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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER II GREGORY VII AND LAY INVESTITURE

The Church And The Empire by D. J. Medley


[Sidenote: Gregory VII (1073-85).]

The crowd which attended the funeral of Alexander II acclaimed Hildebrand as his successor. The Cardinals formally ratified the choice of the people and contrary to the wish of the German bishops the young King Henry acquiesced.

[Sidenote: His rise to power.]

The new Pope was born a Tuscan peasant and educated in the monastery of St. Mary's on the Aventine in Rome. His uncle was the Abbot, and the monastery was Roman lodging of the Abbot of Cluny. Hildebrand entered the service of Gregory VI, whom he followed into exile. On his master's death in 1048 Hildebrand retired to Cluny. Hence he was drawn once more back to Rome by Pope Leo IX. From this moment his rise was continuous. Leo made him a Cardinal and gave him the charge of the papal finances. In 1054 he sent him as legate to France in order to deal with the heresy of Berengar of Tours. Hildebrand was no theologian, and he accepted a very vague explanation of Berengar's views upon the disputed question of the change of the elements in the Sacrament. On Leo's death Hildebrand headed the deputation which was sent by the clergy and people of Rome to ask Henry III to nominate his successor; and again, on the death of Victor II, although Hildebrand took no part in the choice of Stephen IX, it was he who went to Germany to obtain a confirmation of the election from the Empress-Regent. On Stephen's death Hildebrand's prompt action obtained the election of Nicholas II. It was probably Hildebrand who worded the decree regulating the mode of papal elections, and whose policy turned the Normans from troublesome neighbours into faithful allies and useful instruments of the papal aims. Nicholas rewarded him with the office of Archdeacon of Rome, which made him the chief administrative officer of the Roman see and, next to the Pope, the most important person in the Western Church. Hildebrand was the chief agent in the election of Alexander II; and the ultimate triumph of Alexander meant the reinstatement of Hildebrand at head-quarters. Thus it had long been a question of how soon the maker of Popes would himself assume the papal title, and this was settled for him by the acclamations of the people. In memory of his old master he took the title of Gregory VII. As yet he was only in deacon's orders. Within a month he was ordained priest; but another month or more elapsed before he was consecrated bishop.

[Sidenote: Opportunity of reform.]

At last the individual who was most identified in men's minds with the forward movement in the Church was the acknowledged head of the ecclesiastical organisation in the West. For more than twenty years he had been at headquarters intimately knowing and ultimately directing the course of policy. It was mainly by his exertions that the Church was now officially committed to the views of the Cluniac reformers. Yet so much opposition had been called forth as to show that the success of the party hitherto had depended merely on the circumstances of the moment. The time seemed to have arrived when matters should be brought to an issue. The continued existence of the Roman factions and the power of Henry III had made compromise necessary, and the general result of the reformers' efforts upon the Church had been inappreciable. But the lapse of time had done at least two things -- it had cleared the issue and it had brought the opportunity.

[Sidenote: Direction in which reform should move.]

The Church was so entirely enmeshed in the feudal notions of the age that at first it was not very clear to the reformers where it would be most effective to begin in the process or cutting her free. But by this time it was seen that the real link which bound the Church to the State was the custom by which princes took it on themselves to give to the new bishop, in return for his oath of homage, investiture of his office and lands by the presentation of the ring which symbolically married him to his Church, and of the pastoral staff which committed to him the spiritual oversight of his diocese. Probably there was not a single prince in Western Europe who pretended to confer on the new bishop any of his spiritual powers; but the two spheres of the episcopal work had become inextricably confused, and in the decay of ecclesiastical authority the lay power had treated the chief ecclesiastics as mainly great officers of State and a special class of feudal baron. In the eyes of the reformers the entire dealing of the King with the bishops was an act of usurpation, nay, of sacrilege. Ecclesiastics owed to the sovereign of the country the oath of fealty demanded of all subjects. But for the rest, neither bishop, abbot, nor parish priest could be a feudal vassal. The land which any ecclesiastic held by virtue of his office had been given to the Church; the utmost claim that any layman could make regarding it was to a right or rather duty of protection. If the Church was to be restored to freedom, investiture with ring and staff, and the control of the lands during vacancy of an ecclesiastical office must all be claimed back for the Church herself. The oath of homage would then naturally disappear, and there would no longer be that confusion of spheres which had resulted in the laicisation and the degradation of the Church.

