Investiture: Medieval Nobility Cashing in on Church Appointments

Organizational structure of the Holy Roman Empire. From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). / Beloit College,Wikimedia Commons

It began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV in 1076.

Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian


The Investiture Controversy or Investiture Contest was a conflict between church and state in medieval Europe over the ability to appoint local church officials through investiture.[1] By undercutting imperial power, the controversy led to nearly 50 years of civil war in Germany. According to historian Norman Cantor, the investiture controversy was “the turning-point in medieval civilization”, marking the end of the Early Middle Ages with the Germanic peoples’ “final and decisive” acceptance of Christianity. More importantly, it set the stage for the religious and political system of the High Middle Ages.[1]

Myers, Philip Van Ness (1905), A medieval king investing a bishop with the symbols of office / Wikimedia Commons

It began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV in 1076.[2] There was also a brief but significant investiture struggle between Pope Paschal II and King Henry I of England from 1103 to 1107. The conflict ended in 1122, when Pope Callixtus II and Emperor Henry V agreed on the Concordat of Worms, which differentiated between the royal and spiritual powers and gave the emperors a limited role in selecting bishops. The outcome was largely a papal victory, but the Emperor still retained considerable power.


In the 11th and 12th centuries, a series of popes challenged the authority of European monarchies about who had the authority to appoint (“invest”) local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries.

Contemporary image of Otto I, lower left, in one of the Magdeburg Ivories (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Otto presents Magdeburg Cathedral to Christ and Saints, and is depicted smaller than them as a sign of humility. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

After the decline of the Western Roman Empire, investiture was performed by members of the ruling nobility despite theoretically being a task of the church.[3] Many bishops and abbots were themselves usually part of the ruling nobility. Given that most members of the European nobility practiced primogeniture, and willed their titles of nobility to the eldest surviving male heir, surplus male siblings often sought careers in the upper levels of the church hierarchy. This was particularly true where the family may have established a proprietary church or abbey on their estate. Since Otto the Great (936–72) the bishops had been princes of the empire, had secured many privileges, and had become to a great extent feudal lords over great districts of the imperial territory. The control of these great units of economic and military power was for the king a question of primary importance due to its effect on imperial authority.[4] It was essential for a ruler or nobleman to appoint (or sell the office to) someone who would remain loyal.[3]

Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII

The crisis began when supporters of the Gregorian Reform decided to rebel against simony by forcefully taking the power of investiture from the ruling secular power, the Holy Roman Emperor, and placing that power wholly within control of the church. The Gregorian reformers knew this would not be possible so long as the emperor maintained the ability to appoint the pope, so their first step was to forcibly gain the papacy from the control of the emperor.

Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, miniature from the Emmeram Evangeliary / Wikimedia Commons

When Emperor Henry IV became a six-year-old German king in 1056, the reformers seized the papacy while the king was still a child. In 1059, a church council in Rome declared, with In Nomine Domini, that leaders of the nobility would have no part in the selection of popes and created the College of Cardinals as a body of electors made up entirely of church officials. Having regained control of the election of the pope, the church was now ready to tackle investiture and simony.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII composed the Dictatus Papae. One clause asserted that the deposal of an emperor was under the sole power of the pope.[5] It declared that the Roman church was founded by God alone – that the papal power (the auctoritas of Pope Gelasius) was the sole universal power; in particular, a council held in the Lateran Palace from 24 to 28 February the same year decreed that the pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen or move them from see to see.[6] By this time, Henry IV was no longer a child, and he continued to appoint his own bishops.[5] He reacted to this declaration by sending Gregory VII a letter in which he withdrew his imperial support of Gregory as pope in no uncertain terms: the letter was headed “Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk”.[7] It 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 is often quoted with “and to be damned throughout the ages”, which is a later addition.[8]

The situation was made even more dire when Henry IV installed his chaplain, Tedald, a Milanese priest, as Bishop of Milan, when another priest of Milan, Atto, had already been chosen in Rome by the pope for candidacy.[9] In 1076 Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry, and deposed him as German king,[10] releasing all Christians from their oath of allegiance.[11]

Enforcing these declarations was a different matter, but the advantage gradually came to be on the side of Gregory VII. German princes and the aristocracy were happy to hear of the king’s deposition. They used religious reasons to continue the rebellion started at the First Battle of Langensalza in 1075, and for seizure of royal holdings. Aristocrats claimed local lordships over peasants and property, built forts, which had previously been outlawed, and built up localized fiefdoms to secure their autonomy from the empire.[5]

