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Episode 30 - Three Roads to Canossa
Episode 3016th September 2021 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:43:19

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Emperor Henry III is dead. The realm is now in the hands of his widow, Agnes of Poitou who rules on behalf of the six-year-old king Henry IV. Agnes is no Theophanu and no Adelheid. Not that she is incompetent, she just isn't absolutely brilliant, and absolutely brilliant is the baseline necessary to manage this fragile situation.

The relationship between the central imperial power and the magnates has flipped, and instead of all-powerful emperors, the dukes, counts and bishops do what they like. And Henry III's bête noire, Godfrey the Bearded is more powerful than ever.

The laity calls for a church that is more like the church of the apostles, pious and dedicated to the poor. They demand an end to simony and the licentiousness of priests.

And the papacy asserts its independence. Not that they necessarily intend to throw off the imperial yoke, but the reformers need protectors against the Roman aristocracy that literally used popes as footstools and ATMs.

All this culminates in a situation where the young king Henry IV sees no other way to escape from his opponents than by jumping into the cold and fast flowing River Rhine, choosing death over captivity..

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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Episode 30 – The Three Roads to Canossa

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 30: The Three Roads to Canossa

First up apologies for missing last week. I had to deal with a long-anticipated family issue that took me back home to Germany and left little or no time to work on the podcast. I am actually at the airport right now writing up this episode.

worse is that events between:

What is needed is a framework. And that framework – which I made up entirely out of thin air -, breaks the story down in three different main historical trends,

- The first one is the conflict between the imperial central authority and the German magnates.

- And second strand is the church reform, specifically the rise of lay piety that demanded priests, monks and bishops to lead exemplary lives.

- And finally, the third strand is the expansion of the papacy from being just the most senior bishop into a role as the universal leader of Christendom

These narrative strands are nothing new. They have featured in our story before, in particular the first two. But in the second half of the 11th century each one of them is on speed.

tyrants by their magnates. In:

- Church reform had gone on for a while. Why it suddenly became all-encompassing is disputed. Some believe it was the predominantly driven by fear of the Second Coming of Christ around the Millennium. Other, like myself believe the improvement in economic circumstances created room for self-actualisation, which in the 11th century meant religion. Whatever brought it about, it was a huge movement. And it was not just an intellectual movement but a popular one too. As we will see urban populations will go on the barricades asking for simonistic bishops to be replaced. Burghers and knights join the congregations of monks as lay brothers. What people cared more about than anything else was the route to heaven. Priests, monks, bishops were to chaperone the faithful along that route. To be a good guide and to administer effective sacraments and prayers that will be heard by the saints and angels, the churchman must not be tainted with sin. The people craved for Religious leaders who lived like the early apostles, dedicated to God, without material desires.

III became the pope-maker in:

These three strands, conflict between imperial authority and magnates, the church reform movement and the ascend of the papacy are not separate. They constantly intersect. Emperors using the church reform movement to control the magnates, popes using emperors to gain control over national churches etc. It is on these intersections that the great historic turning points come. And finally at Canossa all three lines of development come together in an explosive cocktail that created one of the unique features of Western European history, the separation between spiritual and secular power.

Ok. Enough theorising. Let’s get into the meat of today’s episode and put the new framework to the test. I hope it works because this is going to be messy. In this first part, the focus is on the conflict between imperial central power and the magnates.

ode emperor Henry III died in:

But after his imperial coronation in 1046 things began to fall apart. The Hungarians had thrown off their king, a king that Henry III had put above them. Henry’s insistence of revenge for this feckless former king Peter of Hungary resulted in an endless and unwinnable war in the east. The cost of this war was borne mainly by the Bavarians and Carinthians who stood up against their overlord when they could no longer bear it. Seeing the Hungarians gaining the upper hand was not lost on the Poles and Bohemians, who began asserting their independence again. Bottom line was that in the 1050s the situation in the southeast had become extremely fraught. Disaster was only avoided because the rebellious dukes of Bavaria and Carinthia conveniently died.

