The Middle Ages was the period of European history from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 to the invasion of Italy by the French in 1494.
Charlemagne or “Charles the Great” was King of all Franks. Charlemagne protected Pope St. Leo III and rescued him from his enemies.
Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day, 800, by Leo III. It was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. Though a soldier, Charlemagne’s interested was not only in war. He encouraged his people to become successful farmers; he was also a patron of learning and of arts.
After the death of Charlemagne, the empire was governed by weak men and was divided. The raids by invaders such as the Vikings and the Saracens with no central authority to protect the people gave rise to the feudal system.
In the feudal system, common villagers would pay the landowner in labor or services in return for the landowner’s military protection against foreign or domestic enemies.
Some princes and kings, using their feudal authority, interfered with the appointment of bishops and abbots. “Lay investiture” is the appointment of bishops and abbots by secular rulers, often in exchange for temporal protection. This practice opened to the door of unworthy and worldly men being appointed to Church positions.
From the death of Pope Stephen IV in 817 to the accession of Pope Gregory VII in 1073, there was a dark period for the papacy. Aside from Pope St. Nicholas I (858-867), the popes of this period were either too weak or too corrupt to resist the emperor and the nobles. As a result of rival factions seeking control of the papacy, weak and unworthy men were often placed on the throne of St. Peter, and many of the popes were assassinated only after serving for a handful of days or months.
Hildebrand (the future Gregory VII) was a monk. He carried out important tasks for different popes. In 1073, at the age of 53, he became Pope Gregory VII, and was the key figure in the “Gregorian Reform”—a seventy-five year struggle to recover the church her essential freedom in papal elections and appointments of Church offices.
Upon taking office, Gregory VII declared war on the three great evils of lay investiture, simony and concubinage. Emperor Henry IV opposed to the reform of Gregory VII against lay investiture.
Gregory excommunicated Henry and declared that his subjects no longer owed him obedience. It was the first time that an emperor was deposed by the pope. Henry came to Canossa to beg the pope for pardon. The pope granted him absolution.
However, Henry did not persevere and kept defying the laws of the Church. Gregory excommunicated him again in 1080. In 1084 Henry took Rome, and the aged pontiff was obliged to flee. On May 25, 1085, Pope Gregory VII died in exile. As he was dying, he said, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.”
About forty years later, the Concordat of Worms was called in 1122 under Pope Calixtus II and King Henry V to settle the matter of lay investiture. This first concordat in history established for all time Gregory VII’s principle that ecclesiastical jurisdiction does not derive from secular power.
Another hero during the struggle against lay investiture is St. Thomas Becket. At first he was a worldly and ambitious man, but with his episcopal ordination at forty-four, he was transformed.
Thomas Becket opposed Henry II’s attempt to gain control of the Church. In 1170 he was killed by the knights of the king at the foot of the altar. As he was dying, Thomas murmured, “I accept death for the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church.”