Chapter 13

Struggling for Power: Popes Versus Monarchs

In This Chapter

● Pursuing papal reform

● Going toe-to-toe with Henry IV and Gregory VII

● Nabbing Normandy with Henry I

● Halting the investiture crisis with Henry V

The end of the eleventh century was a time of great upheaval throughout Western Europe, and in this chapter I take a look at the important issues and arguments that took place. In addition to the First Crusade (which I cover in detail in Chapter 12), the largest disagreements featured two rulers named Henry and tough questions about whether God had empowered popes or monarchs to make important decisions.

Of course, whenever you combine the nature of God and the use of political power, the results are potentially controversial - and this period was no exception. The intense disagreements and efforts to resolve matters resonated deeply throughout Europe for the rest of the medieval era.

Getting Busy with Pope Gregory VIII

Outside of the leaders and personalities involved in the First Crusade, the eleventh century in Medieval Europe was dominated by Pope Gregory VII.

Gregory VII was born around 1020 in Tuscany, Italy, and (unfortunately for him) named Hildebrand. From humble origins (his father was a blacksmith), the young Hildebrand moved to Rome to study and rose quickly through the ranks at the Vatican to become a leading cardinal.

One of the most influential and high-profile medieval popes, Gregory was a prime mover behind the two big issues of the era: papal reform and the investiture controversy.

Taking a broader view of the Church's role: Papal reform

The young Hildebrand developed a definite (and different) view of the place of the Church in the Medieval World. To his mind the Church was absolutely central to everything in existence. God founded the Church, and so by extension it was responsible for all sections of society and had supreme authority over all human structures. The pope was God’s regent and the ultimate decision maker on any matter. Whilst most popes would have agreed with this view, few lived in the ideal in the way that Hildebrand eventually did.

Hildebrand’s beliefs obviously put him at odds with kings and rulers of his time and served as the main issue behind the subsequent investiture controversy (see the following section ‘Putting people in power: The investiture question’). However, Hildebrand also recognised that the pope had to work with rulers in order to reach the people in their territories - although he never considered them to be on an equal footing with the pope.

Given his high standards, Hildebrand believed that the medieval Church of his day wasn’t really up to scratch. In particular, he wanted to eliminate two significant, ongoing Church practices:

● Clerical marriage: Unlike the Greek Eastern Church in the East (flip to Chapter 9 for more), the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t in favour of priests marrying. Despite this stance, huge numbers of priests in Western Europe were married or living with women and having illegitimate children.

● Simony: The practice of simony, selling religious offices for profit, was widespread throughout Europe as rich men effectively bought parishes and bishoprics for their younger sons who would not inherit the family estates. Simony also involved religious officials taking money or fees for hearing confession or praying for the souls of the dead.

Creating and stating new rules

In April 1073 Pope Alexander II died. Hildebrand was chosen as his successor with huge popular support, and yet his election was controversial. People later criticised the fact that he’d been elected by a small group of cardinals with a baying mob of popular supporters outside. Nonetheless, Hildebrand took the name Pope Gregory VII and quickly went about making big changes that pitted him against some of the most powerful people in Europe.

Gregory’s first acts were attempts to reconcile the papacy with the Norman adventurers who had taken control of Southern Italy (turn to Chapter 10 for much more on these Normans). His efforts didn’t work, and so Gregory excommunicated the Norman leader Robert Guiscard. He clearly wasn’t in the mood to mess around.

In 1075 Gregory really made his mark when he published a list of 27 rules known as the Dictatus Papae. This hugely controversial document caused uproar throughout Europe. In it Gregory set out the beliefs that he had formed as a young man, principally that the Roman Church was founded by God and the power of the pope was the sole universal power.

The first three rules alone were enough to cause massive controversy:

● The Roman Church was founded by God alone.

● The Roman pontiff (the pope) alone can with right be called universal.

● The pope alone can appoint, depose or reinstate bishops.

In February 1075 the rules were confirmed by Gregory, crucially including the last rule above that the pope alone was able to appoint (known as investiture), depose or reinstate bishops.

