The Papacy: Gregory VII and the Normans (1054-1085)

Nearly a year after the death of Leo IX in 1054, no pope sat on the throne of St. Peter. To correct this rarity, Henry III of Germany made his fourth and final papal appointment. Appropriately the new pope was to be a German cleric, a man named Gebhard who took the name Victor II. Per John Julius Norwich: “he proved a strong defender of the rights of the Church and a champion of reform no less determined than his predecessor” (101). However, like many men of his day, Victor II quickly fell ill and suddenly died in 1057. His body was intended to be delivered to Germany for burial but the procession was ambushed and robbed at Ravenna thus he was laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Theodoric (at the time it was an active church).

Along with the death of the pope came the death of Henry III who left behind his six year-old son Henry IV of Germany to rule under the guidance of his widow. In this power vacuum, a powerful leader named Cardinal Hildebrand sought his chance for serious reform in Rome. Thus came along a new pontiff, Pope Stephen IX and then he quickly died seven months later. At the time Cardinal Hildebrand was traveling a united coalition of the Tusculam-Crescentian alliance quickly snatched power in Rome. They named Giovanni Mincio Bishop of Velletri as Pope Benedict X. However, the corrupt manner in which the pope was unilaterally selected was considered unacceptable to clerics. Therefore, instead they settled upon a Burgundian who was above reproach, Gerard Bishop of Florence who took the name Pope Nicholas II. Benedict X was then chase out of Rome in another military coup. As John Julius Norwich notes: “In short, after all the efforts of the past decade, the Papacy was once again where it had been when Pope Leo had found it –caught fast between the Roman aristocracy and the empire, able sometimes to play one off against the other but never sufficiently strong to assert its independence of either. The great task of reform could not possibly be achieved in such conditions. Somehow the Church must stand on its own feet” (103).

In this climate, where a popular former pope was raising a rebellion (Benedict X, who was much more acceptable than his chaotic namesake-predecessor Benedict IX) the church was forced between the unpleasant choice of siding again with either the German Empire or the Roman aristocrats, the Church made requested help from the Normans. This was a shocking turn of events –the Normans were broadly viewed as marauding bands of sacrilegious barbarians not unlike the Saracens. Bear in mind, only five years prior the Normans had defeated the Roman army and kidnapped the pope himself. Nevertheless, Cardinal Hildebrand was granted a Norman army of three hundred soldiers who then immediately sacked the town of Galeria and former Pope Benedict X was captured, tried, and publicly unfrocked before being imprisoned. Thus began a new era of the Norman-Papal alliance.

Cardinal Hildebrand was on a quest for Papal Supremacy. In addition to removing all lingering threats to the papacy, Hildebrand also orchestrated a wholly new way of electing the pope. Hitherto, a vague process was generally undertaken in which an election was made involving the entire clergy and nobility of Rome and the new pope was consecrated following an oath of allegiance to the German Emperor. Now, Pope Nicholas II (acting as the surrogate for Hildebrand and the reformists) decreed that all future pontiffs would be elected exclusively by the cardinals and that the Church would be free to enact its own affairs. It was a bold move bolstered only by the military support of the Normans, and these principles largely govern papal elections extending into the present-day.

Shortly after affirming these changes, Pope Nicholas II died. At the time, the Roman aristocracy was in retreat, as was the Byzantine Empire from the Italian peninsula, and the Germans were ruled by a young boy not yet possessed of the tact necessary for a full-scale war.

After the death of Nicholas, the new rules of papal elections caused predictable confusion. Two popes struggled for the possession of St. Peter’s –eventually after a brief battle Alexander II won out over Honorius II (who maintained his claim to the papacy until his dying day). Under the tutelage of Cardinal Hildebrand, Pope Alexander expanded the flourishing alliance with the Normans as they conquered the Saracens in Southern Italy. He also sent a banner which was flown by William the Conqueror at Hastings. All across the Continent, the Normans were a seemingly unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile in Germany, the unruly boy Henry IV had grown into a tempestuous and autocratic ruler of Germany by the age of sixteen. A conflict between Church and Empire was all-too inevitable.

While Pope Alexander II died in 1073 the Cathedral at Milan was burning and tensions were high. amidst unanimous consent, the powerful Cardinal Hildebrand was named Pope Gregory VII. He is included among the three great popes of the eleventh century: Leo IX, Gregory VII, Urban II. Gregory was at times the crass son of a Tuscan peasant, he was short and paunchy who spoke softly in a strange dialect perhaps betraying his Lombard bloodline. Nevertheless, his pure strength of will and singular focus on power for the Church led him to the position of Supreme Pontiff. He quickly issued twenty-seven propositions known as the Dictatus Papae, in which the pope was all but deified. The Church was superior to empires, the decrees of the pope were divine law, disobedience was akin to a mortal sin, all popes were to be immediately sanctified on par with St. Peter. Despite these deeply controversial edicts, Gregory refused to compromise and it ultimately became his own undoing.

In the ongoing break with Germany, a council was called at Worms in 1076 in which the young German Emperor bitterly denounced Gregory as little more than a “false monk.” The conflict backfired on Henry who was then forced to abject himself before the pope and beg for a pardon (however insincerely he meant it) only to return to Germany and defy the wishes of the princes yet again and march on Rome to install a new pope: a German dubbed Clement III. It led to a military battle between the German Empire and the Church backed by the Normans. It was a brutal fight that left Rome in tatters. Relics and churches and ancient monuments came crashing down after a thousand years. Everywhere fires and smoke raged while citizens slowly climbed out of the rubble as the fog of war lifted, and though the battle was ended while destroying the beloved city, Gregory remained defiant. He had arrogantly defended the “will of God.” However, now this once-beloved pope was left at the hands of a hostile Roman populace. Then when the Normans left Rome, Gregory was forced to retreat with them. Earlier popes had truly defended and protected Rome –Leo I defended Rome from Attila the Hun and Gregory the Great prevented the conquering Lombards from sacking the city. In contrast, Pope Gregory VII turned his back on Rome and fled to Salerno where he lived out his final days at a vast palace where he died in 1085. He is buried at the cathedral in Salerno having left an indelible mark on the papacy.


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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