Henry IV: German King, Holy Roman Emperor

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Henry IV was one of the most famous of the Holy Roman Emperors, ruling in the late 11th Century and into the early 12th Century. He is perhaps most famous for his battles with the Catholic Church and with a number of recalcitrant nobles.

King Henry IV of Germany

He was born on Nov. 11, 1050, at the imperial palace in Goslar, Saxony. His father was the eventual Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, and his mother was Agnes of Poitou. Wasting little time, Henry named his son King Henry of Germany in 1053. Two years later, the boy had a wife, Bertha of Turin, herself only 15.

Young Henry grew up in the beginnings of what later became known as the Investiture Controversy, a titanic struggle between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and other European leaders as to who had the power to appoint Church officials. Henry III had such power that he was able to appoint not only the important officials in the empire but also the pope himself. However, his actions angered many within the Catholic organization and, indeed, in lands neighboring the empire. One of Henry's last campaigns was to put down a Slav uprising in the north. It was after that effort, in 1056, that he suffered an illness from which he never recovered. Henry III the Pious died on October 5. From that point, the 6-year-old Henry the younger, already the King of Germany, was nominally the head of the Holy Roman Empire.

Agnes, young Henry's mother, ran the empire as regent. Her husband had taken much personal control over the German duchies and also appointed family and friends to high-powered positions, including the monarch of neighboring Hungary. With the powerful Henry gone, the people whose power he had taken found opportunity to take some of it back. Agnes spent much time focused on affairs in the north, during which time officials in Italy seized control of such things as appointing church and political officials. After a complicated series of machinations, two men claimed to have support for being named pope. Agnes, acting in her capacity as head of state, waded into the controversy, expressing her preference for one of the papal candidates. She lost the fight and her prestige, and Henry's regency transferred to a pair of archbishops, Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne and Adalbert of Hamburg, Archbishop of Bremen.

Meanwhile, the first child of Henry and Bertha was Agnes, born in 1073. Their second child, Conrad, came a year later. Henry's namesake son was born in 1086.

The death of Pope Alexander II several years later brought to the papacy Gregory VII, who took the reins of the Church in 1073. Almost immediately, he and Henry, by this time king in his own right, came into conflict. The new pope wanted to take back the power of appointing bishops and other high church officials. Henry wanted to hold on to this power. In 1075, Henry was flush with victory over rebels in Saxony, the latest in a series of uprisings that had begun when Henry was very young. The victorious king named his own choice to be the Bishop of Milan. The pope insisted that Henry had no such power. Henry, as had been the custom with his powerful father before him, called a synod of German bishops and then he and they decreed that Gregory should abdicate the papacy. Further, on Christmas night of 1075, a mob stormed into the church where Gregory was praying and kidnapped him. Gregory accused Henry of being behind the plot, and Henry denied all knowledge of it.

Something had changed by this time. Henry III was an all-powerful emperor who held most of central Europe in his sway and had personally chosen four popes. His son enjoyed less of a favorable situation and reputation; in addition, Gregory was a stronger personality than had been his predecessors. The pope excommunicated Henry and ordered him to abdicate his throne. At the same time, trouble was brewing in Germany, as a number of nobles were still not convinced that they should be or remain loyal to their youthful monarch. The Catholic Church held a very powerful attraction for a great many people at this time, and being excommunicated was a serious punishment. As a result, many German nobles refused to support Henry. In fact, the young king lost so much support that he felt he had to remove the excommunication in order to move forward. What certainly would have convinced him was a report that a handful of his former supporters were in negotiations to choose a new king, to take his place.

King Henry IV at Canossa

Henry decided that he would appear before the pope in person and plead his case. By this time, Gregory had retired to Canossa Castle, as a guest of Margravine Matilda of Tuscany. In order to get there, Henry had to cross a treacherous Alpine pass, in winter. He set out with his entourage, survived the crossing, and arrived at Canossa on January 25, 1077. With him were his wife and their young son, Conrad, then just 2.

The pope refused to open the castle gates. Henry and the rest of the travelers waited outside. In the winter cold, Henry emulated a penitent monk, putting on a hair shirt and taking off his shoes. His wife and son also removed their shoes. They fasted.

After three days of waiting in the freezing Alpine cold, they found themselves admitted. Henry went to Gregory and begged his forgiveness. The pope, touched by the king's gesture, removed the excommunication. A gladdened Henry returned home to try to keep his hold on power.

It was only a few months later that a group of Saxon nobles rose up in rebellion. Henry marched at the head of an army against a force led by Duke Rudolph of Swabia. At the same time, Gregory again excommunicated Henry. The king's forces prevailed (largely through the death of Rudolph, which collapsed the revolt), giving Henry the power that he needed to turn southward and invade Rome. His army was so successful in its pursuit that it forced Gregory to flee the papal seat; he took up a sheltered residence in Castle Sant'Angelo. Henry then got his chance to name his own pope, Clement III (who is known to history first as an antipope).

During the next few years, Henry found himself beset by alternating rebellions in Germany and Italy. He eventually triumphed over all, including defeating the last resistance in Rome in 1084. He had Clement III officially declared pope, and then the new pontiff returned the favor by crowning Henry Holy Roman Emperor.

The wars in Germany and Italy continued for several years. One of Henry's main opponents during this time was Matilda of Tuscany, at whose castle Henry had begged for papal forgiveness in 1077. Matilda had enough powerful connections and military allies that she convinced Henry's son Conrad to abandon his father and rise up in rebellion. Hearing this, Henry tried to have his son captured; Conrad escaped and Henry lost even more support. He was still emperor and king, but his domains were shrinking and his support was falling.

Still, Henry held both thrones. The German nobles who had risen up against Henry had chosen to view his son Conrad as their king. Seeing no further benefit from the young rebel, they set him aside, in 1098, in favor of his younger brother, Henry, who was then 12.

Also at this time, Henry, back in Germany, ordered an investigation into the damage done by members of the First Crusade, who had, on their way to the Holy Land, ravaged towns along the Rhine River and killed thousands of people of the Jewish faith.

Even though Henry had declared Clement III pope, the Catholic Church hadn't recognized him as such. Church officials kept appointing their own pontiffs. It was Urban II who issued the call for the First Crusade, in 1095. His successor, Paschall II, issued yet another excommunication for Henry, this one in 1101.

By this time, Henry's youngest son had turned against him as well. The two fought on either side of what had all the trappings of yet another civil war for a few years and then, in 1105, were reconciled after a fashion. Actually, an exhausted Henry gave up his throne, on December 31, in favor of the son who shared his name. Fearful of retribution, the older Henry fled and, reluctantly, continued the war. Father and son traded victories for several months and then Henry IV fell ill. He died on Aug. 7, 1106, in Liège.

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