Pope Gregory VII: Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Amongst the most influential popes in European history was Pope Gregory VII. In this lesson, we'll talk about Pope Gregory VII's life and career and see how he influenced medieval society.

Pope Gregory VII

How did the Pope come to be such an important figure? Well, as the head of the Catholic Church, it sort of makes sense, however, the idea of the papacy has changed many times throughout history. Of the many popes throughout history, one that was both dramatically impacted by expectations of the past and influenced expectations to come was Pope Gregory VII_. As an 11th century pope, Gregory VII was one of the most powerful men in Medieval Europe, but what the power meant at the beginning of his time as Pope would mean something very different by the end.

Pope Gregory VII
Pope Gregory VII

Early Life

Gregory VII was born as Hildebrand around 1025 CE, most likely around southern Tuscany. He was educated in the church and was entered into church service as a chaplain for archpriest John Gratian. Gratian was later elected pope in 1045 but forced to abdicate a year later after being accused of having purchased the papacy from his predecessor. Hildebrand seemed to have been a very loyal chaplain and stayed with Gratian for the rest of the old man's life. The political crisis surrounding the abdication seems to have had an impact on Hildebrand, who supported Gratian's rightful claim to the papacy. As pope, Gratian had taken the name Gregory VI, partly in his honor, Hildebrand would later take the name Gregory VII.

Pope Gregory VI
Pope Gregory VI

After Gratian's death, Hildebrand went into service of another church leader who would also go on to be elected Pope Leo IX. Leo fully ordained Hildebrand, making him a subdeacon, and his ecclesiastic and political career continued. Hildebrand served as the papal representative in France and Milan, became close to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, and served under another four popes after Leo IX. After rising through the church ranks and becoming a very popular figure, Hildebrand was elevated by a combination of Roman citizens and clergy into the papal office in 1073, bypassing the election of the pope by the cardinals.

Hildebrand as Pope Gregory VII

As pope, Gregory VII came to believe his role was to increase the power of the Church in people's lives and in European politics, returning it to the glory days of old. This meant a few different things. For one, Gregory VII cracked down on Church policies and was particularly strict in enforcing the vow of chastity amongst church officials. It's important to note that a pope who had not taken this vow seriously was what led to the crisis where his mentor John Gratian bought the papacy. Gregory VII insisted that any disobedience against his order was literally heresy, and could be punished as harshly, even to the point that the Pope supported people's rebellions against bishops who did not heed his orders. For his staunch policies in restricting the Church, Gregory's actions are sometimes referred to as the Gregorian Reforms.

Pope Gregory VII and politics

The other part of Gregory VII's plans to return the Church to the center of European life involved politics. He had been deeply connected to politics for his entire career and began intentionally inserting the papacy into European political affairs. He negotiated treaties between warring kingdoms and declared that all kings owed him their fealty and obedience. Kings of the time, such as William I of England (often remembered as William the Conqueror) welcomed the Pope's support but were hesitant to declare absolute allegiance.

One of the biggest political moments of Pope Gregory VII's career involved emperor Henry IV, son of emperor Henry III. Pope Gregory had a good relationship with Henry III and reached out to Henry IV several times for support. However, in 1075, the Pope became angry with Henry IV for refusing to obey certain papal orders, such as the banishment of royal advisors that the Pope had excommunicated. Henry IV responded by meeting with the bishops of Germany, who largely opposed the Pope, where they called for Gregory VII's abdication and the election of a new pope. Gregory VII responded by excommunicating and deposing Henry IV, and proclaiming that all of the emperor's subjects no longer owed him their loyalty. This was the first time in history that a pope had deposed a king, and shows just how integrated politics and religion had become.

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