Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Clash in Canossa

Emperor Henry IV in front of Pope Gregory VII
A showdown between earthly and divine authority. A clash between the power of a king and a pope for the control of the clergy. In the winter of 1077, a showdown between the two most powerful men in Europe. An act to humiliate the other was committed. A clash of the titans at a castle in the Italian town of Canossa.

Medieval Europe saw two powers that dominate the continent. – the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope was the head of the Catholic Church. Situated in Vatican City, he rule the whole church with his power derived from St. Peter. The Holy Roman Emperor was the ruler of a federation of princely and free city states at the heart of Europe. It derived its power from the anointment of God and the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne.

In the 11th century, two ambitious and formidable men held the respective positions. In the Vatican, Pope Gregory VII became the Pope in 1073. His aim was to eliminate corruption in the church and remove the power of Kings in interfering with appointments in church positions. Meanwhile, Henry IV became the Holy Roman Emperor officially began his direct rule in 1065. His aim was to cement his rule and retain the unity of the Holy Roman Empire. Most especially, he wanted to keep the power of the Holy Roman Emperors in appointing church official. Hence, Henry’s interest attacks the interest of Pope Gregory. The situation was set for a battle of wills.

The conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor erupted over one issue. The issue was about lay investiture. Lay investiture was the ceremonial appointment of church officials, including archbishops, by the Holy Roman Emperor. Emperor Henry argued that he had the right of lay investiture because the Holy Roman Emperor was God’s anointed representative to rule the people. He based his argument on divine right. Meanwhile, Pope Gregory reasoned that only the Pope had the right to appoint church officials because his power came from St. Peter, the anointed head of the Church by Jesus Christ. And he added that the king was just layman and thus, had no power to officials in the clergy.

And so the battle over Lay Investiture began in 1075. In March of 1075, Pope Gregory VII released the Dictatus Papae that laid out the powers of the Pope in a 27 statements. Among the statements, the Pope clarified that he was the higher power than the Holy Roman Emperor. Following the 27 statements, Pope Gregory followed up by banning lay investiture. The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, was furious about the actions of the Pope. In retaliation, he convened all the bishops he had appointed previously to the city of Worms in January of 1076. The result of the meeting in Worms called for the removal of the Pope. Henry accused the Pope of taking the highest Pope in the church by not being elected in a conclave, violating the rights of Princes and nobles to lay investiture, and the seducing of an Italian noblewoman named Mathilda.

Outraged, Pope Gregory escalated the tensions by excommunicating Henry IV on February 22, 1076.  Excommunication meant that Henry could no longer receive the sacraments. A stigma was attach to individuals declared excommunicated by the Pope. With the excommunication from the Pope, Henry’s support based shrank. Bishops he appointed and nobles all began to withdrew support for him. In addition, Pope Gregory supported the revolt of Saxony against Henry.
Henry IV outside the castle in Canossa

With his position as Holy Roman Emperor threatened by his excommunication, Henry was forced to make peace with the Pope. On wintery January of 1077, Emperor Henry IV, along with his wife Bertha and son Conrad, walked across the Alps. Their destination was the Italian town of Canossa where a castle hosted Pope Gregory IV. Upon his arrival, Henry showed a humble appearance, wearing simple clothes. He waited at the gates of the castle. Pope Gregory VII, on the other hand, wanted to teach the Emperor a lesson and degrade his status. For three days, the Pope made Henry wait in the gates under the strong winter winds and snow. Henry endured the three days without any complains. Inside the castle, servants were begging the Pope to forgive and allow the Emperor into the castle. The Pope was obligated to forgive those who repented to their sins, he just wanted to embarrass the Emperor. And so, after the three day stand-off, the Pope allowed the entry of Henry and removed the order of excommunication. In exchange, however, Henry would drop the power of lay investiture. After the removal of excommunication, a banquet was held to celebrate the reconciliation between the two.

The so-called “Humiliation in Canossa,” however, changed little. Although Henry dropped claims over lay investiture, the issue did not saw a final conclusion in Canossa. Also, it did not signal the start of a brand new good relationship between Henry IV and Pope VII. Gregory VII, years later, excommunicated Henry IV once again after the Pope supported the removal of the Holy Roman Emperor and replacing him with the Duke of Saxony. Nevertheless, the Humiliation in Canossa display the formidable power and influence of the Pope during the Medieval Ages. An Emperor that commanded armies and great lands was made to wait outside a castle, under very cold conditions, by a man serving as successor of St. Peter.

See also:
April Fools' and Gregorian Calendar
How a Pope Spread Coffee?

Bauer, S. The History of the Medieval World: From Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W. W. Norton , 2010.

Beck, R. et. al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Florida: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co., 2012.

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