[Sidenote: Henry IV and the German clergy.]

Moreover, the moment was propitious for asserting these views to the fullest extent. The chief represenative of lay authority was no longer a powerful Emperor nor even a minor in the tutelage of others. He was a King of full age whose wayward, not to say vicious, courses had alienated large numbers of his people. It is true that Henry IV never had much chance of becoming a successful ruler. Taken from his mother at the age of twelve, for the next ten years (1062-72) he had been controlled alternately by two guardians, of whom one, Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen, allowed him every indulgence, while the other, Hanno, Archbishop of Koln, hardly suffered him to have a mind of his own. Since he had become his own master he had plunged into war with his Saxon subjects. Henry, entangled in this war, answered Gregory's first admonitions in a conciliatory tone; but in 1075 he decisively defeated the Saxons and was in no mood to listen to a suggestion for the diminution of the authority of the German King in his own land, which he had just so triumphantly vindicated. For Henry imitated his predecessors in practising investiture of bishops both in Germany and in Italy; and he realised that the summons of the Pope to the temporal princes that they should give up such investiture would mean the transference to the Papacy of the disposal of the temporal fiefs. This would involve the loss at one blow of half the dominions of the German King. Moreover, he was encouraged in an attitude of resistance by the feeling of the German Church. At the first Lenten Synod held in the Lateran palace after Gregory's accession canons were issued forbidding all married or simoniacal ecclesiastics to perform ministerial functions and all laity to attend their ministrations. Immediate opposition was raised; the German clergy were especially violent: they declared that this prohibition of marriage was contrary to the teaching of Christ and St. Paul, that it attempted to make men live like angels but would only encourage licence, and that, if it were necessary to choose, they would abandon the priesthood rather than their wives. Gregory, however, sent legates into various districts armed with full powers, and succeeded in rousing the populace against the married clergy.

[Sidenote: Gregory's decree against investiture.]

It was under these circumstances that Gregory determined to bring to an issue the chief question in dispute between Church and State. Hitherto he had said nothing against the practice of lay investiture. Now, however, at the Lenten Synod in 1075, a decree was issued which condemned both the ecclesiastic, high or low, who should take investiture from a layman, and also the layman, however exalted in rank, who should dare to give investiture. The decree had no immediate effect, and at the end of the year Gregory followed it up with a letter to the King, in which he threatened excommunication if before the meeting of the next usual Lenten Synod Henry had not amended his life and got rid of his councillors, who had never freed themselves from the papal ban.

[Sidenote: Henry's Answer.]

Henry's answer was given at a Synod of German ecclesiastics at Worms. Cardinal Hugh the White, who for personal reasons had turned against Gregory, accused him of the most incredible crimes, and a letter was despatched in which the bishops renounced their obedience. Henry also addressed a letter to the Pope, which quite surpassed that of the bishops in violence of expression. |Henry, King not by usurpation but by the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand now no apostolic ruler but a false monk.| It accused him of daring to threaten to take away the royal power, as if Henry owed it to the Pontiff and not to God: and it concluded by a summons to him to descend from his position in favour of some one |who shall not cloak his violence with religion, but shall teach the sound doctrine of St. Peter.| It was nothing new for a Pope to be deposed by a Council presided over by the Emperor. And it is true that the same resolution, transmitted by delegates from Worms, was adopted at Piacenza by a Synod of Italian bishops. But on this occasion the sentence was uttered by an assembly of exclusively German bishops, presided over by a King who was not yet crowned Emperor. If such a sentence was to be effective, Henry should have followed it up by a march to Rome with an adequate army. He merely courted defeat when he gave the Pope the opportunity for a retort in kind. Anathema was the papal weapon, and while the King's declaration might even be resented by other rulers as an attempt to dictate to them in a matter of common concern to all, the papal sentence on the King was regarded by all as influencing the fate, not of the King only, but of all who remained in communication with him, if not in this world, at any rate in the world to come. Moreover, in this particular case, while no one believed the monstrous charges against Gregory, there was sufficient in Henry's past conduct to give credibility to anything that might be urged against him.

