Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Fortunes of Henry the Fourth

At the festival of Easter, in the year 1062, a great banquet was given in the royal palace at Kaiserswerth, on the Rhine. The Empress Agnes, widow of Henry III., and regent of the empire, was present, with her son, then a boy of eleven. A pious and learned woman was the empress, but she lacked the energy necessary to control the unquiet spirits of her times. Gentleness and persuasion were the means by which she hoped to influence the rude dukes and haughty archbishops of the empire, but qualities such as these were wasted on her fierce subjects, and served but to gain her the contempt of some and the dislike of others. A plot to depose the weakly-mild regent and govern the empire in the name of the youthful monarch was made by three men, Otto of Norheim, the greatest general of the state, Ekbert of Meissen, its most valiant knight, and Hanno, Archbishop of Cologne, its leading churchman. These three men were present at the banquet, which they had fixed upon as the occasion for carrying out their plot.

The feast over, the three men rose and walked with the boy monarch to a window of the palace that overlooked the Rhine. On the waters before them rode at anchor a handsome vessel, which the child looked upon with eyes of delight.

"Would you like to see it closer?" asked Hanno. "I will take you on board, if you wish."

"Oh, will you?" pleaded the boy. "I shall be so glad."

The three conspirators walked with him to the stream, and rowed out to the vessel, the empress viewing them without suspicion of their design. But her doubts were aroused when she saw that the anchor had been raised and that the sails of the vessel were being set. Filled with sudden alarm she left the palace and hastened to the shore, just as the kidnapping craft began to move down the waters of the stream.

At the same moment young Henry, who had until now been absorbed in gazing delightedly about the vessel, saw what was being done, and heard his mother's cries. With courage and resolution unusual for his years he broke, with a cry of anger, from those surrounding him, and leaped into the stream, with the purpose of swimming ashore. But hardly had he touched the water when Count Ekbert sprang in after him, seized him despite his struggles, and brought him back to the vessel.


Scene of monastic life.

The empress entreated in pitiful accents for the return of her son, but in vain; the captors of the boy were not of the kind to let pity interfere with their plans; on down the broad stream glided the vessel, the treacherous vassals listening in silence to the agonized appeals of the distracted mother, and to the mingled prayers and demands of the young emperor to be taken back. The country people, furious on learning that the emperor had been stolen, and was being carried away before their eyes, pursued the vessel for some distance on both sides of the river. But their cries and threats were of no more avail than had been the mother's tears and prayers. The vessel moved on with increasing speed, the three kidnappers erect on its deck, their only words being those used to cajole and quiet their unhappy prisoner, whom they did their utmost to solace by promises and presents.

The vessel continued its course until it reached Cologne, where the imperial captive was left under the charge of the archbishop, his two confederates fully trusting him to keep close watch and ward over their precious prize. The empress was of the same opinion. After vainly endeavoring to regain her lost son from his powerful captors, she resigned the regency and retired with a broken heart to an Italian convent, in which the remainder of her sad life was to be passed.

The unhappy boy soon learned that his new lot was not to be one of pleasure. He had a life of severe discipline before him. Bishop Hanno was a stern and rigid disciplinarian, destitute of any of the softness to which the lad had been accustomed, and disposed to rule all under his control with a rod of iron. He kept his youthful captive strictly immured in the cloister, where he had to endure the severest discipline, while being educated in Latin and the other learning of the age.

The regency given up by Agnes was instantly assumed by the ambitious churchman, and a decree to that effect was quickly passed by the lords of the diet, on the grounds that Hanno was the bishop of the diocese in which the emperor resided. The character of Hanno is variously represented by historians. While some accuse him of acts of injustice and cruelty, others speak of him as a man of energy, yet one whose holy life, his paternal care for his see, and his zealous reformation of monasteries and foundation of churches, gained him the character of a saint.

Young Henry remained but a year or two in the hands of this stern taskmaster. An imperative necessity called Hanno to Italy, and he was obliged to leave the young monarch under the charge of Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen, a personage of very different character from himself. Adalbert, while a churchman of great ability, was a courtier full of ambitious views. He was one of the most polished and learned men of his time, at once handsome, witty, and licentious, his character being in the strongest contrast to the stern harshness of Hanno and the coarse manners of the nobles of that period.

