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Jan 28 - Excommunicating an Emperor

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Today we remember in 1077 the famous midwinter penitential Walk to Canossa by King Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry petitioned the remarkable Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication. Gregory had tested like never before, Jesus gift of authority to Peter ' Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven'. What led to this? What reforms was Gregory trying to make? Was he successful ? Listen on todays pod..... and below in the blog there is small reflection on power.


Today saw the excommunication of Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, is lifted after he humbled himself before Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in Italy. Pope Gregory had embarked on an incredibly ambitious programme to reform the church. This involved reasserting administrative power at a local level, for instance disciplining corrupt priests, but also at an international level, separating the church from the patronage of kings and rulers, specifically in their power to appoint bishops. This came to a head in a stand off with the King Henry IV of Germany, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor. The Empire was considered by the Church to be the only legal successor of the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Henry was therefore the King of Italy and the King of Germany making him the first among equals among other Roman Catholic monarchs across Europe.

In Gregory’s eyes the worldly realm, the saecularia had polluted the heavenly realm for too long. Bishops in the imperial lands would receive the signs of their authority, the Crozier (the shepherds crook) and their episcopal ring from Henry and swear an oath of loyalty to him. This infuriated Gregory, Bishops were servants of God alone, the Church had to be freed from the State. His canon lawyers assured him that the pope was permitted to depose an emperor. Gregory was expansive in his use of papal power. After Henry demanded his resignation, Gregory refused and declared from the Lateran Basilica that Henry was ‘bound by the chain of anathema’. This was taking Christs conferring of authority to Peter seriously. ’Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosened and whatever you bind shall remain bound’. However, to excommunicate the Holy Roman Emperor was a bold test of papal authority, Essentially by asserting himself like this it created a bit of a vacuum. The impact was momentous, Henrys authority badly damaged, and many of his princely vassals started dismembering the empire. Henry resorted to a desperate gamble, and in the dead of winter he crossed the Alps and headed for the castle of Canossa where he knew Gregory was staying. According to the Gregory’s own register he stood there barefoot and clad in wool waiting to be summoned into the Popes presence. Exaggerations aside, it is a primitive power play to force someone to wait to see you.

Born into a simple family, the authority of the man Hildebrand of Savona was more than his office. His force of character and perceived integrity meant that when Hildebrand became Pope Gregory, one of the few popes elected by acclamation. On the death of his predecessor, as the obsequies were being performed in the Lateran Basilica, there arose a loud outcry from the clergy and people: "Let Hildebrand be pope!", Hildebrand is said to have immediately fled, and hid himself for some time. He was finally found at the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, and elected pope by the assembled cardinals, amid the repeated acclamations of the people. Now declared a saint by the Catholic Church, a rare thing for popes of the time, many who had to make disedifying compromises with worldly power. It seems that Gregory’s zeal, moral force, and religious conviction, seemed to, ensure the loyalty and service of a wide variety of men and women. But in a confrontation that was to rumble on, eventually Henry would appoint an Antipope Clement III to oppose him. Gregory was compelled to withdraw to Monte Cassino, the home of the influential Benedictine order and later to the castle of Salerno by the sea, where he would die. Three days before his death, he withdrew all the censures of excommunication that he had pronounced, except those against the two chief offenders – Henry and the antipope. Dying in exile in Salerno; the epitaph on his sarcophagus in the city's Cathedral says: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I die in exile “. History has proved the Gregorian reform to have been remarkably effective.


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