Aaron Price

October 17, 2001


Pope Urban II entered his papacy in a very difficult situation. He was the successor to a legacy of extensive ecclesiastical reform, a legacy unpopular with many powerful people. Additionally, he was the inheritor of a schismatic papacy and his opposition was far from incompetent, being well supported and effectively uncontested for almost three years. Urban spent his entire papacy outside of Rome because Clement III, his schismatic opposition, held tenuous control there. He also had very little protection or support from the laity since the Gregorian popeís main protectors, the Normans, were embroiled in civil war in Southern Italy, a situation which was closely mirrored in the religious world, where civil war was still being waged on the intellectual battlefields of the Gregorian Reform. This was the bleak environment surrounding Urban II when he was raised to the position of supreme pontiff, but in only eleven years he was able to drastically and positively alter that environment by turning the weaknesses of his position into advantages through a policy of compromising reform. In the end, it was Urbanís ability to negotiate and compromise with his opponents that secured the primacy of the Gregorian reform in the future of the papacy.1

In his life before the papacy Urban was known as Odo. He was a Frenchman by birth and educated at Riems under the tutelage of St. Bruno. He became the grand prior of Cluny around 1074 and around 1080 he was appointed cardinal-bishop of Ostia. As cardinal-bishop, Odo became deeply involved in the Gregorian reform movement. He was closely associated with Pope Gregory VII, who put Odo to the task of rallying their supporters in Saxony and Southern Germany in 1085. After Gregoryís death in May of 1085, the Gregorian line of the papacy was vacant until May 1087 when the highly contested Victor III was consecrated. Odo succeeded Victor IIIís four-month papacy and was elected as Urban II on 12 March 1088.

From the very beginning of his papacy Urban faced stiff opposition, none of which was new to him thanks to his tenure under Gregory VII. His main opponents were Emperor Henry IV and his imperialist pope, the schismatic Clement III. To make matters worse, Saxony, a one time Gregorian sympathizer, had reconciled its differences with the emperor and shifted its allegiance away from the Gregorians. Urbanís opposition was not only lay but ecclesiastical as well. There remained from the beginning of the reform movement, clergy who supported tradition and resisted the changes put forward by the Gregorians, preferring instead to maintain the historical relationship between church and state and emperor to pope. They supported and were loyal to the imperial pope, Clement III, the hallmark of that relationship.

Urban was not without support in his role as reformer. There remained the core group of influential Gregorian reformers. Indeed it was the Gregorian clergy that elected Urban to carry on the torch of their cause. But, one of the most influential supporters of the reform movement was a laywoman, Countess Matilda of Tuscany, one of the most powerful landowners in Europe, who controlled vast stretches of Northern Italy. Colin Morris makes much of her influence on the Gregorians saying: "There were times when Matilda almost appeared as the conscience of the Gregorian partyÖand she was resolute in her loyalty to Urban." Even though Urban had lost the support of the Saxons he maintained his close association with Southern Germany. Morris stresses what he sees as the three most important sources of Gregorian support in Southern Germany: the school at Constance, the princes Berthold of Zšhringen and Welf of Bavaria, and Bishop Gebhard of Constance. The school at Constance was an excellent source of canonical collections, useful in the proliferation of their reform rhetoric. The princes Berthold and Welf were important as secular opponents to Henry IV. They had maintained their loyalty to Urban and the reformation movement since Urbanís visit to Southern Germany, as Odo of Ostia, in 1085 to rally the opposition against the imperialists. And finally, Bishop Gebhard of Constance was extremely important as he was the leader of the Gregorians in Southern Germany and he had a personal connection and loyalty to Urban, who consecrated Gebhard as bishop. The central theme here is the network of personal connections Urban had with the powerful leaders of the reform movement. These connections helped unify the movement under Urbanís papacy and allowed him to succeed in furthering the cause of reformation even in the adverse political environment that existed during the early years of his papacy.

Urban was able to accomplish much for the Gregorian reform movement during his eleven years in office. According to Morris, the chief reason for Urbanís success was the combination of his willingness to dispense from canon law and his position of moral authority as a pope who was "the unquestioned choice of his party, who had inherited and not caused the schism."0 Urban was a hard-line Gregorian in principle, but he was flexible in his application of the reform principles. He often chose leniency as his policy when dealing with those who had violated Gregorian ideals. He consistently reconciled those who had received their offices from simoniacs or supporters of Clement III. Had he strictly applied Gregorian principles, he would have excommunicated most of Germanyís population, since they were subjects of schismatic bishops, thereby severely limiting the Roman Churchís influence in one of the most important regions of Europe. This policy of compromise through the use of papal dispensation allowed Urban to strike a balance between adherence to Gregorian principles and maintaining the strength of the Roman church, a balance that made for a very successful papacy.

The years 1093-1099 were the most active of Urbanís papacy. During this time Henry IV was isolated in Lombardy because his enemies controlled the routes back to Germany, severely limiting Henryís influence. It was during this time that Henryís son, Conrad, met with Pope Urban and swore spiritual fidelity to him. This, the realization of Gregoryís suggestion to secure the oath of the German leadership, was the beginning of a number of events that would define the legacy of Urbanís papacy. In 1095 King Eric III of Denmark traveled to meet the pope and to secure a promise of independence from Hamburg, which was controlled by the schismatic archbishop Liemar. In that same year King William Rufus of England agreed to recognize Urban as the legitimate pope in return for a promise that no papal legates would be sent to England without Williamís permission, another example of Urbanís use of compromise in order to promote the greater influence of the Gregorian papacy. In March of that year, Urban was able to hold the first assembly of his supporters at the Synod of Piacenza and in November 1095 Urban made the first papal visit to France since Leo IXís visit in 1049. While in France he held a general assembly in Clermont at which he proclaimed the First Crusade to free the churches of the East and that all who died on the expedition would be free from requirements to do penance, an aspect that seems less outstanding when taken in context of Urbanís career of compromise. Yet, the main business of both these assemblies was the reaffirmation of Gregory VIIís legislation nullifying the powers of simoniacal and schismatic clergy, prohibiting lay investiture, condemning lay ownership of churches, and prohibiting clergy from performing homage to lay rulers. This was a strong legislative return to the core principles of the Gregorian reform.

Urban II died on July 29, 1099. He was in office for eleven years but his legacy would last much longer, not the least of which was the crusading legacy, which would last for centuries. He also succeeded in turning the attention of the papacy away from the Empire and to include the greater part of Europe, bringing Denmark, England, and France into the fold during his tenure. The result of this broadened interest was a wider acceptance of Gregorian reform ideals and was the foundation upon which the victory over the imperialists was built. Urban II proved to be a strict Gregorian reformer in principle and a strategic compromiser in practice. As a result he was simultaneously able to promote strict Gregorian reform ideals while strengthening and expanding the influence of the Gregorian papacy throughout Europe.