On September 29, 1328, a daughter, Joan, was born to the Earl of Kent in Oxfordshire, England. She would grow up to have an incredibly interesting life – especially if you consider the stereotypes that surround medieval women. As a young girl, Joan befriended her cousin, the royal Prince Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince. This friendship will come back into play soon! At the age of 12, Joan secretly married disgraced nobleman, Thomas Holland, who was fourteen years her senior. Holland then left England for Crusade against the pagans of Prussia and Joan was forced to marry William Montacute, heir of the Earl of Salisbury. Joan did not bring up the fact that she was already married, fearful that Thomas would be killed because of it. As such, there would be an issue when Thomas Holland returned home.
When he did, the marriage with Joan was made known and Thomas demanded the return of his wife. William Montacute responded by imprisoning Joan in his home until the Pope finally ruled in favor of Joan’s first marriage and she returned to the house she preferred. Over the next 11 years, Thomas and Joan celebrated the births of five children prior to Thomas’ death in 1360. Throughout her marriage(s), Joan had maintained a close friendship with Prince Edward who had never married. After the mourning period for Thomas was over, Edward approached Joan and gifted her a silver cup from his military exploits. King Edward III, the Prince’s father, was concerned about his son’s courtship of a widow who had already been secretly married – but Joan and the Prince approached the king and told him that they would be married in secret, if the king did not bless the marriage. Faced with this ultimatum from his heir, Edward III relented. Joan of Kent and Edward, the Black Prince, were married on 10 October 1361. Joan took the title Princess of Wales, as her new husband was the Prince of Wales (the first time this was used for the heir to the throne!). This marriage lasted for 10 years until the death of Edward and produced two children, one of whom survived to adulthood to become King Richard II upon the death of his grandfather, Edward III.
When Edward III passed away in 1377, young Richard became king at the age of 10. Despite mismanagement of much royal power by the subsequent regency led by Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Joan brilliantly managed her own reputation and that of her son. For example, during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Joan passed through the lines of the rebels unmolested and, in fact, was cheered as she went by. Due to her popularity, which rubbed off on her young son, the rebels never condemned the monarchy – just the bad advisors. A strong argument, therefore, can be made that Joan of Kent held much of the responsibility for the continued success of the English monarchy during a period of particularly acute trouble. The beloved queen mother died in 1385 and was buried, per her request, with her first husband, Thomas.
In 668 CE, the Byzantine Emperor Constans II was far away from his capital trying to deal with a threat that had been menacing his borders for his entire reign – advancing armies of Muslim warriors coming out of the deserts of Arabia. Constans had been thrust into power at the tender age of 11 in the year 641, a mere five years after Muslim armies started sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. The young emperor, however, was not having much success in maintaining his empire and his subjects were beginning to tire of the challenges and hardships that the prolonged war caused. On September 14, Constans took what was supposed to be a nice relaxing bath before a long day helping to run the defense of his empire from the port city of Syracuse on Sicily. One of Constans’ disgruntled subjects was his own chancellor who snuck into the bathroom and picked up a large, heavy soap dish and smashed it over the head of his monarch. The blow knocked Constans out and caused him to sink below the waters in the tub. He would never rise again.
In the dead of winter, Pope Gregory VII was far from the comforts of his palace in Rome. In fact, he was high in the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy on his way to Augsburg, Bavaria to attend a gathering of dignitaries of the Church meant to solve a dispute with the King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Gregory and his entourage stopped to recover from their arduous journey thus far at the Castle of Canossa. This fortress was one of the strongest mountain keeps held by Countess Matilda of Tuscany, nominal vassal of Henry and ally of Gregory in the ongoing dispute. But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Who are these people and what is this dispute? Let’s go to know each of them a little better.
