Stories from German History - Florence Aston

Gregory the Pope


Gregory VII was a very remarkable man and he introduced innovations into the Church which were of great importance both to the Church itself and the Empire. His name before his elevation to the papal see was Hildebrand, and he was supposed to have been the son of a poor blacksmith or small proprietor, but his unusual talents soon raised him far above his fellows, and he rapidly rose from office to office in the Church.

His life was rigidly pure; he scorned worldly pleasures with the greatest contempt, and with this purity of morals he united a courage and power of will that no terrors could shake. A wonderful insight into the characters of men and comprehension of their motives often caused people to wonder how so saint-like a character was able to probe the depths of minds which were inured to every form and practice of evil

His eloquence was great and had much impressed Henry III when he had preached before him.

Hildebrand had been adviser to five successive popes, and his conception of the papal power was extraordinary.

He was eminently qualified by temperament and talents for a reformer, and he thought that the chief cause of the abuses existing in the Church was the supreme head's lack of both spiritual and temporal power.

"As man consists of body and soul," he declared, "so do human affairs consist of spiritual and earthly; and as the body is ruled by the soul, so ought the world to be governed by the Church. As there are two great lights in heaven, the sun and the moon, so there are two mighty rulers on earth, the Pope and the Emperor. Now, as the moon derives her light from the sun, so is all the power of the Emperor derived from the Pope. The Pope is the successor of the apostle Peter, to whom the Saviour said: 'Feed my sheep.' Now God having placed all things under the feet of His Son, and Peter being the successor of Christ, and the Pope the successor of Saint Peter, it follows that all earthly principalities and powers and dominions should be subjected to him who is the representative of God in the world."

Hitherto the popes had been elected by the Roman clergy and people, although during the reigns of the last few German emperors there had been some interference on their part, since they had confirmed or annulled these elections. But the emperors had exercised the right of choosing their own bishops, receiving the revenues of vacant bishoprics and calling together councils to settle ecclesiastical affairs.

These prerogatives were a thorn in the flesh to Hildebrand, ambitious as he was to raise to supremacy the papal power.

His first decisive step was to take the election of the popes out of the hands of Emperor or people alike, and to vest the power in the hands of a college of cardinals.

At a council held in Rome in 1059 the 'Sacred College' was formed, consisting of seventy cardinals (in imitation of the seventy disciples of Christ), of whom Hildebrand was one. Having secured independence of election for the Pope, he next sought to increase his temporal power, and to this end persuaded the kings of Sicily and Naples to hold their crowns as fiefs of the Pope instead of the Emperor.

In the year 1078 Hildebrand was himself elected Pope, and took the name of Gregory VII. He renewed his connection with the kings of Sicily and Naples and formed a firm alliance with Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, a faithful servant of the Church.

He next entered on a campaign against the abuses in the Church, and forbade the practice of simony, or the sale of ecclesiastical preferment. The buying and selling of benefices is called simony, after Simon Magus, who tried to buy from the Apostles their power of working miracles. His next step excited much opposition, and any man less intrepid than Gregory would not have ventured to propose it. Hitherto the monks had lived lives of celibacy that is, they had taken vows never to marry—but other clergy had taken wives. Gregory thought that the possession of a wife and family distracted priest's thoughts from his religious duties, so he forbade all priests to marry, and commanded that those who were already married should immediately leave their families. This reform roused a storm of opposition, especially in Germany, but Gregory paid no heed and merely excommunicated those priests who refused to obey him, and in time the excitement died away.

He next ordained that all bishops should be elected by the clergy and their election confirmed by the Pope. This meant that the Emperor would lose his right of election, and also the enormous endowments that had much enhanced his power and dignity.

Having finally announced that no man except himself had power to assemble ecclesiastical councils, and having pronounced the decrees of all councils otherwise summoned to be null and void, Gregory sent ambassadors or legates into all the kingdoms to watch over his interests and report proceedings.

These innovations found little favour with the Emperor Henry IV, since he had always appointed his own bishops and invested them with the episcopal ring and staff as an outward and visible sign that they held their fiefs from him. This ceremony was called investiture, and Henry continued to perform it as before, taking no notice of the Pope's commands. But Gregory removed these bishops from their sees and excommunicated several persons who had assisted at the ceremony of investiture.

