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Episode 33 - Canossa Finally!
Episode 337th October 2021 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:32:45

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It is time - we are finally going to Canossa. Expect imperial power to disappear in smoke, greedy mothers-in-laws, frozen passes, hoisted horses and tobogganing empresses. All that ends with the enduring picture of a king first kneeling before a woman and then before a pope.....

That is the the episode you have to listen to!

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 33 – Canossa finally

It has taken a while but today we will finally get to that famous moment reproduced in thousands of German schoolbooks and maybe the only event of the Middle Ages most Germans have heard about.

Before we start a just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to James, Sean and Stefan who have already signed up.

Last week we ended with the famous letter of Henry IV to Pope Gregory VII that began with an insult: Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk and ended with a call for him to step down.

at letter arrived in February:

10 out of 10 for Cujones, but not exactly mensa-level intelligent. Who will be at the Lenten Synod called by Pope Gregory VII? Wild guess, mostly people who support Gregory VII. The bishops and other prelates who are opposed to Gregory VII have declared him not pope but a false monk, which makes it unlikely they would put in an appearance.

No surprise then that the hostile audience erupts, and the royal envoys are lucky to get out alive. Allegedly they had to hide behind the billowing papal robes to avoid getting stabbed.

Gregory’s response was swift and unflinching.

First, he deposes Archbishop Siegfried of Mainz, the most senior German clergyman. Siegfried is excommunicated and suspended from all episcopal duties. He then lists all other bishops who he suspects of voluntarily supporting Henry IV and declares them equally suspended. The remaining bishops have until August 1 to declare allegiance to the pope by messenger or in person. Failure to do so means automatic suspension. And the bishops of Lombardy are suspended wholesale. To put that into perspective, Gregory has just dismissed 26 bishops out of ~45, some of whom were actually in prison at that point in time. I would call that bold.

As for Henry IV Gregory declares the followingquote)

O holy Peter, prince of the apostles, mercifully incline your holy ears to us and hear me, your servant, whom you have nurtured from childhood and whom you have delivered to this day from the hand of the wicked, who have hated and hate me because of my fidelity to you.

You are my witness together with my Lady, the Mother of God, and your brother amongst all the saints, St. Paul, that your holy Roman Church has forced me against my will to be its leader; bear witness that I have not thought of ascending your throne by force, and that I would rather have ended my life as a pilgrim than to ascend your throne by worldly means for the sake of earthly glory.

And therefore, I believe that it is by your grace and not by my own deeds that it has pleased you and pleases you that all the Christian people, who are committed to you, obey me, your duly ordained representative on earth. And so to me has been given by your grace the power to bind and to loose in heaven and on earth.

Based on this holy commission, in the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the honour and safety of your Church, I deprive, by your power and authority, Henry the King, son of Henry the Emperor, who has risen up against your Church with outrageous insolence, of dominion over the whole realm of the Germans and over Italy.

And I release all Christians from the bonds of the oath they have taken or will take to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king. For it is fitting that he who seeks to diminish the honour of your church should himself forfeit the honour that was his due.

And since he has refused to obey us as a Christian, has not returned to the God whom he had forsaken, has consorted with the excommunicated, has committed manifold iniquities, has spurned my commandments which, as you testify, I gave him for his own salvation, has separated himself from your church and has strived to tear it asunder - I therefore bind him in your stead with the chain of the Anathema. And I bind him in such a way that people of all nations may know and have proof that you are Peter and that the Son of the living God has built his church on your rock, a rock the gates of hell cannot overpower.(end quote)

have been excommunicated. By:

So that was not a surprise and probably well within the range of outcomes Henry IV had expected.

What is different in this ban are two things. First, Gregory “deprives” Henry of “dominion over The realm of the Germans and Italy” and he follows it up with: “I release all Christians from the bonds of the oath they have taken or will take to him”. That had not happened before, ever. Because so far, the church had stuck to the words of Jesus reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's".

In Gregory’s mind the concept of an all-powerful papacy that is owed obedience by everyone, a pope whose feet are to be kissed by kings and emperors and who can depose bishops, kings and emperors supersedes this quaint new testament notion.

