One of the greatest of the Roman pontiffs and one of the most remarkable men of all times; born between the years 1020 and 1025, at Soana, or Ravacum, in Tuscany; died 25 May, 1085, at Salerno.
The early years of his life are involved in considerable obscurity. His name, Hildebrand (Hellebrand) – signifying to those of his contemporaries that loved him “a bright flame”, to those that hated him “a brand of hell” – would indicate some Lombard connection of his family, though at a later time, it probably also suggested the fabled descent from the noble family of the Aldobrandini. That he was of humble origin – vir de plebe, as he is styled in the letter of a contemporary abbot – can scarcely be doubted. His father Bonizo is said by some chroniclers to have been a carpenter, by others a peasant, the evidence in either case being very slender; the name of his mother is unrecorded. At a tender age he came to Rome to be educated in the monastery of Santa Maria on the Aventine Hill, over which his maternal uncle Laurentius presided as abbot. The austere spirit of Cluny pervaded this Roman cloister, and it is not unlikely that here the youthful Hildebrand first imbibed those lofty principles of Church reform of which he was afterwards to become the most fearless exponent. Early in life he made his religious profession as a Benedictine monk at Rome (not in Cluny); the house of his profession, however, and the year of his entrance into the order, both remain undetermined. As a cleric in minor orders he entered the service of John Gratian, Archpriest of San Giovanni by the Latin Gate, and on Gratian’s elevation to the papacy as Gregory VI, became his chaplain. In 1046 he followed his papal patron across the Alps into exile, remaining with Gregory at Cologne until the death of the deposed pontiff in 1047, when he withdrew to Cluny. Here he resided for more than a year.
At Besançon, in January, 1049, he met Bruno, Bishop of Toul, the pontiff-elect recently chosen at Worms under the title of Leo IX, and returned with him to Rome, though not before Bruno, who had been nominated merely by the emperor, had expressed the intention of submitting to the formal choice of the Roman clergy and people. Created a cardinal-subdeacon, shortly after Leo’s accession, and appointed administrator of the Patrimony of St. Peter’s, Hildebrand at once gave evidence of that extraordinary faculty for administration which later characterized his government of the Church Universal. Under his energetic and capable direction the property of the Church, which latterly had been diverted into the hands of the Roman nobility and the Normans, was largely recovered, and the revenues of the Holy See, whose treasury had been depleted, speedily augmented. By Leo IX he was also appointed propositus or promisor (not abbot) of the monastery of St. Paul extra Mucros. The unchecked violence of the lawless bands of the Champagne had brought great destitution upon this venerable establishment. Monastic discipline was so impaired that the monks were attended in their refectory by women; and the sacred edifices were so neglected that the sheep and cattle freely roamed in and out through the broken doors. By rigorous reforms and a wise administration Hildebrand succeeded in restoring the ancient rule of the abbey with the austere observance of earlier times; and he continued throughout life to manifest the deepest attachment for the famous house which his energy had reclaimed from ruin and decay. In 1054 he was sent to France as papal legate to examine the cause of Berengarius. While still in Tours he learned of the death of Leo IX, and on hastening back to Rome he found that the clergy and people were eager to elect him, the most trusted friend and counsellor of Leo, as the successor. This proposal of the Romans was, however, resisted by Hildebrand, who set out for Germany at the head of an embassy to implore a nomination from the emperor. The negotiations, which lasted about eleven months, ultimately resulted in the selection of Hildebrand’s candidate, Gebhard, Bishop of Eichstadt, who was consecrated at Rome, 13 April, 1055, under the name of Victor II. During the reign of this pontiff, the cardinal-subdeacon steadily maintained, and even increased the ascendancy which by his commanding genius he had acquired during the pontificate of Leo IX. Near the close of the year 1057 he went once more to Germany to reconcile the Empress-regent Agnes and her court to the (merely) canonical election of Pope Stephen X (1057-1058). His mission was not yet accomplished when Stephen died at Florence, and although the dying pope had forbidden the people to appoint a successor before Hildebrand returned, the Tusculan faction seized the opportunity to set up a member of the Crescentian family, John Mincius, Bishop of Velletri, under the title of Benedict X. With masterly skill Hildebrand succeeded in defeating the schemes of the hostile party, and secured the election of Gerard, Bishop of Florence, a Burgundian by birth, who assumed the name of Nicholas II (1059-1061).