At this juncture the Saxon bishops and princes, who had been sullenly meditating revenge for their treatment at the Emperor's hands, lodged a complaint before the Pope accusing Henry of many crimes. Gregory summoned him to appear at Rome within sixty days to exculpate himself, at which demand Henry assembled the German bishops at Worms, and with them solemnly called upon the Pope to abdicate.

"Thou hast removed from their places archbishops, bishops, priests, the anointed of the Lord," he wrote. "Thou had trodden them under foot like servants, and treated them as though they knew naught and thou knewest all. Thou art swollen with pride, and, mistaking our humility for fear, hast lifted up thy hand against the royal power which God has granted to us. Thou hast dared to threaten that thou wilt deprive us of our royal power, as if that royal power had been received from thee, and not from God Almighty. Thou hast despised our bishops and deprived our priests of their office. Me also, a crowned king, of whom God has said, 'Fear God; honour the king,' thou hast dishonoured. Therefore remove thyself from the throne of Saint Peter and make way for another. I, Henry, by the grace of God King, together with all my bishops, say unto thee, Come down and remove thyself."

The Emperor's summons might have implanted fear in the breast of a weak man, but on Gregory it had no such effect. He merely assembled his cardinals and bishops, read the letter, excommunicated Henry and absolved his subjects from their allegiance to him.

A bull was issued, which commenced with an invocation to the apostle Saint Peter. "Holy Peter, Prince of the Apostles," it ran, "bow thine ear to me and hear me who am thy servant Through thy grace power is given me from on high to bind and to loose in heaven and on earth. For the honour and protection of thy Church, and in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I cast out from the realm of Germany and Italy, the King Henry, son of Henry the Emperor, and I absolve all Christians from the oaths by which they are or will be bound to him, and I forbid any man to serve him in his office of king.

"He who has despoiled thy Church of honour shall himself be dishonoured. And furthermore because he has not obeyed as a true Christian should, nor has turned again to the God whom he has forsaken, but consorts with the excommunicate, works wickedness and heeds not my warnings, in thy stead, most holy Peter, do I bind him with a curse that all men may see that I am Peter, upon whom the Son of God bath built His Church and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it."

Excommunication was a fearful ordeal for any man to endure, since the victim was thrust out of the Church and might enter it no more, no priest might marry him, baptize his children or administer the Holy Sacrament to his comfort. If he died, he might only be buried in unconsecrated ground and without words of prayer, and if he were a man of authority, all his subordinates were absolved of their duty toward him. Worst of all, if the excommunicant happened to be a king, his realm was laid under an interdict. This meant that all churches were closed and the rites of baptism, marriage and burial refused to the whole population. So this thundering denunciation had important results for Henry, since his subjects fell away from him in terror.


After the excommunication the German princes held a diet at Tribur, and declared solemnly that unless Henry were freed from the ban within a year they would follow Rudolph of Swabia. Nothing remained for Henry but to submit to the Pope, so in the winter of 1076, accompanied by a few attendants and his wife Bertha, with her infant son, he started for Rome.

The roads over the Alps were jealously guarded, but Henry managed to find his way to the pass of Mont Cenis, and this he crossed through horrors indescribable.

Blinded by the falling snow, which grew deeper and deeper under their feet as they advanced, the little band stumbled forward. Avalanches fell round them with a roar as of thunder and threatened to sweep them away in the descent, or maim them by the flying fragments of trees and stones which they scattered.

The rocky pathway wound round the mountain-side, a cliff and a precipice on either hand, and was so slippery with frozen snow and at times so narrow that the travellers were forced to crawl on hands and knees to save themselves from falling into the abyss below. They were often obliged to bind their horses with ropes and let them down over the face of the cliffs, when the poor beasts could find no foothold, and the gentle Queen with her baby and the few women who attended her were wrapped in ox-hides and lowered by ropes down the precipices in the same way. The King rode on horseback whenever it was possible, while the Queen was dragged along on a rough sledge, steadied by men on either hand, to prevent her from being jerked from her seat by the roughness of the road.

