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The Clash Between Empire and Papacy


									The Clash Between Empire and Papacy

What was at the root of the conflict between Gregory VII and Henry IV?

        Attempting to distill the causes of the conflict between Gregory VII and Henry IV
into anything even approaching a single, concrete point would not only be quite
negligent, but also impossible. This was a clash with its roots seeped in history: the
Ottonian-created “Imperial Church System; the Cluniac reform movement; the actions of
Henry III and the popes he appointed; the unfortunate timing and weak nature of the
regency of Agnes. All of these added in some way to the flow of events that led almost
inevitably to the standoff between empire and papacy. Indeed, it could be argued that it
was these preceding events that were the essential causes of the conflict, rather than any
personality traits inherent in the two protagonists.
        The problem could be said to have stretched back as far back as the time of
Charlemagne for when he was crowned emperor on Christmas Day, 800, by Pope Leo III,
the latter “created not a deputy, but a rival or even a master.”1It is one of those strange
quirks of time that the reign of Otto I (936-973) had such a strong influence on that of
Henry IV. Otto did not believe there was any division between church and state and so
began the practice of uniting the two when he appointed his brother Bruno, Archbishop
of Cologne, as Archduke of Lotharingia. Of course, he had other considerations in doing
so, most notably in ensuring that no state office became hereditary. However, it was this
action that created the Ottonian System of Government and paved the way for
widespread lay investiture, one of the key points of conflict between Henry IV and
Gregory VII.
        Yet more important events occurred later on in Otto’s reign. For instance, his
defeat of the Magyars in 951 established him and his successors as “defenders of the
Latin Christian West,”2 a role that would be controversially transferred to the Normans of
Southern Italy by Nicholas II during the regency of Agnes. In contrast, during Otto I’s
time, the Papacy had called upon him to challenge the threat emanating from that area.
His defeat of Count Berengar of Friuli, King of Italy, in 961 led to his crowning as
emperor by Pope John XII on 2 February, 962. A pact was made between emperor and
pontiff, although John was soon to renege on it and join forces with Berengar’s son,
Adalbert. Otto deposed him on 4 December, 963, and installed a layman, Leo VIII in his
stead. This time, however, a clause was inserted into the pact that stated that: “in the
future, no Pope was to be consecrated until he had taken an oath of loyalty to the
emperor.”3 This pact would later come to represent all that the reforming popes opposed
in the relationship between empire and papacy. The emperor would come to obtain an
even more dominant role over the papacy during the reign of Otto III, when he ousted the
anti-pope, John XVI, and his supporting noble family, the Crescentii, and therefore
placing the then pope, Gregory V, firmly in his debt.
        The Ottonian line thus ended 1002 (Otto III, dying at the age of 22 and leaving no
successor) with the relationship between church and state quite clearly defined. The
  R. W. Southern, pp.99
  Walter Ullman, “A short history of the Papacy in the Middle Age”, (Great Britain, 1972), pp. 116.
  R.H.C. Davies, “A History of Medieval Europe,” (Great Britain, 1957), 2nd ed., pp.219.
emperor may have relied on members of the clergy to govern his lands for him but his
ability to make ecclesiastical appointments clearly gave him the upper hand.
Unfortunately for the now emerging Salian line, and Henry IV in particular, this was a
situation that would not be accepted by high-ranking clerical figures for much longer.
        The church reform movement took its first tentative steps in Burgundy, where the
Duke of Aquitaine, William the Pious founded the abbey of Cluny in 910, for Bertho of
Baume. Crucially, William granted the abbey exemption from lay control. It quickly
developed a reputation for strictness and Bertho was invited to visit and reform three
other monasteries. In 927, Odo was elected as abbot and he reformed many more, for
example those at Tulle and Sarlat, as well as four within Rome. Many of these became
“daughter-houses,” and so fell under the strict control of the abbot of Cluny (for instance,
any man wishing to become a monk at a Clunaic monastery had first to be professed, in
person, by the abbot of Cluny). As a result, Cluny organised a hierarchy of monasteries,
priories and churches with itself at the head, “…and thereby as far as possible withdrew
them from the involvement of lay powers.”4 This was later to act as an inspiration for the
Gregorian reformers who wished to wrest the control of the church from the emperor and
establish papal primacy.
        It would be important to note at this point that many of the key reformers of the
papacy had links with Cluny. Humbert (later Cardinal of Silva Candida) had been a monk
in a Clunaic monastery; the once abbot of Monte Cassino, Frederick, would go on to
become Pope Stephen IX (1057-58), the first pope in this period to be elected by the
Roman clergy and people rather than by the emperor; and, perhaps most importantly for
the purposes of this discussion, Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII) possibly spent time
at a Clunaic monastery. The effect that Cluny had therefore on the papal reform
movement (and, by extension, in creating the conflict between Gregory and Henry)
should not be underestimated. The historian Margaret Deanesly has pointed out that the
“Clunaic movement” helped to inspire the Gregorian movement (particularly through its
insistence on the free elections of its abbots and priors), even though none of its abbots
took an active part in it. As she put it:
        “The ideals of Cluny, when championed by Gregory VII, were to lead to a bitter
struggle between the empire and papacy for supremacy.”5
However, we cannot be tempted to think that this eventuality was ever an aim for the
abbots of Cluny. It was others who took their example and applied it to the problem of
imperial supremacy. Cluny was never an enemy of the emperor. Indeed, Henry III was a
close friend of Abbot Hugh of Cluny, the latter becoming Henry IV’s godfather.
        It is a great irony of this era that one of the major contributions to the
development of the clash between Henry IV and Gregory VII was made by none other
than Henry III. His appointment of Bruno, Bishop of Toul as Pope Leo IX in 1048
established in Rome a group of men who were committed to reform. Henry was a noted
supporter of such change but his views may have changed had he grasped the
significance of Bruno insisting that the Roman clergy and people ratify his appointment.
This lapse (as harsh and as possibly strange as that may sound) brought to Rome men

