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Investiture Controversy

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The Investiture Controversy, also known as the lay investiture controversy, was the most important conflict between secular and religious powers in medieval Europe. It began as a dispute in the 11th century between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. The question was who would control appointments of bishops (investiture).

The controversy lead to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany. This war ended with the triumph of the great dukes and abbots, and the falling apart of the German empire in the end.

The dispute between Gregory VII and Henry IV

When Gregory VII, a reformist monk, was elected as pope in 1073, the controversy between emperor and pope began.

In the higher ranks of the German clergy, Gregory had many enemies. Therefore King Henry declared Gregory was no longer pope and the Romans should choose a new pope [1]. When Gregory heard of this he excommunicated Henry IV, declared he was no longer emperor and absolved his subjects from the oaths they had sworn to him.

The excommunication of the king made a deep impression both in Germany and Italy. Thirty years before, Henry III had three popes, but when Henry IV tried to copy this procedure he did not have the support of the people. The Saxons began a second rebellion, and the anti-royalist party grew in strength from month to month.

To Canossa

The situation now became extremely critical for Henry. It became clear that at any price he had to get his absolution from Gregory. At first he tried this by an embassy, but when Gregory rejected this, he went to Italy in person.

The pope had already left Rome. Henry tried to force the pope to grant him absolution by doing penance before him at Canossa, where Gregory stayed. For a Christian it seemed impossible to deny a penitent re-entrance into the church, and therefore Gregory removed the ban. But a new conflict followed because Henry IV thought the end of excommunication meant he was king again. But Gregory did not decide that.

Second excommunication of Henry

The opposition of the rebellious German nobles used the excommunication of Henry to set up a rival king Duke Rudolph of Swabia (Forchheim, March 1077). At first Gregory seemed to be neutral because the two parties (emperor an rebels) were of fairly equal strength. But finally he decided for Rudolph of Swabia after his victory at Flarchheim (27 January 1080) and declared the excommunication and deposition of King Henry again (7 March 1080).

This was widely felt to be an injustice. When Rudolph of Swabia died on 16 October of the same year, Henry, now more experienced, took up the struggle. In 1081 he opened the conflict against Gregory in Italy. Gregory had now become less powerful, and thirteen cardinals deserted him. Rome surrendered to the German king, and Guibert of Ravenna enthroned as Clement III (24 March 1084). Henry was crowned emperor by his rival, while Gregory himself had to flee from Rome in the company of his Norman "vassal," Robert Guiscard.


  • Blumenthal, Uta-Renate (1988). The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century. University of Philadelphia Press.
  • Cantor, Norman F. (1993). The Civilization of the Middle Ages. HarperCollins
  • Cowdrey, H.E.J. (1998). Pope Gregory VII, 1073–1085. Oxford University Press.
  • Jolly, Karen Louise. (1997). Tradition & Diversity: Christianity in a World Context to 1500. ME Sharpe.
  • Tellenbach, Gerd (1993). The Western Church from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century. Cambridge University Press.

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