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Pope Gregory VII

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Gregory VII, St. (originally named Hildebrand), born at Soana, a town of Tuscany, was the son of Benzo, of the illustrious family of the Aldobrandeschi, one of the most powerful in the duchy and possessing numerous towns and castles. This is the statement of Novaes; but some authorities make Hildebrand to have been the son of a carpenter in this same town of Soane. At an early age he entered a Benedictine abbey, where study made him one of the most learned monks of the time. His merits led to his appointment as sub-deacon in the Roman Church by Pope Leo IX, who was, like himself, a Benedictine. Victor II, another Benedictine, to honor one who had become a member of his order, sent Hildebrand as legate to France. Nicholas II showed his appreciation of the ability, eloquence and ecclesiastical learning of the monk of Soane by creating him cardinal-archdeacon of St. Mary in Dominica, in 1059. Already the esteem in which Hildebrand was held for his learning and sanctity foreshadowed his elevation to the papal throne. In 1061 Alexander II appointed Cardinal Hildebrand vice-chancellor of the Roman Church; and, finally, upon the death of Alexander, the common voice of the people and clergy proclaimed him as Pope, and the cardinals united in confirming the choice. Hildebrand was then sixty years of age.

Gregory hastened to notify the German Emperor, Henry IV, of his election, the papal authority being at that time subordinate to that of the Emperor and his sanction being necessary to render valid the action of the cardinals. There is a dispute, however, among the biographers of Gregory as to the purport of his message to the Emperor, some maintaining that the notification was not obligatory, but was simply an act of courtesy. The point is of some interest, since Gregory soon became involved in a quarrel with the Emperor over this very matter of supremacy, which continued through the whole time of his occupancy of the papal See. But how-ever this may be, Henry sent a bishop to be present at Gregory's consecration.

The newly-elected Pope was ordained priest in the Basilica of the Lateran, and then consecrated in the Vatican, on the 29th of June, 1073. He took the name Gregory VII in memory of Gregory VI, who had been his preceptor.

Gregory entered upon his duties as Pope with the determination to correct certain abuses which had crept into the Church, and, above all, to free the Church if possible from the control of temporal power to establish its supremacy over the State. In March, 1074, a council was held at Rome which condemned the simony which had grown so prevalent in the Church, and reŽnacted the old laws of celibacy, which had become almost a dead letter, especially in Germany and the north of Italy. It was declared that no priest could take a wife; that holy orders should be conferred upon such only as would profess perpetual celibacy, and that no married man should assist at the priest's mass. The clergy resisted these decrees, but in vain. The papal legates visited every country and, supported by the popular voice, compelled submission.

In a second council, held during the Lent of 1075, it was decreed that whoever had received any grade or office of holy orders in consideration of any present could no longer exercise his ministry in the churches; and that all those who received from laymen the investiture of the Church should be excommunicated, as well as the lay donors. The decree was aimed directly at certain German bishops, Henry's personal advisers, who were pointed out by name as habitually guilty of simony and incontinence. The Emperor was indignant at what he regarded as an insult to his authority; but his hands were tied at the moment by a revolt in Saxony, and, prudently dissembling his displeasure, he dismissed his advisers, at the same time sending a remonstrance to Gregory.

Meanwhile Gregory had trouble in Italy. During the Christmas festivals of 1075 a revolt was organized by Quintius, son of the Prefect of Rome, who with his soldiers burst in upon Gregory, as he was celebrating High Mass at the altar of St. Mary Major. The Pope was severely wounded, was stripped of his pontifical robes and was dragged to prison. But the people, faithful to their pontiff, rushed to arms and delivered him. The assassin Quintius was seized, was brought before the Pope and compelled to fall upon his knees and ask pardon for his odious crime. Gregory pardoned him and only imposed, as a penance, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Gregory next sent an embassy to Henry, in 1076, summoning him to appear before a council to be held in the second week of Lent, there to answer to the charge of simony, sacrilege, and oppression, with a threat of excommunication if he refused. Henry was furious; he dismissed the Pope's legates with insult.

Subsequently he sent a letter to the Pope in which, among other things, he said :

"When I expected from you the treatment of a father, I learned that you were acting as one of my greatest enemies. You have deprived me of the respect due me from your See, and by your evil arts you have endeavored to deprive me of my kingdom of Italy. You have not scrupled to lay hands upon my bishops and to treat them with indignity. To repress such insolence, not by words but by acts, I have assembled all the nobles of my kingdom, and I have followed their advice, which seemed to be just. I renounce you as Pope and as patrician of Rome, and command you to leave the See."

The reply to this letter was a sentence of excommunication. This act produced a powerful effect upon the German Princes and people, many of whom had good cause to resent Henry's tyranny, and one by one the bishops who had announced their withdrawal from Gregory's obedience and who had been included in the sentence of excommunication, signified their contrition and made terms with the Pope. At a diet held at Tribur, in September, 1076, the Princes of the Empire notified Henry that they would withdraw their allegiance from him unless the ban was removed within a year and a day, and the election of a new Emperor began to be discussed.