Henry IV had no lofty concepts. He trusted in the language of spears and swords. Given the Roman populace was unwilling to rise up against Gregory, he decided that he would have to come down by himself to sort things out. He announced that he would raise an army and go down to Rome by Pentecost to receive the long overdue imperial coronation, be it from a chastened Gregory or another Pope.

een a betting man in February:

1. Just 30 years before, Henry’s father had deposed not just one, but three popes.

2. Henry is riding high on a major victory against his internal enemies the Saxons.

3. The German bishops have nothing good to say about Gregory who he had harangued and harassed them for years. And most of these had been members of the Royal chancery under either Henry III or Henry IV.

4. In Italy the Lombard bishops would provide an imperial army free passage south.

5. Matilda of Tuscany may be supportive of the papacy, but if the king would travel in the company of Matilda’s husband, Godfrey the Hunchback, some of her vassals may open their castles.

6. And the Normans were no use right now as the relationship was a bit tense after they had began to nibble away at papal territory.

7. No chance the French king would come to the pope’s aide since Gregory had been on the verge of excommunicating him as well.

8. Only the German magnates could sway in their loyalty to the king if the king continued in his authoritarian manner. On the other hand, the magnates were the brothers and cousins of the bishops, so they would take their steer from them.

No chance then? Well, the reason I am not a betting man is because my bets never work, and this one would have also spectacularly failed.

That things may not go as planned became clear quite quickly when Henry received note of the ban in March in Goslar. Enraged he asks the bishop Pibo of Toul who happened to be there to excommunicate Gregory at mass the next morning. In the night Pibo of Toul and another bishop fled the royal palace and disappeared from court.

That is just a foretaste of what happens over the next 8 months. The German bishops change their mind, almost all of them, wholesale. Why that happened has been discussed amongst German historians for centuries, starting with Otto of Freising, the 12th century chronicler.

As ever so often, there is not one reason for such a rapid acceleration of the wheel of fortune.

hed only very recently at the:

And crucially, when the bishops looked at it in the cold hard light of the day, they realised that this argument could backfire quite badly. You see, Gregory even if his election may have been flawed, he had been properly ordained. And that situation applied to many of the bishops as well who had received their seats by appointment of the king rather than a free election by the cathedral canons. Some may have even given financial compensation to the king in one way or another that could now be seen as Simony. The bishops relied on the fact that they had been correctly ordained, which superseded any election flaws. The fear is that when the bishops establish a precedent that an incorrectly elected pope is no pope, where would they be?

f the merchants of Cologne in:

And then there is the simple point that o.k. you say Gregory is not pope. So, who is pope then? If this one is not pope, why did you not appoint a new one? Doesn’t that suggest you may want to reconcile with Gregory after all and where will I, the humble bishop of small Rhenish town, be then. I do not want to be the guy Gregory will come down like a ton of bricks later, so better keep a low profile and see where the wind is blowing.

The before last point comes down to Henry IV’s behaviour. After the battle on the Unstrut he had the opportunity to show mercy and get to a lasting arrangement with the Saxons. But Henry did not look for reconciliation. He wanted to continue his policy of territorial consolidation through the construction of castles. Fun fact, his great enemy Otto of Northeim had swapped sides and was now his administrator in Saxony, rebuilding the castles he had railed against just 2 years earlier. That meant the Saxons remained hostile and the other dukes, counts and bishops remained concerned about the kings authoritarian streak.

And finally, there are signs from heaven. Bishop William of Utrecht, Henry IV. greatest cheerleader has been hurling insults and accusations of lewd behaviour at him from the chancel of his church, claiming the excommunication was null and void. Days after he did this at the great easter mass in the presence of the king, William had to take to his bed. He suddenly became terribly ill and succumbed even before he could receive the last rites. The abbot of Cluny reported that bishop William had appeared to him in a dream and had said that he was now suffering in the deepest recesses of hell. Another supporter, the bishop Eppo of Zeits who fell from his horse and drowned in a shallow stream, because Saint Kilian wanted him to drink Water and not always wine.

With the bishops wavering Henry found it impossible to muster an army to push through his claim in Rome. The Reichstag he had scheduled for May took place but many major players like the dukes of Swabia, Bavaria and Carinthia were absent, so were a number of important bishops.

