Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
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Pope Gregory VII.

Pope (1073-1085)

born c. 1020, near Soana, Papal States
died May 25, 1085, Salerno, Principality of Salerno; canonized 1606; feast day May 25

original name Hildebrand, Italian Ildebrando

One of the great reform popes of the Middle Ages (reigned 1073–85). Mainly a spiritual rather than a political leader, he attacked various abuses in the church. From 1075 onward he was engrossed in a contest with Emperor Heinrich IV. (1050-1106) over lay investiture (the right of lay rulers to grant church officials the symbols of their authority).

Early career.

Hildebrand was born of a workingman's family. He went to Rome at an early age and began his education at the Monastery of St. Mary, where his uncle was abbot. He apparently became a monk but continued his education at the Schola Cantorum (School of Musicians) in the Lateran Palace. This was a school for clergy and, perhaps, for laymen also, since Gregory mentions that two Roman nobles were educated with him. One of his teachers there, Giovanni Graziano, later became Pope Gregory VI (reigned 1045–46). Gregory took Hildebrand into his service and, when he was deposed by Emperor Henry III (1017–56) at the Council of Sutri in 1046, Hildebrand went with his fallen patron into exile in Germany.

In Germany, Hildebrand found favour with Emperor Heinrich III. (1017-1056) and was called back to Rome by Pope Leo IX (reigned 1049–54). He formed one of the groups of reformers that Leo IX. (1002-1054) was assembling, a group that was to exert a profound influence on the 11th-century church. Hildebrand became the “man behind the throne? during the pontificate of his immediate predecessor, Pope Alexander II (1061–73), having already been an important member of the Roman reform group. He became a cardinal and archdeacon of Rome and was able to satisfy his monastic inclinations by reforming the famous Monastery of St. Paul. He demonstrated his love of people by curbing the activities of the petty nobles who had caused excessive disorder in Rome and the neighbourhood. He also served on several important papal legations. Perhaps the most important of these was his legation to the Synod of Tours at which Berengar professed his faith in the real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Election as pope.

Elected by acclamation (April 22, 1073) to succeed Alexander II, Hildebrand took the name of Gregory VII. He was consecrated in St. Peter's Basilica on June 30, 1073.

The keynote of Gregory's pontificate was reform and renewal of the church. To understand Gregory's personality and influence it is necessary to realize how deeply he was committed to the spiritual values of his age. From the beginning of his career he was not successful as a politician or a statesman; his specialty was spiritual leadership.

Gregory tried to restrain the marauding Normans of France in their conquest of southern Italy (c. 1030–71) and to defend the Papal States, but he found it difficult to subdue these hard-fighting and acquisitive Frenchmen. Deeply interested in healing the still-young schism that had occurred between the Western and Eastern churches in 1054, he tried to encourage the European states to embark on a crusade to help Constantinople and the Eastern Christians, but in this he failed.

Ecclesiastical reforms.

As a spiritual leader he was more successful even though he faced a task of awesome proportions. The efforts aimed at ecclesiastical reform by his predecessors, the attempts of the monks based at the Benedictine monastery at Cluny (France) to reform the church spiritually, and the preaching of reformers such as Peter Damian (1007–72) and Cardinal Humbert (c. 1000–61) were only partially successful. Gregory promptly began an attack on the chief problems of the church: simony (selling or purchasing ecclesiastical offices) and nicolaitism (clerical marriage or concubinage). He held a synod at Rome every Lent that decreed strong measures against the buyers and sellers of sacred offices and married clergy. He attempted to associate the bishops and the lay rulers with him in his effort to eliminate these problems. Since many bishops had purchased their positions and many also held very loose views of clerical celibacy, Gregory had his work cut out.

Because he found it difficult to work through the bishops, he tended to centralize authority. He used papal legates (representatives) freely and insisted on their precedence over local bishops. He sought uniformity in the Western Church and he discouraged the use of the Mozarabic liturgy (pre-Islamic and Byzantine-influenced rite) in Spain and the use of Slavonic language in the liturgy in Bohemia.

Controversy over investiture.

Gregory is chiefly known for his contest with the German emperor Henry IV (1050–1106) over lay investiture (the right of lay rulers to grant ecclesiastical officials the symbols of their authority), a contest that he helped to precipitate. Gregory's first concern was for reform, and he believed that secular rulers should support church authority in bringing it about. He had seen the beneficent results of the reform-minded emperor Heinrich III.'s (1017–56) interference, and he tried hard to work with young Heinrich IV. (1050-1106). It was only when he lost confidence in Henry that Gregory began his attack on lay investiture.

The Pope's Roman Synod of 1075 struck hard at lay investiture and began the long conflict that was to go beyond Gregory's lifetime. At that synod Gregory excommunicated five of Henry's advisers. In late 1075 the situation deteriorated. Henry's defeat of the rebellious Saxons had increased his power and reduced his distractions. In Milan, Erlembald, the leader of the Patarines, a lay reform group, was killed and the anti-reform party got the upper hand. Henry now openly showed his hand, gave support to the anti-reform party in Milan, and placed a new bishop in the position of the legitimate bishop, Atto (flourished 1085). He also appointed bishops to Spoleto and Fermo.

In 1075, while Gregory was saying Christmas mass in St. Mary Major, he was attacked, slightly wounded, and carried off by Cencius, a Roman noble. The Romans, who had much admiration for Gregory, rallied to his defense, attacked Cencius' stronghold, and forced him to release the Pope, who went back to St. Mary Major to continue his mass. Gregory spared the life of Cencius.