Pope Gregory VII was born Hildebrand of Sovana who became a monk in medieval Tuscany. As his career progressed, Hildebrand rose quickly through the ranks of the Church and soon played a key role in the election of Pope Alexander II. Hildebrand and Pope Alexander were both members of a movement meant to reform the Church, looking to get rid of practices such as clerical marriage and simony, which is the purchase of religious office. Upon Alexander’s death, as the people and clergy of Rome gathered at the St. John Lateran Basilica to mourn their leader, a great cry went up, “Let Hildebrand be Pope!” even though he had not yet even been ordained a priest, let alone a bishop. The Church leaders in Rome recognized in Hildebrand an incredibly popular figure and recognized the people’s proclamation – making Gregory VII one of seven Popes elected by acclamation (out of 266 recognized Popes in history). In the weeks before he donned the papal tiara, Gregory was ordained as a priest and elevated to the bishopric. His zeal for Church reform was only just beginning and now he had the power to really do something!
Henry IV was the third member of his family to become King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, after his grandfather, Conrad II, and his father, Henry III. His family had traditional been the Dukes of Franconia – a region of modern Germany just north of Bavaria. Henry’s father died when he was young boy just shy of six years old. As such, he was raised to the title of Holy Roman Emperor at a very tender age. Now, the Holy Roman Emperor was certainly a significant power, but the authority was not at all absolute. As soon as he was old enough to assert personal power, Henry IV made it his life’s goal to consolidate the power of his position and his family. The German provinces were a loose confederation of duchies, counties, princedoms, baronies, etc. held together primarily by religion – the “holy” of the Holy Roman Empire. Much of the Holy Roman Emperor’s power came from the influence he held over the bishops of his territory and Henry only wanted to extend that influence!
Matilda of Tuscany was the youngest of three children of the powerful House of Canossa who ruled much of what is now Northern Italy as vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor. Upon the death of her father and two older siblings, Matilda became the last member of her family and, as such, her husband, Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lorraine also became the Margrave of Tuscany. Matilda and Godfrey’s marriage was a rocky one. Their only child died in infancy and Godfrey spent most of his time in Lorraine (in northern Germany) while Matilda was home in Italy. Godfrey was assassinated while on campaign against the Duke of Saxony on behalf of his liege, Henry IV in one of the most embarrassing ways possible. He was run through while “answering the call of nature.” This left Matilda the last remaining option to rule over Northern Italy and she did so brilliantly, becoming La Gran Contessa – the Great Countess. Now a power in her own right, Matilda declared her support, not for Henry, but rather for Pope Gregory, whose reforms struck a chord with the Countess. The stage was now set for one of the great conflicts of the early Middle Ages.
Among Gregory’s first actions once elevated to the papacy was to confirm his predecessor’s edict banning a widespread practice called “lay investiture.” Now, I know that at this point your eyes are probably rolling into the back of your head if you’ve ever heard this term before. It is up there with eye-glazing topics from history such as paradigm shifts and tariffs, but trust me – some people get really excited about these boring concepts and do ridiculous things to support their positions and that is what we have going on here. Lay investiture is the practice in which officials in the Catholic Church were given their position (“invested”) by the ruler of the state in which their diocese was located. While, theoretically, this could be done for any Church official from the lowly parish priest to the most influential bishop, European rulers tended to only focus their time investing men (and it was always men) into the most powerful positions – bishops of important towns and cities, abbots of wealthy monasteries, etc. By filling these positions with men the king or local lord could trust, they ensured the cooperation of the vast majority of Christian leadership within their domain, since all lower members of the clergy reported to this appointee. It’s not a big stretch to see what the Pope, supposedly the head of the Catholic religion across all political lines, would find this to be problematic, a challenge to his authority.
