory will come down like a ton of bricks later, so better keep a low profile and see where the wind is blowing.
The before last point comes down to Henry IV’s behaviour. After the battle on the Unstrut he had the opportunity to show mercy and get to a lasting arrangement with the Saxons. But Henry did not look for reconciliation. He wanted to continue his policy of territorial consolidation through the construction of castles. Fun fact, his great enemy Otto of Northeim had swapped sides and was now his administrator in Saxony, rebuilding the castles he had railed against just 2 years earlier. That meant the Saxons remained hostile and the other dukes, counts and bishops remained concerned about the kings authoritarian streak.
And finally, there are signs from heaven. Bishop William of Utrecht, Henry IV. greatest cheerleader has been hurling insults and accusations of lewd behaviour at him from the chancel of his church, claiming the excommunication was null and void. Days after he did this at the great easter mass in the presence of the king, William had to take to his bed. He suddenly became terribly ill and succumbed even before he could receive the last rites. The abbot of Cluny reported that bishop William had appeared to him in a dream and had said that he was now suffering in the deepest recesses of hell. Another supporter, the bishop Eppo of Zeits who fell from his horse and drowned in a shallow stream, because Saint Kilian wanted him to drink Water and not always wine.
With the bishops wavering Henry found it impossible to muster an army to push through his claim in Rome. The Reichstag he had scheduled for May took place but many major players like the dukes of Swabia, Bavaria and Carinthia were absent, so were a number of important bishops.
Gregory waded into the debate by sending letters to all and sundry explaining the excommunication and finally putting proper canonical law arguments on the table, presumably developed by his chancery since he himself was no great lawyer. In a smart move he empowered those bishops that had been loyal to the pope to immediately release others from the ban, provided they were repentant and avoided communion with the king henceforth. That allowed the episcopal opposition around the Archbishop of Salzburg to pull in more and more bishops
At the same time the situation in Saxony tensed up.. Some of the bishops, unsure where this would all go did release the Saxon leaders that they had held in prison on behalf of the king. Once released these leaders and some who had managed to escape the wrath of the king gathered together and began a guerrilla war. Otto von Northeim changed sides again and handed the Harzburg over to the rebels, wiping out most of the gains of the previous year.
The bishops who had been firmly on Gregory’s side from the start met up with the Southern German dukes, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, Welf IV of Bavaria and Berthold of Zaehringen. These magnates concluded the king had not changed after the Saxon campaign and was still overbearing and autocratic. Something needed to be done to preserve the ancient rights and privileges.
At the heart of the opposition’s debates was the question whether they still owed the King obedience under the oaths they had sworn. The oath of fealty was the glue that held early medieval society together. The lord would give a fief to his knight in exchange for the oath of fealty. That was a good deal because breaking an oath was an unpardonable sin that would condemn you to hell, no ifs or buts.
Around 1070 this line in the sand began shifting.
We already heard in Otto of Northeim’s speech of 1073, that an oath was no longer sacrosanct. Otto said that he was no longer bound by his the oath to Henry IV, because the king had stopped being a king and had turned into a tyrant.
We have also seen Gregory relieving the congregation of Constance from their oath to the bishop in 1075. And now the pope has released everyone from their oath to the king.
This erosion of the value of oaths will be one of the significant outcomes of the investiture controversy that changed Western Europe for ever.
In October 1076 all the magnates and bishops of Germany came together in Trebur to debate how peace and unity of the kingdom could be maintained. Magnates who had been sworn enemies for a long time such as Otto of Northeim and Welf IV reconciled in the interest of peace.
This meeting was the first Reichstag where the king was absent. Not completely absent, he was across the Rhine in the castle of Oppenheim overlooking the gathering. But, as he was excommunicated, he was not allowed in the debates. That fact says more clearly than anything that Henry IV. had lost the argument. If he was seen as excommunicated, the man who excommunicated him, Gregory VII must be the true pope.