  Alfred Haverkamp, “Medieval Germany, 1056-1273,” Translated by Helga Braun and Richard Mortimer,
(U.S., 1988), pp.54.
  Margaret Deanesly, “A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1500,” (London, 1925), 9th edition,
such as Hugh the White from Remiremont, Humbert, Frederick of Liege, and, of course,
Hildebrand – not men to be ridiculed in any way but who nevertheless, by their actions,
hastened the coming of the church/state clash. Humbert became the first to speak out
forcibly against lay investiture (in effect, the equivalent of an attack on the imperial
church system) while, as papal legate, Hildebrand, made extensive travels reinforcing the
idea of the pope as the head of the church, a quest which gathered greater impetus after
universal papal primacy had been declared at the Council of Rheims in 1049.
         The period of Leo IX’s reign (1048-54), followed by that of Victor II (1054-57),
left the reforming papacy in a healthy state. However, it seems unlikely that events would
have continued to develop (as quickly as it did, in any case) to a point where a clash
between church and state, such as the one being discussed here, would have become
inevitable were it not for the untimely death of Henry III in 1056. Henry IV was only six
years old at this time and so his mother, Agnes, assumed the regency in his stead. Agnes,
however, was weak. This vulnerability dealt a major blow to the prestige of the royal
court. However, it also represented a great opportunity for the papacy to establish its
universal authority. A major step towards doing so was made following the death of
Victor II on 23 July 1057. Frederick of Lorraine, abbot of Monte Cassino, assumed the
position as Pope Stephen IX, having been hastily elected by high-ranking church figures.
Agnes failed to object, something it is difficult imagining either her husband or her son
doing. Nicholas II’s papal decree of April, 1059 subsequently granted the deciding vote
in papal elections to the College of Cardinals, while in August of that year he accepted as
vassals the Norman princes Richard of Capua and Robert Guiscard. The rights of the
future emperor, Henry IV, were to be still observed and respected but his authority would
no longer be all conquering. From the papacy’s point of view, at least, it had now become
the one true universal authority, reducing the emperor to a role of mere temporal
leadership. When the German royal court attempted to install an anti-pope, Honorius II,
in opposition to Alexander II, successor to Nicholas II in October 1061, the failure of
whom clearly showed the weakness of the imperial authority.
         The effects of these developments cannot be underestimated, particularly in their
role in causing the split between Henry IV and Gregory VII. All had taken place while
Henry remained a minor (though he did preside, as an eleven year old, over the
nomination of Honorius II). It could be argued that, as such, much of his power had been
snatched from behind his back. Naturally, this was a situation that he was never likely to
tolerate once he came of age.
         Stefan Weinfurter has pointed out that Henry never attempted to create any sort of
positive relationship with the church reformers and that this can be, and has, been
identified as incompetence.6 The former point, at least, can hardly be disputed.
Discounting the distinctly insincere events at Canassa in 1076/77 (where Henry begged
for the pope’s forgiveness and pardon for excommunication), it does not appear that he
ever made a genuine effort to reconcile his differences with the Church. On the other
hand, of course, (and, really, just as significantly for the fates of Gregory and Henry), the
papacy seems to have taken the rather naïve view that Henry would simply accept his
weakened position. Perhaps they presumed that he would follow his father in supporting
papal reform or, failing that, that he would fear their new Norman allies too much to