Gregory waded into the debate by sending letters to all and sundry explaining the excommunication and finally putting proper canonical law arguments on the table, presumably developed by his chancery since he himself was no great lawyer. In a smart move he empowered those bishops that had been loyal to the pope to immediately release others from the ban, provided they were repentant and avoided communion with the king henceforth. That allowed the episcopal opposition around the Archbishop of Salzburg to pull in more and more bishops

At the same time the situation in Saxony tensed up.. Some of the bishops, unsure where this would all go did release the Saxon leaders that they had held in prison on behalf of the king. Once released these leaders and some who had managed to escape the wrath of the king gathered together and began a guerrilla war. Otto von Northeim changed sides again and handed the Harzburg over to the rebels, wiping out most of the gains of the previous year.

The bishops who had been firmly on Gregory’s side from the start met up with the Southern German dukes, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, Welf IV of Bavaria and Berthold of Zaehringen. These magnates concluded the king had not changed after the Saxon campaign and was still overbearing and autocratic. Something needed to be done to preserve the ancient rights and privileges.

At the heart of the opposition’s debates was the question whether they still owed the King obedience under the oaths they had sworn. The oath of fealty was the glue that held early medieval society together. The lord would give a fief to his knight in exchange for the oath of fealty. That was a good deal because breaking an oath was an unpardonable sin that would condemn you to hell, no ifs or buts.


We already heard in Otto of Northeim’s speech of 1073, that an oath was no longer sacrosanct. Otto said that he was no longer bound by his the oath to Henry IV, because the king had stopped being a king and had turned into a tyrant.

m their oath to the bishop in:

This erosion of the value of oaths will be one of the significant outcomes of the investiture controversy that changed Western Europe for ever.

In October:

This meeting was the first Reichstag where the king was absent. Not completely absent, he was across the Rhine in the castle of Oppenheim overlooking the gathering. But, as he was excommunicated, he was not allowed in the debates. That fact says more clearly than anything that Henry IV. had lost the argument. If he was seen as excommunicated, the man who excommunicated him, Gregory VII must be the true pope.

Some magnates wanted to go through with Gregory’s order, formally declare Henry IV. deposed and elect a new king. They even mustered their troops to cross the Rhine and attack the King. But, deposing the king and absolving everyone from their sworn obligations was still a step too far for many. There were also the papal legates who advocated for a more measured approach probably getting cold feet over the fundamental change the letters had unleashed.

Hence the conclusion was a compromise: Henry was ordered to write to Gregory and declare that he would henceforth be obedient to the Lord Pope. Further they decided that they would elect a new king, unless Henry would be able to get released from the papal ban within a year and a day from his excommunication, i.e., before early February. The magnates invited Gregory to come to a Reichstag in Augsburg on February 2nd to decide whether Henry could remain as king.

Until this decision Henry had to give up his royal insignia and dismiss his remaining supporters and live like a private individual. And that he did. He left the site of his humiliation with a small group of supporters and goes to Speyer where he spends the next few weeks thinking what he can still do.

As you can see, within less than a year did Henry IV. go from undisputed ruler to excommunicated private citizen shunned by everyone.

There was only one way out and that was to get the ban lifted. The only person who could lift the ban was pope Gregory VII. Henry needed to meet Gregory before Gregory reached Augsburg or all will be lost.

A few days before Christmas Henry, his wife Bertha and his little son set off from Speyer for Italy. Not a single one of his nobles is with them. And along the way only few of his closest supporters would provide the travellers with food and horses. He is so ostracised that even his bishops and advisors who had also been excommunicated and who also tried to get to Italy and get relief refused to travel with him.

The dukes of Swabia, Bavaria and Carinthia who controlled the main alpine passes had them closed to the king, which is why he diverted to Besancon and further on the Mont Cenis. Mont Cenis you may remember was the one alpine pass not under control of the German duchies but held by Bertha’s parents, the counts of Savoy. I think I said a few episodes ago that this will matter later, and here it does. Without this alpine pass Henry would never have made it to Italy and his reign would have ended there and then. Son-in-law or not, the passage is however not free. Henry has to grant his mother- in-law the last bits of the kingdom of Burgundy that bore some similarity to imperial overlordship.

sfeld said that the winter of:

But there was no time to waste. Henry hired some locals who knew ways to get across even in the depth of winter. The guides led them up to the top of the pass. But on the other side with the road covered with ice, descend became difficult. They slid down the mountain on the hands and knees, held on by their guides. The horses were at times hoisted down the path or slid down the hill with their legs tied up, many died. The queen and her ladies in waiting were put on oxhides and toboggened down into the valley.

