Gregory VI, né John Gratian (Latin Johannes Gratianus), date of birth unknown; elected 1 May, 1045; abdicated at the Council of Sutri on 20 December, 1046; died probably at Cologne, in the beginning of 1048.
Gratian, the Archpriest of St. John by the Latin Gate, was a man of great reputation for uprightness of character. He was also the godfather of the boy Pope Benedict IX (1032–44, 1045, 1047–48) who was foisted by his powerful family, the Theophylactae, counts of Tusculum, on the Papacy at the age of twenty.
Anxious, in order that he might marry, to vacate a position into which, though wholly unfit, he had been thrust by his family, Benedict IX consulted his godfather as to whether he could resign the supreme pontificate. When he was convinced that he might do so, he offered to give up the papacy into the hands of his godfather for a large sum of money. Desirous of ridding the See of Rome of such an unworthy pontiff, John Gratian in all good faith and simplicity paid him the money and was recognized as Pope in his stead.
Unfortunately the accession of Gratian, who took the name of Gregory VI, though it was hailed with joy even by such a strict upholder of the right as St. Peter Damian, did not bring peace to the Church. When Benedict IX left the city after selling the papacy, there was already another aspirant to the See of Peter in the field. John, Bishop of Sabina, had been saluted as Pope Sylvester III (1045) by that faction of the nobility which had driven Benedict IX from Rome in 1044, and had then installed him in his stead. Though the expelled pontiff (Benedict IX) soon returned, and forced Sylvester III to retire to his See of Sabina, that pretender never gave up his claims, and through his party contrived apparently to keep some hold on a portion of Rome.
To complicate matters, Benedict IX, unable, it seems, to obtain the bride on whom he had set his heart, soon repented of his resignation, again claimed the papacy, and in his turn is thought to have succeeded in acquiring dominion over a part of the city.
With an empty exchequer and a clergy that had largely lost the savour of righteousness, Gregory VI was confronted by an almost hopeless task. Nevertheless, with the aid of his "capellanus" or chaplain, Hildebrand, destined to be the great Pope Gregory VII (1073–85), he essayed to bring about civil and religious order. He strove to effect the latter by letters and by councils, and the former by force of arms. But the factions of his rivals were too strong to be put down by him, and the confusion only increased.
Convinced that nothing would meet the case but imperial intervention, a number of influential clergy and laity separated themselves from communion with Gregory VI or either of his two rivals and implored Emperor Henry III (1039–56) to cross the Alps and restore order. Nothing loath, Henry III descended into Italy in the autumn of 1046.
Strong in the conviction of his innocence, Gregory VI went north to meet him. He was received by Henry III with all the honour due to a Pope, and in accordance with the royal request, summoned a council to meet at Sutri.
Of his rivals, Sylvester III alone presented himself at the synod, which was opened December 20, 1046. Both his claim to the papacy and that of Benedict IX were soon disposed of. Deprived of all clerical rank and considered a usurper from the beginning, Sylvester III was condemned to be confined in a monastery for the rest of his life.
Gregory VI was accused of purchasing the Papacy and freely admitted it; however, he disputed that this act, given the circumstances, constituted the crime of simony. However, the bishops of the synod impressed upon Gratian that this act was indeed simoniacal, and called upon him to resign. Gregory VI, seeing that little choice was left him, of his own accord then complied and laid down his office.
Gregory VI himself was taken by the Emperor to Germany in May 1047, where he died in 1048.
Gregory VI was accompanied by Hildebrand, who remained with him until his death. After about a year in Cluny, Hildebrand returned to Rome in January 1049, with the new Pope Leo IX (Bruno of Toul), successor of Popes Clement II and Damasus II (1048). And when Hildebrand himself was elected Pope in 1073, he deliberately chose for himself the title Pope Gregory VII in order to proclaim his firm and loyal belief in the legitimacy of Gratian as Pope Gregory VI.