The two most important transactions of this pontificate – the celebrated decree of election, by which the power of choosing the pope was vested in the college of cardinals, and the alliance with the Normans, secured by the Treaty of Meifi, 1059 – were in large measure the achievement of Hildebrand, whose power and influence had now become supreme in Rome. It was perhaps inevitable that the issues raised by the new decree of election should not be decided without a conflict, and with the passing away of Nicholas II in 1061, that conflict came. But when it was ended, after a schism enduring for some years, the imperial party with its antipope Cadalous had been discomfited, and Anselm of Baggio, the candidate of Hildebrand and the reform party, successfully enthroned in the Lateran Palace as Alexander II. By Nicholas II, in 1059, Hildebrand had been raised to the dignity and office of Archdeacon of the Holy Roman Church, and Alexander II now made him Chancellor of the Apostolic See. On 21 April, 1073, Alexander II died. The time at length had come when Hildebrand, who for more than twenty years had been the most prominent figure in the Church, who had been chiefly instrumental in the selection of her rulers, who had inspired and given purpose to her policy, and who had been steadily developing and realizing, by successive acts, her sovereignty and purity, should assume in his own person the majesty and responsibility of that exalted power which his genius had so long directed.
On the day following the death of Alexander II, as the obsequies of the deceased pontiff were being performed in the Lateran basilica, there arose, of a sudden, a loud outcry from the whole multitude of clergy and people: “Let Hildebrand be pope!” “Blessed Peter has chosen Hildebrand the Archdeacon!” All remonstrances on the part of the archdeacon were vain, his protestations fruitless. Later, on the same day, Hildebrand was conducted to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, and there elected in legal form by the assembled cardinals, with the due consent of the Roman clergy and amid the repeated acclamations of the people. That this extraordinary outburst on the part of the clergy and people in favour of Hildebrand could have been the result of some preconcerted arrangements, as is sometimes alleged, does not appear likely. Hildebrand was clearly the man of the hour, his austere virue commanded respect, his genius admiration; and the prompitude and unanimity with which he was chosen would indicate, rather, a general recognition of his fitness for the high office. In the decree of election those who had chosen him as pontiff proclaimed him “a devout man, a man mighty in human and divine knowledge, a distinguished lover of equity and justice, a man firm in adversity and temperate in prosperity, a man, according to the saying of the Apostle, of good behaviour, blameless, modest, sober, chaste, given to hospitality, and one that ruleth well his own house; a man from his childhood generously brought up in the bosom of this Mother Church, and for the merit of his life already raised to the archidiaconal dignity”. “We choose then”, they said to the people, “our Archdeacon Hildebrand to be pope and successor to the Apostle, and to bear henceforward and forever the name of Gregory” (22 April, 1073), Mansi, “Conciliorum Collectio”, XX, 60.
The decree of Nicholas II having expressly, if vaguely acknowledged the right of the emperor to have some voice in papal elections, Hildebrand deferred the ceremony of his consecration until he had received the royal sanction. In sending the formal announcement of his elevation to Henry IV of Germany, he took occasion to indicate frankly the attitude, which, as sovereign pontiff, he was prepared to assume in dealing with the Christian princes, and, with a note of grave personal warning besought the king not to bestow his approval. The German bishops, apprehensive of the severity with which such a man as Hildebrand would carry out the decrees of reform, endeavoured to prevent the king from assenting to the election; but upon the favourable report of Count Eberhard of Nettenburg, who had been dispatched to Rome to assert the rights of the crown, Henry gave his approval (it proved to be the last instance in history of a papal election being ratified by an emperor), and the new pope, in the meanwhile ordained to the priesthood, was solemnly consecrated on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June, 1073. In assuming the name of Gregory VII, Hildebrand not only honoured the memory and character of his earliest patron, Gregory VI, but also proclaimed to the world the legitimacy of that pontiff’s title.