It would have been far better, however, for Henry could he have remained under the control of Hanno, with all his severity. It is true that the kindness and gentleness of Adalbert proved a delightful change to the growing boy, and the unlimited liberty he now enjoyed was in pleasant contrast to his recent restraint, while the gravity and severe study of Hanno's cloister were agreeably replaced by the gay freedom of Adalbert's court, in which the most serious matters were treated as lightly as a jest. But the final result of the change was that the boy's character became thoroughly corrupted. Adalbert surrounded his youthful charge with constant alluring amusements, using the influence thus gained to obtain new power in the state for himself, and places of honor and profit for his partisans. He inspired him also with a contempt for the rude-mannered dukes of the empire, and for what he called the stupid German people, while he particularly filled the boy's mind with a dislike for the Saxons, with whom the archbishop was at feud. All this was to have an important influence on the future life of the growing monarch.

It was more Henry's misfortune than his fault that he grew up to manhood as a compound of sensuality, levity, malice, treachery, and other mean qualities, for his nature had in it much that was good, and in his after-life he displayed noble qualities which had been long hidden under the corrupting faults of his education. The crime of the ambitious nobles who stole him from his pious and gentle mother went far to ruin his character, and was the leading cause of the misfortunes of his life.

As to the character of the youthful monarch, and its influence upon the people, a few words may suffice. His licentious habits soon became a scandal and shame to the whole empire, the more so that the mistresses with whom he surrounded himself were seen in public adorned with gold and precious stones which had been taken from the consecrated vessels of the church. His dislike of the Saxons was manifested in the scorn with which he treated this section of his people, and the taxes and enforced labors with which they were oppressed.

The result of all this was an outbreak of rebellion. Hanno, who had beheld with grave disapproval the course taken by Adalbert, now exerted his great influence in state affairs, convoked an assembly of the princes of the empire, and cited Henry to appear before it. On his refusal, his palace was surrounded and his person seized, while Adalbert narrowly escaped being made prisoner. He was obliged to remain in concealment during the three succeeding years, while the indignant Saxons, taking advantage of the opportunity for revenge, laid waste his lands.

The licentious young ruler found his career of open vice brought to a sudden end. The stern Hanno was again in power. Under his orders the dissolute courtiers were dispersed, and Henry was compelled to lead a more decorous life, a bride being found for him in the person of Bertha, daughter of the Italian Margrave of Susa, to whom he had at an earlier date been affianced. She was a woman of noble spirit, but, unfortunately, was wanting in personal beauty, in consequence of which she soon became an object of extreme dislike to her husband, a dislike which her patience and fidelity seemed rather to increase than to diminish.

The feeling of the young monarch towards his dutiful wife was overcome in a singular manner, which is well worth describing. Henry at first was eager to free himself from the tie that bound him to the unloved Bertha, a resolution in which he was supported by Siegfried, Archbishop of Mayence, who offered to assist him in getting a divorce. At a diet held at Worms, Henry demanded a separation from his wife, to whom he professed an unconquerable aversion. His efforts, however, were frustrated by the pope's legate, who arrived in Germany during these proceedings, and the licentious monarch, finding himself foiled in these legal steps, sought to gain his end by baser means. He caused beautiful women and maidens to be seized in their homes and carried to his palace as ministers to his pleasure, while he exposed the unhappy empress to the base solicitations of his profligate companions, offering them large sums if they could ensnare her, in her natural revulsion at his shameless unfaithfulness.

But the virtue of Bertha was proof against all such wiles, and the story goes that she turned the tables on her vile-intentioned husband in an amusing and decisive manner. On one occasion, as we are informed, the empress appeared to listen to the solicitations of one of the would-be seducers, and appointed a place and time for a secret meeting with this profligate. The triumphant courtier duly reported his success to Henry, who, overjoyed, decided to replace him in disguise. At the hour fixed he appeared and entered the chamber named by Bertha, when he suddenly found himself assailed by a score of stout servant-maids, armed with rods, which they laid upon his back with all the vigor of their arms. The surprised Lothario ran hither and thither to escape their blows, crying out that he was the king. In vain his cries; they did not or would not believe him; and not until he had been most soundly beaten, and their arms were weary with the exercise, did they open the door of the apartment and suffer the crest-fallen reprobate to escape.

