Pope Gregory VII & Henry IV

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Pope Gregory VII was a great reformer who tried to reassert the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic Church in daily life. This put him in conflict with the most powerful ruler of the time: the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV

Church and State

In a world controlled by religion and by powerful kings and emperors, who should have ultimate authority: the men of the church or the emperor? This conflict between religious and political leaders has been a constant theme throughout history and one of the most emblematic examples is the conflict between Pope Gregory VII, leader of the Roman Catholic Church and Emperor Henry IV, leader of the Holy Roman Empire.

The conflict between these two powerful men would go on for years and result in Henry IV being excommunicated, or kicked out the church, not once but twice. And it would also result in Gregory VII being exiled from Rome.

The Holy Roman Empire

Henry IV was Holy Roman Emperor from 1056 to 1105 CE. Now, the Holy Roman Empire should not be confused with the Roman Empire (I know it's confusing). The Roman Empire, which conquered most of Europe and was based in the Italian city of Rome, began falling apart around 500 CE, leading to the long stretch of time known as the Middle Ages. During this time, smaller kings and self-appointed emperors battled for territory but no one came close to the size and influence of the Roman Empire.

The closest anyone came was the Holy Roman Empire, which was established around 800 CE and existed in various forms for the next 1000 years. Despite the name, the Holy Roman Empire's base of power was in Germany and its leaders typically came from this area. It got the name because the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, received the blessing of the pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church. Ever after, the church and the empire were intertwined, but often in conflict.

The Reformer

Cardinal Hildebrand of Sovana was elected pope in 1073 and took the name of Pope Gregory VII. Gregory quickly built a reputation as a strong reformer and one of his major projects was to reassert the primacy and power of the pope over political leaders, including the emperor.

At this moment, Henry IV and the Holy Roman Empire were relatively weak. In the middle of fighting the Saxon Rebellion, Henry needed the church's support, so he agreed to submit to Gregory's authority and to cut ties with members of his council who had been banned by Gregory. However, as soon as the rebellion was put down, Henry effectively went back on his submission to Gregory and tried to reassert his authority, including setting up a government in northern Italy.

This didn't sit well with Gregory, who tore into Henry in a notorious letter dated December 8, 1075 in which he detailed Henry's broken promises and hinted that they could be grounds for excommunication, the most serious punishment in the Catholic religion which essentially amounts to being kicked out the church.

Furious, Henry called a council in January 1076 that is now known as the Synod of Worms (named for the unfortunately named town of Worms, Germany, where it was held). Henry gathered several cardinals who did not like Gregory's reforms and they decided to depose Gregory and elect a new pope.

Not to be outdone, Gregory responded by following through on his threat of excommunication, which also stripped him of his title of emperor. With both pope and emperor supposedly stripped of their authority, it came down to who the people, and especially the German princes who made up Henry's power base, would follow. Fortunately for Gregory, Henry was unpopular and many of the princes recognized Gregory's order.

A (Temporary) Reconciliation

Henry, however, caught a break when the bickering princes couldn't choose his successor. He took advantage of the delay in naming a new emperor by asking Gregory for absolution. Henry made an arduous and humiliating journey, known as the Walk to Cassona, to ask for forgiveness. Faced with this sign of repentance, Gregory rescinded Henry's excommunication.

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