 Stefan Weinfurter, “The Salian Century,” Translated by Barbara M. Bowlus, (Philadelphia, 1999),
interfere. It seems, however, that they erred on both counts, and most especially on the
         A face-off, then, was inevitable. It occurred over the archbishopric of Milan. Both
sides nominated candidates to the position, with both having cases for doing so. The
papacy could not allow such a high-ranking position to be controlled by the emperor if it
were to maintain the gains it had already made in eradicating lay investiture. However,
equally, Henry could not allow such an important political position (Milan controlling the
way through the Alps) to slip out of his sphere of authority. Again, the stubbornness of
both sides only contributed to the dispute. Eventually, Gregory lost patience with Henry
and in 1075 forbade any man to invest a cleric with a high-ranking church position.
Henry ignored the warning and even attempted to install another candidate in Milan,
while also continuing to consort with five counselors who had been excommunicated by
Alexander II. For the first time, the breach had become open. Conflict between emperor
and pope and begun.
         As we have seen, the roots of this problem were deep, stretching back over two
hundred years. Undoubtedly too, chance played a part, throwing together as it did two
volatile figures such as Henry and Gregory. However, it is difficult to escape the notion
that, more than a clash of two men, this was a conflict between two institutions. As such,
it ranged wider than those two men, its causes being the very make up of systems
(imperial church) and movements (papal reform, originating in Cluny) that were never
quite compatible. Perhaps if the clash had occurred when less headstrong characters had
been at the forefront, its impact could have been lessened. Yet, it is unlikely that it could
ever have been avoided, even if the names Henry IV and Gregory VII had never emerged
onto the world stage. For, essentially, the problem lay in the fact that, as L. Elliot Binns
puts it:
         “The Middle Ages with their fondness for figures, represented Christendom as a
pyramid, in the papal scheme the apex was the supreme pontiff; in the imperial, God was
the apex, with Pope and Emperor on a level below Him.”7
Such contrasting worldviews could never have co-existed peacefully forever.

  L. Elliot-Binns, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Medieval Papacy,” (USA, 1934), pp.3
   1) Barraclough, Geoffrey, “The Medieval Papacy,” (London, 1978).
   2) Deanesly, Margaret, “A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1500,” (London,
       1925), 9th edition.
   3) Davies, R.H.C., “A History of Medieval Europe,” (Great Britain, 1957), 2nd ed.
   4) Elliot-Binns, L., “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Medieval Papacy,”
       (USA, 1934)
   5) Haverkamp, Alfred, “Medieval Germany, 1056-1273,” Translated by Helga
       Braun and Richard Mortimer, (U.S., 1988).
   6) Keen, Maurice, “A History of Medieval Europe,” (Great Britain, 1967).
   7) Partner, Peter, “The Lands of St. Peter,” (Los Angeles, 1972).
   8) Southern, R. W., “Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages,” (Great
       Britain, 1960).
   9) Ullman, Walter “A short history of the Papacy in the Middle Age”, (Great
       Britain, 1972).
   10) Weinfurter, Stefan, “The Salian Century,” Translated by Barbara M. Bowlus,
       (Philadelphia, 1999).

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