Late December 1076 was the worst winter for many years. So thick with snow were the Alps “that neither hoof nor foot could safely take step on them”. Nevertheless, this had not prevented a small party of some 50 travellers from making the attempt. If the ascent was grim enough, then the descent was to prove even worse. Blizzards and freezing temperatures had transformed the road that led down towards Italy into one lethal flume of tight-packed ice.


As the women of the party gingerly took their places on sledges fashioned out of ox-hides, so the men were left to slip and slither onwards on foot, sometimes clutching onto the shoulders of their guides, sometimes scrabbling about on all fours. An undignified way for anyone to travel – but especially so for a Caesar.

Henry, the fourth king of that name to have ascended to the rule of the German people, was lord of the greatest of all the realms of Christendom. Both his father and his grandfather before him had been crowned in Rome as emperor. Henry himself, though he was yet to be graced formally with the title, had always taken for granted that it was his by right.

The imperial rank was a glittering prize indeed. Long vanished though the empire of ancient Rome might be, the lustre of its fame still illumined the imaginings of its inheritors. Even to peoples who had never submitted to its rule, the person of an emperor, his cloak adorned with suns and stars, appeared an awesome but natural complement to the one celestial emperor who ruled in heaven.

This was why, unlike his pagan forebears, a Christian Caesar did not require taxes and bureaucrats and standing armies to uphold the mystique of his power. Nor did he need a capital – nor even to be a Roman. His true authority derived from a higher source. “Next after Christ he rules across the earth.”

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A formidable adversary

But now God’s deputy was collecting bruises out on a mountainside – and in the dead of winter too. That Henry found himself reduced to such straits was a measure of the crisis that had engulfed him. For years, his enemies among the German princes had been manoeuvring to bring him down. Nothing particularly exceptional there: for it was the nature of German princes, by and large, to manoeuvre against their king.

Utterly exceptional, however, was the sudden emergence of an adversary who held no network of castles, commanded no great train of warriors, nor even wore a sword. An adversary who nevertheless, in the course of only a few months, and in alliance with the German princes, had succeeded in bringing Christendom’s mightiest king to his knees.

This formidable opponent had once been called Hildebrand – until, three years earlier, he adopted the name of Gregory VII. He was Bishop of Rome, yet also very much more than that. For, just as Henry liked to pose as the heir of the Caesars, so did Gregory, from his throne in Christendom’s capital, lay claim to being the ‘Father’, the ‘Pope’, of the universal church.

A sure-fire recipe for conflict? Not necessarily. For centuries now, emperors and popes had been rubbing along together well enough – with the popes very much the junior partners. The world was a cruel and violent place, after all, and Rome was hemmed in by any number of menacing neighbours.

While no emperor had ever clung for protection to a pope, there was many a pope who had clung to an emperor. As a result, it had long been taken for granted by the Christian people that a Caesar had not merely a right to intrude upon the business of the church, but a positive responsibility.

On occasion, indeed, at a moment of particular crisis, an emperor might go so far as to take the ultimate sanction, and force the abdication of an unworthy pontiff. This was precisely what Henry IV, convinced that Gregory was unworthy of his office, had sought to bring about in the early weeks of 1076: a regrettable necessity, to be sure, but nothing that his own father had not successfully done before him.

Gregory, however, far from submitting to the imperial displeasure, and tamely stepping down, had taken an utterly unprecedented step: he had responded in ferocious kind. Henry’s subjects, the Pope had pronounced, were absolved from all their obedience to their earthly lord – even as Henry himself, that very image of God on earth, was excommunicated from the church.

Gregory’s gambit revealed itself, after only a few months, to be an utterly devastating one. Henry’s enemies were lethally emboldened. His friends melted away. By the end of the year, his entire realm had been rendered ungovernable.

And so it was, braving the winter gales, that the by now desperate King had set himself to cross the Alps. He was resolved to meet with the Pope, to show due penitence, to beg forgiveness. Caesar though he might be, he had been left with no alternative.

Naturally, then, as the weary royal party debouched into Lombardy, and 1076 turned to 1077, there was a frantic effort to pinpoint the papal whereabouts. Gregory, so Henry’s spies reported, had been spending the Christmas season in northern Italy – but now, hearing the news of the King’s approach, he had turned tail in high alarm, and beaten a retreat to the stronghold of a local supporter.

Henry dispatched a blizzard of letters ahead of him to assure the Pope of his peaceable intentions and duly set off in pursuit. Late that January, and accompanied by only a few companions, Henry began the ascent of yet another upland road. Ahead of him, jagged and unwelcoming, there stretched the frontier of the Appenines.

A bare six miles from the plain he had left behind him, but after many hours’ twisting and turning, Henry arrived at last before a valley, gouged out, it seemed, from the wild mountainscape, and spanned by a single ridge. Beyond it, surmounting a crag so sheer and desolate that it appeared utterly impregnable, the King could see the ramparts of the bolt-hole where the Pope had taken refuge. The name of the fortress: Canossa.

On Henry pressed, into the castle’s shadow. As he did so, the outer gates swung open to admit him, and then, halfway up the rock, the gates of a second wall. It would have been evident enough, even to the suspicious sentries, that their visitor intended no harm, nor presented any conceivable threat.

An awesome show of penance

“Barefoot, and clad in wool, he had cast aside all the splendour proper to a king.” Henry’s head was bowed. Tears streamed down his face. Humbly, joining a crowd of other penitents, he took up position before the gates of the castle’s innermost wall.

