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Pope Gregory VI: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Popes have to deal with a lot of drama during their reigns, but not all of them have to deal with it very long. In this lesson, we'll talk about the brief papacy of Pope Gregory VI and see why he only held the title for a single year.

Pope Gregory VI

Being pope is something that is usually done for life. When someone is elected as the Supreme Pontificate, the head of the Catholic Church, they are expected to hold that title until they die. Most do. However, there are some who abdicate the papal chair, either by their own decision or by force. This lesson is about one such pope. Pope Gregory VI controlled the papacy for only one year between his election in 1045 CE and his abdication in 1046 CE. It certainly wasn't the longest reign in papal history, but it is undeniably entertaining. Who says the papacy is without family drama?

Pope Gregory VI
Gregory VI

Rise to the Papacy

Pope Gregory VI was born John Gratian in Rome, sometime in the late 10th or very early 11th century. We know little about his early life, and he first really appears in the records once receiving the title of Archpriest of St. John by the Latin Gate within the Catholic Church. As a church leader, Gratian was a highly respected man with a reputation for strong moral character.

So, how did he end up as pope? Well, in 1032 Pope Benedict IX was elected to the papacy. Benedict IX was only about 20 years old at the time and was thrust into the position by his wealthy and politically powerful family. By all accounts, Benedict didn't really want to be pope and began confiding in his godfather, John Gratian. Benedict's papacy was characterized by rumors of the Pope's numerous affairs and strictly un-Pope-like behavior. Eventually, Benedict told his godfather that he had fallen in love and wanted to abandon the papacy so that he could get married. He asked Gratian if this was allowed. Gratian told him that it was possible, and Benedict offered to hand over the papacy to his godfather…for a price. Eventually, Gratian agreed to pay Benedict's fee (which was based on the money the family had spent to get Benedict elected) and assumed the papacy himself.

Pope Benedict IX
Pope Benedict IX

Gregory VI as Pope

In 1045 CE, John Gratian became Pope Gregory VI. Although Benedict had sold him the papacy, almost all scholars agree that Gratian's motives were pure; he wanted to restore the legitimacy of the papal office and grant the unworthy Benedict a way out. So, Gregory VI assumed the papacy with the best of intentions, but unfortunately, his actions did not pacify the growing conflict within the Church.

While there were many who supported the rise of the highly-respected Gratian to Pope, others had arisen to claim the papal seat as their own. The Bishop of Sabina had been declared as Pope Sylvester III by a group of nobles who had supported his claims to the papacy back in 1044 when Benedict first tried to abdicate. Even worse, Benedict himself returned and demanded the return of his power. Apparently, the woman he left the papacy for had refused to marry him. So, now Rome was divided. Some supported Gregory VI, some supported the Bishop of Sabina, and some supported former Pope Benedict.

The Church was divided, and leaders within it decided that this matter required external attention. So, they asked German king and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, to intercede. Henry III entered Italy in 1046, and the papal candidates were called to meet him at the Council of Sutri, north of Rome. Gregory VI and Sylvester III both hastily rode to meet the emperor. Benedict did not.

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