Papal Monarchy

Home Up List of Popes


 The Papacy

The Papacy reached the height of its power during the period from 1059 when the College of Cardinals is established through 1309 when the Avignon Papacy begins.    This time frame is outlined briefly below.

The First Four Hundred Years.  The Roman Catholic Church has undergone many changes during its long history.  We have previously discussed the Doctrine of Petrine Succession, which holds that the Popes derive their authority directly from Peter, who was commissioned by Jesus.  Nonetheless, during the first four centuries of the development of Christianity, there were other powerful centers of the Christian Churches besides Rome.  Not until the division of the Roman Empire into East and West after 395 did Rome become dominant in the West.  

Great Popes through 600.  The following four Popes helped to develop the idea of Papal Supremacy in the West.
Damasus, 366 - 384, addressed other bishops as "sons" rather than as "brothers."
Leo I, 440 - 461, expounded the Doctrine of Petrine Supremacy, that the Pope is the heir of Peter, to whom Jesus had given "the keys to the kingdom of God."
Gelasius I, 492 - 496, proclaimed the doctrine of the two swords:  Church and Empire.
The Church has heavier burden and is superior to the State in spiritual matters.
Gregory the Great, 590 - 604 , real founder of the Papal States.

The Carolingian Period.  During the Carolingian Period of the Frankish Kingdom, we saw that the Popes forged an alliance with the Pepin the Short and Charlemagne. 

Pepin defended the papacy against the Lombards and issued the Donation of Pepin, which granted the land around Rome to the pope as a fief.  The popes argued that the Donation of Pepin merely confirmed the earlier Donation of Constantine.  (During the Renaissance, the Donation of Constantine was proven to be a medieval forgery).

Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800.

The Feudal Period.  The Ninth Century Invasions and the development of the Feudal System caused a general decline within the Church.  Under the Saxon monarchy of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, the Popes and the Church became part of feudalism.  Popes and bishops were appointed frequently by Feudal lords, such as the Holy Roman Emperor.

But, the effort to reform the Church by freeing it from domination by feudal lords began almost as soon as the Feudal System.  The monastery of Cluny, founded in 910 by Duke William of Aquitaine, led this reform, which is usually called the Cluniac Reform Movement.  Efforts were made to eliminate simony, the buying of church offices, concubinage, and lay investiture.


"Beginning in the late eleventh century the papacy attempted to assert the church's independence from secular control.  The first of these popes, Leo IX (1049 - 1054), deposed corrupt bishops and reasserted papal supremacy over all the clergy. 


"In 1059 a church council took a major step in freeing the papacy itself from imperial control by establishing the right of the College of Cardinals to elect future popes, a practice still in effect.

GREGORY VII, 1073 - 1085  

"In 1075 Gregory VII (1073 - 1085) attempted to restore the election of bishops and abbots to the church by terminating the practice of lay investiture--a bestowal of the insignia of an ecclesiastical office by a layperson.  Practically speaking, lay investiture entailed the right of the laity, such as emperors or kings, to select bishops and abbots, though this was in violation of church law and tradition.  A vigorous reformed church could hardly be established if its key officials were selected with a view to political, monetary, and family considerations rather than spiritual qualifications and if the loyalty of such persons was ultimately to the sovereign who appointed them rather than to the pope."


"The immediate target of Gregory's decree was the emperor Henry IV (1056 - 1106), who enjoyed the support of his bishops but not the German territorial princes.  The latter stood to gain by any reduction of imperial power.  Recognizing the implications of the decree, Henry had his prelates declare Gregory deposed, to which the pope responded by excommunicating Henry, absolving his subjects from their duty to obey him, and depriving the imperial bishops of their offices. 

"Delighted at this turn of events, the renegade princes in Germany called for a council, over which Gregory would preside, at Augsburg in February 1077; its task would be to ascertain the validity of Henry's claim to the imperial crown.  Unprepared to cope with a rebellion, the emperor intercepted Gregory at Canossa in Italy to seek absolution. 

"As a priest, Gregory had to forgive the penitent Henry, thereby giving the emperor the upper hand in the civil war that ensured in Germany. 

"Henry was in a much stronger position when Gregory again excommunicated him in 1080.  Four years later Henry's troops occupied Rome, driving Gregory into exile and installing a rival or "antipope," Clement VII, on the papal throne." (pp. 226 - 228, Greaves)

URBAN II, 1088 - 1099

The Byzantine Emperor Alexius I asked Pope Urban II for military help against the Seljuk Turks.  At the Church Council of Clermont in 1095, Urban II issued a call to arms to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land.  This set off the Crusades.

The First Crusade took Jerusalem in July 1099.  For the next 150 years, Western Crusaders sought to preserve what first Crusade had gained.    


"The investiture struggle dragged on until 1122, when Henry V (1106 - 1125) and Pope Calixtus II (1119 - 1124) agreed in the Concordat of Worms that the church would henceforth give prelates their offices and spiritual authority but that the emperor could be present when German bishops were elected and invest them with fiefs.

"In theory, at least, the clergy were now more independent of secular control, though in practice their selection and work were still very political.  

"The real winners in the investiture struggle were the powerful territorial princes, who consolidated their hold over their own lands while imperial attention focused on Rome, and the emerging urban communes of northern Italy, which seized this opportunity to achieve a semi-independent status.  In the end the biggest losers were not only the emperors but the German people, who were increasingly subjected to feudal conflict at a time when the French and English were laying the foundations of unified states." (pp. 226 - 228, Greaves)


"Innocent III (1198 - 1216), arguable the most powerful of the medieval popes, took advantage of the chaos that followed Henry's untimely death to undermine the link between Germany and Sicily.  Germany was thrust into civil war when the leading Hohenstaufen candidate for the imperial throne, Philip of Swabia, Henry VI's brother, was challenged by Otto of Brunswick.  Although Innocent crowned Otto in 1198, the latter's attempt to control Sicily prompted the pope to excommunicate him. 

"At the urging of the French king, Philip Augustus, Innocent recognized the hereditary claim of Henry's son, Frederick II, as king of the Romans (and hence emperor-elect) in 1212.  Philip's victory over Otto at Bouvines (1214) decided the struggle in Frederick's favor, though Frederick continued to fight with the popes over Sicily for the rest of his reign.

"Innocent enhanced papal authority by issuing numerous decrees that spelled out the pope's powers in clear legal terms.  The "plenitude of power" that he asserted (as had Pope Leo the Great) did not entail a claim to temporal world power but to supreme spiritual sovereignty, including the right to intervene in secular affairs when the faith or morals of the church were affected.  Monarchs rightly reigned, in his view, only if they devoutly served the pope as Christ's vicar. 

"As we have seen, he acted on these principles when he humbled England's King John over a disputed election for the archbishop of Canterbury.  In a quarrel that lasted two decades, he finally forced King Philip Augustus of France to take back his Danish wife after Philip had rejected her the day following their wedding.  Innocent strengthened the church in numerous other ways, including approval for the establishment of new religious orders and attention to the restoration and decoration of various churches." (pp. 228 - 230, Greaves)  


"After Frederick's death in 1250, the papacy encouraged civil strife in Germany so successfully that between 1254 and 1273 there was no generally recognized emperor.  Moreover, the Hohenstaufen line itself died out in 1268.  The Great Interregnum, as the period without a recognized emperor was called, marked the triumph of the papacy over the empire--a victory achieved with French support.  Yet half a century after the interregnum began, the French monarchy delivered a crippling blow to papal power and prestige."