Background on the Investiture Conflict and Controversy

Henry IV at the gate of Canossa, by August von Heyden
Henry IV at the gate of Canossa, by August von Heyden. Getty Images

The Investiture Conflict or Investiture Controversy developed out of the desire of rulers in medieval Europe to expand their authority by making church officials dependent on them for lands and their religious offices. The impact was increasing the power of the state, but only at the expense of the church's own power. Naturally, the pope and other church officials were not happy with this situation and fought against it.

Holy Roman Empire

The secular grab for power began under Otto I, who forced the pope to crown him emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 962. This finalized an agreement between the two in which Otto's earlier investing of bishops and abbots in Germany with both secular and ecclesiastical power was formally accepted by the papacy. Otto had needed the support of those bishops and abbots against the secular nobility while Pope John XII needed Otto's military help against King Berengar II of Italy, so the entire thing was a political deal for both.

Not all were happy with this level of secular interference in the church, though, and religious backlash began in earnest as a result of the reforms spearheaded by Pope Gregory VII, most of which involved the ethics and independence of the entire clergy. The conflict itself came to head during the rule of Henry IV (1056 - 1106). Only a child when he took the throne, quite a few religious leaders took advantage of his weakness and thereby worked to assert their independence from the state, something which he came to resent as he grew older.

Henry IV

In 1073, Pope Gregory VII took office, and he was determined to make the church as independent as possible from the secular rulers, hoping instead to place them under his authority. He wanted a world in which everyone acknowledged the final and ultimate authority of the Christian Church - with the pope as head of that church, of course. In 1075 he forbade any further lay investiture, declaring it a form of simony. Moreover, he declared that any secular leaders who tried to invest someone with a clerical office would suffer excommunication.

Henry IV, who had long seethed under the pressures from the church, refused to accept this change which undercut significant aspects of his power. As a test case, Henry deposed the bishop of Milan and invested someone else with the office. In response, Gregory demanded that Henry appear in Rome to repent of his sins, which he refused to do. Instead, Henry convened a meeting in Worms where German bishops loyal to him labeled Gregory a "false monk" who was no longer worthy of the office of pope. Gregory, in turn, excommunicated Henry - this had the effect of making all of the oaths sworn to Henry no longer valid, at least from the perspective of those who would be able to benefit from ignoring prior oaths to him.


Henry couldn't have been in a worse position - enemies at home would use this to ensure his removal from power and all he could do was seek forgiveness from Pope Gregory. He reached Gregory at Canossa, a stronghold belonging to the countess of Tuscany, while he was already on his way to Germany for the election of a new emperor. Dressed in the poor clothing of a penitent, Henry begged for forgiveness. Gregory, however, was not ready to give in easily. He made Henry stand barefoot in the snow for three days until he allowed Henry to enter and kiss the papal ring.

Actually, Gregory wanted to make Henry wait longer and beg for forgiveness at the diet in Germany - an act which would be even more public and humiliating. However, by appearing so penitent Henry was doing the right thing because Gregory could not appear to be too unforgiving. Nevertheless, by forcing Henry to beg forgiveness at all, he effectively demonstrated to the world that had granted religious leaders authority over secular leaders.

Henry V

Henry's son, Henry V, was not satisfied with this situation and he took Pope Callistus II captive in order to force a compromise which was more sympathetic to his own political position. Put into effect in 1122 and known as the Concordat of Worms, it established that the church had the right to elect bishops and invest them with their religious authority with ring and staff. However, these elections were to take place in the presence of the king and the king would invest them with political authority and control of lands with a scepter, a symbol lacking any spiritual meanings.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Background on the Investiture Conflict and Controversy." Learn Religions, Sep. 20, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, September 20). Background on the Investiture Conflict and Controversy. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Background on the Investiture Conflict and Controversy." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).