At the same time Henry wrote to the cardinals and the Roman people to aid him in the election of a new pope. Roland, a priest of Parma, brought the letter to Rome at the end of February, as Gregory was just holding a synod of a hundred and ten bishops, and concluded his message with the words, “I tell you; brethren, that you must appear at Pentecost before the king to receive from his hands a pope and father; for this man here is not pope, but a ravening wolf.” This produced a storm of indignation. The prelates drew swords and were ready to kill him on the spot, but Gregory remained calm, and protected him against violence.
On the next day (February 22) the pope excommunicated and deposed Henry in the name of St. Peter, and absolved his subjects from their path of obedience. He published the ban in a letter to all Christians. The sentence of deposition is as follows: “Blessed Peter, prince of the Apostles, incline thine ear unto me, and hear me, thy servant, whom from childhood thou didst nurse and protect against the wicked to this day. Thou and. my lady, the mother of God, and thy brother, St. Paul, are my witnesses that the holy Roman Church has drawn me to the helm against my will, and that I have not risen up like a robber to thy seat [we may recall from our preceding article that Henry IV, in his insulting letter to the pope of January 24, 1076. had declared that Gregory had won his power through craft, flattery, bribery, and force, and had despised the precept of the true pope, St. Peter.—H.V.]. Rather would I have been a pilgrim my whole life long than have snatched to myself thy chair on account of temporal glory and in a worldly spirit . . . By thy intercession God has entrusted me with the power to bind and to loose on earth and in heaven. Therefore, relying on this trust, for the honor and security of the Church, in the name of the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I do prohibit Henry, king, son of Henry the emperor, from ruling the kingdom of the Teutons and of Italy, because with unheard of pride he has lifted himself up against thy Church; and I release all Christians from the oath of allegiance to him which they have taken, or shall take, and I forbid that any shall serve him as king. For it is fitting that he who will touch the dignity of the Church should lose his own. And inasmuch as he has despised obedience by associating with the excommunicate, by many deeds of iniquity, and by spurning the warnings which I have given him for his good, I bind him in the bands of anathema; that all nations of the earth may know that thou art Peter, and that upon the rock the Son of the living God hath built His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The empress-widow was present when the anathema was pronounced on her son. At the same time the pope excommunicated all the German and Italian bishops who had deposed him at Worms and Piacenza.
This was a most critical moment, and the signal for a deadly struggle between the two greatest potentates in Christendom. Never before had such a tremendous sentence been pronounced upon a crowned head. The deposition of Childeric by Pope Zacharias was only the sanction of the actual rule of Pepin. Gregory threatened also King Philip of France with deposition, but did not execute it. Now the heir of the crown of Charlemagne was declared an outlaw by the successor of the Galilean fisherman, and Europe accepted the decision. There were not wanting, indeed, voices of discontent and misgivings about the validity of a sentence which justified the breaking of a solemn oath. All conceded the papal right of excommunication, but not the right of deposition. If Henry had commanded the respect and love of his subjects, he might have defied Gregory. But the religious sentiment of the age sustained the pope, and was far less shocked by the papal excommunication and deposition of the king than by the royal deposition of the pope. It was never forgotten that the pope had crowned Charlemagne, and it seemed natural that his power to bestow implied his power to withhold or to take away.
Gregory had not a moment’s doubt as to the justice of his act. He invited the faithful to pray, and did not neglect the dictates of worldly prudence. He strengthened his military force in, Rome, and reopened negotiations with Robert Guiseard and Roger. In Northern Italy he had a powerful ally in Countess Matilda, who, by the recent death of her husband and her mother, had come into full possession of vast dominions, and furnished a bulwark against the discontented clergy and nobility of Lombardy and an invading army from Germany. The excommunication of Henry in 1076 and again in 1080 called forth a controversial literature of some proportions, as did Gregory’s attitude towards simony and clerical celibacy. The anti-Gregorians took the ground that the exctimmunication was unjust and even called in question the pope’s right to excommunicate a king. Gregory’s letters make reference to these objections. Writing to a certain Hermann of Metz, Gregory said that there were some who openly declared that a king should not be excommunicated. Gregory justified his act on the ground of the king’s companionship with excommunicated persons, his refusal to offer repentance for crimes, and the rupture of the unity of the Church which resulted from the king’s course. The Council of Tribur, Oct. 16, 1076, discussed the question whether a pope might excommunicate a king and whether Gregory had acted justly in excommunicating Henry. It answered both questions in the affirmative. A hundred years after the event, Otto of Freising speaks of the sentence as unheard of before.
