A symbiosis developed between the Roman prelates and the Franks. Roman bishops depended on Frankish kings for support. Frankish rulers looked to Rome for the right to rule. As Frankish power grew, however, questions arose over the source of genuine power. Did kings receive the right to rule from the church or was the right to rule inherent in the office? Did bishops and churchmen derive their authority from kings or from Rome?
I want to investigate the growing power struggle between bishops and kings during the Middle Ages.
I. The Holy Roman Empire
As loyalty to the eastern Empire grew weaker, the necessity for cooperation between kings and bishops became essential. As Frankish kings became increasingly powerful, more and more leaders looked to them rather than Constantinople. After all, Constantinople was distant and unconcerned while the Franks were near and offered powerful leadership. At the same time, however, Rome did not wish to lose the power it gained during the years of power vacuum.
That kings needed church approval can be seen in the transition of leadership from Merovingian to Carolingian kings. When Pepin the Short, last of the "Mayors of the Palace," usurped Merovingian rule, he looked to Pope Zacharias for approval. Pepin took the crown with the pope's blessing. In return, the Roman bishop asked for Pepin's help against the Lombards, a people in northern Italy who constantly troubled papal territory. After Zacharias's death, Pope Stephen III reanointed Pepin and his two sons reaffirming earlier agreements. True to his word, Pepin led an army into Italy, defeated the Lombards, and forced them to relinquish territory to the church. This territory forms the basis of the "Papal Estates." The pope now exercised political control over central Italy substantially increasing his temporal and spiritual power.
As we have seen, Charlemagne followed his father to the Frankish throne. After his brother, Carloman, died in 771, Charlemagne began his conquests and "evangelistic efforts." Under Charlemagne's leadership the Frankish kingdom expanded to its greatest limits. No one in all Europe held greater military or political strength than Charles the Great.
Charlemagne was a typical Frankish warlord. He possessed a rough tough character, numerous concubines and children. Some suggest he mistreated his daughters and we know how he treated his subjects. No one in Europe challenged him. Churchmen believed he could effect societal change if they could properly direct his energies. Rome's problem was that local churchmen looked more to Charlemagne for leadership than to the Roman bishop.
As Charlemagne's power grew, that of the Roman bishop power eroded away. The Roman bishop had only one chance left to salvage his position. Constantine had supposedly given the Roman bishop the Imperial title along with political power. If true, that meant the Imperial title belonged to the pope and he could bestow it or withdraw it at will. Observers said that by the 780s popes planned to transfer the Imperial title from Constantinople to the Carolingian rulers. A hint of this came when the pope stopped dating documents from the eastern Emperor's accession year and substituted Charlemagne's accession year. Furthermore, by the 790s, when a new Roman Bishop was selected, he sent a formal announcement of his election to the Frankish king rather than the Byzantine Emperor. The pope knew he could regain some of his lost prestige if Charlemagne owed him his position.
That the Roman bishop had lost political clout can be seen in the beating of Pope Leo III by a Roman mob which charged him with immorality. Leo fled north for protection from the "official protector of the Romans," Charlemagne. Charlemagne sent Leo back to Rome under guard and kept him in protective custody until he completed one of his Saxon campaigns. On December 23, 800 Charlemagne presided at Leo's trial. Leo ably defended himself, but he obviously depended on Frankish protection for his position.
Two days after the trial, on Christmas Day, Leo did the only thing left to him. Just as Charlemagne arose from prayer before St. Peter's tomb, Leo placed a crown on his head and conferred upon him the title of Roman Emperor. Immediately the crowd shouted, "Charles Augustus, crowned great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory!" Leo crowned Charlemagne the Roman Emperor. Now there were two Emperors -- one in the east and one in the west.
Charlemagne was indignant! He stated he would not have attended church had he known what would happen. Charlemagne did not desire the title because, to him, the word "Roman" meant "Byzantine" and he did not wish to be identified with the eastern rulers. Charlemagne saw the eastern rules as weak. He also understood the implications of Leo's act. Papal coronation implied papal superiority. Charlemagne had no intention of being indebted to the Rome's bishop. Therefore, Charles shunned the title preferring "King of the Franks and Lombards." He regarded the Imperial title as an expression of his position as a Christian war hero. Ignoring papal sanctions, he continued as "head" of the Frankish church.
Charlemagne's coronation had three important results. First, in spite of Charlemagne's attitude, the bishop's power grew steadily. Religious authorities insisted civil authority derived from church conferment. Subsequent bishops built a stronger Roman church. Second, a Frankish king's coronation as Emperor contributed to the separation of the Latin and Greek churches. Finally, the coronation marked the passing of political power from southern to northern Europe and from the Latin to the Teutonic peoples.
