With one sermon, he launched the CrusadesSt. Bruno (afterwards founder of the Carthusians) Otho studied at Reims, where he later became canon and archdeacon. About 1070 he retired to Cluny and was professed there under the great abbot St. Hugh. After holding the office of prior he was sent by St. Hugh to Rome as one of the monks asked for by Gregory VII, and he was of great assistance to Gregory in the difficult task of reforming the Church. In 1078 he became Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and Gregory’s chief adviser and helper. During the years 1082 to 1085 he was legate in France and Germany. While returning to Rome in 1083 he was made prisoner by the Emperor Henry IV, but was soon liberated.
Whilst in Saxony (1084-5) he filled many of the vacant sees with men faithful to Gregory and deposed those whom the pope had condemned. He held a great synod at Quedlinburg in Saxony in which the antipope Guibert of Ravenna and his adherents were anathematized by name. Victor III had already been elected when Otho returned to Rome in 1085. Otho appears to have opposed Victor at first, not through any animosity or want of good will, but because he judged it better, at so critical a time, that Victor should resign the honour he was unwilling to retain. After Victor’s death a summons was sent to as many bishops of the Gregorian party as possible to attend a meeting at Terracina. It was made known at this meeting that Otho had been suggested by Gregory and Victor as their successor. Accordingly, on 12 March, 1088, he was unanimously elected, taking the title of Urban II. His first act was to proclaim his election to the world, and to exhort the princes and bishops who had been loyal to Gregory to continue in their allegiance: he declared his intention of following the policy and example of his great predecessor—”all that he rejected, I reject, what he condemned I condemn, what he loved I embrace, what he considered as Catholic, I confirm and approve”.
It was a difficult task which confronted the new pope. To enter Rome was impossible. The Normans, on whom together with Matilda he could alone rely, were engaged in civil war. Roger and Bohemund had to be reconciled before anything could be done, and to effect this the pope set out for Sicily. He met Roger at Troina, but history is silent as to what took place between them. The year following, however, saw peace between the two princes, and Urban’s first entry into Rome in November, 1088, is said by some to have been made possible by Norman troops. His plight in Rome was truly pitiable; the whole city practically was in the hands of the antipope, and Urban had to take refuge on the Island of St. Bartholomew, the approach being guarded by Pierleone, who had turned the theatre of Marcellus on the left bank of the river into a fortress. Nor was the outlook in Germany calculated to hold out hopes of the triumph of the papal party; its stoutest adherents in the episcopate had died, and Henry was steadily gaining ground.
From amidst the poverty and want of his wretched island, Urban launched sentence of excommunication against emperor and antipope alike. Guibert retorted by holding a synod in St. Peter’s before which he cited Urban to appear. The troops of pope and antipope met in a desperate encounter which lasted three days; Guibert was driven from the city, and Urban entered St. Peter’s in triumph. He was now determined to unite his partisans in Italy and Germany. The Countess Matilda had lost her first husband, Godfrey of Lorraine. She was now well advanced in years, but this did not prevent her marriage with Count Welf of Bavaria, a youth of eighteen, whose father, Duke of Welf IV of Bavaria, was in arms against Henry. Urban now turned his steps southwards again. In the autumn of 1089 seventy bishops met him in synod at Melfi, where decrees against simony and clerical marriage were promulgated. In December he turned back to Rome, but not before he had effected a lasting peace between Roger and Bohemund, and had received their full allegiance. The fickle Romans had again renounced him on the news of Henry’s success against Matilda in north Italy, and had summond Guibert back to the city. The latter celebrated Christmas in St. Peter’s whilst Urban anathematized him from without the walls.
For three years Urban was compelled to wander an exile about southern Italy. He spent the time holding councils and improving the character of ecclesiastical discipline. Meanwhile Henry at last suffered a check from Matilda’s forces at Canossa, the same fortress which had witnessed his humiliation before Gregory. His son Conrad, appalled, it is said, at his father’s depravity, and refusing to become his partner in sin, fled to the faction of Matilda and Welf. The Lombard League—Milan, Lodi, Piacenza, and Cremona—welcomed him and he was crowned king in Milan, the centre of the imperial power in Italy. The way was now clear for Urban’s entry into Rome, but still the partisans of Guibert held the strong places of the city. This time the pope took up his residence in the fortress of the Frangipani, a family which had remained faithful to him and which was entrenched under the Palatine near the Church of Sta. Maria Nuova. His condition was piteous, for he had to depend on charity and was already deeply in debt. A French abbot, Gregory of Vendôme, hearing of Urban’s plight, hurried to Rome “that he might become a sharer of his sufferings and labour and relieve his want”. In return for this he was created Cardinal Deacon of Sta. Prisca. Shortly before Easter, 1094, the governor of the Lateran palace offered to surrender it to Urban on payment of a large sum of money. This money Gregory of Vendôme supplied by selling certain possessions of his monastery; Urban entered the Lateran in time for the Paschal solemnity, and sat for the first time on the papal throne just six years after his election at Terracina.
But it was no time for tarrying long in Rome. Henry’s cause was steadily growing weaker, and Urban hurried north to hold a council at Piacenza in the interests of peace and reform. The unfortunate Praxedis, Henry’s second wife, had suffered wrongs which were now the common property of Christendom. Her cause was heard, Henry not even attempting to defend himself. She was publicly declared innocent and absolved from any censure. Then the case of Philip of France, who had repudiated his wife Bertha and espoused Bertrada, the wife of Fulk of Anjou, was dealt with. Several bishops had recognized the union, but Archbishop Hugh of Lyons had had the courage to excommunicate Philip for adultery. Both king and archbishop were summoned to the council, and both failed to appear. Philip was granted a further respite, but Hugh was suspended from his office. At this council Urban was able to broach the subject of the Crusades. The Eastern Emperor, Alexius I, had sent an embassy to the pope asking for help against the Seljuk Turks who were a serious menace to the Empire of Constantinople. Urban succeeded in inducing many of those present to promise to help Alexius, but no definite step was taken by Urban till a few months later, when he summoned the most famous of his councils, that at Clermont in Auvergne.
