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Popular history has a lot of things in common with the FA Cup draw. The moment that those balls come out of that celebrity salad-spinner, the media make their judgements. When Arsenal are drawn against Manchester United, there are so many whoops in the press box that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Juggalo convention.[1] Viewers galore will feast on that prime-time spectacle. But Canvey Island against Charlton Athletic? It’s like a Christmas cracker with a faulty banger. A game for the purist, it won’t trouble the TV schedules.

Before you start scratching your head, hear me out. When publishers and broadcasters decide what history is worthy of popular consideration, they review the draw in a similar way. Take Henry VIII – he’s a crowd-pleaser. Like watching Leeds United in the early 1970s: it’s going to be ruthless, bloody, and very satisfying, irrespective of the opponent. This match gets sponsorship, TV coverage and top pundits because the Tudors are familiar and guarantee drama.

But what if the history balls throw this game at you? Number 30 – Henry IV, versus Number 17 – Gregory VII. I can already sense the shrugs, so I’ll give you a hint: it’s a European game.[2] If the words ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’ have sprung to mind, well, you’d be wrong. This is an eleventh-century classic, which became known as the Investiture Contest.

The manager’s notes in the programme for this match talk about the steps taken by the Church during the 1050s to early 1070s to throw off secular influence;[3] it was moving to a formation[4] with the pope up front by himself. The issue in this contest was simple –the Holy Roman Emperor versus the Pope, who had supremacy over whom?

Things kicked off in 1075 when Pope Gregory VII[5] was drawn against the king of the Germans and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.[6] The emperor showed his tactical inexperience as he arrived in traditional formation, expecting to have control over the appointment of his German bishops. Gregory exploited this naivety and, to pile on another unnecessary sporting analogy, subjected Henry to the switch-hit, turning the long-established tables on him by declaring that it was the pope alone who had the power to appoint bishops, and indeed could depose an emperor.[7] Henry’s back four stepped forward together and appealed to the German nobility for an offside call, but no flag was forthcoming.[8]

A desperate goal-mouth scramble ensued,[9] but Henry just could not clear the danger. It was Gregory who was the first to threaten the score-sheet, slicing through the German defence to unleash a declaration of excommunication and deposition on Henry in 1076. Having totally lost his shape,[10] Henry made the professional decision to limit the damage, and face Gregory from the penalty spot in what has become known as the Walk to Canossa.

In a moment of high drama (bettered only by Pele scoring with a bicycle-kick against the Nazis) Henry marched through the snow, barefoot and dressed in a hair shirt, from Speyer in Germany to Canossa in Italy to face the pope and beg his forgiveness. It was quite a spectacle; Henry did penance outside the fortress walls for three days until Gregory agreed to grant him entry. Humbled and humiliated, Henry was absolved by Gregory who took communion with him, before pulling his cassock over his head, running to the corner flag with his arms outstretched like aeroplane wings, and throwing his mitre into the crowd.

Half time: Henry 0, Gregory 1.

Over the next decade the game went end-to-end. Early on Gregory exploited continued weakness in Henry’s defence to depose and excommunicate him a second time in March 1080, giving his support to rival German king Rudolf of Swabia. Henry got his men behind this threat and cleared his lines in October 1080;[11] he announced Gregory’s deposition and brought on the new anti-pope, Clement III.

The Germans quickly counter-attacked, sweeping down the wings in 1081 to occupy Gregory’s half of the pitch for the final three years of the match. Many of Gregory’s supporters had already left the terraces, and with Rome under siege he turned to the substitutes’ bench, introducing Messrs Hunter, Whiteside and Conquest (“the Normans”). Gregory escaped Rome in 1084[12] to spend the rest of his life in exile in Sicily. Henry happily slotted the ball into the empty papal net[13] before tucking it under his shirt and heading for the showers.

Final score: 1-1.

You’re disappointed. It had ‘draw’ written all over it, didn’t it? True, there was cut and thrust and controversy, but with the cast of unknowns on the team-sheets, there was never going to be any resolution. Was there? Well, probably not at the time.[14] But the Investiture Contest had a momentous effect. It began a seismic shift in the relationship between Church and State which culminated in memorable later round ties,[15] each of which had much clearer ‘winners’ (academic debate aside, obviously).

