Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII

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Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII

"Letter to Gregory VII," January 24, 1076

Published in Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, 1910

"First Deposition and Banning of Henry IV," February 22, 1076

Published in Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, 1910

"Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand [Gregory], at present not pope but false monk."

From "Letter to Gregory VII"

D uring the early part of the Middle Ages, popes—that is, the spiritual and political leaders of the Catholic Church—enjoyed good relations with kings in Western Europe. This had been the case since the time of Clovis, king of the Franks, and the strong relationship became stronger in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne (SHAHR-luh-main; ruled 768–814) as "Emperor of the Romans."

That title suggested that the Western Roman Empire, which had died out in 476, would gain a new life through the combined powers of Church and state. This new Roman Empire, however, remained a vaguely defined political unit. Eventually it was called the Holy Roman Empire, and as such it brought together a number of smaller states within what is now Germany and surrounding countries. Holy Roman emperors, however, always had to struggle to maintain their power, facing conflict on the one hand from various princes and dukes within their kingdoms, and on the other hand from the popes in Rome.

The conflict with the papacy (PAY-puh-see), or the office of the pope, was particularly significant, because both popes and emperors claimed to be the leaders of Western Europe. During the latter part of the 1000s, this struggle came to a head in the Investiture Controversy. "Controversy" is another term for conflict, and "investiture" referred to the power of Holy Roman emperors to invest or appoint local church leaders. Chief among these church leaders were bishops, who had authority over all the priests and believers in a given city or region.

Henry IV

Henry IV (1050–1106) became king of Germany in 1056, when he was only six years old. Traditionally, kings of Germany also became Holy Roman Emperor, and thus Henry's reign as emperor dates from 1056 as well, but he was not crowned until 1084. Until he came of age, Henry's mother Agnes ruled in his place as regent; by 1066, however, sixteen-year-old Henry was in charge.

Henry's reign was marked by struggle, first with nobles—rulers within his kingdom who had inherited title and lands, but held less power than the king—from the German region of Saxony. From 1073 to 1088, he fought a long war with the Saxon nobles, but in the midst of this he became caught up in a conflict with an even more powerful figure: the pope.

The years from 1076 to 1084 were hard ones for Henry. First he was excommunicated, or removed from the Church, by Pope Gregory VII. Then, in 1077, he was allowed to return to the Church, but three years later he was defeated in war by the Duke of Swabia, a region in Germany. Gregory excommunicated him again in 1080, but in 1084 Henry had Gregory removed from power.

Eventually Henry had to face more conflict, this time from within his own family. In 1093, his sons rebelled against him, and in 1105 one of them had him imprisoned. Henry escaped, but died soon afterward.

On December 8, 1075, Pope Gregory VII (ruled 1073–85), also known as Hildebrand, sent orders to Emperor Henry IV (ruled 1056–1106) that he should stop appointing bishops. Henry responded with a blistering letter, and Gregory in turn issued an order telling Henry's subjects that they were no longer required to obey him.

Things to remember while reading the "Letter to Gregory VII" and the "First Deposition and Banning of Henry IV"

  • Both Henry's letter to Gregory, and Gregory's orders deposing Henry (that is, removing him from power) rely heavily on claims to rightful spiritual authority, and both men used passages from the Bible to back up their claims. Henry referred to the Old Testament practice of anointing, whereby a prophet of God poured oil over the head of someone God had chosen to be leader. Several passages in the Bible contain warnings to "touch not God's anointed." In the New Testament, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul commanded believers to submit to the authority of lawfully chosen kings, and though as Henry noted, a number of early Church leaders had said that Christians were not required to follow ungodly leaders, he claimed that he was not one of these.
  • In his orders condemning Henry, Gregory addressed St. Peter, or the Apostle Peter, who, according to Catholic tradition, was the first pope. Thus Gregory was in effect embracing what he believed was an unbroken line of authority that went back more than 1,000 years. This belief was based on a statement of Christ in the New Testament Book of Matthew, Chapter 16: speaking to Peter, whose name means "rock" in Greek, Jesus said that "upon this rock I will build my church." In the same passage, Christ also said that "whatsover is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsover is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven," also interpreted by Catholics as a command giving authority to Peter and those who followed him.
  • Henry mentioned two figures from the earlier history of the Church. Julian the Apostate (ruled 361–63) was a Roman emperor who rejected Christianity and tried to return Romans to the worship of their old gods such as Jupiter—hence the title of Apostate (uh-PAHS-tayt), meaning "betrayer." St. Gregory was Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great (ruled 590–604), one of the most admired leaders of the early Church. The statement quoted by Gregory can be interpreted to mean that when a ruler gains too much power, he is filled with pride and does not submit to God's authority—as Henry claimed the current Pope Gregory was doing.
  • Henry used the "royal we": instead of referring to himself in the first-person singular (I, me, mine), he spoke of himself in the plural. This was a tradition among kings and other people in authority, whose use of the plural meant that they saw themselves as representing their entire kingdom. When Henry wrote that he was "unworthy to be among the anointed," this was merely an attempt to appear modest: if he had really considered himself unworthy, he would not have challenged Gregory's authority.

