By Levi Roach
Looking beyond the usual rogues’ gallery of historical figures can help us to better understand the past.
Almost two years ago, a group of students and scholars assembled in London to consider the context and legacy of Magna Carta, that most lauded of medieval British documents.
Inevitably, the spectre of King John hung over much of the proceedings and comparisons were frequently drawn with John’s French counterparts.
Though well known within the German-speaking world, Henry is something of an unknown quantity elsewhere. Born on November 11th, 1050, he came to the throne at the tender age of three upon the sudden death of his father. The ensuing years saw much instability, as leading magnates jostled for control of the informal regency that ruled the realm on Henry’s behalf. These conflicts reached a high point when the king was abducted by ship on the Rhine in early 1062. The terrified 11-year-old reportedly plunged into the water in an attempt to escape, only to be saved from drowning by the swift intervention of one of his captors.
The uncertainties of these years left their mark. As an adult, Henry was known for keeping his own counsel (rather than seeking the advice of others) and few true ‘friends’ of his can be identified. He is said to have preferred the company of low-born men, from whom he could expect unwavering loyalty. Such behaviour smacks of distrust and insecurity. Not surprisingly, it ruffled feathers and Henry often found himself at odds with his magnates. One of the first great showdowns came in 1070, when the king accused Otto of Northeim, the Duke of Bavaria and a leading Saxon nobleman, of treason. Otto was found guilty and he and Magnus Billung, another Saxon magnate, were imprisoned. Imprisonment was normally a symbolic gesture, the expectation being that pardon would soon follow. For Otto, this was indeed the case; Magnus, however, was kept under lock and key for years, not even being released upon the death of his father, the Duke of Saxony, in 1072. This was but one of many cases in which Henry broke the rules of chivalry and it is hardly surprising that he soon faced a concerted uprising among the Saxon nobles.
On and off, the resulting ‘Saxon Wars’ would occupy the rest of Henry’s reign. Though he enjoyed a number of breakthroughs, his obstinate refusal to find common ground meant that peace was only ever shortlived. The situation was exacerbated by the so-called ‘Investiture Contest’. Beginning in the mid-1070s, this pitted Henry’s claims to control the Church against those of the pope. The king’s opponents were quick to exploit the resulting divisions and rebellion soon spread beyond Saxony. Matters came to a head in 1076, when Henry, recently excommunicated, was set an ultimatum by his magnates: either submit to Pope Gregory VII and have his excommunication lifted within the year, or be deprived of his realm. In response, the king undertook his ‘trek to Canossa’ (Gang nach Canossa). Crossing the Alps in the dead of winter, Henry hurried to meet the pope at the castle of Canossa in northern Italy. There he dramatically prostrated himself in the snow outside the castle walls for three days before being absolved of his sins. Such contrition – if ever sincerely intended – had little long-term effect, however: by the end of the year Henry was calling for Gregory’s abdication.
It is not hard to see parallels with John, who frequently broke with convention and proved similarly fickle when it came to keeping his promises. Yet, while John has gone down as one of England’s archetypal ‘bad kings’, Henry has not faced the same fate. The grounds for this are historiographical. In the latter half of the 19th century, when professional history developed as a field, Henry found favour within Prussian (and thus Protestant) corridors of power in a newly united Germany. He was seen as an ill-starred ruler, a far-sighted monarch whose road to greatness was only blocked by the expansionist ambitions of the papacy. Canossa itself became a symbol of papal domination. In 1872 Otto von Bismarck invoked this image in his speech before the Reichstag: ‘Fret not, we shall not go to Canossa – either in body or in spirit!’ The message was clear: unlike Henry, the Iron Chancellor would not go cap in hand to the pope.
Of course, there were mitigating circumstances in Henry’s reign. He could not have foreseen the fierce opposition from Pope Gregory, nor was he responsible for various long-standing structural problems within the realm. Nevertheless, shorn of the nationalist sentiments so prominent in the 19th and 20th century, modern scholarship has come to see that Henry does indeed deserve a share of the blame. Whether he was as ‘bad’ as John is hard to say and ultimately beside the point. What is clear is that both broke the ‘rules of play’ of their day, and both faced concerted opposition as a consequence. While in Germany this did not result in a document such as Magna Carta, it did contribute to the evolution of a unique brand of elective monarchy, in which leading magnates (the princes) chose their own ruler. In this sense, the dramatic scene before the castle of Canossa is not so different from the negotiations at Runnymede. While both John’s and Henry’s reigns were clearly failures, they are all the more important for this fact; by viewing them together, our appreciation of both becomes all the richer.
Levi Roach is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Exeter and author of Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016)