There the Caesar waited, the deputy of Christ, shivering in the snow. Nor, in all that time, did he neglect to continue with his lamentations – “until,” as the watching Gregory put it, “he had provoked all who were there or who had been brought news of what was happening to such great mercy, and such pitying compassion, that they began to intercede for him with prayers and tears of their own”.

It was a truly awesome show. Ultimately, stern and indomitable though he had always shown himself to be, not even the Pope himself was proof against it. By the morning of 28 January, the third day of the royal penance, Gregory had seen enough. He ordered the inner set of gates unbarred at last. Negotiations were opened and soon concluded. Pope and King met one another face to face. The pinch-faced penitent was absolved with a papal kiss. And so was set the seal on an episode as fateful as any in Europe’s history.

Like the crossing of the Rubicon, like the storming of the Bastille, the events at Canossa had served to crystalise a truly epochal crisis. Far more had been at stake than merely the egos of two domineering men. The Pope, locked into a desperate power struggle though he certainly was, had ambitions as well that were breathtakingly global in their scope. His goal? Nothing less than to establish the “right order in the world”.

By the terms of Gregory’s manifesto, the whole of Christendom, from its summit to its meanest village, was to be divided into two. One realm for the spiritual, one for the secular. No longer were kings to be permitted to poke their noses into the business of the church. As he put it, “The Emperor, rather than being honoured as a universal monarch, had been treated instead as merely a human being – as a creature moulded out of clay”.

Contemporaries, struggling to make sense of the whole extraordinary business, perfectly appreciated that they were living through a convulsion in the affairs of the Christian people that had no precedent, nor even any parallel. The three decades that preceded the showdown at Canossa, and the four that followed it, were, in the judgement of one celebrated medievalist, a period when the ideals of Christendom, its forms of government, and even its very social and economic fabric, “changed in almost every respect”.

Here, argued Sir Richard Southern, was the true making of the west. “The expansion of Europe had begun in earnest. That all this should have happened in so short a time is the most remarkable fact in medieval history.”

And if it was remarkable to us, then how much more so, of course, to those who actually lived through it. We in the 21st century are habituated to the notion of progress: the faith that human society, rather than inevitably decaying, can be improved. The men and women of the 11th century were not.

Gregory, by presuming to challenge Henry IV, was the harbinger of something awesome. He and his supporters might not have realised it – but they were introducing to the post-classical west its first experience of revolution.

To be sure, Gregory today may not enjoy the fame of a Luther, a Robespierre, a Marx – but that reflects, not his failure, but rather the sheer scale of his achievement. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those that succeed is to end up being taken for granted.

Gregory himself did not live to witness his ultimate victory – but the cause for which he fought was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of western civilisation. That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should exist distinct from one another: here are presumptions that ‘the papal revolution’, for the first time, and to enduring effect, served to make fundamental to the civilisation of the west.

Not, of course, that it had ever remotely been Gregory’s own intention to banish God from an entire dimension of human affairs, but revolutions will invariably have unintended consequences. Even as the church, from the second half of the 11th century onwards, set about asserting its independence from outside interference by establishing its own laws, bureaucracy and income, so kings, in response, were prompted to do the same. “The heaven’s are the Lord’s heavens – but the earth he has given to the sons of men.” So Henry IV’s son pronounced, answering a priest who had urged him not to hang a count under the walls of his own castle, for fear of provoking God’s wrath.

It was in a similar spirit that the foundations of the modern western state were laid, foundations largely bled of any religious dimension. A piquant irony: that the very concept of a secular society should ultimately have been due to the papacy. Voltaire and the First Amendment, multi-culturalism and gay weddings – all have served as waymarks on the road from Canossa.

It was Gregory, on those three remarkable days in the Appenines, who stood as godfather to the modern world.

Canossa in history

Even prior to Canossa, the crisis in relations between Pope and Emperor had given rise to something never before experienced in the Christian west: mass political debate. “What else is talked about even in women’s spinning-rooms and artisans’ workshops?,” exclaimed one monk in wonder – and not a little consternation too.

The news of Canossa itself, coming on top of everything that had preceded it, was received as a particular thunderclap. “The whole world was shaken,” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Even centuries afterwards, the memory retained its power to shock.

To Martin Luther, who saw it as his lifetime’s mission to reverse everything that Gregory had stood for, the great Pope appeared a literally infernal figure: not Hildebrand, but ‘Höllenbrand’, or ‘Hellfire’. To the Germans of the post-Enlightenment age as well, Gregory VII appeared the very archetype of reaction.

“We shall not go to Canossa!” So fulminated that iron chancellor of a reborn German empire, Prince Bismarck, in 1872, as he gave a pledge to the Reichstag that he would never permit the papacy to stand in the way of Germany’s forward-march to modernity.

It is true that in more recent times the status of Canossa as one of the totemic scenes of medieval history has begun to fade. Yet the fundamental issue for which it acted as a touchstone has not gone away. Where should the dividing line between secular and religious authority be drawn? This question has come to be debated in Europe with a renewed sense of urgency. In our attempts to answer it, a backwards glance at the events at Canossa can help to bring into focus just how truly revolutionary they were.

Bismarck was wrong. Gregory was no reactionary. The changes that he helped set in train at Canossa are with us still.

Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. His books includes Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little Brown, 2019) which explores the history of Christianity


This article was first published in the October 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine