Holy Roman Emperor Vs. Holy Roman Father—Henry IV Against The Popes


Henry IV (c. 1050-1106), an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, lived quite an extraordinarily chaotic life in the Middle Ages. Although he was ruler the Holy Roman Empire for most of his reign, he had a dismal relationship with the spiritual leaders of Catholic Christendom, the popes. Even so, the Christian religion played an extremely prominent role in Henry’s life.

Henry IV became the ruler of the Germany-centered Holy Roman Empire in 1056, upon the death of his father, Henry III. As the child-emperor was too young to rule, his mother, Empress Agnes, served as the regent ruler, with helpful aid and advice from Pope Victor II. Unfortunately, the helpful pope only lived until 1057, and after his death, the empress had no luck acquiring competent and loyal advisors. For the next few years, Empress Agnes allowed the regional rulers of the empire to dramatically strengthen themselves against the crown. It would have been an odd childhood experience for Henry IV—the young ruler was even kidnapped in 1062 by the archbishop of Cologne, a man named Anno, who consequently replaced Empress Agnes as regent. The empress was not injured in the change of power, but she did retire to a convent soon after the event.

When Henry IV became old enough to rule by himself in 1065, he shed himself of the regents and other influencers, but found himself in charge of an unstable realm. Nevertheless, he quickly asserted his rule and soon the relationship between the monarch and his vassals began to strain. He announced that he wanted to divorce his wife of three years and also launched building projects at the expense of his vassals in the Harz Mountains. Unfortunately, the emperor’s desire for a divorce caused outrage among the religious circles, and his construction projects in the Harz Mountains set the region of Saxony on a course toward rebellion.

Henry IV was eventually talked out of pursuing divorce, but the threat of a Saxon uprising persisted. Despite, or possibly because of, the arrest of Duke Magnus of Saxony, the Saxons rebelled in 1073, beginning the first of many military challenges to the rule of Henry IV. The rebels were initially successful. In 1074, they had Henry IV momentarily ready to concede to their demands, but he was able to come back and crush the rebellion in 1075.

While Henry IV was dealing with the Saxons, he was also negotiating with Pope Gregory VII over who should become archbishop of Milan. The Pope and the emperor had separate nominees for the position. While Henry IV had been preoccupied with the Saxon rebellion, he had seemed willing to follow the Pope’s lead on the nomination. After the rebellion was defeated, however, Henry IV defied the Pope’s wishes and named a chaplain from the German court as the archbishop of Milan.

The fiasco over the archbishop of Milan caused an ongoing feud between Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. In response to Henry’s decision in Milan, the Pope excommunicated the emperor from the Catholic Church in 1076 and revoked Henry’s divine right to rule, basically giving the regional nobility of the Holy Roman Empire a religious reason to rebel against their king.

The pope’s ploy worked—regions of the empire became so hostile to Henry IV that he was forced to sneak through the Alps to meet with Pope Gregory VII at Canossa, within the realm of Mathilda of Tuscany. There, in 1077, Henry IV put on a grand display of humble penitence for Pope Gregory VII, reportedly even including the wearing of sackcloth clothing. Whatever happened at Canossa, it was convincing enough that Pope Gregory readmitted Henry IV to the Catholic Church and restored his divine right to rule.

With the pope’s forgiveness, Henry IV won back the support of many of his countrymen. Even so, plots were already in motion and factions began to coalesce behind their own claimants to the throne. The most important of these rebels was Rudolf, the Duke of Swabia, who fought against Henry IV for around three years. Pope Gregory VII eventually decided to give official support to Rudolf in 1080, when he once again excommunicated Henry IV and voided his right to rule. Unfortunately for Pope Gregory VII, he backed the wrong faction—Rudolf died in battle before the end of the year.

Henry IV did not forgive the papacy for its meddling. He convened his own religious synod, where he denounced Pope Gregory VII and set up a man named Guibert, the archbishop of Ravenna, as a rival pope. Once Henry IV had contained the rebellions in his own empire, he turned his forces against Rome, where he sieged the city unsuccessfully in 1081 and 1082, but finally forced his way into the city in 1084. In Rome, Henry’s anti-pope, Guibert, took the name Clement III and attempted to replace the exiled Pope Gregory VII as the head of the Catholic Church. Henry also took advantage of the occasion to officially receive the lofty title of Holy Roman Emperor, which had until then been withheld from him by the pope.

Even though the anti-pope, Clement III, was residing in Rome, the legitimate line of popes was still maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine Henry IV. Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099) incited and supported leagues and rebellions against Henry IV, managing to even turn the emperor’s sons (Conrad and Henry V) against their father.

Understandably, Henry IV tried to calm relations, both with his vassals and the Catholic Church. He tried to enforce peace between feuding lords and hoped to gain a pardon from the Church in exchange for going on crusade. His son, however, decided it was time to break away from his controversial father—Henry V rebelled in 1104 and successfully forced his father to abdicate in 1105. Nevertheless, the stubborn Henry IV somehow escaped, raised an army and defeated his son in battle, shortly before dying suddenly in 1106.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture: (Emperor Henry IV (by John Foxe, c. 1563) and Pope Gregory VII (printed 1891), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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