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The Investiture Controversy

Ron Petrarca, Jessica Whittemore
  • Author
    Ron Petrarca

    I received my bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University and later earned a master's degree in the same subject from Uppsala University in Sweden. I have been a writer and editor for more than two decades.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Whittemore

    Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Learn about the investiture controversy. Discover how a centralized church fought back against the right of secular rulers to choose the Pope and other church officials. Updated: 03/03/2022

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Investiture Conflict Overview: What Is Investiture?

What is investiture, and what was the Investiture Controversy? Investiture is a word that describes the appointment of bishops. A bishop is a high-ranking official in the Catholic Church (as well as some other Christian denominations). The term "investiture" stems from the fact that bishops were given special vestments (clothing) after their appointment.

During the Early Middle Ages (476 AD - 1000 AD), there was no real separation of church and state. The Catholic Church gave legitimacy to monarchs, and monarchs, in turn, had a major role in choosing the religious leaders in the church. This includes bishops, cardinals, and even the pope himself. As a result, religious leaders had a great deal of political, social, and economic power, and often acted as puppets for the secular rulers of Western Europe. Additionally, many powerful secular rulers appointed family members or comrades to high church offices, ensuring that the church was, in turn, loyal to the state.

This situation began to change during the 11th century when church and state came into direct conflict with one another. One of the major political battles of the 11th and 12th centuries was known as the Investiture Controversy. This was a decades-long fight between several popes and Holy Roman emperors over the right to appoint bishops within the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, the Investiture Conflict was one of the most important and consequential battles between church and state in medieval history.

The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was the largest state in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It was founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD and lasted, in one form or another, until 1806 AD. This empire not only covered what is now Germany, but several other areas of Europe as well, including Northern Italy. The Holy Roman emperor was chosen by an election of the various princes within the empire. High-ranking bishops within the Holy Roman Empire were also secular princes, and as such had the right to help choose the emperor.

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  • 0:05 Introduction to Conflict
  • 1:38 Conflict Begins
  • 2:26 Call for Reform
  • 4:00 Gregory VII vs. Henry IV
  • 5:39 German Rebellion
  • 7:55 Lesson Summary
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How Did the Investiture Conflict Begin?

In 1059 AD, the when the nine-year-old King Henry IV of Germany was crowned as the Holy Roman emperor, major church leaders gathered in Rome and issued a decree called Nomine Domini (In the Name of the Lord) that declared that secular rulers would no longer have a role in deciding who would be the next pope. Instead, this decision would be made by the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. (A cardinal is the most senior-ranking bishop beneath the pope.) This system of electing a pope, which exists to this day, was one of the first instances of erecting a wall that separated church from state. However, unlike the modern separation of church and state, the wall created by Nomine Domini only prevented the state from interfering in one specific area of religious activity. Additionally, it did not prevent the church from interfering in the state.

The Conflict Between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV

The reign of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) exacerbated the conflict between pope and emperor to an unprecedented level and would lead to one of the most important conflicts in Medieval history - the Investiture Controversy. Gregory VII believed in the complete autonomy of the church, the pope, and its bishops. Not only did he believe that the Holy Roman emperor should have no role in deciding who the next pope should be, but he also believed that investitures of bishops should be a right exclusive to church leaders. Gregory expressed his view in an official church publication known as Dictatus papae (Dictates of the Pope).

This publication infuriated Henry IV, and he subsequently removed the Gregory VII from his position as pope. In response, the pope removed Henry from his position as the Holy Roman emperor. These two actions created a bizarre situation in which both men refused to recognize each other's authority. Henry IV was also excommunicated from the Catholic Church itself, an act which, according to the beliefs of most people who lived in Europe during the Middle Ages, meant being condemned to hell. Henry travelled to the Italian city of Canossa to seek the pope's forgiveness, which was eventually granted. However, further conflicts between these two men broke out in later years.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When was the Investiture Controversy?

The Investiture Controversy was a fight between the Holy Roman emperor and the pope over who had the right to appoint bishops and other church officials. This controversy caused several armed conflicts.

Was the Investiture Controversy a political or religious conflict?

The Investiture Controversy was both a religious and political conflict. This is because there was no separation of church and state during this era in history.

What was King Henry IV's role in the Investiture Controversy?

Henry IV did not recognize Pope Gregory VII's right to appoint bishops. Henry even tried to depose the pope and fought several armed conflicts against him.

What were the causes of the Investiture Conflict?

A conflict between church and state was the main cause of the Investiture Conflict. More specifically, it was a conflict between who had the right to appoint bishops, the pope, or the emperor.

What does investiture mean?

Investiture means to give a bishop his authority. The word itself derives from a piece of clothing called a vestment.

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