Road to Canossa

Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII in Canossa 1077, as depicted by Carlo Emanuelle

The Road to Canossa (German: Gang nach Canossa), sometimes called the Walk to Canossa or Humiliation of Canossa (Italian: L'umiliazione di Canossa), refers to the trek by German king Henry IV from Speyer to Canossa Castle in Emilia-Romagna to obtain the revocation of the excommunication imposed on him by the Pope Gregory VII. He was forced to humiliate himself on his knees waiting for three days and three nights before the entrance gate of the castle, while a blizzard raged in January 1077.

Historical background

When, in his early papacy, Gregory VII attempted to enact reforms to the investiture process, he was met by much resistance from the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Henry insisted that he reserve the traditionally established right of previous emperors to "invest" bishops and other clergymen, despite the papal decree. Henry denounced Gregory as pope; in response, Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry in the Lenten synod of 1076 at Rome. He stated furthermore that, one year from that day, the loss of kingship would become irrevocable.[1]


Violence had already broken out at Langensalza on 9 June 1075, suppressed by Henry. Now the patriarch of Aquileia and the papal legate met with German princes at Oppenheim, 16 October 1076, and swore an oath not to recognize Henry unless the ban was lifted. Fearing further rebellion among the German aristocracy, Henry felt he had to have his excommunication lifted. On the suggestion of his adversaries, he arranged to meet with the pope in Augsburg.

Henry commenced his trip in Speyer and, travelling southward from Germany, he found his position precarious. He was still popular among the common people, but his nobles were threatening to elect a new king. He had to secure his position in the church before the rapidly approaching deadline given by the pope.

Once he crossed the Alps by the Mont Cenis pass,[2] Henry took on the behavior of penitence. He wore a hair-shirt, the traditional clothing of monks at the time, and allegedly walked barefoot. Many of his entourage also supposedly removed their shoes. In these conditions he crossed the Alps, a long and harsh journey in late January. On 25 January 1077, he reached the gates of Canossa.

At the castle

Henry IV and his entourage at the pope's gate at Canossa in 1077, by August von Heyden

When Henry reached the castle of Canossa, the Pope ordered that he be refused entry. According to the first-hand accounts of the scene (letters written by both Gregory and Henry in the following years), Henry waited by the gate for three full days. During this time, he allegedly wore only his penitent hair-shirt and fasted.[3]

On 28 January the castle gates were opened for Henry and he was allowed to enter. Contemporary accounts report that he knelt before Pope Gregory and begged his forgiveness. Gregory absolved Henry and invited him back into the Church. That evening, Gregory, Henry, and Matilda of Tuscany (owner of the castle) shared communion in the chapel of Sant'Apollonio inside the castle, signaling the official end of Henry's excommunication.[4]


Henry quickly returned to his empire, but Gregory remained with Matilda at the castle and in other locations in Tuscany for several months.

Historical impact

The immediate effects of the Canossa meeting were limited. Although Henry was restored to the Church, any expectations that the Pope would restore support of Henry's right to the throne were soon dashed;[5] in March, a small group of powerful Saxon and South German territorial magnates, including the archbishops of Salzburg, Mainz and Magdeburg and several bishops, met at Forchheim and, on the assumption that Henry had irretrievably lost the imperial dignity, repudiated the Salian dynasty's claim to pass the imperial crown by heredity and, in the words of Bruno of Merseburg, present in his bishop's entourage, declared that "the son of a king, even if he should be preeminently worthy, should become king by a spontaneous election." The Pope confirmed the agreement.[6] His deposition still in effect, Henry was forced into civil war with Duke Rudolph of Swabia. Gregory levied a second excommunication against Henry, who ultimately won the civil war, invaded Rome, and forced Gregory to flee, replacing him with Antipope Clement III.[7]

The meaning in the greater history of Germany and Europe, however, was much more significant. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Henry was exalted as a defender of the rights of both Catholics and opponents of the Pope. Many German Lutherans considered him the "first Protestant" and looked to his example for guidance in their struggle against what they saw as a tyrannical and unjust institution.

Later in German history, the event took on a more secular meaning: it came to stand for Germany's refusal to be subjected to any outside power (although still especially, but not exclusively, the Roman Catholic Church). Otto von Bismarck, during his so-called "Kulturkampf," assured his countrymen that "We will not go to Canossa–neither in body nor in spirit!" This meant that Germany would stand for itself and not abide any outside interference in its politics, religion or culture.[8]

On the other side, Canossa is remembered in Italy by Benedetto Croce as the first concrete victory since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as (in the view of the 19th-century historian) the Pope represented the Italian people against the domination of the Germans. Croce considered Canossa as the initial retreat from Italy of the Holy Roman Empire, starting the Italian Renaissance in which the Germans lost control of northern Italy by the 15th century.

"Going to Canossa"

Today, "Canossa" refers to an act of penance or submission. To "go to Canossa" is an expression–used often in German: nach Canossa gehen; in Dutch: naar Canossa gaan; in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish: Canossavandring or Kanossagang; in French: aller à Canossa; in Hungarian: kanosszajárás; in Italian: andare a Canossa; and in Slovenian: pot v Canosso–to describe doing penance, often with the connotation that it is unwilling or coerced. Adolf Hitler, for instance, used the expression to describe his meetings with Bavarian Minister President Heinrich Held after being released from Landsberg Prison, in his bid to have the ban on the Nazi Party lifted.[9] The expression was prominently used again in 2007 by Mandriva CEO Francois Bancilhon when announcing that company's position regarding Microsoft's software patent deals with other GNU/Linux distribution companies such as Novell, Linspire and Xandros.[10]


  1. Conflict of Investitures From New Advent
  2. Orton, C. W. Previté (1910). "A Point in the Itinerary of Henry IV, 1076–1077". English Historical Review. 25 (99): 520–522. doi:10.1093/ehr/XXV.XCIX.520.
  3. Account of Canossa From An Account of Canossa
  4. This series of events is compiled by Zimmerman (see below) as the most likely, through comparison of original sources on the subject, including letters written by both Henry and Gregory to the German bishops and princes. For a discussion of this, and for other proposed time lines, see Zimmermann's chapter 5
  5. Gregory had exacted an impossible promise that Henry would not assume imperial powers until permitted to do so by the Pope; a pro-papal chronicler referred to Henry's "pretended reconciliation" (I. S. Robinson, "Pope Gregory VII, the Princes and the Pactum 1077–1080", The English Historical Review 94 No. 373 (October 1979):721–756) p. 725.
  6. Robinson 1979:721f.
  7. "Gregory VII" in HistoryChannel.Com: Encyclopedia by John W. O'Malley, retrieved 11 July 2006.
  8. For more discussion on cultural references to the Walk to Canossa, see Zimmermann, chapters 1 and 4
  9. Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889–1936: Hubris New York: Norton, 1998.
  10. We Will Not Go to Canossa – Mandriva Company Blog From Internet Archive


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