Putting people in power: The investiture question

The Dictatus Papae challenged the principle of investiture, the process of putting people in positions of power in the Catholic Church. Previously in Medieval Europe, the thinking was that God appointed kings, and kings in turn were responsible for appointing their own churchmen within their kingdom. Gregory took a different view.

The power to appoint Church leaders was extremely important because the clergy, and in particular bishops, had responsibilities beyond their religious activities. Bishops were also important statesmen involved in their local economies and played key roles in educating the local people and administering justice. Consequently, rulers wanted to be able to fill these roles with their own choices. A king’s ability to select bishops was also a useful way to dispense patronage (in other words, favours to people to make them loyal) to nobles and supporters whose sons were then rewarded with religious offices.

This practice clashed with everything that Gregory VII believed. To him the pope was the absolute authority, closer to God than any secular monarch. Clearly a clash was going to come and it ended up being with the greatest of all medieval monarchs - the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry IV fights back

The emperor in 1075 was Henry IV. He was only 25 years old and had experienced a difficult early reign during which his mother, the empress Agnes, served as his regent until he reached the age of 15 and officially came of age. During this period he was kidnapped by treacherous German nobles, and even by 1075 he wasn’t totally secure in power.

The Dictatus Papae was a real threat to a ruler with an unsteady grip on power. The rules cut off an important mechanism for Henry to secure territory and place men he trusted in positions of influence. Henry wasn’t going to take Gregory’s proclamations lying down.

Henry’s first protest to the pope came in the form of one of the most fascinating surviving letters from the medieval period. In it Henry makes all sorts of claims against Gregory VII and winds up calling for the election of a new pope. Incendiary stuff to say the least and an amazing record for us to still have now!

The following two excerpts, from the beginning and end, give a fair picture of the letter’s general tone:

Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk . . .

. . . Thou, therefore, damned by this curse and by the judgement of all our bishops and by our own, descend and relinquish the apostolic chair which thou has usurped. Let another ascend the throne of St Peter, who shall not practise violence under the cloak of religion, but shall teach the sound doctrine of St Peter. I Henry, king by the grace of God, do say unto thee, together with all our bishops: descend, descend, to be damned throughout the ages.

Henry then went one better. Specifically flying in the face of the Dictatus Papae, he appointed his own man as Bishop of Milan, despite the fact that Gregory had already announced his preference.

The pope's Weapon of mass deposition

Unfortunately, Henry bit off more than he could chew. The normal papal response would have been to excommunicate him, but Gregory had a far more powerful weapon at his disposal.


The historian Anna Comnena (see Chapter 12) gives a remarkable account of quite how savage the argument between Gregory and Henry had become. Henry delivered his reply to the Pope by sending his envoys to the papal court. Anna describes in detail the way that Gregory treated them:

To begin with he outraged them savagely, then cut their hair and beards, the one with scissors, the other with a razor, and finally he did something else to them which was quite improper, going beyond the insolent behaviour one expects from barbarians, and sent them away. I would have given a name to the outrage, but as a woman and a princess modesty forbade me.

Strong stuff indeed, although Anna was fairly anti-Gregory to start with, describing him elsewhere as the 'abominable pope’!

Rule number 12 of the Dictates Papae gave the pope the right to depose emperors. As well as treating Henry’s messengers poorly (see the sidebar ‘Outrage!’), Gregory sent back a stinker of a letter not only excommunicating Henry, but also deposing him as Holy Roman Emperor. Normally a pope wouldn’t be able to back up this sort of threat. After all, the fact that the pope didn’t have an army was the whole reason behind establishing the title of Holy Roman Emperor in the first place (see Chapter 5 for more details).

On this occasion, however, Gregory was in a powerful position. He had other people to fight his wars for him. The German nobles who had been trying to overthrow Henry for years now had the perfect excuse to do so. Henry was an illegal ruler, even the pope said so! Within weeks of Gregory’s order of deposition, Henry was fighting off rebellion throughout his empire.

