The stern old pope, as hard as a rock and as cold as the. snow, refused admittance, notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of Matilda and Hugo, till he was satisfied that the cup of humiliation was drained to the dregs, or that further resistance would be impolitic. He first exacted from Henry, as a condition of absolution, the promise to submit to his decision at the approaching meeting of the German nobles under the presidency of the pope as arbiter, and to grant him and his deputies protection on their journey to the north. In the meantime he was to abstain from exercising the functions of royalty. This last point is omitted by a certain Berthold, but expressly mentioned by Lambert of Hersfeld, and confirmed by Gregory, who says in his account of the Canossa event to the German prelates and princes, that he received Henry only, into the communion of the Church, without reinstating him in his reign, and without binding the faithful to their oath of allegiance, reserving this to future decision. The same view he expresses in the sentence of the second excommunication. 

The king made the promise, and two bishops and several nobles, in his behalf, swore upon sacred relics that he would keep it. Hugo, being a monk, could not swear, but pledged his word before the all-seeing God. Hugo, the bishops, nobles, and the Countess Matilda and Adelheid signed the written agreement, which still exists. 

After these preliminaries, the inner gate was opened. The king, in the prime of life, the heir of many crowned monarchs, and a man of tall and noble presence, threw himself at the feet of the gray-haired pope, a man of low origin and of small and unimpressive stature, who by his word had disarmed an empire. He burst into tears, and cried, “Spare me, holy father, spare me.” The company was moved to tears; even the iron pope showed signs of tender compassion. He heard the confession of Henry, raised him up, gave him absolution and his apostolic blessing, conducted him to the chapel, and sealed the reconciliation by the celebration of the Sacrifice of the mass. 

Some chroniclers add the following incident, which has often been repeated, but is very improbable. Gregory, before partaking of the sacrament, called upon God to strike him dead if he were guilty of the crimes charged on him, and, after eating one-half of the consecrated wafer unharmed, he offered the other half to Henry, requesting him to submit to the same awful ordeal! but the king declined it, and referred the whole question to the decision of a general council. This story, however, is discredited by the Catholic historians. The pope had no need to protest his innocence, and had referred the charges against the king to a German tribunal; the king had previously promised him to appear before this tribunal; his present purpose was simply to get rid of the interdict, so as to be free to act. Be declining the ordeal he would have confessed his guilt and justified the pope, and superseded the action of the German tribunal. 

After mass, the pope entertained the king courteously at dinner and dismissed him with some fatherly warnings and counsels, and with his renewed apostolic blessing. 

Henry gained his object, but at the sacrifice of his royal dignity. He confessed by his act of humiliation that the pope had a right to depose a king and heir of the imperial crown, and to absolve subjects from the oath of allegiance. The head of the State acknowledged the temporal supremacy of the Church. Canossa marks the deepest humiliation of the State and the highest exaltation of the Church,—we mean the political papal Church of Rome, not the spiritual Church of Christ, who wore a crown of thorns in this world and who prayed on the cross for his murderers. 

Gregory acted on this occasion in the sole interest of the hierarchy. His own friends, as we learn from his official account to the Germans, deemed his conduct to be “tyrannical cruelty, rather than apostolic severity.” He saw in Henry the embodiment of the secular power in opposition to the ecclesiastical power, and he achieved a signal triumph, but only for a short time. He overshot his mark, and was at last expelled from Rome by the very man against whom he had closed the gate. (However, the question may well be asked: “Did the pope, after all, gain such a signal triumph over Henry J.V, even at Canossa? We must remember that a meeting held Oct. 16, 1076, at Tribur, near Mainz, had demanded of Henry that he should submit to the pope, seek absolution from him within twelve months from the date of excommunication, at the risk of forfeiting the crown. The people of Germany were generally in sympathy with the pope because they resented the iron hand with which Henry had ruled over Germany. And this meeting, Oct. 16, 1076, also decided that Henry should appear at a diet to be held at Augsburg on Feb. 2, 1077, under the presidency of the pope, where the king could present his grievances and where his fate would be decided. Had the king appeared at this meeting, Feb. 2, 1077, while yet under excommunication, he would surely have suffered a shameful defeat and lost his crown. Hence, the king went to Canossa to regain admittance into the church and therefore be able to attend the meeting at Augsburg as in the good graces of the pope. Henry went to Canossa while the pope was on his way to Germany and to Augsburg. In fact, the pope retired into the castle at Canossa, because he had heard that Henry was approaching Italy with a large company of men. When Henry appeared finally, not with a great military, company, but as a penitent, the pope was really put on the spot. Absolution must always be given to the penitent. That is the command of Christ. But the pope was torn between his duty to give absolution and the fear that, from a political viewpoint, it might be unwise to give the king absolution and thereby give him the opportunity to retain his crown. This is probably the reason why he kept the youthful monarch waiting in the cold and snow for three days before granting him an interview. The real struggle was going on in the soul of Gregory. In the end Henry really wrung absolution from the pope and therewith the restoration of his kingdom. The king had humbled himself before the pope and thereby gained a great victory over the German nobles who now no longer had a good reason to resist his occupancy of the throne. Henry had humbled himself to keep his crown. In this he had succeeded.—H.V.) 

