Canossa: a medieval clash between church and state

In 1076, with his entire realm ungovernable following his excommunication from the church, Henry IV, King of Germany, set across the Alps to meet with Pope Gregory VII, in the hope of reversing his decision. Here, Tom Holland, the author of Millennium, follows the road to the Appenine fortress of Canossa, where the mighty medieval clash between church and state helped form the world we live in today

Henry IV of Germany asking for the forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII in Canossa in 1077. (Photo by De Agostini/Getty Images)

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

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.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now