|An 1856 woodcut made from a painting by Oscar Pletsch|
(1830-1888), showing Henry IV outside Canossa
In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII (c.1015-1085) tried to assert the papacy's right to invest bishops, but Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106) continued exercising the traditional practice of the kings of Germany (and other countries). The debate turned ugly when Henry called a synod of German bishops and they denounced Gregory as pope. Gregory, in turn, called a synod in spring of 1076 and excommunicated Henry, giving him one year to repent and ask forgiveness or the excommunication would become permanent.
A Christian country wanted a Christian king, and the excommunication prevented Henry from receiving the sacraments, including forgiveness for sins. This made his rule untenable, and pockets of violence against his rule broke out in Germany, ending in several German princes and prelates calling for his replacement unless the excommunication were lifted.
The 26-year-old Henry saw the difficulty of his prideful position, and offered to meet with the pope at Augsburg, in Germany. The pope agreed, but on his northward travels he began to fear that he would be putting himself into the clutches of Henry's army. On the advice of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, he repaired to the fortress of Canossa, in northern Italy, to be able to defend himself. In order to meet with the pope, then, Henry and his army had to march a further 400 miles south of Augsburg, crossing the Alps in winter. The fear that Henry would try to conquer Italy grew. Gregory gave orders that Henry was not to be allowed into the fortress.
|Canossa today, with the ruins of the fortress visible|
...or was it?
Henry was once again a Christian in good standing, but Gregory refused to endorse his return to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Two months after his stand at Canossa, a group of German aristocrats and archbishops and bishops declared his brother-in-law Duke Rudolph of Swabia. Years later, the Protestant Reformation would see Henry as a champion of the rights of Christians against an oppressive and wayward Roman Catholic Church, but right now, the troubles were just beginning.
But that's a story for another day.