The Canossa Submission: Papal Supremacy in the Twelfth Century

Tania Dalzell, Dickson College 2006

Meanwhile we [Pope Gregory VIII] received certain information that the king [Emperor Heinrich IV] was on his way to see us. Before he entered Italy he sent us word that he would make satisfaction to God and St Peter and offered to amend his way of life and to continue obedient to us, provided only that he should obtain from us absolution and the apostolic blessing…he came with a few followers to the fortress of Canossa where we were staying. There, on three successive days, standing before the castle gate, laying aside all royal insignia, barefooted and in coarse attire, he ceased not with many tears to beseech the apostolic help and comfort… At last, overcome by his persistent show of penitence and the urgency of all present, we released him from the bonds of anathema and received him into the grace of Holy Mother Church… - (Pope Gregory VIII letter to the German Princes 1077, p79)

At a time when the state ruled the church, such an event had no contemporary precedent. The events that lead to Emperor Heinrich’s submission at Canossa in 1077 are integral to understanding why the event had taken place and its significance.

In the years leading up to Heinrich’s submission at Canossa, many revolutionary changes were occurring in European society. The Gregorian reforms and civil unrest in Germany reiterated the age-old conflict between church and state as each ventured for supremacy. This was exemplified in the struggle between Heinrich and Gregory over the question of Lay Investiture. Should secular rulers have the power to appoint bishops of the church?. The events at Canossa in 1077 symbolised the growing supremacy of the church which would remain until the Reformation of the 16th Century.

The Gregorian reform of the Catholic Church actually began well before Pope Gregory VIII’s rule. The reformation was so named because Gregory was the most significant and influential figure in the reforms. His main ideas were reinstating the celibacy of clergymen and his banning of lay investiture. Lay investiture was the appointing of bishops by lay rulers. It was in the State’s interest to instate bishops because bishops had a lot of control over the general population and a lot of influence in the court. To have a bishop that holds the same ideals as the king would be beneficial. The papacy had a problem with this for theological as well as political reasons. It was in their interest to have a member of their organisation representing their views and values in various courts around the Europe. In February 1075 Gregory VIII made a decree on Lay Investiture stating:

We decree that no one of the clergy shall receive investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any lay person…but if he shall presume to do so…he himself shall lie under excommunication. (Gregory’s decree on lay investiture, 1075, p68)

By threatening excommunication, the church ensured that the decree was enforceable thus providing a platform on which the church could begin to state its dominance and increase its influence.

At around the same time, the German states of Western Europe were plagued with civil war as a result of the weak reign of Heinrich III. Emperor Heinrich IV succeeded the German throne as a mere child and the regent appointed was an ‘incapable woman.’ In 1062, one of the German Archbishops, Anno of Cologne, abducted the young king and claimed the regency for himself. Anno later incorporated the other German Archbishop Adalbert of Bremen into his scheme. Both abused their position by dipping into the royal funds for private use. Sources have it that together they nearly bankrupted the state. Heinrich IV finally was given control at 16, one year after what was legally acceptable. Over the next 50 years of his reign, Heinrich strived to unify his country, both successfully and unsuccessfully, under a centralised government. Early in his reign, with papal support, he overcame the Saxon rebellion in 1075.

By ignoring Gregory’s decree against lay investiture and investing his own bishops, Heinrich struck a point of conflict with the Pope. This led to an extensive correspondence between the two, most of which is still available. The first letter on record was written in 1073 by Heinrich to the Pope, asking for forgiveness for his original disobedience early on in the Saxon revolt and asking for future papal support:

…with God’s consent we have held the office of kinship for some time now, but we have not shown the priesthood the proper justice and honour in all things…now, however, through divine mercy, we have been stung in some measure by remorse, and having turned against ourself in self-accusation, we confess our sins to you…[that] we may be worthy of forgiveness. (Heinrich’s letter to Gregory 1073 p69)

The pope replied in 1075, two years later, condemning the emperor for his lack of respect towards the church in ignoring the decree. He offered reconciliation on the condition that Heinrich disposed of his invested bishops and allowed the pope to invest in new ones.