A barefoot apology at Canossa

Henry was unable to fight the fierce Germans and was forced into a humiliating climb-down. In 1077 he travelled to Italy to meet with Gregory at Canossa and beg forgiveness. Like any other person wanting forgiveness, the pope ordered Henry to do penance, specifically standing barefoot in the snow while wearing a hair shirt. As a result of this display, Gregory lifted both the deposition and excommunication.

Henry IV was legal again, but his status didn’t really help his problems back in Germany. Rudolf of Rheinfelden had declared himself the king of Germany and had the support of papal officials who were visiting Germany. Rudolf continued to do so despite events at Canossa and the civil war in Germany carried on for several more years.

Not the marrying kind

Although Gregory VII is most famous for his arguments with Henry IV, he was also responsible for a number of other reforms, including the following:

● Although Gregory didn't ban priests from marrying, he did issue an edict that released people from obedience to any bishop that allowed priests in his bishopric to marry. This action probably didn't stop priests from carrying on as normal, but it did put the onus on bishops to put their house in order.

● Gregory followed up this edict with an order that allowed bishops to deprive clerics who married of their revenues.

His real concern was that the clergy should be completely celibate, whereas previous popes had considered that marriage was preferable to unmarried relationships. Neither policy proved hugely successful, but Gregory did raise the issue of clerical marriage, an issue that never went away again.

Excommunication - again and again!

Later in 1080, Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry for a second time!

After Canossa, Gregory had sensibly kept out of the civil war in Germany, refusing to take sides. In early 1080, however, Rudolf appeared to be getting the upper hand. Gregory made his choice and declared Rudolf the true king, again deposing and excommunicating Henry IV.

Bad move. Within six months Rudolf was dead. In any case this second deposition wasn’t well received by German nobles or by some clerics and officials at the Vatican. No real grounds existed for it and Gregory’s enemies saw the act as a cynical and vengeful thing to do.

In addition, the second excommunication didn’t affect Henry too much.

He summoned a council of clerics at the German town of Brixen and they decided that the deposition was ridiculous and unfair. They excommunicated Gregory in turn, and nominated a man called Guibert of Ravenna to be Gregory’s successor as pope.

Gregory on the run

Henry IV took things even further in 1082 by marching on Italy. As Henry advanced south, Gregory fled and went into exile at Sant Angelo from where he issued more excommunications, this time targeting both Henry and his newly appointed pope, Guibert. Henry ignored Gregory’s actions and marched into the city of Rome. In the face of Henry’s army, most of Gregory’s supporters deserted him and appointed Guibert as the new pope (Clement III) on 24 March 1084.

Clement’s appointment was the end for Gregory VII. Gregory was forced to turn to Robert Guiscard - who he’d previously excommunicated - for help! Although Guiscard’s army moved north and managed to force Henry IV back to Germany, Gregory was completely without support in Rome and never returned to the city.

Instead, Gregory spent his last days in a palace by the sea in the town of Salerno under the protection of his new Norman allies. He still considered himself pope, but nobody else did. He died the following year in 1085. Apparently, the day before he died he renounced all excommunications that he had made except for two: his successor Guibert and his mortal enemy Henry IV.

Although Gregory died a failure, the issue that he brought to life - investiture - rumbled on for decades without complete resolution.

Expanding the Kingdom: Henry I of England

The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV wasn’t the only person called Henry who caused a stir during the late eleventh century (see the earlier section ‘Getting Busy with Pope Gregory VII’). Henry I, the Norman king of England, was also on the scene. Henry I’s reign is notable for the amount of political skulduggery in which he was involved, and at which he proved very successful.

Going from fourth to first

Henry was the youngest son of William the Conqueror (check out Chapter 10 for all about William). Henry was born in 1068, two years after his father had won the Battle of Hastings and set about the conquest of England. As the youngest of four sons, Henry was the least likely to inherit the crown and was destined for a career in the Church and expected to become a bishop. Consequently he was the best educated of the boys and was given the name ‘Beauclerc’, meaning ‘fine scholar’. As it turned out all that learning was lost to the Church.

