Road to Canossa

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Henry at Canossa, history painting (1862)

The Road to Canossa, sometimes called the Walk to Canossa (German: Gang nach Canossa/Kanossa)[1] or Humiliation of Canossa (Italian: L'umiliazione di Canossa), refers to the trek by the German king Henry IV to Italy at the height of the Investiture Controversy in January 1077. Henry went to Canossa Castle, where Pope Gregory VII stayed as the guest of Margravine Matilda of Tuscany, in order to obtain the revocation of the anathema imposed on him. According to contemporary sources, he was forced to humiliate himself on his knees waiting for three days and three nights before the entrance gate of the castle, while a blizzard raged.

Historical background[edit]

The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor had disputed over the precedence of ecclesiastical or secular power since the spread of the Gregorian Reforms in the 11th century. When Gregory VII, acclaimed Pope by the People of Rome in 1073, attempted to enact reforms to the investiture process by his Dictatus papae decree, he was met by resistance from Henry IV. The king insisted that he reserve the traditionally established right of previous emperors to "invest" bishops, abbots and other clergymen, despite the papal decree.

The conflict became increasingly severe, after Henry had been able to suppress the Saxon Rebellion in the Battle of Langensalza in June 1075. In September he installed a new Bishop of Milan, which annoyed Gregory who openly required obedience. Shortly afterwards the Pope became the target of an assassination attempt during the 1075 Christmas celebrations. On 24 January 1076, Henry assembled several German bishops in a synod at Worms, where the ecclesiastical dignitaries abandoned all commitments to the Pope. The king finally demanded Gregory's abdication, referring to the rules of papal election according to the In nomine Domini bull of 1059. In response, Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry in the Lenten synod of 1076 at Rome. He stated furthermore that, one year from that day, the loss of kingship would become irrevocable.[2]

Journey[edit]

Henry asks Matilda and Abbot Hugh of Cluny to intervene in the dispute, Vita Mathildis (c. 1115)

Gregory had also declared the oaths of allegiance sworn by the Princes null and void, which turned out to be more dangerous to Henry's rule, as the development met the interests of several territorial rulers in the Empire. When in October the Patriarch of Aquileia and the papal legate met with German princes at Trebur, they swore an oath not to recognize Henry unless the ban was lifted within a year. Fearing further rebellion among the German aristocracy, Henry felt he had to get rid of his excommunication. He was still popular among the common people, but the princes were threatening to elect a new king. He had to secure his position in the church before the rapidly approaching deadline given by the pope.

On the suggestion of his adversaries, he arranged to meet with the Pope who had set out along the path across the Alps towards Augsburg. Henry commenced his trip in Speyer and, travelling southward down the Rhine, he found his position precarious. As the Swabian nobles refused to open the way to the Alpine passes, the king had to move through Burgundy and cross the Alps at steep Mont Cenis.[3] According to the chronicles by Lambert of Hersfeld, Henry, his wife Bertha of Savoy, and their young son Conrad risked their lives by crossing the Alpine crest in harsh mid-winter conditions. After a long journey, they reached Gregory's accommodation in Canossa on 25 January 1077.

At the castle[edit]

Henry IV and his entourage at the gate, 19th century depiction
Emperor Henry IV with his wife and child waiting for 3 days at Canossa John Foxe 1563

When Henry reached Matilda's castle, the Pope ordered that he be refused entry. Waiting at the gates, Henry took on the behavior of penance. He wore a hair-shirt, the traditional clothing of monks at the time, and allegedly walked barefoot. Many of his entourage including the queen Bertha and the prince Conrad also supposedly removed their shoes. According to Lambert of Hersfeld and first-hand accounts of the scene (letters written by both Gregory and Henry in the following years), the king waited by the gate for three full days. Throughout this time, he allegedly wore only his penitent hair-shirt and fasted.[4]

Finally, on 28 January, the castle gates were opened for Henry and he was allowed to enter. Contemporary accounts report that he knelt before Pope Gregory and begged his forgiveness. Gregory absolved Henry and invited him back into the Church. That evening, Gregory, Henry, and Matilda of Tuscany shared communion in the chapel of Sant'Apollonio inside the castle, signaling the official end of Henry's excommunication.[5]

If Henry actually did formal repentance has not been conclusively established. In any case, he regained his freedom to act and quickly returned to Germany, while Gregory remained with Matilda at the castle and in other locations in Tuscany for several months.