Some magnates wanted to go through with Gregory’s order, formally declare Henry IV. deposed and elect a new king. They even mustered their troops to cross the Rhine and attack the King. But, deposing the king and absolving everyone from their sworn obligations was still a step too far for many. There were also the papal legates who advocated for a more measured approach probably getting cold feet over the fundamental change the letters had unleashed.
Hence the conclusion was a compromise: Henry was ordered to write to Gregory and declare that he would henceforth be obedient to the Lord Pope. Further they decided that they would elect a new king, unless Henry would be able to get released from the papal ban within a year and a day from his excommunication, i.e., before early February. The magnates invited Gregory to come to a Reichstag in Augsburg on February 2nd to decide whether Henry could remain as king.
Until this decision Henry had to give up his royal insignia and dismiss his remaining supporters and live like a private individual. And that he did. He left the site of his humiliation with a small group of supporters and goes to Speyer where he spends the next few weeks thinking what he can still do.
As you can see, within less than a year did Henry IV. go from undisputed ruler to excommunicated private citizen shunned by everyone.
There was only one way out and that was to get the ban lifted. The only person who could lift the ban was pope Gregory VII. Henry needed to meet Gregory before Gregory reached Augsburg or all will be lost.
A few days before Christmas Henry, his wife Bertha and his little son set off from Speyer for Italy. Not a single one of his nobles is with them. And along the way only few of his closest supporters would provide the travellers with food and horses. He is so ostracised that even his bishops and advisors who had also been excommunicated and who also tried to get to Italy and get relief refused to travel with him.
The dukes of Swabia, Bavaria and Carinthia who controlled the main alpine passes had them closed to the king, which is why he diverted to Besancon and further on the Mont Cenis. Mont Cenis you may remember was the one alpine pass not under control of the German duchies but held by Bertha’s parents, the counts of Savoy. I think I said a few episodes ago that this will matter later, and here it does. Without this alpine pass Henry would never have made it to Italy and his reign would have ended there and then. Son-in-law or not, the passage is however not free. Henry has to grant his mother- in-law the last bits of the kingdom of Burgundy that bore some similarity to imperial overlordship.
Lambert of Hersfeld said that the winter of 1077 was so persistently cold that one could walk across the frozen Rhine River from November to March. And that meant the pass across the alps was frozen too.
But there was no time to waste. Henry hired some locals who knew ways to get across even in the depth of winter. The guides led them up to the top of the pass. But on the other side with the road covered with ice, descend became difficult. They slid down the mountain on the hands and knees, held on by their guides. The horses were at times hoisted down the path or slid down the hill with their legs tied up, many died. The queen and her ladies in waiting were put on oxhides and toboggened down into the valley.
Once the king arrived in the plains of Piemont, the bishops of Italy flogged to his banner and within a short period of time Henry was in command of a serious army. The Italian bishops were keen for Henry to go down to Rome and remove Pope Gregory by force of arms.
Gregory at the same time had begun his trip towards Augsburg when he heard about Henry’s arrival. Given the king was now in command of an army, the pope was unclear what would happen next. His ever-faithful friend Mathilda of Tuscany suggested for him to go into one of her strongest defences, the castle of Canossa. Canossa is by the way not just one castle as it is often described, but a veritable chain of fortifications consisting of 6 or seven major castles that protect the approaches to Canossa itself.
Militarily we are in a stalemate. Canossa is too well defended for the royal army to overcome. On the other hand, the Pope cannot travel to Augsburg when the royal army bocks his path.
Henry first needed a team that could intercede on his behalf. The main interlocutors were the Abbot Hugh of Cluny, one of the most significant representatives of the monastic reform movement and at the same time godfather of Henry IV. And second, the great countess Matilda of Tuscany. Matilda was loosely related to the emperor and -despite her clear allegiance to Gregory – still his vassal. These two were of immeasurable value to Henry IV. because other than everybody else at his court, Gregory trusted these two. Getting their support was not easy. Henry had to beg them to advocate his case, according to the Italian chronicler Donizio, on his knees. The artwork that I use for this season shows that scene, where Henry IV. begs Matilda and Hugh of Cluny to plead on his behalf before the pope.I doubt that there is another medieval image of a crowned ruler kneeling before a woman for political rather than sexual reasons.
