HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR CLASHES WITH THE POPE
The Church began to resent the control that kings exercised over the clergy and their offices. Popes felt that decisions concerning their priests should be made by them, as they were head of the church, not secular leaders. The major issue of contention was lay investiture – a ceremony in which kings and nobles appointed church officials. Whoever controlled lay investiture wielded the real power in naming bishops. They were powerful members of the clergy whom kings sought to control. Church reformers felt that bishops should not be under the control and power of any king. One such reformer was Pope Gregory VII. The pope, upon being elected, actively enforced clerical celibacy (priests not allowed to marry or have sexual relations). He also eliminated simony, which was the practice of selling high-ranking official positions in the church. In 1075, Pope Gregory VII abolished lay investiture. This angered many secular leaders.
The furious young Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, immediately called a meeting of the German bishops he had appointed. With their approval, the emperor sent a viscous letter to Gregory [excerpts below]. Henry called Gregory “not pope, but false monk” and ordered him to resign from the papacy. The pope would never take orders from a secular ruler, so Gregory fired back. He excommunicated Henry IV, from the church. Most German bishops and princes sided with the pope, as excommunication of the emperor could lead to a papal interdict, which would deny the people of the Holy Roman Empire access to the sacraments. Henry did not want to upset his subjects and face a possible revolt, so he tried to win the pope’s forgiveness.
In January 1077, Henry journeyed over the snowy Alps to the Italian town of Canossa. He approached the castle where Pope Gregory was a guest. Gregory described the scene: “There, having laid aside all the belongings of royalty, wretchedly, with bare feet and clad in wool, he [Henry IV] continued for three days to stand before the gate of the castle. Nor did he desist from imploring with many tears the aid and consolation of the apostolic mercy until he had moved all of those who were present there…”
The Pope was obligated to forgive any sinner who begged so humbly. Still, Gregory kept Henry waiting in the snow for three days before ending his excommunication.
The meeting in Canossa was one of the most dramatic confrontations of the Middle Ages. Yet it actually solved nothing. A triumphant Henry rushed home to punish the nobles who had supported the pope. The significance of this confrontation was that the pope had gained an even greater victory by humiliating the proudest ruler in Europe and demonstrating his superiority to secular rulers. The key question of lay investiture, however, remained undecided.
Gregory’s and Henry’s successors continued to fight over lay investiture until 1122. That year, representatives of the Church and the emperor met in the German city of Worms. There they reached a compromise known as the Concordat of Worms. By its terms, the Church alone could grant a bishop his ring and staff, symbols of the Church office. Yet, the emperor had the veto power to prevent the appointment of a bishop.
Excerpt from Henry’s letter to Gregory:
“Henry, king not by usurpation [tyranny], but by holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand [pope’s birth name], not pope, but false monk…you have never held any office in the Church without making it a source of confusion and a curse to Christian men, instead of an honor and a blessing…We believe that St. Gregory, whose name you have taken, had you in mind when he said, “The heart of the priest is puffed up by the abundance of subjects, and he thinks himself more powerful than all others…Our Lord Jesus Christ has called us [princes] to the government of the Empire, but He never called you to the rule of the Church.”
Global History I: Spiconardi