Although Gregory had written to Henry in December 1075, holding out the possibility of negotiations on the issue of lay investiture, Henry gave no satisfaction to the legates that the Pope had sent to Germany. Indeed, he openly defied Gregory and with his bishops renounced obedience to Gregory and bade him step down from the papal throne. Supported by northern Italian bishops, Henry sent the Roman Synod of 1076 a letter beginning: “Henry, King not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God to Hildebrand now not Pope but false monk.?

Excommunication of Henry IV.

The reading of such a document aroused indignation in the synod, and Gregory struck back hard. He and the synod excommunicated Henry, and the Pope declared him deposed. Gregory defended his actions against Henry in two letters to Bishop Hermann of Metz: the emperor is in the church and therefore he may be called to account by the pope. Gregory defended this position by arguments from Scripture, the Fathers, and history.

The excommunication had its effect. The number of Henry's partisans dwindled, and the restless Saxons once more rose in arms. Plans were set on foot by the magnates to depose Henry and elect another king. Apparently, at the persuasion of Gregory's legates, a more moderate position was taken, though the terms drawn up by the magnates were severe enough. Henry was to leave the decision of his case to the Pope, who was to come to a meeting of the magnates at Augsburg on Feb. 2, 1077. He was expected to repudiate his rebellion against the Pope and to urge his advisers who had been excommunicated to seek absolution. Thus was the stage set for a famous action at Canossa.

Early in 1077 Gregory went north to cross the Alps but found, instead of the guards the Germans had promised, the news that Henry was hastening to Italy. Alarmed, the Pope withdrew to the castle of Canossa, a stronghold of his faithful friend and supporter, Matilda (c. 1046–1115), countess of Tuscany. Henry, however, was coming not as a foe but as a suppliant. For three cold January days he stood outside the castle pleading for absolution while Matilda and St. Hugh, abbot of Cluny, added their pleas to his. Gregory was in a quandary. The nobles and bishops of Germany were awaiting his presence at Augsburg to discuss Henry's fate, and here was Henry in the cold begging piteously for absolution. The priest in Gregory prevailed over the politician, and the Pope absolved Henry from excommunication. It is to the Pope's credit as a spiritual leader that he absolved Henry, even though the action was disastrous to his own cause.

Henry promptly regarded himself as legitimate king again, and Gregory had to write somewhat apologetically to the German magnates explaining his action. The Germans cancelled the Augsburg meeting and called for another gathering at Forchheim on March 13. Gregory desired to attend this meeting, but apparently neither Henry nor the leader of the opposition, Rudolf of Rheinfelden (died 1080), really desired the Pope's presence. Gregory, however, sent legates who pleaded with the assembled nobles and bishops not to proceed with an election until the Pope could be present. The magnates went ahead, however, and elected Rudolf of Rheinfelden, thus precipitating a bloody civil war. Gregory tried to mediate between Henry and Rudolf. He recalled his legates, and, when Henry imprisoned one of them, the other excommunicated Henry. To prevent the Pope from confirming this excommunication the King sent ambassadors to plead with the Pope. They succeeded, and the Pope contented himself with calling for a great meeting to settle the quarrel. For two years, 1078–80, Gregory maintained a mediator's position and was abused by both sides.

Later reign.

By 1080 the Pope was convinced that Henry was intransigent and once more excommunicated him and declared him deposed. This meant war. Henry had the support of his faction in Germany and that of the Lombard (northern Italian) anti-reform party. Gregory sought the aid of the formidable Robert Guiscard, duke of Apulia and Calabria (c. 1015–85). Henry's German bishops met at Brixen (Italy) and declared Gregory deposed. To replace him they chose Guibert, archbishop of Ravenna, who took the name Clement III. (c. 1025-1100).

The tide began to flow strongly in favour of Henry when Rudolf of Rheinfelden was killed at the Battle of the Elster (1080). Henry, freed from pressure in Germany, came over the Alps, defeated the forces of Countess Matilda, and besieged Rome. Gregory renewed his excommunication of the King. He tried to stir up opposition to Henry in Germany by urging Welf I of Bavaria (died 1101) and the princes to hold an election to replace Rudolf, but this did not deter Henry from besieging Rome in 1081, 1082, and 1083. Still firm, Gregory held a synod at the Lateran in November 1083 to attempt a settlement, but Henry prevented some bishops from attending.

The fathers of the synod, very much aware of the menacing presence of Henry's soldiers across the Tiber, pleaded with Gregory not to renew his excommunication of Henry at this time, whereupon the Pope contented himself with a general excommunication of all who prevented attendance of the synod. All attempts at peace failed, and on March 21, 1084, Henry's troops took the city. Gregory sought refuge in the castle of St. Angelo and suffered the chagrin of seeing Guibert of Ravenna (now Clement III) crowned in St. Peter's. Guibert in turn crowned Henry emperor. Help, however, was on the way. Robert Guiscard, back from an unsuccessful attempt on the Byzantine Empire, marched on Rome and rescued the Pope. Gregory's safety was dearly bought, for in a fight between the Normans and the Romans a large part of the city was burned down. Gregory, now unpopular with the embittered Romans, left with Guiscard. He died at Salerno in 1085. A biographer placed on his dying lips the words, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.?

Additional reading

A primary source is the correspondence of Gregory. His registrum and other letters may be found in Erich Caspar, Das Register Gregors VII (1955); J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 148 (1888); and selections from the registrum in Ephraim Emerton, The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII (1932). Augustin Fliche, La Réforme Grégorienne, vol. 2 (1924), is devoted entirely to Gregory and has an excellent critical study of the sources. Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050–1300 (1964), is a perceptive account containing some of the key documents. See also Walter Ullman, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (1955); and Schafer Williams, The Gregorian Epoch (1964), an interesting and provocative selection of extracts from historians who disagree on Gregory.

The Rev. Joseph Stanislaus Brusher, S.J.

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