Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Emperors and Popes

The German nobles now chose Conrad, Duke of Franconia, to fill the vacant throne, and he began to reign in 1024 as Conrad II. Conrad's chief aim was to secure to himself the great duchies so that the power of the Emperor should be increased, and the power of the great nobles become less. In 1034 he secured the Duchy of Burgundy, and Bavaria and Suabia also fell into his hands, with many smaller fiefs. He went twice to Italy, where he was crowned at Milan as King of Lombardy and at Rome as Emperor. In Italy he gave land to Normans, who thus gained a footing in the country. In time the Norman rule was extended over the south of Italy from Naples to Sicily. Conrad died in 1039, and his powerful son Henry III began to reign. Henry showed his strength by crushing the great nobles who were always ready to rise against a new ruler and to attempt to snatch the power from his hands. In his reign, too, Hungary was added to the German Empire. Yet strong as he was in ruling the State, he showed still greater authority over the Church.

At that time the Pope of Rome was the head of the Roman Catholic Church, just as he is to-day, but his power was far greater then than now. He was not only a great Churchman, he was also a great prince ruling a wide kingdom, served by strong armies, making war with kings, and holding his own both on the battlefield and in the council chamber. While Henry III was Emperor, the Normans were winning fresh lands in the south of Italy, and they came into conflict with the Pope. He led an army against them, but they beat his men and took him prisoner, nor could he obtain peace until he had given them a large province. This led to a great deal of strife in the Church, and, in the end, each contending party set up a Pope of its own, so that there were three Popes at one and the same time, and all claimed to reign over the Papal kingdom.

Henry III was called in to settle the dispute. He made a short end of the matter by removing all three and choosing a Pope of his own, a German, who came to the Papal throne as Clement II. Henry also said that in future no Pope might be placed in power without the permission of the Emperor. The authority of Emperor over Pope was now complete, but, as we shall see, it did not last long, and Henry's own son was to feel the full weight of a great reverse.

This son was Henry IV, who came to the throne in 1056 when he was only six years old. He grew up under bad influence, and his favourite advisers taught him to despise his people and, above all, his Saxon subjects. This evil counsel brought about great ill-feeling between Henry and his chief vassals, and the Saxons, in particular, were marked out to suffer under heavy taxes. If they made remonstrance they were treated with insult. The consequence was that great revolts broke forth, and there was much tumult and bloodshed. In the end, however, Henry put down the Saxons, and the conflict ended in triumph for him.

But he was now face to face with another conflict which would see him reduced to the lowest pitch of disgrace, and it began when Gregory VII was made Pope in 1073. Before Gregory became Pope he had been known as Hildebrand, and was famous as an eloquent preacher and an ardent reformer. As soon as he came to the Papal throne he began to put forward claims which would render the Church all-powerful in matters of state as well as matters of religion. He forbade the buying and selling of offices in the Church, and he said that the giving of great places in the Church should not be left in the hands of laymen. Thus a king who had appointed bishops and abbots in his realm lost the power, and these great officers of the Church were to be elected by the clergy and their election confirmed by the Pope. Gregory also forbade the clergy to marry, and all his efforts were aimed at making the Church supreme, so that just as an emperor or king ruled over his vassals, so should the Pope hold sway over the emperors and kings themselves.

But how could the Pope enforce these very great demands? What weapon had he of such weight as to beat a powerful monarch to his knees? Did he depend on his army of mail-clad knights and men-at-arms? He did not. Seated in his papal chair, he issued a decree which fell like a thunderbolt upon the king he assailed, and not only upon the king, but upon every living human creature in the offender's realm: he decreed a ban of excommunication, or proclaimed an interdict upon the country.

When a king was banned by the Pope, the ban called upon every Christian in the land to abandon the loyal obedience he had paid to his ruler; it called upon every priest to disallow the monarch the rites of the Church, called upon every one to shun him in life, and forbade that Christian burial should be given to his body if he died under the ban. When an interdict was laid upon a country it touched all. No services were held in any church, no priest was allowed to fulfill his sacred office, no clergyman was permitted to visit the sick or the dying, or give any aid to the people of his parish. Thus the babe could not be christened, the bride could not be married, the dead were buried without a single prayer being read over the grave. Nor was it possible to evade the interdict. Every Christian country lay under the rule of Rome: every priest was bound to pay obedience to the Pope, and thus the latter could reach into the farthest corner of every Christian land.