The council met in November, 1095; thirteen archbishops, two hundred and twenty-five bishops, and over ninety abbots answered the pope’s summons. The synod met in the Church of Notre-Dame du Port and began by reiterating the Gregorian Decrees against simony, investiture, and clerical marriage. The sentence, which for some months had been threatening Philip of France, was now launched against him, and he was excommunicated for adultery.
Then the burning question of the East was discussed. Urban’s reception in France had been most enthusiastic, and enthusiasm for the Crusade had spread as the pope journeyed on from Italy. Thousands of nobles and knights had met together for the council. It was decided that an army of horse and foot should march to rescue Jerusalem and the Churches of Asia from the Saracens. A plenary indulgence was granted to all who should undertake the journey pro sola devotione, and further to help the movement, the Truce of God was extended, and the property of those who had taken the cross was to be looked upon as sacred. Those who were unfitted for the expedition were forbidden to undertake it, and the faithful were exhorted to take the advice of their bishops and priests before starting. Coming forth from the church the pope addressed the immense multitude. He used his wonderful gifts of eloquence to the utmost, depicting the captivity of the Sacred City where Christ had suffered and died—”Let them turn their weapons dripping with the blood of their brothers against the enemy of the Christian Faith. Let them—oppressors of orphans and widows, murderers and violaters of churches, robbers of the property of others, vultures drawn by the scent of battle—let them hasten, if they love their souls, under their captain Christ to the rescue of Sion.” When the pope ceased to speak a mighty shout of Deus lo volt rose from the throng. His most sanguine hopes had not anticipated such enthusiasm as now prevailed. He was urged repeatedly to lead the Crusade in person, but he appointed Ademar, Bishop of Le Puy, in his stead, and leaving Clermont travelled from city to city in France preaching the Crusade. Letters were sent to bishops who had been unable to attend the council, and preachers were sent all over Europe to arouse enthusiasm. In every possible way Urban encouraged people to take the cross, and he did not easily dispense from their obligations those who had once bound themselves to undertake the expedition.
In March, 1096, the pope held a synod at Tours and confirmed the excommunication of the French king, which certain members of the French episcopate had endeavoured to remove. In July, 1096, the king, having dismissed Bertrada, was absolved by Urban in a synod held at Nîmes, but having relapsed, he was again excommunicated by the pope’s legate in 1097. Some of the greater prelates of France had now to be brought to subjection to the pope, amongst them being the Archbishop of Vienne, who had refused to abide by the papal decision regarding the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Grenoble, and the Archbishop of Sens, who had declined to recognize the Archbishop of Lyons as papal legate. After a triumphal progress through France, Urban returned to Italy. On his way to Rome he met the crusading princes at Lucca, and bestowed the banner of St. Peter upon Hugh of Vermandois. It is said by some that this crusading host enabled Urban to enter Rome, which at this time was again held by the antipope. If this was so, the entry appears, according to the statement of an eyewitness to have been effected without fighting. No doubt the presence of well-disciplined troops, under the most distinguished knights of Christendom, struck terror into the wild partisans of Guibert. But Urban’s final triumph over the “imbecile” was now assured. Northern and central Italy were in the power of Matilda and Conrad, and Henry was at last forced to leave Italy. A council was held in the Lateran in 1097, and before the end of the year Urban was able to go south again to solicit help from the Normans to enable him to regain the Castle of S. Angelo. The castle capitulated in August, 1098. He was now enabled to enjoy a brief period of repose after a life of incessant activity and fierce strife, which had brought exile and want. His friendship with the Normans was strengthened by the appointment of Count Roger as papal legate in Sicily, where the Church had been almost swept away by the Saracens; the antipope was within his Archbishopric of Ravenna, and Henry’s power, though strengthened by Count Welf, who had forsaken Matilda, was not strong enough to be any longer a serious menace.
In October, 1098, the pope held a council at Bari with the intention of reconciling the Greeks and Latins on the question of the filioque; one hundred and eighty bishops attended, amongst whom was St. Anselm of Canterbury, who had fled to Urban to lay before him his complaints against the Red King. The close of November saw the pope again in Rome; it was his final return to the city. Here he held his last council in April, 1099. Once more he raised his eloquent voice on behalf of the Crusades, and many responded to his call. On 15 July, 1099, Jerusalem fell before the attack of the crusaders, but Urban did not live to hear the news. He died in the house of Pierleone which had so often given him shelter. His remains could not be buried in the Lateran because of Guibert’s followers who were still in the city, but were conveyed to the crypt of St. Peter’s where they were interred close to the tomb of Adrian I. Guibert of Nogent asserts that miracles were wrought at the tomb of Urban, who appears as a saint in many of the Martyrologies. Thus there seems to have been a cult of Urban II from the time of his death. Amongst the figures painted in the apse of the oratory built by Calixtus II in the Lateran Palace is that of Urban II with the words sanctus Urbanus secundus beneath it. The head is crowned by a square nimbus, and the pope is represented at the feet of Our Lady.
(adapted from R. URBAN BUTLER, Catholic Encyclopedia)