Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020/1025 – May 25, 1085), born Hildebrand, was elevated to the papacy on April 22, 1073 C.E., and remained pope until his death.
One of the great reforming popes, Gregory is perhaps best known for the part he played in the Investiture Controversy, which pitted him against emperor Henry IV. This resulted in the break-up of the German empire, not reunited until the nineteenth century and in the triumph of papal over secular power. He was a genuine reformer of clerical morality, forbidding concubinage, clerical marriage and simony (the purchase of church offices). This precipitatd the investiture controversy; kings were selling clerical and church offices at great personal gain. Gregory VII declared that only the church could invest people into clerical or monastic office. His clash with the Holy Roman Emperor resulted in the Emperor's excommunication, and in the setting up of a rival pope, Clement III. He was, however, the first pope to depose a crowned ruler. When he died, he was a lonely and isolated figure, yet he is remembered as having defended the freedom of the church against secular interference. If kings appointed bishops, they would eventually control the church. Roman Catholics consider him one of the greatest Church reformers. He gave his name to what became known as the Gregorian reforms, all of which aimed to make the clergy more independent of secular authorities. His greatest achievement may have been vesting the election of Pope in the College of Cardinals. He was canonized in 1728 by Benedict XIII.
Gregory VII was born Hildebrand in Sovana, a small town in Tuscany, where his childhood home still stands today. His father may have been a carpenter. Later, a more noble ancestry may have been invented for him but it appears that his background was plebeian and not aristocratic. At an early age, he was sent to Rome—where his uncle served as abbot of the convent of Saint Mary on the Aventine - to recive an education; Pope Gregory VI may have been among his instructors. When Emperor Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor deposed Gregory VI, Hildebrand followed him in exile to Germany. Though he initially had no desire to cross the Alps, his residence in Germany was of great educational value and significant in his later life. He pursued his studies in Cologne before eventually returning to Rome with Pope Leo IX. Under his guidance, Hildebrand first began work in the ecclesiastical service and became a subdeacon and steward in the Roman Catholic Church. He served as a legate in France, where he was involved defending the church's views in a controversy surrounding the Eucharist.
Upon the death of Leo IX, Hildebrand was sent as a Roman envoy to the German court to conduct negotiations regarding his successor. The emperor stood in favor of Pope Victor II, who employed Hildebrand as his legate to France. When Pope Stephen IX was elected without previous consultation with the German court, Hildebrand and Bishop Anselm of Lucca were sent to Germany to secure a belated recognition and he succeeded in gaining the consent of the empress Agnes de Poitou. Stephen, however, died before his return, and the hasty elevation of Bishop Johannes of Velletri reflected a desperate effort of the Roman aristocracy to recover their influence on the papal throne. This course of action was dangerous to the Church as it implied a renewal of the disastrous patrician régime (the priviliging of nobility over clergy of commoner ancestry); that the crisis was overcome was essentially the work of Hildebrand. It is interesting to note that Gregory, himself of plebeian origin, would not have been able to buy himself high ecclesiastical office.
By providing his support to Pope Nicholas II instead of Pope Benedict X, the aristocratic nominee, Hildebrand favored a leader whose was strongly influential on the policy of the Curia during the next two decades; the rapprochement with the Normans in the south of Italy, and the alliance with the democratic and, subsequently, anti-German movement of the Patarenes in the north.
It was also under this pontificate that the law was enacted which transferred the papal election to the College of Cardinals, thus withdrawing it from the nobility and people of Rome and diminishing German influence on the election. When Nicholas II died and was succeeded by Pope Alexander II, Hildebrand loomed larger in the eyes of his contemporaries as the soul of Curial policy. The general political conditions, especially in Germany, were at that time very favorable to the Curia, but to use them with the wisdom actually shown was nevertheless a great achievement, and the position of Alexander at the end of his pontificate was a brilliant justification of Hildebrandine statecraft.
Election to the Papacy
On the death of Alexander II (April 21, 1073 C.E.), Hildebrand became pope and took the name of Gregory VII. The mode of his election was highly criticized by his opponents. Many of the charges brought may have been expressions of personal dislike, liable to suspicion from the very fact that they were not raised to attack his promotion till several years later; but it is clear from his own account of the circumstances of his election that it was conducted in a very irregular fashion, and that the forms prescribed by the law of 1059 C.E. were not observed. However, what ultimately turned the tide in favor of validity of Gregory's election was the fact that near universal acclaim of the populus Romanus was undeniable. In this sense, his election hearkened back to the earliest centuries of the Church of Rome, regardless of later canonical legislation. Gregory's earliest pontifical letters clearly acknowledge this fact, and thus, helped defuse any doubt about his election as immensely popular. On May 22 he received sacerdotal or priestly ordination, and on June 30 episcopal consecration.