This would seem an odd means of gaining the affection of a truant husband, but it is said to have had this effect upon Henry, his wronged wife from that moment gaining a place in his heart, into which she had fairly cudgelled herself. The man was really of susceptible disposition, and her invincible fidelity had at length touched him, despite himself. From that moment he ceased his efforts to get rid of her, treated her with more consideration, and finally settled down to the fact that a beautiful character was some atonement for a homely face, and that Bertha was a woman well worthy his affection.

We have now to describe the most noteworthy event in the life of Henry IV., and the one which has made his name famous in history,—his contest with the great ecclesiastic Hildebrand, who had become pope under the title of Gregory VII. Though an aged man when raised to the papacy, Gregory's vigorous character displayed itself in a remarkable activity in the enhancement of the power of the church. His first important step was directed against the scandals of the priesthood in the matter of celibacy, the marriage of priests having become common. A second decree of equal importance followed. Gregory forbade the election of bishops by the laity, reserving this power to the clergy, under confirmation by the pope. He further declared that the church was independent of the state, and that the extensive lands held by the bishops were the property of the church, and free from control by the monarch.

These radical decrees naturally aroused a strong opposition, in the course of which Henry came into violent controversy with the pope. Gregory accused Henry openly of simony, haughtily bade him to come to Rome, and excommunicated the bishops who had been guilty of the same offence. The emperor, who did not know the man with whom he had to deal, retorted by calling an assembly of the German bishops at Worms, in which the pope was declared to be deposed from his office.

The result was very different from that looked for by the volatile young ruler. The vigorous and daring pontiff at once placed Henry himself under interdict, releasing his subjects from their oath of allegiance, and declaring him deprived of the imperial dignity. The scorn with which the emperor heard of this decree was soon changed to terror when he perceived its effect upon his people. The days were not yet come in which the voice of the pope could be disregarded. With the exception of the people of the cities and the free peasantry, who were opposed to the papal dominion, all the subjects of the empire deserted Henry, avoiding him as though he were infected with the plague. The Saxons flew to arms; the foreign garrisons were expelled; the imprisoned princes were released; all the enemies whom Henry had made rose against him; and in a diet, held at Oppenheim, the emperor was declared deposed while the interdict continued, and the pope was invited to visit Augsburg; in order to settle the affairs of Germany. The election of a successor to Henry was even proposed, and, to prevent him from communicating with the pope, his enemies passed a decree that he should remain in close residence at Spires.

The situation of the recently great monarch had suddenly become desperate. Never had a decree of excommunication against a crowned ruler been so completely effective. The frightened emperor saw but one hope left, to escape to Italy before the princes could prevent him, and obtain release from the interdict at any cost, and with whatever humiliation it might involve. With this end in view he at once took to flight, accompanied by Bertha, his infant son, and a single knight, and made his way with all haste towards the Alps.

The winter was one of the coldest that Germany had ever known, the Rhine remaining frozen from St. Martin's day of 1076 to April, 1077. About Christmas of this severe winter the fugitives reached the snow-covered Alps, having so far escaped the agents of their enemies, and crossed the mountains by the St. Bernard pass, the difficulty of the journey being so great that the empress had to be slid down the precipitous paths by ropes in the hands of guides, she being wrapped in an ox-hide for protection.

Italy was at length reached, after the greatest dangers and hardships had been surmounted. Here Henry, much to his surprise, found prevailing a very different spirit from that which he had left behind him. The nobles, who cordially hated Gregory, and the bishops, many of whom were under interdict, hailed his coming with joy, with the belief "that the emperor was coming to humiliate the haughty pope by the power of the sword." He might soon have had an army at his back, but that he was too thoroughly downcast to think of anything but conciliation, and to the disgust of the Italians insisted on humiliating himself before the powerful pontiff.

Gregory was little less alarmed than the emperor on learning of Henry's sudden arrival in Italy. He was then on his way to Augsburg, and, in doubt as to the intentions of his enemy, took hasty refuge in the castle of Canossa, then held by the Countess Matilda, recently a widow, and the most powerful and influential princess in Italy.

