The Excommunication of Henry IV and the Bold Act of Gregory VII

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, P.h.D., College of William and Mary

The High Middle Ages were sometimes too strange. For example, a pope could basically fire a king according to the law. This led to the excommunication of Henry IV, the king who tried to fire a pope and not only failed at that but was also fired by the pope in return. He then went to apologize, but not because he was really sorry. Why then?

Henry IV's statue in Paris.
The excommunication of Henry IV was a strong reaction to his letter trying to fire Pope Gregory VII. (Image: NeydtStock/Shutterstock)

In the 11th century, a religious movement called the Gregorian Reform tried to make religion pure and right. The movement was named after Pope Gregory VII, who was passionately supporting the reform. He even had the support of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Gregorian Reform

The Gregorian reformists were trying to liberate the Church from secular rulers, bring back cleric celibacy, and stop selling Church offices to just anyone. With the support of the Holy Roman Empire, they could enforce some of their intended laws.

However, the empire and the reformists did not agree over one point: investiture, where a secular leader had to give the power to a newly elected cleric. The Church wanted to eliminate this control, and the empire wanted to keep it. The problem turned much bigger than expected after a while.

To change investiture, the Gregorian reformers first had to liberate the papacy from the control of the empire. They got an opportunity in the 1050s.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Minority

When Henry III died, his young child, Henry IV, was the heir. When a minor came to power, it was called a minority and was a dangerous period for the kingdom. During a minority, some people could get things that were not possible during an old-enough emperor’s reign. In this case, it was liberating the papacy.

In 1059, the Gregorian reformers introduced a new method for popes’ election in a Church council.

Papal Election Decree

The new method, called the Papal Election Decree, declared that neither laypeople nor the state could have any role in the election. Instead, popes had to be elected by a body of individuals known as “cardinals”. Hence, the College of Cardinals was created in 1059. The method is still used today for choosing a pope.

Cardinals were either ecclesiastics or appointed by a pope. Soon after, the Gregorian reformers attacked investiture with their new cardinal powers. The Investiture Controversy began when Gregory VII was the pope, and eventually led to 20 years of civil war in Germany.

Learn more about the monks—those who prayed.


Before Gregory VII was elected as the pope in 1075, he was called Hildebrand—a very famous figure whose ugliness was unmatched in the whole Europe in the 11th century. Still, he was a great speaker and, apparently, could read minds.

Gregory VII stopped investiture in Europe and fired some German bishops appointed by the imperials. The Holy Roman Empire was specifically under their observation because they controlled northern Italy, which was very important to the papacy.

When Henry IV, the German emperor, got the news, he was not amused.

Firing Gregory VII

Henry IV was still too young to make the most beneficial decisions. When he realized the bishops that he had appointed were fired, he convoked Church councils consisting of the bishops in Germany and northern Italy. Then, they voted against Gregory VII, calling him unfit for being the pope.

Henry IV wrote a letter to Gregory and told him that he was fired. He addressed Gregory as “Hildebrand”, a “False monk”. Gregory’s response was almost equal.

Excommunication of Henry IV

Old engravings show Henry IV, the Holy Roman emperor.
When Henry IV was excommunicated, rebellions against him began. (Image: Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock)

Gregory VII wrote back a letter in the same year, 1076, and declared the excommunication of Henry IV. In fact, he fired Henry IV. He then informed all of the subjects of Henry IV that they no longer owed him any loyalty and could elect someone else as the new ruler.

The excommunication of Henry IV was the first of its kind after around six centuries. It implied the higher authority of papacy compared to the state. Things got serious when some people, including some authorities, acted as Gregory had said and decided to elect a new leader. The rebellion was on the way.

Henry IV already had problems with gaining loyalty from all the nobles who were trying to build castles and gain lordship over people.

Learn more about the medieval inquisitions.

Henry IV’s Apology to the Pope

Henry IV, taken by surprise by Gregory VII’s actions, had to act swiftly, and he backed down, in the short run. He needed to buy time to marshal his forces to deal with the rebellion that was breaking out at home. He needed to bring things back under his control.

Thus, he traveled to northern Italy, to the town of Canossa in the Alps in the winter, something that is uncommon even now. He wanted to meet Gregory VII in person and apologize. To prove his sincerity, he wore a hair shirt, and stood barefoot in the freezing snow as a penitent, begging papal forgiveness. He did this for three days.

Gregory VII was not a fool. He knew that Henry IV was insincere, but visibly, he appeared to be truly sorry for the Investiture Controversy, and he was forced to lift the sentence of excommunication, and declare that Henry IV was the legitimate emperor.

Common Questions about the Excommunication of Henry IV

Q: Who excommunicated Henry IV?

Gregory VII’s conflicts with the secular leaders elevated until it led to the excommunication of Henry IV. It was a bold act and very dangerous for secular power.

Q: Why was Henry IV excommunicated?

Henry IV was excommunicated as the result of a long fight with Gregory VII, where Henry IV sent a letter to Gregory, calling him a False Monk and declaring him fired.

Q: Did Henry IV apologize to Gregory VII?

After the excommunication of Henry IV, the emperor felt that a rebellion was in the making. To get things in his control, Henry IV traveled to northern Italy, to the town of Canossa, which is located in the Alps. There, in the middle of winter, he waited to meet with Gregory VII, in order to apologize.

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