The focus of the ecclesiastico-political projects of Gregory VII is to be found in his relationship with Germany. Since the death of Henry III the strength of the German monarchy had been seriously weakened, and his son Henry IV had to contend with great internal difficulties. This state of affairs was of material assistance to the pope. His advantage was still further accentuated by the fact that in 1073 C.E. Henry was only twenty-three and inexperienced.
In the two following years Henry was forced by the Saxon rebellion to come to amicable terms with the pope at any cost. Consequently in May 1074 C.E. he did penance at Nuremberg in the presence of the papal legates to atone for his continued friendship with the members of his council who had been banned by Gregory, took an oath of obedience, and promised his support in the work of reforming the Church. This attitude, however, which at first won him the confidence of the pope, was abandoned as soon as he defeated the Saxons by his victory at the Battle of Hohenburg (June 9, 1075 C.E. He now tried to reassert his rights as the sovereign of northern Italy without delay.
He sent Count Eberhard to Lombardy to combat the Patarenes; nominated the cleric Tedaldo to the Roman Catholic archbishopric of Milan, thus settling a prolonged and contentious question; and finally tried to establish relations with the Norman duke, Robert Guiscard. Gregory VII replied with a rough letter, dated December 8, in which, among other charges, he accused the German king of breaching his word and with his continued support of the excommunicated councillors; while at the same time he sent a verbal message suggesting that the enormous crimes which would be laid to his account rendered him liable, not only to the ban of the church, but to the deprivation of his crown. Gregory did this at a time when he himself was confronted by a reckless opponent in the person of Cencius, who on Christmas-night surprised him in church and carried him off as a prisoner, though on the following day Gregory was released.
Conflict with the Emperor
The reprimands of the pope, couched as they were in such an unprecedented form, infuriated Henry and his court, and their answer was the hastily convened national council in Worms, Germany, which met on January 24 1076 C.E. In the higher ranks of the German clergy Gregory had many enemies, and a Roman cardinal, Hugo Candidus, once on intimate terms with him but now his opponent, had hurried to Germany for the occasion and appeared at Worms. All the accusations with regard to the pope that Candidus could come up with were well received by the assembly, which committed itself to the resolution that Gregory had forfeited the papacy. In one document full of accusations, the bishops renounced their allegiance. In another King Henry pronounced him deposed, and the Romans were required to choose a new pope . The council sent two bishops to Italy, and they procured a similar act of deposition from the Lombard bishops in the synod of Piacenza. Roland of Parma informed the pope of these decisions, and he was fortunate enough to gain an opportunity for speech in the synod, which had just assembled in the Lateran church, and he delivered his message there announcing the dethronement. For the moment the members were frightened, but soon such a storm of indignation was aroused that it was only due to the moderation of Gregory himself that the envoy was not murdered.
On the following day the pope pronounced the sentence of excommunication against the German king with all due solemnity, divested him of his royal dignity and absolved his subjects from the oaths they had sworn to him. This sentence purported to eject the king from the church and to strip him of his crown. Whether it would produce this effect, or whether it would remain an idle threat, depended not so much on Gregory as on Henry's subjects, and, above all, on the German princes. Contemporary evidence suggests that the excommunication of the king made a profound impression both in Germany and Italy. Thirty years before, Henry III had deposed three popes, and thereby rendered an acknowledged service to the church. When Henry IV tried to copy this procedure he was less successful, as he lacked the support of the people. In Germany there was a rapid and general revulsion of feeling in favor of Gregory, and the princes took the opportunity to carry out their anti-regal policy under the cloak of respect for the papal decision. When at Whitsun (Pentecost) the king proposed to discuss the measures to be taken against Gregory in a council of his nobles, only a few made their appearance; the Saxons snatched at the golden opportunity for renewing their rebellion, and the anti-royalist party grew in strength from month to month.