Famous names and clear-cut results are often the darlings of popular history, meeting our need for heroes and villains, winners and losers.[16] But we should dare to shift our focus to the lesser known characters and events.[17] By focussing solely on the familiar, we miss spectacular and pivotal moments like Henry’s Walk to Canossa. Important in their own right, significant in their own time, such incidents are often the flapping of a butterfly’s wings which lead to those tsunami events that we know so well. For the drama in Canossa’s snow alone, Henry and Gregory’s tussle is well worth a trip through the turnstiles.

Sheffield-based James Pennock is a history graduate, and master of the contrived analogy. You can see all of James’s History Matters blogs here.


[1] Juggalos are an American subculture who are best known for painting their faces like clowns, and uttering their trademark “whoop whoop” call. Although they self-identify as a counter-culture and ‘family’ group,  popular culture’s view of Juggalos as a pre-packed source of comedy is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in US show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

[2] Oh great, I hear you say, one of those irritatingly tactical affairs, the excitement drained away by a focus on possession and territory. The shots on goal are fewer than the number of syllables in the striker’s surname.

[3] During the eleventh century a series of reforms were made by the Church to secure the moral and spiritual integrity of the clergy (for example, introducing laws to combat clerical marriage and the act of purchasing positions in the Church), and importantly their independence from secular powers. Whilst Gregory only became pope in 1073, he was an active reformer during his time as archdeacon of the Roman church, and it was during his primacy that the greatest steps were taken to emphasise that the institution of the papacy was divine and hence superior to all other worldly authorities; hence these reforms became known as the Gregorian Reforms.

[4] A 4-5-1 formation, of course.

[5] Gregory was pope from 1073 until his death in 1085.

[6] Henry reigned 1056 to 1105, when he abdicated in favour of his son, Henry V.

[7] See Dictatus papae, compiled in 1075, which set out 27 statements of papal power.

[8] Henry had problems at home. His captaincy was the matter of some contention, having succeeded to the throne aged 6 and battled with Bavarians, Swabains and Carinthians ever since.

[9] Henry had Gregory kidnapped and detained for a period by imperial supporters in Rome, and subsequently declared Gregory deposed from the papal throne.

[10] In a diet, or council, of German princes held in Tribur in 1076, Henry was given 12 months to repent of his actions and have his excommunication lifted.

[11] After three years of civil war, Rudolf was mortally wounded at the battle of Elster in October 1080 and died soon after.

[12] But not before he had excommunicated Henry for the third and final time. Some might say this training ground move had become a little too predictable.

[13] Henry had Clement installed as pope, who then crowned Henry as Holy Roman Emperor. Having fulfilled his aims, Henry quickly returned to Germany.

[14] The Investiture Contest continued into the reign of Henry V, and was only brought to an end in 1122 with the agreement known as the Concordat of Worms.

[15] Who can forget ties like Henry II versus Thomas Beckett and Henry VIII versus Clement VII?

[16] Other significant matches include Cromwell versus Charles I (close-run until the defender of the faith lost his head in the penalty box); Harold versus William (home team advantage neutralised by a blinding Gallic volley); and Henry VII versus Richard III (that was the actual score, 7-3, following injury time and penalties on Bosworth Field).

[17] It didn’t do Tom Stoppard any harm in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead now, did it?

Tags : Gregory VIIHenry IVInvestiture ContestJuggalopopular historyWalk to Canossa
James Pennock

The author James Pennock

2 Comments

  1. Hi James – thanks for the post! For a German it’s exactly the other way around: Henry VIII who? vs. walk to Canossa (maybe not quite, but fairly close). It’s a classic, studied many times over at school (well, it was in my time) and it’s a catch phrase, beloved by politicians after Bismarck famously compared going to Canossa with submission to the papacy during the ‘Kulturkampf’. It’s like saying Canvey Island FC does matter to the people of, well, Canvey Island….;) Julia

    1. Julia – agreed. I think it is also a matter of context; you interpret Henry’s troubles with Thomas Becket quite differently if you have knowledge of both the Investiture Contest and earlier attempts to bring this debate to England (e.g. Gregory’s letters to ABofC Lanfranc, and exchanges between Henry I and Rome). Most important for Tudor historians, it gives perspective to Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s achievements. These were Europe-wide themes that had played out for many hundreds of years, and the individual events need to be considered on that basis.

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