Bullying baby brother

In 1081, however, Richard, the second oldest of the brothers, was killed in a hunting accident. William the Conqueror made a very clear statement of what should happen by making the following succession plans among his three surviving sons:

Making the most of marriage: Choosing a wife

Shortly after grabbing the throne, Henry made a very clever marriage move. He married Edith, the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland. This arrangement combined Henry's kingdom with his closest neighbour and linked him with Edith's great, great uncle, Edward the Confessor.

Edward the Confessor had originally promised England to William the Conqueror and so Henry's new connection, along with the fact that he'd been born in England, immediately made Henry more palatable to the vast majority of the English population, who were Anglo-Saxon. The Normans weren't too keen, but Henry made Edith change her name to Matilda, his mother's name and a good Norman one.

● William Rufus was to receive England and become King William II.

● Robert was to receive the Duchy of Normandy and become Duke Robert II.

● Henry was to receive no lands at all, just the considerable sum of 5,000 pounds in silver. (Henry was very obvious in his disappointment, but to no avail.)

When William died in 1087, the succession went to plan, and Henry was out in the cold. His brothers obviously saw Henry as a threat, because they formed something called the Accession Treaty, which stated that should William II or Robert II die their lands went to the other and not Henry.

Seizing the throne of England

In August 1100, like his brother, William II was killed in an accident while hunting in the New Forest. (Hunting was clearly a dangerous pastime in Norman England!) Adding to the drama of the situation was the fact that Duke Robert II still hadn’t returned from the First Crusade (which I describe in Chapter 12), and so nobody was around to enforce the Accession Treaty.

Henry seized his chance. On the premise of burying his brother’s body at Winchester Cathedral, Henry seized the royal treasury that was located there. With nobody to stop him, he forced the leading barons to support him and was crowned as the new king of England, Henry I.

Laying down the law and nabbing Normandy

A few months later, Henry’s brother Robert II of Normandy returned from the First Crusade. Robert refused to accept Henry as king and almost immediately led an invasion of England designed to unseat him. The invasion didn’t go well, and again Henry used diplomacy to his advantage and forced Robert to sign the Treaty of Alton. This treaty forced Robert to recognise Henry as king and in return Robert was paid 2,000 silver marks. Robert hadn’t done as well out of the Crusade as he’d hoped and needed the money, and so he was forced to accept.

The Treaty of Alton was good business but expensive. It needed to be renewed annually, which meant continually paying out another 2,000 silver marks to Robert. By 1105 Henry was tired of the drain on his revenues and decided to invade Normandy.

The two armies first encountered each other outside a small village called Tinchebray. A messy, running battle followed that dragged on for several hours spread out over a large site. Eventually Robert’s army was forced to fall back and Robert himself was captured by Henry’s men.

Nearly 20 years after he had been comprehensively cut out of things when his father died, Henry had reunited England and Normandy. He returned across the channel and had his brother imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Horrible Henry?

Henry is famous for being a clever politician, but many stories suggest that he could be brutally unpleasant if required. For example, after Robert had been imprisoned for a while in the Tower of London, he was moved to Cardiff and kept under house arrest. Stories suggest that when he tried to escape and was recaptured, Henry had his eyes put out so that he was unable to do it again.

Another story tells that Henry personally threw a disloyal town councillor called Conan Pilatus from the top of the tower of Rouen. Even more disturbing is a tale that suggests that Henry allowed his two granddaughters to be tortured and mutilated in a disagreement between two of his barons.

Although historians can't ascertain whether these stories are true, they do fit with the callous way in which Henry treated his own brothers. Some people even accuse Henry of being behind William II's 'hunting accident' in 1100. He was part of the hunting party that day, so you probably wouldn't bet against it!

Presenting the Charter of Liberties

Many of Henry I’s acts as king impacted upon the international stage, but the one that most affected England was the Charter of Liberties. This amazing document, announced soon after Henry’s coronation in 1100, was one of his smoothest political moves.

The nobility had criticised Henry’s predecessor, William II, over how he treated them and the Church. By marrying Edith of Scotland, Henry made himself more popular with the Anglo-Saxon population of England, which squared him with the Church and the Norman nobility.