Henry IV requests mediation from Matilda of Tuscany and abbot Hugh of Cluny / Wikimedia Commons

Thus, because of these combining factors, Henry IV had no choice but to back down, needing time to marshal his forces to fight the rebellion. In 1077, he traveled to Canossa in northern Italy to meet the pope and apologize in person. As penance for his sins, and echoing his own punishment of the Saxons after the First Battle of Langensalza, he wore a hair shirt and stood barefoot in the snow 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 as willing to give up their opportunity and elected a rival king, Rudolf von Rheinfeld.

Henry IV then proclaimed Antipope Clement III to be pope and Rudolf von Rheinfeld died in 1080, effectively ending the internal revolt against Henry. In 1081, Henry invaded Rome for the first time with the intent of forcibly removing Gregory VII and installing a friendlier pope. Gregory VII called on his allies, the Normans in southern Italy, and they rescued him from the Germans in 1085. The Normans sacked Rome in the process, and when the citizens of Rome rose up against Gregory, he was forced to flee south with the Normans. He died soon thereafter.

The Investiture Controversy continued for several decades as each successive pope tried to diminish imperial power by stirring up revolt in Germany. These revolts were gradually successful. Henry IV was succeeded upon his death in 1106 by his son Emperor Henry V, who had rebelled against his father in favor of the papacy, and who had made his father renounce the legality of his antipopes before he died. Nevertheless, Henry V chose another antipope, Gregory VIII. Later, he renounced some of the rights of investiture with the Concordat of Worms, abandoned Gregory VIII, and was received back into communion and recognized as legitimate emperor as a result.

English Investiture Controversy (1102-1107)

Miniature of Henry I from Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum / British Library, Wikimedia Commons

At the time of Henry IV’s death, Henry I of England and the Gregorian papacy were also embroiled in a controversy over investiture, and its solution provided a model for the eventual solution of the issue in the empire.

William the Conqueror had accepted a papal banner and the distant blessing of Pope Alexander II upon his invasion, but had successfully rebuffed the pope’s assertion after the successful outcome, that he should come to Rome and pay homage for his fief, under the general provisions of the “Donation of Constantine”.

The ban on lay investiture in Dictatus Papae did not shake the loyalty of William’s bishops and abbots. In the reign of Henry I, the heat of exchanges between Westminster and Rome induced Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, to give up mediating and retire to an abbey. Robert of Meulan, one of Henry’s chief advisors, was excommunicated, but the threat of excommunicating the king remained unplayed. The papacy needed the support of English Henry while German Henry was still unbroken. A projected crusade also required English support.

Henry I commissioned the Archbishop of York to collect and present all the relevant traditions of anointed kingship. On this topic, the historian Norman Cantor would note: “The resulting ‘Anonymous of York’ treaties are a delight to students of early-medieval political theory, but they in no way typify the outlook of the Anglo-Norman monarchy, which had substituted the secure foundation of administrative and legal bureaucracy for outmoded religious ideology.”[12]

Concordat of London (1107)

According to René Metz, author of What Is Canon Law?, a concordat is a convention concluded between the Holy See and the civil power of a country to define the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state in matters in which both are concerned. The concordat is one type of an international convention. Concordats began during the First Crusade’s end in 1098.[13]

The Concordat of London (1107) suggested a compromise that was later taken up in the Concordat of Worms. In England, as in Germany, the king’s chancery started to distinguish between the secular and ecclesiastical powers of the prelates. Employing this distinction, Henry gave up his right to invest his bishops and abbots while reserving the custom of requiring them to swear homage for the “temporalities” (the landed properties tied to the episcopate) directly from his hand, after the bishop had sworn homage and feudal vassalage in the commendation ceremony (commendatio), like any secular vassal. The system of vassalage was not divided among great local lords in England as it was in France, since the king was in control by right of the conquest.

Concordat of Worms (1122)

In 1122, Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor entered into an agreement with Pope Callixtus II known as the Concordat of Worms. / Wikimedia Commons

On the European mainland, after 50 years of fighting, the Concordat of Worms provided a similar but longer-lasting compromise when it was signed on September 23, 1122.

