The Investiture Controversy and the Holy Roman Empire in Germany

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, P.h.D., College of William and Mary

The Investiture Controversy arose when the clergy got tired of waiting to be approved by the secular leaders to be able to practice their power. The papacy had some power over the state, but it was mainly the other way around. When Henry IV got the throne, he was too young to control everything, and the papacy seized the opportunity. Surprisingly, the effects of their efforts linger to date.

St. Lawrence Church or St. Lorenz Kirche. Medieval Church in the city of Nuremberg.
Today, the pope is still elected by cardinals, a practice dating back to the 11th century. (Image: Kost9/Shutterstock)

Henry IV became the emperor as a young child. His reign was a minority until he came of age. The papacy, especially Gregory VII, who was an active Gregorian reformer, seized the opportunity to expand their power and push back the empire. The conflicts rose up to the point that rebellions formed against Henry, and he had to apologize for the letter he had written to Gregory VII.

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The Rebellion

When Henry IV wrote a letter to Gregory VII to tell him that he was fired, Gregory wrote a letter back and told him that he was now excommunicated and longer the emperor of Germany. Many people, including the aristocrats, took that very seriously.

Henry VI went to Canossa in Italy and waited three days until Gregory VII forgave him and canceled the excommunication in 1077. However, the German aristocracy did not consider the cancellation and went on to elect Rudolf in his place.

On the other hand, the Investiture Controversy remained as it was. Henry IV did not really regret what he had done and apologized just to lift the excommunication. He had to fight over power with Rudolf until 1081 when Henry IV finally killed him. He had been excommunicated again in 1080 because he had not kept his promises from Canossa.

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Marching to Rome

After getting back the throne, Henry IV marched to Rome with the intention of taking Gregory VII a prisoner and solve the problem fundamentally. However, the pope was not so easy to get to because the news terrified him, and he looked for allies in Italy. The Normans who were settled in the south for a few decades marched to Rome to protect him and fight against Germans.

In 1084, Henry IV captured Rome and was very close to capturing Gregory VII, too. However, the Normans saved the pope in 1085 from the castle barricaded by Germans, where he was hiding in.

Surprisingly, the people of Rome, who were supporting him up to that point, suddenly turned against him, and Gregory VII had to run away with the Normans. In 1085, he died in exile in Salerno, in southern Italy.

Death of Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy

Gregory’s death did not end the Investiture Controversy. Rather, it went on for the next decades until its effect was imprinted in the history and future. Today, the pope is still elected by cardinals, a practice dating back to the 11th century.

The Gregorian reformers still controlled the College of Cardinals, even without Gregory. Thus, the fight against investiture continued. Urban II, one of the popes after Gregory VII, was even an active figure of the Crusades.

The Investiture Controversy did not end with the death of Henry IV in 1106, either. Henry V was also as unwilling to change anything with investiture.

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The Concordat of Worms

After almost 50 years of the Investiture Controversy, the papacy and the empire finally made a compromise. This seemingly temporary solution was called the Concordat of Worms.

Based on the Concordat of Worms, the Holy Roman Empire would stop the investitures. The new bishops and abbots would no longer need to be given their authority by the empire. The empire would also no longer appoint bishops and abbots, and there will always be an election to choose one.

Statue of King Henry IV at Pont Neuf in Paris
The Investiture Controversy did not end with the death of Henry IV. (Image: dalogo/Shutterstock)

In return, the popes agreed that the emperors could have a representative in the elections. Direct interference was not allowed, but the emperor or his representative could indicate their preferred candidate somehow.

Also, in case of a disputed election where the results were unclear or two candidates had been elected, the emperor would decide which candidate to get elected. This meant the emperors could still manipulate elections, but less openly.

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The Real Price

As Germany was busy with the Investiture Controversy, members of the German nobility kept building stone castles to gain control over people of their regions and declare lordship. The legal disintegration made Germany weaker.

Even though the Investiture Controversy had nothing to do with the structures of the empire and only wanted to liberate the papacy, it hit the pedestals hard. As France was getting stronger, Germany was getting weaker.

However, the real conflict remained until the papacy used Crusades against the Holy Roman Empire and created a much bigger historical event, which was much more bitter than the Investiture.

Common Questions about the Investiture Controversy

Q: How did the Investiture Controversy cause a war?

The Investiture Controversy led to a war between the Germans and Rome. The Normans marched to Rome from southern Italy to defend the pope as well.

Q: Did the Normans fight against Gregory VII?

No. After the Investiture Controversy broke out, eventually a war followed. Gregory VII was afraid that he would lose, but the Normans came to the rescue and fought alongside him.

Q: What is the Concordat of Worms?

According to the Concordat of Worms, the Holy Roman Emperor agreed to abandon the Investiture Controversy. Also, they agreed to stop the practice of appointing bishops and abbots. In return, popes agreed that emperors could retain some control over the election of bishops and abbots.

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