Immediately on taking power, Henry produced a document that appeared to put limits on what he was able to do as king. Instead, it was really a public relations exercise to suggest that Henry would return to the ways of his father, William the Conqueror. The document was never really enforced, but it created the right impression and featured the following points:

● Limiting the ways that the king was able to take taxes from his barons.

● Preventing the king from taking tax on top of military service.

● Promising to cancel all debts that were owed to William II.

● Discontinuing the practice of the nobility being forced to pay fines when they committed a crime.

● Granting the right to a trial to nobles accused of crimes. This promise was a relief for the nobles who had been continually ripped off by William with fines for crimes that they probably hadn’t committed.

The most important aspect of the charter was that it suggested that the king was in some ways accountable to his barons, which was a first. In fact it was never really followed closely but the Charter of Liberties paved the way for the biggest charter of all, the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215 (see Chapter 17 for more details).

Dabbling in investiture

An interesting aspect of Henry’s reign was that he was drawn into his own arguments around investiture (see the earlier section ‘Putting people in power: The investiture question’).

Between 1103 and 1107, Henry fell into a big argument over making appointments within the Church with Pope Paschal II and his own Archbishop of

Canterbury, Anselm. In the end a compromise was reached and written up in the Concordat of London in 1107. Henry gave up the right to appoint bishops, agreeing that it was the sole preserve of the papacy, but insisted that bishops still had to pay homage to him in secular matters. This compromise was a subtle solution to an argument that had been raging for more than 50 years and that was about to kick off again in mainland Europe (see the next section ‘Dealing with Unfinished Business: Henry V’).

Dealing with Unfinished Business: Henry V

The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV died in 1104. He had never truly regained control of his empire after the civil war that followed his first excommunication (discussed in the earlier section ‘Henry IV fights back’); when he died, a fresh civil war was in progress.

In the year of his death he had been fighting against a rebellion led by his son, Henry, who he had made king of Germany in 1099 and who would go on to succeed him as emperor, as Henry V. Eventually Henry IV’s enemies persuaded the young Henry to act as a figurehead for a fresh attack, and this attack was the one that finished off Henry IV.

At the age of just 18, Henry V was a young king and immediately faced the same problems as his father: subduing the rebellious elements among the German aristocracy and getting himself recognised as Holy Roman Emperor. He spent the first few years of his reign ‘cleaning up’ and successfully defeating Robert II of Flanders, who had attacked his lands in the northwest.

Henry V had high hopes of securing the support of the pope. The current incumbent Paschal II supported Henry’s rebellion, and in turn Henry V supported Paschal against his (Henry’s) father. However, none of this mattered in regards to the old argument of who had the right to appoint bishops (investiture).

Henry V was in exactly the same position as his father had been: he needed to nominate his own bishops. Henry V carried on doing so in the early years of his reign, which brought him directly into conflict with Pope Paschal II.

Making the most of marriage: Choosing a son-in-law

A significant martial event during this time was the union of Henry V to Matilda, daughter of the English king, Henry I. This shrewd move by the English king brought the two monarchies closer together than ever before.

From this point on, Henry I referred to his daughter as the 'Empress'. When her brother William died in 1119, she became Henry I's only legitimate heir. The future of the English monarchy rested with her.

Gaining Paschal's agreement

In 1107 Paschal II reaffirmed his policy on investiture at the council of Troyes in France. Both the king of France and Henry I of England backed down (see ‘Putting people in power: The investiture question’ earlier in this chapter). Only Henry V refused to do so. The situation was a stalemate: Paschal and Henry V were unlikely to change their minds. The problem was that Henry hadn’t yet been crowned as Holy Roman Emperor and sooner or later he expected to be.

Henry continued to correspond with Paschal about his coronation, but the response was always negative. In 1110 Paschal went further and renewed his position on investiture. Henry decided to adopt his father’s solution to problems with a pope and invaded Italy with his army in 1111.

Paschal II was in no position to resist him as he completely lacked military support. Henry didn’t need to promise to give up his investiture rights in return for being crowned emperor and also for the pope to confirm that the empire in question was the whole of Christendom, meaning that Henry V was then superior to every other monarch throughout Europe, Byzantium and the new crusader states in the Middle East! It helped that Henry had kidnapped and kept him prisoner for 61 days until he eventually gave in and acceded to Henry’s demands. Henry was thus crowned emperor in April 1111, keeping his right to investiture in the process.