Once the king arrived in the plains of Piemont, the bishops of Italy flogged to his banner and within a short period of time Henry was in command of a serious army. The Italian bishops were keen for Henry to go down to Rome and remove Pope Gregory by force of arms.

Gregory at the same time had begun his trip towards Augsburg when he heard about Henry’s arrival. Given the king was now in command of an army, the pope was unclear what would happen next. His ever-faithful friend Mathilda of Tuscany suggested for him to go into one of her strongest defences, the castle of Canossa. Canossa is by the way not just one castle as it is often described, but a veritable chain of fortifications consisting of 6 or seven major castles that protect the approaches to Canossa itself.

Militarily we are in a stalemate. Canossa is too well defended for the royal army to overcome. On the other hand, the Pope cannot travel to Augsburg when the royal army bocks his path.

Henry first needed a team that could intercede on his behalf. The main interlocutors were the Abbot Hugh of Cluny, one of the most significant representatives of the monastic reform movement and at the same time godfather of Henry IV. And second, the great countess Matilda of Tuscany. Matilda was loosely related to the emperor and -despite her clear allegiance to Gregory – still his vassal. These two were of immeasurable value to Henry IV. because other than everybody else at his court, Gregory trusted these two. Getting their support was not easy. Henry had to beg them to advocate his case, according to the Italian chronicler Donizio, on his knees. The artwork that I use for this season shows that scene, where Henry IV. begs Matilda and Hugh of Cluny to plead on his behalf before the pope.I doubt that there is another medieval image of a crowned ruler kneeling before a woman for political rather than sexual reasons.

Henry kicked off negotiations by asking the pope to release him from the ban on the grounds that the German princes had slandered him out of greed and that the pope should not believe all they say. To that Gregory responded that if his case was true, he could put it to the Reichstag in Augsburg. There the pope would weigh the claims of the princes and the king justly and according to the laws of the church. What Gregory did not say is that he had received a letter in Henry’s own hand that contained enough attacks on the honour of the papacy as laid down on the Dictatus Papae to depose him three times over.

So, Henry had to change his approach. Henry’s intermediaries, Matilda and Hugh explained that Henry would happily submit to the pope’s judgement but that the Reichstag in Augsburg was too late. By then he would have been under the ban for more than a year and a day and so would no longer be king and hence have no standing in the proceedings. All he asks for is to be released from the ban, after which he would obey the pope in all and everything. Even should the pope decide that he was to lose the kingdom for his sins, he would accept that judgement without rancour and vacate the throne.

Gregory responded to Matilda and Hugh that if Henry was indeed prepared to accept the Papal judgement, why doesn’t he hand over the crown and imperial regalia to him right now und declares himself unworthy of kingship.

That is the moment where Matilda of Tuscany and Hugh of Cluny gain their place in the history books. They appeal to the Holy father’s mercy, quoting Isaiha 42 where God tells his servant: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.” Thanks to the intervention of these two the pope finally allowed Henry to come and atone for his insults to the Holy Apostolic Church by showing obedience to the true Vicar of Christ.

Henry went to the castle of Canossa and I now hand over to Lambert of Hersfeld who describes the scene as follows (quote)

So he came as he was ordered, and since the castle was surrounded by a triple wall, he was taken into the perimeter of the second ring wall, while his entire retinue remained outside; and there he stood, after taking off the royal adornment, without any signs of royal dignity, displaying no pomp, barefoot, fasting from morning to evening, awaiting the pronouncement of the Roman pope. This he did on the second, this on the third day. Only on the fourth day was he let before him, and after many speeches and counter-speeches he was released from the ban. (unquote)

Gregory himself justified his actions by saying that the king’s tears “had moved all of those present there to such pity and compassion” that they wondered “at the unaccustomed hardness of our heart” and some were accusing him of cruelty if not tyrannical ferocity. And finally, he gave in against the constant supplications of those present and the persistency of his compunction.

I think the modern word is social pressure. Having a king kneeling in the front yard is something no 11th century person could ignore. Remember emperor Conrad II kneeling before his son Henry III begging to support him in his case against the duke of Carinthia. And what about emperor Henry II kneeling before his bishops asking for permission to create the bishopric of Bamberg… seems that the act of kneeling in the dirt is the sort of safe word in this Game of thrones where all persecution has to stop.