From the letters which Gregory addressed to his friends shortly after his election, imploring their intercession with heaven in his behalf, and begging their sympathy and support, it is abundantly evident that he assumed the burden of the pontificate, which had been thrust on him, only with the strongest reluctance, and not without a great struggle of mind. To Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino, he speaks of his elevation in terms of terror, giving utterance to the words of the Psalmist: “I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me”; “Fearlessness and trembling are come upon me, and darkness hath covered me.” And in view of the appalling nature of the task that lay before him (of its difficulties no one indeed had a clearer perception than he), it cannot appear strange that even his intrepid spirit was for the moment overwhelmed. For at the time of Gregory’s elevation to the papacy the Christian world was in a deplorable condition. During the desolating era of transition – that terrible period of warfare and rapine, violence, and corruption in high places, which followed immediately upon the dissolution of the Carlovingian Empire, a period when society in Europe and all existing institutions seemed doomed to utter destruction and ruin – the Church had not been able to escape from the general debasement. The tenth century, the saddest, perhaps, in Christian annals, is characterized by the vivid remark of Baronius that Christ was as if asleep in the vessel of the Church. At the time of Leo IX’s election in 1049, according to the testimony of St. Bruno, Bishop of Sengi, the whole world lay in wickedness, holiness had disappeared, justice had perished and truth had been buried; Simon Magus lording it over the Church, whose bishops and priests were given to luxury and fornication” (Vita S. Leonis PP. IX in Watterich, Pont. Roman, Vitae, I, 96). St. Peter Damian, the fiercest censor of his age, unrolls a frightful picture of the decay of clerical morality in the lurid pages of his “Liber Gomorrhianus” (Book of Gomorrha). Though allowance must no doubt be made for the writer’s exaggerated and rhetorical style – a style common to all moral censors – yet the evidence derived from other sources justifies us in believing that the corruption was widespread. In writing to his venerated friend, Abbot Hugh of Cluny (Jan., 1075), Gregory himself laments the unhappy state of the Church in the following terms: “The Eastern Church has fallen away from the Faith and is now assailed on every side by infidels. Wherever I turn my eyes – to the west, to the north, or to the south – I find everywhere bishops who have obtained their office in an irregular way, whose lives and conversation are strangely at variance with their sacred calling; who go through their duties not for the love of Christ but from motives of worldly gain. There are no longer princes who set God’s honour before their own selfish ends, or who allow justice to stand in the way of their ambition. . . .And those among whom I live – Romans, Lombards, and Normans – are, as I have often told them, worse than Jews or Pagans” (Greg. VII, Registr., 1.II, ep. xlix).
But whatever the personal feelings and anxieties of Gregory may have been in taking up the burden of the papacy at a time when scandals and abuses were everywhere pressing into view, the fearless pontiff felt not a moment’s hesitation as to the performance of his duty in carrying out the work of reform already begun by his predecessors. Once securely established on the Apostolic throne, Gregory made every effort to stamp out of the Church the two comsuming evils of the age, simony and clerical incontinency, and, with characteristic energy and vigor, laboured unceasingly for the assertion of those lofty principles with which he firmly believed the welfare of Christ’s Church and the regeneration of society itself to be inseparably bound up. His first care, naturally, was to secure his own position in Rome. For this purpose he made a journey into Southern Italy, a few months after his election, and concluded treaties with Landolfo of Benevento, Richard of Capun, and Gisolfo of Salerno, by which these princes engaged themselves to defend the person of the pope and the property of the Holy See, and never to invest anyone with a church benefice without the papal sanction. The Norman leader, Robert Guiscard, however, maintained a suspicious attitude towards the pope, and at the Lenten Synod (1075) Gregory solemnly excommunicated him for his sacrilegious invasion of the territory of the Holy See (Capun and Benevento). During the year 1074 the pope’s mind was also greatly occupied by the project of an expedition to the East for the deliverance of the Oriental Christians from the oppression of the Seljuk Turks. To promote the cause of a crusade, and to effect, if possible, a reunion between the Eastern and the Western Church – hopes of which had been held out by the Emperor Michael VIII in his letter to Gregory in 1073 – the pontiff sent the Patriarch of Venice to Constantinople as his envoy. He wrote to the Christian princes, urging them to rally the hosts of Western Christendom for the defense of the Christian East; and in March, 1074, addressed a circular letter to all the faithful, exhorting them to come to the rescue of their Eastern brethren. But the project met with much indifference and even opposition; and as Gregory himself soon became involved in complications elsewhere, which demanded all his energies, he was prevented from giving effect to his intentions, and the expedition came to naught. With the youthful monarch of Germany Gregory’s relations in the beginning of his pontificate were of a pacific nature. Henry, who was at the time hard pressed by the Saxons, had written to the pope (Sept., 1073) in a tone of humble deference, acknowledging his past misconduct, and expressing regret for his numerous misdeeds – his invasion of the property of the Church, his simoniacal promotions of unworthy persons, his negligence in punishing offenders; he promised amendment for the future, professed submission to the Roman See in language more gentle and lowly than had ever been used by any of his predecessors to the pontiffs of Rome, and expressed the hope that the royal power and the sacerdotal, bound together by the necessity of mutual assistance, might henceforth remain indissolubly united. But the passionate and headstrong king did not long abide by these sentiments.
