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The Walk to Canossa: The Tale of an Emperor and a Pope

Ever since it happened people have been debating what took place at Canossa. Some have called it a brilliant masterstroke by Emperor Henry IV, while others have termed it his humiliation. The events leading up to January 28, 1077 are considered one of the most dramatic moments of the Middle Ages, and perhaps the most murky when it comes to understanding what really took place at this Italian castle.

The Walk to Canossa by August von Heyden (19th century)

About a year earlier, on February 22, 1076, Pope Gregory VII made the following pronouncement at Rome:

…on behalf of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and by your power and authority, I deny to King Henry, son of the Emperor Henry, who with unheard-of pride has risen up against your church, the government of the whole kingdom of the Germans and of Italy; I absolve all Christians from the bond of any oath that they have made or shall make to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king. For it is fitting that, because he has striven to diminish the honour of your church, he himself should forfeit the honour that he seems to possess. Finally, because he has disdained to show the obedience of a true Christian and has not returned to the God whom he forsook by communing with excommunicated men, by – as you are my witness – disdaining my advice which I sent him for his salvation, and by attempting to rend your church and separating himself from it, by your authority I bind him with excommunication.

News soon spread throughout Europe that the Pope had excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor and stripped of his right to rule. It was the culmination to an increasingly bitter dispute that Gregory had with Henry, one that threatened to plunge both Germany and Italy into civil war.

Gregory VII

Gregory was in his mid-50s around this time, and had already developed a reputation that made many friends and just as many enemies. Born Hildebrand of Sovana, he was the son of blacksmith, and as a young man began working for important officials within the Catholic Church. It was during this time that he would see the Papacy riven with infighting and corruption, with multiple men claiming to be Pope. In 1046 Emperor Henry III would travel down to Italy and oversee the deposition of Pope Gregory VI, who was Hildebrand’s boss at the time.

Hildebrand’s career within the Papal government continued to rise, and by the late 1050s he was perhaps the most important official in Rome with the exception of the Pope. Hildebrand was also zealous reformer, who wanted to eliminate long standing church practices, such as allowing priests to be married and simony, which was the buying and selling of church positions. He found his share of supporters who believed that Catholic church had lost its way, and had become subservient to the rulers of Europe, most notably the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1073 Hildebrand became Pope – he was not elected in the traditional sense but was acclaimed by the people of Rome. He took the name of Gregory VII.

Meanwhile, the emperor at the time was the young Henry IV. He was only five-years old when his father, Henry III, died in 1056. Nearly all of his reign to this point was spent trying to maintain his power against the nobility of the empire. He was also eager to continue the practice where emperors actually chose who would be the bishops in various German cities, which at the time was not only an important religious position, but also included a lot of secular authority. Pope Gregory had demanded this practice stop, and their dispute, known as the Investiture Controversy, heated up.

Henry IV sitting with an Antipope Clement III

The political dispute between Pope and Emperor soon got personal, as both men and their followers disparaged each other. Gregory would be accused of practicing necromancy, hiring assassins, and even destroying the eucharist; meanwhile the Pope would excommunicate Henry’s supporters and threaten to do so with the Emperor. The pro-Imperial side would eventually renounce the Pope, claiming he had never been elected properly, and called him to step down from position in Rome. Once Henry had voiced his support for that position, Gregory replied by excommunicating the emperor in early 1076.

It was a bold move for a Pope to say that he could deprive an emperor of his right to rule, when it was just a generation ago that the emperors were determining who could sit on the Papal throne. As one historian noted, “the papal ban was seen to speedily efficacious. It frightened the more timid of Henry’s adherents, it impressed moderate men who had been horrified by the king’s attack on the Pope. Moreover, it gave the excuse for revolt to raise its head in Saxony once more, and to win adherents from the among the higher nobility in the rest of Germany, alienated by the high-handed measures of the king in his moment of triumph and resenting their own lack of influence in the affairs of the kingdom.”

Throughout the summer and fall of 1076 the supporters of Henry abandoned him, while his foes became more brazen. At a council held in Tribur the German princes made a demand of the emperor – if Henry had not received absolution from the Pope by February 22, 1077, he would automatically be deposed and replaced by a new candidate. They even invited Gregory to come to Augsburg to preside over a meeting that month where they would make the choice on who the new emperor would be.

The Pope was delighted by this news, and as winter approached he left Rome in the company of Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, who had been fighting the Emperor over her lands in Italy (the pro-Imperial side also sent out rumours that Gregory and Matilda were more than just allies). They headed to northern Italy, waiting for the German princes to send them an escort to take them through the Swiss Alps.

Meanwhile Henry IV faced with the real possibility that he would be deposed in just a few months, and with little support in Germany, he decided on a bold move – he would go to Italy. While most of passes over the Alps were guarded by his opponents, he found one who could be bribed enough for him to be allowed through. In December, with an entourage of only about 50 people, including his wife and infant son, Henry began his trek southwards.

Chroniclers report that the winter of 1076-7 was one of the harshest they had ever seen, and Henry had to cross the formidable Swiss Alps. Lampert of Hersfeld, whose Annals is one of the best sources for the events of this episode, reports:

He therefore hired certain natives of the region, who were skilled and well accustomed to the rugged summits of the Alps. They were to lead his entourage over the steep mountains and the huge mass of snow and to smooth the unevenness of the path by whatever means they could for those who were following. When, with these men as their guides, they had with great difficulty reached the summit of the mountain, there was no possibility of advancing further. For the mountain side was precipitous and, so they said, slippery because of the icy cold and seemed to rule out entirely any hope of descent. In that situation the men tried to overcome every danger using their own strength, now crawling on their hands and feet, now clinging to the shoulders of their guides and also occasionally, when a foot slipped on an icy surface, falling and rolling down for a considerable distance. At last with difficulty and for a time at serious risk of their lives they reached the plains. The queen and the other women who were in her service were placed in the hides of oxen and the guides who had been hired to lead the expedition dragged them down behind them. Some of the horses they lowered down the mountainside by means of certain contrivances; others they spancelled and dragged down but many of these died while they were being dragged and very many were crippled: very few were able to escape the peril safe and sound.