But these acts are very rarely spontaneous. They are -even if all participants claim the contrary - negotiated in the tiniest detail beforehand. The length of the penitence, the amount of crying, the depth of the bow, all that is set. I cannot get my head around the idea that the penitence in Canossa was any different. They had been negotiating for days, and assuming Gregory’s claim that he had exchanged legates since before Henry crossed the alps, probably for weeks before the famous scene took place.

And if that had been negotiated then the second part of the event, the conditions of readmittance had also been negotiated beforehand. Here is how Lambert of Hersfeld describes them (quote)

He (that would be Henry IV.) was to meet in a general assembly on any day and at any place that the pope might determine. After the German princes had been summoned, he was to to answer the charges that were brought against him. The pope, if he thought Ito be right, would sit in the judge's chair to decide the matter. After the judge's decision Henry was either to keep the kingdom if he cleared himself of the accusations, or to lose it without resistance should the accusations proved to be true, and he was declared unworthy of the royal dignity according to the laws of the Church. Irrespective of whether he would keep or lose the kingdom, he would not take revenge on any man for the humiliation;

Until the day when his case would be heard in open court, he should not use any adornment of royal splendour, nor carry any signs of royal dignity; he should do nothing in regard to the administration of the state according to the usual custom of law, and nothing he did should have validity; finally, except for the collection of the royal income, which he himself and his family need for their maintenance, none of the royal demesne should be used; also, all who have sworn allegiance to him should be released from the fetters of their oath. Rupert bishop of Bamberg and Ulrich of Godesheim and the others, by whose evil promptings he had ruined himself and the kingdom, he should remove forever from his entourage.

If he again becomes powerful and newly strengthened in the kingdom after the accusations have been refuted, he should nevertheless always be subject to the Roman pope and be obedient to his commandments. (and further) …finally, if he were to act contrary to any of these obligations, the release from the ban now so ardently desired will be null and void,....and the princes of the realm should then, without being required to undertake any further investigation, and freed from all obligation of the oath, choose another king....

Hmm, really. Did Henry really sign over all his rights to the pope, agree to be non-king until his judgement is delivered and accept that he would automatically be excommunicated if he were to fail against any of this long list of obligations?

Not likely. Gregory VII wrote to the German princes from Canossa a few days later justifying the loosening of the ban and there he only mentions two commitments,

• that Henry swore to stand trial before the pope on the accusations brought by the princes, on a day and time of the Pope’s choosing, and

• That he gives safe passage to the pope and all his envoys.

That summary by Gregory is a lot more convincing. After all, Henry had an army waiting below Canossa that could besiege and ultimately depose the pope. So, he wasn’t without options. And equally if Lambert was right and Henry had signed up to these kinds of restrictions, why wouldn’t Gregory mention them to the German princes who were pretty upset about Gregory removing the ban?

This peace agreement was than sworn upon, not by the King himself but by his negotiators, Matilda of Tuscany, Adelheid of Savoy, some German bishops and Italian princes and last but not least Abbot Hugh of Cluny, who as a monk would not swear but promises to guarantee Henry’s future adherence to the agreement.

After that the pope celebrated mass to which Henry was admitted and where he was offered holy communion, whereby his ban was lifted. After that the party set down for a meal, a meal where Henry sat glumly at the popes table, scratching his fingernails into the tabletop.

winter’s morning in January:

As we said many times before, images matter and even more so in the Middle Ages. The Image of an emperor kneeling in the snow begging the pope to give him his ancestral kingdom back has been reproduced over and over and will stick in people’s minds until today. Whether Canossa was a clever move by Henry IV. to thwart his enemies or whether it was a capitulation does not really matter. What the world saw was that the spiritual power of the papacy had subjected the most powerful of temporal rulers. That puts a wedge into the notion that the church and the world are one and the same, as had been the belief since Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman empire. The separation of church and state will not take place for another 700 plus years, but it is here in the frozen soil of the Emilia Romagna that the seed of modernity is planted.

I will dedicate a whole episode to the repercussions of Canossa and the events that follow when the season comes to an end. But next week we will first travel with Henry IV. back across the alps to Germany where his enemies do not care one iota that he is no longer excommunicated. They elect another king and the war of words turns into a war of swords. I hope to see you then.