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Henry III

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German King and Roman Emperor, son of Conrad II; b. 1017; d. at Bodfeld, in the Harz Mountains, 5 Oct., 1056.

It was to his father's forceful personality that he owed the resources by means of which he could maintain for himself the great and powerful position which Conrad had created. Of course this position was no longer an undisputed one, especially towards the end of his reign. On the contrary it became evident by that time that through his rule Germany had reached the critical turning-point in her history. The key to the domestic and foreign policy of this emperor can be found altogether in his character. Henry was extraordinarily gifted, having a quick intellect and many-sided interests. Consequently he rapidly mastered the problems of administration and government into which his father had him initiated; but with equal rapidity he acquired the literary and artistic culture of his time which his episcopal tutors imparted to him. His profound piety and the serious, austere bent of his nature were still more important factors in his character. Putting the garment of the penitent on the same plane as the regalia of the king, he lived and moved altogether according to the Christian view of life. The Christian moral law regulated his actions. In this conception of life his stern sense of duty had its roots, and to this sense of duty was added a stubborn self-reliance. With such spiritual tendencies it is not surprising to learn that the king frequently subjected his frail body to severe penitential exercises, and that his private life bore a marked resemblance in many points to that of a monk. But at the same time it is not surprising to learn that such a man was reserved, that consequently, though a man of the utmost good faith, he remained a stranger to the spirit of his people. This basic trait of his character imparted to both his domestic and foreign policy idealistic aims which frequently disregard facts, or for that matter were even outside of the necessities of the State. According to his conception his kingship was religious in character. Like the bishops, he considered himself called to the service of God. Like Charlemagne of old, he compared himself to the priest-king David. He desired to be the ruler of God's universal State which should constitute the outward and visible form for the Church. The goodly object of his ecumenic imperialism, therefore, was to carry out the moral idea of Christianity.

With this fundamental idea as a starting-point, it was but natural that Henry should recognize the law of the Church as the arbiter of his conscience. At the very beginning of his reign the king announced that he recognized the fundamental principle of this law; that a bishop could only be judged by the ecclesiastical tribunals. He bitterly lamented his father's behaviour towards the princes of the Church in Lombardy. He considered the deposing of Aribert of Milan uncanonical. In general it soon became apparent that Henry was resolved to make religious ideas once more the determining factors in the art of government. This renewed triumph of religious ideas was straightway demonstrated at the synod of Constance in 1043. There the king, clad in the garment of the penitent, preached the peace of God to the awe-struck masses from the high pulpit. Henceforth this serious Cluniac spirit was predominant in all the imperial entourage. Minstrels and tumblers vanished from the court.

The king was still more confirmed in his austere conception of life by his second wife, Agnes of Poitou, daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, who likewise had been brought up according to the ideas of Cluny. (Henry's first wife, the Danish princess Gunhild, died in 1038.) This attitude of the king towards the world accounts for the leniency and indulgence that characterized his domestic and foreign policy and it determined absolutely his conduct in ecclesiastical politics. At the beginning of his reign it looked as if the imperial authority were still increasing. In the East, success attended his arms. The aggressive Slavic policy of Duke Bretislaw of Bohemia was checked in 1041. After that, Bohemia was for a long time a support of the German king. Hungary also became a tributary vassal. It is due to these successes that Henry's reign is so generally considered the zenith of German history. Not altogether correctly. His leniency and indulgence fostered an opposition, especially in the interior, which he was destined never completely to overcome. This decline of his commanding position within the empire took place while the king was trying to discharge the supreme duties of his high office as priest-king.

Henry's ideal was the purity of the Church. Only a church that was immaculate might and could be a true helpmeet to him in the kingship. He himself was never party to any act of simony. But as presumptive priest-king, he held inflexibly to the right of investiture. As such he also presided over the synods; as such he also passed sentence in ecclesiastical affairs. He did not realize that this involved a striking contradiction. The Church, pure and morally regenerate in the spirit of the reform party, could not fail to resist imperial domination. This error on the part of the king resulted in the rapid rise of the papacy and the slow decline of the imperial power in its fight for its old ecclesiastical privileges. In the first period of Henry's reign, Rome saw the schism of three popes: Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI. Although of spotless character, Gregory had bought the tiara from the unprincipled Benedict. Perhaps he had recourse to simony as an expedient to secure the supremacy of the reform party, perhaps also merely in order to get the scandalous Benedict out of the way. Henry, however would consent to accept the emperor's crown only from hands that were pure, while those of the de facto Pope Gregory seemed to him tainted with simony. All three popes were repudiated by the Synod of Sutri on 20 December, 1046. This synod revealed Henry's attitude towards the canon law. He knew that according to this law no one can sit in judgment on a pope. Therefore the pope was not deposed by that synod, which, on the contrary, demanded that the pope himself pronounce the judgment. He went into exile in Cologne, accompanied by Hildebrand, who was soon to reveal the power of the papacy. The German popes, supported by the power of the German emperors, were now able to elevate their holy office above the partisan strife of the turbulent factions of the Roman nobility, and above the desperate moral barbarism of the age. Under Suidger of Bamberg, who called himself Clement II, Henry still asserted his claim to the right of the Roman patriciate, that of control over the nominations to the papal throne. But under Leo IX the emancipation of the papacy from the imperial authority already began to manifest itself.