After the rebellion of the Bavarians and Carinthians, Henry III had become ever more suspicious of his magnates. He made first his sons and then his wife duke of Bavaria. In the charters of this period only his wife and pope Victor II are mentioned as advisors to the emperor. That suggests the magnates were excluded from one of their main roles, being advisors to the ruler. As we have heard many times before, the magnates cannot function unless they have access to the king. They are the senior managers who tell the troops that they will go and take their concerns, achievements, ideas etc. up to the 23rd floor. If the troops find out their senior manager no longer has a boardroom pass, they no longer follow him.

Even worse for the magnates, the people that surrounded Henry III towards the end of his reign were mostly Ministeriales. Ministeriales are these unfree knights, i.e., peasants with a skill for violence who have been given a knight’s training but remain serfs. Imagine how a haughty Babenberger or Welf, whose family goes back to Charlemagne or even Clovis feels about being pushed aside by some slave.

tion attempt at Henry III? In:

The situation in the West was no better. Unseating Godfrey as duke had not stabilised the situation in Lothringia. Au contraire, it created a vacuum that attracted new powers from both inside and outside the empire. Namely the fiercely ambitious and competent counts of Flanders expanded their territory into the empire.

And even Godfrey landed on his feat when he married Beatrix, widow of the margrave of Tuscany. That gave him de facto control over a vast territory that stretched from coast to coast in Northern Italy, from Mantua to Florence and Lucca. Effectively nobody could go from Germany to Rome or vice versa without Godfrey’s say-so. Moreover, thanks to his connections in Lothringia and with the Counts of Flanders, Godfrey was the only person who could engineer peace of the Western frontier.

Henry III may have had premonitions that he may no be for this world for much longer or had realised that some conflicts could not be won. In his last years he tried to find a compromise with his opponents.

Just before his death, he reconciled with Godfrey the Bearded. He released Godfrey’s wife and stepdaughter who he had been imprisoned in Germany. He might even have promised him to get his old ducal title back, something that happened 9 years later.

This must have been an exceedingly painful moment for Henry III. Henry’s entire policy was about curtailing his largest vassals power. But after 16 years of war, Godfrey had become even more powerful than he would have been, had Henry let things go earlier in his reign. Godfrey controlled both the Western and the Southern border of the empire. As we will see, he will become one of those powers that protect the popes against the Roman aristocracy, making him the maker and protector of popes and a leader of the church reform project. This role would pass on to his stepdaughter, the mighty Mathilda, margrave of Tuscany and shield of the papacy.


To say it right away, Agnes of Poitou is no Theophanu and certainly no Adelheid. That is not to say she is terribly incompetent; she just isn’t absolutely brilliant. And given the situation I have just described, absolutely brilliant is the baseline for a successful reign.

Luckily for the first year and a half Agnes and little Henry IV can rely on the wise council of pope Victor II, the last pope installed by Henry III. Victor II was originally the bishop of Eichstaett, a former member of the imperial chancery, and one of Henry III’s closest advisors.

Pope Victor II knew where all the bodies were buried and guided the regency successfully through the first few years. He managed the complex process of the pacification of Lothringia, including the peace agreement with Flanders. He strengthened the authority of the young king by elevating him onto the throne of Charlemagne in Aachen, a ceremony rarely performed by a pope in person. Then he soothed the bruised egos of the Bavarian nobles by giving them the opportunity to formally elect the young king. In exchange the Bavarians recognised the empress as duke of Bavaria.

This dialled the situation almost back to the beginning of the 11th century, i.e., the power structure before Henry II. The imperial government was acting in consort and upon advice from the magnates who in turn swore fealty to the imperial ruler. A great sigh of relief went through the ranks of the dukes, counts and nobles. As they saw it, the tyranny of the last three emperors was over.

er brother Konrad had died in:

That honeymoon period came to an end when pope Victor II died in 1057. Having lost the wise council of the former bishop of Eichstaett, Agnes weaknesses began to shine through.

Her biggest problems were less the decisions she took but the decisions she did not take or delegated. Despite her long period as Henry III closest confidante and advisor, she failed to grasp the consequences of her actions. She lost the initiative and ended up dragged along by events, rather than shaping them.