To King Henry, greetings and the apostolic benediction – but with the understanding that he obeys the Apostolic See as becomes a Christian king… We have hesitated to send the apostolic benediction, since you are reported to be in voluntary communication with men who are under the censure of the Apostolic See and of a synod…And now heaping wounds upon wounds, you have handed over the sees of Fermo and Spoleto – if indeed a church may be given by any human power – to persons entirely unknown to us, whereas it is not lawful to consecrate anyone except after probation and with due knowledge…(Gregory’s letter to Heinrich 1075 p70)

This seemed to only to increase tensions, as the Pope was showing his authority in making the king wait and then putting conditions on the absolution Heinrich and his bishops, unimpressed by the Pope’s arrogance, refused Gregory’s conditions and sent another round of letters stating how Gregory was incompetent and should step down from office,

…because of the confusion you have wrought; for you left untouched no order of the church which you could make a sharer of confusion instead of honour, of malediction instead of benediction…I Henry, King by the grace of God, together with all our bishops, say to you: Descend! Descend!(Heinrich’s letter to Gregory, 1076 p73)

Then at the counsel at Worms in 1076 the Emperor and his Bishops publicly called for Gregory to be deposed from the head office. Their attempt was unsuccessful and laid open to a counter attack against Heinrich. Pope Gregory in retaliation then excommunicated Henry from the church and stripped him of his kingship. While Gregory originally did not have the support of the German priesthood, he was able to excommunicate Heinrich and enforce it because he had the support of the German Princes. He also spiritually reconquered the German states as once the German priesthood was threatened with excommunication they folded. Heinrich was the first sovereign to be excommunicated since Emperor Theodosius and thus was set the same rules. Pope Gregory gave Heinrich exactly one year and one day to repent and to be forgiven by the Apolistic See or he, with German Princes support, would be permanently excommunicated and deposed from his thrown.

When Heinrich realised he was totally isolated as he had lost the support of his laymen as well as his priesthood, he had no other choice but to humbly apologise to Gregory in order to regain his thrown. Seeing as neither Gregory nor the Princes wanted Heinrich back in office, both tried as best they could to prevent the emperor from repenting. This is namely why the events took place as they did at Canossa. It was not until the 28th of January 1077 (the deadline was the 22nd of February) that he was able to ambush Gregory into hearing his apology and forcing him to accept it by making the general public pity him.

The significance of the events that occurred at Canossa was that for the first time since Theodosius, the church was able to show that they could depose emperors, thus proving their answer to the age old question, did the emperor rule over the pope or visa-versa? At this point in time, the church came out on top. Pope Gregory actually boasted about his success by providing the German Princes with information about the event and how the king fully submitted to the church thus giving the Princes (the papacy’s ally) more influence in German domestic affairs.

…We have taken special care to send you this accurate account of the king’s penitential humiliation, his absolution and of the whole affair…For we wish you to clearly understand that, as you may see in the written guarantees, the whole negotiation is held in suspense, so that our coming and your unanimous consent are in the highest degree of necessary…Remember that we have not bound ourselves to the king in anyway except by frank statement – as our custom is – that he may expect our aid for his safety and his honour, whether through justice or through mercy, and without peril to his soul or to our own. (Pope Gregory VIII 1077 p79)

This extract shows that the Pope had thoroughly won this affair. Heinrich was left begging for forgiveness from the papacy and while it was given to him it was only given through gritted teeth. While Heinrich had to display full loyalty to the Pope, as stated in his oath at Canossa, ‘no other difficulty prejudicial to his honour will occur with my assent; and should any person create one for him, I shall help him [Gregory] in good faith according to my ability.’ (p80) Gregory only had to do the bare minimum and he did so begrudgingly with the support of the German Princes.

The outcome of the whole ordeal and Gregory’s growing influence was reiterated again just a year later when Heinrich tried to once again diverge from the church in order to gain better control of his country in the hope to finally unify it, only to be excommunicated again, permanently. He was deposed from his throne and a new king was named. The events that lead to Canossa were the result of two powers, spiritual and secular, both trying to achieve the same goals within their empires. Yet because each needed to control the other in order to further their cause a power struggle emerged with the papacy coming out the winner. This event set a precedent that would influence future clashes between the secular and spiritual empires, that a pope had the authority to depose kings and in doing so could pose a threat to all leaders in the coming years. The Papacy’s influence and power of this status would remain true until the reformation when the whole struggle would emerge once again.


Hanscom, Hellerman & Pasner, 1967, Voices of the Past, readings in medieval and early modern history, The Macmillan Company, New York

Hill, Bennett D. 19**, Church and State in the Middle Ages, John Wiley & Sons, Sydney

Holmes, George, 1988 The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, Oxford University Press, London

Previte-Orton, 1971, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, The Sydnies of Cambridge University Press, London

Southern R.W, 1967, The Making of the Middle Ages, Hutchinson, London

*Note. All quotes taken from Bennett D. Hill’s Church and State in the Middle Ages.*