Volume III - Church History

Eleventh Century

Pope Gregory VII

The reforming spirit of the Roman Papacy in the 11th century reached its height under Hildebrand who, as Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073–1085), firmly established the Papacy as a secular power. In a document called the Dictatus papae, he advocated the most extreme interpretation as yet of Papal authority in both church and state: “the Roman pontiff alone is to be called universal” (or “ecumenical”); “he alone can depose or reinstate bishops”; “he alone may use the imperial insignia”; “the pope is the only one whose feet are to be kissed by all princes”; “he may depose emperors”; “he himself may be judged by no one”; “to this see the most important cases of every Church should be submitted”; “the Roman Church has never erred, nor ever, by the witness of Scripture, shall err to all eternity”; “the Roman pontiff, if canonically ordained, is undoubtedly sanctified by the merits of St Peter.”

These radical claims were put severely to the test during Pope Gregory’s monumental struggle against lay investiture (the practice of secular lords, princes, and kings appointing their own priests, bishops, and abbots) in Western Europe. This struggle clearly demonstrated the fact that the Papacy’s authority over the churches of Western Europe was far from secure even in the latter part of the 11th century. For after Pope Gregory forbade lay investiture in 1075, his edict was met with violent opposition in England, France, and Germany—where nobles, according to the feudal system of strict allegiance of servants to one’s lord, were quite used to appointing their own priests for the chapels and churches on their lands, and kings felt it was their right to appoint their own bishops and abbots for the bishoprics and monasteries in their realms.

In Germany, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1056–1106) held two Church synods which attempted to depose Gregory from the Papacy for his interference in what he claimed were his own affairs. In 1077, Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry. The emperor then was stung with remorse. Traveling to the Pope’s castle retreat of Canossa in the mountains of central Italy to beg forgiveness, Henry stood for three days outside in the snow doing penitence. But in 1080, Henry set up an anti-pope, since Gregory had acknowledged Henry’s rival, Rudolf of Swabia, as Holy Roman Emperor. Henry then marched on Rome, which he captured after a two-year siege, with Pope Gregory fleeing to Salerno, where he died in 1085.