The winter of 1076–1077 was one of the coldest and longest within the memory of men—the Rhine being frozen to a solid mass from November till April—and one of the most memorable in history—being marked by an event of typical significance. The humiliation of the head of the German Empire at the feet of the bishop of Rome at Canossa means the subjection of the State to the Church and the triumph of the Hildebrandian policy.
A few days before Christmas, Henry IV. left Spires on a journey across the Alps as a penitent, seeking absolution from the pope. He was accompanied by his wife with her infant son Conrad (born August, 1071) and one faithful servant. Bertha, daughter of the margrave Odo of Turin and Adelheid of Susa, was betrothed to Henry in 1055 at Zürich, and married to him, July 13, 1066. She was young, beautiful, virtuous, and amiable; but he preferred to live with mistresses; and three years after the marriage he sought a divorce, with the aid of the unprincipled archbishop Siegfried of Mainz. The pope very properly refused his consent. The king gave up his wicked intention, and became attached to Bertha. She was born to love and to suffer, and accompanied him as a comforting angel through the bitter calamities of his life.
The royal couple passed through Burgundy and Susa under the protection of Count William and the mother of Bertha, and crossed Mont Cenis. The queen and her child were carried up and lowered down the icy slopes in rough sledges of oxhide; some horses were killed, but no human lives lost. When Henry reached the plains of Lombardy, he was received with joy by the anti-Hildebrandian party; but he hurried on to meet the successor of Peter, who alone could give him absolution.
He left his wife and child at Reggio, and, accompanied by his mother-in-law and a few friends, he climbed up the steep hill to Canossa, where Gregory was then stopping on his journey to the Diet at Augsburg, waiting for a safe-conduct across the Alps.
Canossa, now in ruins, was an impregnable fortress of the Countess Matilda, south of Reggio, on the northern slope of the Apennines, surrounded by three, walls, and including a castle, a chapel, and a convent.72
The pope had already received a number of excommunicated bishops and noblemen, and given or promised them absolution after the case of the chief sinner against the majesty of St. Peter should be decided.
Henry arrived at the foot of the castle-steep, Jan. 21, 1077, when the cold was severe and the ground covered with snow. He had an interview with Matilda and Hugo, abbot of Cluny, his godfather, and declared his willingness to submit to the pope if he was released from the interdict. But Gregory would only absolve him on condition that he would surrender to him his crown and forever resign the royal dignity. The king made the last step to secure the mercy of the pope: he assumed the severest penances which the Church requires from a sinner, as a sure way to absolution. For three days, from the 25th to the 28th of January, he stood in the court between the inner walls, as a penitent suppliant, with bare head and feet, in a coarse woolen shirt, shivering in the cold, and knocked in vain for entrance at the gateway, which still perpetuates in its name. "Porta di penitenza," the memory of this event.73
The stern old pope, as hard as a rock and as cold as the snow, refused admittance, notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of Matilda and Hugo, till he was satisfied that the cup of humiliation was drained to the dregs, or that further resistance would be impolitic. He first exacted from Henry, as a condition of absolution, the promise to submit to his decision at the approaching meeting of the German nobles under the presidency of the pope as arbiter, and to grant him and his deputies protection on their journey to the north. In the meantime he was to abstain from exercising the functions of royalty.74
The king made the promise, and two bishops and several nobles, in his behalf, swore upon sacred relics that he would keep it. Hugo, being a monk, could not swear, but pledged his word before the all-seeing God. Hugo, the bishops, nobles, and the Countess Matilda and Adelheid signed the written agreement, which still exists.
After these preliminaries, the inner gate was opened. The king, in the prime of life, the heir of many crowned monarchs, and a man of tall and noble presence, threw himself at the feet of the gray-haired pope, a man of low origin and of small and unimpressive stature, who by his word had disarmed an empire. He burst into tears, and cried "Spare me, holy father, spare me!" The company were moved to tears; even the iron pope showed signs of tender compassion. He heard the confession of Henry, raised him up, gave him absolution and his apostolic blessing, conducted him to the chapel, and sealed the reconciliation by the celebration of the sacrifice of the mass.
Some chroniclers add the following incident, which has often been repeated, but is very improbable. Gregory, before partaking of the sacrament, called upon God to strike him dead if he were guilty of the crimes charged on him, and, after eating one-half of the consecrated wafer unharmed, he offered the other half to Henry, requesting him to submit to the same awful ordeal; but the king declined it, and referred the whole question to the decision of a general council.75
After mass, the pope entertained the king courteously at dinner and dismissed him with some fatherly warnings and counsels, and with his renewed apostolic blessing.
Henry gained his object, but at the sacrifice of his royal dignity. He confessed by his act of humiliation that the pope had a right to depose a king and heir of the imperial crown, and to absolve subjects from the oath of allegiance. The head of the State acknowledged the temporal supremacy of the Church. Canossa marks the deepest humiliation of the State and the highest exaltation of the Church,—we mean the political papal Church of Rome, not the spiritual Church of Christ, who wore a crown of thorns in this world and who prayed on the cross for his murderers.
Gregory acted on the occasion in the sole interest of the hierarchy. His own friends, as we learn from his official account to the Germans, deemed his conduct to be "tyrannical cruelty, rather than apostolic severity." He saw in Henry the embodiment of the secular power in opposition to the ecclesiastical power, and he achieved a signal triumph, but only for a short time. He overshot his mark, and was at last expelled from Rome by the very man against whom he had closed the gate.
His relation to Matilda was political and ecclesiastical. The charge of his enemies that he entertained carnal intimacy with her is monstrous and incredible, considering his advanced age and unrelenting war against priestly concubinage.76 The countess was the most powerful princess in Northern Italy, and afforded to the pope the best protection against a possible invasion of a Northern army. She was devoted to Hildebrand as the visible head of the Church, and felt proud and happy to aid him. In 1077 she made a reversionary grant of her dominions to the patrimony of Peter, and thus increased the fatal gift of Constantine, from which Dante derives the evils of the Church. She continued the war with Henry, and aided Conrad and Henry V. in the rebellion against their father. In the political interest of the papacy she contracted, in her fifty-fifth year, a second marriage with Guelph, a youth of eighteen, the son of the Duke of Bavaria, the most powerful enemy of Henry IV. (1089); but the marriage, it seems, was never consummated, and was dissolved a few years afterwards (1095). She died, 1115. It is supposed by many that Dante’s Matilda, who carried him over the river Lethe to Beatrice, is the famous countess;77 but Dante never mentions Gregory VII., probably on account of his quarrel with the emperor.
Canossa has become a proverbial name for the triumph of priestcraft over kingcraft.78 Streams of blood have been shed to wipe out the disgrace of Henry’s humiliation before Hildebrand. The memory of that scene was revived in the Culturkampf between the State of Prussia and the Vatican from 1870 to 1887. At the beginning of the conflict, Prince Bismarck declared in the Prussian Chambers that "he would never go to Canossa"; but ten years afterwards he, found it politic to move in that direction, and to make a compromise with Leo XIII., who proved his equal as a master of diplomacy. The anti-papal May-laws were repealed, one by one, till nothing is left of them except the technical Anzeigepflicht, a modern term for investiture. The Roman Church gained new strength in Prussia and Germany from legal persecution, and enjoys now more freedom and independence than ever, and much more than the Protestant Church, which has innocently suffered from the operation of the May-laws.