Hildebrand was born about the year 1025, possibly not far from Rome, and was reared in Rome. His ancestry is not clearly established, but he seems to have had aristocratic blood from both sides of his house. His mother was related to a family of bankers and had him educated in a monastery in Rome of which her brother was abbot and where the rule of Cluny was partly in force. In late youth he continued his education in the Lateran Palace, closely associated with the Papacy. He therefore knew Rome and the Papal curia intimately and in some of its most corrupt years. Although educated in a monastery, he did not become a monk until he was in his early twenties. He may have taken the step at Cluny. Also while in his early twenties he was for a time in Germany. He returned to Rome in the train of Leo IX. Leo admitted him to minor orders. He was likewise a friend of the earnest Peter Damian. His rise was not sudden. Swarthy, small of stature, slightly deformed, only his piercing glance gave physical evidence of the genius which lay within. A practical man of affairs, he was also deeply devout. We know very little of his inner life, but he clearly belonged with those who wished to purify the Church. By the time he was thirty-five he was being noted as a young man of promise.
In 1059 it was Hildebrand who was largely instrumental in obtaining the election of Nicholas II, thus defeating the efforts of the Roman nobility to revive their earlier control of the Papacy.
The brief pontificate of Nicholas II, for it lasted only from 1059 to 1061, was marked by momentous steps. In the chief of these, the enactment of highly important legislation determining the procedure for elections to the Papacy, Hildebrand appears to have had little part. Indeed, it was Humbert, a cardinal-bishop, who seems to have been chiefly responsible for them, A monk from the diocese of Toul and an exponent of the Lotharin-gian revival, he had written a treatise, Adversus simonaicos, in which he outlined a programme for the purging of the Church.
This new legislation was in the form of a Papal Decree of 1059. It has come down to us in two different versions. The two agree that in the election the cardinals were to take the initiative, that in case disorders in Rome made a meeting in that city inadvisable, they might hold the election elsewhere, that if a suitable man could not be found in the Roman Church the Pope might be chosen from any other church, and that if war or intrigue prevented the Pope from being enthroned according to custom he might nevertheless exercise all the functions of his office. The two forms differed chiefly in that one required the cardinal-bishops to take the lead and gave little recognition to the Emperor, while the other made no distinction among the cardinals and required imperial consent to the person chosen. With modifications, the principles expressed in the decree still govern elections to the Papacy, namely, that the choice is to be by the cardinals, that the cardinals are not required to meet in Rome, that the Pope need not be a Roman, and that, in case of necessity, he may exercise his functions from some other centre than Rome. Although still the Bishop of Rome and holding his place in the Catholic Church because of that fact, he was made more representative of the Western wing of the Catholic Church as a whole and was not as subject to the factional strife in the city of Rome as had been all too often the case in the preceding three or four generations. The reform wave had captured the Papacy.
The death of Nicholas II in 1061, preceded as it was by a few weeks by that of Cardinal Humbert, deprived the reformers of two outstanding leaders. Hildebrand now stepped into the breach. Utilizing the procedure for Papal elections which had been promulgated in 1059, he brought together in Rome the cardinals and other leading churchmen. At his instance and by his prompt action, they elected to the Papacy a friend of Peter Damian, who took the title of Alexander II and held the post from 1061 to his death in 1073. The Roman nobles, wishing to revive their control of the Papacy, collaborated with the bishops of Lombardy, who disliked the reform movement, and sent a delegation to Germany to ask Henry IV, still a child of eleven years, to appoint one of their friends, an Italian bishop, Cadalus, to the post. The regency, glad of an opportunity to assert the traditional practice of the German kings in controlling the Papal succession, had the young Henry give his approval. Thus the Roman nobles and the German monarchy combined to frustrate the reformers' efforts for the independence of the Papacy of the secular arm. For almost the entire reign of Alexander II Cadulus was an annoying rival. Part of the battle was fought in Rome itself with the use of arms on both sides. Tortuous and complicated diplomacy was involved, with the lavish use of money by both sides to purchase the favour of the Roman populace. In the struggle Hildebrand was deeply involved. Thanks in part to him, Alexander II maintained his authority.
Alexander II proved to be an able Pope, and while he owed much to Hildebrand, his achievements were by no means due entirely to the latter. Nor was Peter Damian, who was also, one of his advisers, to be credited with more than a fraction of the advances made under this pontificate. Indeed, Damian, fiery advocate of reform though he was, did not prove to be as wise in counsel as Hildebrand. Under Alexander II substantial progress was registered towards the realization of the dream of rendering the Papal power effective in all aspects of the life of Western Europe. In the political realm Alexander II compelled young Henry IV, potentially the mightiest monarch in that region, to surrender his purpose to divorce his wife. He gave his approval to William the Conqueror's conquest of England and to the invasion of Sicily by the Normans of Southern Italy. In each instance he sent a gonfalon, or standard, which he blessed, to be carried by the army. In the ecclesiastical realm he deposed the Bishop of Florence on the charge of simony, he aided William the Conqueror in putting Norman bishops in English sees, he induced the mighty Lanfranc, now Archbishop of Canterbury, to come to Rome to receive the pallium instead of sending it to him, as Lanfranc had requested, and he humbled the proud Archbishop of Cologne by compelling him to enter Rome walking, and barefooted. Legates appointed by the Holy See intervened again and again in ecclesiastical affairs in various countries. Appeals to Rome were encouraged from the wide reaches of the Church; Alexander II made his power felt in Denmark, only recently won to the Christian faith. In portions of Spain under Christian rulers he obtained action against simony and clerical marriage and encouraged the substitution of the Roman liturgy for the local Mozarabic liturgy which had long been in use in the peninsula. Alexander II was engaged in a head-on conflict with Henry IV over the control of the appointment to the important Archbishopric of Milan when death removed him from the scene and bequeathed that contest to his successor.
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