History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

25 January: On this day in history

What events happened on 25 January in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: January 25, 2022 at 10:46 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

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

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.” | Read more about the road to Canossa

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

25 January 1308
Isabella, 12-year old daughter of Philip IV of France, weds King Edward II of England at Boulogne. The marriage will not be a success.
25 January 1533 
Probable date of the secret marriage in the king’s private chapel at Whitehall of King Henry VIII and a pregnant Anne Boleyn.
25 January 1759
Birth in Alloway, Ayrshire of Robert Burnes, the eldest of the seven children of smallholder William Burnes and his wife Agnes. Later changing his surname to Burns, will grow up to become Scotland's best-loved poet.
25 January 1882
English novelist, critic and queen of the Bloomsbury Group Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen at Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.
25 January 1971
Idi Amin seized power in Uganda while the country's president, Dr Milton Obote, was out of the country attending a Commonwealth conference in Singapore.

Browse more On this day in history

Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content