Gregory’s confirmation and enforcement of the ban of lay investiture infuriated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who relied on the loyalty of his bishops to run his empire. Things came to a head when Gregory sent Henry a letter protesting the Emperor’s attempt to influence the installation of a new bishop for the ever-influential city of Milan. The Pope meant to remind Henry that, even though he was an emperor, he was still subject to papal decrees. Henry, of course, disagreed. Gregory wrote, “We marvel exceedingly that you have sent us so many devoted letters…calling yourself a son of our Holy Mother Church and subject to us in faith…and yet in action showing yourself most bitterly hostile to the canons and apostolic decrees in those duties…It would have been becoming to you, since you confess yourself to be a son of the Church, to give more respectful attention to the master of the Church, that is, to Peter, the prince of the Apostles.” If Henry had been cowed by such a letter, this would not be much of a story, and his response struck right at the issue in the salutation in which he said, “Henry, king not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God, to Hildebrand, now not Pope, but false monk.” The Emperor clearly states that he does not recognize Gregory’s papacy – in face he even refused to use the Pope’s papal name. Henry argues that, due to Gregory’s unusual election, the Pope is not legitimate and that, therefore, his word carries no weight.
As you can probably imagine, this was not the response Gregory was looking for – so he sent yet another letter to Henry declaring him excommunicated and unfit to receive the Sacraments, which, removed him from the grace of the Church that was integral to salvation. Simultaneously, Gregory called on all good Christians in Henry’s realm to seek to depose such an evil ruler. Henry’s response only escalated the tension further writing to the German bishops urging them to use their influence to unseat “Hildebrand (a monk indeed in habit), so-called pope who…presides in the Apostolic See not with the care of a pastor but with the violence of a usurper and from the throne of peace dissolves the bond of the one catholic peace.” So to summarize, we now have, after a fury of ever escalating letters, the most powerful Church leader and the most powerful temporal leader in Europe having deposed one another. The stage was now set to see who would blink first.
As the year progressed, Henry IV began to feel more and more pressure from his nobles and bishops to give in to the Pope for the sake of his realm. His subjects were being born unbaptized and dying without Last Rites. The Emperor’s intransigence was consigning his people to Hell. So Henry sent off yet another letter (the last one for this story, I promise!) inviting the pontiff to a council in the city of Augsburg over which Gregory would preside and the bishops of Germany would decide the conditions of the Emperor’s surrender. The Pope accepted this offer with glee and set off for the Bavarian city from Rome. It is on this journey that we started our story. Pope Gregory is staying for a short time in a fortress of one of his most faithful supporters, Matilda of Tuscany. It was here at the Canossa Castle deep in the Apennine winter that a fateful, and unplanned (for Gregory, at least) showdown occurred.
Henry slipped away from his realms with a very small group of loyal retainers and made his way across the snow-covered Alps to make his way to Canossa. He hoped to see Gregory and to throw himself upon the Pope’s mercy in the hopes of getting a better outcome at the coming council. It was a classic move of negotiating before the official negotiations so as to have more control over the results. Gregory, however, was not going to make it easy on the Henry.
On January 25, Henry and his attendants arrived at the gates of Canossa Castle in the midst of a raging alpine blizzard. They were shoeless and dressed in the clothes of a penitent, wearing a hair-shirt as a sign of their unworthiness. Pope Gregory learned of their arrival immediately, comfortably ensconced in the Castle and was put into a quite awkward diplomatic situation. He was clearly in a position of power and had his adversary in a very weak spot. He could have sent Henry packing back to Germany with a reminder that they already had an agreement to determine his fate at the coming council. However, Gregory was not just a world leader; he was also the lead pastor of Christendom and one of his charges had taken on the guise of a penitent and was asked forgiveness. As Christ’s representative on Earth, Gregory had more than politics to consider; he also had souls to worry about.
Gregory was not going to bend quickly to this unexpectedly humble move from Henry. For three long days, the pontiff pondered what to do, regularly conferring with his ally, Matilda, who had no love for her nominal overlord, Henry. As the Pope, Countess, and their attendants sat debating in front of the roaring fireplaces and feasted in Canossa, Henry and his few men stayed knelt in prayer in the driving snow wearing only their wretchedly uncomfortable hair shirts and without shoes. For three days and nights, they fasted and unmistakable sign of their penitence. After the three days had passed, Gregory sensibilities as a spiritual leader and shepherd of souls overcame his political nature – Henry was granted entrance to Canossa. Upon entering the fortress, he was treated to full diplomatic niceties – dressed in fine clothing, fed well, and warmed by the welcoming fires. After a series of discussion between Gregory and Henry, in which Henry pronounced his deepest regrets for undermining papal authority, the two men, along with their hostess, celebrated Mass and received Communion – lifting Henry’s excommunication and that of the entire Holy Roman Empire. Gregory, however, refrained from lifting Henry’s deposition. In the eyes of the Church, Henry was no longer damned, but neither was he an emperor.
