Henry IV Biography

King, Emperor (1050–1106)
Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV became king of Germany in 1056 and was abdicated in 1105. He overthrew Pope Gregory VII because of conflicts over imperial rule.


Henry IV was born on November 11, 1050, in the Saxony region of Germany. He became Holy Roman Emperor and a German king in 1056, but Pope Gregory VII began reforms to reassert church dominion over imperial rulers. Henry eventually overthrew Gregory, but would succumb to the new ordinances. In 1105, he was forced to abdicate the throne by his son. Henry died on August 7, 1106 in Liège, Lorraine.

Early Life

Henry IV was born on November 11, 1050, probably in Goslar, in the Saxony region of Germany, to King Henry III and Agnes of Poitou. His father, the last king able to keep dominion over the Catholic Church in Rome, died when his son was only 6 years old. Henry IV thus became king in name while his mother became regent. Henry III's appointee, Pope Victor II, was an early and able advisor, but when he died, the empress made a series of ill-fated decisions, giving away lands and powers to rebellious princes.

Anno, the archbishop of Cologne, kidnapped the young Henry and wrested control of the kingdom in 1062, appointing a new pope, Alexander II. The struggle, known as the Investiture Controversy, was underway for who would appoint popes and kings, the church or the state.

Emperor v. Pope

Henry IV was declared of age in 1065 and assumed his seat as king and Holy Roman emperor. But he had been poorly educated during his childhood amidst the governmental tumult and was consumed by the desire to rule, bringing little wisdom to the throne at 15. Henry found himself spread thin trying to squelch various rebellions from Saxony to Bavaria to the Italo-Normans of southern Italy.

The delicate balance of trying to solidify the kingdom and appease the pope was disrupted when he insisted on divorcing his wife Bertha of Savoy, whom he had married in 1066. He later abandoned the idea after institutional outcry.

Pope Gregory VII took advantage of Henry's lack of maturation and the disarray of the kingdom to advance his own agenda of church reform. Gregory VII asserted that only the church could name the pope, and insisted on the College of Cardinals. (Previously, imperial rulers had appointed popes as well as bishops and other high-ranking church officials; the positions came with income-producing lands and other perks.) Councils were called and a power struggle and battles ensued, with Henry opposing this reform.

In 1076, Gregory excommunicated Henry and all the bishops he had appointed, with the princes subsequently meeting to elect a new king. Henry outsmarted them, saving his throne by doing a private penance with Gregory VII, thereby ceding the superiority and equality of imperial rulers to the church.

Betrayed by Sons

After a second excommunication, he overthrew Gregory VII in Rome in 1084 and installed Clement III to the papacy. Tired of all the back-and-forth, Henry declared the Truce of God for the empire in 1085, restoring ancient rights to the Saxons and finding other ways to quell Germany's civil wars.

But the drama continued, for newly appointed Pope Urban II reasserted Gregory VII's agenda in 1088 and Henry's own son Conrad crowned himself king of Milan, betraying his father.

Henry IV died while trying to reconcile with the church to create a more lasting peace. In 1103, he agreed to go on a crusade to remove his excommunication and further support his son, Henry V, whom he had maneuvered to the throne in 1098. He also decreed a moratorium on feuds among the nobles for four years. But Henry V, fearing the feuds would continue, imprisoned his father and forced his abdication as emperor in December 1105.

Death and Legacy

Henry IV escaped to Liège and defeated his son's army, dying there on August 7, 1106. Henry IV was beloved by some, notably the citizenry, who looked to him as their champion, but was reviled by others, such as church officials who resented his attempts to keep imperial rule the dominant law. He lost that fight—at least for several hundred years, until Henry VIII of England.

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