August 7 – Opponent of Gregory VII

August 6, 2018

Henry IV

German King and Roman Emperor, son of Henry III and Agnes of Poitou, b. at Goslar, 11 November, 1050; d. at Liège, 7 August, 1108. The power and resources of the empire left behind by Conrad II, which Henry III had already materially weakened, were still further impaired by the feebleness of the queen regent, who was devoid of political ability. The policy of Henry III, which had been chiefly directed to Church affairs, had already called forth the opposition of the princes. But now, under the regency, which continued the same policy, the hostility between the ecclesiastical and temporal nobles came to a climax on the kidnapping of the king from Kaiserswert (1062). The regency passed into the hands of of the princes after the seizure of the boy-king. At the outset Archbishop Anno of Cologne had charge of the government of the empire and supervised the education of the royal child. But he was soon compelled to accept the energetic Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen, as a colleague. The boy’s whole heart went out to the joyous, splendour-loving Archbishop of Bremen. That prelate was now de facto the real ruler of Germany. He returned with vigorous steps to the deserted paths of Conrad II’s policy and attempted, not in vain, to restore the empire’s prestige, particularly in the East. At the Diet of Tribur this masterful prelate fell a victim to the jealous hostility of the princes (1066). It now appeared that the young king was quite able to satisfy his violent craving for independence; and he determined to carry out the policy of Adalbert.

Emperor Henry IV Jumps from the Ship of his Kidnapper, the Archbishop of Cologne, engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781.

Henry IV’s real political independence did not begin until 1070. When he seized the reins of government, thanks to the energetic rule of Adalbert, the condition of the empire was no worse than at the death of Henry III. But, meantime, the papacy had been entirely emancipated from the imperial power, and the German Church, on which Otto the Great had built up his power, had become more closely united to Rome and ceased to be a constitutional state church. Consequently, though this did not appear immediately, the foundations of the Othonian system were undermined. Strong and energetic popes had appeared on the scene and found allies. On the one hand the powers of Lorraine and Tuscany offered a valuable support to the papacy in Central Italy. Here Beatrice of Tuscany had contracted a matrimonial alliance with the unruly Duke Godfrey of Lorraine. On the other hand Hildebrand’s admirable conciliatory policy had likewise gained allies in the southern half of the peninsula among the Normans. And finally the high Church party did not lack friends even in Northern Italy. The Pataria of Milan, a democratic movement that combined an economic with an ecclesiastical reform agitation, was won over by Hildebrand to the cause of the Papal See.

Henry IV and his wife Bertha of Savoy

This policy inaugurated by Hildebrand had already indicated opposition to the empire. It is true that on the German side there was a reaction against violations of the legal status prevailing in papal elections and other affairs: but definiteness of aim and enduring vigour were on the side of the reform party and its masterful spokesman Hildebrand, who, as Gregory VII, was soon to come forward as the young king’s opponent. (See CONFLICT OF INVESTITURES.) Hatred and passion distorted the portraits of both these men in contemporary history. Even to-day we can see only faint outlines of these two men, the central figures of a tragedy of world-wide historical import. We know that Henry IV had a good literary education, but that his literary and artistic interests were not profound and were not, as in the case of his father, submerged in unpractical idealism. He was a conscious realist. He failed altogether to understand the politico-religious aims of his father’s policy. Some of his contemporaries disparaged his moral character, with some justice perhaps, but certainly with much exaggeration. Of course his nature was passionate: that is probably the reason he never in his whole life acquired a refined harmony of character. At times he was plunged in the depths of despair, but he always reacted against the most serious disasters, overcame the worst fits of despondency and was ready to renew the combat. He was also a clever, though perhaps not always an honest diplomat. This hapless king was truly the idol of his people because of his pride as a ruler, his earnest defence of the dignity of the empire and his benevolent care for the peace of the empire and the welfare of the common people.