With admirable discernment, Gregory began his great work of purifying the Church by a reformation of the clergy. At his first Lenten Synod (March, 1074) he enacted the following decrees:
That clerics who had obtained any grade or office of sacred orders by payment should cease to minister in the Church.
That no one who had purchased any church should retain it, and that no one for the future should be permitted to buy or sell ecclesiastical rights.
That all who were guilty of incontinence should cease to exercise their sacred ministry.
That the people should reject the ministrations of clerics who failed to obey these injunctions.
Similar decrees had indeed been passed by previous popes and councils. Clement II, Leo IX, Nicholas II, and Alexander II had renewed the ancient laws of discipline, and made determined efforts to have them enforced. But they met with vigorous resistance, and were but partially successful. The promulgation of Gregory’s measures now, however, called forth a most violent storm of opposition throughout Italy, Germany, and France. And the reason for this opposition on the part of the vast throng of immoral and simoniacal clerics is not far to seek. Much of the reform thus far accomplished had been brought about mainly through the efforts of Gregory; all countries had felt the force of his will, the power of his dominant personality. His character, therefore, was a sufficient guarantee that his legislation would not be suffered to remain a dead letter. In Germany, particularly, the enactments of Gregory aroused a feeling of intense indignation. The whole body of the married clergy offered the most resolute resistance, and declared that the canon enjoining celibacy was wholly unwarranted in Scripture. In support of their position they appealed to the words of the Apostle Paul, I Cor., vii,2, and 9: “It is better to marry than to be burnt”; and I Tim., iii, 2: “It behooveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife.” They cited the words of Christ, Matt., xix, 11: “All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given”; and, recurred to the address of the Egyptian Bishop Paphnutius at the Council of Nice. At Nuremberg they informed the papal legate that they would rather renounce their priesthood than their wives, and that he for whom men were not good enough might go seek angels to preside over the Churches. Siegfried, Archbishop of Mainz and Primate of Germany, when forced to promulgate the decrees, attempted to temporize, and allowed his clergy six months of delay for consideration. The order, of course, remained ineffectual after the lapse of that period, and at a synod held at Erfurt in October, 1074, he could accomplish nothing. Altmann, the energetic Bishop of Passau, nearly lost his life in publishing the measures, but adhered firmly to the instructions of the pontiff. The greater number of bishops received their instructions with manifest indifference, and some openly defied the pope. Otto of Constance, who had before tolerated the marriage of his clergy, now formally sanctioned it. In France the excitement was scarcely less vehement than in Germany. A council at Paris, in 1074, condemned the Roman decrees, as implying that the validity of the sacraments depended on the sanctity of the minister, and declared them intolerable and irrational. John, Archbishop of Rouen, while endeavouring to enforce the canon of celibacy at a provincial synod, was stoned and had to flee for his life. Walter, Abbot of Pontoise, who attempted to defend the papal enactments, was imprisoned and threatened with death. At the Council of Burgos, in Spain, the papal legate was insulted and his dignity outraged. But the zeal of Gregory knew no abatement. He followed up his decrees by sending legates into all quarters, fully empowered to depose immoral and simoniacal ecclesiastics. It was clear that the causes of the simony and of the incontinence amongst the clergy were closely allied, and that the spread of the latter could be effectually checked only by the eradication of the former. Henry IV had failed to translate into action the promises made in his penitent letter to the new pontiff. On the subjugation of the Saxons and Thuringians, he deposed the Saxon bishops, and replaced them by his own creatures. In 1075 a synod held at Rome excommunicated “any person, even if he were emperor or king, who should confer an investiture in connection with any ecclesiastical office”, and Gregory recognizing the futility of milder measures, deposed the simoniacal prelates appointed by Henry, anathematized several of the imperial counsellors, and cited the emperor himself to appear at Rome in 1076 to answer for his conduct before a council. To this Henry retorted by convening a meeting of his supporters at Worms on 23 January 1076. This diet naturally defended Henry against all the papal charges, accused the pontiff of most heinous crimes, and declared him deposed. Theses decisions were approved a few weeks later by two synods of Lombard bishops at Piacenza and Pavia respectively, and a messenger, bearing a most offensive personal letter from Henry, was dispatched with this reply to the pope. Gregory hesitated no longer: recognizing that the Christian Faith must be preserved and the flood of immorality stemmed at all costs, and seeing that the conflict was forced upon him by the emperor’s schism and the violation of his solemn promises, he excommunicated Henry and all his ecclesiastical supporters, and released his subjects from their oath of allegiance in accordance with the usual political procedures of the age.