However, in doing his duty and bringing Henry back into the Christian fold, Gregory encountered some unintended consequences. By lifting the excommunication, Gregory removed the largest (and in most cases the only) issue the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire had with Henry. They returned to him in droves, professing their loyalty and only asking that he be careful not to risk their souls again in unnecessary conflict with the Holy See. One of Henry’s most powerful nobles, however, used the opportunity to declare that he was seeking the throne and, in so doing, sparked civil war within the Empire. This man, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, was the Duke of Swabia and brother-in-law to the Holy Roman Emperor – both men being married to sisters from the House of Savoy. Rudolf used his influence throughout Germany and a history of dissatisfaction with Henry’s rule in Saxony to launch a rebellion against his erstwhile lord. As the war dragged on, Gregory decided to once again enter the fray and, siding with the rebel Rudolf, excommunicated Henry yet again, expecting similar results. This time, however, the nobility loyal to Henry were not prepared to abandon their king. Henry was their legitimate ruler and this excommunication due to fighting a rebellious vassal smacked of insincere politics, not religious necessity. Gregory’s excommunication was viewed as invalid across Germany.
Once Henry had dealt with Rudolf and the troubles at home, he once again turned on the Pope, but this time, from a position of much greater power. Henry marched on Rome. Matilda of Tuscany stayed loyal to Pope and, despite being massively outnumbered, her troops harried Henry’s forces as he marched south. But despite Matilda’s attempts, Henry reached Rome and took the Lateran Palace, Gregory’s official residence. The Pope was forced to make an ignoble retreat to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the shores of the Tiber. Now in almost full control of Rome, Henry IV called a council of bishops who were loyal to him and had them name a new pope – Clement III. So, now, we had two popes. The ever-devout Matilda continued to work for Gregory and succeeded in finding him allies among the Normans, a large force of whom made their way to the first city of Christendom and forced Henry to withdraw back to Germany.
So, it seems like Gregory won, despite numerous setbacks, however, one final twist remained. The ever-fickle people of Rome despised the Pope’s Norman allies and forced them to leave the city and, at the same time, exiled Gregory – who fled to the monastery at Monte Casino, south of Rome. It was here that Gregory died less than a year later. On his deathbed, Gregory withdrew all excommunications he had ever made – except those upon Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and his puppet pope, Clement III.
On August 2, 1343, early on in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, Breton knight, Olivier De Clisson, was executed under orders of King Philip VI of France for treason. Olivier was accused of aiding and abetting the English enemy, but the evidence was never made public prompting rumors of the lord’s execution was politically motivated. These events led Olivier’s wife, Jeanne De Belleville, took their two sons and her deceased husband’s fleet of ships and set out to teach the King of France a lesson. She hired a crew of sailors and went about roving the English Channel in the search of French targets – the Lady had turned pirate! One of the most daring raids attributing to the so-called Lioness of Brittany was a raid on the Chateau Thébaut in the Loire River Valley, where she wiped out the entire French garrison. She also reputedly captured a French ship sailing on the English Channel and, finding a French nobleman loyal to the King aboard, decapitated him by her own hand, thus she had her revenge for her (purportedly) wrongly executed husband.
While much of the story of Jeanne De Belleville is legend, the records do support that she led a short period of revolt against the French King, though many of the exact details actually date to the French Romantic Movement on the nineteenth century. Jeanne’s story of a strong female leader during the Hundred Years’ War is hardly unique. In fact, the most famous one is another one we will be covering in History is Stranger of Fiction – Joan of Arc!