News soon spread of his arrival in Italy, and the Pope feared that he might be coming to capture him (or do even worse). The Emperor had many supporters among the Italian nobility, enough to raise an army. Countess Matilda took Gregory to her castle at Canossa, where they waited to see what Henry was planning.

16th century depiction of the scene outside Canossa

On January 25, 1077, with a blizzard raging, Henry arrived at the gates of Canossa. Here is Gregory’s own account, written just weeks after, of what happened:

Finally he came in person to Canossa, where we were staying, bringing with him only a small retinue and manifesting no hostile intentions. Once arrived, he presented himself at the gate of the castle, barefoot and clad only in wretched woollen garments, beseeching us with tears to grant him absolution and forgiveness. This he continued to do for three days, until all those about us were moved to compassion at his plight and interceded for him with tears and prayers. Indeed, they marvelled at our hardness of heart, some even complaining that our action savored rather of heartless tyranny than of chastening severity. At length his persistent declarations of repentance and the supplications of all who were there with us overcame our reluctance, and we removed the excommunication from him and received him again into the bosom of the holy mother church.

Lampert of Hersfeld’s version is very similar:

His whole entourage was left outside and he himself, laying aside his royal garb, with nothing in his appearance, with no display on splendour, with bare feet, he remained fasting from morning to evening, waiting for the judgment of the Roman pontiff. He did this on the second day and on the third day. At last on the fourth day he was allowed to come into the pope’s presence and after many arguments nd counter-arguments he was finally absolved from excommunication…

12th century illustration showing Hugh of Cluny, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and Matilda of Tuscany from the Life of the Countess Matilda of Canossa

The account written by a supporter of Countess Matilda has her playing more of a central role in the affair, acting as the key intermediary. At one point the emperor begs her “If you do not help me in this moment I cannot fight anymore because the Pope has condemned me. O valiant cousin, make him bless me. Go!” Finally, if you were reading a pro-Henry chronicler, than most of these details would be conveniently left out, replaced with a simple notice that the emperor was able to get his sentence of excommunication lifted.

Before being absolved, Henry had to promise Gregory that he would behave better and gave the following oath:

I, Henry, king, promise to satisfy the grievances which my archbishops, bishops, dukes, counts, and other princes of Germany or their followers may have against me, within the time set by pope Gregory and in accordance with his conditions. If I am prevented by any sufficient cause from doing this within that time, I will do it as soon after that as I may. Further, if Pope Gregory shall desire to visit Germany or any other land, on his journey thither, his sojourn there, and his return thence, he shall not be molested or placed in danger of captivity by me or by anyone whom I can control. This shall apply to his escort and retinue and to all who come and go in his service. Moreover, I will never enter into any plan for hindering or molesting him, but will aid him in good faith and to the best of my ability if anyone else opposes him.

Once that was done the Pope held a mass and gave communion to Henry. Afterwards they had dinner, and according to another chronicler the Emperor was in such a bad mood that he did not touch his food, but instead spent his time grinding his fingernails into the wooden table. With a final blessing from Gregory, Henry departed Canossa and headed back to his supporters.

Almost as soon as the event happened, people were debating what was the real significance of the Walk to Canossa. Had Henry humiliated himself and become subservient to the Papacy? Or was he deft enough that he framed the issue around his personal repentance and this situation had no bearing on his right to kingship? Medieval chroniclers (and modern historians) have argued about this, but the immediate effect was the threat from the rebellious German nobility collapsed – only a few diehards continued to oppose him. Meanwhile, the Pope tried to explain that just because he absolved Henry that did not mean he was still allowing him to be emperor.

Within three years the Emperor and the Pope were fighting again, with Gregory excommunicating Henry for a second time. However, by this time the bitterness between the two men had only grown, and Henry would not return to seek forgiveness. Instead both sides fought to depose each other, and war would be waged in both Germany and Italy. The fighting over the Investiture Controversy would continue long after both Gregory and Henry were dead.

The Walk to Canossa has been remembered by historians and artists, and continues to be seen as one of those fascinating episodes that make the Middle Ages so interesting. The broader implications, however, are less clear, but reflect on how the conflict between church and state would remain one of the main themes in the history of medieval Europe.

Further Reading – Primary Sources

The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII: Selected Letters from the Registrum, trans. Ephraim Emerton (Columbia University Press, 1932)

Imperial Lives and Letter of the Eleventh Century, trans. Theodor Mommsen and Karl Morrison (Columbia University Press, 1962)

The Papal Reform of the Eleventh Century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII, trans. I.S. Robinson (Manchester University Press, 2004)

Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles, trans. I.S. Robinson (Manchester University Press, 2008)

The Chronicles of the Investiture Contest: Frutolf of Michelsberg and His Continuators, trans. T.J.H. McCarthy (Manchester University Press, 2014)

The Annals of Lampert of Hersfeld, trans. I.S. Robinson (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Secondary Sources

Cowdrey, H.E.J., Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085 (Clarendon Press, 1998)

Morrison, Karl F., “Canossa: A Revision”, Traditio, Vol.18 (1962) pp.121–58

Robinson, I.S., Henry IV of Germany 1056-1106 (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Spike, Michele K., Tuscan Countess: The Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa (Vendome Press, 2004)

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