Henry had no sooner become independent than he reverted to the principles that governed the policy of Conrad II. He also founded his military power on the ministerials, the lower nobility. These ministerials were to counterbalance the power of the spiritual and temporal princes, the latter of whom, however, were beginning to achieve territorial independence and to establish within the State a power that could not be overestimated. With his usual hopefulness Henry expected to be able to crush them: he believed that he could at least revive the power of Conrad II. Henry’s strong hand first made itself felt in Bavaria. Otto von Northeim lost his duchy and important possessions in Saxony besides. The king bestowed the duchy on Guelph IV, son of Azzo of Este. We now see at once how well considered was Henry’s policy; for from the Saxon lands of Otto von Northeim he sought to create a well rounded personal domain which was to provide an economic basis for his royal power. This personal domain he sought to protect by means of royal fortresses. But to the ever restless Saxons, whose ancient rights the king had indubitably violated in the consolidation of his landed possessions, these fortresses might well appear so many threats to their liberties. Soon, not only in Saxony, but elsewhere throughout the empire, the particularist princes rose to oppose the vigorous centralizing policy of the emperor. The situation assumed a dangerous aspect. Henry’s diplomatic skill was now shown. Through the mediation of the spiritual princes the Treaty of Gerstungen (1074) was effected, by which, on the one hand, the king’s possessions were left intact, while, on the other, the insurgents secured the dismantling of the royal fortresses and the restoration of all their rights. But soon the revolt broke out anew and was not subdued until Henry’s victory at the Unstrut (1075), which resulted in the overthrow of Saxony. Henry seemed to have attained all his desires. In truth, however, the particularist forces had only withdrawn for the moment and were awaiting a favourable opportunity to break the chains which fettered their independence. The opportunity soon came.

In 1073 Hildebrand had ascended the papal throne as Gregory VII. The “greatest ecclesiastical statesman”, as von Ranke calls him, directed his attacks against the traditional right of the German kings to participate in the filling of vacant sees. At the Lenten synod of 1075 in Rome he forbade investiture by laymen. The bishops were to cease being dependents of the Crown and become materially the dependents of the papacy. That foreboded a death-blow to the existing constitution of the empire. The bishops of the empire were also the most important officials of the empire: the imperial church domains were also the chief source of income of the emperor. It was a question of life and death for the German Crown to retain its ancient influence over the bishops. A bitter conflict between the two powers began. A synod at Worms (1076) deposed Gregory. Bishops and king again found their interests threatened by the papacy. Gregory’s answer to Henry’s action was to excommunicate him at the Lenten synod of the same year. For the particularist powers this was the signal of revolt. At Tribur Henry’s opponents formed an alliance. Here the final decision in Henry’s case was left to the pope, and a resolution was passed that if Henry were not freed from excommunication within a year he should forfeit the empire. At this critical juncture, Henry decided on a surprising step. He submitted himself to solemn ecclesiastical penance and thus forced Gregory as a priest to free him from excommunication (1077).

The excommunicated Henry IV at Canossa doing public penance with Pope Gregory VII looking on. Painting by Eduard Schwoiser

By doing so Gregory in no wise gave up his design of making himself the arbiter of Germany. In Gregory’s opinion Henry’s penance could only postpone but not prevent this arbitration. Henry was satisfied once more to set his feet on solid ground. But the German princes now broke out into open revolution. They set Rudolph of Rheinfelden up as a rival king. With his difficulties, however, Henry’s ability grew more apparent. He had recourse to his superior resources as a diplomatist. In his struggle with the pope, who took the side of the German princes, he made use of the opposition within the Church in Italy against the hierarchical aims of the Curia; in his dispute with the princes and their rival king Henry looked for support to the loyalty of the masses, who honoured him as the preserver of order and peace. After several years of civil war, Rudolph lost his throne and his life at Mölsen in 1080. By his death the opposition in Germany lost their leader. In Italy also affairs took a more favourable turn for Henry. It is true that in 1080 the pope had excommunicated Henry anew, but the ban did not make the same impression as before. Henry retorted by setting up Guibert of Ravenna, who proclaimed himself antipope under the title of Clement III. The growing opposition within the Church aided Henry on his journey to Rome in 1081. From 1081 to 1084 he went four times to the Eternal City. Finally his antipope was able to crown him in St. Peter’s. Soon after the pope was liberated by his Norman allies and escorted to Salerno, where he died, 25 May, 1085.