Then Swabia became vacant in:

Making Rheinfelden duke of Swabia irritated the increasingly powerful counts of Zaehringen who had built a power-base on the upper Rhine and into German speaking Switzerland. Berthold of Zaehringen claimed that he had been promised the duchy by Henry III and he even produced a ring as proof. True or not, Agnes felt she had to at least compensate Zaehringen, so he gave him the duchy of Carinthia after the aforementioned Ezzonian duke had died.

And even Bavaria could not be kept in royal hands for long. Conflict with the Hungarians continued, despite or maybe because the imperial government finally agreed a reconciliation with King Andreas. Andrea’s son was married to another sister of Henry IV which should have brought the war to an end. But no, king Andreas was toppled by his brother Bela and Henry IV brand-new brother-in-law showed up in Germany with no kingdom. Imperial honour demanded that fighting resumed and Bela’s offer of peace was rejected. It is basically a re-run of the wars over King Peter. Neither Agnes nor her now 10-year-old son were the right people to fight this war. Hence Agnes had to appoint a new duke of Bavaria, Otto of Northeim. Otto of Northeim was a Saxon noble deeply connected with the Saxon magnates that just recently plotted to have little Henry run through with a lance. In one way the deal with Northeim worked. King Bela of Hungary capitulated, and the imperial candidate was installed as the new king.

But that is a modest consolation price for handing all three southern duchies to men, we will find out later will become the most dangerous enemies of the emperor Henry IV.

nows who provoked who, but in:

Whilst Anno of Cologne was riding high, another archbishop, Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen, had a much rougher time under the new regime. You remember, Adalbert was the ally of Henry III who tried to keep the Saxons down and build an ecclesiastical super-diocese that stretched from Lapland to Leipzig. With his sponsor gone, world domination had to be suspended.

We are now in:

But that alone is not enough yet to explain the dramatic events of 1062, an event I remember vividly as a story from my schooldays, and a story that again involves Anno, Archbishop of Cologne.

As I said, the really dramatic events usually take place when two or more strands of the narrative come together. And so it is here.

Let us first take a look at what happened on church reform in these last five years.


That would obviously create complete havoc. But on the other hand, something needed to be done. Bans on simony had been issued since the council of Nicaea in the 4th century but to no avail.

At the Lateran synod in:

“We decree that there should be no mercy for the simoniacs to protect their indignity, and we condemn them according to the sanctions of the canons and the decrees of the holy fathers, and we declare with apostolic authority that they should be deposed. About those who were ordained by simoniacs not for money but freely, since this question has now been debated for a very long time, we remove every knot of doubt, so that we permit no one henceforth to hesitate over this decree.

Since the poisonous calamity of the simoniac heresy has until now grown up to such an extent that hardly any church can be found that is not corrupted in some part by this disease, we permit those who have been freely ordained already by simoniacs to remain in their orders, according not to the censure of justice but to the perspective of mercy, unless perhaps some fault from their life stands against them according to the canons. There is such a multitude of these people that since we are not able to enforce the rigour of canonical vigour upon them, it is necessary that we incline our spirit for the moment to the zeal of pious condescension. We do this on condition, however, that by the authority of the Apostles Peter and Paul we absolutely forbid that any of our successors should ever take this permission of ours as a rule for themselves or anyone else, since the authority of the ancient fathers did not promulgate this by command or concession, but the great necessity of the time extorted it from us by permission.” (End quote)

Bottom line is that Simonists will be prosecuted, but not if there are too many of them.

Papal decrees and theological treatises against church corruption did not remain behind the thick walls of the Lateran palace. The rise in lay piety drive calls to have well trained and well-behaved priests. This popular movement flipped into street violence in the largest city in Western Europe at the time, Milan.

Milan had been a hotbed of revolt all the way back to the time of Konrad II. This time it is the lowest classes, the Pataria, or rag collectors, who stand up and demand the canons and bishop live a saintlier life. They object to the senior clergy being married and having received their benefices against payment of cash. They worry that all their prayers are worthless and the doors to heaven will be barred to them. They may also be rebelling against the older grievances of overbearing Capitani families keeping a tight grip on all levers of city politics.

The Pataria expel their quite obviously simonistic archbishop and his licentious canons. The popes send legates to negotiate a settlement. These papal legates sympathised with the urban poor and their call for change, which so matched their own mindset. And so the archbishop stayed out for years. The Pataria and the reform wing of the papacy remained allies for most of what is to come. The bishop and his party looked for help to the emperor.