Some historians refer to Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. I do not. Charlemagne sets the stage for the Holy Roman Empire which came into being in 962 when Pope John XII crowned Otto as Emperor.
II. The Investiture Controversy
In 911, the last Carolingian king died leaving no one strong enough to assume leadership. The "volk" asserted the Germanic electoral principle and elected Conrad I, Duke of Franconia, king. Henry the Fowler succeeded Conrad in 918. Henry's family, the Ottonians, ruled for over a century. His reign marked the beginning of the German monarchy. In truth, however, Henry and Conrad were both ineffective kings. It took Otto I, who came to the throne in 936, to establish a solid power structure.
Otto insisted the Archbishop of Mainz crown him in Charlemagne's old capital. This symbolic act told German society he considered himself Charlemagne's successor. Otto fully intended to dominate the church. He used church resources and personnel to establish the foundation of royal power.
As he consolidated power, Otto took three important steps. First, he insisted on the right to "invest" bishops and abbots with the symbols of their office. Without royal investiture no one could hold these offices. Second, Otto maintained all the old German property rights concepts. The king owned the kingdom and he could handle all property as he chose. Since churches built on his land, he could deal with that property as he chose. Third, using an advocacy system, Otto's "advocates" exercised direct economic control over church properties.
In time Otto became both militarily strong and financially wealthy. He paid for military campaigns with funds drawn from monastic lands. In 962, Otto went to Rome to demand coronation as Roman Emperor. Otto had three motives for this action. First, he wanted to bring all the old kingdom's remnants under his control. Second, he wanted to copy Charlemagne wherever possible. Third, he did not want the Imperial crown given to another people.
While Otto could pull this off because of his strength, his descendants came into direct conflict with Rome. Otto's empire stood for nearly a century. In 1054, Henry IV became king at age 4. His mother and two Archbishops ruled for him until he reached 15. Henry believed in absolute monarchy with the right of investiture. Papal policy challenged his ideas and conflict was inevitable.
During this period Gregory VII (1073-1085) sat in Peter's chair. We know little about him. He first appeared as chaplain to Gregory VI residing at a monastery at Cluny. He became a sub-deacon and then a cardinal bishop under Leo IX in 1040. A highly influential and powerful man, he controlled papal policies until he became pope in 1073. Immediately after becoming pope, Gregory tried to center all secular and religious authority in Rome. He adopted several goals. He set out to free the papacy from lay interference. He determined to subject all metropolitans, bishops, abbots and clergy to Roman authority. He tried to create situations where secular rulers were required to obey papal bidding. He established the means to accomplish these goals quite early, as early as 1059, but no one dared use them. Gregory did! He restricted papal nomination to the cardinal bishops leaving nothing in secular hands. He decreed that no clergyman could accept an office from a layman. He also decreed that layman should not hear mass led by a clergyman known to keep concubines. Gregory used these rules to force secular rulers into compliance.
Two strong willed men now demanded full obedience: Henry IV demanded it and so does Pope Gregory.
King Henry consolidated secular power when he defeated the Saxons. He then appointed a new Archbishop for Milan. Gregory questioned Henry's action and charged him with violating the decrees of 1059. Henry convened a council at Worms on January 24, 1076, then drafted a letter to Gregory rejecting his control of the Milan church as an "unlawful and wicked thing." Henry pointed out Gregory's moral failings and stated, "We renounce, now and for the future, all obedience unto thee -- which indeed we never promised to thee."
Gregory retaliated by summoning a Roman Synod on February 22, 1076. Gregory drew up a document and sent it to Henry stating, in part:
In short, Gregory excommunicated Henry. With the excommunication Henry found himself in a precarious position. German nobles threatened to depose him unless he secured a release from excommunication.
Henry found himself forced to appeal to Gregory for forgiveness. Gregory suggested his appeal be settled at an assembly in Augsburg in February, 1077. Henry, seeing his deteriorating position in Germany, sought forgiveness at almost any cost. Historian Williston Walker describes the subsequent events:
The strongest European king stood barefoot in the snow and knelt before a bishop.
Henry returned home in a victorious mood. His release from excommunication gave him breathing room. Again he tried to grab power and again the pope tried to depose him. This time Henry was ready. By 1085, he had the strength to drive Gregory from Rome to refuge among Norman allies in the south of Italy. Gregory died while holed up!
The incident at Canossa had several results. It restored the German crown to Henry. It dealt a death blow to the concept of theocratic kingship. It also gave credence to Gregory's contention that pope's could judge and depose kings. Nonetheless, Gregory did not enjoy total victory. Canossa also sowed doubts about the papacy's good intentions. The investiture argument continued for years finally coming to settlement in the Concordat of Worms in 1122. Even this concordat represented a compromise.
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