It eliminated lay investiture, while allowing secular leaders some room for unofficial but significant influence in the appointment process. While the monarchy was embroiled in the dispute with the Church, its power declined while the localized rights of lordship over peasants increased. This eventually led to:

  • Increased serfdom that reduced rights for the majority
  • Local taxes and levies increased, while royal coffers declined
  • Localized rights of justice where courts did not have to answer to royal authority


In the long term, the decline of imperial power would divide Germany until the 19th century. Similarly, in Italy, the investiture controversy weakened the emperor’s authority and strengthened local separatists.[14]

On the other hand, the papacy grew stronger. Marshalling for public opinion engaged lay people in religious affairs increasing lay piety, setting the stage for the Crusades and the great religious vitality of the 12th century.

Portrait from the “Manfred manuscript” (Biblioteca Vaticana, Pal. lat 1071) of De arte venandi cum avibus. / Wikimedia Commons

However, the dispute did not end with the Concordat of Worms in 1122; future disputes between popes and Holy Roman Emperors continued until northern Italy was lost to the empire entirely. The church would Crusade against the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II. As historian Norman Cantor put it, the controversy “shattered the early-medieval equilibrium and ended the interpenetration of ecclesia and mundus“. Indeed, medieval emperors, which were “largely the creation of ecclesiastical ideals and personnel”, were forced to develop a secular bureaucratic state whose essential components persisted in the Anglo-Norman monarchy.[15]

Science Fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote the novel The Shield of Time, depicting two Alternate history scenarios – one in which the imperial power completely and utterly defeated the Papacy, and the other in which the Papacy emerged victorious with the imperial power humbled and marginalized – and both ending with a highly authoritarian and repressive Twentieth Century, completely devoid of democracy or civil rights. The conclusion stated by a protagonist is that the outcome in actual history – in which neither power gained a clear victory, and both continued to counter-balance each other – was the best from the point of view of human liberty.



  1. Cantor 1958, pp. 8–9.
  2. Rubenstein 2011, p. 18.
  3. Blumenthal 1988, pp. 34–36.
  4. Löffler 1910.
  5. Appleby, R. Scott (1999). “How the Pope Got His Political Muscle”. U.S. Catholic. Vol. 64 no. 9. p. 36.
  6. Paravicini Bagliani, Agostino. “Sia fatta la mia volontà”. Medioevo (143): 76.
  7. Henry IV 1076.
  8. Fuhrmann 1986, p. 64; Henry IV 1076.
  9. Floto 1891, p. 911.
  10. Pope Gregory VII 1076.
  11. Löffler 1910, p. 85.
  12. Cantor 1993, p. 286.
  13. Metz 1960, p. 137.
  14. Hearder & Waley 1963.
  15. Cantor 1993, p. 395.


  • Blumenthal, Uta-Renate (1988). The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Cantor, Norman F. (1958). Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiture in England, 1089–1135. Princeton University Press.
  •  ———  (1993). The Civilization of the Middle Ages. HarperCollins.
  • Cowdrey, H. E. J. (1998). Pope Gregory VII, 1073–1085. Oxford University Press.
  • Floto (1891). “Gregory VII”. In Schaff, Philip. Religious Encyclopedia: or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology2 (3rd ed.). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. pp. 910–912. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
  • Fuhrmann, Horst (1986). Germany in the High Middle Ages c. 1050–1200. Translated by Reuter, Timothy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (published 2001).
  • Hearder, H.; Waley, D. P., eds. (1963). A Short History of Italy: From Classical Times to the Present Day.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise (1997). Tradition & Diversity: Christianity in a World Context to 1500. ME Sharpe.
  • Löffler, Klemens (1910). “Conflict of Investitures” . In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia8. New York: Robert Appleton Company. pp. 84–89.
  • McCarthy, T. J. H. (2014). Chronicles of the Investiture Contest: Frutolf of Michelsberg and His Continuators. Manchester: Manchester Medieval Sources.
  • Metz, René (1960). What Is Canon Law?The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism80. Translated by Derrick, Michael. New York: Hawthorn Books.
  • Morrison, Karl F., ed. (1971). The Investiture Controversy: Issues, Ideas, and Results. Holt McDougal.
  • Rubenstein, Jay (2011). Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. New York: Basic Books.
  • Tellenbach, Gerd (1993). The Western Church from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century. Cambridge University Press.
  • Thompson, James Westfall; Johnson, Edgar Nathaniel (1937). An Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300–1500.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 07.02.2017, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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