Reaching resolution with the Concordat of Worms

Henry V received a great deal out of Paschal II in 1111, but the situation was never likely to last.

In 1116 Pope Paschal officially removed his support for investiture by secular rulers. This action was followed up by the Archbishop of Milan calling for Henry to be excommunicated. In an almost exact replay of his father’s career, Henry V took his army back across the Alps and into Italy. Just like Gregory VII, Paschal was forced to flee but not before publishing Henry’s excommunication. A chaotic situation followed with Henry proposing an anti-pope, Paschal dying and an official new pope (Gelasius II) being appointed before dying himself only 18 months later!

The situation was finally resolved in 1122. The newly appointed Pope Callistus II sent his envoys to meet Henry in the German town of Worms. At the meeting, Henry V renounced his rights to investiture. Instead, the clergy themselves would now elect bishops, much as they elected the pope. The emperor was to oversee the process but was unable to interfere. Finally the question of investiture seemed to be resolved in a manner that satisfied both Church and state.

Comparing the Ends of Two Henrys

The activities of Henry I in England (check out the earlier section ‘Expanding the Kingdom: Henry I of England’) and Henry V in Germany dominated the first quarter of the twelfth century.

The end of the reigns of Henry I and Henry V was very much the end of an era:

● The reign of Henry V ended in 1125. His last act was to lead a campaign against Louis VI of France. He died a short time afterwards in the town of Utrecht. His marriage to Matilda was childless and he had no male heirs to inherit the kingdom of Germany or to make a bid for the title of emperor. The Salian dynasty - Frankish kings and emperors since 1024 - officially came to an end.

● The reign of Henry I ended in 1135 (under rather fishy circumstances).

Matilda and her husband (Geoffrey) produced the heirs that Henry I desired, but while visiting them he ate too many lampreys - a fish of which he was particularly fond - and died a few days later (aged 67, a good age for the time). The fact that Henry I died without a son as an immediate heir to the throne is something of a surprise. Although he was married twice, he was never short of female company and holds the record for the greatest number of acknowledged illegitimate children by an English king - 25!

Making the most of marriage: Dynastic match ups

By 1125, Henry I was getting very good at making political gains out of marriages. He had already persuaded the nobility of England to accept Matilda as his heir and when Henry V died that year, she became the most sought-after widow in Europe. Matilda and Henry V's marriage hadn't produced any children and therefore whoever married her now had a chance of creating the next generation of heirs to the English throne.

Her father made a political choice based on the continuing problems between Normandy and Anjou. Henry I chose to marry Matilda to Geoffrey, the count of Anjou. Again Henry I's political judgement was spot on because Geoffrey and Matilda's marriage went on to produce the Plantagenet dynasty. (Geoffrey referred to himself as 'Plantagenet', the name of the flower that was his emblem.) It didn't immediately work out as Henry had planned, though, as England was plunged into anarchy when Henry died in 1135. Eventually, however, the issue was resolved and members of the Plantagenet dynasty would go on to rule England all the way up until 1485.

Both England and Germany fell into anarchy after their leaders’s deaths, which was particularly disappointing after Henry I’s extensive dynastic planning. The nobility of England and Normandy had sworn allegiance to Matilda to honour her as the new Queen of England. Unfortunately things didn’t quite work out like that. The Norman aristocracy considered Geoffrey of Anjou an enemy and refused to acknowledge his wife as their new monarch. All Henry’s careful political plotting came to nothing.

Instead a man called Stephen claimed the English throne. Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, the son of sister Adela. What followed was a period known as ‘The Anarchy’, a lengthy struggle between Matilda and Stephen for the right to rule England, which rumbled on for over 25 years and wasn’t truly settled until 1153.

Stephen’s reign as king didn’t go terribly well. In fact, things went so badly that you can read all about him in Chapter 25, which describes ten rubbish kings!

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