For three days he persevered, in pitiable attire, before the gate of
the castle. He had divested himself of his royal robes and his shoes. In
their stead he was clad in woollen dress. And he did not cease imploring
the aid and consolation of Our Clemency with great lamentation ... until
we ... persuaded by the duration of his penitence and the urgent
intercession of those present, received him again in the lap of the Holy
Pope Gregory VII, on King Henry IV, 1077
Formerly an impregnable mountain fortress,
Canossa loomed above the countryside like an eyrie,
eighteen kilometres southwest of Reggio nell'Emilia. Here, where today
geckoes can be found scurrying over its ruined walls in midday heat, an
extraordinary chapter of European history was written in 1077. In this
castle, which belonged to the pious and influential Countess Matilda of
Tuscany, the most powerful ruler in the West fell on his knees before the
Pope to beg for forgiveness. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
Strife between temporal and spiritual authority had never escalated to
such a degree. At that time. Henry IV, who was both the Holy Roman emperor
(crowned in 1084) and German King (1056-1106), was only twenty-seven years
old — half the age of his adversary, Pope Gregory VII (c.
1020—1085).These two men had heartily disliked each other for years and
were locked in a power struggle, with the authority of each at stake.
deposed — and the investiture strife broke out.
Investiture (from the Latin investing means the clothing of abbots
and bishops signifying that they are invested with their rank and office.
The Pope excommunicated Henry IV, banishing him from the Church, and
absolved his subjects from their oath of allegiance to their Emperor. The
pontifical acts put Henry IV in checkmate.
Since his election in 1073, Pope Gregory VII had worked
earnestly to reform the Church. He forbade priests to marry and prohibited
the widespread practice of simony, the sale of lucrative ecclesiastical
preferment to nobles without a vocation or theological background. In
addition, Pope Gregory VII insisted that all temporal rulers were subject
to him, Christ's deputy on earth, and that only he, the Pope, might
determine who was to become an abbot or bishop and where such office
should be held. From time immemorial, emperors, kings and dukes had
appointed abbots and bishops, personally giving them their rings and
croziers as the insignia of their ecclesiastical dignity. Things had
progressed to such an extent that monasteries and bishoprics only existed
because they had been endowed with land and wealth by the nobility. Abbots
and bishops were required to place the possessions of their church at the
disposal of their temporal rulers in time of war or economic necessity. As
a result, the power of the rulers was based on the loyalty of their
clergy. And now the pope was trying to create a clergy loyal to the
ecclesiastical authorties! The enraged Emperor-King Henry IV proclaimed
that Pope Gregory VII had been
This was an age in which belief meant life, and life
meant faith. There was no doubt that anyone who had anything at all to do
with an excommunicated person under the ban of the Church had made a pact
with the devil. The only way Henry IV could free himself from this
predicament was to travel to Canossa as a penitent and humbly beg the Pope
to lift the ban. Before going, he cast about for powerful allies who might
intercede for him. His godfather, Abbot Hugh of Cluny, and the Countess
Matilda of Tuscany agreed to do so. Finally, on 27 January 1077, the Papal
ban on Henry IV was lifted. The quarrel over investiture, however, dragged
on until 1122.