[Sidenote: Gregory deposes Henry.]

Gregory's rejoinder was delivered at the Lenten Synod of 1076. As against the twenty-six German bishops assembled at Worms, this Council contained over a hundred bishops drawn from all parts of Christendom, while among the laity present was Henry's own mother, the Empress Agnes. Gregory used his opportunity to the full. In the most solemn strain he appealed to St. Peter, to the Virgin Mary, to St. Paul and all the saints, to bear witness that he himself had unwillingly taken the Papacy. To him, as representative of the Apostle, God had entrusted the Christian people, and in reliance on this he now withdrew from Henry, as a rebel against the Church, the rule over the kingdoms of the Teutons and of Italy, and released all Christians from any present or future oath made to him. Finally, for his omissions and commissions alike, Henry is bound in the bonds of anathema |in order that people may know and acknowledge that thou art Peter, and upon thy rock the Son of the living God has built His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.|

The rhetorical flourish of the King's pronouncement against the Pope withers before the tremendous appeal of the Pope to his divinely delegated power to judge the King. Gregory's procedure was little less revolutionary than that of the King, but the claim to depose might appear as only a concomitant to the power already wielded by Popes in bestowing crowns, while for Gregory it had by this time become the copingstone in the fabric of those relations between Church and State which he and his party were building up.

[Sidenote: Gregory's allies: Countess Matilda.]

Gregory's position was not devoid of difficulties. Numerous protests were raised against this assertion of papal power. But events concurred to justify Gregory's bold action. At the beginning of his pontificate the Normans were quarrelling among themselves; but in Tuscany the Countess Matilda had just become complete mistress of the great inheritance which included a large part of Central Italy. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the Papacy, and secured North Italy by a revival of the Patarine party against the Italian bishops who had repudiated Gregory at Piacenza.

[Sidenote: Rebellious German Nobles.]

But Gregory's most effective allies were Henry's rebellious subjects. The Saxons broke out again into rebellion in the north, while the nobles of Southern Germany with the concurrence of the Pope met at Tribur, near Mainz, in October, 1076. Henry was forced to accept the most abject terms. He was to submit to the Pope, and the nobles further agreed among themselves that the Pope should be invited to pronounce the decisive judgment at a diet to be held at Augsburg a year later. If by that time Henry had not obtained the papal absolution, the kingdom would be considered forfeit, and they would proceed to the election of a new King without waiting for permission of the Pope. The nobles were hampered by the rivalry of those who hoped each to be Henry's successor, and they did not wish to found the election of the new King on the acknowledgment of the papal power of deposition. They acted, therefore, as if so far, apart from the excommunication, the papal sentence of deposition had been only provisional.

[Sidenote: Henry's Action.]

Henry saw that to be reinstated by the Pope in an assembly of his rebellious subjects would be even more damaging for his prestige than the original deposition, and, knowing nothing of the agreement of the nobles for a new election, he determined to go and get his absolution from the Pope at Rome. He treated the points in dispute between himself and his opponents as practically settled by his promise of submission, whereas the Pope desired to pose as arbiter between the contending parties in Germany; while the nobles aimed at electing a new King. Quite unconsciously Henry was forcing the hands of both parties of his opponents, whose obvious interests were in favour of delay. It was necessary that he should drink the cup of humiliation to the dregs; but the astute King preferred that it should be at his own time and place -- at once and in Italy, instead of a year hence in Germany.

