A son of the emperor Henry III and Agnes of Poitiers, in 1056 Henry succeeded to his father when he was still a child, his mother becoming regent. Already an adult in 1065, after a few years he managed to obtain personal control of the empire affairs. Determined, unprejudiced, he clearly showed his will to follow his father’s steps and vigorously undertook to restore the power of monarchy. The Saxon revolt, started in 1073 and supported by lay and ecclesiastical princes, was after alternated events tamed by Henry in 1075. After that he sent pope Gregory VII his request to dismiss the rebel bishops. Not only the pope did not give his consent, but he also exhorted the emperor to collaborate for a reform of the habits of the German clergy and he forbade the ecclesiasticals to accept a lay investiture. Against this interference that apparently deprived the emperor of one of his most powerful means of ruling, Henry reacted with energy: he summoned a synod at Worms in January 1076 that had the pope deposed, who punished the emperor by excommunicating him. Then several bishops stood off him, Saxons revolted again, the German princes themselves at the Diet of Tribur suspended him from his powers. For this reason in January 1077, performing the penance, Henry went barefoot to Canossa to ask the pope forgiveness. Whereas the pope lifted the excommunication, the princes did not intend to reconcile with him, and elected Rudolph of Swabia as their king. Instead of complying with the agreements of Canossa Henry met the pretender in a battle, he won him at Merseburg and proclaimed that his victory was as effective as an ordeal. Excommunicated again in 1080, Henry replied by having the pope deposed again and in a council summoned at Brixen he had Guibert, the excommunicated archbishop of Ravenna, elected antipope with the name of Clement III. The struggle restarted more relentless than ever. After coming to Italy in 1083, Henry besieged and occupied Rome, he forced Gregory VII to shut up in Castel Sant’Angelo, had the antipope Clement III consecrated and then was crowned emperor by the latter (1084). Meanwhile Robert Guiscard, a Norman, could free the pope, and in Germany another anti-king, Hermann of Luxemburg, was set against him. Then, Henry came back to Germany, where he appealed the feelings of the German nation and looked mainly for the support of the city bourgeoisie. He assigned the crown of Poland (1086) to Vratislav duke of Bohemia to gain his friendship. The subsequent years were marked by the rebellion of his first-born son, Conrad, already destined to be king of Germany (1093), and the revolt of his second-born Henry, who declared open war to his father and forced him to resign the crown (1104). Retired as a guest of the bishop of Liège, who was loyal to him, Henry announced his intention to take arms again against his son to recover his crown, but on the eve of a new struggle between them nearby Visé, after a brief illness, Henry died on 7 August 1106. Five years later, after being released from the sentence of excommunication, his remains were buried in Speyer cathedral.
Decisively aiming at strengthening the monarchic power, he came into conflict with pope Gregory VII due to the investiture controversy. In 1077 he met the pope at Canossa to ask him to lift the excommunication he had been inflicted. His fight against the papacy and the German princes, however, had an end only when he was deposed by his son Henry V in 1104.