Historical impact[edit]

The immediate effects of the Canossa meeting were limited. Although Henry was restored to the Church, any expectations that the Pope would restore support of Henry's right to the throne were soon dashed;[6] in March, a small group of powerful Saxon and South German territorial magnates, including the archbishops of Salzburg, Mainz and Magdeburg and several bishops, met at Forchheim and, on the assumption that Henry had irretrievably lost the imperial dignity, repudiated the Salian dynasty's claim to pass the imperial crown by heredity and, in the words of Bruno of Merseburg, present in his bishop's entourage, declared that "the son of a king, even if he should be preeminently worthy, should become king by a spontaneous election." The Pope confirmed the agreement.[7] His deposition still in effect, Henry was forced into civil war with Duke Rudolph of Swabia. Gregory levied a second excommunication against Henry, who ultimately won the civil war, invaded Rome, and forced Gregory to flee, replacing him with Antipope Clement III.[8]

The meaning in the greater history of Germany and Europe, however, was much more significant. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Henry was exalted as a defender of the rights of both Catholics and opponents of the Pope. Many German Lutherans considered him the "first Protestant" and looked to his example for guidance in their struggle against what they saw as a tyrannical and unjust institution.[citation needed] Still in 1728, when Gregory was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII, the papal decree caused offence among European monarchs and its publication was banned by the Habsburg emperor Charles VI.

Plaque with Bismarck's quote erected in 1877 at Harzburg Castle

Later in history, the event took on a more secular meaning: it came to stand for Germany's refusal to be subjected to any outside power (although still especially, but not exclusively, the Catholic Church). The incident first was perpetuated by the Austrian politician and poet Anton Alexander von Auersperg (Anastasius Grün) in a 1868 speech before the House of Lords on the implementation of civil marriage. After German unification, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, when his Pulpit Paragraph and the Jesuits Law sparked the so-called "Kulturkampf" with Pope Pius IX, assured his countrymen in a Reichstag speech that "We will not go to Canossa–neither in body nor in spirit!" This meant that Germany would stand for itself and not abide any outside interference in its politics, religion or culture.[9]

On the other side, Canossa is remembered in Italy by Benedetto Croce as the first concrete victory since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as (in the view of the 19th-century historian) the Pope represented the Italian people against the domination of the Germans. Croce considered Canossa as the initial retreat from Italy of the Holy Roman Empire, starting the Italian Renaissance in which the Germans lost control of Northern Italy by the 15th century.[citation needed]

"Going to Canossa"[edit]

Today, "Canossa" refers to an act of penance or submission. To "go to Canossa" is an expression–used often in German: nach Canossa gehen; in Dutch: naar Canossa gaan; in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish: Canossavandring or Kanossagang; in French: aller à Canossa; in Hungarian: kanosszajárás; in Italian: andare a Canossa; and in Slovenian: pot v Canosso–to describe doing penance, often with the connotation that it is unwilling or coerced. Adolf Hitler, for instance, used the expression to describe his meetings with Bavarian Minister President Heinrich Held after being released from Landsberg Prison, in his bid to have the ban on the Nazi Party lifted.[10]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Sohns, Peter (2005). Die Jagd nach den Zeugnissen (in German). BoD – Books on Demand. p. 17. ISBN 9783833423239. 
  2. ^ Conflict of Investitures From New Advent
  3. ^ Orton, C. W. Previté (1910). "A Point in the Itinerary of Henry IV, 1076–1077". English Historical Review. 25 (99): 520–522. doi:10.1093/ehr/XXV.XCIX.520. 
  4. ^ Account of Canossa From An Account of Canossa
  5. ^ This series of events is compiled by Zimmerman (see below) as the most likely, through comparison of original sources on the subject, including letters written by both Henry and Gregory to the German bishops and princes. For a discussion of this, and for other proposed time lines, see Zimmermann's chapter 5
  6. ^ Gregory had exacted an impossible promise that Henry would not assume imperial powers until permitted to do so by the Pope; a pro-papal chronicler referred to Henry's "pretended reconciliation" (I. S. Robinson, "Pope Gregory VII, the Princes and the Pactum 1077–1080", The English Historical Review 94 No. 373 (October 1979):721–756) p. 725.
  7. ^ Robinson 1979:721f.
  8. ^ "Gregory VII" in HistoryChannel.Com: Encyclopedia by John W. O'Malley, retrieved 11 July 2006.
  9. ^ For more discussion on cultural references to the Walk to Canossa, see Zimmermann, chapters 1 and 4
  10. ^ Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889–1936: Hubris New York: Norton, 1998.

Literature[edit]

  • Hlawitschka, E. "Zwischen Tribur und Canossa" Historisches Jahrbuch 94 (1974:25–45).
  • Holland, Tom, (2010). "The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West". Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-27870-8.
  • Kämpf, Hellmut, Canossa als Wende. Ausgewählte Aufsätze zur neueren Forschung. Darmstadt, 1963.
  • Morrison, K.F. "Canossa: a revision", Traditio 18 (1962:121–58.)
  • Struve, Tilman, Mathilde von Tuszien-Canossa und Heinrich IV."
  • Zimmermann, Harald, Der Canossagang von 1077. Wirkungen und Wirklichkeit. Mainz, 1975.