This is the beginning of the split in the Italian communes between the papal party and the imperial party that we would later know as the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.

With church reform getting another boost, let’s take a look at how the papacy as an organisation had feared these last five years.

or Henry III had died in July:

Why him? Well, Stephen IX was not only the abbot of Montecassino, he was also the brother of Godfrey the Bearded. And Godfrey, thanks to his successful marriage, controlled central Italy from Mantua to Florence. He was close enough and had enough lances to keep the Roman aristocracy at bay.

when he last came to Rome in:

By the time of the papacy of Stephen IX the college of cardinals had become not only very powerful, but also increasingly dominated by three men. These three men were

• Humbert of Silva Candida, the radical antisimonist,

• St. Peter Damian, overall moderate and thoughtful, though rabid homophobe, and

• Hildebrand, cardinal priest of St. Paul outside the Walls.

We talked about the first two extensively in the last episode. Now it is time to talk about Hildebrand. This is really worth it, because he will simply dominate the story from here on.

and was born sometime between:

He first becomes noticed when he acts as chaplain to pope Gregory VI, the pope who famously bought the papacy from Benedict IX for cold hard cash. Hildebrand follows Gregory VI into exile in Cologne. In 1049 Hildebrand returns to Rome as a member of pope Leo IX’s entourage. Hildebrand seems to have made himself useful in Leo’s broad restructuring program that created the college of Cardinals and the role of papal Legate. Hildebrand was one of the few Romans within Leo IX’s inner circle which must have come in useful for this German pope. As Leo IX undertook extensive journeys to France and Germany asserting control over the local bishops, it was Hildebrand’s job to keep control of the city of Rome.


Stephen died within just 8 months of his election. This time the Roman aristocrats did not let it slip. Within 5 days of the pope’s death, the Romans elected Benedict X, an old school pope. Benedict X was a creature of the counts of Tusculum or Theaphylacts who had ruled the holy city and the papacy for centuries before emperor Henry III had put a stop to this.

But times had moved on too far to put the genie back in the bottle. The majority of the reform minded cardinals left Rome and travelled to Florence, the capital of Godfrey the Bearded. There they met up with Hildebrand and Humbert of Silva Candida who took charge.

o the city of Rome in January:

In May 1059 a great synod takes place in the palace of the Lateran that will have wide ranging consequences. The synod is led by the three most prominent reformers, Humbert of Silva Candida, Pietro Damiano and Hildebrand. The synod did not just condemn simony, as we have already heard in this episode, it also created the process by which popes have been elected ever since.

Nicolas II decreed that the pope is no longer appointed by the emperor or elevated by simple acclamation by the citizens of Rome, but should be elected by the cardinals, specifically the cardinal bishops, i.e., those cardinals that are bishops at the same time. The emperor was no longer directly involved in the selection of the pope though quote “due regard should be given to Henry, currently king and by God’s will future emperor”. The people and nobles of Rome are called upon to give an acclamation but are not given choice.

With that the imperial prerogative established with Louis the Pious, upheld by all four Ottonian emperors and most explicitly exercised by Henry III seems to have been cancelled. In hindsight we know that this is what happened.

he basilica of the Lateran in:

Preventing the election of an old school pope by papal decree is all nice and dandy, but in the world of 11th century power politics, swords count more than quills. This was not lost the inner circle of church reformers and Hildebrand in particular. For now, they have Godfrey the Bearded as the protector of the reform papacy. But who comes after him? He had no sons, and his stepdaughter Mathilda was a mere woman. Well, they did not know that this Mathilda would turn into the Mathilda of Tuscany.

Hence, they needed insurance should the Roman aristocrats rise up, should the emperor turn against the reform or Godfrey the bearded die. And there were some rough looking fellows happy to provide exactly that kind of insurance, the Normans.

The Normans had kept expanding their territory in southern Italy after the battle of Civitate, where they had beaten and captured pope Leo IX. These guys had the strength of arms, but no further legitimacy. And that gave Hildebrand an idea. He offered the two leaders of the Normans, Richard of Aversa and Robert Guiscard to make them honourable men by awarding them titles in the name of the pope in exchange for military support against the Roman aristocracy and even the emperors.

