Try to imagine what it was like to be 6 years old and declared King of the Germans, a powerful medieval nation. This actually happened in 1056 in Aachen Cathedral, when Heinrich IV was crowned King of the Romans, the medieval official title for King of the Germans. If you think a 6 year old King sounds like trouble in the making, you would be right.
Sure enough, Heinrich IV was kidnapped at age 12 and his Regent mother was imprisoned in a Convent. The kidnappers placed Heinrich in a boat on the Rhine River near Düsseldorf but he escaped by jumping overboard, nearly drowning until recaptured. The image posted here, from a 19th century painting by Anton von Werner, depicts this event.
Heinrich was taken to Cologne where the leader of the coup, Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne, took control of Heinrich’s education and governed as Regent. It is believed that Heinrich’s willful and headstrong nature developed under the conditions of these early years.
Eventually, during an absence of Anno from Germany, the 16 year old Heinrich managed to obtain control of his civil duties as the King. When Anno returned he barely escaped the wrath of the teenage King and amazingly survived to continue in his ecclesiastical role. It was at this point… only four years after his kidnapping that Heinrich married the teenager he was engaged to since the age of 5… and began his remaining 40 year career as King of Germany and King of Italy and Burgundy and as Holy Roman Emperor. He was one of the most powerful and important figures of the 11th century. For perspective, it was 1066, the year of the Norman Invasion and conquest of England.
Life of the young Kaiser was not what we might imagine…in the Middle Ages, all German Kings were obliged to endlessly travel the kingdom in order to rule. There was no capital city nor any central government…the King’s entourage was the government and they ruled only when situated temporarily in a location, very often living in tent cities. Although there were favored residences, mostly it was life on the road.
As Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire, Heinrich IV was at odds with some of his German regional Princes of the Empire, not trusting them due to his previous kidnapping experience…so much at odds that he actually was forced to go to war with the Princes of Saxony and Thuringia, in what amounted to a civil war. The Kaiser prevailed, but this chaos was indicative of how decentralized and hard to control the Empire really was.
The young monarch was known for his extramarital affairs and actually had no intimate relationship with his young wife. In an event that foreshadowed the future English King Henry VIII, Kaiser Heinrich announced to an assembly of Princes that he was going to divorce his wife, regardless of the outrage this would create. But when the Pope intervened and threatened excommunication, Heinrich relented. Eventually his marriage revived and produced 3 children.
When a new Pope in Rome, Gregory VII, started his papacy in 1073, a power struggle began. Gregory was equal in temperament to Kaiser Heinrich. Each believed that his job and power were beholden only to God. Trouble began when the new Pope announced that he alone could install or remove Bishops… and he alone could even depose a Kaiser. This announcement was unacceptable to Heinrich IV and he disregarded it by appointing a new Bishop in 1075. The argument escalated until 1076 when the Pope announced that the Kaiser was deposed and excommunicated…a horrible fate for Christians in this era.
The Princes of the Holy Roman Empire met and delivered an ultimatum to Heinrich…he must remove the excommunication or resign as Kaiser. At the same time they invited the Pope to Germany to discuss the matter. Heinrich was in essence forced to meet with the Pope and plead forgiveness. Both the Pope and the Kaiser were obliged to travel through the Alps in the middle of winter…they met halfway in northern Italy in the castle at Canossa. This is the famous event that is depicted here, wherein Heinrich is shown in an uncomfortable hairshirt and barefoot at the gate of Canossa, standing in the snow for three days, begging the pope to rescind the sentence.
Pope Gregory lifted the excommunication but the Princes voted for a new Kaiser anyway…they chose Rudolf von Schwaben (Swabia). Pope Gregory sided with Rudolf and in 1080 he again excommunicated Heinrich. However, Pope Gregory’s actions were rooted in hate toward Heinrich instead of theology. This diminished the Pope’s reputation and authority, leading much of Germany to return to Heinrich’s cause. A civil war between the two Kaisers erupted, ending with Rudolf mortally wounded…during the battle Rudolf’s right hand was severed and this was deemed an act of God… Rudolf lost the hand that once swore allegiance to Heinrich.
Although Heinrich was victorious, he had to be crowned in Rome once again. Pope Gregory refused and left Rome. Undeterred, Heinrich IV installed a new Pope, Clement III, and had himself crowned Kaiser in Rome on Easter Day 1084. Pope Gregory died in exile at Salerno, in 1085.
Heinrich declared the Peace of God in all the Imperial territories to quench any sedition. Of course this was not to be…three years later the opposition to Heinrich elected Otto of Ostia who was elected Counter Pope, as Urban II. With Norman support, he excommunicated Heinrich and Clement III. This time, Heinrich was more secure and disregarded the excommunications. However, Pope Urban II formed a large coalition against the Holy Roman Empire… including the Normans, the Kievan Rus (Viking Russians), the Lombard communes of Milan, Cremona, Lodi, and Piacenza, and Matilda of Canossa, who had remarried to Welf II of Bavaria, thereby creating a concentration of power too formidable to be neglected by the Kaiser.
The situation in the Empire was chaotic. Egbert II, Margrave of Meissen, led a revolt that was crushed by the Kaiser. Next Heinrich launched his third punitive expedition in Italy, but with inconclusive results. Thus in 1103, at an assembly in Mainz, serious efforts were made to restore peace and were sealed when Heinrich IV himself promised to go on Crusade in the Holy Land.
As if his reign did not have enough drama, in 1105 Heinrich’s own son led a revolt of Princes who despised his father. They succeeded and imprisoned Heinrich, forcing him to turn over the Kaiser’s seal of authority. Shortly afterward Heinrich escaped his jailers and sought refuge in the Rhineland, where he raised an army and defeated his son and his allied Princes. Unfortunately, Heinrich died shortly after his victory at the age of 55 due to an illness.
Legend has it that the bells of Speyer Cathedral began ringing the moment that Heinrich IV died.
With the demise of Heinrich IV his treacherous but lucky son became the new Kaiser, Heinrich V.