Pope Gregory VII (1073-85)

pope leo x

Who was Pope Gregory VII?

Pope Gregory VII was one of the greatest of the Roman pontiffs and one of the most remarkable men of all times; born between the years 1020 and 1025, at Soana, or Ravacum, in Tuscany; died 25 May, 1085, at Salerno.

The early years of his life are involved in considerable obscurity. His name, Hildebrand (Hellebrand)--signifying to those of his contemporaries that loved him "a bright flame", to those that hated him "a brand of hell"--would indicate some Lombard connection of his family, though at a later time, it probably also suggested the fabled descent from the noble family of the Aldobrandini.

That he was of humble origin--vir de plebe, as he is styled in the letter of a contemporary abbot--can scarcely be doubted. His father Bonizo is said by some chroniclers to have been a carpenter, by others a peasant, the evidence in either case being very slender; the name of his mother is unrecorded. At a tender age he came to Rome to be educated in the monastery of Santa Maria on the Aventine Hill, over which his maternal uncle Laurentius presided as abbot. The austere spirit of Cluny pervaded this Roman cloister, and it is not unlikely that here the youthful Hildebrand first imbibed those lofty principles of Church reform of which he was afterwards to become the most fearless exponent.

Early in life he made his religious profession as a Benedictine monk at Rome (not in Cluny); the house of his profession, however, and the year of his entrance into the order, both remain undetermined. As a cleric in minor orders he entered the service of John Gratian, Archpriest of San Giovanni by the Latin Gate, and on Gratian's elevation to the papacy as Gregory VI, became his chaplain. In 1046 he followed his papal patron across the Alps into exile, remaining with Gregory at Cologne until the death of the deposed pontiff in 1047, when he withdrew to Cluny. Here he resided for more than a year.

At Besançon, in January, 1049, he met Bruno, Bishop of Toul, the pontiff-elect recently chosen at Worms under the title of Leo IX, and returned with him to Rome, though not before Bruno, who had been nominated merely by the emperor, had expressed the intention of submitting to the formal choice of the Roman clergy and people. Created a cardinal-subdeacon, shortly after Leo's accession, and appointed administrator of the Patrimony of St. Peter's, Hildebrand at once gave evidence of that extraordinary faculty for administration which later characterized his government of the Church Universal.

Under his energetic and capable direction the property of the Church, which latterly had been diverted into the hands of the Roman nobility and the Normans, was largely recovered, and the revenues of the Holy See, whose treasury had been depleted, speedily augmented. By Leo IX he was also appointed propositus or promisor (not abbot) of the monastery of St. Paul extra Muros. The unchecked violence of the lawless bands of the Champagne had brought great destitution upon this venerable establishment. Monastic discipline was so impaired that the monks were attended in their refectory by women; and the sacred edifices were so neglected that the sheep and cattle freely roamed in and out through the broken doors.

By rigorous reforms and a wise administration Hildebrand succeeded in restoring the ancient rule of the abbey with the austere observance of earlier times; and he continued throughout life to manifest the deepest attachment for the famous house which his energy had reclaimed from ruin and decay. In 1054 he was sent to France as papal legate to examine the cause of Berengarius. While still in Tours he learned of the death of Leo IX, and on hastening back to Rome he found that the clergy and people were eager to elect him, the most trusted friend and counsellor of Leo, as the successor.

This proposal of the Romans was, however, resisted by Hildebrand, who set out for Germany at the head of an embassy to implore a nomination from the emperor. The negotiations, which lasted about eleven months, ultimately resulted in the selection of Hildebrand's candidate, Gebhard, Bishop of Eichstadt, who was consecrated at Rome, 13 April, 1055, under the name of Victor II. During the reign of this pontiff, the cardinal-subdeacon steadily maintained, and even increased the ascendancy which by his commanding genius he had acquired during the pontificate of Leo IX. Near the close of the year 1057 he went once more to Germany to reconcile the Empress-regent Agnes and her court to the (merely) canonical election of Pope Stephen X (1057-1058).

His mission was not yet accomplished when Stephen died at Florence, and although the dying pope had forbidden the people to appoint a successor before Hildebrand returned, the Tusculan faction seized the opportunity to set up a member of the Crescentian family, John Mincius, Bishop of Velletri, under the title of Benedict X. With masterly skill Hildebrand succeeded in defeating the schemes of the hostile party, and secured the election of Gerard, Bishop of Florence, a Burgundian by birth, who assumed the name of Nicholas II (1059-1061).

The two most important transactions of this pontificate--the celebrated decree of election, by which the power of choosing the pope was vested in the college of cardinals, and the alliance with the Normans, secured by the Treaty of Meifi, 1059--were in large measure the achievement of Hildebrand, whose power and influence had now become supreme in Rome. It was perhaps inevitable that the issues raised by the new decree of election should not be decided without a conflict, and with the passing away of Nicholas II in 1061, that conflict came.

But when it was ended, after a schism enduring for some years, the imperial party with its antipope Cadalous had been discomfited, and Anselm of Baggio, the candidate of Hildebrand and the reform party, successfully enthroned in the Lateran Palace as Alexander II. By Nicholas II, in 1059, Hildebrand had been raised to the dignity and office of Archdeacon of the Holy Roman Church, and Alexander II now made him Chancellor of the Apostolic See. On 21 April, 1073, Alexander II died.

