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Gregory VII

(c. 1020—1085)

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pope. Of plebeian origin, born at Soano (Tuscany), he went to Rome when very young, became a monk probably at St Mary on the Aventine, and was chosen by Pope Gregory VI as his chaplain, in which capacity he shared the pope's exile in 1046. Hildebrand, as he was generally known, retired to a monastery (Cluny?) on Gregory VI's death in 1047, returned to Rome in 1049 with Leo IX (just elected pope), and under him and his successors occupied important financial and other offices. He came to formulate papal policy in a way not unlike that of a modern Secretary of State, except that Hildebrand's influence was both more theoretical and more thorough-going. He was elected pope in 1073; although he began his work for Church reform, like his predecessors, by decrees against simony and the incontinence of the clergy, he went on to a more comprehensive quest for the liberty of the Church in practice, by forbidding lay investiture of ecclesiastical offices.

This stand aroused much hostility during and after Gregory's lifetime and affected most of western Europe, including England. Here William I refused to obey, but escaped condemnation because he generally supported the pope's other reforming policies; Anselm, however, vigorously opposed William II and Henry I on this very issue. In France the reforms were eventually carried through, although many bishops lost their sees in the process. But in Germany the issue was fought out with great bitterness on both sides. The emperor Henry IV, who was threatened with deposition, declared Gregory deposed himself. He replied by freeing Henry's subjects from their oath of allegiance, after excommunicating the emperor. German magnates then agreed that Henry should lose his crown unless he received absolution in a year. This led to the famous confrontation at Canossa when Henry spent three days in the snow at the castle gate, accused himself, and received absolution. Although this is often seen as the triumph of Church over State, in fact it was a triumph for the emperor, who never gave up his claims to investiture but caused extreme discomfiture to the pope, who as spiritual guide had no alternative to absolving him as a private penitent. Henry was excommunicated again in 1080 as he had not kept his promises made at Canossa; but in reply he set up Wibert of Ravenna as anti-pope and took Rome after a siege of more than two years. Gregory called in the Normans under Robert Guiscard to rescue him. This they did, but the Norman soldiers so oppressed the Romans that they rejected Gregory, who fled to Monte Cassino and lastly to Salerno, where he died.  

Historians, like contemporaries, were divided in their estimate of Gregory: he has been considered by some an ambitious tyrant, ‘Holy Satan’, an unscrupulous and intransigent pope who deformed the papacy. Others make a more favourable estimate: one who devoted his life to reforming and strengthening the Church, to which he was utterly devoted, partly because he saw himself as being the Vicar of St Peter and, lacking any worldly position by birth, he was detached from the temporal involvements of most ecclesiastics. What is certain is that the Gregorian Reform, which owed more to him than to any other individual, was a successful revolutionary movement which has profoundly modified the relation between Church and State, the nature of the clerical and monastic orders, and the involvement of Christianity in society ever since. Gregory's name was added to the Roman Martyrology in 1583: he was canonized in 1606; his feast was extended to all countries by Pope Benedict XIII in 1728. Feast: 25 May.


Subjects: Religion

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