The situation now became extremely critical for Henry. As a result of the agitation, which was zealously fostered by the papal legate Bishop Altmann of Passau, the princes met in October at Tribur to elect a new German king, and Henry, who was stationed at Oppenheim on the left bank of the Rhine, was only saved from the loss of his throne by the failure of the assembled princes to agree on the question of his successor. Their dissension, however, merely induced them to postpone the verdict. Henry, they declared, must make reparation to the pope and pledge himself to obedience; and they decided that, if, on the anniversary of his excommunication, he still lay under the ban, the throne should be considered vacant. At the same time they decided to invite Gregory to Augsburg to decide the conflict. These arrangements showed Henry the course to be pursued. It was imperative, under any circumstances and at any price, to secure his absolution from Gregory before the period named, otherwise he could scarcely foil his opponents in their intention to pursue their attack against him and justify their measures by an appeal to his excommunication. At first he attempted to attain his ends by an embassy, but when Gregory rejected his overtures he took the celebrated step of going to Italy in person.
The pope had already left Rome, and had intimated to the German princes that he would expect their escort for his journey on January 8 in Mantua. But this escort had not appeared when he received the news of the king's arrival. Henry, who had traveled through Burgundy, had been greeted with enthusiasm by the Lombards, but resisted the temptation to employ force against Gregory. He chose instead the unexpected course of forcing the pope to grant him absolution by doing penance before him at Canossa, where he had taken refuge. This event soon became legendary. The reconciliation was only effected after prolonged negotiations and definite pledges on the part of the king, and it was with reluctance that Gregory at length gave way, for, if he gave his absolution, the diet (assembly) of princes in Augsburg, in which he might reasonably hope to act as arbitrator, would either become useless, or, if it met at all, would change completely in character. It was impossible, however, to deny the penitent re-entrance into the church, and his religious obligations overrode his political interests.
The removal of the ban did not imply a genuine reconciliation, and no basis was gained for a settlement of the great questions at issue: notably that of investiture. A new conflict was inevitable from the very fact that Henry IV naturally considered the sentence of deposition repealed along with that of excommunication; while Gregory on the other hand was intent on reserving his freedom of action and gave no hint on the subject at Canossa.
Second excommunication of Henry
That the excommunication of Henry IV was simply a pretext, not a motive, for the opposition of the rebellious German nobles is transparent. Not only did they persist in their policy after his absolution, but they took the more decided step of setting up a rival king in the person of Duke Rudolph of Swabia (Forchheim, March 1077 C.E.). At the election the papal legates present observed the appearance of neutrality, and Gregory himself sought to maintain this attitude during the following years. His task was made easier in that the two parties were of fairly equal strength, each trying to gain the upper hand by getting the pope on their side. But the result of his non-committal policy was that he largely lost the confidence of both parties. Finally he decided for Rudolph of Swabia after his victory at Flarchheim (January 27, 1080 C.E.). Under pressure from the Saxons, and misinformed as to the significance of this battle, Gregory abandoned his waiting policy and again pronounced the excommunication and deposition of King Henry (March 7, 1080 C.E.).
But the papal censure now proved a very different thing from the papal censure four years before. It was widely felt to be an injustice, and people began to ask whether an excommunication pronounced on frivolous grounds was entitled to respect. To make matters worse, Rudolph of Swabia died on October 16 of the same year. A new claimant, Hermann of Luxembourg, was put forward in August 1081 C.E., but his personality was not suitable for a leader of the Gregorian party in Germany, and the power of Henry IV was at its peak. The king, now more experienced, took up the struggle with great vigour. He refused to acknowledge the ban on the ground of its illegality. A council had been summoned at Brixen, and on June 16 it pronounced Gregory deposed and nominated the archbishop Guibert of Ravenna as his successor. In 1081 Henry opened the conflict against Gregory in Italy. The latter had now become less powerful, and 13 cardinals deserted him. Rome surrendered to the German king, and Guibert of Ravenna enthroned as Clement III (March 24, 1084 C.E.). Henry was crowned emperor by his rival, while Gregory himself had to flee from Rome in the company of his Norman "vassal," Robert Guiscard.
Papal policy to the rest of Europe
The relationship of Gregory to other European states was strongly influenced by his German policy; as Germany, by taking up most of his powers, often forced him to show to other rulers the very moderation which he withheld from the German king. The attitude of the Normans brought him a rude awakening. The great concessions made to them under Nicholas II were not only powerless to stem their advance into central Italy but failed to secure even the expected protection for the papacy. When Gregory was hard pressed by Henry IV, Robert Guiscard left him to his fate, and only interfered when he himself was threatened with German arms. Then, on the capture of Rome, he abandoned the city to his troops, and the popular indignation evoked by his act brought about Gregory's exile.