The time at length had come when Hildebrand, who for more than twenty years had been the most prominent figure in the Church, who had been chiefly instrumental in the selection of her rulers, who had inspired and given purpose to her policy, and who had been steadily developing and realizing, by successive acts, her sovereignty and purity, should assume in his own person the majesty and responsibility of that exalted power which his genius had so long directed.

On the day following the death of Alexander II, as the obsequies of the deceased pontiff were being performed in the Lateran basilica, there arose, of a sudden, a loud outcry from the whole multitude of clergy and people: "Let Hildebrand be pope!" "Blessed Peter has chosen Hildebrand the Archdeacon!" All remonstrances on the part of the archdeacon were vain, his protestations fruitless. Later, on the same day, Hildebrand was conducted to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, and there elected in legal form by the assembled cardinals, with the due consent of the Roman clergy and amid the repeated acclamations of the people.

That this extraordinary outburst on the part of the clergy and people in favour of Hildebrand could have been the result of some preconcerted arrangements, as is sometimes alleged, does not appear likely. Hildebrand was clearly the man of the hour, his austere virtue commanded respect, his genius admiration; and the prompitude and unanimity with which he was chosen would indicate, rather, a general recognition of his fitness for the high office.

In the decree of election those who had chosen him as pontiff proclaimed him "a devout man, a man mighty in human and divine knowledge, a distinguished lover of equity and justice, a man firm in adversity and temperate in prosperity, a man, according to the saying of the Apostle, of good behaviour, blameless, modest, sober, chaste, given to hospitality, and one that ruleth well his own house; a man from his childhood generously brought up in the bosom of this Mother Church, and for the merit of his life already raised to the archidiaconal dignity". "We choose then", they said to the people, "our Archdeacon Hildebrand to be pope and successor to the Apostle, and to bear henceforward and forever the name of Gregory" (22 April, 1073), Mansi, "Conciliorum Collectio", XX, 60.

The decree of Nicholas II having expressly, if vaguely acknowledged the right of the emperor to have some voice in papal elections, Hildebrand deferred the ceremony of his consecration until he had received the royal sanction. In sending the formal announcement of his elevation to Henry IV of Germany, he took occasion to indicate frankly the attitude, which, as sovereign pontiff, he was prepared to assume in dealing with the Christian princes, and, with a note of grave personal warning besought the king not to bestow his approval.

The German bishops, apprehensive of the severity with which such a man as Hildebrand would carry out the decrees of reform, endeavoured to prevent the king from assenting to the election; but upon the favourable report of Count Eberhard of Nettenburg, who had been dispatched to Rome to assert the rights of the crown, Henry gave his approval (it proved to be the last instance in history of a papal election being ratified by an emperor), and the new pope, in the meanwhile ordained to the priesthood, was solemnly consecrated on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, 29 June, 1073. In assuming the name of Gregory VII, Hildebrand not only honoured the memory and character of his earliest patron, Gregory VI, but also proclaimed to the world the legitimacy of that pontiff's title.

From the letters which Gregory addressed to his friends shortly after his election, imploring their intercession with heaven in his behalf, and begging their sympathy and support, it is abundantly evident that he assumed the burden of the pontificate, which had been thrust on him, only with the strongest reluctance, and not without a great struggle of mind. To Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino, he speaks of his elevation in terms of terror, giving utterance to the words of the Psalmist: "I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me"; "Fearlessness and trembling are come upon me, and darkness hath covered me."

And in view of the appalling nature of the task that lay before him (of its difficulties no one indeed had a clearer perception than he), it cannot appear strange that even his intrepid spirit was for the moment overwhelmed. For at the time of Gregory's elevation to the papacy the Christian world was in a deplorable condition. During the desolating era of transition--that terrible period of warfare and rapine, violence, and corruption in high places, which followed immediately upon the dissolution of the Carlovingian Empire, a period when society in Europe and all existing institutions seemed doomed to utter destruction and ruin--the Church had not been able to escape from the general debasement. The tenth century, the saddest, perhaps, in Christian annals, is characterized by the vivid remark of Baronius that Christ was as if asleep in the vessel of the Church.

At the time of Leo IX's election in 1049, according to the testimony of St. Bruno, Bishop of Sengi, the whole world lay in wickedness, holiness had disappeared, justice had perished and truth had been buried; Simon Magus lording it over the Church, whose bishops and priests were given to luxury and fornication" (Vita S. Leonis PP. IX in Watterich, Pont. Roman, Vitae, I, 96). St. Peter Damian, the fiercest censor of his age, unrolls a frightful picture of the decay of clerical morality in the lurid pages of his "Liber Gomorrhianus" (Book of Gomorrha). Though allowance must no doubt be made for the writer's exaggerated and rhetorical style--a style common to all moral censors-- yet the evidence derived from other sources justifies us in believing that the corruption was widespread.

In writing to his venerated friend, Abbot Hugh of Cluny (Jan., 1075), Gregory himself laments the unhappy state of the Church in the following terms: "The Eastern Church has fallen away from the Faith and is now assailed on every side by infidels. Wherever I turn my eyes--to the west, to the north, or to the south--I find everywhere bishops who have obtained their office in an irregular way, whose lives and conversation are strangely at variance with their sacred calling; who go through their duties not for the love of Christ but from motives of worldly gain. There are no longer princes who set God's honour before their own selfish ends, or who allow justice to stand in the way of their ambition. . . .And those among whom I live--Romans, Lombards, and Normans--are, as I have often told them, worse than Jews or Pagans" (Greg. VII, Registr., 1.II, ep. xlix).


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia