25 January 1077: Henry IV bends his knee to the pope at Canossa

The Holy Roman Emperor blinks first in a battle of wills between state and church


The ruined castle of Canossa stands on the summit of a rocky hill in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy. In 1077, it was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the region. It was here that Pope Gregory VII took refuge during his bitter dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor, the German king Henry IV. And it was here that Henry waited on his knees in one of history’s most famous acts of penance.

At the root of the Walk to Canossa was a long-simmering row about the balance of power between pope and emperor, known as the Investiture Controversy. When relations broke down, Gregory formally excommunicated and deposed the emperor – the ultimate sanction in medieval Christendom. As his support began to erode, Henry felt compelled to take extraordinary measures.

After crossing the Alps in the first weeks of 1077, Henry dressed as a penitent, abandoning his shoes and putting on a monk’s hair shirt. It was in this attire that, on 25 January, he arrived at Canossa. When the pope refused him entry, Henry waited outside, praying on his knees in the snow. At last, on 28 January, the castle gate creaked open. Inside, Henry fell on his knees before the pope and asked for forgiveness, and then they took communion together.

Today, ‘going to Canossa’ has become a common expression denoting reluctant penance, especially in Germany. In reality, the effect was limited, as Henry and Gregory soon fell out again. But as a symbol of the conflict between Germany and the papacy, Canossa became enormously important. For many Lutherans, the emperor was the ‘first Protestant’. And when, in the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck launched his drive to curtail the powers of the Catholic church, he made his intentions very clear. “We will not,” he said, “go to Canossa.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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