He was supposedly the most powerful man on the face of the earth. He had armies at his command. Whole hosts of fierce warriors would hasten to his merest demand. Yet, Henry IV, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, found himself kneeling in the snow outside the walls of the Canossa Castle, shivering in the cold for three days begging for mercy. It was one of the coldest winters on record. From November through April the Rhine river was frozen solid. Despite this, Henry did not even think about any other alternative than this--much to the surprise of all who knew him. After all, he had never been known to bend his knee to anyone before.
Henry was only six years old when his father died and he was thrust into a position of almost unimaginable power and privilege. He had been spoiled as a boy and as a young man he lived a licentious life. When he came of age and began to rule in his own right, he was despotic and had little regard for justice or his subjects' welfare. He bribed priests to get their support and paid his soldiers from church funds. His mistresses were given jewels taken from the sacred vessels of the church. Virtually all of his subjects were horrified by such perverse defiance of basic Christian morality, but Henry was adamantly recalcitrant. Aware of such brazenness, the bishop of Rome urged his repentance, but Henry shrugged off his exhortations.
Henry, however, had met his match in this bishop. Pope Gregory VII, best known as Hildebrand, moved decisively to define and enforce the authority of the church and insisted that the see of St. Peter had preeminence over such spiritual concerns—even to the point of deposing wicked kings and emperors. He asserted that Jesus, the King of Glory, had given Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome, very tangible responsibilities in the affairs of the world. When Emperor Henry IV continued in his belligerence, Pope Gregory VII simply excommunicated him from the church and deposed him from his throne, absolving his subjects from all allegiance to the deposed ruler.
Henry suddenly realized this was no idle threat. Talk of rebellion began to rumble throughout Henry’s domains. Once loyal nobles began to question the security and stability of Henry’s reign. Sobered by this change in circumstances, Henry decided to placate the prelate. A few days before Christmas in 1076, Henry journeyed across the Alps with his wife and six year old son Conrad to seek the Pope. Once in Italy he climbed the steep hill to Canossa, a fortress where Gregory was staying. He arrived at the castle on January 21, 1077, but the Pope wanted to thoroughly humble him and would not receive him. Henry begged; he offered assurances of his repentance. It must have been quite a sight to behold.
Finally, on January 28 the Pope granted Henry's forgiveness and restored him to the church and to his throne. Henry's humiliation at Canossa was a triumph of the church over the moral corruptions of the state of the day, preserving the balance of power that was the heart and soul of medieval civilization.