"Letter to Gregory VII," January 24, 1076

Henry, king not throughusurpation but through the holyordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk.


Usurpation: The act of seizing power unlawfully.


Ordination: The act of being lawfully placed in a position or office.


Grade: Office or position.


Omitted: In this context, failed.


Benediction: Blessing.


Malediction: A curse.


Especial: Specific.


Archbishops: The leading bishops (figures in the Christian church assigned to oversee priests and believers) in an area or nation.


Trodden: Trampled.


Edification: Building up.

Apostolic see

Apostolic see: The papacy, or office of the pope.


Shunned: In this context, failed.


Divest: Remove.

Such greeting as this hast thou merited through thy disturbances, inasmuch as there is no grade in the church which thou hast omitted to make a partaker not of honour but of confusion, not of benediction but of malediction. For, to mention few and especial cases out of many, not only hast thou not feared to lay hands upon the rulers of the holy church, the anointed of the Lord—the archbishops, namely, bishops and priests—but thou hast trodden them under foot like slaves ignorant of what their master is doing. Thou hast won favour from the common herd by crushing them; thou hast looked upon all of them as knowing nothing, upon thy sole self, moreover, as knowing all things. This knowledge, however, thou hast used not for edification but for destruction; so that with reason we believe that St. Gregory, whose name thou has usurped for thyself, was prophesying concerning thee when he said: "The pride of him who is in power increases the more, the greater the number of those subject to him; and he thinks that he himself can do more than all." And we, indeed, have endured all this, being eager to guard the honour of the apostolic see; thou, however, has understood our humility to be fear, and hast not, accordingly, shunned to rise up against the royal power conferred upon us by God, daring to threaten to divest us of it. As if we had received our kingdom from thee! As if the kingdom and the empire were in thine and not in God's hand! And this although our Lord Jesus Christ did call us to the kingdom, did not, however, call thee to the priesthood. For thouhas ascended by the following steps. By wiles, namely, which the profession of monk abhors, thou has achieved money; by money, favour; by the sword, the throne of peace. And from the throne of peace thou hast disturbed peace, inasmuch as thou hast armed subjects against those in authority over them; inasmuch as thou, who wert not called, hast taught that our bishops called of God are to be despised; inasmuch as thou hast usurped for laymen and the ministry over their priests, allowing them to depose or condemn those whom they themselves had received as teachers from the hand of God through the laying on of hands of the bishops. On me also who, although unworthy to be among the anointed, have nevertheless been anointed to the kingdom, thou hast lain thy hand; me who as the tradition of the holy Fathers teaches, declaring that I am not to be deposed for any crime unless, which God forbid, I should have strayed from the faith—am subject to the judgment of God alone. For the wisdom of the holy fathers committed even Julian the apostate not to themselves, but to God alone, to be judged and to be deposed. For himself the true pope, Peter, also exclaims: "Fear God, honour the king." But thou who does not fear God, dost dishonour in me his appointed one. Wherefore St. Paul, when he has not spared an angel of Heaven if he shall have preached otherwise, has not excepted thee also who dost teach otherwise upon earth. For he says: "If any one, either I or an angel from Heaven, should preach a gospel other than that which has been preached to you, he shall be damned. " Thou, therefore, damned by this curse and by the judgment of all our bishops and by our own, [should] descend and relinquish the apostolic chair which thou has usurped. Let another ascend the throne of St. Peter, who shall not practise violence under the cloak of religion, but shall teach the sound doctrine of St. Peter. I Henry, king by the grace of God, do say unto thee, together with all our bishops: Descend, descend, to be damned throughout the ages.


Wiles: Tricks.

The throne of peace

The throne of peace: The papacy.


Called: In other words, ordained or placed in office by proper authority.


Laymen: Ordinary believers, as opposed to priests and others within the Church itself.


Depose: Remove.

The anointed

The anointed: Those chosen by God to fill a position of leadership.

Holy Fathers

Holy Fathers: Early Church leaders.


Apostate: Betrayer.

When he has not spared an angel of Heaven if he shall have preached otherwise

When he has not spared an angel of Heaven if he shall have preached otherwise: In other words, whose preaching has taken account of all special circumstances.


Damned: Condemned to hell.


Relinquish: Give up.


Ascend: Rise to.


Apostles: Religious figures sent out to teach, preach, and perform miracles.

My mistress the mother of God

My mistress the mother of God: The Virgin Mary.

Drew me to its helm against my will

Drew me to its helm against my will: In other words, "I became pope not because I wanted to, but because it was required of me."

