Gregory VII (ca. 1020-1085) was pope from 1073 to 1085. One of the greatest medieval popes, later canonized, he was a man of intense conviction and will. He vigorously initiated reforms and asserted the papal claim to primacy of jurisdiction in the Church.

Although Gregory VII did not create the grandiose structure of the medieval papacy, he was certainly one of its chief architects. He became pope at a time when powerful forces were striving to rid the Latin Church of moral corruption and organizational confusion, when the papacy had already begun to assume the role of reforming leadership previously filled by emperors, kings, and lesser churchmen, and when imperial control over the Church in Italy (and, therefore, the papacy) had already weakened. Gregory continued the policies he had previously advocated as a prominent member of the papal court. He intensified papal involvement in the reforming movement and directed that movement along the road that was to lead to the first major clash between pope and Western emperor and ultimately to the papal theocratic claims of the High Middle Ages.

Fully reliable evidence about Gregory VII's origins and early career is scanty. His name was Hildebrand, and he was born in Tuscany, probably in the early 1020s. He spent his early years at Rome, where he received his education and first came into contact with the papal court, then still wracked with corruption. About 1046 he became associated in Lorraine with the most vigorous of the reforming groups of the day. Probably at this time, too, he became a monk, though probably not, as once was assumed, at the great reforming monastery of Cluny.

Early Career

Returning to Rome in 1049 as a follower of the newly elected pope, Leo IX, Hildebrand spent the next 24 years in the service of that pope and his four successors. During this vital period in the history of both the reforming movement and its papal leaders, he was involved in every aspect of the reform and in every phase of the process by which the papacy liberated itself from lay control, German as well as Italian, and sought to establish its rights of jurisdiction over the local churches of Latin Christendom. He was sent on legatine missions in Italy, France, and Germany, and his influence over both the formulation and implementation of papal policy grew steadily, so that by the 1060s he had become preeminent among papal advisers.

Though physically small and weak of voice, Hildebrand possessed a commanding personality, and his contemporaries were impressed by the keenness of his glance, the vigor of his enthusiasm, and the persistence and prophetic ardor with which he denounced what he conceived to be wrongdoing and pursued his lifelong aim of vindicating righteousness in a sinful world.

When Alexander II died in April 1073, Hildebrand was so obvious a choice as successor that, despite the 1059 election decree placing the choice of popes in the hands of the cardinals, he was acclaimed pope by a tumultuous crowd, the cardinals later acceding to the popular choice. His enemies were later to make much of these irregular proceedings; the cardinals, however, acceded willingly at the time, and Hildebrand, taking the name of Gregory VII, was able to embark upon his pontificate without the embarrassment of a contested election.

Character of His Pontificate

Gregory's interests and activities as pope were extremely varied, ranging from the introduction of the Roman liturgical rite into Spain to the promotion of the crusading ideal, soon after his death to be transformed into a reality. In pursuit of the complex diplomatic initiatives which his policies necessitated, he was in contact with most of the rulers of Latin Christendom, to whom, as with William the Conqueror of England, he did not always show the inflexibility that was increasingly to mar his relations with the German emperor-elect, Henry IV.

Three related objectives dominated Gregory's pontificate: Church reform, assertion of his jurisdictional primacy in the Church, and vindication of reform and of his primacy against Henry IV's spirited defense of the religiopolitical status quo.

Gregorian Reform

The dominant concern of the reforming movement had long been with the twin corruptions of simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical office) and clerical marriage, which was common despite its prohibition by ancient disciplinary regulations in the Latin Church. Both of these corruptions were symptomatic of the degree to which, during centuries of invasion and turmoil, the spiritual goals of the Church had been subordinated to family, proprietary, and political interests.

Intimately connected with these developments was the gradual extension of lay control, royal or aristocratic, over ecclesiastical appointments, a control symbolized by the ceremony of investiture, by which the lay ruler conferred Church office on the chosen nominee. Only in the latter half of the 11th century did the more radical reformers begin to challenge this principle of lay control. Gregory was not the most radical among these, but unlike the more moderate reformers, he was convinced that the traditional goal of moral reform was unattainable without the elimination or regulation of lay control. To this Gregory added the further conviction that the papal primacy of jurisdiction in the universal church—involving also for him an inexactly defined superiority to all temporal rulers—was no longer to be minimized or gainsaid. These convictions were not the outcome of the pressure of events during Gregory's pontificate: they were deeply held even at the very outset and are reflected in the clauses of the peculiar document known as the Dictatus papae, which was inserted in his register and which included the unprecedented claim "that he [the Pope] may depose emperors."

Investiture Contest

Gregory's attempts to realize his reforming objectives led, by a process which in retrospect seems inevitable, given the dependence of Henry IV's government upon the loyalty and resources of his bishops, to a clash between Pope and Emperor and to the onset of the "Investiture Contest." This conflict, which outlasted both of the initial protagonists, involved the tragedy of civil war and set Germany on the course that was ultimately to lead it to political disintegration. During its long and tortuous course, Gregory excommunicated Henry IV on two occasions, throwing his support finally to a rival claimant, Rudolf; while Henry twice sought Gregory's dismissal and sponsored the election of an antipope, Clement II.

Two dramatic events may be singled out for mention. The first is Gregory's absolution of Henry IV in January 1077. Henry had appeared before the Pope at Canossa as an abject penitent—for Henry, a personal humiliation but a diplomatic victory; for Gregory, a diplomatic disaster but a triumph of priestly conscience. The second is Gregory's death at Salerno on May 25, 1085. Undaunted by what must have seemed a disastrous defeat, he is reputed to have said, "I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile." Since 1606 he has been venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

Further Reading on Gregory VII

Ephraim Emerton translated and edited The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII (1932). The most significant Gregorian studies are in French and Italian. In English see A. J. Macdonald, Hildebrand: A Life of Gregory VII (1932), and J. P. Whitney, Hildebrandine Essays (1932). For a succinct account with an extensive bibliography see Z. N. Brooke in The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 5, edited by J. R. Tanner and others (1929). Studies on the general background include Margaret Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1500 (1925; 8th ed. 1954); Gerd Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest (1940); Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (1964); and Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (1968).