[Sidenote: Canossa.]

Henry carried out his design, even though it was in the middle of winter; and neglecting the welcome of the imperialists of North Italy, he ultimately tracked the Pope to the Countess Matilda's fortress of Canossa, in the Apennines, above Modena. But Gregory would listen to no mediation, and demanded absolute submission to his judgment. So Henry again took the method of procedure into his own hands and appeared at intervals during three successive days before the castle in the garb of a penitent, barefooted and clad in a coarse woollen shirt. The picturesque account of this world-famous scene, which we owe to Lambert of Hersfeld, must be regarded as the monastic version current among the papal partisans. Gregory himself, who was scarcely likely to minimise his own triumph, in his letter to the German nobles says nothing of these details. He only relates that even his own followers exclaimed that |tyrannical ferocity| rather than |apostolic severity| was the characteristic of his act.

[Sidenote: Result Of Canossa.]

Thus Henry forced the hand of the Pope, who as a priest could not refuse his absolution to one who showed himself ready to submit to the severest possible penance for his sins. The only course open to Gregory was to accept the situation on which he had lost the hold, and to try to get some political concessions in the negotiations which must follow. The terms did not differ much from those arranged at Tribur: Henry should accept the decision of the diet of the German nobles, presided over by the Pope, as to his continued right to the crown, while if the judgment was favourable, he should implicitly obey the Pope for the future in all that concerned the Church. But, on the other hand, the papal excommunication and absolute sentence of deposition were removed, and the whole excuse for continued rebellion was thus withdrawn from his German opponents. Henry had undoubtedly been humiliated and had acknowledged the papal arbitration in Germany: but modern feelings probably exaggerate the humiliation of the penitential system, and Henry had at least divided his enemies. The Pope had undertaken to see fair play between Henry and his German subjects: the German nobles had based their action on Henry's past conduct, for which he had now done penance. Henry had obtained an acknowledgment from the Pope that his right to the kingship was at any rate an open question.

[Sidenote: Election of an anti-king.]

The German nobles had been betrayed by the Pope, but they could not afford to quarrel with him. They had been outwitted by Henry, and against him they proceeded as having violated the Agreement of Tribur. A Diet met at Forchheim, in Franconia, in March, 1077. It was chiefly composed of lay nobles, but papal legates were present, whom Gregory instructed to work for a postponement until he himself could come. But the nobles were determined, and Henry's brother-in-law, Duke Rudolf of Suabia, was chosen King. Gregory, however, did not intend to have his hand forced again, and for three years (1077-80) he refused to acknowledge Rudolf and tried to pose as arbiter between him and Henry. Five times Rudolf's supporters wrote remonstrating indignantly against this neutrality. Gregory excused himself on the ground that his legates had been deceived and had acted under compulsion in acquiescing in the action of the diet at Forchheim. He had good reasons for his delay. He was determined to secure recognition of the right which he claimed for the Papacy as the real determining force in the dispute, an act which the nobles had deliberately prevented. Moreover, he was a little afraid of a trial of strength with Henry at the moment. For while Henry's promptness had caused the Pope to break faith with his allies, Gregory's severity had gathered round Henry a party which made the King more powerful than he yet had been. Thus in Lombardy the Countess Matilda was faced by a revived imperialist party which seriously threatened her dominions, while in Germany the clergy, the lesser nobles and the cities rallied round the King.

[Sidenote: Gregory accepts him.]