Before the election of Rudolph, Gregory had announced an intention to visit Germany. The Emperor Henry, on his part, promised to come into Italy. The Pope left Rome with an escort furnished by Matilda, the Countess of Tuscany, daughter of Boniface, Marquis of Tuscany, and proceeded to Vercelli. It was feared by some that Henry would appear at the head of an army, and Gregory deemed it prudent to retire into the fortress of Canossa, which belonged to the Countess Matilda, in order that he might be secure from violence.

Henry had spent nearly two months at Spires in a profound and melancholy solitude. The *eight of the excommunication lay heavy upon him; his supporters were falling from him. Weary of this state of uncertainty, he determined to win over the Pope and to attempt to reestablish himself at home by an apparent act of piety and a formal humiliation; for the decree of excommunication declared that it should be withdrawn if the Emperor appeared before the Pope within a year from the date of the decree. He set out for Italy, accompanied only by his wife and a few attendants, and, crossing the Alps in the severest of midwinter weather, arrived at Placentia.

At this town he was met by the Countess Matilda, accompanied by Hugo, bishop of Cluny. Matilda was desirous of restoring harmony between the Pope and the Emperor. Gregory seemed to desire that Henry should return to Augsburg, to be judged by the diet. The envoys of the Emperor replied : "Henry does not fear to be judged; he knows that the Pope will protect innocence and justice; but the anniversary of the excommunication is at hand; and if the ban be not removed the Emperor, according to the laws of the land, will lose his crown. The Prince humbly requests the Holy Father to raise the interdict, and to restore him to the communion of the Church. He is ready to give every satisfaction that the Pope shall require; to present him-self at such place and at such time as the Pope shall order, and to commit himself entirely to the decision of the head of the Church."

Having received permission to advance, he was not long on the way. The fortress had triple inclosures. Henry was conducted into the second. His retinue remained outside the fort. He had laid aside the insignia of royalty, and nothing announced his rank. All day long Henry, bareheaded, clad in penitential garb, and fasting from morning till night, awaited the sentence of the sovereign pontiff. Thus he waited through a second and a third day. During the intervening time he had not ceased to negotiate. On the morning of the fourth day, Matilda interceded with the Pope in behalf of Henry, and the conditions of a treaty were settled. The Prince promised to give satisfaction to the complaints made against him by his subjects, and he took an oath, in which his sureties joined. Then the pontiff gave him the benediction and the apostolic peace, and celebrated Mass. No historical incident ever impressed more profoundly the Western World than this humiliation of the German Emperor. It marked the highest point reached by papal authority and presents a vivid picture of the awe inspired during the Middle Ages by the supernatural powers supposed to be wielded by the Church.

When the Pope had finished Mass, he invited the Emperor to dinner, treated him with much attention, and dismissed him in peace to his own people, who had remained outside the castle.

The ban had been removed. But the humble submission of the Emperor did not secure for him all the advantages he had expected of it. He was accused of weakness by many of his adherents. The disaffected leaders among his subjects doubted his sincerity; or perhaps they had advanced too far with their scheme for his deposition to retreat with safety. Duke Rudolph, of Suabia, was chosen as their Emperor, and they were soon openly supported by the Pope, who resented Henry's persistent refusal to carry out all the conditions of the treaty, and who still upheld his authority over his own bishops. In the breach thus opened even the pious Matilda no longer dared to speak of reconciliation.

Henry resolved upon a bold move. He held at Brescia, in 108o, a council of bishops devoted to his interests; and there he caused Guibert, archbishop of Ravenna, an avowed enemy of Gregory, to be elected Pope; and he deposed Gregory, although he was recognized as the legitimate Pope by the whole Catholic world, with the exception of the bishops in revolt under the direction of Henry. On learning this, Gregory convoked at Rome a council in which he again excommunicated Henry, together with the anti-Pope, whom he would not absolve.

Thus arose the schismatics known as the Hericians, who were condemned by various councils. These sectaries maintained that the Emperor ought to exercise the highest authority over the election of the pontiffs and the bishops, and that no one could be recognized as legitimate pontiff or legitimate bishop unless he had been elected by the German Emperor; and that no account was to be taken of excommunication against a King. This schism ended in the reign of Charles II, about 1120.

Gregory now received as fiefs of the Church Tuscany and Lombardy, presented to him by the Countess Matilda, and thus was laid the foundation of the temporal power of the papal See. The donation was con-firmed by her in 1102, under Pope Pascal II.

The actions of this pious Catholic Princess have met with their just reward of praise from writers on Church history. The enemies of Gregory have accused her of having been too intimate with Gregory VII, but the virtue of that Pope, and that of Matilda, have caused all important historians to treat that accusation as a calumny. As to her donation, its reality was never doubted; but the title itself became a subject of discord. Matilda possessed Tuscany, Mantua, Parma, Reggio, Placentia, Ferrara, Modena, a part of Umbria, the Duchy of Spoleto, Verona, almost all now known as the "Patrimony of Saint Peter," from Veterbo to Ovieto, with a part of the March of Ancona. When the Pope Pascal II wished to take possession of those States, Henry IV opposed him, on the ground that most of the fiefs given by the Countess were appendages of the imperial authority. These rival pretensions were a new spark of war between the papacy and the Empire. But at length it was necessary to yield to the Roman See a portion of the heritage of Matilda.