When Henry received the tidings of the sentence of excommunication and deposition, he burst into a furious rage, abused Gregory as a hypocrite, heretic, murderer, perjurer, adulterer, and threatened to fling back the anathema upon his head. William, bishop of Utrecht, had no scruples in complying with the king’s wishes, and from the pulpit of his cathedral anathematized Gregory as “a perjured monk who had dared to lift up his head against the Lord’s anointed.” Henry summoned a national council to Worms on Whitsunday (May 15) to protest against the attempt of Gregory to unite in one hand the two swords which God had separated.
This was the famous figure for the spiritual and temporal power afterwards often employed by the popes, who claimed that God had given both swords to the Church,—the spiritual sword, to be borne by her; the temporal, to be wielded by the State for the Church, that is, in subjection and obedience to the Church.
The council at Worms was attended by few bishops and proved a failure. A council in Mainz, June 29, turned out no better, and Henry found it necessary to negotiate. Saxony was lost; prelates and nobles deserted him. A diet at Tribur, an imperial castle near Mainz, held Oct. 16, 1076, demanded that he should submit to the pope, seek absolution from him within twelve months from the date of excommunication, at the risk of forfeiting his crown. He should then appear at a diet to be held at Augsburn on Feb. 2, 1077, under the presidency of the pope. Meanwhile he was to abide at Spires in strict privacy, in the sole company of his wife, the bishop of Verdun, and a few servants chosen by the nobles. The legates of Gregory were treated with marked respect, and gave absolution to the excommunicated bishops, including Siegfried of Mainz, who submitted to the pope.
Henry spent two dreary months in seclusion at Spires, shut out from the services of the Church and the affairs of the State. At last he made up his mind to seek absolution, as the only means of saving his crown. There was no time to be lost; only a few weeks remained till the Diet of Augsburn, which would decide his fate.
The winter of 1076-1077 was one of the coldest and longest within the memory of men—the Rhine being frozen to a solid mass from November till April—and one of the most memorable in history—being marked by an event of typical significance. The humiliation of the head of the German Empire at the feet of the bishop of Rome at Canossa means the subjection of the State to the Church and the triumph of the Hildebrandian policy.
A few days before Christmas, Henry IV left Spires on a journey across the Alps as a penitent, seeking absolution from the pope. He was accompanied by his wife with her infant son Conrad (born August, 1071 j and one faithful servant. Bertha, daughter of the margrave Odo of Turin and Adelheid of Susa, was betrothed to Henry in 1055 at Zurich, and married to him, July 13, 1066. She was young, beautiful, virtuous, and amiable; but he preferred to live with mistresses; and three years after the marriage he sought a divorce, with the aid of the unprincipled archbishop Siegfried of Mainz. The pope very properly refused his consent. The king gave up his wicked intention, and became attached to Bertha. She was born to love and to suffer, and accompanied him as a comforting angel through the bitter calamities of his life.
The royal couple passed through Burgundy and Susa under the protection of Count William and the mother of Bertha, and crossed Mont Cenis. The queen and her child were carried up and lowered down the icy slopes in rough sledges of oxhide; some horses were killed, but no human lives lost. When Henry reached the plains of Lombardy, he was received with joy by the anti-Hildebrandian party; but he hurried on to meet the successor of Peter, who alone could give him absolution.
He left his wife and child at Reggio, and, accompanied by his mother-in-law and a few friends, he climbed up the steep hill to Canossa, where Gregory was then stopping on his journey to the Diet of Augsburn, waiting for a safe conduct across the Alps.
Canossa, now in ruins, was an impregnable fortress of the Countess Matilda, south of Reggio, on the northern slope of the Apennines, surrounded by three walls, and including a castle, a chapel, and a convent. This castle was, destroyed by the inhabitants of Reggio in 1255. The site affords a magnificent view of the Apennines towards the south, and of the plain of the Po towards the north, and the cities of Parma, Reggio, and Modena. An excursion from Reggio to Canossa and back can be made in eight hours.
The pope had already received a number of excommunicated bishops and noblemen, and given or promised them absolution after the case of the chief sinner against the majesty of St. Peter should be decided.
Henry arrived at the foot of the castle-steep, Jan. 21, 1077, when the cold was severe and the ground covered with snow. He had an interview with Matilda and Hugo, abbot of Cluny, his godfather, and declared his willingness to submit to the pope if he was released from the interdict. But Gregory would only absolve him on condition that he would surrender to him his crown and forever resign the royal dignity. The king made the last step to secure the mercy of the pope: he assumed the severest penances which the Church requires from a sinner, as a sure way to absolution. For three days, from the 25th to the 28th of January, he stood in the court between the inner walls as a penitent suppliant, with bare head and feet, in a coarse woolen shirt, shivering in the cold, and knocked in vain for entrance at the gateway, which still perpetuates in its name, “Porta di penitenza,” the memory of this event. During the night the king was under shelter.