Freed at last from the narrow local Roman policy, the universal point of view once more dictated the conduct of the Roman pontiffs. Immediately a great wave of reform also set in, directed first and foremost against simony and the marriage of priests. The restless and ubiquitous energy of Leo was also turned against the overweening assertions of independence on the part of the episcopal potentates on both sides of the Alps. At the same time, however, the same pope pointed the way to his successors, even for their temporal policy in Italy. He was the first to demonstrate the importance of Southern Italy to the papal policy. Of course his own plans in that part of the country were wrecked by the Normans.

Henry's ecclesiastical policy, therefore, had not only helped the reform party to victory but also led to the triumph of the idea of the supremacy of the Church, which was inseparably connected with it. The preparatory scenes of the great drama of the following epoch were over. At the same time new forces sprang up in Germany: the cities and the petty lay nobility. Marked disaffection prevailed, especially among the latter. Of course Henry was still quite strong enough to subdue these rising powers. But for how long? It was already extremely ominous that Henry did not retain in his own hands the escheated Duchies of Bavaria, Swabia, and Carinthia. His failure to do so must needs bring its revenge, for the new dukes were unreliable men. The dissatisfaction was especially clamorous in Saxony. Here the people took offence at the relations between the emperor and the strenuous Archbishop of Bremen, who sought to create a great northern patriarchate, but also strove to build up a strong temporal foundation for his bishopric.

In the natural course of events this brought him into conflict with the lay nobility. While the king was carrying on futile military operations in the year 1051 and later, against the Hungarians, who were trying to throw off the suzerainty of Germany, the discontent in Germany came to a head in the revolt of Lorraine. This revolt, which was repeated several times, assumed dangerous proportions through the marriage of Duke Godfrey of Lorraine with Beatrice, widow of the Margrave Boniface of Tuscany, who was master of an important and commanding position in Upper and Central Italy. Henry endeavoured to break up this threatening coalition by means of a journey to Rome in 1055. But Godfrey instigated a fresh insurrection in Germany. A movement in opposition to the king in Southern Germany attained alarming dimensions. Henry, it is true, deposed the rebellious dukes, Conrad of Bavaria, and Guelph of Carinthia. But Duke Conrad stirred up the Hungarians and destroyed the last vestiges of German prestige in that country. The death of both the South German dukes in the interim soon led to the overthrow of the Duke of Lorraine. It was in these domestic troubles that the disastrous results of the emperor's leniency and indulgence were to appear most clearly and fully. Unbroken now was the opposition to the Crown in Saxony and Southern Germany, unweakened the dangerous alliance of Lorraine and Tuscany in the South, unimpaired the growing power of the Normans, while the papacy grew without hindrance. All the forces with which the fourth Henry had to cope were in the field, ready for action, at Henry III's death.


STEINDORFF, Jahrbücher des Deutschen Reichs unter Heinrich III. (Leipzig, 1874-81); GRIESINGER, Römerzug Kaiser Heinrich III. im Jahre 1046 (Rostock Dissertation, 1900); MARTENS, Die Besetzung des päpstlichen Stuhles unter den Kaisern Heinrich III. und Heinrich IV. in Zeitschrift für Kirchenrecht, 20-22; GERDES, Geschichte des deutschen Volkes und seiner Kultur im Mittelalter, II (1898); MANITIUS, Deutsche Geschichte unter den s*chsischen und salischen Kaisern, 911-1125 (Stuttgart, 1889); HAMPE, Deutsche Kaisergeschichte in der Zeit der Salier und Staufer (Leipzig, 1909); also the literature on the popes of this period.

About this page

APA citation. Kampers, F. (1910). Henry III. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Kampers, Franz. "Henry III." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerald Rossi.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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