Gregory’s relation to Matilda was political and ecclesiastical. The charge of his enemies that he entertained carnal intimacy with her is monstrous and incredible, considering his advanced age and unrelenting war against priestly concubinage. The best modern historians—Protestant as well as Catholic—reject this charge. The countess was the most powerful princess in Northern Italy, and afforded to the pope the best protection against a possible invasion of a Northern army. She was devoted to Hildebrand as the visible head of the Church, and felt proud and happy to aid him. In 1077 she made a reversionary grant of her dominion to the patrimony of Peter (“patrimony” refers to an inheritance from a father or an ancestor; also, any inheritance; an endowment, as of a church—H.V.), and thus increased the fatal gift of Constantine, from which Dante derives the evils of the Church. She continued the war with Henry, and aided Conrad and Henry V in the rebellion against their father. In the political interest of the papacy she contracted, in her fifty-fifth year, a second marriage with Guelph, a youth of eighteen, the son of the Duke of Bavaria, the most powerful enemy of Henry IV (1089)) but the marriage, it seems, was never consummated, and was dissolved a few years afterwards (1095). She died in 1115. It is supposed by many that Dante’s Matilda, who carried him over the river Lethe to Beatrice, is the famous countess; but Dante never mentions Gregory VII, probably on account of his quarrel with the emperor. 

Canossa has become a proverbial name for the triumph of priest craft over king craft. Some seek to make out that Henry’s act at Canossa was regarded by his age as an act of humility and not of humiliation. The contemporary writers speak of it as an act of unheard of and wonderful humility. In view of the profound reverence for the Church which prevailed it may be taken as certain that the people looked upon it as an act of humble piety. But for Henry it was a different thing. As a certain Mirbt agrees, the king was not moved by deep religious concern but by a desire to hold on to his crown. For him Canossa was a humiliation and before the bar of historic judgment the act wherein the State prostrated itself at the feet of the pope must be regarded as a humiliation. Streams of blood have been shed to wipe out the disgrace of Henry’s humiliation before Hildebrand. The memory of that scene was revived in the Culturkampf between the State of Prussia and the Vatican from 1870 to 1587. At the beginning of the conflict, Prince Bismarck declared in the Prussian Chambers that “he would never go to Canossa”; but ten years afterwards he found it politic to move in that direction, and to make a compromise with Leo XIII, who proved his equal as a master of diplomacy. The anti-papal May-laws were repealed, one by one, till nothing is left of them except the technical Anzeigepflicht, a modern term for investiture. The Roman Church gained new strength in Prussia and Germany from legal persecution, and enjoys now more freedom and independence than ever, and much more than the Protestant Church, which has innocently from the operation from the May-laws. 

Renewal of the Conflict. Two Kings and Two Popes

The result of Canossa was civil war in Germany and Italy: king against king, pope against pope, nobles against nobles, bishops against bishops, father against son, and son against father. It lasted several years. Gregory and Henry died in exile. Gregory was defeated by Henry, Henry by his rebellious son. The long wars of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines originated in that period. The Duke Guelph IV of Bavaria was present at Forchheim when Henry was deposed, and took up arms against him. The popes sided with the Guelphs against the Hohenstaufen emperor and the Ghibellines. 

The friends and supporters of Henry in Lombardy and Germany were dissatisfied, and regarded his humiliation as an act of cowardice, and the pope’s conduct as an insult to the German nation and the royal crown. His enemies, a small number of Saxon and Swabian nobles and bishops, assembled at Forchheim, March 18, 1077, and, in the presence of two legates of the pope, but without his express authority, offered the crown of Germany to Rudolf, Duke of Swabia, Henry’s brother-in-law, but on two important conditions (which may be traced to the influence of the pope’s legates), namely, that he should denounce a hereditary claim to the throne, and guarantee the freedom of ecclesiastical appointments. He was crowned March 26, at Mainz, by Archbishop Siegfried, but under bad omens. The consecrated oil ran short, the gospel was read by a simoniacal deacon, the citizens raised a tumult, and Rudolf had to make his escape by night with Siegfried, who never returned. He found little support in Southern Germany, and went to Henry’s enemies in Saxony. Henry, therefore, we can easily understand, regarded this Rudolp as the robber of his crown. But we will continue with Schaff’s description of this in our following article.