Henry kicked off negotiations by asking the pope to release him from the ban on the grounds that the German princes had slandered him out of greed and that the pope should not believe all they say. To that Gregory responded that if his case was true, he could put it to the Reichstag in Augsburg. There the pope would weigh the claims of the princes and the king justly and according to the laws of the church. What Gregory did not say is that he had received a letter in Henry’s own hand that contained enough attacks on the honour of the papacy as laid down on the Dictatus Papae to depose him three times over.
So, Henry had to change his approach. Henry’s intermediaries, Matilda and Hugh explained that Henry would happily submit to the pope’s judgement but that the Reichstag in Augsburg was too late. By then he would have been under the ban for more than a year and a day and so would no longer be king and hence have no standing in the proceedings. All he asks for is to be released from the ban, after which he would obey the pope in all and everything. Even should the pope decide that he was to lose the kingdom for his sins, he would accept that judgement without rancour and vacate the throne.
Gregory responded to Matilda and Hugh that if Henry was indeed prepared to accept the Papal judgement, why doesn’t he hand over the crown and imperial regalia to him right now und declares himself unworthy of kingship.
That is the moment where Matilda of Tuscany and Hugh of Cluny gain their place in the history books. They appeal to the Holy father’s mercy, quoting Isaiha 42 where God tells his servant: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.” Thanks to the intervention of these two the pope finally allowed Henry to come and atone for his insults to the Holy Apostolic Church by showing obedience to the true Vicar of Christ.
Henry went to the castle of Canossa and I now hand over to Lambert of Hersfeld who describes the scene as follows (quote)
So he came as he was ordered, and since the castle was surrounded by a triple wall, he was taken into the perimeter of the second ring wall, while his entire retinue remained outside; and there he stood, after taking off the royal adornment, without any signs of royal dignity, displaying no pomp, barefoot, fasting from morning to evening, awaiting the pronouncement of the Roman pope. This he did on the second, this on the third day. Only on the fourth day was he let before him, and after many speeches and counter-speeches he was released from the ban. (unquote)
Gregory himself justified his actions by saying that the king’s tears “had moved all of those present there to such pity and compassion” that they wondered “at the unaccustomed hardness of our heart” and some were accusing him of cruelty if not tyrannical ferocity. And finally, he gave in against the constant supplications of those present and the persistency of his compunction.
I think the modern word is social pressure. Having a king kneeling in the front yard is something no 11th century person could ignore. Remember emperor Conrad II kneeling before his son Henry III begging to support him in his case against the duke of Carinthia. And what about emperor Henry II kneeling before his bishops asking for permission to create the bishopric of Bamberg…..it seems that the act of kneeling in the dirt is the sort of safe word in this Game of thrones where all persecution has to stop.
But these acts are very rarely spontaneous. They are -even if all participants claim the contrary – negotiated in the tiniest detail beforehand. The length of the penitence, the amount of crying, the depth of the bow, all that is set. I cannot get my head around the idea that the penitence in Canossa was any different. They had been negotiating for days, and assuming Gregory’s claim that he had exchanged legates since before Henry crossed the alps, probably for weeks before the famous scene took place.
And if that had been negotiated then the second part of the event, the conditions of readmittance had also been negotiated beforehand. Here is how Lambert of Hersfeld describes them (quote)
He (that would be Henry IV.) was to meet in a general assembly on any day and at any place that the pope might determine. After the German princes had been summoned, he was to to answer the charges that were brought against him. The pope, if he thought Ito be right, would sit in the judge’s chair to decide the matter. After the judge’s decision Henry was either to keep the kingdom if he cleared himself of the accusations, or to lose it without resistance should the accusations proved to be true, and he was declared unworthy of the royal dignity according to the laws of the Church. Irrespective of whether he would keep or lose the kingdom, he would not take revenge on any man for the humiliation;
Until the day when his case would be heard in open court, he should not use any adornment of royal splendour, nor carry any signs of royal dignity; he should do nothing in regard to the administration of the state according to the usual custom of law, and nothing he did should have validity; finally, except for the collection of the royal income, which he himself and his family need for their maintenance, none of the royal demesne should be used; also, all who have sworn allegiance to him should be released from the fetters of their oath. Rupert bishop of Bamberg and Ulrich of Godesheim and the others, by whose evil promptings he had ruined himself and the kingdom, he should remove forever from his entourage.