So long, then, as the contest seemed doubtful Gregory withheld his decision. At length, in 1080, when, despite two victories, Rudolf was gaining no advantage, Gregory felt that further delay might make Henry too strong to be affected by the papal judgment. Accordingly, at the usual Lenten Synod he renewed the excommunication and deposition of Henry, recognised Rudolf as King of Germany, and even prophesied for the excommunicated monarch a speedy death. One papal partisan afterwards explained this as referring to Henry's spiritual death! Gregory is further said to have sent a crown to Rudolf, bearing the legend |Petra dedit Petro, Petrus diadema Rudolpho,| but the story is doubtful. The answer of Henry's party was given in successive synods of German or Italian bishops, who declared Gregory deposed, and elected as his substitute Henry's Chancellor, Guibert, Archbishop of Ravenna, who took the title of Clement III.

[Sidenote: Death of anti-King.]

Gregory's decisive move was a failure. There were now two Kings and two Popes, and all hope of a peaceful settlement was gone. None of the nations of Europe responded to Gregory's appeal. Robert Guiscard, the Norman leader, was busy with his designs on the Eastern Empire. Gregory's only chance was a victory in Germany and the fulfilment of his rash prophecy. In October, 1080, Henry was defeated in the heart of Saxony on the Elster, but it was Gregory's accepted King, Rudolf, who was killed. One chronicler reports Rudolf as acknowledging in his dying moments the iniquity of his conduct. Saxony remained in revolt; but until a new King could be agreed upon Henry was practically safe and could turn to deal with the situation in Italy. There could be no thought of peace. Gregory's supporters were upheld by the enthusiasm of fanaticism, while by acts and words he had driven his enemies to exasperation, and what had begun as a war of principles had now sunk to a personal struggle between Henry and Hildebrand.

[Sidenote: Death of Gregory.]

The renewal of the sentence against Henry had caused a reaction in his favour in Northern Italy. Soon after the episode of Canossa, the Countess Matilda, having no heir, had bequeathed her entire possessions to the Roman see and become a papal vassal for the term of her own life. But most of the Tuscan cities declared for Henry and thus entirely neutralised her power. Robert Guiscard was not to be tempted back from his projects against the Eastern Empire, even if it be true that Gregory offered him the Empire of the West. Thus Henry entered Italy unhindered early in 1081, and even the news that his opponents had found a successor to Rudolf in the person of Herman of Luxemburg did not stop his march. The siege of Rome lasted for nearly three years (1081-4), but ultimately he obtained possession of all the city except the castle of St. Angelo. Henry's Pope, Clement III, was consecrated, and on Easter Day Henry, together with his wife, at length obtained the imperial crown. But meanwhile he had made a fatal move. The Eastern Emperor Alexius persuaded him to make mischief in Apulia. Henry fell into the trap. Robert Guiscard rushed back to defend his own territories, and now determined to carry out his obligations as a papal vassal. Henry was taken unawares and had to retire before the Normans, who forced their way into Rome and cruelly sacked and burnt it. Gregory was rescued, but life for him in Rome was no longer possible. The Romans had betrayed him to Henry, and now his allies had destroyed the city. He retired with the Normans to Salerno, where, a year later, he died (May, 1085), bitterly attributing his failure to his love of righteousness and hatred of iniquity.

[Sidenote: His reasons for his failure.]

But we cannot ratify Gregory's own judgment on the reasons for his failure. Rather the blame is to be laid upon his lack of statesmanship. His egotism and his fanaticism worked together to make him believe that the supremacy of the spiritual power which he aimed at might be attained by very secular devices. In action he showed himself a pure opportunist, approving at one time what he condemned at another. And yet he had so little of an eye for the line which separates the practicable from the ideal that at Canossa he humiliated Henry beyond all hope of reconciliation, and he died in exile because he would not listen to any compromise which might be an acknowledgment that he had exaggerated his own claims. Thus, despite the undoubted purity of his life and the ultimate loftiness of his ideals, he is to be regarded rather as a man of immense force of character than as a great ecclesiastical statesman, rather as the stirrer-up of divine discontent than as a creative mind which gives a new turn to the desires and impulses of the human race.

[Sidenote: His activity in Europe.]