In the case of several countries, Gregory tried to establish a claim of sovereignty on the part of the Papacy, and to secure the recognition of its self-asserted rights of possession. On the ground of "immemorial usage"; Corsica and Sardinia were assumed to belong to the Roman Church. Spain and Hungary were also claimed as her property, and an attempt was made to induce the king of Denmark to hold his realm as a fief from the pope. Philip I of France, by his practice of simony (selling church ofices) and the violence of his proceedings against the Church, provoked a threat of summary measures; and excommunication, deposition and the interdict appeared to be imminent in 1074 C.E. Gregory, however, refrained from translating his threats into actions, although the attitude of the king showed no change, for he wished to avoid a dispersion of his strength in the conflict soon to break out in Germany. In England, William the Conqueror also derived benefits from this state of affairs. He felt himself so safe that he interfered autocratically with the management of the church, forbade the bishops to visit Rome, made appointments to bishoprics and abbeys, and showed little anxiety when the pope lectured him on the different principles which he had as to the relationship of spiritual and temporal powers, or when he prohibited him from commerce or commanded him to acknowledge himself a vassal of the apostolic chair. Gregory had no power to compel the English king to an alteration in his ecclesiastical policy, so he chose to ignore what he could not approve, and even considered it advisable to assure him of his particular affection.
Gregory, in fact, established some sort of relations with every country in Christendom; though these relations did not invariably realize the ecclesiastico-political hopes connected with them. His correspondence extended to Poland, Russia and Bohemia. He wrote in friendly terms to the Saracen king of Mauritania in North Africa, and unsuccessfully tried to bring Armenia into closer contact with Rome. He was particularly concerned with the East. The schism between Rome and the Byzantine Empire was a severe blow to him, and he worked hard to restore the former amicable relationship. Gregory successfully tried to get in touch with the emperor Michael VII. When the news of the Arab attacks on the Christians in the East filtered through to Rome, and the political embarrassments of the Byzantine emperor increased, he conceived the project of a great military expedition and exhorted the faithful to participate in recovering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This became the first crusade under his Urban II. In his treatment of ecclesiastical policy and ecclesiastical reform, Gregory did not stand alone, but found powerful support: in England Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury stood closest to him; in France his champion was Bishop Hugo of Dié, who afterwards became Archbishop of Lyon.
Internal policy and reforms
His life-work was based on his conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in her capacity as a divine institution, she is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity. But any attempt to interpret this in terms of action would have bound the Church to annihilate not merely a single state, but all states. Thus Gregory, as a politician wanting to achieve some result, was driven in practice to adopt a different standpoint. He acknowledged the existence of the state as a dispensation of Providence, described the coexistence of church and state as a divine ordinance, and emphasized the necessity of union between the sacerdotium and the imperium. But at no period would he have dreamed of putting the two powers on an equal footing; the superiority of church to state was to him a fact which admitted of no discussion and which he had never doubted.
He wished to see all important matters of dispute referred to Rome; appeals were to be addressed to himself; the centralization of ecclesiastical government in Rome naturally involved a curtailment of the powers of bishops. Since these refused to submit voluntarily and tried to assert their traditional independence, his papacy is full of struggles against the higher ranks of the clergy.
This battle for the foundation of papal supremacy is connected with his championship of compulsory celibacy among the clergy and his attack on simony. Gregory VII did not introduce the celibacy of the priesthood into the Church, but he took up the struggle with greater energy than his predecessors. In 1074 he published an encyclical, absolving the people from their obedience to bishops who allowed married priests. The next year he enjoined them to take action against married priests, and deprived these clerics of their revenues. Both the campaign against priestly marriage and that against simony provoked widespread resistance.
He died an exile in Salerno; his last words were: Amavi iustiam et odivi iniquitatem; propterea, morior in exilio (I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I [now] die in exile.) He cancelled all his excommunications except that of Henry and of his rival, Guibert the anti-pope. The Romans and a number of his most trusted helpers had renounced him, and the faithful band in Germany had shrunk to small numbers. Curiously for more than 900 years, the people of Salerno have zealously guarded Gregory's mortal remains and refused to permit him to be taken back for burial in Saint Peter's, the traditional resting place of an overwhelming number of popes. Today, his beautiful sarcophagus lies in perpetual testament to his struggles and sanctify in the cathedral church of Salerno, Italy.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Cowdrey, H. E J Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085. NY:Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0198206461
- Emerton, Ephraim, (translator) The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII. NY: Columbia University Press, 1990. ISBN 0231096275
- Maxwell-Stuart, P. G Chronicle of the Popes: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Papacy over 2000 Years. London: Thames & Hudson; TV Tie in Ed edition, 1997. ISBN 0500017980
- Robinson, Ian. The Papal Reform of the Eleventh Century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII. (Manchester Medieval Sources), Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. ISBN 0719038758
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