That was a sweet deal for both sides. The papacy did not give away anything since they did not really have a claim to be the overlord of Sicily and southern Italy in the first place. For the Normans it was even better since they would have to fight the Romans and the emperors anyway since they had stolen their land, and now they were soldiers of St. Peter and get a free ticket to heaven.

The only one who looses was the imperial court, namely empress Agnes. And what did Agnes do? Well, this time she does something, but let us see whether it was a smart move.

Meanwhile in Rome pope Nicolas II died and the cardinals get a chance to road test their brand new system for papal elections. They elevated the bishop Anselm of Lucca to be Pope, who took the name of Alexander II. Anselm was well known at the imperial court, had been invested as bishop of Lucca by Henry III and had come to Germany several times as papal legate. So he was not an anti-imperial candidate per se.

per the rules established in:

She received a delegation of Roman aristocrats and Northern Italian bishops who were concerned about constant papal meddling in their affairs. There were more than a few bishops and canons who did not like being asked by some pesky papal legates who the father of all these kids were who run round the episcopal palace. This alliance of anti-reform, conservative forces suggested the bishop Cadalus of Parma as the new pope. Agnes agreed and appointed him as pope Honorius III.

We now have a papal schism, and a bad one at that. Previously schisms did not matter that much since the pope was mostly acting as bishop of Rome and had little influence in say Reims or Trier or Canterbury. But now, after 15 years of proactive popes and cardinal legates driving reform in every realm in Christendom, now it matters who is the correct pope.

And the schism was blamed on Agnes, with some justification. And what makes it even worse for her is that her pope was with the bad guys! The Roman mafia aristocracy and corrupt bishops is not exactly the kind of company a devout empress and widow of the great protector of church reform should keep.

The military situation for Cadulus as pope was not entirely hopeless since he could rely on support amongst northern Italian bishops and the leaders in Rome. Hildebrand, by now archdeacon of the papacy, aka prime minister, created a papal militia, which over time turned into the papal armies of the 15th and 16th century. His opponents will later claim that he led the troops himself yielding the sword.

But irrespective of military success or failure, the campaign was a PR disaster of epic proportions. The empire looked bad, like really, really bad. This is not just about power politics; this is a fight over access to heaven and eternal life. The emperor had gone from being the natural leader of the progressive reform movement to being the champion of the reactionary forces. How could that be squared with the emperor as the representative of Christ on earth, a notion that the last three emperors had set out so clearly.

When Agnes realised what she had done, she froze. Her entire background was in the church reform movement. Her grandfather had founded the abbey of Cluny after all. She took to her bed, pulled the duvet over her face and left all government activity to her advisers.

Something needed to be done. It was clear that Agnes of Poitou was past her sell-by date, and she needed to be neutralised before any more damage could be done.

In April:

Anno and his co-conspirators made it to Cologne and formed a new imperial government. The new government put an end to the schism of Cadulus. But it was too late. The imperial reputation was broken. The church reform movement looked to the popes and cardinals to bring about change. Anno of Cologne may have chaired the initial synod that ended the schism, but he soon found himself on the back benches. Alexander II and Hildebrand were now in charge. From now on, no medieval emperor will ever have the influence over the church that Henry III had in 1046.

And Kaiserswerth had another effect. The young Henry IV will never forget how he was betrayed by his magnates. He would never believe that the dukes, counts and bishops of his realm would give him advice that was anything but driven by self-interest. Henry IV rely on a small group of often lower status Ministeriales and the senior nobles had their boardroom passes cancelled.


Next week we will see how this impulsive young man deals with the next chapter in the escalating conflict. Tensions in Saxony flare up into outright war. Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg gained the young king’s confidence and established a rapacious regime that stripped the imperial treasury bare. Magnates are feuding with each other, and the peace and order Henry III had still maintained is crumbling. To top it off, Henry IV goes full teenager and wants a divorce, whilst the most aggressive and most politically astute of the reformers, Hildebrand becomes pope as Gregor VII.

I hope I see you then and if you enjoy the history of the Germans, spread the word, on social media, on your podcast app, on my website or even old school, by talking to people.