Henry’s position was now precarious. At first he was encouraged by his creatures to resist, but his friends, including his abettors among the episcopate, began to abandon him, and the Saxons revolted once more, demanding a new king. At a meeting of the German lords, spiritual and temporal, held at Tibur in October, 1076, the election of a new emperor was canvassed. Onlearning through the papal legate of Gregory’s desire that the crown should be reserved for Henry if possible, the assembly contented itself with calling upon the emperor to abstain for the time being from all administration of public affairs and avoid the company of those who had been excommunicated, but declared his crown forfeited if he were not reconciled with the pope within a year. It was further agreed to invite Gregory to a council at Augsburg in the following February, at which Henry was summoned to present himself. Abandoned by his own partisans and fearing for his throne, Henry fled secretly with his wife and child and a single servant to Gregory to tender his submission. He crossed the Alps in the depth of one of the severest winters on record. On reaching Italy, the Italians flocked around him promising aid and assistance in his quarrel with the pope, but Henry spurned their offers. Gregory was already on his way to Augsburg, and , fearing treachery, retired to the castle of Canossa. Thither Henry followed him, but the pontiff, mindful of his former faithlessness, treated him with extreme severity. Stript of his royal robes, and clad as a penitent, Henry had to come barefooted mid ice and snow, and crave for admission to the presence of the pope. All day he remained at the door of the citadel, fasting and exposed to the inclemency of the wintry weather, but was refused admission. A second and a third day he thus humiliated and disciplined himself, and finally on 28 January 1077, he was received by the pontiff and absolved from censure, but only on condition that he would appear at the proposed council and submit himself to its decision.
Henry then returned to Germany, but his severe lesson failed to effect any radical improvement in his conduct. Disgusted by his inconsistencies and dishonesty, the German princes on 15 March, 1077, elected Rudolph of Swabia to succeed him. Gregory wished to remain neutral, and even strove to effect a compromise between the opposing parties. Both, however, were dissatisified, and prevented the proposed council from being held. Henry’s conduct toward the pope was meanwhile characterized by the greatest duplicity, and, when he went so far as to threaten to set up an antipope, Gregory renewed in 1080 the sentence of excommunication against him. At Brixen in June, 1080, the king and his feudatory bishops, supported by the Lombards, carried their threat into effect, and selected Gilbert, the excommunicated simoniacal Archbishop of Ravenna, as pope under the title of Clement III. Rudolph of Swabia having fallen mortally wounded at the battle of Mersburg in 1080. Henry could concentrate all his forces against Gregory. In 1081 he marched on Rome, but failed to force his way into the city, which he finally accomplished only in 1084. Gregory thereupon retired into the exile of Sant’ Angelo, and refused to entertain Henry’s overtures, although the latter promised to hand over Guibert as a prisoner, if the sovereign pontiff would only consent to crown him emperor. Gregory, however, insisted as a necessary preliminary that Henry should appear before a council and do penance. The emperor, while pretending to submit to these terms, tried hard to prevent the meeting of the bishops. A small number however assembled, and, in accordance with their wishes, Gregory again excommunicated Henry. The latter on receipt of this news again entered Rome on 21 March, 1084. Guibert was consecrated pope, and then crowned Henry emperor. However, Robert Guiscard, Duke of Normandy, with whom Gregory had formed an alliance, was already marching on the city, and Henry, learning of his advance, fled towards Citta Castellana. The pontiff was liberated, but, the people becoming incensed by the excesses of his Norman allies, he was compelled to leave Rome. Disappointed and sorrowing he withdrew to Monte Cassino, and later to the castle of Salerno by the sea, where he died in the following year. Three days before his death he withdrew all the censures of excommunication that he had pronounced, except those against the two chief offenders – Henry and Guibert. His last words were: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.” His body was interred in the church of Saint Matthew at Salerno. He was beatified by Gregory XIII in 1584, and canonized in 1728 by Benedict XIII. His writings treat mainly of the principles and practice of Church government. They may be found under the title “Gregorii VII registri sive epistolarum libri” in Mansi, “Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio” (Florence, 1759) and “S. Gregorii VII epistolae et diplomata” by Horoy (Paris, 1877).