"First Deposition and Banning of Henry IV," February 22, 1076

O St. Peter, chief of theapostles, incline to us, I beg, thy holy ears, and hear me thy servant whom thou has nourished from infancy, and whom, until this day, thou hast freed from the hand of the wicked, who have hated and do hate me for my faithfulness to thee. Thou, andmy mistress the mother of God, and thy brother St. Paul are witnesses for me among all the saints that thy holy Roman churchdrew me to its helm against my will; that I had no thoughtof ascending thy chair through force, and that I would rather have ended my life as apilgrim than, bysecular means, to have seized thy throne for the sake of earthly glory. And therefore I believe it to be through thy grace and not through my own deeds that it has pleased and does please thee that the Christian people, who have been especially committed to thee, should obey me. And especially to me, as thy representative and by thy favour, has the power been granted by God of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth. On the strength of this belief therefore, for the honour and security of thy church, in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I withdraw, through thy power and authority, from Henry the king, son of Henry the emperor, who has risen against thy church with unheard ofinsolence, the rule over the whole kingdom of the Germans and over Italy. And Iabsolve all Christians from the bonds of the oath which they have made or shall make to him; and I forbid any one to serve him as king. For it is fitting that he whostrives to lessen the honour of thy church should himself lose the honour which belongs to him. And since he hasscorned to obey as a Christian, and has not returned to God whom he had deserted—holdingintercourse withthe excommunicated; practisingmanifold iniquities; spurning my commands which, as thou dost bear witness, I issued to him for his own salvation; separating himself from thy church and striving to rend it—I bind him in thy stead with the chain of theanathema. And, leaning on thee, I so bind him that the people may know and have proof that thou art Peter, and above thy rock the Son of the living God hath built His church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.


Pilgrim: Someone who journeys to holy places.


Secular: Nonspiritual.


Insolence: Impudence or rudeness.


Absolve: Excuse.


Strives: Works.


Scorned: Refused.


Intercourse: Communication.

The excommunicated

The excommunicated: People who have been forced to leave the Church.


Manifold: Many.


Iniquities: Sins.


Spurning: Rejecting.


Anathema: Someone or something that is cursed and rejected.

What happened next …

After Gregory excommunicated him, or removed him from the Church, Henry lost the support of his nobles. Therefore in January 1077, in a symbolic act of humility and submission, he appeared at the castle of Canossa (kuh-NAH-suh) in northern Italy, where the pope was staying, and waited barefoot outside in the snow for hours until the pope forgave him. By then Henry was caught up in a war with the Duke of Swabia, a region in Germany, and Gregory tried to help the two settle the dispute; but in 1080, the same year that the Duke of Swabia defeated Henry, Gregory again excommunicated the emperor.

Pope Gregory VII

Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020–1085) was born with the name Hildebrand, and thus he was sometimes referred to as Gregory VII Hildebrand. He spent his early career as a monk, a figure within the Church who forsakes the world in order to pursue a life of prayer and meditation. Soon, however, he became involved in Church leadership, serving first as chaplain to Pope Gregory VI from 1045 to 1047.

When Gregory VI was removed from power on charges of simony (accepting money to appoint people to offices within the Church) and sent away to Germany, Hildebrand went with him. In 1049, however, he returned to Rome to serve as advisor to Pope Leo IX, and during the next quarter-century he served in a number of important functions. Finally, in 1075 he was elected pope himself.

Seeking to assert the authority of the popes over political leaders, Gregory quickly issued an order against lay investiture (appointment of Church officials by laymen, or people who were not priests or Church leaders themselves). This aroused

the anger of Emperor Henry IV, and the next decade was marked by an on-again, off-again struggle with Henry. Finally, in 1084, Henry removed Gregory from power. Gregory died a year later, but because the man who replaced him was judged an antipope (a false claimant to the title of pope), official Church history holds that Gregory remained rightful pope until his death.

Four years later, in 1084, Henry marched his troops into Rome and removed Gregory from power, replacing him with Clement III (c. 1025–1100), who was later judged by Church authorities as an antipope, or unlawful claimant on

the title of pope. Gregory died a year later, in exile under the protection of the Guiscard (gee-SKARD) family who controlled Sicily. Henry lived another twenty years, but he suffered a sad fate similar to that of Gregory: in 1105, one of his sons had him dethroned and imprisoned, and though he escaped, he died soon afterward.

Meanwhile the world moved on. A new pope, Urban II (ruled 1088–99), had inherited Gregory's enthusiasm for papal authority. He would launch the First Crusade (1095–99), a war to recapture the Holy Land, or Palestine, from the Muslims who controlled it. In so doing, he would greatly build up the power of the popes. For the next three centuries, the papacy would be the center of political authority in Western Europe.

Did you know …

  • When Henry went to visit Gregory in the castle at Canossa and beg his forgiveness, he was dressed in a plain woolen shirt with bare feet as a symbol of his submission to the pope. Gregory made him wait outside in the snow—it was January—for three days. Later, the expression "going to Canossa" came to symbolize an act of humility before a leader.
  • One of Gregory's most powerful supporters, and indeed one of the most significant female leaders of medieval Western Europe, was the princess Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115), owner of the castle at Canossa. She waged a number of wars against Henry between 1080 and 1106.
  • England had its own version of the Investiture Controversy, involving King William II (ruled 1087–1100) and Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1034–1109), one of the most important thinkers in medieval Europe. Later Anselm settled his differences with William's younger brother Henry I (ruled 1100–1135).

For More Information


Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 9: The Middle Ages. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Henderson, Ernest F., translator. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages. London: George Bell and Sons.

Jones, Terry and Alan Ereira. Crusades. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Web Sites

Medieval Sourcebook: Empire and Papacy. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook1l.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).