A Pope Dies in Exile: May 23, 1085

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.


Freed themselves from lay control, the popes now tried to free the rest of the Church from lay control. The Church’s champion in this struggle was Hildebrand, archdeacon of Rome and advocate of the Cluniac reforms. Hildebrand was elected pope in 1073 as Gregory VII.


Pope Gregory VII, from an 11th century manuscript

To reform the rest of the Church, Gregory VII sent out legates, who encouraged local Church councils to attack abuses and appoint only men of virtue and learning as clergymen. Like the popes before him, Gregory also forbade the practice of simony.


Simony, however, was just what Emperor Henry IV, the son of Henry III, was practicing. Henry IV not only appointed bishops, but he sold the appointments. As kings and lords had been doing for two centuries, Henry invested new bishops-elect with the symbols of their office, the ring and crosier. Pope Gregory, however, declared that this practice of lay investiture must stop. Only the Church, said the pope, had the right to invest bishops because a bishop’s authority comes not from kings and emperors, but from God through the Church.


In 1075, Gregory forbade any layman from investing bishops or clergy of any sort. Any who did so, he said, would be excommunicated—cast out from the Church. Henry IV, however, had no intention of obeying the pope. He continued to practice lay investiture and to recognize as bishops those who had been excommunicated for having bought their office from him. Henry told the pope that the emperor receives his right to rule from God—something no one in those days, including Gregory, would have denied. But Henry claimed much more. He insisted that no one could judge him or his actions, since he was God’s representative on Earth.

Henry believed it was the king’s duty, not the pope’s, to reform the Church. Priests, bishops, and even the pope, he thought, had to obey him in all matters except prayer for the world. Henry’s position had centuries of custom on its side. Even many reformers did not fully agree with Gregory that kings could not control bishops. They remembered the good things the emperors from Otto I to Henry III had done for the Church.


An illumination of a Gospel book. Henry IV is pictured in the upper row between his two sons, Henry and Conrad.

There was, of course, another reason that Henry resisted Gregory’s attempt to eliminate lay investiture. To Gregory it meant freedom for the Church, but to the emperor it meant destruction for the empire. The emperor needed his bishops and abbots to help him govern the empire. If he did not appoint these churchmen, he could not be sure that new bishops and abbots would be loyal to him. For Gregory, however, the Church’s freedom was more important than the good of the empire.

On January 24, 1076, Henry declared that “Hildebrand,” as he insultingly called Gregory, was no longer the pope. Hildebrand, however, would not back down. In February 1076, the pope excommunicated and deposed Henry, releasing his subjects from their oaths of allegiance to him. The lords of Germany rebelled against Henry. At the Diet of Tribur in October 1076, the lords decided that a council headed by Gregory would judge whether Henry should remain emperor. If Henry remained excommunicated for more than a year, the diet said it would elect a new king.


Gregory did not claim he had the right to choose whomever he wished as emperor. That was the function of the German princes. Gregory thought his own function was to rule on the moral question of whether the ruler was providing justice. According to the reformers, the clergy could judge the ruler only in moral questions. And such a question had arisen when the king interfered with the spiritual welfare of others, as Gregory thought Henry had done by appointing unqualified bishops and by selling Church offices.


A depiction of Henry IV from a 12th-century chronicle

Henry IV, however, scored a diplomatic victory over Pope Gregory and the German rebels. In 1077, Henry evaded the ambushes of his rebellious subjects and crossed the Alps to Italy, where the pope was staying at the castle of Canossa. For three days, Henry stood barefoot in the snow and cold outside the castle. He was a touching figure, pleading for repentance and begging the pope to absolve him. Finally Gregory, moved by sympathy, absolved Henry. Forgiven by the pope, Henry reclaimed his powers as emperor. The German lords could not refuse to obey him without risking excommunication themselves. They would be sinning if they refused to give their allegiance to the emperor, now that the pope had forgiven him.


But Henry returned to his practice of simony and lay investiture. When Gregory sent word of a second excommunication, Henry led an army into Italy. After a three-week siege, Rome fell to Henry, who set up an antipope in place of Gregory. Gregory fled to the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the emperor almost took him prisoner. But the pope’s vassal Robert Guiscard, leading an army of Normans, rescued the pope and took him to their lands in southern Italy.


At Salerno in southern Italy, Pope St. Gregory died on May 25, 1085.His last words were a sad rephrasing of a verse from Psalm 44 (in the Vulgate): “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and so I die in exile.”


A Commemoration of Treachery and Betrayal


We present here an 11th century processional chant that tells of how Caiaphas counseled expedience in how the Sanhedrin should deal with Christ. The “Show More” window below the clip provides the Latin text and a translation.



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