If he again becomes powerful and newly strengthened in the kingdom after the accusations have been refuted, he should nevertheless always be subject to the Roman pope and be obedient to his commandments. (and further) …finally, if he were to act contrary to any of these obligations, the release from the ban now so ardently desired will be null and void,….and the princes of the realm should then, without being required to undertake any further investigation, and freed from all obligation of the oath, choose another king….
Hmm, really. Did Henry really sign over all his rights to the pope, agree to be non-king until his judgement is delivered and accept that he would automatically be excommunicated if he were to fail against any of this long list of obligations?
Not likely. Gregory VII wrote to the German princes from Canossa a few days later justifying the loosening of the ban and there he only mentions two commitments,
- that Henry swore to stand trial before the pope on the accusations brought by the princes, on a day and time of the Pope’s choosing, and
- That he gives safe passage to the pope and all his envoys.
That summary by Gregory is a lot more convincing. After all, Henry had an army waiting below Canossa that could besiege and ultimately depose the pope. So, he wasn’t without options. And equally if Lambert was right and Henry had signed up to these kinds of restrictions, why wouldn’t Gregory mention them to the German princes who were pretty upset about Gregory removing the ban?
This peace agreement was than sworn upon, not by the King himself but by his negotiators, Matilda of Tuscany, Adelheid of Savoy, some German bishops and Italian princes and last but not least Abbot Hugh of Cluny, who as a monk would not swear but promises to guarantee Henry’s future adherence to the agreement.
After that the pope celebrated mass to which Henry was admitted and where he was offered holy communion, whereby his ban was lifted. After that the party set down for a meal, a meal where Henry sat glumly at the popes table, scratching his fingernails into the tabletop.
The next day, Henry travelled back to Germany. Henry himself never mentioned what happened in this forbidding castle in Northern Italy. We do not know what he felt or said when he returned into the cold fresh air of this winter’s morning in January 1077. I have a good idea, but this being a family show, there is no way I can share it.
As we said many times before, images matter and even more so in the Middle Ages. The Image of an emperor kneeling in the snow begging the pope to give him his ancestral kingdom back has been reproduced over and over and will stick in people’s minds until today. Whether Canossa was a clever move by Henry IV. to thwart his enemies or whether it was a capitulation does not really matter. What the world saw was that the spiritual power of the papacy had subjected the most powerful of temporal rulers. That puts a wedge into the notion that the church and the world are one and the same, as had been the belief since Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman empire. The separation of church and state will not take place for another 700 plus years, but it is here in the frozen soil of the Emilia Romagna that the seed of modernity is planted.
I will dedicate a whole episode to the repercussions of Canossa and the events that follow when the season comes to an end. But next week we will first travel with Henry IV. back across the alps to Germany where his enemies do not care one iota that he is no longer excommunicated. They elect another king and the war of words turns into a war of swords. I hope to see you then.
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I am a history geek with no academic qualification in the field but a love for books and stories. I do this for fun and my personal self-aggrandisement.
I have been born, raised and educated in Germany but live in the UK for now over 20 years with my wife and two children. My professional background is in law, management consulting and banking. History has always been a hobby as are sailing, travelling, art, skiing and exercise (go BMF!).
My view of history is best summarised by Gregory of Tours (539-594): “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad”. History has no beginning and no end and more importantly, it has no logic, no pattern and no purpose . But that does not mean there isn’t progress and sometimes we humans realise that doing the same thing again and again hoping for a different outcome is indeed madness. The great moments in history are those where we realise that we cannot go on as we were and things need to change. German history – as you will hopefully see – is full of these turning points, some good, some bad!