Gregory VII met with much opposition in the Church when he put forward these vast claims. The great nobles and the bishops of Germany were in the forefront of his opponents. They saw that all power would be gathered into the hands of the Pope, and they strongly disliked the idea. Gregory replied by putting both princes and bishops under a ban of excommunication. But Henry IV would not agree to the ban, and still gave his favour to the men whom the Pope had thrust outside the pale of the Church. Then Gregory put forth his strength and hurled a ban at the Emperor himself, declaring that Henry was now no longer the ruler of Germany and that his people were free from obedience to him.

The enemies of Henry took advantage of this to rise against him, and the Saxon nobles led the attack. At a meeting of the German Princes in 1076 it was declared that if Henry was not freed from the ban within a year he should forfeit the crown, and they would elect another emperor. Henry lost courage in this desperate situation, and resolved to go to the Pope and beg Gregory to take the ban from him. In midwinter Henry crossed the Alps and sought the castle of Canossa, where the Pope was staying. He came to the gates, but the warders would not let him in. For three days he was forced to stand at the gates of Canossa, bare-headed and bare-footed and clad in the shirt of a penitent, humbly begging to gain admission to the presence of Gregory. On the fourth day he was admitted, and the Pope, having shown his power to all men, removed the ban from the suppliant monarch.

But though the Pope absolved Henry, the latter found that the German nobles had set up another ruler in his absence, Rudolph, Duke of Suabia, and there was much fighting and confusion in the realm before Rudolph was killed in 1080. Henry bestowed the province of Suabia upon one of his supporters, Frederick of Staufen, from whom was to spring a famous line of German emperors.

Henry was now strong again in Germany, and he made up his mind to go into Italy and punish his old enemy, Gregory, for the disgrace the Pope had put upon him at Canossa. He marched to Rome, and Gregory threw himself into the strong castle of Angelo, and the Romans submitted to Henry. The latter caused a new Pope to be set up, Clement III, and also had himself crowned by Clement. Gregory left Rome, but returned at the head of an army of Normans. But the latter burned and robbed and slew and did such harm that the Romans rose and drove both Gregory and the Normans from the city. Gregory never returned to Rome, but died at Salerno in 1085. His policy did not die with him. It appealed so strongly to the feelings of the Popes that followed him that, for hundreds of years, each Pope did his utmost to grasp all the power that he could gather into his hands.

Henry returned to Germany to find the country in the utmost confusion, and when he had put an end to the disorder north of the Alps fresh strife broke out in Italy, so that the rest of his long reign was filled with wars and tumults. The Popes who followed Gregory put him under the ban of excommunication and did their best to hinder and thwart him in every way, and, to crown his troubles, his sons rose against him, and one of them, Henry, took his father prisoner. In the midst of the struggle with his rebellious son Henry IV died in 1106, after a long and wretched reign in which the Popes had treated him as badly as his father had treated them.

Henry V reigned from 1106 to 1125, and though the Pope had helped him to rebel against his father, he showed plainly at once that he did not intend to give up any of his rights to the Pontiff. His whole reign was filled with quarrels with the Pope, who excommunicated him, but that did not prevent Henry from making a strong fight for his rights as Emperor. In the end peace was made between the two parties, and a treaty drawn up by which the Pope gained much influence in Germany. Henry died in 1125 and, as he was the last of his line, the crown passed to Lothair, Duke of Saxony. The reign of Lothair (1125-1138) was very unquiet, for he had to hold his own against the two powerful dukes of Suabia and Franconia, Frederick and Conrad, two brothers of the great house of Staufen. This rivalry filled his reign with strife, but before his death both the brothers had submitted to him, and Lothair gained a great height of power.