But the alarmed pope was astonished and gratified when he learned that the emperor, instead of intending an armed assault upon him, had applied to the Countess Matilda, asking her to intercede in his behalf with the pontiff. Gregory's acute mind quickly perceived the position in which Henry stood, and, with great severity, he at first refused to speak of a reconciliation, but referred all to the diet; then, on renewed entreaties, he consented to receive Henry at Canossa, if he would come alone, and as a penitent. The castle was surrounded with three walls, within the second of which Henry was admitted, his attendants being left without. He had laid aside every badge of royalty, being clothed in penitential dress and barefoot, and fasting and praying from morning to evening. For a second and even a third day was he thus kept, and not until the fourth day, moved at length by the solicitations of Matilda and those about him, did Gregory grant permission for Henry to enter his presence. An interview now took place, in which the pope consented to release the penitent emperor from the interdict. One of the conditions of this release was he should leave to Gregory the settlement of affairs in Germany, and to give up all exercise of his imperial power until he should be granted permission to exercise it again.

This agreement was followed by a solemn mass, after which Gregory spoke to the following effect: As regarded the crimes of which Henry had accused him, he could easily bring evidence in disproof of the charges made, but he would invoke the judgment of God alone. "May the body of Jesus Christ, which I am about to receive," he said, "be the witness of my innocence. I beseech the Almighty thus to dispel all suspicions, if I am innocent; to strike me dead on the spot, if guilty."

He then received one-half the Sacred Host, and turning to the king, offered him the remaining half, bidding him to follow his example, if he held himself to be guiltless. Henry refused the ordeal, doubtless because he did not dare to risk the penalty, and was glad enough to escape from the presence of the pope, a humble penitent.

This ended Henry's career of humiliation. It was followed by a period of triumph. On leaving the castle of Canossa he found the people of Lombardy so indignant at his cowardice, that their scorn induced him to break the oath he had just taken, gather an army, and assail the castle, in which he shut up the pope so closely that he could neither proceed to Augsburg nor return to Rome.

This siege, however, was not of long continuance. Henry soon found himself recalled to Germany, where his enemies had elected Rudolf, Duke of Swabia, emperor in his stead. A war broke out, which continued for several years, at the end of which Gregory, encouraged by a temporary success of Rudolf's party, pronounced in his favor, invested him with the empire as a fief of the papacy, and once more excommunicated Henry. It proved a false move. Henry had now learned his own power, and ceased to fear the pope. He had strong support in the cities and among the clergy, whom Gregory's severity had offended, and immediately convoked a council, by which the pope was again deposed, and the Archbishop of Ravenna elected in his stead, under the title of Clement III.

In this year, 1080, a battle took place in which Rudolf was mortally wounded, and the party opposed to Henry left without a leader, though the war continued. And now Henry, seeing that he could trust his cause in Germany to the hands of his lieutenants, determined to march upon his pontifical foe in Italy, and take revenge for his bitter humiliation at Canossa.

He crossed the Alps, defeated the army which Matilda had raised in the pope's cause, and laid siege to Rome, a siege which continued without success for the long period of three years. At length the city was taken, Wilprecht von Groitsch, a Saxon knight, mounting the walls, and making his way with his followers into the city, aided by treachery from within. Gregory hastily shut himself up in the castle of St. Angelo, in which he was besieged by the Romans themselves, and from which he bade defiance to Henry with the same inflexible will as ever. Henry offered to be reconciled with him if he would crown him, but the vigorous old pontiff replied that, "He could only communicate with him when he had given satisfaction to God and the church." The emperor, thereupon, called the rival pope, Clement, to Rome, was crowned by him, and returned to Germany, leaving Clement in the papal chair and Gregory still shut up in St. Angelo.

But a change quickly took place in the fortunes of the indomitable old pope. Robert Guiscard, Duke of Normandy, who had won for himself a principality in lower Italy, now marched to the relief of his friend Gregory, stormed and took the city at the head of his Norman freebooters, and at once began the work of pillage, in disregard of Gregory's remonstrances. The result was an unusual one. The citizens of Rome, made desperate by their losses, gathered in multitudes and drove the plunderers from their city, and Gregory with them. The Normans, thus expelled, took the pope to Salerno, where he died the following year, 1085, his last words being, "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore do I die in exile."

As for his imperial enemy, the remainder of his life was one of incessant war. Years of battle were needed to put down his enemies in the state, and his triumph was quickly followed by the revolt of his own son, Henry, who reduced his father so greatly that the old emperor was thrown into prison and forced to sign an abdication of the throne. It is said that he became subsequently so reduced that he was forced to sell his boots to obtain means of subsistence, but this story may reasonably be doubted. Henry died in 1106, again under excommunication, so that he was not formally buried in consecrated ground until 1111, the interdict being continued for five years after his death.

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