All this is borne out by his dealings outside Germany and Italy. He conducted a very extensive correspondence with princes as well as ecclesiastics all over Europe. Indeed this, as much as the despatch of legates and the annual attendance of bishops at the Lenten Synod, was one of the means by which the Papacy strove to make itself the central power of Christendom. These letters deal with all kinds of subjects and bear ample witness to his personal piety and high moral aims. But alongside of these come arrogant assertions of papal authority. He claims as fiefs of St. Peter on various grounds Hungary, Spain, Denmark, Corsica, Sardinia; he gives the title of King to the Duke of Dalmatia; he even offers to princes who belong to the Eastern Church a better title to their possessions as held from St. Peter.

[Sidenote: His policy in France.]

Gregory's great contest with the Empire has been described without interruption, as if it were the only struggle of his time, instead of being merely the most important episode in a very busy life. And if we ask in conclusion why it was fought out in the imperial dominions rather than elsewhere, the answer will be instructive of his character and methods of action. At the beginning of his pontificate his harshest phrases were directed against Philip I of France, who added to the crimes of lay investiture and shameless simony a scandalous personal immorality. Ultimately Gregory threatened him with excommunication and deposition. But he never passed beyond threats. The reason is to be found in the fact that Gregory was soon in pursuit of larger game. The French King only shared with his great nobles the investiture of the bishops in the kingdom. Moreover, the French bishops were not as a body great secular potentates like the German bishops. The opposition to reform in France was passive, not active. Crown, nobles, and Church stood together in opposition: there was no papal party. Not enough was to be gained by a victory, and there was great chance of a defeat. The result was that Philip continued his simoniacal transactions and never entirely gave up investiture, while Gregory allowed himself to be satisfied with occasional promises of better things. His dealings with the French bishops are equally inconclusive. For six years (1076-82) two of the papal legates divided France between them, practically superseded the local ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and acted with the utmost severity against all, ecclesiastics or laymen, who practised the methods now under condemnation. Great opposition was aroused and the legates went in peril of their lives. They were only carrying out strenuously the principles laid down under Gregory's guidance in many acts of synods and inculcated by Gregory in numberless private letters. And yet Gregory is found frequently undoing their acts, restoring bishops whom they have deposed, accepting excuses or explanations which cannot possibly have deceived him.

[Sidenote: In England.]

His policy towards England affords another instructive contrast. Both in Normandy and in England William the Conqueror practised investiture of his bishops and abbots and held his ecclesiastics in an iron grip. He refused the papal demand for homage for his English kingdom and he would allow no papal interference with his clergy without the King's permission. Archbishop Lanfranc also only consented to accept the decree against married clergy with a serious limitation -- while married canons were to dismiss their wives at once, parish priests already married were not interfered with; but marriage was forbidden to clergy in the future, and bishops were warned not to ordain married men. But William's expedition to England had been undertaken with the approval of Hildebrand, he did not practise simony, and he acknowledged the principle of a celibate clergy, while he promised the payment of the tribute of Peter's Pence from England. Moreover, William was not a man to be trifled with: he was a valuable friend and would certainly be a dangerous enemy. Consequently no question of the lawfulness of investiture was mooted during his lifetime. Gregory contented himself with threats against Lanfranc. But the English Archbishop owed a grudge to Gregory, who had treated with a culpable indulgence the great heresiarch Berengar after Lanfranc had vanquished him and convicted him of heresy; and Lanfranc knew that under William's sheltering favour he was safe from the papal ban.

Thus, while in France Gregory would have to face an united people, in England he shrank before the personality of the King. In Germany, on the other hand, he found a blameworthy King and a discontented people. All the elements were present for the successful interference of an external power. Moreover, the peculiar relations in which this external power -- the Papacy -- stood towards the German King, the prospective Emperor, gave every excuse, if any were needed, for such interference. Finally and most especially, since these imperial prospects made the German King the first among the monarchs of Western Europe, a victory over him would carry a prestige which lesser potentates would be bound to acknowledge.

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