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Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy was the most significant conflict between secular and religious powers in medieval Europe. It began as a dispute in the 11th century between the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope concerning who would control appointments of church officials (investiture). It would eventually lead to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany and the disintegration of the German empire, a condition from which it would not recover until the reunification of Germany in 19th century.



Prior to the Investiture Controversy, the appointment of church officials, while theoretically a task of the Church, was in practice performed by secular authorities. The ceremony of investiture consisted of the newly appointed bishop or abbot coming before the secular leader, who would then hand over a staff and ring as objects of power granted to them.

Since a substantial amount of wealth and land was often associated with the position of bishop or abbot, it was materially beneficial for a secular ruler to appoint someone loyal to him. Bishops and abbots were often themselves part of the secular governments, due to their administrative skills. In addition, the Holy Roman Emperor had the special ability to appoint the Pope. The Pope, in turn, would appoint and crown the next Holy Roman Emperor, so a harmonious relationship between the offices was important.

A crisis arose when a group within the church, members of the Gregorian Reform, decided to liberate the church from the power secular leaders held over them through elimination of the investiture ceremony. The Gregorian reformers knew this would not be possible so long as the Emperor maintained the ability to appoint the Pope, so the first step was to liberate the papacy from control by the Emperor. An opportunity came in the 1050s when Henry IV became Emperor at a young age. The reformers seized the opportunity to free the Papacy while he was still a child and could not react. In 1059 a church council in Rome declared secular leaders would play no part in the election of popes, and created the College of Cardinals, made up entirely of church officials. The College of Cardinals remains to this day the method used to elect popes.

Once the papacy gained control of the election of the Pope, it was now ready to attack the practice of investiture on a broad front.

Investiture Controversy

In 1075 Pope Gregory VII declared in the Dictatus Papae the elimination of the practice of investiture. By this time, Henry IV of Germany was no longer a child, and he reacted to this declaration by sending Gregory VII a letter in which he, in effect, removed Gregory as pope and called for the election of a new pope. His letter ends:

I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages.

In 1076 Gregory responded to the letter by excommunicating the king, removing him from the Church and deposing him. Henry IV was no longer king of Germany nor Holy Roman Emperor. This was the first time a king of his stature had been deposed since the 4th century. In effect, the pope and the emperor each claimed to have removed the other from office.

Enforcing these declarations was a different matter, but fate was on the side of Gregory VII. The German aristocracy was happy to hear of their king's deposition. They would use the cover of religion as an excuse for a continuation of the rebellion started at the First Battle of Langensalza in 1075 and the seizure of royal powers. The aristocracy would claim local lordships over peasants and property, build castles which had previously been outlawed, and build localized fiefdoms to break away from the empire.

Henry IV had no choice but to back down, needing time to marshall his forces to fight the rebellion in his kingdom. In 1077 he traveled to Canossa in northern Italy to meet the Pope and apologize in person. As penance for his sins, he dramatically wore a hairshirt and stood in the snow barefoot in the middle of winter in what has become known as the Walk to Canossa. Gregory lifted the excommunication, but the German aristocrats, whose rebellion became known as the Great Saxon Revolt , were not so willing to give up their opportunity. They elected a rival king named Rudolf.

In 1081 Henry IV was able to capture and kill Rudolf, and in the same year he invaded Rome with the intent of forcibly removing Gregory VII and installing a more friendly pope. Gregory VII called on his allies the Normans, who were in southern Italy, and they rescued him from the Germans in 1085. The Normans managed to sack Rome in the process, and when the citizens of Rome rose up against Gregory he was forced to flee south with the Normans and died there soon after.

The Investiture Controversy would continue on for several decades as each succeeding Pope tried to fight the investiture by stirring up revolt in Germany. Henry IV was succeeded upon death in 1106 by his son Henry V, who was also unwilling to give up investiture.

After fifty years of fighting, a compromise was finally reached in 1122, known as the Concordat of Worms. It was agreed that investiture would be eliminated, while room would be provided for secular leaders to have unofficial but significant input in the appointment process.


Before the Investiture Controversy, Germany was one of the most powerful and united kingdoms in Europe. During the 50 years that Germany was embroiled in the dispute with the Church, it declined in power and broke apart. Localized rights of lordship over peasants grew, increasing serfdom and resulting in fewer rights for the population. Local taxes and levies increased while royal coffers declined. Rights of justice became localized and courts did not have to answer to royal authority.

The dispute did not end with the Concordat of Worms. There would be future disputes between popes and Holy Roman Emperors, until northern Italy was lost to the Empire entirely. The Church would turn the weapon of Crusade against the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II.


  • Blumenthal, Uta-Renate (1988). The Investiture Constroversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century. University of Philadelphia Press.
  • Cowdrey, H.E.J. (1998). Pope Gregory VII, 1073–1085. Oxford University Press.
  • Tellenbach, Gerd (1993). The Western Church from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century. Cambridge University Press.

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 14:33:33
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04