St. Hugh the Great played a crucile part in the historic clash between Pope St. Gregory VII and the Emperor Henry IV. In this medieval illustration, St. Hugh and Countess Matilda of Tuscany meet with Henry IV.

The struggle was continued under Gregory’s second successor, Urban II, who was determined to follow in Gregory’s footsteps. Germany was suffering from the horrors of civil war, and the great masses of of the people still supported their king, who in 1085 proclaimed the Truce of God for the whole empire. By means of skilful negotiation he now succeeded in winning over the greater part of the Saxons, to whom he restored their ancient rights. On the other hand the ranks of the bishops loyal to the king had been thinned out by the clever and energetic policy of the pope. Moreover a new and dangerous coalition was formed in Italy when the seventeen-year old Guelph married Matilda of Tuscany who had reached the age of forty. Henry’s efforts to break up this alliance were successful at first; but at this point his son Conrad deserted him. The latter had himself crowned in Milan and formed alliances with the pope and with the Guelph-Tuscan party. This had a paralysing effect on the emperor, who passed the year 1094 inactive in Italy, while the pope became the leader of the West, in the First Crusade. Fortunately for Henry’s interests the younger Guelph now dissolved his marriage with Matilda, and the elder Guelph made his peace with the king once more. The latter was now able to return to Germany and compel his enemies to recognize him. His son Henry was elected king in 1098.

The abdication of Henry IV in favor of Henry V.

Henry sought to restore order once more, even to the point of proclaiming general peace throughout the empire (1103). This policy of pacification benefited the great mass of the people and the rapidly growing cities and was directed against the disorderly lay nobility. Perhaps this may have induced the newly chosen young king to take up arms in rebellion against his father. Perhaps he wished to make sure of the sympathies of this nobility. At all events the younger Henry gathered a host of malcontents around his banner in Bavaria in 1104. Supported by the pope, to whom he swore obedience, he betook himself to Saxony, where he soon reawakened the traditional dissatisfaction. No humiliation was spared the prematurely aging emperor, who was kept prisoner in Böckelheim by his intriguing son and compelled to abdicate, while only those elements on whom he had always relied, particularly the growing cities, stood by him. Once more the emperor succeeded in gathering troops around his standard at Liège. But just as his son was drawing near at the head of an army Henry died. After some opposition his adherents buried him in Speyer. In him perished a man of great importance on whom, however, fortune frowned. Still his achievements considered from the point of view of their historical importance, were by no means insignificant. As defender of the rights of the Crown and of the honour of the empire, he saved the monarchy from a premature end, menaced though it was by the universal disorder.

The funeral of the Emperor Henry IV

See also bibliographies under HENRY III, GREGORY VII, URBAN II, and INVESTITURES, CONFLICT OF; MEYER VON KNONAU, Jahrbächer des Deutschen Reiches unter Heinrich IV. und Heinrich V., I-V (Leipzig, 1890-1904); DIECKMANN, Heinrich IV., seine Persönlichkeit und sein Zeitalter (Wiesbaden, 1889); ECKERLIN, Das Deutsche Reich während der Minderj*hrigkeit Heinrich IV. bis zum Tage von Kaiserswert (Halle Dissertation, 1888); SEIPOLDY, Das Reichsregiment in Deutschland unter König Heinrich IV. 1062-66 (Göttingen Dissertation, 1871); FRIEDRICH, Studien aus Wormser Synode (Greifswald Dissertation, 1905) : the most important literature issued during this period is collected in the Libelli de lite in Monumenta Germaniæ Historica.

Franz Kampers (Catholic Encyclopedia)


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