If the ascent of the pass had been difficult and beset with perils, the descent was still more so, and the escape of the little party from death was nothing short of miraculous. At length they saw the smiling plains of Lombardy far below, and were kindly received by the Lombards, who were themselves at feud with the Pope. When Gregory heard of the Emperor's approach, and of his reception in Upper Italy, he was uncertain how to act, for he knew not whether Henry came as a penitent or meant to lead an army of Lombards against himself. So he took refuge with his ally, the Countess Matilda of Tuscany, in her castle of Canossa, and there awaited events.

He had no need to wait long, for Henry was thoroughly beaten and dispirited, and desired only reconciliation with the Head of the Church.

Gregory therefore determined to humble him to the dust, and when he appeared before the Castle of Canossa and prayed to see the Pope, he was told that he must come in the guise of a penitent—bareheaded, barefooted, and clothed only in his shirt For three days and nights the great Lord of Germany stood in the castle courtyard, bareheaded, barefooted, clothed only in his shirt, and deprived of food and shelter; on the fourth day the Holy Father caused him to be brought in, and pronounced him free of the ban. Then he sent him back to Germany, forbidding him to assume the dignity of king until the Germans themselves should decide in council whether they would accept him as their ruler or no. Before Henry started on his homeward way, however, he was summoned to the private chapel of the castle, where the Pope ascended the steps of the high altar, and before a large assembly of people, addressed him in these words:

"Thou hast oft reproached me as if I had obtained the papal crown by bribery and dishonest means, and had disgraced the faith of Christ by many and foul crimes.

"Now do I hold in my hand the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. I will divide the wafer, and myself swallow the one half, praying the Almighty to strike me suddenly dead, if the charges which thou hast brought against me are true. Thou too standest accused of many and great sins, on account of which I have placed thee under sentence of excommunication. If thou be innocent, swallow the rest of this wafer, and purify thyself from all suspicion."

But Henry was terrified at the solemn act, and refused to do his part until he had consulted with advisers at home. So he turned back, and as he journeyed, his terror abated and gave way to sullen resentment against the Pope, who had caused him such bitter suffering.

On the way he heard that Rudolph of Swabia had been elected king in his stead, and knowing that many of the good German burghers would remain faithful to him and that the Lombards too could be relied upon, he determined to resist both Pope and nobles and make an effort to regain his crown.

On his arrival in Germany, crowds of burghers flocked to meet him, and Henry held a solemn diet in the city of Worms, where he condemned to death as traitors, Rudolph of Swabia, Berthold of Carinthia and Guelph of Bavaria. The dukedom of Bavaria, together with the hand of the Princess Agnes, was conferred on Count Frederick of Boren. He built the great castle of Hohenstaufen, from which his family took their name, that became so famous in subsequent German history.

Henry IV of German


Gregory excommunicated Henry afresh and confirmed the election of Rudolph, to whom he sent a crown which he was to hold as a fief of Rome.

Henry on his part deposed Gregory, and appointed in his stead the Archbishop of Ravenna, under the title of Clement III. So there were two popes and two emperors; in many dukedoms there existed two dukes and in the bishoprics two bishops. The whole country was in confusion, and skirmishing and counter-skirmishing in the field were of daily occurrence.

The royalists were beaten on the banks of the Necker, and the poor peasants who had fought for Henry were cruelly mutilated because they had presumed to bear arms. Again they were beaten near Leipzig on the plain where so many battles have been fought. Although defeated, Henry lost his chief enemy, since Rudolph was slain. As he lay dying on the field, Rudolph gazed at his arm, from which the hand had just been severed by a mighty blow from that Godfrey of Bouillon who afterward played so important a part in the Crusades.

"That was the hand which was once raised to swear fealty to Henry," he exclaimed. "May God's vengeance pursue the traitors who tempted me to commit perjury."

He was buried at Merseburg, and a beautiful monument was erected over his remains.

Soon afterward this city fell into Henry's hands and he was advised to destroy the tomb of his rival. This he refused to do. "Would to God," he replied, "that all my enemies were as handsomely entombed!"

After his death, Rudolph's party of followers dwindled more and more, while that of Henry steadily increased.