Rudolph of Suabia did not live long to contest the crown of Germany with Henry. Upon his death in 1080 Henry was left free to carry out his decree of deposition against Gregory. He entered Italy with an army for the purpose of seating his own Pope in the papal chair. In three successive summers he laid siege to Rome; but it was not until 1084 that he gained possession of the city, through an act of treachery of some of the Roman nobles, who opened to him the gate of the city. Gregory took refuge in the castle of St. Angelo, and Guibert was established on the papal throne under the title of Clement III. Meanwhile, Robert Guiscard of Normandy, had espoused the cause of the persecuted Pope, and Henry, learning of his advance on Rome, withdrew from Italy. Released by Robert, Gregory again excommunicated both Henry and the false Pope; but feeling that his power in Rome was weakened and his residence there no longer secure, he retired to Salerno. Worn out with grief, fatigue, and infirmities, he died there on the 25th of May, 1085, uttering these words: "We have loved justice and hated iniquity, and for this we die in exile." He had governed as an intrepid defender of ecclesiastical liberty twelve years, one month and four days.

On account of the tribulations which pursued this holy pontiff, he has been ranked by the Church among its martyrs. His name was placed in the Roman Martyrology by Gregory XIII, on the 25th of May, 1584, and throughout the Roman Church his festival is observed on that day, the anniversary of his death.

We may cite here some of the reflections which have been made by different writers upon the character and career of this remarkable man, one of the ablest of the Roman pontiffs.

"Even the enemies of Gregory," says Voigt, "are obliged to confess that the ruling thought of the pontiff the independence of the Church was indispensable for the propagation of religion and the reformation of society, and that to that end it was necessary to break the fetters which bound the Church to the State, to the great detriment of religion. It was necessary for the Church to be an entirety; a unit in itself and by itself, a divine institution, whose influence, salutary to all men, could be arrested by no Prince of the world. The letters of Gregory are full of this thought; and in the conviction that he was called upon to realize this thought he labored with all his might.

"To appreciate the service rendered to the Church by Gregory, we must inquire into the circumstances in which Gregory found it, its connection with the State and its disorders. We must inquire into the merits and habits of the clerical body, its spirit, its tendency, its rudeness, its degeneracy, its forgetfulness of all duty and of all discipline, and of its ignorance side by side with its pride. A clear idea must be formed, too, of the situation of Germany, and the character of Henry be fully comprehended. Then and not till then can we judge Gregory. To attain the ends he sought the purification of the Church within, and its emancipation from external influence Gregory could not act otherwise than he did. His action was necessarily energetic. His faith and his conviction could not but be as they were, for the course of events had given them birth."

That the authority which Gregory asserted for the Church was necessary at this time to the prosperity and civilization of Europe is admitted even by those writers who dissent from the theological doctrines of the Church. Voltaire says : "From all the history of the period we learn that society among the Western nations had few certain rules; that the States had few laws, and the Church sought to repair the want." And de Maistre adds : "Among all the pontiffs called to this great work, St. Gregory VII rises majestically. He assumed the mission of instituting European sovereignty, then unchecked in its passions. He wrote these remarkable words : 'We are mindful, with the Divine assistance, to furnish the Emperors, Kings, and other sovereigns those spiritual arms which they need to quell in their hearts the furious tempests of pride,' as if to say, 'I wish to teach them that a King is not a tyrant.' And who, but for Gregory, would have taught them?"

In his contest with Henry, Gregory aimed to establish no new principle; he sought no conquest. He simply asserted a prerogative which the Church had always claimed, that of exercising authority over sovereigns, and which the weakness of his predecessors had suffered to be gradually wrested from them. The question in issue between him and the Emperor was one of vital importance to the Church; it was a question of its life or death. Gregory won in the contest; for, though he was apparently defeated by the superior military strength of the Emperor, was driven from Rome and died in exile, he had dealt the pretension of the Emperors a blow from which it never recovered. The conflict continued for fifty years after the death of Gregory, under five successive pontiffs, until in the time of Calixtus II the schism was healed by the complete submission of the imperial to the papal authority. There-after the Roman Emperors looked to the Popes to sanction their election, while the election of the Popes was left entirely in the hands of the cardinals. In his work of internal reform he was equally successful. He found the patronage of the Church the mere spoil and merchandise of Princes. He brought it under the control of the supreme pontiff. He reformed impure and profane abuses and gave new life and new dignity to an institution which was losing respect and becoming a scandal in the eyes of the laity. But, above all, he left to his successors, as a priceless heritage, the healthful and stimulating example of his own blameless life and gigantic character.

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