The Germans elected Hermann of Luxemburg as their next emperor, but he soon saw that resistance was useless, and making his peace with Henry, he retired to his duchy. So successful was the imperial army by this time that Henry left the charge of it to Frederick of Hohenstaufen and proceeded to Italy to punish his old enemy, Gregory VII.

He beat the forces of Matilda of Tuscany, which advanced to check his way, and, after a three years' siege, succeeded in capturing Rome. Gregory fled to Salerno, and soon afterward fell ill and died, exclaiming with his last breath: "I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity—therefore do I die in exile." Gregory was succeeded by Urban II, who continued his policy and contrived to raise up a rival against Henry in the person of the Emperor's son Conrad. This was a terrible grief to the stricken father, and he was with difficulty prevented from laying violent hands upon himself to take his own life. But in his despair he received help from an unexpected quarter.

Duke Guelph of Bavaria had affianced his son Egbert to the aged Countess Matilda of Tuscany, hoping that she would soon die and leave her vast possessions to her youthful husband. But Matilda had ever been a faithful servant of the Church, and when Guelph heard that she had already willed everything to the Pope, he was very angry and joined Henry in revenge against the papal Party.

Young Conrad died soon afterward, but Urban's successor, Pascal II, continued the same policy, and incited Henry's second son to rebel. Henry the younger was a great favourite of the people, and thousands flocked to his standard; only the cities remained faithful to their Emperor, and refused to open their gates to any other.

The son later endeavoured to obtain possession of his father's person by treachery, and, feigning contrition for his rebellion, contrived to bring about a meeting at Cologne, ostensibly for the purpose of a reconciliation. Here the elder Henry was separated from his attendants, seized, and imprisoned in the castle of Bingen on the Rhine. The imperial crown and jewels were taken from him, and a general diet was held, which formally deposed him.

At Ingeiheim Henry was brought before his son and an assembly of nobles for the purpose of signing the deed of abdication, A heart-rending scene took place, as the father threw himself at his son's feet and with tears implored his mercy. But the young prince was obdurate, and his father was compelled to acknowledge him Emperor of Germany under the title of Henry V.

Heart-broken and destitute, the old Emperor fell ill and died in the year 1106. So poor was he that he was obliged to sell his boots to procure food, but on his death-bed he sent his forgiveness to his son, together with his sword and ring.

As the ban of the Church still lay upon him, the body was not allowed Christian burial, and on a lonely island in the River Maas it remained above ground, watched day and night by a pious hermit who had been as a pilgrim to Jerusalem. At last the young King Henry commanded that it should be brought to Spires, where it was received with reverence by the citizens. But no interment in holy ground was possible, and for five years the body remained unburied, until at last the Pope removed the ban and the bones of Henry IV were laid to rest by the side of Queen Bertha in the cathedral at Spires.

Henry's great controversy with the papacy continued unsettled until the year 1122, when an agreement was made, called the Concordat of Worms, which clearly defined the powers of both Emperor and Pope. It was decided that the bishops should be chosen by their clergy in the presence of the Emperor or his representative, and should take the oath to him as a vassal of the Empire, receiving from the Pope the ring and pastoral staff, as symbols of his authority in spiritual affairs.

Henry V did not live long, and with him died out the Franconian line of kings.

Years of strife between rival claimants for the throne devastated the unhappy land of Germany, during which members of the Bavarian family, calling themselves Guelphs, supported faithfully the cause of Henry of Bavaria, while the Hohenstaufens were protected by adherents calling themselves Ghibellines or Waiblings, from the name of a little town in Swabia. Eventually Conrad of Hohenstaufen was elected Emperor, and he determined to be revenged upon the Guelphs. So he besieged them in the city of Weinsberg in Wurtemberg with such success that they capitulated, only stipulating that their womenfolk should march out free, bearing with them such of their property as they could carry. The terms of surrender were signed and the city gates flung wide, but great was the astonishment of Conrad when the Duchess appeared, bearing her husband on her shoulders, and followed by all the women of the town similarly burdened. His heart was touched by this proof of courage and affection, and a peace was concluded between the rival factions, which continued till his death.